I’ve been in a season of life—both in my personal relationships as well as my ministry—where the Lord has asked a lot of really hard things of me. Tough decisions. Painful situations. Taking bold and unpopular positions on personal and public matters. Some have even resulted in the loss of relationships. I’ll be honest; it hasn’t been fun. My heart aches deeply over it.
My guess is that for anyone who has walked with the Lord very long, you’ve likely been in a similar position at one time or another. Often we find comfort and strength in scripture—an encouraging or affirming verse that reminds us that we aren’t alone and to be strong. Or a loving friend comes along and lifts our spirits. But what about when the things the Lord asks you to do are not only hard but, on the surface, may seem out of God’s character? Yet you’re certain that it’s the path the Lord has directed? How can both be true?
That’s the particular place I’ve found myself as of late. I’ve heard a few “that can’t be God …” or “God would never” along the way. Because of that, I’ve struggled, lamented; and, despite multiple confirmations, I’ve questioned whether I was hearing from the Lord or if I was slipping down a path of delusion. That fear forced me to press deeper into the heart of God and His word for answers in each individual situation, and also into the broader possibility that things that may seem contrary to God on the surface can actually be God.
So, I just asked Him. First I confessed that I was struggling and feeling conflicted, because the things were hard and not well received by some. I told Him I didn’t want to follow any instruction but His. And finally I asked Him to show me. He answered over time, not in one sitting. In all different settings, verses would stand out. So I wrote them down. The collection of verses seemed unrelated, but I didn’t overthink it. If it seemed to stand out, I didn’t question why; I just wrote it down. Then one day, I sat before the Lord and asked Him about the list. I asked Him to show me what He wanted me to see. I asked Him what the common thread was. And as I began to read and re-read the verses, He gave me new understanding. I noticed things about the verses that I’d never even thought about before. I saw details that could easily be skipped over as insignificant, because they weren’t the main theme of the story. But since we know that nothing in scripture is an accident, every detail has something we need to know.
What I discovered may surprise you. Apparently, I’m not alone in receiving instructions from the Lord that, at face value, seem to contradict His word. The relationship between the instruction giver (the Lord) and the one receiving the instructions seems to be the key. Take Luke 19:28-31, “As he came to the towns of Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he sent two disciples ahead. “Go into that village over there,” he told them. “As you enter it, you will see a young donkey tied there that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks, ‘Why are you untying that colt?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Let me set the stage and translate. This is right before Jesus rides said donkey (colt) into to town on the day we’ve come to call Palm Sunday. Jesus instructs these two disciples to go steal a donkey for Him to ride. He also tells them that when the owner asks them why they’re doing it, to tell him because Jesus said so.
What about “thou shalt not steal?” There’s nothing recorded in this account that indicates that the disciples questioned Jesus about stealing the donkey. In fact the next verses detail their immediate obedience. “So they went and found the colt, just as Jesus had said. And sure enough, as they were untying it, the owners asked them, “Why are you untying that colt?” And the disciples simply replied, “The Lord needs it.” (Luke 19:32-34) Does this verse give us a license to steal in Jesus’ name? Does it abolish the 8th commandment? No, far from it! I do, however, believe that it illustrates the intimacy of the relationship between Jesus and the disciples as well as the depth of their faith and how that faith directly affected their obedience—a deeper faith and a higher calling to obedience to the voice of the Lord beyond what we may have think we already know.
Unbelievers may call this a contradiction in scripture or proof that Jesus wasn’t as holy as Christians claim He was. But as a Believer—one who calls myself a follower of Jesus—I have to dig deeper. The Bible is indeed the inerrant Word of God, so this is not a contradiction that the Great Editor let slip through the cracks. The disciples had walked and talked with Jesus. They knew and trusted His voice. They had a real-life personal relationship with the Word made flesh. So when He instructed, they obeyed. Am I not called to that same depth of relationship and faith, thus that same level of obedience as well? I believe that I am. And that you are too. Having a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus is far more complex than knowing the Word on it’s own. It’s far more than simply being a saved Christian. Relationship is personal and individual, not just words on a page. It’s two-way communication with the one who loves you best.
