As he sat across from me in my office, I tried to listen patiently, but it was the third “great idea” he had presented to me in only a few months, and I knew it would never work because it was birthed in immature passion rather than a strong sense of God’s leading.
On the other hand, another person I had been working with at the time had such a clear, beautiful word from the Lord. A promise from God that she could rely on and step out into. But for some reason she wasn’t taking action on it, and simply kept coming back to talk more, uncertain of whether it was really God speaking to her or not.
One person was all too willing to take action, but couldn’t wait for a word from God. The other person had heard from God, but was unwilling to take action. Two people with very different kinds of problems, but ultimately they both got the same result: fruitlessness and frustration.
Right at the beginning of Deuteronomy, there’s a phrase that names this tension. Moses is reminding the people of Israel of what God has spoken to them, urging them to trust his promise and advance into the promised land. He says,
“See I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers…” (Deuteronomy 1:8).
What’s interesting is that God says two things that, at first glance, seem to contradict each other:
- “I have given you this land.”
- “Go in and take possession of the land.”
God’s Paradoxical BOTH/AND
Well, God, have you given it to us, or do we need to take possession of it? The paradoxical way of God is a resounding YES to both questions.
God gives his people both a promise (“I have given you this land”) and a command (“Go in and take possession of the land”). Both are needed for the people to be successful in their task. They need to know that God is with them and has made a covenant promise to them. But they also need to take possession of that which God has promised! They can’t just sit back and wait for God to drop it in their lap.
This is still how God works in our lives. We all need to hear his word and move out in response to that word. We need to hear God speak promises and take possession of those promises.
Our problems in life typically come from a failure to embrace both of these realities, focusing instead solely on either hearing his promise, or taking possession.
- When we hear the promise but don’t take action, we live in fear, and the promise remains unfulfilled.
- When we take action but aren’t listening for the promise, we live in our flesh, aimlessly kicking in all directions at once and never really bearing fruit.
Here’s a visual aid to help us see what’s going on:
Let’s explore what each of these quadrants look like in more detail.
Living in FUTILITY
In the lower-left quadrant, we essentially aren’t even attempting to live a with-God life. We don’t hear his word to us or take any action. We are content to simply pursue whatever strikes our fancy at any given moment, submitting to a culture of “getting what I want.”
If you’re reading this, you’re probably not living there, so let’s talk about the other quadrants as places we tend to fall into.
Living in FEAR
In the upper-left quadrant, God has promised something, but we refuse to take possession of it.
God has spoken, but because we doubt his goodness, or his competence, or his wisdom, we refuse to cross the Jordan and take possession of the land.
This is what happened to Israel years before. God had promised the land of Canaan to his people, and Moses sent spies into the land to check out the situation. The report that came back said:
- Yes the land is awesome!
- But, the people there are powerful.
Although Caleb tried to urge the people to take possession of the land by reminding them of God’s promises, in the end other voices won out and fear spread throughout the people of God, causing them to stay put rather than take possession.
Ultimately they believed the people in the land were more powerful than God, that God wasn’t able to back up his promise that he had given them the land. In fear they refused to take possession of the promise.
It’s easy for us to fall into the same trap.
Instead of submitting to the word God has given us, we submit to the obstacles we see in our way, we submit to our own estimation of what is possible or “realistic.” We hear about “giants in the land” and we refuse to take possession of the promise.
We fail to see our part in God’s work, and the sad result is that, like the Israelites, we wander in the desert of unfulfilled promises.
But there is another way to miss the boat…
Living in FLESH
In the lower-right quadrant, we are attempting to take possession of a land that God hasn’t promised us.
It would be like the Israelites deciding that they should actually be marching into Egypt to take that land. No word from God about it, but it seems like a good idea. If he promised Canaan, why not Egypt too?
In the flesh quadrant, there’s lots of activity, lots of talk about “taking the land for God,” lots of passion and excitement and fervor, but, because we aren’t moving in response to a specific promise from God, we’re operating in the flesh. We look at a situation and assume we know what God would want and go for it, not waiting for a word from God.
This quadrant is called “flesh” because that’s the word the Bible uses to name what humans can do in their own strength, i.e. without God. Flesh is simply the things we can accomplish with our own intelligence and power. It’s activity we engage in without reference to or dependence upon God.
King Saul is the poster-boy for flesh in the Old Testament. He had a really hard time waiting for a word from God, and even when he got one, he’d come up with a way to “improve” it, because he assumed he knew what God “meant.” He consistently tried to help God out instead of simply obeying the word he had been given, and in the end it meant that God couldn’t work with him.
That’s always the end-result of living in flesh, and that’s why God had to tell Saul that “obedience is better than sacrifice.” Simple responsiveness to God’s word is far better than the most extravagant sacrifices our flesh can produce.
Another example of living in the flesh quadrant is the Saul from the New Testament. He saw a new cult springing up around this Jesus person and assumed it was an affront to God and needed to be stamped out by any means necessary.
