QUESTION: How do you know if it’s the Holy Spirit talking to you, and not the devil? I think a lot of confusion with faith comes from all the different interpretations of scripture.
ANSWER: You are right that the subjective impressions we get of spiritual guidance or nudging or leadings are not automatically a sign that God is talking to us. And the idea that Satan can come as “an angel of light” (1 Cor 11:14) makes us a little insecure about knowing which is which. If a leading can seem good, but be bad, how can we know it?
Well, we get out of the world of subjectivity and inner impressions which can be so easily misunderstood only if we can get a hold of something OBJECTIVE. And the Bible is that. So John will tell us to not assume that everything that claims to come from God (either from a spokesperson for God, or an inner impression of spiritual leading) is from God. He says: “Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God.” 1 John 4:1
Now, how do you test? Put it up against prior revelation. Scripture.
You’re anticipating this answer which is why your next issue is with Scriptural interpretation… if the Bible is supposed to be a check and a filter for discerning the voice of God, what if the Bible can be read a million different ways? This is a real problem and not a new one. In fact, even in the Bible, as prophets were writing what would BECOME the Bible, people were already misinterpreting the prior revelations. For example,
Jeremiah 8:8: “‘How can you say, “We are wise because we have the word of the Lord,” when your teachers have twisted it by writing lies?
People were saying, we have the Bible so we’re good! But teachers were twisting it and abusing it and handling it falsely – so how could they keep their confidence in God’s Word?
Good question. But it has a simple answer. If it’s true that people twist the Bible, then there must be a straight way to read it. If people can handle it falsely, then there must be a true way to handle it. Right? So it’s not a hopeless wild west where everyone gets their own interpretation. We just have to weed out the false reading and the twisting.
Now, are some passages unclear and scholars and teachers disagree on the exact right meaning? Yes. But these are in the minority. For the vast majority of scripture, the meaning of the text can be arrived at and understand if we simply apply a few rules about CONTEXT. This is the key to good bible study and understanding God’s will through it.
- The Literary context – reading the text in the flow of the words that surround in in the immediate passage
- The Source context – knowing who is speaking the words, friend/foe, righteous/unrighteous, wise/unwise, authorized/unauthorized.
- The Linguistic context – reading the text with understanding different ways words are used in the original language.
- The Genre context – understanding the type of writing it is, historical narrative, poetic, apocalyptic/dream, myth, wisdom, allegory, prophetic, epistle, teaching etc.
- The Historical context – when was the text written, who was the author, into what historical situation was it written, and what would it have meant to the original audience.
- The Cultural context – what were the geography, culture, dress, language, social norms that express the specific circumstances behind the writing.
- The Cross-reference context – how is what I’m reading reflecting on, or pointing to or anticipating or abrogating another part of the Bible?
This might sound like A LOT of work, but a simple illustration will show how easy it works:
The Bible says, “there is no God.” Does this mean that what we are to understand the Bible is teaching atheism? Well, no, because of context. In this case, the literary and source context shows that this sentence “there is no God” is in the mouth of a fool. The whole verse says, “the fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’” Ps 15:1. So can someone come along and say, “my interpretation of the Bible is that it affirm atheism.”? Well, they can say such nonsense because people make the Bible say dumb stuff all the time (and throughout history)…. but legitimately? No. That’s an example of what Jeremiah says, “teachers who twist Scripture and make it say what it wasn’t meant to say.”
Of course, other examples are harder to discern the true meaning, but this overly simple example illustrates the principle. To understand what God is teaching in his Word is never complicated, it just requires some work. Yanking a verse out of context is how people use the Bible as a magic book to affirm all their inner desires, or treat it like a Ouija board. The joke about this is the guy who prayed for guidance, opened his bible randomly to three verses, “thy word is a lamp unto my feet” – Ok, great start. Then “what you are about to do, do quickly.” Alright, I’m ready Lord! Finally, “then he went out and hanged himself and all his bowels burst out.”
You get it. Context.
It means we are all responsible for approaching God’s Word with integrity – and the key to that is to have a heart to understand what it is actually saying, not making it say what we want it to say. Teachers do this all the time, both conservative and liberal. Liberal scholars search for a way to make the Bible not say what it says about sexuality. They want it to say something else, more inline with current fashion. So they find end-arounds and come up with novel interpretations that sound clever, but usually fail to take some context into account. Conservative (“health and wealth”) scholars search for a way to make the Bible not say that the Church will go through tribulation, and suffer, but they have to twist the Bible badly to make this case.
Only when you and I get comfortable with the world of the Bible will we be attuned to these abuses. And learn to hear God’s voice in the Word.
But that is the work before us. And it’s never done. When we have a change of perspective because good study revealed a false interpretation, that’s not a moment to get insecure about the Bible. If there was never any time that you get adjusted by what you read in the Bible, that means you are probably abusing the Bible, because it’s always saying exactly what you already think. Some false ideas you carry probably were never read in the Bible, they were just picked up by how Christians talk, not by actual Scriptural principle.
Again, the way out is to read it yourself and immerse yourself in God’s story which will get you more and more familiar with its context. AC3 can help you with the tools to help get into the Word to read it and apply it rightly.