“Often preachers say they can hear God. They emphasize that we should also listen for God’s voice, but then quickly move on with their sermon and don’t really explain how. Have you ever heard from God? If you have, how do you hear God?”
“How does one hear from God?”
I grew up hearing people say that they normally “heard the voice of God.” At varying times I tried to listen in for an audible voice that would call my name, much like it called Samuels, but alas I heard nothing. At the time I felt those who heard it were super spiritual and I was not, but if I persisted in long prayers, contemplative meditations, fasted, abstained from _____ (insert random hobby) long enough then I too would become spiritual enough to hear the voice of God. Later in my life, two things caused me to reconsider my naïve view; these things included a thorough reading of Scripture and seeing the paths blazed by those claiming daily hear Gods audible word. Yes, I believe we can, and indeed should, hear Gods voice; no I don’t think hearing God’s audible voice, or the receiving of new special revelations from God should be on our daily agenda, as some insist.
WHAT IS DIVINE SPEECH?
When one human speaks to another what we see is an exchange of meaning or ideas via the medium of human language. A boy feels love (idea) for a girl so he writes those feelings on a small note (the method of transmitting ideas) and passes this note to his romantic interest, and she reads it causing those feelings of love (idea) to be conjured in her mind. This is basic communication theory, that we transmit ideas or meaning via symbols like speech, written word, art, and other people pick up those symbols and interpret personal meaning from them. Likewise at the simplest level, to say that God speaks, or we “heard God’s voice” means we affirm that there is some piece of information, knowledge, or an idea that was transferred from the mind of God to the mind of man via some intermediary method. All Christians agree that this happens, for how else could a sinner repent if only relying on his carnal knowledge?
The question at hand is, what is the intermediary conduit that brings something from God into man? At one point we know it was the prophetic word given to Old Testament prophets, and Hebrews 1:1 affirms this, saying God “spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” However, the passage continues, “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb 1:2) teaching that the greatest message and intermediary wasn’t the Old Testament revelation, but the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ the son of God Himself. While in the past God sent a word or idea, which a prophet would then speak, in the new testament the Word or Idea God sent, was embodied in the person of His Son, who didn’t bring a message but was the Message. Nonetheless, Jesus also spoke in words and the Message and Gospel that He embodies, is also shared with words and teaching (Rom 10:17).
THE ONLY SOURCE OF INFALLIBLE REVELATION IS SCRIPTURE
The God we serve is a God who speaks to man, in fact He has chosen to reveal Himself most completely through inspired speech that was written down, called the Bible. God would speak to a chosen prophet His very exact Words. This inspired speech was written down over time in numerous forms or genres, ranging from historical narrative, to poetry, pastoral letters, and apocalyptic literature. However, the Bible isn’t a cold or impersonal textbook, it’s an intimate letter from God to his bride. It is filled with God’s inerrant words as spoken through human authors, who, as led by the Spirit, express their own style and personality. These few ancient prophets, specifically chosen by God to bring His revelation to the rest of humanity brought us the Old Testament, and later the Apostles (the New Testament version of the Old Testament prophets) brought us the New Testament. God verified that such a level of new divine revelation would cease when the Bible would be completed. In Jude 1:3 the teaching of Christianity is called “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” The Apostle Jude tells Christians that the faith, or teaching, was delivered “once for all,” meaning the Scriptures were given from God at one time for all ages to come. In 2 Tim 3:15 Paul says that the Scriptures are “able to make [one] wise for salvation” and that the Scripture is “breathed out by God” in order that a Christian “may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
The Scripture, which is the only source of revelation that we know is truly authoritative and truly God breathed, affirms that it is enough for three things:
1) To make a Christian wise unto salvation
2) To make a Christian competent
3) To make a Christian equipped for every good work
This is because the Bible is the only infallible and truly error-free source of “hearing from God.” Of course, when someone misunderstands the Scriptures, as Peter says many do (2 Pet 3:16), that is certainly an error, however, the error is not in the source of revelation (the Bible) but in the person who misinterprets it. The Bible as a source is infallible, while all other sources (natural, logical, emotional, or personal revelation) are fallible. God certainly speaks to us in many ways, however, it is vital to bring all under the scrutiny of the Scripture.
