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When I was young and still attending Bible College, one of the most important questions that came up in my own life was this: How do we know the will of God?
The question is so simple and yet the answer is elusive. The simple answer is to pray to know His will. But there are often obstacles that must be overcome before the right answer comes. Many are unaware of these obstacles, and so they go with the immediate answer that they get and never question whether or not there may be a deeper or better answer.
In my book, Hearing God's Voice, I devoted an entire chapter to the topic of heart idolatry and how it can affect the answer we get from God. This idea is shown to us in Ezekiel 14:1-11. The elders of Israel came to the prophet to inquire of the Lord. Yet they came with "idols in their hearts." God asks Ezekiel if He they deserved an answer. "Should I be consulted by them at all?" God asks.
Then without waiting for a response from Ezekiel, God launches into a full answer. Yes, God said, I will give them an answer, but I will answer them according to the idol of their heart. The answer will cause them to fall.
In other words, if they have already heard an answer from their heart-idol, God will simply confirm that answer to them, because they were not really interested in a contradictory answer from God.
Heart idolatry can play a large role in our ability to hear God's voice. We simply do not know how many idols yet remain in our hearts, which may influence our hearing. Overthrowing those idols, depending on how deeply entrenched they are, can be traumatic. God does not usually overthrow our idols directly, but instead He directs our circumstances and leads us to a crisis point that can shake our world.
It is at that crisis point, however, that the idols are exposed, and once exposed, they fall, and we are set free.
I have been through this a few times, and believe me, I do not like the experience. I do like the result, however. One is never the same afterward.
But there are also more "minor" idols that are overthrown without so much trauma. These are the idols that are not held too firmly in our belief system, and yet they are there. These are overthrown just by learning truth. An idol is only as strong as our opinion. Being "opinionated" is usually a symptom of heart idolatry, and the strength of our opinion measures the strength of the idol. Our ability to learn and to change our view is the key to overthrowing idols without a great earthquake rocking our world.
In 2 Chronicles 18 we read how King Jehoshaphat of Judah joined with King Ahab of Israel in fighting Syria. After they made their decision to attack (vs. 3), then they decided to inquire of the Lord (vs. 4). Four hundred prophets told them to go into battle. Jehoshaphat sensed that something was not quite right, so he asked if there was a prophet of the Lord to ask.
Yes, Ahab said, "but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil" (vs. 7). So Micaiah was summoned. The messenger begged him not to give a contrary word (vs. 12). So Micaiah answered the kings according to the idol of their hearts. "Go up and succeed, for they will be given into your hand" (vs. 14). Jehoshaphat answered,
15 . . . How many times must I adjure you to speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?
Only then did they get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. "Let each of them return to his house in peace" (vs. 17). In other words, do not fight this war.
Ahab turned to Jehoshaphat and said, "Did I not tell you he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?"
Micaiah then told them that he had seen a vision of the throne of God, and God asked who would go down to earth and deceive Ahab into fighting this war so that he would die in battle. A lying spirit came forward to apply for the job. The lying spirit was then sent into the mouths of the prophets to deceive Ahab into going to war.
Ahab was not amused by this vision and put Micaiah into prison. "Just wait till I get back safe and sound," Ahab told him. "When I prove you to be a false prophet, I will have you stoned."
Ahab was killed in battle. But the remarkable thing is that King Jehoshaphat went with Ahab into battle. He did not listen to the prophet either. He too had the same idol in his heart. Yet because he was a godly king (2 Chron. 17:3-6), his life was spared. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that many soldiers of Judah perished in that battle as the result of his disobedience.
Jehoshaphat's example shows us that it is quite possible for a true believer to house idols in the heart. Too often we have an unreasonable confidence, thinking that because we have faith in Christ or are "filled with the Spirit," we cannot possibly have any idols in our hearts. That is simply not true. You can tell when idols have fallen, because the person has more humility than he had before the crisis.
All of this is related to the principle that Paul mentions in Romans 1:28,
28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.
What follows is a whole list of sin and fleshly deeds which do not please God at all. Yet "God gave them over to a depraved mind." Such people are then totally convinced--even by "revelation," I have observed--that these depraved things are of God. They see nothing wrong with doing those things any longer. Were they to pray about their actions, they would hear nothing but accolades and encouragement to continue on that path.
Everyone has heard stories of the preacher who ran off with the church pianist. Few people understand how this could happen. More often than not, they had received "revelation" that they were to be together. There are many variations of this type of scenario, but many of these incidents would have been avoided except that God answered them according to their idols.
Why does God do this? In order to bring a hidden moral problem to the surface. That way the problem can be addressed. As long as it is hidden and covered, it will remain, unless the people resolve the problem privately with God. God has mercy on those who have sincere hearts as long as they have not been turned over to a depraved mind.
You see, it is not those whose sins are exposed that are in serious trouble, but those whom God leaves to their own devices. When idols are exposed, it is actually good news, for then we know that God has acted on their behalf to get rid of their idols and to prepare them for work in the Kingdom. Their crisis has bequeathed them a new humility, having less confidence in the flesh, and more able to forgive their fellow sinners. Yet these are the very ones who are despised by all whose heart idols remain hidden.
On a more "minor" scale, I have found that the revelation of the past is often insufficient for the present. As we grow in grace, learning more of Christ, lesser idols are discarded without much fanfare. So we find ourselves standing on higher ground as time passes. The revelation we are able to receive from this higher position is often different from what we had received earlier. We need to be able to give up what used to be good in order to receive the better revelation. If we are growing, we ought to have a greater revelation as time passes. What was revealed in the past was according to what we were able to handle at the time.