Bishop's Message

Can you trust your impressions?

Sep 2002    

SEVERAL years ago, a reader wrote to a columnist with a puzzle: Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car, the others, goats. You pick a door, say number 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say number 3, which has a goat. He says to you, “Do you want to pick door number 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?

The columnist, Marilyn Vos Savant, said to have the world’s highest IQ (228), advised the reader to switch the door as there was a higher chance (2/3 vs1/3) that the car was behind door 2. This provoked numerous criticisms, especially from many maths professors in America. But the columnist stuck to her position. It was later shown by experiments that she was right. The columnist showed that the logic in this puzzle is counter-intuitive. We might intuitively say that switching doors would make no difference, but cold mathematical logic says otherwise. How much should we trust our gut feelings?

On July 1, 2002, a tragic mid-air collision between a chartered plane and a cargo plane occurred in southern Germany. Seventy-one people, including 45 Russian children, died. How did this tragedy happen? Each plane had a device, a TCAS (Traffic Control Avoidance System). Both the devices gave warnings. The one in the cargo plane instructed the pilot to dive while the other device told the Russian pilot to climb. Unfortunately, the Swiss traffic controller on the ground urgently told the Russian pilot, more than once, to dive. The pilot chose to trust the human voice rather than the machine reading, leading to the terrible tragedy. Was the controller relying on a gut feeling? How did the pilot work out his decision?

How does God speak to us? We have the Bible, the word of God. Everytime we read it, we hear God speaking, like the way a person reads a letter from a loved one far away. But experience tells us that reading Scripture is also a dynamic experience. God is transcendent and yet very near us and most of us can testify how our Bible reading can be so relevant to the questions we are asking at that particular moment. Indeed, sometimes Bible reading can feel more like a dynamic on-line chat with God than the static reading of a letter from Him.

When one makes a decision, one can either look at established principles from his Bible reading, and then work out one’s decision, or one can wait for some direct impression from God to give one specific guidance. Or one can rely on a combination of both. In reality most Christians who are serious about obeying God rely on biblical principles worked out over the years. If you take all the decisions, big and small, that you have made over the past week, chances are you have made them on more objective criteria such as biblical principles, e.g. you should not lie, you should do good, you should have a servant’s heart, and you should deny yourself.

But what about those times when we have strong gut feelings, believed to be spiritual impressions? We see the value of these, e.g. when we are compelled by intuition to rush to the hospital to be just on time to pray for a patient before he is brought into the operation theatre for an emergency operation. Or when we are led by strong impressions to send money to a friend and find out later that it was an answer to a specific and urgent prayer.

But these impressions can also let us down. In the more extreme cases, people behave in a mentally unsound way, like the young man who carved a cross on his forehead because he felt an inner voice instructing him to do so. For most people, thankfully, the problem is limited to the embarrassment of finding out that we have been misguided by our gut feelings. Do you remember schoolboy games at bus stops, when boys test their intuitive powers by challenging one another to predict when the bus would appear at the street corner? Often they would be wrong and just laugh it off. However, when you do have a strong impression, it is no laughing matter for it can be a struggle trying to decide if God is speaking in you.

Should you proceed with boarding a plane when you have a strong impression that something bad is going to happen? Or when hiring someone how much do you rely on gut feelings? This was the prophet Samuel’s problem when he was looking for someone to anoint as king (1 Sam. 16:1-13). God had instructed him, it appears, with an audible voice, something more tangible than intuition. When Jesse’s eldest son stood before him, Samuel had a gut feeling that he was the man, but God told him he was wrong, After that, Samuel ruled out all the others and felt that there was another son of Jesse (David) he had not seen. And God confirmed that he was to anoint David.

What lessons can we learn? To ignore our gut feelings or intuition totally may shut out important things God might be saying. However, God speaks to us subjectively and objectively, and it is necessary that we test our subjective impressions with objective criteria, simply because we are often misled by our intuitions. Remember too that Satan can plant thoughts and ideas in our minds. Or as is often, it is simply our own idea pretending to be God’s. Thus we must test every spirit and every intuition (1 Jn, 4:1). Scripture assures us that even if our hearts (intuitively) condemn us, if we believe in Christ, we can rest in His truth (1 Jn. 3:19-20). Objective criteria over-ride subjective intuition.

objcri

The objective criteria include Scripture and the tradition of God’s people. If you have a strong feeling that tells you to do something that Scripture prohibits, you know immediately from these objective criteria that the thought is not from God or acceptable to Him. Reason and common experience are also further criteria we can use. It is always good to check our intuitions with Scripture and mature spirit-filled Christians. We must also remember that intuition can be disguised as mathematical logic (some would say rationalisation) as demonstrated at the beginning of this article.

There are certain levels of reality when machine and mathematical logic are more reliable. There are other levels where intuitions become more significant, like art, meaning and human relationships. It would be disastrous when we use mathematical logic for relationships, and intuitions to fly a modern plane or heal illnesses. We must also remember that intuition can be wrong and God has given us objective criteria to test them. It means that we can be open to impressions and not miss what God may be dynamically communicating, but we can also avoid being misled by them when they are wrong.

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