THE HOLY SPIRIT IS POURED OUT ON ALL
The privilege of nearness to God was not always available to humanity. If you would have lived in the Old Testament era, you would likely have been one of the hundreds of millions who were not prophets nor priests, you would have had no access to God directly. Moses spoke directly with God, but the rest of the 600,000 Hebrews that left Egypt did not. Indeed to hear the audible voice of God was the most frightening thing, and Israelites feared impending death for simply hearing God’s audible voice (Deut 5:25-26) so they sent Moses to hear it and retell them. Thus, if you were born thousands of years ago, and needed to hear the Word of God, you would have to rely on hearing a retelling of the words of a prophet or hearing the oral tradition passed down from your ancestors. And even then, the Scripture to them was first, a simple legal code, and second, very mysterious and only foreshadowed a personal messiah to come; it was not personal and much was obscured to the minds of men. In fact Jesus said that after his coming, the greatest men of the Old testament (the last and greatest of whom was John the Baptizer) are surpassed by the least of all believers in the New Testament (Mat 11:11); this is because there is such a radical difference in how much God chose to reveal Himself in the OT versus the NT. Unless you were one of the few people who had a Biblical book named after them, you would not have the beauty of being led by the Holy Spirit and would have no personal and intimate way of hearing God’s word. Likewise, in order to speak to God you would need to bring a sheep to give to a priest who would, in your stead, offer the sacrifice and send a message to God.
The New Testament brought a radical change, a change that tore a thick temple curtain that was originally meant to separate the common man from God. This symbolized that the there was now open communication between all believers and God. And to seal the deal, and bring prophetic fulfillment, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all believers to teach them, guide them, and sanctify them (John 14:26, Gal 5:18). A new era in redemptive history was birthed, an era in which believers were to have a personal relationship with God. No longer would they have to rely solely on other men to intercede for them, instead Christ would be the intercessor. No longer would they have to rely on impersonal national leadership from God, instead the Holy Spirit would lead them personally. We are often told this, that we have the Holy Spirit and we ought to listen to his voice, but let us not explore and practically define what it means that “God speaks” when it comes to the everyday life of a Christian.
HOW DO WE HEAR GODS VOICE?
(source is infallible, interpreter is fallible )
We have already established that the most direct and only perfect source of hearing Gods voice is Scripture. It is tragic, but often Christians do one of two errors when it comes to the Bible. The first is to treat it without paying attention to genre, as though every verse is written to them specifically and has no other context or use in all of redemptive history; this can be catastrophic and lead to many heretical interpretations. Often this misses God’s point and the reader comes away with the wrong message. One could read a passage requiring animal sacrifice, apply it to him/herself, enforce animal sacrifice, and then end up missing God’s foretelling of the Lamb to come. The second mistake that Christians do is reading it as a dead textbook. We often miss the vital fact that the very words we are reading were indeed breathed out by God! Simply picking up the Scripture and reading, we are reading God’s letter to us, and as we read with the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we hear the very voice of God. When you gloss over a passage of God’s unyielding love, that is God’s voice. The Holy Spirit that indwells you is literally telling you, very directly and very specifically, that He does indeed love you. The Scripture is a living letter, it accomplishes real tangible changes in our mind and our spirit (Isaiah 55:11). The preaching and reading of the Word has brought about tremendous changes in our world, and every time a people group is exposed to the Scripture and the faithful preaching of its contents, real transformation occurs. This is because the word is life-giving, it is faith-building, it is hope-initiating (Rom 10:17). Because the Holy Spirit inspired and wrote the Bible, He also speaks through it. Through Scripture He speaks to our mind, intellectually forming us, and to our soul, gently reminding us to repent and trust Jesus. One of the methods by which He works is when we simply sit down and read the Bible, taking in its life-giving words, but a second is when we are saturated with Scripture and then in a time of need the Holy Spirit sends a passage from the Word of God into our mind and through it speaks into the depths of our soul. I would argue that when the Holy Spirit prompts a timely Scripture to come to memory, it is one of the most profound, personal, persuasive, and permanent types of revalation that exists. I would encourage you to read this short blog post by Dr. Piper about hearing God’s voice in Scripture.
