Thursday, April 27, 2017

Hearing God's Voice - Confronting Confusion

I sat among friends at a leadership training event, not at all prepared for what I was about to experience. One blindfolded volunteer moved out of earshot so that the rest of our group could receive further instructions. A second volunteer accepted the task of directing our blindfolded friend to walk to a specific chair and sit down. He could use nothing but his voice to guide him and couldn’t touch him.

The leader challenged the rest of our group to do everything we could to prevent our blindfolded friend from moving to the chair. We could say anything we liked to him, move closer, and even touch him, but we couldn’t use force to pull him from the instructions he chose to follow.

It was all fun and games until everyone engaged in their roles. Voices were issuing dozens of commands, each trying to speak louder than the others to gain the attention and trust of our friend – who didn’t know whose instruction to follow. Some were quite devious in their attempts to keep him from reaching his goal. As I looked at the face of our blindfolded friend, without even seeing his eyes, I detected his confusion.

My mind immediately traveled to an earlier time in my life when the bombardment of suggestions and advice I received over a situation overwhelmed me. I felt pulled in multiple directions, trying to please everyone around me and desperately searching for wisdom and discernment. The Lord was surely speaking to me too, but I could not hear the Holy Spirit because the worldly commotion was too loud, and I hadn’t yet learned to discern His voice above it.

Working through a scenario that so closely emulated life – and so accurately illustrated my own level of confusion during a personally overwhelming time – caused me to withdraw from our group. I found I was no longer participating in the exercise but vividly recalling the feeling of walking through a fog where I could barely see the next step before me. As the voices of my friends clamored for attention through the training exercise, I could palpably feel the fog of my past along with the profound confusion.

The point of the exercise was to illustrate how the world, the flesh, and the devil try to keep us from perceiving the voice of the Lord. As God’s children, we’re to listen to His voice (John 10:27), but sometimes it seems nearly impossible to hear above the noise.

We know that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, and, therefore, understand that we have our Counselor and Guide with us always. 

Why then, does He seem so hard to hear and discern at times? 

Why do we often allow every imaginable type of worldly stimuli to drown out His truth?

Common Confusion

It’s common to feel a level of spiritual confusion when . . .

·      We believe we know the path we’re on but the Lord seems to lead us in a different direction
·      We believe we know God’s instruction but face unexpected opposition
·      When we believe that God has instructed us to do something but hasn’t revealed why or what will happen next
·      We have an expectation that God will bless our plans over His purposes
·      The Lord’s path doesn’t seem reasonable in our flesh
·      We believe we “deserve” or are “entitled to” something better than our current situation
·      We allow emotions to rule our decisions and seek the Lord only when difficulty comes
·      We pursue immediate happiness and momentary comfort rather than seeking God’s direction and following it

Walking in Discernment

The Gospel of John records that the Word became flesh and took up residence among us (John 1:14). Jesus is the Word of God. It’s reasonable, as the Word of God, to believe that Jesus still has much to say. He has given us His Word (the Bible) and sent the Holy Spirit to be our Counselor and Guide.  

God’s direction through the Bible

Psalm 119:105 teaches that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Verse 130 encourages us, saying, “The unfolding of Your word gives light; It gives understanding to the simple,” and verse 133 continues with “Establish my footsteps in Your word, and do not let any iniquity have dominion over me” (NASB).

The Word of God must always be our standard when we discern instruction that He provides. Any personal experience or perception, if truly from the Lord, will always line up with His Word. He will never, ever direct us to follow a contrary path.  

The more time we spend learning Scripture, the more we understand His character and grow in our ability to discern His leading. When we know God’s Word, we know God. When we know Him, we can quickly recognize any attempt by the enemy to throw us off track.

God’s direction through the Holy Spirit

When we spend time in prayer and allow time to listen to His prompting, we’ll sometimes find that a particular Scripture comes to mind that shines light into our situation. Or the Spirit may call to mind a teaching we’ve recently heard.  It’s not uncommon while praying in a corporate setting that the prayers of a trusted sister in Christ will quicken my heart and I recognize the Spirit using it to offer direction. When paired with fasting, we’re often able to discern these promptings more readily. See John 14:26 and 1 Cor 2:7-13. 

God often prompts us through His Holy Spirit when we’re willing to listen. The way the Spirit prompts us looks differently for every person. Very rarely do people claim to hear an audible voice from God. Most often, His direction is felt more than heard. It may be a quickening of our hearts or a confirming or knowing sensation. Some have described direction from the Lord as a vivid thought they recognize is not their own. Each of us may discern the Lord’s direction in different ways.

It’s worth repeating that any prompting that we feel is from God will always line up with the truth of His Word. If you’re not well versed in the Scriptures, consult with a trusted friend knows the Word for confirmation. Remember, we’re to test everything and hold on to the good (1 Thes 5:21).

God wants us to have spiritual wisdom and understanding so that we can walk in a manner worthy of Him (Colossians 1:9-10). He reveals things we do not know (Jeremiah 33:3) so that we can shine His light for the Kingdom of God. 

