Years ago when I was finishing up college and about to get married to Cindy, I got a letter from the mother of a gal I dated for most of my senior year of high school. Though there had been no contact between us for over three years, the mother was aware that I was in school to be a pastor. Apparently she had heard that I was engaged. So she wrote a letter to inform me that God told her that I shouldn’t marry Cindy. Of course, the implication was I should marry her daughter. As you might expect, that letter was a bit unnerving. What IF she was right? What IF God had really spoken to her?
“God told me.” Those three words can and do shut down conversations. How do you discuss, debate or argue that? As people who want to follow God and do what He says, “God told me” is a definitive period to any discussion. My ex-girlfriend’s mother isn’t the only person to ever play the “God told me” trump card. I sometimes see it played in the church, too – played by both pastors and lay persons.
Can we hear from God? Does He direct our lives and our decisions? Absolutely. I believe that if He so desires, He can speak audibly to me or anyone else. The Scriptures record several accounts of God speaking to people.
I’ve never heard God’s audible voice. BUT, I believe I’ve heard from God at numerous points in my life. There have been times when the message from God was so strong that I anticipated hearing an actual voice at any moment. One of those occasions was my decision to follow through with the marriage to Cindy. (In hindsight that may have been God’s best word to me.) Another occasion was the decision to return to Indiana as the Executive State Pastor. But thus far I’ve not heard God’s audible voice giving me specific direction.
I remember being at a conference a couple of decades ago where the speaker was from a charismatic tribe and most of the audience was from a variety of different non-charismatic tribes. He began one sentence with carefully chosen phraseology that has stuck in my mind: “I had a thought… I had a deep impression in my spirit… God spoke to me…” His point was that all three expressions refer to God guiding us and the one you use is probably determined by your tribal affiliation. So in the speaker’s mind, saying “God spoke to me” was not the final word about God’s direction but was simply an expression to convey that an inner prompting was thought to be from God.
The phraseology that I personally tend to use is the middle one – “I had a deep impression in my spirit.” I choose that because it conveys that what I am sensing is more than a passing thought. It is what I believe God is conveying to me as He and I have talked about a particular decision.
As I’ve pondered and meditated on God’s guidance over the years, I’ve reached two conclusions:
- Determining God’s direction can be very subjective. We can so want to hear God say something that we think we have heard it. In other words we can put words in God’s mouth. Example: the mother of my former girlfriend. I’ve known of pastors contacting a church’s search committee and informing them that God told him that he was to be their next pastor. Such a lack of self-awareness can make any of us vulnerable to mishearing and misunderstanding God. So how do I distinguish hearing from God and just thinking (subjectively) that I’ve heard from God? That leads me to the second conclusion.
- God’s direction resonates more clearly in my heart and mind when it is confirmed by others. Let me liberally paraphrase a leadership adage. If you think you’ve heard from God, and the wise, godly people in your life don’t confirm that word, then maybe you are having a conversation with yourself. What stands out to me in Acts 13 when Barnabas and Paul were sent on their first missionary journey is that other persons present confirmed what Barnabas and Paul were hearing. The decision to go wasn’t simply Barnabas and Paul’s.
I don’t believe God guides and directs us in a vacuum. Instead, I think He wants us to invite others into our process of discovering His will and direction. I love how Proverbs 15:22 says it, “Without advice plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.” That doesn’t mean that I simply do whatever others tell me I should do. I still have to take ownership of the decision. But I make that decision after talking with God, getting input from people that I trust, and talking with God some more.
Not every idea, impression or word is from God. Get as close to Him as you possibly can so that He can guide you in a manner that fosters appropriate God-confidence within you. Be in open dialogue with others who demonstrate God’s wisdom so that God can speak through them into your life. Guard against the human tendency to subjectively hear from God in a way that confirms what you want to do. Trust Him to guide you and then step out on faith.