Do inner promptings reveal God’s will?

I feel God is leading me...

Have you ever heard someone assign inner impressions to the Holy Spirit? “I feel led by the Spirit…,” your friend tells you. “I feel the Spirit is leading me to…..”

How do you respond when someone attributes something to the Holy Spirit — especially when it seems contrary to God’s will? 

  • Is it even right for believers to look to inner promptings for God’s leading?
  • Does God give inner impressions to prompt us toward His will?
  • How does conscience relate?
  • How can we tell if impressions are from God or another source?

Consider some seasoned counsel:

Gary Friesen

“Impressions could be produced by any number of sources: God, Satan, an angel, a demon, human emotions (such as fear or ecstasy), hormonal imbalance, insomnia, medication, or an upset stomach. Sinful impressions (temptations) may be exposed for what they are by the Spirit-sensitized conscience and the Word of God. But beyond that, one encounters a subjective quagmire of uncertainty. For in nonmoral areas, Scripture gives no guidelines for distinguishing the voice of the Spirit from the voice of the self or any other potential `voice’. And experience offers no reliable means of identification either (which is why the question comes up in the first place). Tremendous frustration has been experienced by sincere Christians who have earnestly but fruitlessly sought to decipher the code of the inward witness. Impressions are real; believers experience them. But impressions are not authoritative. Impressions are impressions. Call them `spiritual’ or attribute them to the Holy Spirit, and they are still the same just impressions. Impressions by any other name confuse the issue and confound the believer in the process of decision making” (Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God, pp.130-131).

Arthur L. Johnson

“The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit will lead us, but we are never told He will do this by some inner urge. It is interesting in this connection that when Jesus told His disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit would lead them into all truth, He said, `He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you’ (John 14:26). Here the leading is bringing to mind Jesus’ statements. The mind of each disciple is the instrument the Spirit will use, not some non-rational, mystical factor” (Arthur L. Johnson, Faith Misguided: Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism).

J. I. Packer

“The idea of a life in which the inward voice of the Spirit decides and directs everything sounds most attractive, for it seems to exalt the Spirit’s ministry and to promise the closest intimacy with God; but in practice this quest for super-spirituality leads only to frantic bewilderment or lunacy. Yet the true way to honor the Holy Spirit as our guide is to honor the Holy Scriptures through which He guides us. The guidance which God gives to shape our lives, the instilling, that is, of the basic convictions, attitudes, ideals and value judgments, in terms of which we are to live is not a matter of inward promptings apart from the Word but of the pressure on our consciences of the portrayal of God’s character and will in the Word which the Spirit enlightens us to understand and apply to ourselves” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 235.)

D. A. Carson

“Most of the biblical passages that deal with the will of God focus on holiness, living in harmony with one’s family, obeying God and the like. The kind of determining of God’s will that utterly depends on voices, internal promptings, `burdens’, and the like can indeed prove far too subjective, especially when such experiences are invested with an authority that challenges the criteria of Scripture or the consensus wisdom of mature, spiritually-minded Christians” (D.A. Carson, Letters Along the Way, pp. 132).

John MacArthur

“Scripture never commands us to tune into any inner voice. We’re commanded to study and meditate on Scripture (Joshua 1:8; Ps. 1:1-2). We’re instructed to cultivate wisdom and discernment (Prov. 4:5-8). We’re told to walk wisely and make the most of our time (Eph. 5:15-16). We’re ordered to be obedient to God’s commands (Deut. 28:1-2; Jn. 15:14). But we are never encouraged to listen for inner promptings. On the contrary, we are warned that our hearts are so deceitful and desperately wicked that we cannot understand them (Jer. 17:9). Surely this should make us very reluctant to heed promptings and messages that arise from within ourselves. Those willing to heed inner voices and mental impressions may be listening to the lies of a deceitful heart, the fantasies of an overactive imagination, or even the voice of a demon. Once objective criteria are cast aside, there is no way to know the difference between truth and falsehood. Those who follow subjective impressions are by definition undiscerning” (John F. MacArthur, Jr., Reckless Faith, pp. 189-193).

Paul Little

Paul Little, in his helpful pamphlet entitled, “Affirming The Will Of God,” offered a relevant illustration. “Several years ago I knew a girl who had signed a contract to teach. In August, she received another offer from a school closerto where she wanted to live. So she broke the original contract. Had she acted on the biblical principle in Psalm 15:4, where God says that He is pleased with a person who swears to his own hurt and does not change, she would not have done that. The department chairman who told me about the Christian girl’s action said her justification was `I have a peace about it,’ and he commented rather sardonically, `Isn’t that lovely? She’s got the peace and I’ve got the pieces.’

