All it takes is clicking on one YouTube of someone with a spiritual message, and suddenly your screen is populated with an advancing column of them: Predictions for the coming year. A revealing of the Antichrist. Someone died for 10 minutes, went to heaven, and an angel showed him what’s going on in the White House. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse explained. You name it, it’s all there. How on earth are you supposed to sort through all this?
Maybe it’s best just to leave that page and check on sports. The revelations of the winners and losers have clear stats you can track.
But having checked the stats, we are still left with the need to listen to God.
Here are seven questions you can ask for finding the honey among the buzz of words.
The very first way the Apostle Paul tells us we can snuff out a sense of the imminent presence of God is by not taking seriously the fact that He speaks. But having established that fact, Paul immediately counterbalances it with the reality that we cannot hear what He is saying without first testing the message.
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.I Thessalonians 5:19-22
We have permission to sort through the words and keep what’s good for us. We have permission to eat the chicken and not the bones. Here is a suggested template for testing spiritual messages.
The Brief Version
- Does this build confidence in God’s ways?
- Does this cause my love to grow cold or strengthen me to persevere?
- Does this puff me up with a sense of superiority or humble me with gratitude?
- Does this cause me to condemn authorities or pray creatively for them?
- Does this tell me what I want to hear or what I need to hear?
- Does this reinforce the Scriptures or does it reject them?
- What does this do to my joy?
The Extended Version
- Does this build my confidence in God’s ways?
Does the message leave you with the sense, “Take matters into your own hands,” or “Learn how to collaborate with God’s reliable ways.” ?
The fixed point in the story of God and Man is that the Lord is faithful and true. He operates in a steadfast form of lovingkindness that plows through our hardened positions, follows us into our next season, and re-affirms who He is. If a message causes our confidence in these three ways to falter, it is a sign we need to explore the matter more in prayer, the scriptures, and honest exploration of the truth. A calm rest will remain with us on the other side of our wrestling, for we shall have discovered the frame of the matter troubling us is His lovingkindness. A teaching that breaks the frame of trust in His ways leaves the realm of life-giving art and enters the realm of vandalism, where, out of despair or pride, it mars the work of confidence He is crafting in us.
- Does this cause my love to grow cold or strengthen my desire to persevere?
Christ predicts that, as the end of our current age approaches,, “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” (Matt 24:12) Therefore think about this: Would not the Lord desire you to buck this trend? He who is revealed to us as the essence of self-giving love — Would His words not be designed to build compassion in you for others, so that your zeal for justice would be saturated with love and not with anger? For anger-driven justice is merely vengeance, and vengeance always carries with it a swathe of collateral damage toward those with whom you are not angry, in the same way that a forest fire burns up the dry wood along with the green.
Full clarity on a matter will always carry with it the story behind the story that inspires compassion, even for those who remain mortal enemies. Then, even if the full truth causes an end to things, it is not a vindictive end, but one with authentic tears.
“Love without truth lies; truth without love kills.” So wrote Eberhard Arnold, the leader of a Christian community living in the shadow of Nazi Germany. Employ this maxim, and it might help you discern what to keep, what to throw away, and what remains lacking that you need to seek out.
- Does this puff me up with a sense of superiority or humble me with a sense of gratitude?
The apostles warn us that knowledge alone — when not combined with self-giving love — puffs up, especially spiritual knowledge. Glam competes with giving glory to God. Like leaven in a loaf, knowledge separated from practice and authentic community leaves us vulnerable to assuming we are better than others. If a spiritual message has captured our imagination but is not yet under the yoke of patient, loving practice, we remain armchair quarterbacks, proud of our jersey but out of touch with the pain of the real game.
In our personal sense of loneliness or fatherlessness, we long for some hidden door to the inner circle, a place of inclusion, a place at the table with The Elite Ones Who Know Everything, or so we imagine them. This is false fatherhood. It is replacing a real relationship with God, who works through both our joys and our sorrows to mature us, with a one-dimensional cartoon character of a deity who no longer leads us. We become the imagined center of our lives, musing, “Because I now know more than you, I am superior to you. I am chosen, and you are not.” This is not the spirit of our Father, who always pairs truth with love; who always pairs grace with truth; who always pairs the scriptures with His power. Without this pairing, we are tempted to no longer look the King in His eyes, but covet His royal splendor for ourselves. Better to bow before the King in thankfulness and have Him put the crown on you Himself.
A true spiritual message may undo us, but even then it will leave us thankful and hopeful. Like the unleavened matzah bread of the Jewish Passover, our hearts will be “flat” — we will rest dependent on the table God has placed us on; God, the only One who can part our Red Sea and deliver us.
- Does this cause me to condemn authorities or to pray creatively for them (and perhaps even honor them)?
