Is Your Compass External or Internal

Over the holidays, I had a conversation with someone who was concerned with a young family member’s recent choices. They described them this way, “They don’t have an internal compass”. That simple remark captured my attention and reminded me of something Paul said:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Phillipians 2:12

What a challenge to take up in this new year: to live your life from an Internal Compass versus an external. Let’s unpack this idea. A compass is an instrument for finding directions – North, South, East, and West. To a person who is lost, a compass means the difference between life and death. Whether it be a compass, the stars or a GPS, we humans need an external compass to make our way around. Some animals however have an internal compass. Creatures like honeybees, salmon, dolphins, and pigeons have an internal compass that enables them to sense direction. They don’t rely on external things like the stars, landmarks, or a GPS the way we do.

When it comes to the spiritual and moral realm, God has given us an internal compass. Through His Holy Spirit, He has integrated into our spiritual DNA an internal sense of right and wrong that eliminates the need to learn it from without. This is why Paul said, “For it is God who works in you” (Phillipians 2:13).

John described internal compass people in this way:

But the anointing that you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as His anointing teaches you about everything,

1 John 2:27

John didn’t mean that people don’t need teaching or doctrine, but that they don’t have to be told what is right and wrong because “His anointing teaches you about everything”.

On the opposite side, when someone has an external compass, right and wrong come from without, not within. In other words, they are motivated by being told what to do, being yelled at or nagged, or as Paul warned the Philippians, “Don’t do right only when people are watching”.

Imagine if the only time you drive the speed limit is when you see a cop?  What does that say about where your sense of right and wrong come from when you only do right when the law smacks you in the face?

When we are not motivated by “God working in us”, we don’t do the right thing unless there is the threat of consequences. Israel was a perfect example of this. They did not want a close encounter with God, but only to know the external rules so they could inherit the land. Imagine if a man marries a women and on their wedding day he says, “I don’t need to be there, just have the minister do the vows and I will agree to them”. I can only imagine how God felt!


This is what it means to  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) – That you take great pains to work something through. That you don’t take it for granted, but with “fear and trembling” – Like a great musician who, though talented, works every day to improve their skill, especially when no one is watching.

A clear sign that you have an inner compass is hidden excellence. It means that you do the right thing when no one is watching. You don’t need to know external rules to obey God because your Internal Compass comes from within. The rules come out of relationship and confirm what is in God’s word.


Question: If you were the only person in the world, how would you live?  What would be your reason to do the right thing?