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Most Christians long to hear God speak, but how can we be sure we’ve heard correctly? Was that really God, or just our own imagination? Andrew Wilson tells us how to tune in.
Few things have the capacity to spook people more than talk of ‘hearing from God’. People who don’t follow Jesus find it unsettling because it sounds as if we’ve got voices in our heads that we think are divinely inspired.
In the past, that has led to terrible things. Some believers, particularly those from more conservative backgrounds, get nervous around ‘hearing from God’ talk as well: after all, how do you know that you’re actually hearing from God, rather than just hearing your own thoughts? The culture we live in is becoming increasingly sceptical about it, with entertainers such as Derren Brown making a living out of showing how suggestible we are, and how likely we are to think that things are supernatural when they’re not. We can even weird ourselves out, as we start wondering about all this, topped off with a bit of guilt for doubting or being flaky. It all feels a bit spooky.
Some of us are more used to this sort of language, having been Christians for years. Even then, some tough questions remain. It seems strange that we can all hear God on fairly trivial matters – which church to attend, which course to study, which job to take – but on big issues dividing the Church, we seem to hear much less clearly. Why is that? Why does God seem to say different – even contradictory – things to different people? Why do Anglicans hear God telling them to baptise their children, and Baptists hear God telling them not to? Why do so many people feel called to go to countries which are relatively safe, affluent and English-speaking, and so few feel called to go to Saudi Arabia or Turkmenistan? Why do some people ‘hear God’ about everything, and others only once in a lifetime, if that? And if you’re a charismatic, like me, then you may have noticed that as prophetic words become more specific, they also (generally speaking) become more inaccurate. What is all that about? Are we hearing God at all, or merely imagining it?
There’s a lot of nonsense out there on this issue. Some of it is super-spiritual (such as when people say things like, ‘Yes, that was a very nice talk, but I don’t want information, I want revelation.’ Some of it is plain arrogance (‘God has told me that this Bible passage, which the world’s great minds have been studying and discussing for centuries, means this.’). Some of it is virtually Gnostic (‘Yes, I used to think like that, but then God took me into his confidence about so-and-so.’). Some of it doesn’t make any sense at all – like the preacher I heard who referred to ‘the inner, audible voice of God’. What on earth is that? And some of it is downright destructive (‘God has told me that the reason you’re sick/divorced/infertile/unemployed is because of this thing you did wrong.’). One of a church leader’s most important roles, although often neglected, is to protect people from this sort of bunk.
Our primary way of hearing God is through encountering Jesus
Despite all that, we need to be quite clear: Christians hear from God. We worship a God who speaks; from the third verse of Genesis to the penultimate verse of Revelation. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). We are sons and daughters of a loving Father, who wants a relationship with his children. We are the temple in which he lives and makes himself known. We are the sheep of our great shepherd, and sheep know their master’s voice. We are a body in which people prophesy, speak words of wisdom and knowledge, and use other spiritual gifts to edify each other. We are those to whom God has spoken, in these last days, through his Son. We may get ourselves into a muddle and silliness sometimes, but as Christians, we are those who hear the voice of God. That’s how we came to follow Jesus in the first place.
A few years ago I was in a meeting where a young guy called Julian Adams was prophesying over people. He told one man that there was a Macedonian call over his life, and it was time for him to move; the man started laughing loudly, because two weeks earlier another prophetic individual had said the same thing using exactly the same phrase. Then he turned to me, and said he could see manuscripts, that an editor was going to approach me, and that I was to write the book that was in my heart. Unknown to him, and unknown to anyone except me, an editor had emailed me that morning and asked if he could publish what eventually became my first book, Deluded by Dawkins? (Kingsway). He turned to a third leader, and brought a very specific word about a personal relationship that astonished us with its accuracy and immediately brought the man to tears. I left the room reeling. I already knew that God was a speaking God, but it was still remarkable to see him speaking so specifically to so many people.
The question is, of course: how do we hear the voice of God like that? What do we actually do? And how do we know that the voice we are hearing is in fact God’s, rather than ours? Or even someone else’s?