God is not the author of confusion and has given us all that we need to walk in clear wisdom and discernment. Answers are not always perfectly clear to us, but He continues to communicate with us through His Word, through His Holy Spirit, and through the Godly counsel of His people. In His kindness, He offers confirmation and often reveals His will by more than one method. I praise Him for His love and tenderness in this matter, and for equipping us for discernment. May we learn to trust Him and live in constant communion and fellowship with Him.

Your Turn

How often do you have trouble discerning God's voice?

Share a time when you feel you heard God's voice clearly? How was what you discerned confirmed through the Scriptures?  What peace did it bring knowing you had accuracy in discerning the voice of God? 

What advice might you give to someone who is trying to discern God's will? 

Be strengthened today, by His Word,
Psalm 119:28

Come, continue the conversation on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram. Or, you may leave a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you! (And shares are nice, too by the way ;).

Cathy McIntosh is the author of Finding Joy in the Journey: Savoring the Fruit of the Spirit. God’s Word makes it clear that He provides the gift of joy to each of His children. Struggles that are common to many women - such as fear, worry, shame, trials, and confusion - cannot steal our foundational, divinely given joy.
Click here to purchase the book.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

How to Fight Fear (& Why Faith Matters)

Have you ever felt an unexplainable level of fear?  One that quickens your heart but makes your feet feel as if they're in quicksand?

There's a part of me that believes everyone feels that paralyzing oppression from time to time, but maybe it's just me. In my not too distant past, fear was a very real, very personal struggle. 

If you have encountered a struggle with fear, you’ll quickly recognize these effects of fear in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ:

·             It masks our joy
·             It keeps us from pursuing our calling
·             It stands in the way of our faith
·             It can cause dissension in relationships
·             It makes us feel separated from other believers
·             It makes us feel miserable and discontented
·             It can manifest itself in physical symptoms
·             It can have an unhealthy effect on our families 
·             It can make us forget how big God is
·             It holds us in captivity 
·             And much more

From a Simmer to a Full-On Boil

I remember like it was yesterday. When my son found himself in a great deal of trouble, the situation brought my simmering level of fear to a full-on boil. Suddenly, I could no longer bury my fearful tendencies and keep them “out of sight and out of mind.” During this struggle, mounds of fear buried my joy until it was nearly unrecognizable. 
I’m grateful that I was on staff with our church when it all happened. Our ministry team sat in many staff meetings where I received prayer and wise, Biblical counsel.  But my breakthrough was anything but abrupt.

As weeks rolled on, I couldn't identify exactly what was causing such fear. I trusted the Lord and believed - even through the trial - that He had a good plan for my son and our family. Even so, I experienced a gripping level of fear that was paralyzing. It kept me from effectiveness in ministry and hindered my role as a wife and mom.

The Beginning of a Breakthrough

One day my pastor suggested I borrow a book called Fearless by Max Lucado. He pulled it from his bookshelf and I put it inside my computer bag to take home. And there it stayed because I was too fearful to open it. After several days, I took it out of the bag and placed it on the desk in my home office. Each day I’d walk by and think, “I should read that.” But as I said, I was stricken with an inability to take action. I couldn’t muster the strength to take even the smallest step toward freedom.

At last, I picked up the book and opened it. On the first page was nothing more than a Bible verse.  It was Matthew 8:26, where Jesus asks His disciples, 

“Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?”  

That was all I could take. 

I burst into tears, slammed the book closed, and put it down.  I couldn’t read another word for quite some time. But the Word of God is living and effective (Hebrews 4:12). God used that Bible verse. It dug its way into my heart and I began to understand the powerful effect of fear.

Men of Little Faith

There was no question I was held captive by my fear, yet through one verse - Matthew 8:26 - God began to shine the light on how to overcome. 

Jesus referred to His disciples as “men of little faith” because they were experiencing fear. That fact alone unfolded an interesting dynamic. Faith and fear are like opposite platforms on a scale.

As our fear increases, it diminishes the manifestation of our faith. Conversely, if our faith increases, it diminishes the manifestation of our fear.  Fear and faith are in opposition and have a direct impact on each other.

The Opposition of Fear and Faith

While it sometimes feels like a fight to hold fast to our faith, conversely, we can use our faith as a weapon in a fight.  

Consider Ephesians 6 with me as it addresses the full armor of God and teaches that the shield of faith will “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v. 16).

The Greek word thureos describes a large, oblong shield that protected every part of a soldier. It was an essential piece of equipment that was covered in leather to help defend against flaming arrows. The thureos was about waist high and at least as wide as an average person. Warriors became so skilled at using their shield that other pieces of armor often escaped any impact at all.

The illustration aptly demonstrates the power of faith. As Paul referenced a shield of faith, he selected the word thureos to make his point. Our shield of faith offers such a complete protection, other pieces of armor (the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, helmet of salvation, and shoes of the preparation of the gospel of peace) rarely receive impact. 

