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March 29, 2010

Is it possible to really hear God speak?

Question from a reader:

Is it possible to really hear God speak? How can we do that, and how can we know He is really speaking to us?

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

We are not always great at talking to God, at least I’m not, but I think we are even worse at listening to God. Of course, if we think we can’t hear God’s voice, at least in the figurative sense, why would we listen?

Some Christians “hear God” when He is not speaking, and many of us fail to hear Him when He is—and sometimes we manage to do both at the same time.

For instance, I know people who “hear God’s voice” leading them to withdraw from fellowship and accountability of the local church, when God’s Word clearly shows the need for assembly with the church (Hebrews 10:24-25). Since their action violates Scripture, no matter how confident they are that God has led them to dissociate from any and all local churches, I believe they are wrong.

The voice they heard was the voice of their own hurt, pain, upbringing, bad experiences with churches, impatience with others’ faults, independence, desire to do everything their way, etc. But because they feel it so strongly they interpret it as “God’s voice.” This is different in degree but not in kind from people who sincerely believe God was leading them to murder someone. Sincerity and intensity and specificity of feeling does not equal God’s voice.

As a lesser example, consider the people who are always saying “God gave me this song” and “God gave me this poem” or “God gave me this book” or “God gave me the words of this message.” Well, I think God actually does all these things sometimes, but not always and certainly not just because we think so or want others to think so! As a result, the Holy Spirit has gotten credit—the better word is blame—for many things He would not want credit for, including countless lousy songs, bad poems, poorly written books and misguided messages.

In fact, the assumption that these things have come from God perpetuates their poor quality and our undiscerning nature. Why? Because the belief is propagated that God speaks to us easily and automatically, without study, meditation, counsel, long periods of contemplation and interaction. The person who believes God “gave me a message” on a Saturday night or as he preaches Sunday has no motivation to study Scripture and prepare his message next time. In fact, study and preparation and dialogue with others about a text and a message can now be seen as working against the Holy Spirit rather than cooperating with Him. I’ve seen this, and the results are scary. Lack of discipline, poor planning and poor stewardship of time suddenly become virtues as we “trust the Lord to give us the words.”

Certainly God does many things by Himself, without the need for our cooperation (e.g. the sun rises without our help). But in many cases He does His work while requiring that we do ours (e.g. He makes flowers grow, but we plant, weed, water and fertilize them, and make sure God’s sun shines on them). So when we think we are hearing a word from the Lord, for instance, He may well be speaking to us or leading us, but then He expects us to test it by Scripture and wise counsel, and plumb the depths of it and understand it better and more accurately, before proclaiming from the housetops “God told me an earthquake is going to destroy Portland next year.”

Some years ago a brother in Portland actually prophesied that, and a number of Christians made sure they vacated the city that day. The Oregonian newspaper, of course, was quick to mock this when there was no earthquake. The man, who I think was sincere, apologized saying, “I really believed God had spoken to me.”

Fortunately we aren’t under the Old Covenant or he would be put to death—that’s how serious it was to say you were speaking God’s words when in fact they are simply your own. Usually, however, we have no objective confirmation that this was not a word from the Lord, and as a result we fail to learn our lessons e.g. some people have unwisely gone into debt, believing God told them to, and ended up in bondage and bankruptcy. Some learn their lessons, others say, “Well, it’s what God wanted so I just have to accept what happened.” They may be just as prone to make similar mistakes in the future, again attributing it to God’s leading rather than their misguided impulses.

So, I believe that sometimes we think God has spoken when He has not. And other times we don’t think God has spoken when He has (through Scripture, counsel, providential circumstances—including divine appointments—and His still small voice in which He lays people and actions and words on our hearts). I think those who are always saying “God told me to...” and finishing the sentences with “buy this car” or “visit this chat room” or “ask you to marry me” (not mentioning this is the third woman in the past year God has told them to ask) need to come to grips with the fact that just because they feel or want something, even very intensely, does not mean that’s what God feels or wants. This is the danger of believing God has given you a prophetic gift or word of wisdom, and you start thinking that everything that comes into your mind is a word from the Lord. Hence, you begin to run your own life under the guise of God’s direction, doing what you want and saying He was behind it.

On the other hand, many of us have exactly the opposite problem. We fail to hear God’s voice (in Scripture and through others and through the direct impressions put upon us by His Holy Spirit) and see His hand of providence in dozens of things that come our way throughout the day, and thousands throughout our lives (including, often, things such as diseases and death). So we need to become more alert to seeking and hearing God’s voice.

