When we make major decisions, we want to know we have God’s approval, but figuring out if we’re hearing his voice or our own desires can be challenging.
Pastor Jim Cymbala explained an important point in knowing God’s direction, “I know some people don’t believe we can still hear God’s voice. ‘He has already said what he is going to say in the Bible.’
“But the history of the Christian church totally negates that belief. How else would people like British missionary Hudson Taylor—who, while spending time with the Lord, felt God put a call on his heart to go to China—have brought the gospel to unreached people in Asia? There is no verse in the Bible that says, ‘Go to Bangladesh!’”
He emphasized, “God speaks to those who listen.”
Some believers may still feel unsure, though, about whether they’ve heard God’s voice or not. How does he speak to Christians? Is it different nowadays than it was in biblical times? How do I know if I’m hearing God or just my own thoughts?
Fortunately, we have a few easy ways to tell when God isn’t speaking to us.
Three Quick Checkpoints
First, God will not condemn his redeemed. Romans 8 goes to some lengths to establish this fact. Some Christians take this to mean that we will never feel convicted, which is not the case. The Holy Spirit will bring up specific sins that are distancing us from God and damaging the relationships in our lives. What he won’t do is leave us weighted down by aimless guilt, hounded by feelings of futility and hopelessness.
Conviction is from God and one sign of an active relationship with our Lord. It’s precise and always meant to be constructive.
Second, God doesn’t contradict himself. We will never receive a “special word” from God that gives us an exemption from his biblical commands (Numbers 23:19). God does not order sexual purity (Hebrews 13:4) and then tell us, “Oh, but it’s okay for you and your girlfriend/boyfriend to have sleepovers with each other because ‘you’re married in your hearts’.”
If we feel like we’ve received direction from God but aren’t sure if it contradicts the Bible, the simplest solution is to go read the Bible.
As Teresa Seputis, founder and executive director of GodSpeak International, points out, “You don't have to be a Bible scholar to hear God's voice clearly, but the more you know the Bible, the easier it will be to discern His voice.”
Third, God very, very rarely puts someone in authority over us and then asks us to rebel against that person. There are a few exceptions, which people are quick to cite, like Hitler or Idi Amin, and the Bible does make space for resisting evil rulers. By and large, though, it has far more to say about respecting authority. Jesus said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” He openly espoused paying taxes to the government and tithes to the Christian community.
We’re far more likely to hear the Spirit whispering into our hearts that we need to submit to and pray for those over us than anything else.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2 ESV).
Even after these three checkpoints, though, we still may feel uncertain about whether we’ve heard God voice.
When All Else Fails…
Some issues we’ll face don’t put us in conflict with authority and aren’t directly spelled out in the Bible. Scripture gives either bare-bones directions or none at all for a lot of decisions we have to make. It’s not going to tell us whom to marry, whether we should buy a house or not or how to think about retirement.
Tania Harris, founder of God Conversations, wrote about why hearing God’s voice can feel difficult. “…we face some areas in which it’s particularly difficult to discern God’s voice. My top three are romantic relationships, family and money.
“Our desires can muddy our ability to hear God’s voice. This makes it all the more difficult to differentiate between our voice and God’s. Who wants to hear the voice that says, ‘No, this person is not for you?’ or ‘You won’t bear children,’ or ‘This financial decision is likely to fail.’”
If we know that we’re struggling with personal agendas in a decision, we need to lay those out before God and ask him to bring our will into line with his. Sometimes openly acknowledging what we want his answer to be can help us separate what our heart is saying and God’s voice.
Our next step is to submit what we’re praying for and what we think God may have said to others who are trustworthy.
Please note, these are not buddies who always agree with us. They are church leaders, God-fearing family members or that friend who has known us forever and is willing to be honest with us even if it may risk putting our friendship on the rocks. “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers” (Proverbs 11:14 NLT).
The last step is to exercise your God-given common sense. Do your research. Get advice from more experienced people. Make sure to have accountability if you know you’ll need it. If appropriate, set boundaries.
Here for the Ups and Downs
Even doing everything we can, we’re going to mess up occasionally and pursue the wrong path or end up with nothing to show for our pursuit of what we thought was God’s call. As broken, fallen beings, it’s easy for us to make mistakes and lose God’s voice in the middle of our own clamoring desires.
We hit the dead end, and it’s easy to become bewildered, angry and then bitter.
God can do important work even with our apparent failures. Even if we do everything we can to ensure we’re following God and things still fall through, we have to trust that God has a purpose for what looks like a mess on our side.
Cynicism about God’s call is the death of all good adventures and the best living that we can experience. Alan Jacobs, Christian professor and writer, once mused in a biography about C.S. Lewis, “those who will never be fooled can never be delighted...”
Sometimes, God speaks with shocking clarity into our lives. Other times, pursuing God’s voice will require every tool in our toolbox.
Either way, it’s always worthwhile.