In John 10:27 Jesus says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” We know we are His sheep. The word “hear” demonstrates an action that is on going. It’s not past tense, speaking only about the time that Jesus lived and walked the earth. In this verse, “hear” implies that it’s something His sheep still do. It also says “they follow me.” This describes obeying. We must not rely on the stories of the Word without communicating with and hearing from the Lord himself. And then we must follow hearing with obeying. Do not misunderstand. The voice of the Lord will not instruct you to write more chapters of the Bible or change anything the Bible says. It will, however, guide you into understanding of the word and guide you in decisions by leading you to examples from the Bible. That is the purpose of the voice of the Holy Spirit. This is what makes it a “living” word rather than simply a reference book or study guide.
“There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth [Holy Spirit] comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.” (John 16:12-15, emphasis mine) This guidance is not the same as Googling to find verses that support whatever decision or idea you already have or to support a point you’re trying to make. It’s dialoguing with the Lord. Asking, listening, obeying.
Notice the words I emphasized, “all truth.” If the Holy Spirit will guide us into “all truth,” then we can deduce that without the Holy Spirit, we cannot have the whole understanding of the truth of God’s word. Yes, the Bible is complete, but without the Spirit, something is still missing. This means we cannot simply know the black and white words of the Bible and apply it outside of relationship with the person of Jesus through his Holy Sprit. That’s what the Pharisees did. They knew God’s word better than any others and prided themselves on reciting it at will. They continually tried to trap Jesus by repeating the words of the Word to Him. It’s important to remember that the word tells us that even Satan knows the words of scripture, but the word without the Spirit can mislead. Satan and the Pharisees struggled with pride. The Pharisees were unwilling to listen with their spirit and “hear” the voice of the Good Shepherd. Pride caused them to miss their own Messiah. That’s an easy trap for us as Christians to fall into as well. This spiritual hearing and obeying is part of this higher calling of following Christ and is evidenced throughout the Bible. It requires leaning not on our own understanding [of the word], but in all our ways acknowledging Him, allowing Him to direct our path. (Proverbs 3:5-7) It cannot be accomplished by studying the Word alone, but must include encountering the Holy Spirit by asking the Lord questions and listening for answers.
At the end of Luke, Chapter 9, we find another demonstration of a seemingly contradictory instruction from Jesus. He had been teaching and healing and casting out demons as he traveled. Many who witnessed him, believed and wanted to join and follow him. Jesus asked one of them to come and follow. The man agreed, but said he just wanted to go bury his father. Another said he wanted to say goodbye to his family first. Jesus refused each of them saying to one, “let the dead bury their own.” To the other he said no as well—telling the man there is no looking back when you follow Him.
What happened to “honor your mother and father?” Jesus’ instruction to these men—one to leave without burying his father and the other to leave without saying good bye to his family seem quite contrary to “honoring your parents,” don’t they? On the surface, yes, but the Lord knows the heart and He’s the only one who knows what is necessary to accomplish His good and perfect will for each life, individually—meaning both the person receiving the instruction as well as those who may be affected by those decisions. We are each that special to Him that He assesses the needs of every heart and how every relationship interacts with another. He’s writing our whole story—beginning to end—not trying to make each single interaction or event align with the law of written Word.
Again in these scenarios we see that obedience to the Lord was a higher, albeit more difficult, calling. As far as we can tell from scripture, neither of these men questioned Jesus’ instruction, but neither obeyed and followed either. Choosing to obey hard instructions is just that—HARD! Can you imagine having had the opportunity to actually walk with Jesus and missing it? Yet we do it all the time when we apply His word without the counsel of His Holy Spirit. We miss the opportunity to engage with Jesus by staying in our comfort zone and keeping our faith neat and tidy in a box of black and white words on a page. Or when we judge another by measuring them up to what we know about God’s word and Godly character. We have been invited into a personal journey with the author and finisher of our faith, yet so often, we reduce Him to a book.
