A Tickling of Ears

When seeking counsel from others, we must resist the temptation to only hear what we want to hear.

We’ve all seen it happen, and some of us have probably done it. It works like this: I have a spiritual dilemma, quite possibly of my own making. Maybe I can’t let go of my anger at someone, or perhaps I’m in the grip of a desire to leave my spouse. Perhaps I just want to avoid helping someone who needs me. Whatever my urge, I tell myself that my circumstances are so complicated and unique that most people won’t be able to understand.

Then I seek counsel, because that’s what good Christians are supposed to do in times of trouble. “Where there is no guidance the people fall, but in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov. 11:14). Only in my case, I need an abundance of counselors not so I can draw on their accumulated wisdom, but because I’m shopping for the one who will tell me what I want to hear.

Maybe the first person I go to tells me, for example, that I need to set aside my anger or lust and submit to God’s will for my life. Obviously, he doesn’t understand my special circumstances. So I find another counselor. If he tells me the same thing, I find another, and another. I keep searching until I find that elder or preacher or psychiatrist who finally sees me for the special snowflake that I am. Perhaps this someone gives me soothing words and doesn’t ask hard questions about the parts of the story I’m leaving out. This counselor cares enough about my tender feelings not to quote me tough old Bible sayings like “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5), or “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10).

Somehow I don’t think this is what the Lord means when He extols the benefits of an “abundance of counselors.” But I’ve certainly done it, and I’ve seen others do it, often to our own peril. We jump from counselor to counselor—maybe even church to church—because we’re trying to find someone who will listen uncritically to our one-sided story and tell us what we long to hear: It’s not your fault.

It should always be a warning sign when we demand that God be on our side rather than ask Him to show us how to be on His.

In my case, at least, the times I’ve most wanted to hear it’s not my fault are when my conscience convicts me otherwise. Of course that’s not to say troubles are always our fault, or that it’s wrong to seek compassion. But this heart attitude, the sense of shopping for wisdom that pleases us—well, even if it doesn’t lead to self-delusion, it’s unlikely to lead us toward God. We draw closer to God only on His terms, not ours.

“I get my heart into such a state,” 19th-century missionary George Müller explained about his prayers, “that it has no will of its own in regard to any particular matter.” Müller established schools and orphanages that sustained tens of thousands of children, and he credited God for all of it. He became renowned for the consistency and faith of his prayer life.

As one story goes, an orphanage Müller was overseeing had run out of food. So he sat the children down at the breakfast table and offered a prayer of thanks for the meal he trusted God would provide. As his prayer ended, there was a knock at the door. A local baker felt compelled to come by and offer bread. Almost simultaneously, a milkman’s cart broke down in front of their building, and so he offered them milk. The children received breakfast, just as Müller had been confident they would.

“Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you” (Mark 11:24). George Müller lived out this verse. It wasn’t that he prayed better and therefore got more of what he wanted from God. Müller didn’t have worthier prayers; he had a more submissive heart. “Ask, and it will be given to you,” said our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 7:7), but He also said to the Father, “Yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The two are inseparable—our prayers are answered when our hearts are aligned with the heart of God.

Compare this state of spiritual strength to the heart of the counsel shopper. This person doesn’t seek God’s will; indeed, the entire reason he jumps from counselor to counselor is because his heart is already set on what it wants. Yet the person’s heart remains so insecure—and his conscience so unsettled—that this shopper needs affirmation. He doesn’t seek to align his heart to the will of God; rather, he wants someone to tell him that God is on his side.

It should always be a warning sign when, in our heart of hearts, we demand that God be on our side rather than ask Him to show us how to be on His side. We often know, deep down, when we’re doing it, but the temptation is so very strong to find a sympathetic ear, an isolated Bible verse in support of our point of view, or a Christian book that seems to agree with us.

And so when our hearts are unsettled, perhaps we should follow George Müller’s lead. Let us pray first that God will give us the strength to embrace His will, regardless of the outcome. Only then can we trust ourselves to venture forth to wise brethren in the communities where God has placed us. It is then that our hearts are softened to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. And we can read Scripture with an eye for what it speaks to us rather than what we want it to say. 

The Lord in His great mercy has indeed given each of us an abundance of counsel: the Bible, the teachings of mighty Christians who lived before us and those still among us, and—most of all—the Holy Spirit Himself. Can we humble our hearts long enough to listen?

Related Topics:  Temptation

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What happens to my notes

14 Where there is no guidance the people fall, But in abundance of counselors there is victory.

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding.

10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

24 Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.

7 Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

42 saying, Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done."

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