How do I know if it is really God?
At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
Testing the Spirits
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
The Bible has a handful (probably less than you would imagine) of stories depicting people looking for a sign of God’s will. Gideon] is one of the more famous examples of this. He tested God twice to see if God was going to help him win the battle he was being sent into. Elijah also was involved in testing God, as were several other prophets, but Elijah did not test God for his own benefit. He used those tests to show nonbelievers the power of God and the faith he already had.
Generally, it is not a good thing to test God. Yet, we often find ourselves unsure if we are truly following God or if we have been deceived. That is why John encouraged the early Christians to “test the spirits”, or make sure the spiritual direction you are following is truly from God. For these Christians though, it probably had less to do with miraculous firework shows from heaven and more to do with seeing how well the guidance or teaching lined up with the teaching they had inherited from the Apostles and from the Old Testament (since the New Testament had not been put together yet). John’s concern comes back again and again to the idea that God will not lead us into sin, but rather into love. A sprint that tempts us to lie, cheat, steal, or betray someone – particularly if it is motivated by fear, is not from God, and that advice stands with us today.
So we can avoid the bad in life, but how can we choose between different good options and be sure we are following God? For this, I find it helpful to turn to one of our struggling saints, John Wesley. One of the ways he came to understand God’s grace was that it goes before us, preparing our way. Unlike one of his revolutionary predecessors, John Calvin, Wesley did not take that as an understanding that God controls our actions. It was something more akin to the belief that God gives us the best possible scenario to make the right decision.
This belief, which he called prevenient grace was the love and action of God that brings us into relationship with Him, even before we have ever heard of Him. It’s the grace that sends the missionaries to our door, before we are sent out ourselves. However, this concept of God going ahead of us, preparing our way, matured with Wesley later in life. It did not stop at conversion. Later in life, he looked back through his journals, through times of great spiritual struggles with doubt – particularly doubt that he was truly following God and not his own self-deceptive ambitions. In those journals he had initially questioned whether he was even a Christian or not. However, the more mature Wesley, saw God at work back in those days in retrospect, in ways his younger self was unable to see. Like many of those stories about time travel, the future self always seem to have a greater perspective looking back than the younger self looking forward. John Wesley was no time traveler (that I’m aware of). But he grew closer and more intimate with a God who looks upon us and speaks to us, who touches us from eternity. There is no greater perspective than that.
The profound and yet simple solution that Wesley found as his assurance did not come down to a special test. It came down to trusting God. Not just trusting God to be there for us when we are following His will, but to trust Him to help us to make those right decisions. My personal experience has been that God is quick to let me know when a decision is wrong, or at least to help me be aware of my own selfish motives in wanting to choose them. God often works through brothers and sisters in the faith to help me recognize when I am being led astray by other people – part of why I value having a diverse group of friends. It all essentially comes down to trusting that God will cut through my own haze and speak to me. Either I believe He is powerful enough to do just that, or I do not.
How do you recognize God’s will in your life?