The Canary in the Coal Mine


We all need an early-warning system about the hazards of life.

I woke up today thinking about how coal miners used to take a canary with them into the mine shaft to warn of the buildup of carbon monoxide and other toxic gases. The poor bird, much more sensitive than the miners, would keel over sooner in the face of dangerous conditions. That would give the miners time to escape or put on protective respirators.

We all need a canary in our mine shaft—a hypersensitive early-warning system to alert us to approaching dangers. Just as carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless toxin, the dangers of life often will arise undetected unless we are warned by a canary or some equipment beyond our own senses.

For a Christian, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate early-warning system. He is constantly speaking to our human spirit, giving us discernment about things we can’t see with our natural eyes. He can detect dangers in the spiritual realm and warn us of coming threats.

However, sometimes I’ve ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I’ve allowed my spiritual senses to grow dull. I’ve become like a miner who arrogantly thinks he no longer needs to take the canary with him.

But it’s dangerous to ignore or disable our early-warning system. And to use another analogy, we periodically need to check the batteries in our home CO2 or smoke detectors. Having detectors with dead batteries will just give us a false sense of security.

In addition to the direct voice of Holy Spirit, God has put people in the church and the culture who are called to sound a prophetic alarm when unseen dangers are on the horizon. Like canaries in the mine shaft, these folks are sensitive to things most of us are oblivious to.

But let’s be honest: Prophetic people can also be irritating. They’re hypersensitive by nature, and hypersensitive people often are annoying and hard for the rest of us to deal with. And sometimes it’s much worse than that: Some of those claiming to be “prophetic” are just strange, delusional, or puffed up with thoughts of their own importance.

And history has shown that sometimes those who claim to have a prophetic warning for the church or for society are just plain wrong. We need alarms, but not false alarms. If a canary in a coal mine drops dead, the miners might assume the problem is toxic gases. But the canary’s demise could also be the result of old age or other causes. We have to be careful how we interpret  our “prophetic” promptings.

Although canaries and prophets can be problematic at times, I hope you have a few of them in your life. We all need faithful friends who are sensitive to the Holy Spirit and who love us enough to warn us when danger is approaching. And on gloomy days these canaries may even sing us a song of encouragement to boost our spirits.

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