I believe that girl missed the will of God. She violated a principle which, if she had been alert and had applied it to her situation, would have given her clear guidance in this specific detail of her life. God guides, then, through His Word and its principles.“This is one of the most neglected dimensions of guidance today. It sounds terribly spiritual to say `God led me,’ but I am always suspicious of a person who implies that he has a personal pipeline to God. When no one else senses that what the person suggests is the will of God, then we had better be careful. God has been blamed for the most outlandish things by people who have confused their own inverted pride with God’s will. Occasionally I hear of a guy who, in the name of spiritual guidance, rushes up to a girl and says, `Susie, God has told me you’re to marry me.’ I have news for him. If that is the will of God, then Susie is going to get the message too. If she does not, somebody’s radar is jammed, and it’s not hard to tell whose.”

Conclusion:

The collective wisdom of these teachers should caution us against allowing inner impressions to act as a final voice from God. The potential for subjective, self-serving, misguided or even Satanic influences is strong.

Yes, in Scripture, we learn that, “Those who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God” (Romans 8:14). But this verse does not suggest that we look to inner promptings from the Spirit for guidance. In the larger context, being “led by the Spirit” does not refer to inner voices or any inner experience, but to dealing with known sin and not living according to the flesh. Just read the full context surrounding Romans 8:14. 

In summary, God works in the whole person: intellect, emotion and will. God clearly uses conscience to restrain and protect us. But conscience must be yielded to the objective truth of Scripture. We cannot debate another person’s feelings or inner impressions, but we can evaluate those impressions based on objective considerations. Be a good (and obedient) student of Scripture rather than your feelings and you will flourish in God’s will (Deuteronomy 8:3-5; Psalm1; 19:7-11; 119; II Timothy 3:16-17).

Steve Cornell

14 comments on “Do inner promptings reveal God’s will?

  1. Bo Grimes says:

    Thanks for the post and quotes, but it doesn’t resolve the tension for me. Friesen writes: “Impressions could be produced by any number of sources: God…” Then: “But impressions are not authoritative. Impressions are impressions. Call them `spiritual’ or attribute them to the Holy Spirit, and they are still the same just impressions.”

    So an impression by God is not authoritative? Why would God be the source of impressions at all ever if He didn’t expect us to respond to them in some way and how can anything from God not be authoritative?

    Johnson write: “The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit will lead us, but we are never told He will do this by some inner urge.” But Scripture does show us clear example of such.Acts 16:6-7 “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.”

    Acts and Christian history are full of such examples. Imagine if Augustine had ignore the impression he had when he heard the child chanting “take and read”?

    MacArthur writes: “Scripture never commands us to tune into any inner voice. We’re commanded to study and meditate on Scripture.”

    And as we study and meditate on Scripture we read of the “still small voice that Elijah heard, a “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). we read “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We read of Habakkuk who said “I will stand on my guard post and station myself on the rampart; And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, And how I may reply when I am reproved. Then the LORD answered me and said,’Record the vision’” (Habakkuk 1:1-2)

    Habakkuk watched to *see*, expecting a vision, and God gave him one. In Acts 2 Peter explains that the Day of Pentecost is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy: ““In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

    Packer writes: “Yet the true way to honor the Holy Spirit as our guide is to honor the Holy Scriptures through which He guides us.”

    So “impressions” about what the Spirit is teaching us in the Word are always objective? The Church never has different ideas about what God is teaching us from the Word does it? Infant baptism or believer’s baptism, tongues cease or not, predestination or free will.

    The Spirit speaks and guides through the Word, but not prayer or meditation or experience?

    You conclude: “The collective wisdom of these teachers should caution us against allowing inner impressions to act as a final voice from God.” Why? Who are they but those from a specific reformed tradition sharing what they believe the Spirit has taught them through the Word? Another collection of quotes might give a different “impression.”

    Thanks again. Interesting stuff.

    • At what point do we decide that what is descriptive in Scripture is prescriptive? When all is said and done (outside of the boundaries of Scripture), we cannot ever say: God told me…. without attaching the required “if” (“If it is the Lord’s will….”) . The “If” does not make life “ify” but injects security into uncertainty as we acknowledge that God is sovereign and even life itself is only according to His will (see: James 4:13-17).

  2. Bo Grimes says:

    I wasn’t suggesting anything was prescriptive. I was suggesting one not prescriptively exclude what is described when Scripture itself does not. Because “Scripture never commands us to tune into any inner voice,” does not mean it anywhere commands us not to, expect when it is contrary to the Word.

    I believe a case can be made from Scripture that God does speak to our spirits or we would never be told to test them in the first place but to always reject them.

    The fact remains: If God does produce “impressions,” as Friesen writes, then He does so for a purpose and they are authoritative and no where are we told they are not.