(both source and interpreter is fallible)
A vital part of the Christian life and walk involves loving and encouraging other believers with the love and word of Christ (Heb 3:13, 10:25; 1 Cor 14:3). During the writing of the Bible, God gave his inerrant word directly to men who wrote it down, now the Bible is complete and God calls all believers to proclaim its truths in a relevant way to each other. Through one Christian who speaks forth Biblical truths, God can speak to another. This prophetic declaration from one brother to another can happen in many contexts, from preaching in the pulpit, to small group discussions, to receiving an email from a fellow believer. Though some claim prophecy today is like the Old Testament/Apostolic prophecy of ecstatic utterances that start with “thus saith the Lord” and it is the direct infallible word of God, all serious evangelical scholars and pastors disagree. We ought to be very careful about claiming such things, for all the “thus saith the Lord” statements were actually written down as the Bible; and if we claim our prophecy is the same, aren’t we creating a new Bible with new infallible revelations? The Greek verb ‘propheteuo’ (to prophesy) instead means declaring God’s will, therefore when we call others to Scriptural truths that aren’t discerned any other way, this is prophecy. Vines Greek NT Dictionary says “though much of OT prophecy was purely predictive [seeing as Christ was to come in the future], prophecy is not necessarily, nor even primarily, fore-telling [the future]. It is the declaration of that which cannot be known by natural means, ex: Matt 26:68, it is the forth-telling [declaration] of the will of God, whether with reference to the past, the present, or the future.” For this reason Peter says that one who speaks or preaches is to do so as if speaking the oracles (revelations) of God (1 Pet 4:11). Those who are led by the Spirit and filled with the knowledge of the Scripture will declare the eternal truths of Gods Word, truths that cannot be discerned by any natural means. When you hear a preacher expound the Word of God, when a friend is led by the Spirit to encourage you with Godly truth, when you randomly receive an email that calls you to Biblical faith, all of these are the voice of God. Though of course, humans are fallible, and thus we must never rush into believing anything but weight it according to the Scriptures. (Mat 7:15, Acts 17:11, 1 Thess 5:21)
(both source and interpreter is fallible)
In one of the greatest doctrinal books of the Bible, the epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul infallibly declares that God’s eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Rom 1:19-20). The Holy Spirit reveals this truth, that creation itself (our planet and our universe) is a revelation of God’s nature. First, it shows that God exists; our universe is both temporal (exists in time) and physical (exists in space) and thus for its creation it needs a Source that is neither finite in time nor physical. Even if one believes in the big bang and biological evolution it in no way “disproves” God or the Bible, in fact many evolutionary scientists and theologians (see biologos.com) claim the Genesis account is a poem that shows how God used evolution to create all things. I would state that if evolution were scientifically proven beyond the slightest doubt, it would have little effect on Christianity, because claiming a ‘bang’ created all physical matter, and time slowly developed the biological diversity of earth, in no way accounts for the cause of all of this. All science can try to show is a process and a method, it could never give an answer to the question of “why did this happen?” Today’s atheists who rely on evolution are beating the wrong drum, they are merely focusing on one possible method of creation and using it obscure the Creator. If you were to find a race of robots that self replicate and grow in complexity, you would never conclude that the race is self created; so thus secular evolutionists reject the plain knowledge that God exists. Second, God reveals himself through nature, we see many examples of natural processes and illustrations that show the character of God. The creation, though fallen through sin, still shows the marks of the Creator. Thus it is conceivable that God does “speak” through creation. John Calvin, the great reformer once said “There is not one little blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make men rejoice.” In fact, the former atheist CS Lewis was converted after numerous walks in the country. God voice came through the scent of flowers, but it led Lewis back to Scripture, it did not teach him new revelation but reminded him of the received revelation of Scripture. Through our natural world and reason or logic, God can show us many examples and teach us many things that He has revealed in Scripture.
(both source and interpreter is fallible)
The fourth way we can hear Gods voice is the type most commonly referred to when discussing this topic. It has sometimes been called the conscience, at other times its called the “still small voice” of the Spirit, perhaps some of the difference in terminology comes from the differing theologies of groups who try to explain (and sometimes overemphasize and exaggerate) the same thing. Nonetheless, we are to hear the voice of God; Jesus himself spoke of his sheep as those who would “hear his voice” (John 10:16, 10:27). This doesn’t mean that all Christians should normally experience the audible or vocal voice of God, indeed it was something rare even during the time period when the Bible was being written, and thus we ought to be skeptical of people who claim to regularly hear God’s audible voice. Nonetheless, people do hear God’s voice in their spirit, or how else could they come to believe in Him? In fact, faith in God is itself evidence that we have heard the voice of God confirming to us his existence. This is not a loud shout that says “You must believe” but a calm certainty that fills our heart and a joy that swells up in us as we conclusively feel that we “know” Jesus is our Lord and the Bible truly witnesses about him.
