February 15, 2012
Guidance and

How Reliable Are Our
Gut Impressions?
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This article is excerpted from Blaine's The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions.

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A young man once told me why he had broken off a relationship with a woman who wanted to marry him. “Everything about the relationship was perfect,” Dan said. “We were extremely compatible and a logical match. Yet the Lord told me we had to break up.”

I asked Dan to explain what he meant by “the Lord told me.” “I didn’t hear a voice,” he said. “But it was something much more than feelings. The Holy Spirit impressed on me directly that I was to break off the relationship. I simply knew in my own spirit that he was moving me. I’ve learned from experience to discern the difference between my own instincts and the prompting of God’s Spirit.”

His explanation of how he recognized God’s will is a good description of what Christians sometimes call “inward guidance.” The term refers to guidance through intuitive or mystical impressions. In the traditional understanding of inward guidance, God speaks to us directly through our inner impressions, which are sufficient by themselves to show us God’s will.

Dan’s experience brings us to the heart of issues that most of us wrestle with often in seeking God’s will: Can we expect our intuitive impressions to give us a reliable understanding of God’s will? Might God guide us through inward guidance alone? And is such guidance likely to fly in the face of our logical judgment?

Mixed Signals

Most Christians assume that God leads through inward guidance by itself at least occasionally. And many believe that this is his normal means of directing us.

Most of us, too, have either had positive experiences with inward guidance or know others who have. A man believes against all odds that God has shown him he’ll be offered a job that a multitude of others are seeking. He applies and, to the amazement of his friends, is hired. A woman senses in prayer that God is revealing she will marry a man she hasn’t met but only seen from a distance. In time, a relationship develops and they marry.

If we personally enjoy such serendipities in our early days of walking with Christ, we may conclude that inward guidance is infallible and our best approach to finding God’s will for a lifetime. Yet few of us live the Christian life very long without some cold-shower experiences that challenge any simplistic assumptions about guidance. I could fill many pages with stories Christians have shared with me about disappointment with guidance in romance. A typical scenario: A man believes he has received an inspiration from God about whom he’ll marry, but in time it proves to be so much wishful thinking. I empathize with this humbling episode well, having gone through it twice as a young, single Christian.

The irony in such situations is that two Christians sometimes have conflicting impressions of guidance--one that God has said to marry, the other that he has said no.

The irony was not lost on Dan, the young man who told me God wanted him to break up with his girlfriend. As I talked with him further, he admitted that she was equally certain God had revealed to her that they should marry. It was the one factor leaving him unsettled about his own sense of leading.

This highlights one of the major difficulties with the notion of inward guidance--that it removes all basis for dialogue. If I believe God has spoken directly to me through an inner impression, I won’t feel free to question that guidance. Nor will I be open to anyone else’s insight. Yet Scripture declares that the wisdom from God is “open to reason” (Jas 3:17 RSV). Our impressions of guidance almost always need to go through an editing process. This is the point of the frequent admonition in Proverbs that we find strength in a multitude of counselors.

When it comes to trusting our perceptions of guidance, the advice of Scripture may be summarized: “Proceed with caution. Let your impressions season. And second opinions are usually advised.”

Exceptions and Rules

I have no question that God sometimes does guide Christians through inward guidance alone. The testimony of notable believers to this experience throughout Christian history--including John Wesley and John Calvin--is convincing. Their examples suggest that when God guides in this fashion, it is usually for one of two reasons: someone is facing an unusual challenge and must make a decision in extreme haste (her life is in peril, for instance), or one is young in the faith and not ready to take full responsibility for thinking through decisions.

It appears, too, that God occasionally endows a Christian with exceptionally astute intuition. He may also give certain believers a spiritual gift for inward guidance, enabling them to discern his will through intuition more precisely than most Christians can.

But what about most of us? What should the ordinary Christian’s expectations be about receiving inward guidance in most decisions? What is the normative biblical pattern?

The Bible records numerous instances where people took their feelings or intuition into account in a decision. No example can be found anywhere in Scripture, however, where someone regarded an inner impression as the direct voice of God, an infallible sign from him or the sole indication of his will. I have carefully searched both the Old and New Testaments on this point and haven’t found any clear example supporting the popular notion that inward guidance is sufficient by itself to know God’s will.*

Examples of direct supernatural guidance abound in Scripture, to be sure. They are often introduced by statements declaring that God “spoke” to someone, or the Holy Spirit “led” someone to do something. Some of these might seem to be examples of inward guidance. Yet whenever a passage shows how someone knew God spoke to him or her, it is always clear that the person heard an audible voice. None of these examples is clearly a reference to inward guidance.

