‘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).
John wrote this letter towards the end of the 1st century. It is interesting to note that although the ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church on the day of Pentecost had taken place less than 70 years earlier, already Christians had to be warned to be on their guard against the infiltration of false teaching and false ideas.
The New Testament scholar, William Barclay, referring to the false teaching that had found its way into the church from its earliest days, wrote in his commentary on 1 John, ‘The matter reached its peak and ne plus ultra when, in the third century, Montanus burst upon the church with the claim that he was nothing less than the promised Paraclete and that he proposed to tell the church the things which Christ had said his apostles could not at the moment bear.’
Test the spirits!
John wrote, ‘… test the spirits …’ Similarly Paul wrote, ‘Test everything. Hold on to the good’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
The Greek word translated ‘test’ means to examine thoroughly to see if something is authentic. It is a word that was used, for example, in reference to the examination of a coin to see whether or not it was counterfeit.
John was giving this warning – don’t give credibility to things just because they appear to be ‘spiritual’. How relevant this warning is for Christians today!
From so many ‘Christian’ television programs, web sites and books Christians are being bombarded with many odd speculations and theories that have little or no sound biblical basis – although many of these are ideas are presented as being soundly biblical. Other conjectures are offered on the authority of questionable prophetic authority – ‘The Lord revealed to me …’
Paul gives us this advice, ‘Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise’ (Ephesians 5:15). There is no spiritual merit in being gullible! Gullibility opens the door to confusion.
In continuing this series on Confusion in the Church I want to look at a few more areas in which Christians expose themselves to confusion.
When imagining what we want to hear is confused with actually hearing from God
Not every thought that enters our mind comes from God! Not everything we would like to do has been spoken to us by the Holy Spirit! Not every wish, ambition or desire is divinely inspired!
While God may indeed place his will in our hearts, speak to our innermost being and prompt us by his Spirit, we need to test all things before attributing them to God. If we, in fact, embrace every personal whim, idea or thought as coming from God, we are actually misrepresenting God as well as creating confusion for ourselves if the idea does not become reality.
A few years ago a couple decided that their idea of selling their house and moving to a seaside town was God’s plan for their lives. They claimed that God had told them to do this. When I cautioned them about making that assumption, they reacted angrily – ‘Of course it is God’s idea. How dare you question it?’ A few years have passed, they were unable to sell their house and the one they wanted to buy was bought by another. Now they have concluded that they may have been wrong!
Similarly such phrases as, ‘The Lord told me’ and ‘I am believing in the Lord for …’ have to be scrutinised to determine if God is truly the source of the thought or wish or he is merely being used to substantiate a personal desire.
Testing what one thinks God is saying is not a sign of lack of faith. It is actually compatible with what the scriptures teach. Not to test is to disobey!
When the spiritual gifts are confused with spiritual maturity
This is not a recent phenomenon. The apostle Paul had to address this question when writing to the Christians at Corinth. On the one hand he wrote, ‘For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift …’ (1Corinthians 1:5-7 emphasis mine).
On the other hand he wrote, ‘Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. … You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly?’ (1 Corinthians 3:1, 3).
Despite that clear warning some Christians today swank their spiritual gift as an indication of their great spirituality! Rather it reflects evidence of spiritual pride. God’s giving of his gifts is in no way related to awards or rewards to us for spiritual achievement.
I would maintain that spiritual maturity is seen in the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22-23) rather than the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Christian maturity grows according to our relationship with Christ and the list of character attributes (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) actually reflects the character of Jesus Christ.
Our desire should be that we become more like Christ, as Paul has written, ‘And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Christian maturity is seen in humility and not in pride and boasting.
When emotionalism is confused with divine encounter
Emotion was built into us when God created human beings and He gave us such a vast range of them. Many emotions are either positive or negative. Some make us feel good in various ways, for example, love, joy, hope, courage, thankfulness, awe, serenity, while other emotions make us feel uneasy or stressed, such as, fear, worry, hate, embarrassment, jealousy, resentment.
Emotions are part of what makes us human. When Jesus ‘became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14), he revealed many emotions. For example, he showed –
• Compassion (‘Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand’ Mark 1:41)
• Anguish (‘Jesus wept’ John 11:35)
• Joy (‘At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit …’ Luke 10:21)
• Anger (when he drove the moneychangers and merchandisers out of the temple John 2:14-16).
Emotions are an essential part of our make-up. Unfortunately they can be rather easily swayed. We may find a tear in our eye when we watch a sad movie, or we may respond angrily when we see an injustice being carried out.
Our emotions may be manipulated by an eloquent preacher who, on the back of some song we have just sung, announces, ‘God is truly here.’ Of course God is truly here (He promised to be with us always), but he is not more ‘fully here’ simply because our stirred up emotions may try to convince us that he is!
Of course, a genuine one-to-one encounter with the Lord God Almighty will inevitably generate an emotional response within us, but divine encounters with the Lord must not be determined by how our emotions are making us feel at any particular time. Indeed, such encounters with God as recorded in the scriptures seem generally to result in the response of profound awe – see Isaiah chapter 6.
Desire the genuine!
In our relationship with God we should desire only the real, the trustworthy, and not the false – however appealing the false may be!
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from concerned Christians. In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship.
Normally $35 but obtainable from the author for $25 (plus postage). Link/orders/enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org