John Koessler is chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. This article was adapted from his book, Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody).
Watson Thornton was already serving as a missionary in Japan when he decided to join the Japan Evangelistic Band, an evangelistic mission founded in England in 1903. He decided to travel to the town where the organization’s headquarters were located and to introduce himself to its leader. But just as he was about to get on the train, he felt a tug in his spirit that he took to be the leading of the Lord telling him to wait. He was puzzled but thought he should obey.
When the next train rolled into the station, Watson started to board but again felt he should wait. When the same thing happened with the third train, Watson began to feel foolish. Finally, the last train arrived, and once more Watson felt a check. “Don’t get on the train,” it seemed to say. Shaking his head, he thought, I guess I was wrong about this. Watson thought he had wasted most of the day for no apparent reason. Yet as he turned to go, he heard a voice call out his name. It was the mission leader he had intended to see. He came to ask whether Watson would consider joining the Japan Evangelistic Band. If Watson had ignored the impulse and boarded the train, he would have missed the meeting.
What was this impulse? Watson believed it was the voice of the Lord. Despite this, he felt unsure of himself. His actions didn’t seem to make sense at the time. It felt more like a matter of intuition than anything else.
Coincidence or Guidance?
Jonas Salk called intuition the inner voice that tells the thinking mind where to look next. Intuition is that flash of insight that prompts us to act in the moment. We all have had some experience with this. You feel a strong urge to call someone you haven’t talked to in ages. When they answer the phone, they say, “I was just thinking about you.” Or you are planning to depart for your road trip at a certain time but decide to leave two hours early. Later you learn that you missed a major traffic jam. Was it coincidence or guidance?
We can’t just live by our intuition, can we? Scripture warns that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9). How can we trust it? And the mind does not seem to fare much better. Proverbs 3:5–6 advises, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” We can’t trust our heart or our mind. What is left to guide us?
There is the Bible, of course. But it often does not speak to us with the specificity we might desire. It certainly works well enough on the big things. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Make disciples of all nations. Yet it doesn’t speak about the fine details. To which church should I accept a call as pastor? What week should we schedule Vacation Bible School this year? Should our short-term missions team go to Mexico or Uganda? There are all kinds of decisions I have to make that cannot be made by turning to a specific chapter and verse.
We do see something like intuition at work in the lives of God’s people in the Bible. Paul tries to enter Asia but is “kept by the Holy Spirit” from doing so (Acts 16:6). He tries to enter Bithynia but his progress is checked by “the Spirit of Jesus” (v. 7). He passes Mysia and goes down to Troas, where he has a vision of a Macedonian man begging him to come and help them (v. 9). Paul took this as a call from God and got ready at once to leave.
Acting on intuition seems as if it is relying on the irrational, or at least something non-rational in us. However, it might be better to describe it as supra-rational. It involves thinking, but there is more to it than that. An intuitive act does not entirely skirt the rational processes since it often involves a decision. But it is one that is made based on different criteria than we usually rely upon when deciding or acting. Intuitive acts seem non-conscious because they don’t involve long deliberation, exhaustive research, or lists of pros and cons. Instead, the decision is made or the action taken in a moment.
Intuitive acts are more holistic than those that are purely rational. They seem to come from some place deep within. They are decisions made by the whole self rather than just the mind. Those who act on intuition often say that they are acting on the gut or their instinct. They cannot explain how they know what they should do; they just know that it is the right thing to do. It is still rational in the sense that the mind is engaged.
There is an additional factor involved where God’s people are concerned. Believers often act based on what might be called “inspired” intuition. They are moved not only by the unseen processes that affect everyone else but also by the Holy Spirit. That was how Paul understood his decision not to enter Asia, Bithynia, or Mysia. The influence of the Spirit was what compelled Watson Thornton not to get on the train, even though that was what he had come to the station to do. We usually describe this as following the “leading” of the Holy Spirit.
This is a sensitive subject for some Christians. One reason is we are not exactly sure how this guidance works. Even though there are clear instances in the Scriptures, the exact details are not always included nor do they necessarily fit our experience. For example, we are told in Acts 13:2 that the church of Antioch was prompted by the Spirit to commission Paul and Barnabas and send them out on mission. In that case, the call did not come through some inner intuition but when the Holy Spirit spoke as the church was fasting and worshiping. But how did the Spirit speak? The explicit mention of prophets and teachers could suggest that there was some kind of prophetic directive. Yet the text does not actually say this.
The same is true of the directions Paul received while he was on his missionary journey. We know the Spirit directed him not to enter some regions and allowed him to enter others. But apart from the one vision, we really don’t know what form this direction took. Was it a “feeling” on Paul’s part that some destinations were just not right? Did God use obstacles and circumstances to nip at Paul’s heels like a sheepdog in order to guarantee that he ended up in the right place at the right time?
In the end, Paul was directed to his destination by a vision. In our case, the Spirit seems to carry out his ministry of guidance by employing more ordinary means. Instead of being visited by a prophet, we receive an email or a phone call inviting us to apply for a pastoral position. When trying to decide which youth pastor to hire, the choice is made when one them turns us down. The processes we use are not at all extraordinary, but that does not mean that God is not in them.
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Source: Christianity Today