Musings on Isaiah 7:11-12

Musings on Isaiah 7:11-12

When challenged with an idea purporting to come from God, take it seriously

 

“Ask for a confirming sign from the LORD your God. You can even ask for something miraculous.”

. . . Ahaz responded, “I don’t want to ask; I don’t want to put the LORD to a test.” —Isaiah 7:11-12 NET

Such a simple request! It would have cost Ahaz nothing to obey this challenge from the prophet Isaiah—especially since the “ask for something miraculous” clause would have made it virtually impossible to obtain a false positive.

Deceiving ourselves

No matter what we believe motivates us, we humans generally do not act rationally, but rather from our emotions (anyone who works in sales or marketing will confirm that fact). Rationality can be useful, however, when we choose to employ it. And it is only rational for a person, offered the opportunity to know the thinking of the Creator of all things, to welcome that information. Why not?

The reason in this case was simple: Ahaz did not want to know God’s will. He wanted his own way, and he feared that if he asked God’s will, it would turn out to be different from what he, Ahaz, wanted. And Ahaz’s choice to reject God’s word was disastrous not only for himself but for many thousands of Judah’s citizens.

Throughout Israel’s and Judah’s histories, and even well before, a major biblical theme was people’s not wanting to hear from God. It began at the beginning, of course: the man and woman, previously accustomed to walking and chatting with God in the garden, hid from him. At Sinai, the Israelites insisted they did not want to hear God speak directly to them; at least they were willing to hear God’s word through Moses! Over the centuries, prophets were shunned and silenced. King Ahab of Israel killed hundreds of prophets, and tried to kill Elijah. Ahab also silenced Micaiah, complaining, “I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil (1 Kings 22:8).” In the time of Joash, king of Judah, Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest was stoned to death for proclaiming to the people that they had forsaken Yahweh (2 Chronicles 24:20-21 RSV). A generation or two later, one of king Jeroboam II’s henchmen, a priest of Bethel in Israel, told the prophet Amos, “. . . Go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel (Amos 7:12-13 RSV).” Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern for a short time in order to shut him up. And so on. John the Baptist was killed for speaking God’s word, of course; and finally, Jesus was killed for the same reason. To shut him up.

Closer to home

I have often watched as believers made heartbreaking choices that are not materially different from Ahaz’s decision. Their choice in each case? Whether or not to ask God to reveal his will.

•When the message comes from someone else

I’m thinking in particular about interactions I had over several decades, involving highly disparate situations but (unfortunately) similar responses: At the behest of the Holy Spirit, I strongly challenged individuals to seriously pray about whether they should do a certain thing. I encouraged them to take the issue very seriously, and to seek God’s will actively until they received a definite answer, because the appropriate response could be life changing. In every instance, the person brushed off my prophetic entreaty with a response that said, in so many words, “Look, I know all about this situation and you don’t, and I already understand quite clearly what is needed, so what you have said is inappropriate and unnecessary.” Or, in worst-case scenarios, I would hear something like, “This is none of your business. Butt out.” And that would be the end of it. And in every case, whether within a few weeks or a few years, I was able to see the tragic result of this person’s failing to confirm whether or not what I had said was indeed God’s word.

Here’s an example that happened just in the past few days. It is what motivated me to write this essay. I will significantly alter the details, in order to avoid any possibility of revealing the identity of this person or of his fellowship.

For decades I have known of a problematic “elephant” in the room of a local church. It’s not my church, but I’ve visited there several times. I have a few close friends who go there. The pastor is truly a man of God, and has unambiguously brought more glory to God and more blessing to multitudes of people than I could ever hope to do. I love and respect him very much, and I love and respect his fellowship very much, and rejoice at the incredible blessings God has brought into the lives of hundreds of people through this group and this pastor.