If we think that nearly everything that enters our minds is God’s voice, then we don’t really believe in God’s voice, since it is not special and distinct from ourselves. But if we believe that God doesn’t speak and lead and guide except directly through Scripture, we fail to see the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the vital life-changing life-directing role He is to have in our lives which often begins with Scripture, but does not stop there.

Consider 1 John 2:27, “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” Now, this is stated in the context of people being led astray by false teachers. I believe the anointing from God is the Holy Spirit. However, I believe the ministry of the Holy Spirit is also connected to the authority of Scripture as the Holy Spirit’s instrument. So He teaches us, and the foundation of that teaching is Scripture, which must be rightly interpreted and in rightly interpreting it we ward off the heresy and false teaching he’s warning against in the context. But the anointing is more than Scripture, it’s the Holy Spirit who uses Scripture and other people and things.

However, if we let the passage stand and took “you do not need anyone to teach you” out of context as some do, then we would conclude, as many have, that there is no need to submit ourselves to study and teaching and meditation guided by church leaders, since the Holy Spirit Himself teaches us directly, without the means of Scripture or the means of teachers of Scripture. The result of this misunderstanding is that every heresy becomes defensible by “I heard God’s voice...” and people can take the spiritual high ground in embracing what is unspiritual.

Hebrews 10:24 speaks of the church spurring one another on to love and good deeds, as they meet together and encourage each other. One could say “It is the Holy Spirit who spurs us to love and good deeds and encourages us.” Yes it is, but one critical means or instrument of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is God’s Word, and another is God’s people, in the context of a local church where there is authority and spiritual leadership, guidance, modeling and mentoring. (Yes it may be hard to find such a church, and it is our calling from God to do what we can to help make our church that kind.)

The same apostle John who said the Holy Spirit was their teacher said the Holy Spirit was to bring all things to their remembrance (John 14:26) and to bear witness concerning Christ (John 15:26; 16:12-15). Yet they need to be taught and reminded of the truth by men, by human teachers who are hopefully filled by the Spirit, but whose words are not infallible and must be tested by Scripture (Acts 17:11). In fact, John was doing such teaching through his writings (His were inspired writings, of course, but any good teaching ministry—done by non-apostles and non-writers-of-Scripture is one of trying to be true to the inspired writings.)

I think it’s the old saying of Martin Luther, that the devil doesn’t care which side of the horse we fall off of as long as we don’t stay in the saddle. The saddle is the Spirit-directed life in which God is always providentially present (orchestrating details), and often lays on our heart certain things from his heart, and sometimes gives very direct and immediate promptings that could be accurately called His voice, even though it is not audible. (Of course, God can speak audibly. He has never done so to me, though as a young Christian I often begged him to do so; but on the other hand, at times it couldn’t have been more clear if His voice had been audible; the rest of the time I must figure it out based on wisdom and Scripture and counsel.)

The one side we can fall off the saddle is essentially to be Christian anti-supernaturalists (an inherently self-contradictory term) who theoretically believe in the Holy Spirit but practically speaking do not see him as actively working throughout the day in any ways that are tangibly manifested (when in fact both the fruit of the Spirit and the promptings of the Spirit are his work that should be “normal” in our lives).

The other side we can fall of the saddle is being Christian pan-supernaturalists who believe that everything we think and feel is charged with special significance and is a revelation from God. This sort of thinking mistakes a teacher’s unbiblical statements and a young woman’s flirtations and the offering of a job from a man you sat next to on a bus as the automatic and definite promptings of the Holy Spirit. By lack of biblically based wisdom considered in light of the wise counsel of others, we can end up nullifying the true ministry of the Holy Spirit by seeing everything that happens and is said as the ministry of the Spirit, thus failing to distinguish between the Holy Spirit, on the one hand, and the world, the flesh and the devil on the other hand. Indeed, we can take the temptations of the world, flesh and devil, and attribute them to the promptings of the Spirit. We can thus “sense God’s leading” directly into sin. We can do this sincerely, but of course we are dead wrong.

Both sides of the saddle are dangerous and deadly to our spiritual lives. God calls us to see the Holy Spirit as personal and real and present and guiding, as prompting and giving us insights and ideas, yet also calls upon us to act with biblically based wisdom and discernment to be sure we are not attributing to the Holy Spirit what is nothing more than our desires or circumstances.

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