Here we find ourselves in a precarious place, one in which all those who belong to Christ have always found themselves. When authorities or enemies are crushing us or — worse yet, hijacking our values for their own power agendas — how do we respond? Do we rise up and judge them? When it turns out that authorities are made of clay and far from perfect, is the immediate next step to break off and rebel? Or do we bow down in the labor pains of prayer for leaders who turn out to be mere men and women made of dust and water? Do we agonize in love over those who have within them the competing spirits of our age wrestling to prevent them from doing well? Once a leader’s mixture of wit, weakness, and wickedness is revealed, do we point the finger at them (we might find we want to give them the finger, too), or do we wrestle with God about them?
Paul and Peter provide us with poignant models, for the very emperor whom they commanded the Christians to pray for and honor — Nero, whose name lives on in our Great Danes — is the same one who executed them and initiated the first wave of state-sponsored, theatrical cruelty against those with sincere faith in Jesus; a model for authorities (religious ones included) of every generation who seek a scapegoat.
There are other categories of authority besides civil. There are military ones. There are those in authority over families and households. There are church authorities, entrusted by the Holy Spirit to care for our souls. In regard to all those in authority, we have to ask the same question. Does the spiritual message we are testing prompt humble, honest communication, or does it foster non-dialogue, gossip, and suspicion?
- Does this tell me what I want to hear or what I need to hear?
This side of Eden, there is a craving in each of us to have what we want and to have it now whether we can handle it or not. Without His Spirit at work in us, there is, to one degree or another, a curious desire to feel as if we have appeased the Deity and can therefore now avoid accountability, escape discipline, and engage in frivolity. It is a pernicious serpentine whisper, “You are your own. You are the center. Here is the forbidden fruit. Take and eat while He is away.” There are spiritual messages that broadcast on this wavelength, often quite eloquently.
But the way back to Eden is blocked with a fiery truth: only a new creation can enter Paradise. Only a resurrected body can inhabit the new earth. Therefore set yourself apart to be trained to reign in that age. This is what the coming judgment is all about. It is not God venting at your imperfections. Rather, “The time for turning to Me is complete. The time when innocent ones lose their innocence is over. The secret of your heart is now recognized, be that to abide with Me or depart from Me.”
This is why love-motivated suffering, living a set-apart life, and obeying Christ’s commands make sense. The King is returning. You will make eye contact with Him “in that same body,” both yours and His, as the Armenian Creed says. The books will be opened. Great is your reward. Full is His justice. It will have been worth it to not have taken revenge into your own hands or to have eaten the forbidden fruit.
A message that encourages you to indulge now does not understand that these matters will be reviewed before the King. All court cases, even Supreme Court ones, are not the final say on any matter. Everyone will appear in court again.
This is why the new heaven and earth are such great news for the vast majority of followers of Jesus on the globe, who are neither influential nor connected nor famous nor resourced in this present life. The good news is that they do not have to be. They simply need to love Him and do what He commands. And His commandments are doable in the worst-case scenarios some spiritual messages warn us are coming. This obedience translates into a degree of friendship with the King, a weight of the glory of God upon them, and a realm of noble responsibility in the next life that correlates with who they really were on earth when no one noticed. This is why self-control, humility, and courage to do right matter in this life. This is why it matters that we set ourselves apart from the self-centered, self-indulgent, coercive ways of our culture. Instead of sinking in the swamp of having it all now, paying the price of confusion and despair, we dive into the river of life forever when the King returns.
6. Does this reinforce the scriptures and the early creeds, or does it reject them?
Does this message have a high view of scripture or a higher view of contemporary culture? Does this message present itself as the judge over the “most holy faith” (as Apostle Jude calls it, 1:20) or as being accountable to it? Does it align with the words of Christ, the apostles and prophets, and the creeds of the early Church?
What A.A. Milne wrote about Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows applies equally to the scriptures:
The book is a test of character. We can’t criticize it, because it is criticizing us….It is a Household Book…But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don’t be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgement on [the author]…You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don’t know. But it is you who are on trial.
It is in this sense that every spiritual message is subject to the scriptures.
The gospel writers and apostles unpack the implications of the new-creation community in the multi-background gatherings of those who all have devotion to the King in common. If you are worried that the scriptures do not take into account the need for diversity, you have not read them well. The New Testament was written to the most diverse audience that had effort appeared in the ancient world come on such that the Romans could classify them as neither a pagan ethnic group nor Jews, but “a third race of humanity, who have in common that peculiar contagion of superstition about Jesus that has spread across our empire”.
Also, it is the gospels, apostles, and church fathers who provide the believer with the template for how to read the Old Testament, where Christ is hidden in plain sight: revealed in the poetry of our origins; in the symbols of the code of the Law; in the visions of the prophets; and in the all-too-human and all-too-true realities of empire and idolatry.
