In the previous post, we looked at how Romans teaches us to expect direct divine intervention in our hearts. This is a scary prospect for a lot of Christians, and I get it. Doctrine is public; we can discuss it, show how a doctrine is, or isn’t, founded on Scripture, and so on. But this subjective stuff doesn’t work like that, and it’s scary.
The question people often ask is, “How can you tell it’s really God? I mean, maybe that burning sensation in your heart is just the Taco Bell you had for dinner last night.”
This question reminds me of a frightened virgin asking how you can know for sure you’ve had an orgasm. Of course we could get technical, but the first answer is “Trust me, kid, you’ll figure it out.” For most of us, most of the time, I think that’s true. The people who ask that question are mostly just scared and inexperienced. On one hand, they don’t know what it’s like, and on the other, maybe they’ve seen people do some really stupid things and say “But God told me to!”
The scared and inexperienced just need reassurance that God can make it clear, and a steady diet of stories like the ones in the last post, to help them grow. We grow in faith and wisdom through reflection on the acts of God. So I tell the stories, and I clap them on the shoulder and say, “When it happens, you’ll know it.”
But there’s more to say, for those that need more. We don’t always recognize God’s voice. Samuel didn’t, the first two times. Fortunately, he had someone to disciple him who realized what was happening. That’s recommended. Jesus was a big fan of that whole “make disciples” thing. How do you know it’s God? Maybe you won’t. Get help. Even the prophets have to submit to the judgment of the Body (1 Cor. 14).
The next part of the answer is to use actual discernment, and this is important. When someone reflexively meets all subjective spirituality with a reflexive “tacos” question, that’s not discernment; it’s a trick for avoiding discernment. It’s like the Saduccees—if you reject all claimants to Messiahship, you don’t get fooled into believing the wrong one. Of course, you also miss out on the real thing. Discernment is the ability to tell good from evil. If you can’t recognize good, you don’t have real discernment; you’re just scared and cynical.
Moses and Aaron and the Egyptian magicians all turned water into blood and staffs into snakes. But there was a crucial difference between the two groups: one was walking with God and doing what He told them to do, and the other was working against Him. If we say they were basically doing the same things, we miss the whole point.
This is a key point of biblical discernment: the fact that there’s a bad guy doing something similar means nothing. When is there not? Elijah goes to the king, and there’s 400 false prophets already there. That doesn’t invalidate prophecy; it invites a contest. There are always counterfeits; we don’t determine whether something is good or bad based on guilt-by-association tactics. We work with the criteria the Bible gives us. Jesus taught us to watch the fruit: good fruit, good tree. Bad fruit, bad tree.
The thing is, that’s hard work. We have to pay attention to what God is actually doing in the world outside our heads. And the results aren’t always obvious right away, which means that real discernment takes risk tolerance and sustained attention. It’s a lot easier to just run scared from anything unfamiliar or unexpected.
But God has not given us a spirit of fear.