Our intuitions aren’t infallible. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them.
JOHN KOESSLER| JUNE 21, 2019
Watson Thornton was already serving as a missionary in Japan when he decided to join the Japan Evangelistic Band, an evangelistic mission founded in England in 1903. He decided to travel to the town where the organization’s headquarters were located and to introduce himself to its leader. But just as he was about to get on the train, he felt a tug in his spirit that he took to be the leading of the Lord telling him to wait. He was puzzled but thought he should obey.
When the next train rolled into the station, Watson started to board but again felt he should wait. When the same thing happened with the third train, Watson began to feel foolish. Finally, the last train arrived, and once more Watson felt a check. “Don’t get on the train,” it seemed to say. Shaking his head, he thought, I guess I was wrong about this. Watson thought he had wasted most of the day for no apparent reason. Yet as he turned to go, he heard a voice call out his name. It was the mission leader he had intended to see. He came to ask whether Watson would consider joining the Japan Evangelistic Band. If Watson had ignored the impulse and boarded the train, he would have missed the meeting.
What was this impulse? Watson believed it was the voice of the Lord. Despite this, he felt unsure of himself. His actions didn’t seem to make sense at the time. It felt more like a matter of intuition than anything else.
Coincidence or Guidance?
Jonas Salk called intuition the inner voice that tells the thinking mind where to look next. Intuition is that flash of insight that prompts us to act in the moment. We all have had some experience with this. You feel a strong urge to call someone you haven’t talked to in ages. When they answer the phone, they say, “I was just thinking about you.” Or you are planning to depart for your road trip at a certain time but decide to leave two hours early. Later you learn that you missed a major traffic jam. Was it coincidence or guidance?
We can’t just live by our intuition, can we? Scripture warns that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9). How can we trust it? And the mind does not seem to fare much better. Proverbs 3:5–6 advises, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” We can’t trust our heart or our mind. What is left to guide us?
There is the Bible, of course. But it often does not speak to us with the specificity we might desire. It certainly works well enough on the big things. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Make disciples of all nations. Yet it doesn’t speak about the fine details. To which church should I accept a call as pastor? What week should we schedule Vacation Bible School this year? Should our short-term missions team go to Mexico or Uganda? There are all kinds of decisions I have to make that cannot be made by turning to a specific chapter and verse.
We do see something like intuition at work in the lives of God’s people in the Bible. Paul tries to enter Asia but is “kept by the Holy Spirit” from doing so (Acts 16:6). He tries to enter Bithynia but his progress is checked by “the Spirit of Jesus” (v. 7). He passes Mysia and goes down to Troas, where he has a vision of a Macedonian man begging him to come and help them (v. 9). Paul took this as a call from God and got ready at once to leave.
Acting on intuition seems as if it is relying on the irrational, or at least something non-rational in us. However, it might be better to describe it as supra-rational. It involves thinking, but there is more to it than that. An intuitive act does not entirely skirt the rational processes since it often involves a decision. But it is one that is made based on different criteria than we usually rely upon when deciding or acting. Intuitive acts seem non-conscious because they don’t involve long deliberation, exhaustive research, or lists of pros and cons. Instead, the decision is made or the action taken in a moment.
Intuitive acts are more holistic than those that are purely rational. They seem to come from some place deep within. They are decisions made by the whole self rather than just the mind. Those who act on intuition often say that they are acting on the gut or their instinct. They cannot explain how they know what they should do; they just know that it is the right thing to do. It is still rational in the sense that the mind is engaged.
There is an additional factor involved where God’s people are concerned. Believers often act based on what might be called “inspired” intuition. They are moved not only by the unseen processes that affect everyone else but also by the Holy Spirit. That was how Paul understood his decision not to enter Asia, Bithynia, or Mysia. The influence of the Spirit was what compelled Watson Thornton not to get on the train, even though that was what he had come to the station to do. We usually describe this as following the “leading” of the Holy Spirit.
This is a sensitive subject for some Christians. One reason is we are not exactly sure how this guidance works. Even though there are clear instances in the Scriptures, the exact details are not always included nor do they necessarily fit our experience. For example, we are told in Acts 13:2 that the church of Antioch was prompted by the Spirit to commission Paul and Barnabas and send them out on mission. In that case, the call did not come through some inner intuition but when the Holy Spirit spoke as the church was fasting and worshiping. But how did the Spirit speak? The explicit mention of prophets and teachers could suggest that there was some kind of prophetic directive. Yet the text does not actually say this.
The same is true of the directions Paul received while he was on his missionary journey. We know the Spirit directed him not to enter some regions and allowed him to enter others. But apart from the one vision, we really don’t know what form this direction took. Was it a “feeling” on Paul’s part that some destinations were just not right? Did God use obstacles and circumstances to nip at Paul’s heels like a sheepdog in order to guarantee that he ended up in the right place at the right time?
