I’m always amazed at how accurately the Bible describes false teachers. Even today, we frequently see the same two qualities in proud, religious charlatans as we heard in the sermon from Jude 8-10 on Sunday: excused rebellion of immorality and a cavalier attitude toward supernatural beings. But I think Pastor Babij is right in directing us not only to think about how religious leaders at large can delude themselves into thinking their ways are justified before God but also how we can do the same. Below I highlight three of the most common ways we also get led astray “by dreaming” and how none of these can reliably provide divine direction.
I recognize that there are true, blood-bought brothers and sisters in Christ who believe that God continues to give supernatural revelation to his people today via prophecy, tongues, visions, and dreams. I am convinced, however, that this is a great error and one that continues to do harm to God’s people (see more why here). And even if God were giving new revelation today, how could one ever be certain that the “revelation” one received was from God and not from the devil or from one’s own imagination? “I feel it is undeniably divine,” is no adequate defense since feelings are subjective and unreliable (see below); “It led to a positive circumstantial or spiritual outcome,” is also inadequate since apparently-good results are not always tied to truly-good causes; and “It fits with what the Bible already says,” means little since, while contradiction would certainly prove a new revelation to be false, non-contradiction would not necessarily prove new revelation to be true. The fact is that we do not have official, Christ-appointed representatives like the apostles of the NT nor their validating signs to be able to confirm new revelation from God today (Lk 24:49; Eph 2:20; 2 Cor 12:12). Which means the next time you hear someone say, “God told me we should get married,” or “I had a vision that you will become a pastor,” or “I really went to hell, but God sent me back to tell you about it,” don’t believe it.
Even those who affirm the cessation of miraculous sign-gifts today can sometimes treat their own feelings as indicators of God’s will or approval. Examples include: “I just had this impression that I needed to talk to you,” or, “I finally have peace about this decision,” or, “I feel led to get involved in this particular ministry.” Now, understand, feelings are a noteworthy factor in making wise decisions; you want to be operating according to godly desires, be full of faith, and make sure that you are sensitive to your conscience (1 Tim 3:1; Heb 10:22; 1 Tim 1:5, 19). But feelings by themselves do not reliably reveal God’s will. Many pastors and biblical counselors can tell you about Christians who have justified naïve, foolish, or outright sinful actions with good feelings and an unbothered conscience: adultery, divorce, unforgiveness, financial recklessness, etc. Good feelings do not necessarily mean that you are doing right, and agitated feelings do not necessarily mean that you are doing wrong. Consider that Jesus was so agitated before going to the cross—which was God’s will—that Jesus prayed in agony and sweat drops of blood (Lk 22:44), while the rich fool of Jesus’ parable felt good about his life when that fool was in fact ripe for judgment (Lk 12:19-21). While we should, as much as we can, remove unnecessary vexation from our hearts and live with clean consciences in the joy of the Lord (Eccl 11:9-10; Neh 8:10), we must recognize that feelings by themselves are not adequate guidance for us.
Signs and Circumstances
Often associated with supposedly guiding feelings are supposedly guiding circumstances; it is extremely easy for us Christians to begin interpreting God’s will based on the “signs” we see in our good or bad circumstances. “Serving in this ministry is getting difficult, so God must not want me to remain,” or, “My wife was just diagnosed with cancer. What did we do to displease God?” or, “I guess God doesn’t care about this sin or else he would have done something about it.” Implicit in many such thoughts is a version of the prosperity gospel: if circumstances are good, God is pleased, if circumstances are bad, God is not. Now, there is a certain connection between prosperous circumstances and righteousness and wisdom; the Bible repeatedly emphasizes the blessing, even material blessing, that often comes to those who walk according to God’s way (e.g Ps 34:12-14). Moreover, it is wise for us to pay attention to good opportunities and not simply waste our time with what’s unprofitable (Mt 7:6; 10:23; 25:14-30; Col 4:5). But we must remember that circumstances by themselves do not indicate God’s will or approval. Sometimes God ordains evil for the righteous and good for the wicked, according to his own mysterious purpose (Eccl 7:15). Sometimes a good circumstance is just an undeserved mercy or even a test, while a difficult circumstance is simply meant to prune us and grow us in perseverance (John 15:1-2; Rom 5:3-5). I mentioned once in a sermon how the great missionary to Myanmar, Adoniram Judson, ministered there in hardship for six years before he made his first convert, which could easily have been interpreted as God directing the Judsons somewhere else. Why, otherwise, was God not blessing the ministry? But fruitfulness is not itself an indicator of faithfulness, and God saw fit to bless the Judsons’ latter ministry so that 8,000 had come to Christ in Myanmar before Adoniram died. The same truth applies to us: there is no way to know God’s will based on circumstances alone.
So what is the moral of the story? If new revelation, feelings, and circumstances are all ultimately unreliable as messages from God, then with what are we left? Simply with what God specifically gave us to guide us and what he directs us back to again and again: the Bible. Here is where we find our sufficiency and strength for all of life and godliness: the revelation of Jesus Christ (Ps 119:105; 2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:3-4)! Together, as we learn it, teach it, pray it, talk about it, and do it, we will find ourselves adequately guided regardless of what revelations people claim, what feelings we have, or what circumstances we encounter.
Deuteronomy 29:29, The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.
Questions to Consider:
1. Why are we sometimes inclined to look for divine guidance or affirmation outside the Bible?
2. Besides God, from where else might good feelings or feelings of peace come?
3. What is the verdict from God’s sure word on your life right now (Heb 4:12-13)?