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Caution Flags (LifeLift #20)

lifelift podcast Jun 23, 2020

I remember going to see Nana and Pop when I was a kid. Seems like every time we visited their home, Pop was sitting in his den watching NASCAR when we arrived. 

I couldn’t ever get into it.  He tried to get me to appreciate the sport, but the notion of cars simply circling the track for hours seemed monotonous at best. And, in my worldview back then, it didn’t count as a sport unless you were powering the vehicle yourself— like you do with a bicycle.

I know there’s a lot of strategy and science involved in stock car racing but I wasn’t mentally in a space where I could appreciate any of that. To me, the only thing more boring than watching a car race was— I know, this will be another sore spot— watching golf.

Anyway, over time, I did learn a few things from Pop. For instance, I learned that the qualification rounds determine which cars line up in a better position for the start of the race (beginning a race in two single file lines always seemed unfair to me, as that’s not at all how we began foot races on the playground). I learned that the checkered flag means you win— or that someone else did. And, I discovered that  caution flags means to slow down, look around, and beware that something dangerous could be ahead.

Notice that last one. The caution flag tells us that we might face danger on the road ahead. The flag isn’t the danger itself. Nor is the flag a promise of danger. It’s simply a warning. 

In effect, the caution flag says, “Hey, watch out. There’s been an accident, there’s a piece of debris on the track, or there’s something else that might mess with your ride.”

In other words, it’s a “heads up.”

That’s how I want you to view this chapter. The six caution flags I’ll provide you aren’t a guarantee of trouble. Nor are they necessarily trouble themselves. Rather, they’re each meant to say, “Hey, if and when you see ___________ [insert one of the six flags I reference], then take a look around and make sure you maintain your ride.”

Make sense? 

Let’s get started with these six flags: 

  1. Avoid seeking signs
  2. Beware of the “open door” and “closed door” theory
  3. Don’t give God directions 
  4. Let your feelings inform you, not command you
  5. Leave the “God told me” language out
  6. Relationship trumps formulas, tests, and even books like this

 

1. Avoid seeking signs

The call of Gideon is one of the most well known examples of sign-seeking. The Angel of the Lord appeared to him, greeting him as a “man of valor” (Judges 6:12). Most theologians agree that when we see the “Angel of the Lord” throughout the Old Testament we meet the pre-incarnate Jesus. In the same way that Jesus calls forth the yet-to-be-seen greatness residing deep in Peter, so also does He speak courage into the un-brave version of the man who becomes a mighty warrior and judge.

A few paragraphs into his story, we read that “the Spirit clothed Gideon,” a description that not only sounds remarkably similar to the way we envisioned the baptism of the Holy Spirit but also reminds us that God’s Spirit can gift prophets like Moses, artists and craftsmen like Bezalel, or even warriors like Gideon (Judges 6:34). Per our working definition of  spiritual gifts, these supernatural manifestations can be anything God wants to empower us to do.

But Gideon isn’t quite there… yet.

You might remember how the exchange unfolds. God definitively informs Gideon he’ll be the human He uses to express His power through, but Gideon wants certainty for himself.

“Give me a sign,” Gideon says. Then, he proposes one. “Tonight I’ll set a fleece on the ground. Cover the fleece with dew but leave the ground around it dry. If you do that, I’ll know I’m hearing you correctly.”

Night comes and goes. At sunrise Gideon checks the fleece. Though the ground nearby is dry, the fleece is drenched. He rings it out.

He’s still not sure, though. So he flips the script. Literally.

“Tonight make the fleece dry and the ground wet. Then I’ll know for sure” (see Judges 6:36-40).

God gives him the sign. Then, Gideon goes on to lead Israel against Midianite oppressors. His story shows us one thing is certain when you go looking for signs, though: they are never enough. 

In Acts 1, recall, the disciples decided to fill Judas’ vacant position among the twelve. Peter made the proposal, the group of 120 who were gathered in the Upper Room offered two candidates, and then they cast lots (Acts 1:26). Like we discussed earlier in the book (see chapter 10) this wasn’t an issue of luck, chance, or fairness. Rather, this was the method historically used to select the priesthood, as well as people who would be set apart for special tasks.

After the baptism of the Holy Spirit, followers of Jesus no longer cast lots. Rather, the Holy Spirit simply speaks to them as we speak to friends. 