He launched a campaign of terror and persecution against this new cult, believing he was doing God’s will the whole time. Taking possession of the land without really hearing a word from God about it.
He doesn’t discover it’s all flesh until Jesus knocks him off his horse on the way to Damascus. That’s when he starts to realize just how wrong he had been, and how much damage he had done in the name of being on a mission from God.
We end up in the same boat when we attempt to do mission “for God” without reference to what he has promised.
This is why I’m always wary when people start talking using phrases like “taking this city for God,” or “taking our nation back,” or “changing the world.” It’s so easy for those kinds of goals to become fleshly activity, attempting to take possession without really listening for a promise from God, or doing things in God’s way, or deeply understanding God’s goals.
Unless God has given you a specific word, strategy, or promise for your endeavor, your attempts to move out in mission will always end up being flesh, which means they simply won’t bear fruit.
So let’s move on to talk about the way of faith…
Living in FAITH
In the upper-right quadrant, God has given us a clear promise, and we move out to take possession of it in his way and in his time.
This is called faith, and it’s what happens when we hear God’s word and respond. This is when we actually bear fruit, when we see the kingdom advance.
Jericho is a great example. The land had been promised, and the people moved out to take possession of it. They crossed the Jordan and were ready to believe God for victory.
But the way they take possession is very important. At Jericho, they don’t assume they’ll just take possession in any way that suits them. Instead, they continue to listen to the Lord and rely on his strength to accomplish the task. Instead of simply planning a battle according to known strategies (that would be flesh!), they listen for a word from the Lord.
And they get it. But it’s a weird word. “March around the city.” Really, God? Have a parade?
But they move out in response to the word God has given them, and they see God do what only he can do: the walls fall down without the Israelites needing to do much of anything besides march and shout and praise God.
That’s living in faith. It’s not passivity, because they took action. They crossed the Jordan. They marched around the city. They shouted and blew their trumpets. And that activity in response to God’s word is what caused the power to be released to take possession of the land.
It’s the same principle that’s at work in the ministry of Jesus when he says things like “Let it be done to you according to your faith,” or “Your faith has healed you.”
Think about the paralytic who was let down through the roof of a house. Jesus gives him a word that contains both promise and command: “Take up your mat and go home.” He has to take action in that moment, believing Jesus to attempt the impossible. One is almost tempted to think that Jesus is being insensitive to the paralytic. But instead he responds to the word, attempting to activate muscles he hasn’t been able to use for years… and then the miracle happens.
That’s the fruit of living in faith. The miracle always happens when we operate in faith, hearing the word from God, and stepping out in responsive obedience to the word. Believing that God has given us the land, and then taking possession of it.
- Where have you already heard God speak? How can you step out in response to that word today?
- Where do you need to hear God speak? How can you resist taking action until you hear a clear promise from him?
Leave a comment and tell me where you’re at with these things!
Thanks for an interesting post Ben. The only problem: we don’t really ever know where we are on the vertical axis OR the horizontal axis! We have all (surely) misheard from God, despite our best intentions (vertical axis ambiguity). And sometimes we are not sure whether we are doing too much, or too little, in response (horizontal axis ambiguity).
The Biblical account has the advantage of clear documented “word from God”. Now we have a number of those as it regards our moral behaviour & attitude – in scripture. So *those* are promises we can claim. But there is a whole set of other possible words from God that depend on the context (e.g. should I move to Pawley’s Island, or launch a church plant, or confront my friend about some issue, or whatever) and where there are no easy answers. How do you deal with this situation?
Excellent question and the Bible supplies the answer.
I believe you are bang on with your query and the Apostles even with the benefit of the Holy Spirit gifts after Christ had gone to be with his Father in Heaven still found themselves at crossroads in their spiritual life had they were unsure of how to proceed.
i.e. Judas Iscariot’s replacement
They went through all the disciples that they knew had been with Christ and they believed qualified for the office Judas had abandoned by suicide.
They confessed that only GOD knew the heart of the two believers who had been with Christ and fit the position.
Very wisely they did not rely on their own discretion. This left them with seeking the Father in prayer and asking him for the decision. A type of casting of lots is described to allow for GOD to direct them in this matter.
I believe that we need to allow room in our lives for GOD to speak to us.
This most likely will vary for us.
For example Abraham’s servant asked in prayer for a sign to know who should be the right person and described the sign of a young woman giving him drink as well as all his camels.
The key thing is to allow GOD to show you his direction in your life.
My daughter asked me if she should go to a Bible Study weekend hundreds of miles away with concern that many people she knew would not be attending this year.
I replied to her about letting GOD direct her decision. But whatever you decide always follow through in Faith believing you have received the answer from him.
She agreed and said GOD had told her to go. Confused but having vowed to follow through in Faith, she unknowingly went and met her future husband.
Only afterwards did it become clear why she should be there. But only GOD knew in advance.
I will never forget the joy she had when she let GOD’s hand direct her decision at a time she did not know what was his direction for her life.
