When someone begins a sentence with “God told me . . .” I have to admit a silent alarm goes off somewhere inside me—unless the phrase is followed by a verse of Scripture. I know that many see this as the way the Christian life is supposed to work—that if we are really in fellowship with God we will be able to sense him speaking to us through an inner voice. But I'm not so sure. And it's not because I think God is incapable of or uninterested in speaking to his people today. In fact I resist this language precisely because God is speaking to his people today. He speaks to us through the Scriptures.
When we read the Scriptures we are not just reading a record of what God has said in the past. God actively speaks to us in the here and now through the words of this amazing book. The writer of Hebrews makes this point clear when he quotes Old Testament passages and presents them not as something God said to his people sometime in the past, but as something God is currently saying to his people (Hebrews 1:6,7,8, 2:12, 3:7, 4:7). He writes that “the word of God is living and active” (4:12). It is exposing our shallow beliefs and hidden motives. This word is personal. You and I hear the voice of God speaking to us—unmistakably, authoritatively, and personally—when we read, hear, study, and meditate on the Scriptures.
Something More, Something Different
But many of us want something more, something different. We read the Scriptures and witness God speaking to individuals in amazing ways throughout the history of redemption. Job heard God speaking from the whirlwind. Moses heard him calling from the fiery bush. Samuel heard him calling in the dark. David heard him speak through the prophet Nathan. Isaiah felt the burning coal and heard assurance that his guilt was taken away and sin atoned for. Saul and those traveling with him on the road to Damascus heard Jesus asking why Saul was persecuting him. Prophets and teachers at Antioch heard the Holy Spirit tell them to set apart
Barnabas and to send out Saul. John felt the glorified Jesus touch him and heard his assurance that he didn't have to be afraid.
Many of us read these accounts and assume that the Bible is presenting the normal experience of all who follow God. But is it? Graeme Goldsworthy speaks to this question in his book Gospel and Wisdom. He writes, “Every case of special guidance given to individuals in the Bible has to do with that person's place in the outworking of God's saving purposes.” He adds, “There are no instances in the Bible in which God gives special and specific guidance to the ordinary believing Israelite or Christian in the details of their personal existence.”
Are there instances in the Scriptures in which people describe a sense of God speaking to them through an inner voice? We read accounts of God speaking in an audible voice, through a supernatural dream or vision, a human hand writing on a wall, a blinding light, or a thunderous voice from heaven. This is quite different from the way most people who say that God has told them something describe hearing his voice—as a thought that came into their mind that they “know” was God speaking. One prominent teacher who trains people on how to hear the voice of God writes, “God's voice in your heart often sounds like a flow of spontaneous thoughts.” But where in the Bible are we instructed to seek after or expect to hear God speak to us in this way?
Some who suggest that a conversational relationship with God is not only possible but even normative point to John 10 in which Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, saying, “My sheep hear my voice.” However, in this passage Jesus is not prescribing a method of ongoing divine communication. He is speaking to the Jews of his day using a metaphor they understand—a shepherd and his sheep. His point is that the elect among the Jews will recognize him as the shepherd the prophets wrote about and will respond to his call to repent and believe, as will the elect among the Gentiles so that they will become one flock, one church, with him at the head.
Longing for God's Guidance
So why do we speak about hearing God in this way? We grew up being told that we must have a “personal relationship with God,” and what is more personal than hearing him speak to us about our individual issues and needs? Sometimes if we dig deep we realize we speak this way because we want to impresses others with our close connection to God and make sure they know we've consulted with him on the matter at hand. Another reason may be that to say, “God told me . . .” can prove useful to us. If you've asked me to teach children's Sunday school this fall, it sounds far more spiritual and makes it far more difficult for you to challenge me if I say that God told me I need to sit in adult Sunday school with my husband than if I simply say that I don't want to or have decided not to teach.
But I think there is something more at work here than simply our desire to sound spiritual or to make it difficult for someone to challenge our preferences or decisions. We genuinely long for God to guide us. We genuinely long for a personal word from God, a supernatural experience with God. Yet we fail to grasp that as we read and study and hear the Word of God taught and preached, it is a personal word from God. Because the Scriptures are “living and active,” God's speaking to us through them is a personal, supernatural experience.
God has spoken and is, in fact, still speaking to us through the Scriptures. We don't need any more special revelation. What we need is illumination, and this is exactly what Jesus has promised the Holy Spirit will give to us as his word abides in us. The Holy Spirit of God works through the Word of God to counsel and comfort and convict (John 16:7-15). Through the Scriptures we hear God teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Word of God transforms us by renewing our minds so that we think more like him and less like the world. Instead of needing God to dictate to us what to do, we become increasingly able to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
I appreciate the way John Piper described his experience in hearing God speak through the Scriptures in his message “How Important is the Bible?” given at Lausanne 2010:
God talks to me no other way, but don't get this wrong, he talks to me very personally. I open my Bible in the morning to meet my friend, my Savior, my Creator, my Sustainer. I meet him and he talks to me. . . . I'm not denying providence, not denying circumstances, not denying people, I'm just saying that the only authoritative communion I have with God with any certainty comes through the words of this book.
And if we want to go back a little further, Jonathan Edwards warned:
I . . . know by experience that impressions being made with great power, and upon the minds of true saints, yea, eminent saints; and presently after, yea, in the midst of, extraordinary exercises of grace and sweet communion with God, and attended with texts of Scripture strongly impressed on the mind, are no sure signs of their being revelations from heaven: for I have known such impressions [to] fail, and prove vain.
What Difference Does It Really Make?
Does it really make a difference when we expect God to speak to us through the Scriptures rather than waiting to hear a divine voice in our heads? I think it does. When we know that God speaks personally and powerfully through his Word, we don't have to feel that our relationship to Christ is sub-par, or that we are experiencing a less-than Christian life if we don't sense God giving us extra-biblical words of instruction or promise.
When we know God speaks through his Word we are not obligated to accept—indeed, we can be appropriately skeptical toward—claims by any book, teacher, preacher, or even friend when they write or say, “God told me . . .” We don't have to wait until we hear God give us the go-ahead before we say “yes” or “no” to a request or make a decision. We can consult the Scriptures and rest in the wisdom and insight the Holy Spirit is developing in us and feel free to make a decision.
As we delight ourselves in the law of the Lord day and night, we can expect his Word to be living and active in our inmost parts. As that Word transforms us by the renewal of our minds, we will find that our thoughts and feelings, dreams and desires, are being shaped more by his Word than by our flesh. We will find that we are more drawn to obey his commands than to follow the culture. We will ask him for wisdom and receive it out of his generosity.