Divine revelation Ethics Providence

Premonitions and the difficulty of discerning God’s will

In a group meeting recently, I commented on my interest in the story of the 5 people who had checked in for a Malaysian Airlines flight but then failed to board, which meant that their baggage had to be removed before the flight could depart. Eventually that plane disappeared. Why did those people not board? Did they have a premonition of danger and act to avoid it? Was their failure to board unintentional, an act of providential protection? We will likely never know the story, but it intrigues me greatly.

When I mentioned my interest in this incident a group member told a story of her own. She was headed off on a flight about which she and others had premonitions of trouble ahead. But she felt strongly that she must take this trip anyway. The flight was overbooked and she ended up being bumped to a slightly later flight, though the manifest of the original flight continued to show her as on board. Naturally, this caused some consternation at the other end when she did not arrive on the plane, even though airline personnel told the people waiting for her that she had been on the plane.

During the flight on the plane that our friend was not booked to take, they encountered lightning, apparently out of nowhere, which caused turbulence and elicited from the pilot an apology, along with an expression of puzzlement about what was happening. It was a very strange incident, but the plane came through it OK and the visit at the other end continued as the woman had thought it must.

That story of this friend’s airplane trip and the various premonitions that came up along the way leaves many unanswered questions, but spiritual warfare came to my own mind as we heard the story. The next morning, as I lay in bed thinking of that incident, I thought of Paul headed for Jerusalem. Philip’s daughters and Agabus received revelation from the Lord about what would happen to Paul if he went to Jerusalem, and so they told him he should not go. But God had already told Paul what awaited him, and had let him know that he had to go anyway. Something very similar had happened previously with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. The Father had revealed to Jesus what was going to happen to him, but when he told the disciples about it, Peter and others urged him not to go. Jesus went anyway, because he knew that the Father called him to do so, whereas the disciples were working off their rational assessment of the situation, with little understanding of what God was in the process of doing for the redemption of the world.

Our friend was also convinced that the Lord wanted her to go and she kept on. In this case, it appears that the Lord protected her from evil that could have occurred, which is different from Paul’s and Jesus’ situations, but looks to me to be in similar territory. The question it raises is how we know what to do with purported revelations of impending trouble. When do we change our plans and thank God for warning us, and when do we keep moving forward because we are confident that God wants us to do so, even though trouble is either certain (Paul and Jesus) or possible (our friend)? In any event, our prior commitment has to be to obedience to the Lord’s direction, as we discern it. It is tricky, and I don’t think rules can be established ahead of time which will tell us what to do in these situations. Learning to hear the voice of God is critically important, but this is a subjective process, and we may mistake other voices for God’s. That is a risk we can’t avoid. We simply have to act according to what we discern to be God’s will in the situation. We may be wrong, but we have to leave the consequences to God. Sometimes he may protect us from harm which would otherwise have resulted from our well-intentioned error, on other occasions he may let things take their natural course but then bring good out of it in other ways.

Walking by faith not sight entails a measure of risk, but act we must, and in the long run we can’t go wrong if our consciences are clear about the actions we take. That isn’t necessarily “safe,” but it is a great deal “safer” than any alternative approach I can think of. As John Hammis’s hymn suggests: “Trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

5 replies on “Premonitions and the difficulty of discerning God’s will”