Only follow this route if you have the Faith to believe GOD’s answer and are willing to listen and obey it.
@Richard Thanks for the comment, Richard. I wonder if we have a different view on what “hearing from God” is. I believe the way God guides isn’t like “writing on the wall,” but it’s a more subtle, gentle process. It’s less of an accuracy test and more of a conversational life (and Scripture is a huge part of that conversational life!).
As we grow with Christ, there is less and less ambiguity on both axes, I believe. I also believe God simply honors whatever is of faith. The woman with the issue of blood somehow got it into her heart that if she just touched Jesus’ cloak she’d be healed, and she was! Jesus simply said, “Go in peace, YOUR FAITH has healed you.” That word got there somehow! That’s the same process I believe God leads us in, planting a word in our hearts that becomes faith when we act on it.
As we both hear and do badly (at first), we learn and grow, and God’s grace fills in the gaps. So while you’re right that there’s SOME level of ambiguity in all of this, I really don’t think that we are aiming for the kind of certainty you’re wondering about.
I’d highly recommend Dallas Willard’s book Hearing God as a great place to start exploring what it actually means to “hear from God.”
I love this Ben. I’m thinking through some application ideas using this lens and the Lord’s prayer to frame some of the promises to God makes to all.
“Give us this day our daily bread” aligns us with God’s promise of PROVISION. Through the lens of this matrix I see
Fear = Hoarding capital
Futility = Reckless use of capital because it doesn’t matter anyway
Flesh = Over-valuing/prioritizing certain kinds of capital
Faith = Investing the capital we have to grow that which we do not
Still developing this thought but I could see this as a way to engage practically with FORGIVENESS, GUIDANCE, AND DELIVERANCE as well.
brianspahr Fun innovation! Great cross-pollination, Brian. Thanks.
pastor art says
Really helpful tool Ben thanks
pastor art Glad you found it helpful, Art!
Abiodun Ayelari says
God bless you sir for this inspiring and motivating piece
I have been a victim of fear to go ahead and posses what God has already given to me
Just because of my past experience
Now I know I dont have to fear
Because he has said it I should go ahead and be fearless
God Bless You Sir
Ben Sternke says
Great to hear that, Abiodun!
Gunnar Heiberg says
I found your article looking for a graphic to use for my own – https://infinitegraceweb.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/investing-in-the-kingdom/
I hope you don’t mind that I ‘borrowed’ it (with credit and link back to here).
We have touched on several similar points.
Ben Sternke says
Thanks Gunnar – no problem on using the image, and thanks for linking back here!
Kiecia C. Garcia says
Wow Ben, So clear and so right! Thank you! I’m glad the Holy Spirit inspired you to write this, breaking it all down in understandable pieces. This is a great “checkpoint” to anyone no matter where they are in their life … EXCELLENT!
I will use it myself as a purposeful checkpoint, to “check myself before I wreck myself” LOL! I Thanks for sharing this and please keep it active, people need to read this! I will share this priceless piece with my friends! God bless you and thanks again!
Darlene Kauffman says
What if plan already in action. We just need one simple but big piece and our hands r tied. We need a miracle but none is there. Then how come we keep trying but keep failing.
Ben Sternke says
I suppose you just discern as you go, Darlene. It’s hard to give much feedback without knowing specifics of your situation… but if it isn’t happening, it *might* be time to move on? The early Christian missionaries certainly didn’t have a problem moving to a new place if they encountered resistance to the message. Jesus instructs his disciples to do the same in Luke 10 – if there’s no “person of peace,” brush the dust off your feet and move on. That said, sometimes perseverance is required. It takes discernment, for sure!
Las isa says
This a great teaching and would love to use this material for a bible study tomorrow.
Ben Sternke says
Go ahead, Darlene! Just make sure you attribute authorship and give folks the location of the original material, as per the permissions policy. Thanks!
Timothy Manono says
Thanks Ben, you have really touched me with you inspiring teaching.Indeed the the fruit of living and possessing new things from God is by faith.God bless you.
Ben Sternke says
Glad it was helpful, Timothy!
BlessingsofLight! Grateful for the anointed “selah discernment”,in this maranatha of time! (Isaiah 1:19!) Journeying on,sustained by the power of His grace.
Dr. Daniel E. Fullerton says
Ben. Pastor Dan Fullerton here. Found this article the other day. Great article. Wonderful to see how God is continuing to lead you and your family. Dan.
Ben Sternke says
How lovely to hear from you, Dan! Thanks for the encouragement. Peace!
Ben, this was helpful in many ways, 1. believe God gave you the land. 2. take possession of the land. 3. wait for God’s word.
God told me that He was going bless me with a home of my own, He showed me one, I prayed over it, sowed into it, and then the opposition set in where some one bid on the house, but if I didn’t know any better I would have gave in and quit. I felt the spirit of the Lord so strongly telling me to keep standing, so I decided to let His word be the final authority and that’s what I continue to do. I believe and trust my Him( God) ~me, a home owner who would have ever thought~
Ben Sternke says