In the Emergency Room, decisions of life and death are regularly made with extreme pressure and very limited information. Symptoms present themselves and a trained, discerning mind diagnoses the real issue. Get it right and the treatment plan takes over. Get it wrong and not even the best treatment plan is able to fully help.
But what about diagnosing spiritual problems? Only God is omniscient and has a full, uninfluenced view of the human heart (1 Samuel 16:7). As believers, our discernment must be driven by the insights and fruit Scripture directs us toward as His Word exposes and corrects issues of the heart (Matthew 7:20; Hebrews 4:12-13). Many more could be added, but here are five symptoms that are commonly misdiagnosed by pastors:
1. Remorse misdiagnosed as repentance
Remorse is the reaction to the temporal, human consequences of sin. It springs from guilt and often seeks to halt the sin for a season. Mere remorse does not require any supernatural power. Remorse is not repentance. True repentance is God’s supernatural, sanctifying work in our hearts! It is both forsaking sin and turning to righteousness (2 Corinthians 7:10-11). It is the abandoning of self as the Spirit works in us to put off sinful thoughts, words and actions and works in us to putting on righteousness (Colossians 3:1-11) producing His fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). Guilt and God’s wrath are not erased by remorse and His discipline will continue to remain until a believer is brought to repentance on a given sin issue (Hebrews 12:6).
There is a world of difference between wanting to do something and presuming upon a divine commission. Sanctification, in all its components is God’s stated will (Romans 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:3). Before you “take the moon for Christ”, root out selfish ambition (Philippians 2:3) and presumption (James 4:13-16). It is one thing to humbly seek God’s leading and move out in faith, trusting Him to direct your paths (Proverbs 3:5,6; 16:9). It is another to presume God’s anointing and appointment is on you. Saul did that and look how that turned out (1 Samuel 15:9-11). Follow James on this one (James 4:15).
3. Rebellion misdiagnosed as Spiritual drought
A powerful Christian life is filled and fueled by the Holy Spirit, producing His fruit in us (Galatians 5:22-23). With His unchanging love (Romans 8:35-39), He promises to “never leave us nor forsake us” (Hebrews 13:5). As the Father model’s love for His Son, Christ said, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. (John 15:9-10)”.
Christ’s obedience was the key to the intimacy of abiding in the Father’s love. Christ says the same is true for us. Rebel and intimacy is obstructed (Psalm 66:18) and the Spirit is grieved (Ephesians 4:30). Whether our sin is failing to trust God’s character (Romans 8:28) or the proud self-righteous of wanting sanctification of our own design, we should never expect to enjoy God’s love as we abuse His mercy!
When a season of “spiritual drought” appears, submerge yourself in God’s Word, reset your mind on the person and work of Christ (Colossians 3:16). If your heart struggles at that point, prayerfully confess the sin of looking for intimacy with Christ apart from the way He has revealed Himself. The self-righteous sin of our heart will long for an easier pathway of sanctification and fickle emotions are seldom an ally in the fight against sin. Yield your will to Christ’s loving commands and in faith, trust His Spirit to do His transforming work.
If you are striving toward holiness, repenting of sin, submitting your will to every command of God, and ready to embrace whatever His providence allows, then rest assure He is doing everything through you that He intends to do at this moment. Leave sanctification in the hands of the One who does it.
4. Attendance misdiagnosed as Holiness
Filling a chair is no more a gauge of holiness than wearing a uniform makes you worthy to wear it. Yet it is easy to assume that being present also means being prepared to engage in corporate worship. Corporate worship services for believers are non negotiable and should be the predictable pattern of life.
However, perfect attendance at every event is not necessarily a mark of holiness. Sometimes it is a cover for a guilty conscience. Just the same sporadic attendance at a peripheral ministry meeting is not necessarily a symptom of sin.
Before clenching down on the jugular of attendance, ask! Consider several options, (1) Is there a conflict that can be worked through (work, rides, etc.) (2) is the meeting an obstacle to ministry and should be revamped or canceled; (3) is there something of greater spiritual importance is requiring their attention or (4) yes, maybe there is a heart issue being exposed. Pursue the heart issue. Don’t assume attendance equals holiness, Don’t assume absence equals sin. If godliness was gauged by attendance, Judas gets an “A”.
Scripture assures us that our loving Father will discipline His children (Hebrews 12:6). But dismissing the consequences of sin as if it was “persecution” only cultivates spiritual blindness.
When sin provokes or prompts another to sin in return, it is not persecution. No matter the intensity or longevity, it is part of the manifold consequences of sin (1 Peter 2:20). Those consequences serve as painful reminders of the heinous offense our sin is to God (Psalm 5:5), the price He paid to forgive our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and how dependent we are on His strength to embrace whatever follows as part of His refining, humbling work in us. When we are taking full responsibility for our sin, we are able to see how even the most sever consequence is used by God to press us toward holiness (Hebrews 12:5-11).
Persecution is totally different. It is the hatred the world directs at Christ on display in our life. It fills the range from insults, lies, and slander to physical threats and attacks (Matthew 5:11-12). In every case, it is the world’s venom against the working of God in and through a believer (John 15:18-21). Persecution produces endurance (James 1:2-3;12). Consequences of sin produces righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). Job was persecuted (Job 1), David was punished (2 Samuel 12:13-14).
The Apostle Paul urged us to “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Misdiagnose the issue and you may end up encouraging the unruly, helping the fainthearted, admonishing the weak, and being patient with no one!
We will get it wrong. Our flesh is deceptive (Romans 7:18), humanity limits our knowledge (Psalm 139:2) and we must guard against presumption (Proverbs 18:13). Yet we know the Holy Spirit is at all times working to sanctify each child of God (John 17:17). His Word exposes our hearts (Hebrews 4:12-13) and HIs love truly does cover all of our sin (Colossians 2:13-14, Romans 5:8). His diagnosis is always both accurate and precise and along with His Word, He gives 24 hour supervision and power in sanctifying Christ’s bride (Ephesians 5:25-29; 6:17).