This is exactly what I have been pondering these past 2 weeks. John and I are currently unemployed and in Congo — a precarious combo that is not very comforting. John had a very good job offer, which, if he had taken it, would have started in the beginning of March. He was also applying for a second job, which interested him more. That hiring process was not as far advanced as the first, but the company fast-tracked developing the job description when they heard that John was considering it. The deadline to accept the first job was two weeks ago. John’s 3rd interview for the second job happened one hour before he had to accept or reject the first job offer. In the process of trying to discern the Lord’s leading, we asked family, friends and always got the same answer: go with the 2nd job if you have the choice. The day before the deadline, John prayed for a clear word from The Lord. That morning we met a woman visiting the Congo for the first time. She was a stranger to us, but part of a TeachBeyond delegation working on a project here. When John described his 2 options she responded without hesitation: “Wow! It’s almost unheard of that a person these days would have two such great job offers to choose from. Go with the 2nd job.” (which is in the environment sector) “We Christians do so much to degrade the environment, but we are the last to be involved in preserving it. It is time for Christians to shine Christ’s light at the forefront of environmentalism!” John thanked her saying, “I will take that as the word sent from The Lord for me today.” The following day while John was in the interview for the 2nd job, I spent the whole time in prayer. I asked that the outcome would be resounding – a resounding yes, according to what we felt God to be showing us — but resounding one way or the other, so that we would KNOW whether to accept or refuse the first offer. The interview was a resounding success. The Congo director enthusiastically said he needed John in that position. John asked him specifically, “What is the process from here on? Do I need to wait for further confirmation from HQ?” The director assured him that if he says he wants John, John is hired. John still tried to get a nod from HQ but there was no response to his calls nor email. With the hour of decision upon him, he made the decision to let the first job offer go, trusting what we had taken to be God’s guidance. 24 hours later, he got a response from HQ of the 2nd job saying that his hiring was NOT a fait accompli. The email did not outline the further process, nor did it say if he was still the prime candidate or if there were others. We have not heard a word from them since, this after they had been in almost daily communication with John for weeks prior to that, actively pursuing him. You can imagine the questions we are asking, as we find ourselves completely in limbo and very much unemployed, where 2 weeks ago we had two excellent, immediate prospects. Were we too subjective in hearing God’s voice, slanting our bias toward the job that appealed to us most? Were we just rash in throwing out the job that was God’s sure provision, thinking we were taking a leap of faith on the word we only thought we had heard? Through it all, we realize that we are in a personal season of Lent; a time of self-emptying. Logically, it would seem that we made the wrong decision. At our age, with John at the doorstep of turning 60, we should obviously have gone with the more secure job. But in all our Bible reading, we find that God is not as concerned about our worldly security as he is that we follow him in faith — just like you concluded in your post. In what we thought were already extenuating circumstances, God is saying, “It’s okay to go just a little deeper in this walk of faith; to be in complete free fall for awhile, rather than just a little leap from one safety net to the other.” So that’s where we are. In the meantime, God is providing for us even through the poorest of the poor, our Congolese brothers and sisters. John became very sick this past week, with what seems to have been food poisoning. We missed church. But later we got a call from our pastor saying that someone in church had given us a gift of $50 toward John’s medical consultation and treatment. Now isn’t THAT the glory The Lord sheds on our way, when we walk with him in the light of his Word! Thanks for your post and this opportunity to share!

Thank you for sharing that stirring story of your own experience, Charity. I can understand your puzzlement. I am praying that the Lord will give you peace of mind in this waiting period, and that he will soon give John the job which you believed the Lord wanted you to pursue. What I do know is that, even if you heard the Lord incorrectly, because your hearts were right and you were acting in obedience to what you were hearing God say, the Lord will honor your obedience. Romans 14 has convinced me that God grounds his moral assessment of our actions on the intent of our hearts, which may be misinformed, but which are responsible to act according to what they believe to be God’s will, in whatever form of revelation we believe to have come to us from God. This does not, sadly, guarantee that the second job will be given to John, but it does put you in the only safe place, in a position of ongoing intentional obedience and dependence upon the Lord. Please let us know how things proceed from here, and I’ll be praying for you as the Lord brings you to mind.

I just sent a lengthy response to this blog. Not having done something like this before, I don’t know if it got posted successfully, because I don’t see it. Please let me know if you received it. Thanks.

My spam blocker holds comments from people who have not been previously approved, until I manually approve them. Sorry for the delay in letting your sthrough

I’ve had premonitions since I was a small child. As I am getting closer to God I’m asking why I have these, among other things….my question is what do I do with this information, especially if I cannot often do anything about them? I can look at someone and see they are….evil is a strong word but it’s all I can think of….I can see and especially get a stronger vision by touching a person. I can also see good, my work on discerning has become incredibly stronger lately. I feel guilty when I do get a message about someone and it happens. Bad things, I can also see good in people as well. This concerns me. I’m looking for someone with similar abilities to no avail. I’m asking for help and direction. I pray everyday and ask God…what do I do? Why do I have abilities? If God choose me to have this….what do I do? Sincerely, KR

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