There are other ways that we may rightly or wrongly feel or think God is speaking to us through our emotions, conscience, or feelings. One way may be through our circumstances and our reaction brought about by those circumstances. God is a sovereign God who controls all things and even a hair on your head cannot fall against His will (Luke 12:7, 21:18) it is very likely that your life and circumstances are tailored to teach you and lead you. If you have been choked by a love for wealth, it is certainly possible that God may choose to shake up your financial foundations and bring about a sorrow and helplessness in your life, and your repentance would be the result of hearing God’s voice, a voice that speaks through circumstances. Another way may be through a very strong feeling, it is normal for God to place a feeling in the heart and mind of a believer, and that feeling will drive him or her to accomplish some good thing. Some Christians are compelled by a feeling to give generously to a cause, others to focus their attention on loving and serving particular people in a particular context. Church leaders who are called to partake in formal ministry, always receive a personal revelation from God towards their specific service. This personal revelation is not a magical event, or a rapturous ecstatic experience, it’s an inward feeling and an inward desire to serve and do what the Holy Spirit gently compels one to do. I myself felt God’s voice calling me to ministry, this wasn’t through a crazy supernatural method, but I simply had a strong desire and “knew” at one point that I wanted to serve God in church ministry, even though I had previously vehemently rejected even the idea. The fact that God changed my feelings so powerfully was the way he spoke to me. In the Scripture we see a few examples where God audibly speaks to ministers he calls and I suppose it can happen today if God wills, however, it’s not Scripturally prescribed as the norm (it happened rarely such as with the Apostle Paul who ended up writing a part of the Bible) and its not historically and traditionally the way God has normally worked in the church. Again, it can happen because God can do anything, and a few people who have solid ministries have claimed at one time hearing the audible voice of God, but this is immensely rare and even for those ministers, a once in a lifetime event.
There are generally two types of personal revelation, the first is forth-telling of Gods truth to our lives, such as a feeling of guilt that tells us that we need to repent of a particular sin. The second is fore-telling, such as the feeling that we must direct our life to a particular location and live a particular way. The first is very easy to subject to Scripture, we simply see if Scripture affirms such a command for all believers, and therefore know it was God who spoke to us. For example, the Scripture commands all believers to testify of Christ, and so if you feel compelled to start living a life that is overflowing with a testimony to Christ, it’s easy to see that this was from God. The second is a bit more challenging because while one person may be called to do missions in a specific country, another may not be. Therefore, regarding the second, it is vital that we spent serious time in prayer, in the reading of Scripture, and in seeking advice from other believers. Surely if the Lord is calling you to do something, he will not only place a desire in your heart, but will also make a way for its fulfillment and will confirm your desire with the Godly council and support of your friends, family, or spouse.
The biggest issue with any type of personal revelation is that humanity is flawed and sinful at the core, therefore much of what we feel is subjective, open to change, and far worse, open to sinful influence. I know far more stories of people who “felt” something from God and ended up being deceived than stories of those who felt it and it was dead on. One of my third uncles once claimed to have received a revelation to go to Arabia and prepare for the rapture, so he left his family and sought to follow his revelation. Unfortunately for him it yielded only tragedy, he was robbed upon arriving, and spent a sizable chunk of time working to earn a flight back to the United States. I know of a few families who had an “urging from the Lord” about an upcoming economic collapse in the USA, so they sold all of their belongings and moved to Bolivia but they are now living in poverty, and wishing to return to the States, but unable to do so. We should always be very careful with personal revelation and scrutinize it very closely by the Scripture to be sure it is God who is speaking through our feelings, not our subconscious desires, fears, emotions, or feelings speaking for themselves. In the end Scripture is infallible and humans are very fallible, so therefore the Bible calls us to “Trust in the Lord with all [our] heart, and do not lean on [our] own understanding. In all [our] ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight [our] paths.” (Prov 3:5-6)