Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1; NIV84)
The early Christian community, with a syncretism of a rich Jewish tradition and overwhelming secular influences, was familiar with spirits. Several stories in early biblical writings attest to their persuasive power, and even cultural norms indicated the presence of supernatural influences.
In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, we find a warning for the people of God, to be on guard against prophets who convincingly claimed divine truths, and even offered proof, but did so in ways opposite of early Jewish law.
You can read it here. It’s pretty stout. These prophets were being used by God to test his people. And they were also punished when their origins were found to be from unholy places.
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 13:1-5)
This warning is reborn in the first letter of John, and the implications are clear. There are those who offer proof of the divine, and claim to be from the divine, but are themselves misguided.
The phrase, “test the spirits,” for us, is a sure implication that there are various entities persuading for divine causes, but, of those entities, only some are authentic, while others have dubious motivations, and are even considered evil. And it’s troubling to consider that these entities, these spirits, have incredibly persuasive power.
Divine presence is a swift justification for those who search endlessly for purpose. It becomes very difficult to argue with those who not only see God, but see godly action, in every personal conviction. There is biblical evidence that this theology can be right and true.
But there is also biblical evidence that maybe every personal conviction is not born of God, and maybe God is even using those convictions as a way to test us. Chris Hodges, the pastor for the Church of the Highlands, shares a story that when he was given the vision to launch what has now become one of the fastest growing churches in America, he was led to a prominent high school in Birmingham to host the worship gatherings.
Once the high school agreed to have a conversation, the principal wanted to know what Hodges thought of a rental fee of $150 a week. Hodges remarks in the story that he knew, in his heart, that he was being tested. It seemed great, but the school would lose money. He shared that thought with the principal, and the principal said he was hoping Hodges would answer that way. They agreed to host the church, and the rest, they say, is history.
And this is such an overlooked aspect of faith — we struggle with an idea that God does test, and may even test with actions easily interpreted as holy.
Prayer, petition, and counsel are always given to support where we are led, but what if God is telling us something quite different? How would we know?
Here’s how George Mueller knew, in his own words. By the way, through prayer alone, Mueller built orphanages that housed over 10,000 children. And he relied solely on God, never once asking any person for anything. He did so, in hopes that people would see a faithful God that will always listen, and always act. And here’s how he knew God was talking:
I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter. … Having done this, I do not leave the result to feeling or simple impression. If so, I make myself liable to great delusions. Rather, I seek the Will of the Spirit of God through, or in connection with, the Word of God. The Spirit and the Word must be combined. If I look to the Spirit alone without the Word, I lay myself open to great delusions.
… Next, I take into account providential circumstances. These often plainly indicate God’s Will in connection with His Word and Spirit. And I ask God in prayer to reveal His Will to me aright.
Thus, through prayer to God, the study of the Word, and reflection, I come to a deliberate judgment according to the best of my ability and knowledge, and if my mind is thus at peace, and continues so after two or three more petitions, I proceed accordingly. In trivial matters, and in transactions involving most important issues, I have found this method always effective.
God is listening to you. And he’s waiting to have a conversation.