A friend of mine gathered his family of four around the television. It was a big day. Everyone was excited. The Holy Spirit had whispered in his ear that this would be a good week to buy lottery tickets. Millions of dollars would be such a huge blessing to this family encumbered with debt and college tuition looming. They would be sure to use some of it to advance the kingdom of God, too! Clutching their tickets, they could hardly wait for the show to begin. What a surprise (to them and no one else) when none of their numbers were selected. What went wrong?
We may raise our eyebrows at what seems like an obvious case of wishful thinking, but who hasn’t let their hopes make a monkey out of them at one time or another? We get so emotionally involved with what we’re doing that we spiritualize our own desires, biases, and preferences. We conclude that God is leading us forward when we are actually leading ourselves astray. Simon and Garfunkel sum up well this common human weakness in their hit song, The Boxer: “All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. Hmmm Hmmm. Hmmm.” What’s the remedy? Am I suggesting that you stop trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you, contrary to what I argued in my previous essay, “Spirit-Led Living: A Simple Path”. No, not at all. Rather, I’m cautioning you against naiveté and false expectations. In any discernment process, instead of just going with your feelings and what you want to be true, you need to prayerfully use your head, too. Learning the hard way It started with an overwhelming sense of compassion and grief. None of the kids I met on the streets of Yangon had fathers. Begging for food was a daily occurrence. One orphan boy had been living on the street for much of the past three years. Their clothes were filthy, their bodies skin and bones. Was I being called to give them the helping hand they needed in order to transform their lives? Soon, everything seemed to be falling into place. We were successful at getting two of the kids off the streets and into homes, and three of them back into school. They looked so proud in their new school uniforms, and seemed so eager to ride their new bikes to school. It felt great to be doing something so concrete and meaningful for the poorest of the poor.
Four months later, I found out that the kids had been lying to me about having to pay school fees. School is free for children in Myanmar, but no one told me; and when someone did, I chose to believe the kids and their ready explanations over the adults who knew better. Then I found out that they were lying about going to school at all. Some of them actually did go to school occasionally, but I eventually found out that the one who I thought was my star pupil had been lying from the beginning. They were using the “school money” for food, games, movies, gambling, and sometimes drugs (glue). If you’re thinking, “What did you expect? You should have known better,” you are simply making the point of this essay. Yes, I should have known better, but I was too driven by my own emotions, personal needs, and desires. I wanted to believe that we were making more progress than we actually were. I didn’t check up on them as I should have, and blinded myself to what I should have been able to see. We’ve now addressed the issues, and have made the necessary corrections in how we are going to work with the kids going forward. We hope to not make the same mistakes in the future, but the past six months have taught me again how easy it is to fool yourself. No matter how experienced you may be, how knowledgeable, how prayerful, or how full of love and compassion, there simply is no substitute for paying attention to what is truly going on, facing the truth, and thinking through what you’re doing. The balance Are you struggling with confusion, disappointment, frustration, or hurt from some actions you’ve taken that you thought were prompted by God, but now question? If so, maybe you need to make some adjustments to your discernment process. Don’t over-react, but don’t miss the learning opportunity either. If you feel yourself in the grips of emotion or driven by your desires to the point that you or others are starting to question your judgment, maybe you need to take a step back and take an honest look at what’s going on. For the sake of those you care about, for your sake, and for the sake of whatever work you are doing for Christ in the world, beware of just believing what you want to believe. Pray more, not less, but don’t expect answers to come in the form of sentimental feelings and implausible revelations. And don’t expect the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and guidance to replace your responsibility to think through your course of action. Ask God to guide you through your rational thought process as well as through your feelings and desires. Listen to those who know you well and who can be a bit more objective. Face whatever truth the Spirit wants to reveal to you, and use your head. Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). And, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).