Our deeply reported March cover story examined multiple perspectives on the role of evangelicals in America’s growing commercial surrogacy industry. One supporter of the practice was quoted as saying, “God called me to seek out what seemed like unconventional ways to serve others.” Another said, “I’m so glad I have a peaceabout this being God’s plan” (emphasis added).

Pulling these quotes is not a judgment on their decision, and this is not an editorial about the ethical dynamics of surrogacy (which are complicated enough to merit a separate piece). Rather, the italicized phrases catch one’s attention for a different reason: They are phrases often used—and misused—by evangelical Christians.

Such phrases run hand in hand with “I felt the Spirit’s leading,” “God spoke to me,” and “I sensed God’s confirmation.” They can be accompanied by a reference to something that brings anxiety or to a major purchase or financial decision or to grave ethical decisions. What all these phrases have in common is this: The self is portrayed as the final court of appeal.

This is no small matter, but one crucial for the health of evangelical Christianity. How do we determine God’s will, especially given that we believe God is active in our daily lives? Unfortunately, in some circles, “God spoke to me” and “God gave me peace” have become unassailable. I was speaking with a friend, wondering about the ethical decision of someone else we read about in the news, when my friend said, “But the story says God spoke to her about it.” As if that settled the matter.

Evangelicals used to be rightly criticized for using the Bible in a similar way: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Now when someone says, “God gave me peace about it,” we are hesitant to question their decision. We live in a time when the subjective reigns supreme in our culture. In this cultural climate, it seems rude to ask, “How do you know it was God giving you peace?” or “How do you know it was God leading you?”

But it is crucial for evangelicals—especially pastors and teachers—to risk such rudeness. We don’t want our faith to be driven by simplistic reading (“the Bible says it; that settles it”), but neither do we want it to become mushy sentimentalism in which one’s feelings rule the day.

Thoughtful reading of the Bible requires that we carefully exegete the text—and reflect on how biblical teaching applies to our experience. Thoughtful reflection on our experience requires that we carefully exegete our feelings—and reflect on how the Bible speaks into our experience.

If we don’t get this balance right, we end up justifying our worst inclinations. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve heard about God “opening doors” or giving one “peace” about buying a larger home or uprooting our families to take a better-paying job. If our God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, wouldn’t we just as often hear him say, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33)? But in all my years, I’ve almost never heard an evangelical Christian say that’s what God told them.

This example suggests that our faith is easily molded by the dynamics of a therapeutic and materialistic culture. This should not surprise us. Every age has principalities and powers that deceive the faithful. Like Christians of all ages, we struggle to separate natural feelings that arise in living in such a culture and the leading of the Spirit. That reality should prompt us to check our “sense of God’s leading” with the careful study of Scripture.

There is no law against buying new homes, of course, nor taking a promotion nor seeking psychological peace about anxiety, nor desiring to do God’s will day by day. To be an evangelical Christian is to have, as we put it, a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”—an intimacy with One to whom we can bring any and all matters that concern us. And that personal relationship, as we understand it, means that there are indeed times when we recognize his voice leading us in specific and concrete ways.

But those specific and concrete words of the Spirit will never contradict the Word of our Lord in Scripture. Evangelical Christianity can remain a dynamic movement of God only as long it continues to marry that mysterious subjective leading to the teachings of his objective Word.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

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