September 25, 2021 - Pray About It?

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Today we’re going to talk about: Is praying about it the best way to know the truth about God? When faced with the choice whose word to accept when confronted by claims of a new revelation from God or a new book of Scripture, we are urged by many voices out there to ask God in prayer whether that new word from God is true, and we are assured that God will show us that it is true.

I do not by any means wish to minimize the importance of prayer, but when God has clearly spoken on issues where truth and major error are at stake, prayer becomes an evasion. It can also lead to self-deception. God does not deceive honest seekers after truth, but how do we know for sure whether we are hearing from God, and not from some other voice?

Feelings are notoriously unreliable. Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 say, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” Ask John Kennedy Jr., who was flying a plane one fateful day on July 16, 1999. Kennedy’s feelings told him he was flying on the level, while in reality his instruments could have told him that he and his passengers were plunging downward to their death.

When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, Jesus didn't pray about what he should do; he went straight to God's word: “It is written!” When seeking God's will on homosexuality or unmarried cohabitation or recreational marijuana, the answer is not to pray about it, but to search the scriptures for faithful answers to those who question God's word. (For some of my thoughts on same-sex behavior, I invite you to check out my broadcast on the “Biblical Sexual Ethic” on May 9 or a post of mine under the title “God’s Sex Mandate.”)

When the Corinthians doubted whether the dead are raised, Paul didn't tell them to pray about it. Paul gave them the best evidence he had for those who lived 1000 miles from where it happened. Jesus' very appearances when he rose from the dead were to give his followers more than prayer on which to base their faith, as we see particularly in the case of doubting Thomas. How thankful I am that we have far more than a feeling in our bosom on which to base our faith in Jesus’ resurrection!

When the eleven apostles recognized the need to replace Judas in their number, Luke (the author of Acts) clearly states that they went straight to prayer, after narrowing down the field of potential candidates, because they had no other guidance from God. Luke even records what they prayed; they asked God to show them his answer through the casting of lots. But this same Luke gives us no mention of prayer at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, when the Church had to decide whether Gentiles had to become Jews to follow Jesus.

There was no word from Jesus on this question of whether Gentile converts had to be circumcised. (The Gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus as saying that if circumcision were necessary, men would have been born that way! If that saying had been genuine, the issue would have been settled.) But notice how the decision was made. Several times Luke tells us that it was by “apostles and elders.” There is no one named as a prophet who leads this meeting. Back in Matthew 16, Jesus seems to designate Peter as leader of the Church, but Jesus never calls him “Prophet.” Whereas here at the Jerusalem Council, Peter does not decide the issue. James the brother of Jesus seems to be in charge (in Acts 15:19, he wraps up the debate by saying “KrinĊ” = “I judge”), although we have no record of Jesus’ brother being named an apostle.

In the end, Luke never speaks of prayer at this meeting, although it probably did take place, and Luke records plenty of prayer by the Church. It was the Hebrew Bible that led James to his verdict, and it was the Holy Ghost who led the Church to spell out what Gentiles needed to do so that observant Jewish Christians could fellowship with them (they needed to avoid idolatry, sexual immorality, roadkill, and blood). The only prophets named (Judas and Silas, Acts 15:22,32) are chosen simply to deliver the decision in an age before satellite downlinks.

What to do with the kosher food laws was a huge issue for the Church, because to set these aside appeared to be a contradiction of God’s word. The situation called for more than prayer. In Acts 10, when God sends Peter to preach to Sergeant Cornelius, God sends Peter both a vision and a voice from heaven: “What God has cleansed, you must not call profane.” And God confirms the vision and voice by sending the Holy Ghost on his audience.

But looking back a few years later, the Church realized that Jesus had “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), a word from Jesus that Paul echoes when he says, “I know and have been persuaded in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14). That word from Jesus also leads Paul to say, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). It takes a lot more than prayer to come to such a conclusion.

Prayer was not the primary means of discernment when deciding what books belonged in God’s word. The Jews stored their selection of holy books in the Temple before it was destroyed, and Josephus tells us they were the books later affirmed by Protestants, the list found in most Bibles. For the genuine words of Jesus, the early church did not rely on prayer alone. They asked those who knew Jesus, “Did he really say this?” For discerning whether Peter or Paul really wrote the books attributed to them, they did not rely on prayer alone, but they studied the language used in those letters, they scoured the church memory banks, and they consulted the opinions of the entire Church.