These examples do not demonstrate an unstable, wishy-washy God, but rather a very personal, intentional God who’s more concerned about the story He’s writing for each special creation than He is about fitting into our theological box. He longs to instruct us personally and specifically in every situation and decision we face if only we would ask and listen. We can never forget that He is God, so He can do as He chooses. That’s what sovereignty is. He is sovereign and knows far more about us and the world than we ever could. Author and Christian Psychologist, Dan Allender said, “God is unconcerned about providing us a logical structure that answers our eternal questions. He’s writing our story.” He is not testing us on how well we know the Bible. But I think He may be testing us on how well we know HIM as well as how much we trust Him and whether we actually turn to Him in the person of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
God is transforming us into who He created us to be. He’s the only one who knows exactly what that is and what is necessary to get there. Some may argue that these biblical stories are different because these people in the Bible had the actual person of Jesus in the flesh right there in front of them to obey, therefore how can we know that the same obedience is expected of us through the Holy Spirit? Look back to Genesis for a perfect example. Not only does this example demonstrate relationship and obedience that required doing something that seemed contrary to God’s character and Word, it is actually called a test of faith—a request for obedience that was actually for the purpose of testing this person’s level of faith in God above man and above his own understanding.
In Genesis 22, we find the familiar story of Abraham and Isaac. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his precious son Isaac whom God had promised and whom Abraham had waited so long for. In that time, sacrificing children was a forbidden pagan practice. Yet in Genesis 22:2, we see the Sprit of the Lord tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac with no other explanation. Then in the very next verse (Genesis 22:3), we see Abraham obeying. Nothing is recorded that shows Abraham questioning God on this. Nothing says that Abraham said, “excuse me, Lord, but aren’t you the one who said not to sacrifice children or let them pass through fire?” Nor do we see Abraham rationalizing not doing it, by saying, “Oh, God would never ask me to sacrifice my son, because He gave him to me.” No. We don’t see any of that. We see Abraham obeying immediately. He knows God’s voice. He did not have Jesus in person standing in front of him. The Lord asked him to do something that seemed to contradict who God is, but because Abraham knew His Lord intimately, He recognized His voice and obeyed.
This is the high calling we have as well! The calling to follow Jesus is far greater than simply being a Christian and studying the Word—although those are necessary parts as well. Our answer to the call of following Jesus is not complete unless we also engage with the Holy Spirit on everything. Removing the interaction with the Holy Spirit from the equation simply limits us to our own understanding of the Bible. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are individual, yet are still one. None can be left out.
The Lord says, “ask me and I will show you great and mighty things which you do not know.” (Jeremiah 33:3). It does not just say read, study and know my word and measure things for yourself against it, yet that’s what we do most often. If asking will show us great things we don’t know, then there must be more to understanding and applying God’s word than just knowing the general stories in the pages of scripture.
I can relate to how applying black and white can be easier to justify and, in some cases, easier to obey. I’m a rule follower. I totally get it. I like black and white, clear lines. We all like to be comfortable. But Jesus didn’t die on the cross to keep us comfortable. And he didn’t die just to save us. He died to transform us, and He called us to take up our cross (which includes hard stuff and suffering) and follow Him. It’s that same rule-following nature that just won’t let me not obey what I sense the Lord telling me. And that same nature and desire for black and white evidence that brought me to all of this exploration. As it turns out, the words in black and white in all of the stories I’ve mentioned do indeed include details that are confirming evidence that there’s more to this Christian walk than what we find in the final outcome of the stories alone. This level of obedience requires an extra level of commitment to and communion with our Lord above all else. Above our own biblical knowledge and understanding and above the personal relationships we hold most dear.
Matthew 7 encourages us to ask, seek and knock. This is an active relationship instruction, not a mandate to memorize and apply the Word. We were never intended to be the final measure of the Word against other people or the situations of our life. We have been called into relationship with the One who is the Word in three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. His Word is to help us know Him. Using the Word as our measuring tool without asking the Lord direct, specific questions in every situation leaves the trinity incomplete. And while communicating with the Holy Spirit is not the full means of knowing the Lord, neither can we fully know the Lord without His Holy Spirit’s guidance.