In the end, Paul was directed to his destination by a vision. In our case, the Spirit seems to carry out his ministry of guidance by employing more ordinary means. Instead of being visited by a prophet, we receive an email or a phone call inviting us to apply for a pastoral position. When trying to decide which youth pastor to hire, the choice is made when one them turns us down. The processes we use are not at all extraordinary, but that does not mean that God is not in them.
A Measure of Risk
Just as we do not entirely understand the natural processes involved when we act intuitively, we do not always know the spiritual processes involved when God directs us as believers. We often talk about being “led” by the Lord, but when Paul employs this language in Galatians 5:18, he is talking about morality, not decision-making. Those who are led by the Spirit are empowered by him to obey. They “walk”—that is, live—by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh, the sinful nature. Being led by the Spirit in a biblical sense is not the art of spontaneous direction or action but the power of God to obey. As New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce once explained, “To be ‘led by the Spirit’ is to walk by the Spirit—to have the power to rebut the desire of the flesh, to be increasingly conformed to the likeness of Christ” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Here, then, is the first principle when it comes to guidance. You already know most of what you need to know to be where you are supposed to be. The art of being led by the Spirit is not a matter of waiting each moment for some mystical experience of divine direction. It is a matter of trusting God for the power to obey what he has already told you to do.
The trouble with living by natural intuition is that it sometimes leads us astray. Some will say that our instincts are never wrong, that we should always lead with our gut. But our actual experience proves otherwise. And research confirms what our own experience tells us: Intuition is real but not infallible. “Psychology,” says Hope College psychologist David Myers, “is replete with compelling examples of how people fool themselves. Even the most intelligent people make predictable and costly intuitive errors; coaches, athletes, investors, interviewers, gamblers, and psychics fall prey to well-documented illusory intuitions.”
This raises an important question. If Christians can err just like anyone else when they act intuitively, then why should we listen to intuition at all? We must admit that there is a measure of risk. The intuitive choices made by Christians are not automatically better than those made by unbelievers. Like everyone else, our hunches can and do go wrong. That investment that our gut told us would be good suddenly tanks. The employee we hired and with whom we seemed to have an instant connection turns out to be lazy. Our sudden impulse to call a friend results in a pleasant but insignificant conversation. We do not always get it right.
Yet the same is sometimes true of the decisions we make after long thought and careful deliberation. The fact that we sometimes get it wrong after doing our research and weighing all the pros and cons does not cause us to conclude that we should throw reason and deliberation out the window. Why would we do the same with intuition? Believers who trust in Spirit-guided intuition are not afraid to make a decision in the moment when they sense God’s prompting. It is worth the risk.
Why didn’t God use the Holy Spirit to give us an infallible understanding of the choices we have to make? I don’t know. I know that if he had, it would not have guaranteed our obedience. The Bible is full of instances in which God’s people know without a doubt what he wants them to do, and yet they often do otherwise. When Israel was poised on the border of Canaan, they did not need intuition to tell them where to go from there. Their problem was that their intuition sent them the wrong message. When they saw the size of the enemy, their gut reaction was: “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are” (Num. 13:31). Notice that this wasn’t just intuition. It was also the result of their research. Yet Caleb’s intuition sent the opposite message: “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it” (v. 30). What made the difference? Caleb’s intuitive sense was shaped by God’s promise.
God uses both careful deliberation and intuition to guide us. There is an element of risk in each. Our confidence is not in our own infallibility but in God’s sovereignty. We know that if we belong to Jesus Christ, even when we get things wrong, all things work together for our good (Rom. 8:28). God’s ultimate plan for our lives—to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ—cannot be thwarted, not even by our own missteps.
God’s Familiar Voice
In the summer of 1988, Watson Thornton stopped at a post office in the small town of Green Valley, Illinois, to mail a package. By then, he was in his 80s and had retired after a long career in the ministry. He had moved to a nearby town to live with his daughter after his wife’s death.
Watson’s first visit to Green Valley did not especially impress him. “The town does not even have a filling station for gasoline,” he later observed. “I parked across the road from an old dingy store-front, with the title ‘Valley Chapel’ on it, and some children running out from their [Vacation Bible School].”
Despite its dingy appearance, Watson was interested in the tiny church. Two hours earlier, he had prayed, asking God if there might be a small country church nearby where he would feel comfortable. On an impulse, Watson crossed the street and walked in the door. “I stopped in and introduced myself to the young pastor, his wife, and some of the teachers,” he later wrote. “They took me right in and I have felt very much at home.”
I know that this is true. I was the young pastor at the time.
If this was a miracle, it was a small one. Most people would probably write it off as a coincidence. What are the odds of finding a small country church in a town like Green Valley? Pretty good, I suppose. But to someone like Watson, who had spent his life listening for the gentle whisper of the Spirit, it was much more. It was a moment of inspired intuition. This was no coincidence; it was God’s familiar voice—faithful in directing Watson in the small decisions, just as he had always been in the large ones.
John Koessler is chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. This article was adapted from his book, Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody).