There’s a fair bit of nonsense out there about how we hear from God. Some of it is superspiritual claptrap that devalues the Scriptures (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 this Bible passage, which the world’s great minds have been studying and discussing for 20 centuries, actually means this”). Some of it is Gnostic bunk (“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”). And some of it is downright destructive (“God has told me the reason you’re sick/divorced/infertile/unemployed is because of this thing you did wrong”). Speaking as a pastor in a charismatic church, I understand the impulse to avoid such rubbish by avoiding “hearing from God” language altogether.
But we serve a speaking God who talks to his people throughout the Bible. We are sons and daughters of a loving Father, who wants relationship with his children. We are the bride of Christ, and husbands and wives talk to each other. We aren’t employed as slaves or servants but welcomed as friends, and friends talk to each other. 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 may get ourselves into muddle and silliness sometimes, but as Christians, we are those who hear the voice of God. The question is, of course, how?
Start with Jesus
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 a Son (Heb. 1:1-2). In other words, we primarily hear the voice of God by encountering the person of Jesus. In itself, that perspective may 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, because it makes Jesus, rather than subjective thoughts or impressions we might have about whatever-it-is, the central reality when it comes to hearing from God. Essentially, 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 Lord’s Supper, and by being united with him through faith and baptism. In other words, we hear from God in exactly the same ways faithful Christians have for 2,000 years.
I’ve deliberately started this way because many, including me, come from church backgrounds that prize variety over regularity, novelty over fidelity, the individual over the corporate. Those who understand the centrality of Jesus will be far more secure, and far less likely to be bamboozled, in contexts where people are hearing from God in ways that are more subjective, personal, and difficult to assess.
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, words of wisdom and knowledge, and so on. Sometimes people were worshiping and fasting, and “the Holy Spirit said” something; sometimes they were trying to resolve a dispute, and “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit” to come to a particular conclusion; sometimes they were on mission, and “the Spirit of Jesus didn’t allow them” to go one way and sent them another. Angels appeared regularly. Ordinary people, not just apostles, prophesied. Some predicted global events before they happened. Others spoke in earthly languages they’d never learned. Several had visions. And all of this happened, Peter explained on the day of Pentecost, because this sort of thing would happen in “the last days” (Acts 2:14-21)—in other words, the time between the ascension and the return of Christ. 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 that way can be regarded as charismatic loonies. But not in the New Testament. 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 we are still in the last days, and if our lives and our churches today are supposed to look like the book of Acts, with people prophesying, seeing visions and so on, then what checks and balances are in place to stop it from going wrong? What can we do to ensure we’re hearing from God, and not making stuff up?
First, we can check what we’re hearing against what the Holy Spirit has revealed in Scripture. If someone “feels led” to leave his wife and run off with someone else, then we know he’s been deceived simply because the Spirit won’t contradict what he’s said in the Bible.
Second, we can check it against what we know of Jesus. Is it arrogant, lustful, greedy, divisive? Then it’s not the word of God. You’d be amazed how many bogus “words from God” can be debunked simply by running them through these two filters.
Third, talk to leaders about it. Leaders are not priests, and they are certainly not infallible, but the New Testament describes them 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 those who were talking rubbish. If you’re a leader, his instructions are fairly simple: don’t quench the Spirit; don’t despise prophecies; test everything; hold fast to the good (1 Thess. 5:19-21).
Fourth, Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 14 about prophecy being “weighed” or “judged” by the church. This means the local church, together, needs to exercise discernment and wisdom when people prophesy: is this person trustworthy, is this word from God, and, if it is, how “weighty” is it? Finally, we simply consider the effect (or “fruit”) of what we think God is saying. Both Moses and Paul offer us some great common sense. Does the word cause people to rebel against God and serve idols? Then it’s not from God (Deut. 13:1-3). Does it fail to come true? Then it’s not from God (Deut. 18:21-22). Does it cause people to see Jesus as Lord? Then it’s from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). Does it edify Christians and cause unbelievers to worship God? Then it’s from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 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.
A few weeks back, Derek Rishmawy wrote a great article here on the principle of abusus non tollit usum: “abuse does not take away use.” In few areas of the Christian life is this point more important than in hearing from God. Yes, there are countless examples out there of silliness, nonsense, and oddity. But despite those examples, we need to remember that the New Testament church is an eschatological, Spirit-filled, prophetic, voice-of-God-hearing people—and we get to be part of it. God speaks, and we hear. What a privilege!