Think about this: A black and white review of Moses would give a VERY inaccurate and incomplete impression of Moses’ character, and certainly wouldn’t give us any indications of how God would or could use him. In fact, the black and white of Moses’ story would send most of running scared. Would you follow a guy with this history? He walked out on the woman who raised him, murdered a man and hid the body, then became a fugitive. I seriously doubt it. We’d call a person with that history an ungrateful, dangerous liar and criminal. Then if we were to include what he thinks of himself, we’d add that he’s insecure and has a speech impediment. Not exactly the makings of a mighty leader or someone you’d leave your kids with, is it? But we would have sized him up right and wrong at the same time. Those are the correct facts of his life (the black and white of his story), but they are totally void of the Lord’s wisdom, plan and purpose for Moses’ life. Knowing the end of Moses’ story through scripture tells us we would have been wrong to have judged Moses simply by his facts. We tend to gloss over those early details. We like to remember the miracles, like him parting the Red Sea. In our daily life we can’t have the whole story in writing to review before we make a decision. We can’t know how God plans to use each person’s past (or present) to bring Him glory. We don’t and can’t know the beginning and the end, but we have been given the tremendous gift of asking the Holy Sprit to guide and show us what we can’t see. That’s why it’s a relationship of trust. There are things we aren’t meant to know and understand. But rather than ask the Lord, we often find it easier to dismiss someone or something as not measuring up to the law. We avoid hard questions that may have messy answers. Maybe we don’t ask because it would be tough to swallow if God were to tell us that he planned to use an ungodly criminal to do something great in our lives. So, we play it safe, and we size people up and try to surround ourselves with finished works rather than people who are works in progress being used by God. Nearly every Bible hero or instrument of the Lord in the Bible would not have met the standards that we measure people and situations by. We seem unwilling to ask the Lord whether the less than perfect details we see could actually be the very thing that leads up to our great events. We do all of this and never ask the Lord a single direct question. If we want our life to have the ending of a great Bible story, then it only makes sense that it will have a whole lot of hard, failing, messy, not-measuring-up in the beginning and middle.
Folks, the sad truth is that when we don’t actually seek God, we end up applying the law and human judgment, not grace and Holy Spirit counsel, all the while presenting it under the guise of “godly wisdom” because we attached a few verses to it. All of the Bible is true. Period. We do not get to pick and choose the stories or leave out details we don’t like or that aren’t easy to palette. We do not get to say that was then and this is now. Following Jesus means taking the full counsel of the Bible and of God himself. He’s not only the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but He is the same yesterday, today and forever!! If He did it then, He can and will do it now.
What I discovered is that the Bible is chock full of examples of God exercising His authority to be God (His sovereignty) by using people we would call unworthy and by asking people (including us) to do difficult things that we would say contradict His word/character. I believe that these examples show us that obedience to the Lord, no matter what, is the highest and hardest calling. It requires a deeper level of trust and truly believing things we can’t see and don’t understand. It requires not only reciting that we walk by faith but also actually walking by faith.
Hearing the voice of the Lord takes time and means we must invest in our relationship with Him in order to increase our discernment and tune our spiritual ears. Obeying His voice is even more difficult. It will likely mean taking some risks and potentially being wrong. It will definitely take us out of our comfort zones. It may even cause us to lose a relationship or two along the way. Believe me, I know that is painful on this side of heaven. But we must continually challenge ourselves to be heavenly minded—seeking our heavenly reward over comfort here on earth. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith, it is impossible [as in actually NOT possible without it] to please God…. and He rewards those who diligently seek Him” [not who simply frequently read Him]. We must be seeking His instruction in EVERY circumstance. Finding peace in knowing that we really can trust God’s purpose is beyond anything we can comprehend, but it’s worth it.
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” The deepest desire of my heart is to press on for Christ and to one day hear “well done my good and faithful servant.” Will you walk with me, by faith? It’s going to be messy.