TRAINED TO LISTEN
We start with Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews talks about Jesus as God’s climactic and definitive act of speech: in years gone by, he says, God spoke to our ancestors in all sorts of ways, but now he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1–2). In other words, our primary way of hearing the voice of God is through encountering the person of Jesus. In itself, that might not sound like it helps us very much, because it just bumps the problem from ‘hearing God’ to ‘encountering Jesus’. But it actually helps us enormously, in that it makes Jesus central, rather than any subjective thoughts or impressions we might have. Most foundationally, we hear from God by reading about Jesus and listening to his words in scripture, by praying and living in the ways he taught us, by remembering him in the Eucharist, and by being united with him through faith and baptism. In other words, we hear from God in exactly the same ways that faithful Christians have for 2,000 years.
As that process continues, over weeks and months and years, something else happens. You notice that you are starting to think about things in a Jesus-like way. A political debate kicks off on the radio, and words from the Sermon on the Mount drift into your brain, helping you think about the issue from Jesus’ perspective. Your regular sharing in bread and wine with other believers makes the reality and impact of the cross much larger in your mind, and increasingly prompts you to confess your sin, to forgive people, and to pray for those who are out to get you. Encountering Jesus regularly, in all the usual and traditional ways, causes you to hear God in ways that you never would have expected. The ongoing renewal of your mind by daily spiritual worship gives you the ability to hear what God wants you to do. You have been given what Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16).
I’ve deliberately started with this because many of us, including me, come from church backgrounds that prize variety over regularity, novelty over fidelity, and the individual over the corporate. My guess is that those who really get this stuff will be far more secure, and far less likely to be bamboozled in contexts where people hear from God in ways that are subjective, personal and difficult to assess.
THE EARLY CHURCH
With all that said, the New Testament paints a picture of a community where people not only heard from God through scripture, prayer and the sacraments, but also through prophecy, other languages, and words of wisdom and knowledge. Ordinary people, not just apostles, prophesied. Some predicted global events before they happened. Others spoke in earthly languages that they had never learned. Several had visions. And all of this happened, Peter explained on the day of Pentecost, because the scriptures said so (Acts 2:14–21). God is the one who speaks, so when his Spirit is poured out, everyone starts hearing from God.
From the point of view of Acts, this is normal Christianity. Hearing from God about things, even when major decisions (or people’s lives) are in the balance, is quite ordinary. These days, people who think like that can be regarded as charismatic loonies, but in the New Testament, it doesn’t seem that way. A church is praying together, and God speaks to them. A missionary decision has to be made, and a man pops up in a vision and sends Paul and Silas to Greece. Prophets predict famines and the capture of their leaders. The gift of the Spirit completely changes the decision-making process in the early church. At the start of Acts, everyone is drawing lots to make decisions – but after Pentecost, nobody is. Rolling God’s dice has been replaced by hearing God’s voice.
This is the bit that confuses or even scares people today. If our lives and our churches are supposed to look like the book of Acts, with people prophesying, seeing visions and hearing from God all the time – which I think they are – then what checks and balances are in place to stop it from going wrong? If a person has a sudden ‘spiritual thought’ of some sort, and they think it might be from God; how do they know they’re hearing from him, rather than random thoughts from their own head, or that woman over there, or for that matter from Derren Brown? What can we do to check whether or not the thought is from God?
Five things, two of which we’ve already touched on:
CHECKS AND BALANCES
The first is that we can check it against what the Holy Spirit has revealed in scripture. If someone ‘feels led’ to leave their wife and run off with someone else, then we know that they’ve been deceived, simply because the Spirit will not contradict the Bible. The second is that we can check it against what we know of Jesus. Is it arrogant, lustful, greedy or divisive? Then it’s not the word of God. You’d be amazed how many ‘words from God’ can be debunked simply by running them through these two filters.
