“At the commandment of the LORD they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of the LORD they journeyed: they kept the charge of the LORD, at the commandment of the LORD by the hand of Moses” (Numbers 9:23).
“And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17).
Most Christians would agree that finding and doing the will of God is vitally important. However, finding God’s will seems harder, or at least more open to debate, than doing God’s will. Finding God’s will involves, among other things, knowing how to interpret our inner impressions.
I was recently sitting around a campfire with a group of Christian men when I was asked, “How reliable are impressions?” That is a difficult question to answer. What would you have said to the questioner?
Most of us understand that if an impression is not in harmony with God’s Word, then it is not from God and should be rejected. But there are many impressions or “leadings” that are not contrary to God’s Word.
How does a Christian discern whether or not these impressions are from God? Some books  on this subject suggest that in order for an impression to be from God, it must be
- scriptural (in harmony with the teaching of Scripture),
- right (in harmony with God’s will as revealed in man’s moral nature),
- providential (in harmony with God’s will as revealed in His providential dealings), and
- reasonable (in harmony with God’s will as revealed to a spiritually enlightened judgment).
These principles are, in general, useful for discerning whether or not a given impression is from God. But they are not without exception. Indeed, as we search the Scriptures, we learn that God’s leadership often makes no sense (contra reasonable), appears to contradict itself (contra providential), and in rare cases seems completely wrong (contra right).
Indeed, as we search the Scriptures, we learn that God’s leadership often makes no sense (contra reasonable), appears to contradict itself (contra providential), and in rare cases seems completely wrong (contra right).
Considering the following passages:
- God asked Abraham to relinquish everything that had constituted his identity and security – his homeland, his people, and his family – and go to a place that he had never been (Heb. 11:8). Does that sound “reasonable”?
- God made a promise to Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son. Time passed and nothing happened. Indeed, nearly 25 years went by and Abraham was “as good as dead” with regard to procreation (Heb. 11:12). Does that seem “providential”?
- God asked Abraham to take his “only” son Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering (Gen 22). And even though God stopped Abraham before he actually killed Isaac, figuratively speaking, Isaac was already dead (Heb. 11:17-19). Does that sound “right”?
Leaving these above examples of exceptions to the four suggestions Martin Wells Knapp gave for testing inward impressions, Let’s move on to the role of “callings” or “visions” from God. What would you expect to discover if you, like Paul, had a “Macedonian vision?”
The apostle Paul had a vision one night in which he saw “a man of Macedonia” who spoke to him and urged Paul to come to Macedonia “to help us” (Acts 16:9). Paul evidently believed the vision was from God because he changed his plans and went to Macedonia.
However, when he arrived he found no man awaiting him! Nor was his work primarily with men at all! What he did find was a woman, by a river side, whose name was Lydia. She was open to his ministry and Paul interpreted her openness as guidance from God. And when Lydia offered accommodations to Paul and his traveling friends, they accepted. Paul accepted her invitation, he reports, because “she persuaded us” (Acts 16:15).
It seems that even in a God-given “vision” one should not press the details and expect that everything seen in the vision will be duplicated in real life experience.
What Paul found was that the Macedonian vision was God’s way of giving him geographical directions. It told him nothing of what would happen once there, or what would be expected of him. Nor did Paul stay there forever.
The implication from this suggests that even if you do have God’s clear leadings, ministry and vocational situations may have their time limits as well. In other words, a person is not necessarily locked into one specific ministry opportunity forever. What are we to make of this?
Are we without any real guidance when it comes to discerning God’s will? Fortunately not! God’s Word gives us several principles which shed light on how God leads.
God’s Word gives us several principles which shed light on how God leads. This in turn can help us when we are evaluating a given impression.
God Leads Us in the Light
It is essential for us to be daily walking in the light of the Word. How can we expect to discern God’s will for what we don’t know if we are not obeying Him in what we do know? Paul tells us in Ephesian 5:8b-10 that a life of obedience is a prerequisite to being able to prove “what is acceptable unto the Lord.”
Paul tells us in Ephesian 5:8b-10 that a life of obedience is a prerequisite to being able to prove “what is acceptable unto the Lord.”
God Leads Us Step by Step
The Christian life is not like following a road map – rather, it is like follow ing a shepherd.
A shepherd does not tell his sheep, “Now I’m going to be taking you along the side of Farmer Brown’s cornfield and then over to the south pasture. If we get separated, or if you want to go a different way, meet us there.”
No, the shepherd leads the sheep one step at a time and they follow wherever he leads. This is how God led the people of Israel through the wilderness (Num. 9).
God Leads Us to Train Us
Consider how a dog trainer teaches a dog to stay. He tells the dog to stay, walks away, and then scolds the dog if it follows. If it stays, he praises and rewards the dog.
Sometimes the trainer will deliberately bait the dog (mess with its dish, go around a corner) just to see if it will stay. Why? He wants to train the dog so that it stays or moves only on command – we call this obedience training.
There is a great discipline to the Lord’s leading. What in our opinion may seem to be whimsical on God’s part (as though God was yanking us around for no reason) often has as its primary objective the teaching of obedience.
God wants to us to learn to move on His command.
God Leads Us to Humble Us
There are few things more humbling than the experience of being without food and water. Indeed, fasting is often connected with people humbling themselves in repentance before God and seeking His will (cf. 2 Sam. 12:13-17; Ezra 8:21-23).
This is how God led the people of Israel in the wilderness (Deut. 8:1-3). He purposely brought them to places where there was no water. He deliberately led them to where they would be attacked by the Amalekites (Exod. 17:8-16). Why would He do this?
God wanted them to learn complete dependence on Him.
In the same way, He will lead us into situations and circumstances that force us to rely solely on Him.
God Leads Us Through Our Authorities
The apostle Paul regularly emphasized the importance of submitting to and obeying those in authority over us. Wives are to obey their husbands (Eph. 5:22), children are to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1), slaves are to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5), people are to obey their governments (Rom. 13:1-8), and believers are to obey their pastors/elders (1 Thess. 5:12-13).
Be sure to ask your spiritual authority about any impressions you have. God will very often lead us through their advice and counsel. That’s why it’s important for us to humble ourselves and submit to their leadership.
As we bring our reflections on how God leads to a conclusion, let’s remember that God does promise to lead and guide us, if our hearts are 100% dedicated to doing His will. If we have no clear leadership to help us decide whether or not an impression, or even a good opportunity, is truly from the Lord, we can pray and ask God to stop us if doing it is not His will.
But we also need to remember that sensing a “need” is not necessarily a “call.” People can make us aware of many genuine needs in this fallen world. However, a need, even one that touches you deeply, should not be taken as an automatic invitation from God to meet it.
You must weigh the opportunity along with other priorities and obligations you already have and feel free before the Lord to respond or not in light of your full range of commitments. Richard Foster wisely warns us, “saying yes to an opportunity can in effect be saying no to a commitment you’ve already made, for you deplete the energy you have for responding to that prior commitment.”
Originally posted in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.
- See for example, Martin Wells Knapp, Impressions. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1984 rpt, p. 49.