Many years ago I saw a newsmagazine program about a young tent revival preacher. During the interview, he stated that God was telling him to raise donations so he could go the Bahamas in February.
It's hard not to laugh at such a "leading." (A leading is a Quaker term for what we believe God is telling us to do.) "God wanting me to go to the Bahamas in February" sounds just a tad like using God to justify our own self-indulgence.
In chapter 3 of Sacred Compass, J. Brent Bill discusses this all-important question: how do we know if our leadings are the voice of God or own desires masquerading as God's will? How do we tell the difference?
In what he calls "sensing lab experiments," Bill offers a series of questions to test our leadings: is the leading clear (can you put it into words)?, is it compelling (can you not not do it?), does it fit your life, will it change you, and does it come from God's love? As you ask these questions, you sift through your thoughts to try to get rid of what comes from ego or self-will. Part of sifting is waiting.
Interestingly, Bill writes that we can sift with our bodies as well as our minds. If what God leads us to do will be holy, then what does holiness look like, smell like, sound like, taste like? Is our leading congruent with that?
A fundamental problem with Bill's book is that while he's doing the good work of trying to draw a rational box around leadings and lead us through a step-by-step process of discernment, leadings have a wild, unpredictable quality that defies logic. Sometimes leadings don't "fit our lives." Sometimes they will seem, on the surface, to hurt people in our lives. Often I know a leading is a leading simply because it's not comfortable for me, but is a persistent thought that won't go away even though I keep trying to dismiss it because it doesn't "make sense." Thus, I found the best of Bill's queries on leadings to be "does it come from God's love?" Anything that arises from love of God or love of others is probably pretty close to a leading.
Unsaid, but so important in discerning if leadings are from God is the spiritual preparation work --prayer, listening for God in the silence, participating in and building spiritual community--that allows us to "hear" more clearly if a voice in our heads is from God. I have been with people who insist that what is clearly self-will is God's will. (I am sure I have been that person too.) Usually, in my experience, people who insist that self-will is a leading haven't done the spiritual work to discern the difference. This gets us back to waiting ... often what we call waiting is simply building up our spiritual muscles.
Finally, as Bill points out, we test a leading by acting on it. We live in a confused, messed-up world. In the end, we step out on faith.
I have followed leadings in my life, sometimes without knowing I was doing so, and marvelous things have happened that I could never have predicted. My life has been changed and enriched in ways that have left me amazed. In my darkest moments of doubt, I can lean into the real, lived experiences I have had of God's presence in my life (I suppose there is the off chance that is all "coincidence," but it's my rational mind that rejects that) and invariably my faith floods back. Do you have similar experiences of following God's leadings?