But from the beginning the church has been almost entirely white, although it serves a demographic that includes a very large number of nonwhites. Although that pricked against my consciousness for many years, I never felt that the Holy Spirit wanted me to address the issue. Until this week, when the Spirit said it was time to do so. During a series of conversations, I essentially told this pastor the following: “Your church is almost entirely white. God is calling you to pray—to really pray—until the Holy Spirit shows you why that is. And then God will show you how to deal with this problem, for it is indeed an issue that he wants you to address. Failing to do this will lead to serious consequences. God has overlooked this problem for many years, but now he wants to address it.”

After significant discussion on more than one occasion, the pastor’s final statement to me was essentially this: “There is NO racism here! We accept anyone who wants to be part of our fellowship, no matter their race. So what you are saying is irrelevant. The answer is obvious: We do not have a problem with racism. There is no need for us to continue this discussion.” And with that he cut off all communications with me.

His answer made my heart very heavy. The idea that there might be a profound reason why people of color don’t seek to join his church never entered his mind. He is not going to seek God’s answer to the question of why his church is essentially all white. And if things continue as they are, I fear that down the line that church will suffer. That, at least, is what I understood the Holy Spirit to say.

Here’s the takeaway: Whenever someone challenges you to seek God about a certain matter, do it! Do it with as much energy and sincerity as you can muster. Fast if you need to. Spend as many hours in prayer as you need to spend until you have an answer that appears definitely to be from the Holy Spirit. Consider it this way: If your current understanding is correct, and this challenge is not from the Holy Spirit but rather from the human spirit of the person who made the challenge, the worst possible outcome will be that you have spent a great deal of time in the presence of God. And that has to be a good thing. A very good thing. The alternative outcome is that you’ll discover how blind you have been, and that God has a wonderful and blessed new path for you to follow in seeking his kingdom.

You can’t lose. It’s a no-brainer. So if someone challenges you to pray seriously about an issue, just do it. (Can you see how this concept is in some tangential way related to the brief account in II Kings 13:18-19?)

(Postscript: Less than a year after I wrote the paragraphs above, this pastor was involved in a ruinous social/family/legal situation that led to his resignation; and the fellowship he led has been seriously crippled. It would be foolish (and arrogant) to claim that these events occurred because he ignored my prophetic word, since there’s no way for me to know that. I’m just sharing this with you for you to contemplate or to ignore.)

 

•When the message comes from within

By far the great majority of inklings in our consciences, calling us to seek God’s will about something, come from our own hearts. But we have developed excellent skills for burying or ignoring such calls. I believe it happens to all of us, very often. The briefest flutter of an idea appears in our consciousness: “I wonder if I ought to _____” (fill in the blank as appropriate). But we’re so very proficient at distracting ourselves from such a spiritual cue that most of us can bury it under a dozen layers of competing ideas within a fraction of a second, effectively denying it any lodging within our awareness. The thought disappears into the ether.

One aspect of growing spiritually involves making a conscious choice not to do that. To decide that, whenever such a fugitive thought flashes into our minds, we will freeze it, focus on it, listen to it, pay attention to it. I’ve been trying to do that for the past couple of years, and it has been life-changing. Even though the previously ignored messages typically are mundane, that does not make them tractable. Most of the time, following through on these heavenly dispatches leads to explicitly positive, often surprising results. But sometimes they can be hard to take. Examples:

____________

“You need to get up now.” That’s a hard one and a very frequent one, as I’m always a zombie for at least an hour after waking. Things were so much easier on this front before I started trying to listen and obey!

“Go introduce yourself to that person.” I’m shy. If there’s someone to talk to whom I know, I very much prefer to talk with that person.

“Give $400 to her.” Crap! God knows I’m struggling with finances! But presumably he knows what he’s doing.

“Send an email message to him.”  Arrgh! Because of the last few conversations we’ve had, he’ll think I’m being way too pushy and annoying!

“Do a thorough word study on that term.” Lord! That word occurs about two bajillion times in the Old Testament, and it has a dozen meanings! That will take months! Arrgh!”

____________

I understand why we all like to create static when our spiritual receivers indicate “incoming” material that may unsettle our well-planned lives. But that response is not logical. We’re dealing with Someone who is infinitely smart and immeasurably knowledgeable—who loves us passionately and would never direct us to do something that would not bring us greater blessing than if we didn’t do it. The knee-jerk response of our fallen natures is to block out any communications from That Guy. But the reasonable response, the response that arises because we trust him, is to say, “Whatever you have to say to me, I’m eager to hear it.”

Everything I said in the earlier section applies here. If something coming from within your own consciousness tells you to seriously pray about and seek an answer to a significant matter, just do it. It may not be God. But it could be. And you must pray and pray, fast if you need to, pray for months if you need to, until you perceive an answer one way or the other (hey—especially after you’ve become accustomed to listening to the Spirit, in some cases the answers can come in a few seconds; ya never know). God is faithful, and he will reveal his heart to you (check out “Hearing God’s Voice” and “Hearing God’s Voice—How to Practice” and “Hearing God’s Voice—Potential Barriers“).

 

No need for “spiritual” trappings

Follow the same approach even when there are no “religious” accoutrements. Anytime anyone suggests that you do something, take it seriously. That person, whether or not s/he is a believer, may be speaking the word of God to you! Remember, a story is told that God once spoke through a donkey (Numbers 22:28-30)!

On a number of occasions my children have strongly encouraged me to do something—but I casually dismissed their suggestions. Yet as I thought about what they had said, I realized I needed to keep myself open to God’s word in every possible circumstance. Several times I have prayed about something one of my kids said, even in an offhand way—only to realize that, yes, in spite of my rationalized resistance, it was definitely the right thing to do. That son or daughter was speaking the word of God to me.

Here’s an outlandish story to illustrate why our spirits should always be tuned to whatever frequency God is broadcasting on at the time: When our firstborn was three years old, in order to save a few bucks (we were poor) I decided to rotate the tires on our car myself. Lots of effort involved. Lots of time squandered that I really needed to be spending at my lab (I was working on my doctoral research 12-16 hours a day). I was in a hurry to finish. Our daughter, A, was moseying around the driveway, watching and learning about what I was doing, chatting, etc. I was happy to be able to spend some time with her. Finally, I was finished! Time to get back to the lab! I lowered the jack, triple-checked the lug nuts on that last tire, and made ready to go inside.

Then three-year-old A said, “But the lug nuts on that wheel are still loose, Daddy.”

I explained to her, as I was putting the jack away and was already mentally back at my lab, “They’re fine, Sweetheart, I checked them three different times.”

“No Daddy, they’re loose!” I was approaching our front door.

“Just trust me, OK, I’ve done this before, I checked them very thoroughly, and I know they’re tight. And I really need to get to the lab.”

“No, Daddy, they’re loose!” She was beginning to get pretty upset.

I knew they were tight. Besides, even if they had been loose, she wouldn’t have been able to see them. So on every front she was obviously wrong.

But she seemed so adamant, so emotionally engaged, that I decided the right “Daddy” thing to do would be to show her that I take her feelings seriously. So I walked back to the car, opened the trunk, got out the lug wrench, walked to the left front tire, and proceeded to demonstrate to A that the lug nuts were not loose.

And the wrench moved!

I have no way to explain how they had appeared tight earlier but were loose now—but all of the lug nuts on that wheel were slightly loose! I remedied that situation and praised my lovely daughter profusely (after apologizing to her) for refusing to give in when she “knew” she was right. So far as her claim was concerned, I’m quite sure there was zero chance that she could have visually perceived that the nuts were loose. It’s more likely that the Holy Spirit revealed the fact to her. I doubt that she was aware of the source of the knowledge. She just knew.

And had we done any highway driving (which we did the next day), there could have been serious repurcussions.

 God’s word need not be preceded by, “Thus says the Lord!”