It’s not uncommon for me to hear of Christians claiming that God led them to this or that by means of a dream or vision or word from the Lord. When I probe what they mean by that, more often than not it’s just their way of saying they had an idea or imagined a scene.
Only occasionally has the person insisted that they literally had a supernatural experience of direct revelation like Paul going to heaven (2 Cor 12) or Peter’s trance (Acts 10). Dismissing those claims as spurious hogwash is fairly uncomplicated (see the cornucopia of articles on this blog by searching “Strange Fire” or “prophecy” or any other charismatic sounding term).
What deserves more leniency is the acknowledgement that the Spirit prompts us and guides us in our everyday lives. After all, those “who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Rom 8:14).
Cessationists hold that the revelatory gifts (tongues, prophecies, visions, dreams, etc.) ceased operating when the newborn church matured and the canon was closed (1 Cor 13:2-13). But we can sometimes be annoyingly persnickety about censoring vocabulary that the Bible writers were perfectly comfortable using when referring to the non-revelatory leading of God.
Nehemiah was not a prophet, nor did he have access to one. And yet he acted on his godly desire to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which he believed was God’s leading. He referred to his desire and plan as something that “God had put into my heart” (Neh 2:12). Even the activity of assembling the nobles was an idea he said God had placed on his heart (Neh 7:5).
Some call it having a “burden for Africa” or a “prompting to donate to a needy family,” or they say “I believe God is leading me to help in this way.” The more cavalier cessationist might even venture to use the licentious phraseology: “The Lord told me to…”
So, I don’t want to be Big Brother’s diction police; as long as we all understand God isn’t disseminating new, extra-biblical revelation to anyone. This guidance isn’t prophecy or anything close to it. It’s merely the natural outworking of having the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
As we are filled with the Spirit, i.e. submitting to his influence in our lives, he brings to our mind Scripture we have studied, he grants us illumination or understanding on how to apply biblical wisdom to our situation (see John 16 for Jesus’ take on the advantage of indwelling). He also lines our desires up with the word and with God’s will (Ps 37:4). And he providentially brings counselors and leaders into our lives, and dextrously wields circumstances to nudge us forward (as in Caesar Augustus’ timely census).
I have had moments of clear thinking while contemplating a decision, or an epiphany of understanding when interpreting a Bible passage, or even a burning desire to do something godly. In an unguarded moment I might call that the Spirit’s leading; especially after the fact.
One significant decision that was accompanied by a sense of affirmation from the Lord came when I was candidating to be the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church. After my elders, their elders, their congregation, and my wife all affirmed my burning desire, I felt very much “at peace” with the decision. Now, ten years later (to the week), I find it easy to acknowledge the process of it all coming together as “the Lord leading us to this ministry.”
But—and this is a big but—at the time, no one involved in the process took my feelings or peace or enthusiasm as authoritative. No one took it as God giving Clint a vision or a dream or a word from the Lord. It was just a godly desire that came to fruition providentially in the Lord’s timing. Looking back it was clearly God’s will. If the plane had crashed on the way there, or the congregation had voted no, we could not have concluded that God’s will was being thwarted by democracy or faulty avionics.
I am grateful for the Spirit’s involvement in the lives of saints in our church and his guidance in my life.
Feel free to leave a comment if you feel so led.