Remember— 

  • The Lord tells Ananias to go minister to Paul (Acts 9:10)
  • Peter is given instruction to go to Cornelius’ home (Acts 10:13)
  • The Lord tells the church which leaders He wants them to send on a mission trip (Acts 13:2)

Jesus tells us clearly, “My sheep know Me and they hear My voice” (John 10:27, emphasis added). 

We find that verse in the book of John which, oddly enough, is organized around specific signs Jesus did (i.e., John 2:11). Yet signs are given to confirm faith and remind us we’re walking the right path— not to create faith (see John 20:30-31).

How should we view signs?

We submit them to the Lord. We don’t avoid signs; rather, we avoid elevating their importance above hearing the voice of the Father.

That leads us to our second caution flag. Namely, some people consider the circumstance in which they find themselves to be a sign.

 

2. Beware of the “open” and “closed” doors 

The Bible tells us that God called Abraham, telling him to go to “a land I show you” (Genesis 12:1). It’s clear from the exchange that God promised to lead him, Abraham’s responsibility being to simply follow. 

Just a few verses into his story, we find a dilemma. Namely, a famine occurs in the very area in which Abraham— and God— reside. 

Abraham’s solution?

Head to Egypt (Genesis 12:10). They always have more than enough food.

Not only does Egypt have plenty to eat, though, they also have unique forms of baggage. For instance, Abraham fears the Pharaoh will take Sarah as his own wife and kill him in order to do so, so he passes her as his sister. Sarah is promptly invited into the harem (12:15). Abraham repeats this sin years later (20:1), as does his second son, Isaac (26:6).

In addition, Abraham and his wife Sarah return from Egypt with a handmaiden for Sarah named Hagar (Genesis 16:1). When Sarah has trouble getting pregnant, she proposes an interesting solution to Abraham: impregnate the servant and birth an heir through her. 

He consents, and the family dynamics take an interesting shift. The first son, Ishmael, becomes the patriarch of the Arab race. He and Isaac’s descendants (the Jews) still argue today— thousands of years later— over who is the rightful heir of Abraham’s land.

Now, let’s go back and ask the question: How or why did all of this happen? 

The short, simplistic answer: circumstances. Or, to say it another way, open and closed doors. The famine created a “no win” situation for Abraham— in his mind. That piece of land was a closed door… he thought.

Oddly enough, Isaac faces the same situation in the same geographic area just a few decades later. There’s another famine. Notice what happens… 

First, the Lord boldly tells him, “Do not do what your father did. Do not move your family to Egypt” (Genesis 26:1). 

Second, we read that in that year, as the famine persisted, Isaac sowed and reaped one-hundred fold (Genesis 26:12). An exponential result that massive would be miraculous at any time. Remember, though, this occurred during a famine. No one else reaped the same result. In fact, the obvious way in which God blessed him during that season distinguished him from everyone else, causing them to notice that the Lord was clearly with him (Genesis 26:28).

We can learn from the circumstances in which we find ourselves. God clearly communicates to us in them. But, we should never be controlled by them. 

Evaluate two examples we’ve already discussed in this book: 

  • Birthing an heir through a handmaiden was acceptable behavior in that culture. According to circumstances, that was an open door.
  • Moses slayed the Egyptian task-master (Exodus 2:12). As a prince of Egypt who sought to protect a slave, this was acceptable. According to circumstances, this too was an open door.

On the other hand, think about this: 

  • Defeating Goliath without armor and without a legitimate battle weapon was a closed door, yet David prevailed (1 Samuel 17:1f.).
  • The Red Sea was a closed door, yet Moses raised his staff and God made a way (Exodus 14:10).
  • The lion’s den and the fiery furnace were both dead end closed doors, yet God delivered His people and slaughtered the enemy through both (Daniel 6:1f., 3:8f.).

And, of course, Jesus’ death on the Cross and His burial in a borrowed tomb was the ultimate closed door. It was so shut, in fact, that Peter and the others went back to their old fishing trade (John 21:3).

In Revelation we read that God opens doors that no man can shut and He closes doors that no man can open (see Revelation 3:8). The doors aren’t always open or closed when we first see them, though. And many times the way He opens or shuts them completely defies logic. 

