Pastor discernment
Does the Holy Spirit sometimes convict you in the middle of a message? (Lightstock)

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I had planned my Bible study message for the little interdenominational group that meets each Wednesday in a local restaurant. I knew what “the Lord laid on my heart” and had gone over it earlier that morning during my walk.

And yet that’s not what I shared. Here’s what happened.

After the introduction, I stood to my feet and began with some introductory remarks about the sketches I’d been doing of those present. People are always curious about this, and I have a few humorous lines that are good for a laugh. Then, as I continued talking, the message took a turn I had not anticipated, and I never returned to what I had prepared.

Oh, it was all right. I’m not complaining. No one there knew I had planned to do something else. (That is, until I told them later.)

This brings out something we preachers struggle with. How do we know when something we are sharing (or planning to share) is of God or if it’s just a conviction of ours, something that means a lot to us?

Did God really lay the planned message “on my heart,” as I had thought? But if so, what was the actual message all about? Where did that come from? Or was it all good, and so it doesn’t matter?

There is no answer book for this, Haddon Robinson notwithstanding. 

There is no human authority to settle this, just the Holy Spirit. And He does not always make Himself as plain as we might like.

When Paul said, “We see through a glass darkly,” he was voicing for preachers and all other disciples of Jesus the reality that we sometimes have a hard time distinguishing His leadership.

Looking back a day later, I think I know what happened.

I had planned to bring a message on prayer. What I actually shared was content from another sermon on prayer that I had preached numerous times over a few weeks period. Retired pastors who are in a different church every Sunday can do that (but again, only if they feel led by the Lord). 

Now, my brain was fully engaged as I began speaking, but when it found that familiar channel—dare we call it a rut?—which I had navigated often lately for that other sermon, it just naturally flowed in that direction. Finding no resistance—hey, it’s a good sermon!—I went with it.

Then something odd happened. Afterward, the leader invited questions from the audience. I responded to two comments, and then one man said, “Tell us another story.” (Music to my ears.) What I said was unexpected even to me. I told the little assembly that I had planned to speak on something else and gave them a small synopsis of it. As we were leaving, one of the men followed me to the door with notepaper in hand, wanting the references for those points. If anything, that confirmed this was indeed the message I had been intended to bring but had missed.

Have you ever heard a pastor announce at the beginning of his message that he is changing his sermon on the spot? I have teasingly said this is the result of poor planning and weak praying. But that’s not always the case.

Sometimes it’s simply hard to know whether the Lord has “laid this message on our hearts” or if it’s just something we feel strongly about and feel a need to say. (One more reason to pray for your pastor!)

When that happens, we preachers would do well to ask ourselves four questions:

1. Have I really sought the Lord for His will? Or am I being presumptuous and just assuming that because I feel strongly about this, everyone should also? Pastors find out in a heartbeat whether they believe God might have something specific for the people sitting before them by how they pray and whether they listen.

2. Am I truly willing to preach what He lays on my heart? Perhaps what I’m feeling is a discomfort in addressing a matter that needs the light of God’s Word thrown upon it. It’s always easier to preach a nonthreatening message.

3. Could it be I’m just unprepared and prefer to preach something easier and more familiar? Every pastor knows the feeling of entering the pulpit unprepared. The Lord does not mind letting us fail miserably on such occasions in order to break us of poor study habits. At other times, He uses the poorly prepared sermon wonderfully to demonstrate what He can do with nothing.

4.What does it indicate about me if I cannot tell the voice of the Lord from my own thoughts? The answer, of course, is “nothing good.” Our Lord promised, “My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me” (John 10:27). He said the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice (John 10:4).

When the inner voice of the Lord Jesus Christ begins sounding too much like my own voice, it would seem to indicate I’ve been spending more time with me than with Him. When the voice of the Lord Jesus seems to be my own voice, it may be I am crowding Him out of my heart.

In many cases, the way I know God has spoken to me about something is a) it is so right, b) it comes with such strength and assurance, c) it fits perfectly what I know of His Word and d) I would not have thought of it myself in a year.

“Lord, as you speak to us, give us ears to hear and hearts to recognize Thy voice. Then give us the courage to obey and preach Thy Word. Amen.”

Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.

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