Our present canon was determined, not by a top-down decision, but by a grassroots effort over time. You could say, it was sustained by a three-centuries-long General Conference. And there is no hard evidence to substantiate that any “plain and precious” books or teachings were left out, as I have discussed in chapter 10 of my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.

The decision made by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that Jesus was “of one substance with the Father” was made by church leaders after considerable Biblical debate, not by praying and then voting. And even that vote was not the last word. The decision was challenged, and the vote swung back and forth in subsequent meetings over the next 120 years before the Church united around this creed.

Where prayer for wisdom is most necessary is in cases where God does not spell out what we should do, particularly where we must apply Biblical principles to specific cases we encounter in life. Should we call this pastor? Should we start this business? Where should we invest our money? Should we marry this person?

James 1:5 says that if anyone “lacks” wisdom, they should ask God for it. In areas where God has not told us what to do, asking for such wisdom becomes indispensible. But where God has already given us wisdom, we must not go back to God, hoping to beseech God into giving us a different opinion.

Let’s talk about how we make everyday non-doctrinal decisions. One of the key questions we face when making decisions is the question, Is there only 1 right answer at each fork in the road in God’s plan for my life? The answer is, Not necessarily. Unlike the story in the movie “Sleepless in Seattle”, there is not necessarily only 1 right person you could marry in this world, although there are endless numbers of wrong choices. The same is true for jobs, or purchases of cars or homes, or whom to hire to do a job.

God is not so concerned about whether we line up with some predetermined plan of destiny. God is concerned about how we arrive at our decision: our motives, our willingness to obey God’s word, and how clearly we have thought through what will happen if we take this action or that. How we play the game is what counts with God.

Decision-making involves discernment, the ability to correctly judge or assess people and situations. Is that person we’re thinking about marrying or hiring or working for, a jerk? Are they what they appear to be, or are appearances deceiving? Discernment is a gift from God, an intuition, a gift often possessed by women. If we lack this gift, James 1:5 says we can always ask God for it when we need it.

Proverbs 3:5-6 says that if we want the Lord to make straight our paths, we must trust in the Lord with all our heart, and not rely on our own insight. We must not be wise in our own eyes, as if we have all the answers. The way that seems right to us can often be dead wrong. We should never imagine that our wisdom is superior to God’s wisdom. Knowing God is where real insight is to be found, and a healthy fear of God is the first step in the right direction.

We must learn a healthy distrust for our own judgment as we make our crucial decisions. It’s helpful for us to have a couple extra sets of eyes, to keep us objective. Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” We need to overcome our own blind spots by seeking feedback and advice from people we can trust, people who have our best interests at heart, people who are not going to just feed us whatever baloney we want to hear. But again, the most important advice we must seek is from: God.

How do we consult God in our decisions? Shall we expect God to speak to us in dreams or visions or voices from the sky? Yes, God has operated that way at times in the past, and occasionally still does. But notice. Most supernatural forms of guidance in the Bible were given either to hardheaded characters (like Pharaoh, or Saul on the Damascus Road), or to people who knew too little about God to do the right thing. Or they came in cases where God’s message was so hard to swallow that only a vision could do the job, like the angel’s announcement to a virgin named Mary. God may still use visions and dreams, but we shouldn’t expect God to use them as God’s standard mode of operation.

Neither should we expect God to perform special signs to help us identify the will of God. We should not be like Gideon, who laid a sheepskin on the ground and asked God to put dew on the fleece and not the ground, and then asked God to do the opposite. Today we don’t lay out sheepskins. We ask God to make the phone ring at 9:15, or make it snow in August. Or we pray, “God if what I’m about to do is wrong, stop me.” God may not do so.

Another problem with signs, visions, or voices is that they still may not eliminate our doubt as to what to do. Like Gideon, how do we know whether the vision we have seen is from God? How can we be sure? “Putting out fleeces” is an unreliable method for finding God’s will.