The third is to talk to leaders about it. Leaders are certainly not infallible, but in the New Testament (whether elders, overseers, pastors, or bishops) they are described as those who guide and teach the Church. Paul heard from God pretty clearly, but he still talked a lot about the responsibility of leaders to correct. So if you think you’ve heard from God about something, and there’s nothing in the Bible or in the character of Jesus that relates to it, submitting it to your leaders (as it says in Hebrews 13:17) is a good idea. If they think you’re crazy, it’s probably worth a rethink.
Fourthly, Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 14 about prophecy being ‘weighed’ or ‘judged’ by the church. This means that the local church needs to exercise discernment and wisdom corporately when people prophesy: is this word from God, and if it is, how ‘weighty’ is it? Opening things up to the whole congregation brings security and safety to people, as the church considers what has been said, the character and experience of the person who has said it, and the best way to respond. If you believe God may be speaking to you about something, sharing it with the church is a biblical (and vital) thing to do.
Finally – and this is probably very obvious – we simply consider the impact (or ‘fruit’) of what we think God is saying. Both Moses and Paul have some great common sense for us here. Does the word cause people to rebel against God and serve idols? Then it’s not from God (Deuteronomy 13:1–3). Does it fail to come true? Then it’s not from God (Deuteronomy 18:21–22). Does it cause people to see Jesus as Lord? Then it’s from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Does it edify Christians, and cause unbelievers to worship God? Then it’s from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:3, 24–25). When God speaks, it will come true, glorify Jesus, prompt worship, encourage people and build up the church. If those things aren’t happening, it’s not from God.
WILLING TO FAIL
Even with these checks in place, there is probably no way of eliminating the risk of someone getting it wrong. Paul explained that for now ‘we prophesy in part’ (1 Corinthians 13:9). It may be many years, for example, before you can say with certainty that a prophecy was (or was not) fulfilled; someone spoke words over me when I was 18 that are only now coming to pass, 15 years later. Similarly, it may not be clear whether a particular word will edify someone until after you’ve given it. Mike Pilavachi tells of how he felt a complete fool singing ‘Dancing Queen’ to someone prophetically, only to discover that God was speaking to her about serving him through dance – but if he hadn’t taken the risk, he would never have known that. So, although there are a number of tests we can apply, both individually and as a church together, we will never make it fail-safe. The Christian life just isn’t like that. But that doesn’t mean we shut the whole thing down. Far from it: Paul urged the Corinthians to ‘eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy’ (1 Corinthians 14:1). Crucially, though, he wrote this immediately after a chapter on how love, rather than any spiritual gift, is the true mark of Christian spirituality. This makes me think that if you are truly motivated by love for someone, and if you follow biblical principles on how to prophesy (building others up, glorifying Jesus, prophesying ‘in accordance with your faith’ as Paul says in Romans 12:6), then you have nothing to be worried about. Pray, study the scriptures, learn from others who are more practised than you – and then have a go, perhaps in a small group or equivalent, where everyone loves you. If you get it completely wrong, then admit it, laugh about it, and try again.
For those who are in Christ, hearing from God is one of the most natural things in the world. It’s like children hearing their parents’ voices, or friends talking with one another. We do, of course, need to put things in place to make sure that God’s gift is not abused – as we do with all his gifts. But let’s not get so tangled up in checks and balances that we miss the beauty of hearing from God. We have a God who speaks. What a delight. What a privilege.
HEARING WITH YOUR EYES
Obviously, this article cuts all sorts of corners, and raises lots of follow-up questions. Here are a few good books that may help you look into things further (they get heavier as you go down the list):
Sustainable Power by Simon Holley (Authentic)
The story of how one church in Bedford broke through into fresh levels of hearing God and seeing people physically healed.
Surprised by the Voice of God by Jack Deere (Kingsway)
An accessible book on hearing God today, with lots of powerful stories as well as rich biblical insight.
The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today by Wayne Grudem (Crossway)
A systematictheological take on the gift of prophecy. Showing the Spirit by DA Carson (Fleming H Revell). An in-depth exegetical study of 1 Corinthians 12–14 for those who want biblical detail.