(If we think we have advanced beyond those we have judged as unworthy in the Old Testament, it is a sure sign we shall repeat the brutality we find there, for all become what they judge, especially those who trust in the superior goodness of themselves over past generations. For, in comparison to embracing the darkness at work in us, the only thing worse is to assert a novel self-righteousness compared to past generations. This guarantees one sure thing; not that we will bring down heaven to earth, but that we will bring up hell.)
When we depart from the inherited conversation of the scriptures, the early creeds, and the church fathers, we must understand what we are doing. We are concluding that the centuries of prayer, labor, discourse, debate, suffering, failures, martyrdom, and councils that landed upon these documents as our chosen inheritance were insufficient. We are asserting that we can see better than the ones who went before us and stewarded the scriptures, struggled to lead the Church out of her weakness and at times wickedness, and crafted the creeds — often at the cost of their own blood. We are asserting that we are the exception to all generations that have preceded us. “Each of those generations had their blind spots; but not us.”
Let us understand the nature of the surface on which we stand when we claim such superiority. It is like the progress of a man who chops off a chunk of an Arctic glacier and declares, “With this ship I shall sail south! Join me!” We can predict where this story goes. And we can predict the final shouting match that will take place before all sink into the deep far off course from Hawaii; a harangue of shame and blame.
7. What does this do to my joy?
Christ came so that you could have your sins forgiven, your conscience cleansed, and the tactics of the devil exposed so that you could trample him with a calmly confident and content life. He did not come to bully you into a set of culturally correct behaviors. He came to transform you into a sign of the culture to come. He did not come to manipulate your conscience or paralyze you with fear; He came to free you to live according to an ever-more-mature blend of faith, authentic love, and, yes, a good conscience. The outcome of that blend is called joy. Christ makes it clear that if we obey His commands, we enter into that joy, a joy that is non-circumstance dependent.
In the 20th century, both the national socialism of Germany and the communism of Russia appealed to the masses using the same dynamics at work among people today: anger at unfairness, a sense of injured merit, and a hope for progress. To do this they fueled their populations with resentment, not joy. Christian communities caught in both of those conflicts (such as Eberhard Anrold quoted above, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) were faced with three choices: to join the movements, to repel them through isolation, or to remain in the midst of them true to their unique identity as Christ followers, being salt and light to all. Only one of those three choices brought joy. That choice is one we should not forget in our own century as we face the same dynamics they did.
The Apostle Paul declares that joy is a litmus test of true teaching when he says “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we are fellow workers for your joy.” (2 Cor 1:24) Therefore, if the message coerces your conscience; if it declares: “You are naked. You should be ashamed. Cover yourself with this teaching. Cover yourself with this ideology. Cover yourself with this specific form of behavior. Become like us, or remain ashamed” — you need to seriously consider what to reject. For a true spiritual message attempts to integrate a good conscience with joy, with holiness, and with authentic love in a lifelong discovery process framed by the patience of our heavenly Father and the presence of Jesus Himself. Guilt manipulation may make effective short-term fuel, but in the long-term it is as damaging as using unfiltered gasoline in your vehicle. It leads to burn-out, a ruining of the engine. Something much more valuable than a car is at stake: our hearts. Let us guard our hearts then, not out of suspicion, but with anticipation of the discoveries that lead to joy.
Wisdom is all about knowing the difference between baby and bathwater; between wheat and weeds, which always — always — grow together.
But we (not to mention our culture) tend to be lazy or impatient or both. It feels much more expedient in the moment to either swallow a thought whole or throw it out with the trash, placing the appropriate label on the platter or the plastic bag. To separate elements one from the other takes time — and who has time? It takes effort — but who wants to clear the horse apples from the stall when you can just hop on the horse (forgetting that the horse and its horse apples require a constant parting if your thoroughbred will ever win the Triple Crown)? It also takes risk — for people may mistake your exploration for truth as a sign of disloyalty and throw you out of their circle. You may be labeled “combative” or “not a team player,” ruining your resume for the next step up the imaginary ladder.
But the apostles command us to test what we are hearing; not in the spirit of an unforgiving troll who wants to stomp on others, but in the spirit of a person yearning for the wonder of discovery, as when the explorer Balboa first laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean “with wild surmise”* of all the possibilities. For that is one paradoxical feature of the truth: the limit liberates. Once you know what truly is, then you, like the Balboa of Keats’ poem, can suddenly see all the possibilities from that one solid shoreline. And behold, something better than Keats’ poem is here: you are. You have the high honor of being made in the image of God, the One whose very first words in scripture are Fiat lux : “Let there be light.” With a humble, grateful heart, you can say the same regarding the spiritual message before you.
* (1) A. A. Milne, “Introduction,” in Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, introduction by A. A. Milne (Bristol, UK: Pook Press, 2016), ix-x.
* (2) “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. John Keats. 1816.Tagged as: discernment, Holy Spirit, maturity, Scriptures, wisdom