What role do our desires play in knowing God’s will? How trustworthy are our desires? When I pray for guidance, how do I know that I am not just talking myself into doing what I want, anyway? If our desires were never from God, finding God’s will would be easy – do the opposite of whatever we want. But many of our desires were planted in our hearts by God. Sometimes our gut deserves to be listened to.

“Leaving it up to God” may sound like a spiritual way of making decisions. But “leaving it up to God” can be an irresponsible way of allowing our options to slip away and disappear one by one, until we have no options left. Letting God decide how many children we should have is a cop-out, just like letting God decide how many pounds we should gain. God expects us to shoulder our share of responsibility for our lot in life. Not to decide is a choice.

On the other hand, we should try not to make irreversible decisions like “Shall I jump from this bridge?” unless we absolutely have to. (Such is a powerful argument against suicide, or even illicit sex or abortion. Don’t do anything you can’t undo, if at all possible.) Jesus says we must “count the cost”, like the general who calculates in advance whether his army is strong enough to fight off the other army, or the builder who takes stock to make sure they have enough resources to finish their construction project.

Pastor Charles Swindoll has advice for anyone to hear before taking a dramatic leap of faith: Be sure it’s the Lord who’s speaking to you. Be sure the decision doesn’t contradict Scripture. Be sure your motives are unselfish and pure. And be sure your “leap” will not injure others, nor injure your reputation as a follower of Jesus Christ.

God often leads us through gentle spiritual promptings. That’s how we usually hear the voice of God. But it’s easy to confuse such feelings with the desires of our own hearts. Leadings that come from God are consistent with God’s word. God will never lead you to be unfaithful to a spouse, to cheat or to lie, to contradict God’s word. That’s a no-brainer, as far as God is concerned. Any prophet who lives that way or teaches others to, is not from God.

Also, leadings from God are not self-promoting or self-serving. When God is speaking to us, God’s voice usually asks us to humble ourselves, to serve somebody, to comfort somebody, or to give something away. Rarely does the devil ever suggest these ideas. Often God’s voice will require us to choose between being comfortable and doing what we know is right, to choose between piling up money and giving ourselves away, to choose between being a winner in the world’s eyes and being a winner in God’s eyes.

I believe that God most often guides us through the teachings of Scripture, through our spirits, and through our circumstances, like Abraham’s servant who goes to Iraq to find a wife for Isaac: he prays for God to guide him to the right girl, and he prays that he might recognize her by her act of kindness. Or when Jonathan is deciding whether to attack the Philistines in 1 Samuel 13, Jonathan lets the circumstances be a clue from God. He won’t attack if the enemy yells “Wait till we come get you!” He’ll only attack if the enemy yells “Come on up here!”

Take a look at how God guides the apostle Paul. In Acts 16, Paul wants to preach the word of God in Ephesus, the largest city in the province of Asia, but God will not let him travel in that direction. Paul then tries to go into Bithynia (toward Istanbul), but the Spirit of Jesus holds him back. Then a Macedonian (from northern Greece) appears to Paul one night in a dream, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And so Paul sets sail for Europe. Later on at Corinth, Paul wants to quit and run, but God tells him, “Stay there.”

It takes 2 years, 5 new churches, and 1,500 extra miles before Paul fulfills his dream to preach in big city Ephesus. Then Paul is seized by a new desire: to preach the Good News in Rome, and then go on to Spain. From what I can tell, Paul never does make it to Spain, and he only makes it to Rome a few short years before his death. Paul’s life is a series of open doors and quiet nudgings from God, the ways I believe God most often guides us.

Everyday decision-making is not a matter of finding God’s one right answer or predetermined plan of destiny. It’s a matter of trusting in the Lord with all our heart, and not relying on our own understanding. Decision-making is a combination of God’s written word, discernment, outside advice to keep us objective, examining our desires, watching for open doors, and listening for inner promptings of God’s Spirit.

Doctrinal decisions are not always a matter of one right answer from God, either. How to baptize or how to organize a church are not as all-important questions as whether we can trust a new prophet who claims to have new and very different revelations from God. For that question, praying about it must take a back seat to seeking out what God has already said in God’s word.

One major claim made by one prophet is that the true Church ceased to exist at the end of the 1st century AD. We’ll examine that claim next time on Biblical Words and World!