“Imagine yourself holding up your shield of faith. All is going well until your eyes see something astonishing. Within your field of vision is something you never imagined and you stand, mouth gaping, feeling your left arm, which holds your shield, begin to slump. What you see with your eyes affects your faith and it begins to falter, ever so slightly. As your faith begins to weaken, your shield moves out of position and you are suddenly vulnerable to the enemy. We may have other pieces of protective armor, but when the enemy fires a flaming arrow, we’re sunk.  In my estimation, fear is a flaming arrow!

Think of what was happening to the disciples in Matthew 8. The storm was fierce. It was what the disciples could see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and feel upon their skin. What emotion did they experience? Fear. It can paralyze our brains and make us completely forget (even if just temporarily) how BIG God really is.   I’ll just come out and say it:  Fear seems to make us lose our minds and forget the wonders He has performed in our lives and all the ways that He has proven Himself trustworthy. The disciples had many reasons to put their faith in Jesus. They saw Him work many mighty miracles, and yet were afraid when the storm on the sea arose.” *

As believers in Christ, we love the Lord. We have learned to put our trust in Him and He has proved faithful through His work in our lives. We have seen Him perform modern-day wonders and bring us through hardships, trials, and heartaches. He promises to never leave us nor forsake us. He is incapable of dishonesty, yet at times, fear consumes us. 

Why are we afraid when Christ has proven Himself so faithful? Why do we fear when the Lord of lords is on our side? What is it that makes us waiver in our faith?  

The Progression

Do you see the progression? 

Our situation becomes frightening and our eyes fix on our situation. 

We turn our focus to what we see as opposed to what we cannot see (God's activity). 

Our faith is compromised, which causes our shield to move out of position. 

We become a vulnerable target for our enemy, which causes deeper fear and a shield that shifts even further.  

Faith Can Overtake Fear!

There is good news! Just as quickly as our fear can cause us to lose faith, our faith can conquer our fear. Remembering to raise our shield of faith and duck behind it, even as we quake and tremble, our faith can overtake our fear. And here's the thing - it can happen in a split second!

Because God does not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and discipline (2 Timothy 1:7), the enemy of our souls will not win this battle. With this in mind, we raise our shields and fight the good fight.

Five Points of Fear Fighting

How can we walk in faith rather than fear? Here are some simple steps that I have learned to take when fear strikes:

1)            When fear comes, I acknowledge it and pray through it. I name it as fear and admit that the emotion plagues me. I have called it a variety of things throughout my life, but calling a spade a spade makes life a whole lot easier. Pretending my fear does not exist keeps me in my flesh because I neglect to pray through it and surrender it to the Lord. When I confess my fear to the Lord and lay it at His feet, I can rely on the Spirit to strengthen me. Peace and comfort come in knowing that He is in control, I have given Him my concerns, and He will handle them perfectly in His timing.

2)            Next, I fight my fear with Scripture. I can recall quoting some of the verses dozens and dozens of times in a single day. They remind me who is in control and fill my mind with the truth of God’s Word. When my mind filled with Truth, I can more easily push away the lies that damage faith. When I can take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), it bolsters my faith because I am no longer allowing fearful thoughts to consume and distract me. When my faith increases, my fear subsides. The results are not always immediate, but as I put this procedure into regular practice, I see progress more and more quickly.

3)            I share the struggle. I have many sisters who receive my “SOS” prayer requests, often by text message.  I’ve sent vague messages with pressing prayer needs, knowing that those who can immediately lift my situation before the Lord. If you don’t have such people in your life, I encourage you to pray that the Lord will provide them and reveal them to you quickly. He will be faithful. A friend who will accept your “SOS” prayer requests is more valuable than any precious gem.  Our calling is not to labor alone. Let’s work together in the spiritual realm and fight for one another!

4)            I watch for God’s hand in unexpected ways as He works in my situation.   In other words, I expect the unexpected.  God has a plan and I must be open to seeing Him in ways I don’t expect. I receive comfort from Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’” I may not like what I see, but I can be sure that the Lord is in control, has a plan for my life, and assures my welfare. Even when what I see looks different from what I expect, I know who is in charge and surrender my cares to Him.

5)            Finally, I move into action by choosing faith over fear. It’s a choice to no longer partner with fear, but to walk in faith. The most effective way to calm fear is to choose faith and take the first step of activity. It is a highly intentional act that works wonders. 

Once I have walked through each of the steps outlined above, I can choose to raise my shield of faith, which extinguishes the flaming darts of the enemy. When I walk in faith, I no longer partner with fear and find victory in Christ.  

Your Turn

When have you struggled with fear?

Have you ever considered that moving into action can be the most effective way to calm fear? 

On which Scriptures do you meditate when fear strikes?

Is there anything you plan to do differently next time you're gripped with fear? 

* this is an excerpt from Finding Joy in the Journey: Savoring the Fruit of the Spirit by Cathy McIntosh

Come, continue the conversation on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram. Or, you may leave a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you! (And shares are nice, too by the way ;).

Cathy McIntosh is the author of Finding Joy in the Journey: Savoring the Fruit of the Spirit. God’s Word makes it clear that He provides the gift of joy to each of His children. Struggles that are common to many women - such as fear, worry, shame, trials, and confusion - cannot steal our foundational, divinely given joy.
Click here to purchase the book.