That’s why open and closed doors can’t be the only factor in determining God’s will for our lives. He certainly speaks through them, but our relationship with Him always trumps any formula we could create. 

That leads us to our third caution flag. 

 

3. Consider tests, formulas, and even manifestations, but rest in the relationship first & foremost

In the book of 1 Kings we meet the prophet Elijah. After slaughtering 400 prophets of Baal and calling fire down from heaven, he flees for his life when he hears Jezebel seeks to kill him. 

The Lord follows Elijah to Mount Horeb where he’s hiding. Incidentally, Horeb is another name for Sinai, which is about to prove incredibly insightful. 

God decides to make His presence known to the prophet (1 Kings 19:11f.). We read that a strong wind blows through, powerful enough to shatter rocks. But, we’re told God wasn’t in the wind. Then an earthquake rumbles through. And then fire and lightning. 

God is in none of it. 

Finally, a still whisper moves in. A voice comes with it which says, “Elijah, what are you doing here…?”

We’re told God wasn’t in anything else on that mountain. He wasn’t in the wind like He was back when He used the wind to blow back the waters of the Red Sea so Israel would walk through (Exodus 14:21). He wasn’t in the quake or fire or lightning or thunder like we saw when Moses first ascended Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:13). Though it would have been easy to lean back on those previous, famous manifestations and say, “Hey, this is God,” in this story He revealed Himself through the calm whisper. He revealed Himself through relationship. 

Yes, past experiences and manifestations are important. They’re part of our history with God.

And tests and assessments and books are great resources, too. They help us navigate current reality. But the primary focus is relationship. 

In fact, in Christianity, we uniquely believe that truth is embodied not in facts and figures, but in a person. Remember, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). 

That said, we’ve got to remember who leads that relationship. This leads us to caution flag four…

 

4. Directions— receive them; don’t give them

In one of the most bizarre twists we see in Scripture, the Children of Israel decided not to take the Promised Land. Moses sent twelve spies into Canaan, one from each tribe (see Numbers 13:2). 

The twelve returned with a favorable report about the land. Just like they were promised, “it flows with milk and honey” (13:27).

There was only one problem. From their perspective, it looked like a closed door (they didn’t know about caution flag two) Literal giants  occupied the land. The inhabitants were so large that, according to ten of the spies, “We looked like grasshoppers compared to them” (13:33).

The Children of Israel wailed all night (14:1). They decided they should choose another leader to take them back to Egypt (14:4). They prepared to stone Moses and Aaron (14:10). Then the glory of the Lord fell and halted it all.

After the Lord told them that they’ll all wander for forty years and then die in the wilderness— everyone except Joshua and Caleb (the two spies who thought they could take the land)— the people decided to… get this… rush a full speed assault into those giants. Predictably, they got routed (Numbers 14:39).

Forty years later, Joshua sent only (catch the irony) two spies to scope the land (Joshua 2:1). They hid at Rahab’s house of harlotry where she told them a few things which prove insightful. 

First, the inhabitants of Jericho, the first city they were about to take, heard of Israel since the Red Sea opened for them. They knew Pharaoh and his army drowned. They heard about the other kings Israel defeated.

In Rabab’s words, “The Lord has given you the land… the fear of you has fallen upon us… all the inhabitants melt away before you” (Joshua 2:8 ESV).

And, “As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit in any man because of you” (2:11 ESV).

In other words, the giants had been afraid of them. Because Israel chose to inform God rather than entrust themselves to Him, they never knew, though— not until it was too late. 

Now, that’s clearly a negative example— an illustration as to why we need to obey God lest something bad happen. Let me highlight a positive example, though, because this works both ways… 

Jesus says that He only did what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19). That is, He did nothing on his own.

After Jesus ascended to His throne, Peter and John walked to the Temple one day. It was the third hour of prayer, about 9 am. A beggar looked at the two of them, anticipating they may have something to offer. 

“Silver and gold have I none,” Peter said. “But what I do have, I’ll give you.” Then— “In the name of Jesus, rise and walk” (Acts 3:6). 

Here’s where it gets interesting. Luke, the author of Acts, tells us this man was carried to the Temple daily (3:2). This was just a few months after Jesus walked that same path, meaning Jesus very likely passed him multiple times.

Why didn’t Jesus do something? 

