Back in the late 70’s, I joined the increasing waves of people who believed that Christians receive daily guidance from God through impressions, independent of Scripture. I was taught that this was essential to personal intimacy with God. Wanting to be spiritual like those around me seemed to be, I followed their example. As I practiced listening “in my heart,” I became more sensitized to feelings and intuition and believed that God was “talking” personally to me.
Later, someone challenged my practice. I didn’t like that. I knew could hear God in my mind! It felt warm, exciting, spiritual. I was one of those who have real intimacy with God. It felt so right that it must be biblical! I thought, “But I know it’s true because I experience it. I can’t deny my experience.” In essence, I was unwittingly basing my defense not on the Bible but on my own interpretation of my personal, subjective experiences. (The post “But I have impressions (nudges, dreams, and amazing coincidences)” makes the point that personal experience is unreliable as evidence for the claim. It is impossible to unerringly know that an impression of personal guidance is from God.)
What was my surprise when my friend reasoned against my practice from the Bible. Through continued study I saw that the Bible opposed my position. Written truth contradicted personal experience. Which would I believe? If I chose the Bible, then I would have to deny my experience, or at least my interpretation of my experience, and that probably without an alternate explanation.
One of my next questions was,
So if my impression isn’t from God, then where is it from?
Before we consider options it is important to emphasize that while understanding is desirable and of interest, in the end it is not necessary to make sense of an amazing experience in order to live a joyous life with Christ and have intimate fellowship with Him. What matters is that we believe and obey the Bible whether or not we have explanations. Believing the Bible, even if we can’t explain a particular experience, is what faith does. That said, here are some possibilities.
Sensations, impressions, and dreams can be influenced or generated by medications, foods, amount of sleep, what we have been listening to or watching, and what we have been mulling over either intensely or for a long period of time. A woman once insisted to me that she could hear God speak to her most clearly when under the influence of peyote.
Expectations play a role; we tend to find what we expect to find. Trends and fads affect cultural expectations, similar to the way group dynamics can influence mob behavior or individuals in group counseling. For example, the ancient Eastern practice of contemplative prayer has become a modern trend. So if a book tells you to practice contemplative prayer or sit pen in hand listening to God and you follow this advice, then in your anticipation of the predicted results you will likely feel impressions or have words come to mind that seem like “hearing” God.
Habit is a strong factor. Situations, locations, smells, sights–all can be habitually tied to certain feelings and thoughts. Feeling-oriented people who have practiced responding to impressions will probably notice more impressions and the “feel led” sensation than command-oriented people (those who practice ignoring senses in order to obey Bible verses regardless of what their feelings tell them).
The Word of God trumps experience.
It is true that experience can teach us. But, as R.C. Sproul writes, “Sound argument trumps experience. This is particularly true when the debate concerns personal experience versus a sound understanding of the Word of God” (“The Role of Experience,” TableTalk, August 2017, p. 5).
Our hearts are deceitful (Jer. 17:9). Therefore, our impressions are not trustworthy messages. The Word of God is absolutely trustworthy.
This discussion continues in But isn’t Scripture a filter?
Are Mental impressions Divine Revelation? (One of a series on hearing from God and discerning the will of God)
When Fancy Is Mistaken for Faith
Subjectivity and the Will of God
Regulating Special Revelation