I often hear people saying, "The Lord put this on my heart." Then they talk about their plan, or what they're asking me to do for them. I do believe God leads his people, but I don't know how to feel when people talk like this. What's your viewpoint? — A. D.

I too have heard words like these, especially since the mid-'80s, and I admit I'm not totally comfortable with them. God works among his people, as you rightly note, but exactly how isn't always so clear to me. I'm not saying God doesn't put things on our heart—I wouldn't want to limit God that way. In the same way, I can't claim that God doesn't do miracles or call certain people in supernatural ways. After all, how can I know what God would or wouldn't do, assuming it's in keeping with his character and divinely revealed purposes?

When I first heard a speaker declare, "God put this on my heart," I remember being acutely uncomfortable. Because if it was true, then I am compelled to follow along. And isn't this the sort of rhetoric many groups employ, to get everybody "on board"? Years later I was aware of one reason for my discomfort: the feeling of manipulation. (You're looking for compliance, and these heavy words persuade people to say yes to your interpretation of scripture or to the program you're promoting.) The implication of the loaded phrase, "God put it on my heart" may be: "And if you don't agree with me, you're rejecting God's will."

Another reason I'm uncomfortable probably stems from my involvement in the Charismatic Movement (nearly two years), where all sorts of things were claimed. I don't want to be naive. Feelings can be deceptive.

Certainly feelings, motivation, and the theology of the Spirit are important, but let's go to the Word. One place we find the phrase "God put it in / on my heart" is in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah claims God put it on his heart to leave Persia and move to Jerusalem.

"I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on" (Neh 2:11-12).

Nehemiah's sadness of heart (2:2) lined up with God's purpose of returning his people to the land of Israel. His insight came from a time of mourning, fasting, and praying (1:4). Thus there is zero doubt that his plan was both godly and serving God's purposes.

We find similar language in Ezra: "Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way" (Ezra 7:27). Interestingly, the king is the pagan king Artaxerxes. (See also Rev 17:17!)

One more example will have to suffice. The apostle Paul writes, "Thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm and on his own initiative" (2 Cor 8:16-17). The context: famine relief for poor Christians in Judea.

In all these passages we observe that the Lord moves in human lives. Not only among his people, but even outside his people. With this in mind, how can we distinguish between our ideas and the Lord's ideas? None of us would claim that our every thought is God's. We are more subjective, feelings-led, and error-prone than we would care to admit.

Perhaps one last scripture will help us think through this issue. It comes from the end of 1 Chronicles: King David rose to his feet and said: “Listen to me, my fellow Israelites, my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it. But God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior and have shed blood’" (1 Chron 28:2-3). 

If we had asked David a few years earlier whether his plan to build the Temple was put on his heart by God, he almost certainly would have replied in the affirmative. And yet his understanding would have been only partly correct. (God did want the Temple built—but not by David! This honor and responsibility would fall to Solomon.)

We see that not everything on / in our heart directly reflects God's will, even when our intentions are noble or our plans sound. David had the humility to accept that feeling strongly about a matter of faith was one thing; the will of the Lord may be quite another.