Because He didn’t give the Father instructions. He took them. He only did what He saw the Father doing.

When Peter and John ministered to the man— in the Lord’s timing— a full blown revival exploded in the area. Overnight, once again, the church grew by thousands (see Acts 4:4). 

 

5. Encourage feedback from others (i.e., leave the “God told me” language out)

Here’s my experience. Most people who are secure in their faith don’t have to preface a lot of their statements with “God told me.” Further, they actually encourage feedback and even accept correction. They understand that sometimes we “miss it.” And, at other times, we hear only part of the message we need to hear. 

Leading statements like, “The Lord said” tend to squash opinions, as they serve as the ultimate ace card. If people disagree with you, they disagree with God. It shuts clogs the feedback loop.

I love the way the leaders of the Jerusalem council communicate their decision in Acts 15. At that time, the question of circumcision loomed forefront. Everyone wanted to know “how Jewish” new converts needed to be in order to profess Christianity. Specifically, they wanted to know if Gentile men needed to get cut, the tell-tale sign which had been given to Abraham (Genesis 17:10f.). 

The top leaders throughout all Christendom convened in Jerusalem to discuss it. Though it seems trivial to us, at stake was the doctrine of salvation and thousands of years of history. After much debate, the leaders determined that circumcision was not required, that the Law wasn’t binding. 

I love the words which James, Jesus’ little brother, used to communicate their findings. He said, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28, emphasis added).

It seemed?  

Really? 

Is that the best they could do? 

The brightest minds and men who walked with Jesus in the flesh and all they can come up with is a decision that they preface with “it seemed” like we should…?

Here’s what I see: humility. 

The men at that council were confident enough to call lame people to walk, and they were bold enough to die as martyrs, yet they were also gentle enough to acknowledge they were— at the end of the day— human. They were new creations recreated in the image of their Savior who were simultaneously just navigating life and doing the best they could.

That’s a great tension for us to hold.

 

6. Let your feelings inform you, not command you

In our culture, we often equate goosebumps and sentiment with a move of the Holy Spirit. Our feelings often (wrongly) become the measure of what God does in a circumstance.

Therein lies a problem. 

Think with me…

  • Moses didn’t feel like going to redeem the Children of Israel (Exodus 3:10). He initially peppered the voice in the burning bush with the reasons why he shouldn’t go.
  • Samuel didn’t feel like ordaining Saul as king. In fact, he set his own wayward sons in office as judges to take over for him (see 1 Samuel 8:1f.). 
  • Jonah didn’t feel like preaching to Nineveh, so he boarded a boat and fled in the opposite direction. When given a second chance to return to Nineveh and preach as he was commanded, he did. They repented, revival ensued, and Jonah found a shade tree and began pouting. The dysfunctional prophet confessed that he didn’t want to preach to them because he knew the Lord was merciful, that He would remove His judgment from them (see Jonah 4:2). 
  • Jesus didn’t feel like going to the Cross (see Luke 22:42). According to Mark, He asked three times in order for that destiny to be removed, using “the same words” (Mark 14:39). That’s persistence. The author of Hebrews tell us that even though Jesus endured the Cross because of the joy He saw on the other side of His sacrifice, He actually despised the shame of it (12:2). That’s how He felt about it.

Now, I believe our feelings are gifts given to us by God. They help us assess what’s really happening in our hearts. And, they assist us in  navigating through this world. We want to hear what our feelings say, but we don’t want to live controlled by them.

Often, I hear people say, “I feel…”

But then they equate those feelings with the direction of the Holy Spirit.

For sure, God can speak to through our feelings. But what we feel always need to be measured in light of more. We need to assess those feelings in light of things like— 

  • God’s Word (i.e., instructional obedience), that is, by leaning into what He has already said
  • God’s Spirit, that internal witness that we can hear, which often speaks in contrast to our feelings 
  • Common Sense, that is, a simple reflection and honest answer on the question, “What is the wise thing to do?”
  • Circumstances— we don’t want to be controlled by these, either, but they do allow us to see where we really are
  • Competent Counsel, that is, listening to other trusted brothers and sisters in Christ who can both challenge and encourage us

We need to be brave enough to ask and answer each of these questions, even holding some of them in tension.

Before we step to the next talk and review common questions about the gifts, here’s a review.

 

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