    Scripture itself is not ‘objective’ in the sense we use that term today. It is our grounds, our foundation, but because it is an infallible guide does not mean we are infallible in our understanding. Truth is not relative but knowledge will remain uncertain and will pass away.

    • What do you say to the person who “feels” an impression from God that contradicts God’s revealed will in Scripture? Obviously what some perceive to be an impression from the Lord could be exposed to be otherwise. What then does this say about the place of all claimed impressions? An argument from silence is not a helpful way to establish truth. I should mention that testing the spirits in the context of I John is not about inner impressions from the Spirit but about examining teachers as true or false based on their doctrine of Christ and the life that should align with it.

  3. Bo Grimes says:

    I seems you’re misunderstanding me, and I feel you want me to defend a position I neither stated nor believe. MacArthur himself is the one who made an “argument from silence”: “Scripture never commands us…”

    What I say to “the person who ‘feels’ an impression from God that contradicts God’s revealed will in Scripture” is “You are wrong, at least as far as I can tell with the light given to me in community with other believers as we seek to understand God’s Word.”

    “Obviously what some perceive to be an impression from the Lord could be exposed to be otherwise.”

    Yes, obviously, but not as obvious is the conclusion that an impression is never from the Lord, never authoritative and always merely subjective.

    If I “feel” God is “leading” me to divorce my wife because I am mad at her then I am just flat wrong. If I “feel” that God is “leading” me to start an orphanage then who are you are anyone else to tell me He’s not?

    • If I “feel” God is “leading” me to divorce my wife because I am mad at her then I am just flat wrong. If I “feel” that God is “leading” me to start an orphanage then who are you are anyone else to tell me He’s not?

      What I am suggesting is at the end of the day, what you feel is not determinative at all. Other more important matters will come to the table. Are you mature enough? Are you qualified in other important ways? The same is true for the decision of marriage or the desire to be a pastor (and a host of other decisions). Saying God is leading doesn’t foreclose on the need for counsel. But on theory, if you got it from the top, no other input is needed. If the objective considerations show that you are not to take the path you feel “led” to take, no one is obligated to validate your inner prompting as from God. I think you agree with this.

  4. Jill says:

    I am still unclear about the role of the Holy Spirit according to the wisdom view. I agree there are alot of false impressions out there but it seems this v iew negates the Holy Spirits role. COuld you clarify. And what about prayer. Why do we pray if God does not lead us?

  5. J says:

    Hi! thanks for the post, of all the books that you’ve quoted from, could you recommend one or two that you think are really worth reading re discerning God’s will?

  6. mstth says:

    Interesting conversation about the holy spirit. Check out Dr. Charles Stanley’s interpretation, this is something that has influenced me throughout my development as a follower of Jesus Christ.

    Walking in the Holy Spirit: http://www.intouch.org/broadcast/video-archives/content.aspx?topic=Walking_in_the_Holy_Spirit_video#.UL-EhYPAeSo.

    I think a lot of people, even Christians, fail to understand the totality and the enormity of the Holy Spirit. Most Christians relate to the Holy Spirit as a “spirit” or invisible entity that is achievable by going to church or being “religious.” It is almost referred to as a “gold metal” won as a result of being a “good Christian.”
    It is secondary, unimportant, and distant for some. It does not influence our daily thoughts, actions, or feelings. This is unfortunate as the Holy Spirit of God lives in each of us and comes to make its abode once we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over our lives. It is something that is difficult for man to explain, but better understood by growing in relation to God. I’ve always had a difficult time discussing what the Holy Spirit is, what it does, how it influences us, etc. But as I grow with God and in relationship with His Son, I realize that the Holy Spirit is a daily friend, an internal feeling/prompting that is not controlled by my own desires, consciousness, or feelings. It is controlled by the presence of God in my life (John 14:26) and by an internal compass seasoned by the righteousness of God over time. This compass seems to develop in my life through trials, tribulation, and disappointments. Your acknowledgement and understanding of the existence of the Holy Spirit’s guidance may come another way. But for me, it has come by way of tribulation and needing to run to God for help, direction, favor, and peace of mind. As I grow, I realize that my knowledge of who the Holy Spirit is is not so much intellectual or logical, but rather emotional, spiritual, and supernatural. It is a compass that directs without me influencing it with my own person or my own desires or thoughts on a topic, for example.

    I can understand the confusion! It is hard to discuss. I often simply refer to the Holy Spirit as a compass implanted by the spirit of God, which directs me without my own influence over it.

  7. [...] Do inner promptings reveal God’s will? [...]

  8. Reblogged this on WisdomForLife and commented:

    Good reminder for all of us!

  9. […] See also, “Do inner promptings reveal God’s will?” […]

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