I am also unable to find any statement in Scripture which suggests that we should ever seek to understand God’s will through inward guidance alone.

Understanding the Inner Light

This doesn’t mean that our intuitive impressions have no role in guidance. Indeed, they have a vital function. But the way in which we understand their role has critical bearing on whether they enlighten us or mislead us. Generally, we do best to regard our intuition not as the direct voice of God’s Spirit, but as a window on our deepest feelings.

Psychologists observe that much of our mental process goes on subconsciously. When we experience an intuitive insight--an inspiration, a hunch, a warm feeling or instinctive urge to do something--it usually indicates that our conscious mind is reading what our subconscious mind is thinking. This insight can be critical, for our subconscious often processes information better than our conscious mind does. Our intuition, then, is telling us what underneath we most want to do or think we really ought to do. It’s our best insight into what we perceive God wants us to do at this time.

We can trust, too, that if we’re intent upon doing God’s will, he is guiding our whole thought process--conscious and subconscious--including our experiences of intuition. Our intuitive insights are part of the enlightenment he provides us at any given time. Yet they are still more of a psychological experience than a spiritual one--an insight into our deepest thoughts and desires. They are our perception of what God wants us to do, a perception that may still need some room to develop. Our intuition is only as good as the information to which we’ve been exposed.

Not Locked In

This is a greatly liberating point, for it means we always have the freedom to question our instinctive impressions of guidance. We are free to seek further information--which in time may lead to a new sense of intuition. Those impressions that remain with us, stand the test of time, and most clearly reconcile with other indications of God’s will, are the ones we can trust.

A woman shared with me about how her understanding of God’s will changed in a relationship she had recently broken off. When she first met this man, she believed God was leading her to marry him. Her conviction was so strong that it felt like direct guidance from God. Yet during six months of dating, she discovered that he wasn’t interested in growing spiritually. As this point sunk in, her perception of God’s guidance changed, and she grew convinced he didn’t want them marrying. I appreciated her honesty, and her changing impression of guidance makes perfect sense once we understand how intuition functions.

Of course, it can work the other way as well. In a survey of over one thousand happily married individuals, respondents were asked if they initially thought the person to whom they were now blissfully married was the right person for them. A full 80 percent responded no, that it had taken time for that impression to develop. This helps explain why Christians are so often mistaken about initial impressions of guidance in a relationship. It usually takes time for a reliable sense of intuition about marriage to blossom.

Reliable Impressions

An enlightening biblical example showing the role intuition should play in our decisions is given in Acts 16:1-3. Here Paul selects Timothy to be his traveling companion:

And [Paul] came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brethren at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (RSV)

We are told that Paul chose Timothy in part because he “wanted Timothy to accompany him.” Paul felt intuitively that Timothy was the right choice. Yet his impression was not based on blind instinct but on sound evidence. Timothy was a mature Christian (“disciple”), who was willing to be circumcised for this mission. He had a cross-cultural background that uniquely prepared him for relating to both Jews and Gentiles. And Christians in at least two communities gave him high recommendations.

The latter point is especially interesting, for it suggests that Paul made the effort to talk to others and get their opinions. He didn’t make his decision in isolation. Through all of this research and weighing of evidence, the impression emerged that Timothy was God’s choice.

Paul’s example of choosing Timothy is a good one to keep in mind in any important decision we face--whether it involves choosing a marriage partner, deciding on a career or job, or any other major commitment. It suggests that our intuitive impression of what to do should emerge from carefully considering the best information available. If I’m about to take a major step solely because my instincts tell me God wants me to--even though I can’t explain why--I have reason to stop and ask for further guidance. It is always proper in this case to ask God to give me a reason for taking the step, or else to change my impression of what he wants me to do.

Which is to say that we should seek God’s will as much with our mind as with our heart. If we keep this in mind as our guiding principle in guidance, we’ll be on good ground in our conclusions.

At least, that’s my impression.

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This article is excerpted from Blaine Smith’s The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions (SilverCrest Books, 2011, chapter 8).

Nehemiah Notes is available for free twice-monthly by e-mail.

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