A well-known Christian teacher and prophet posted an interesting question on Facebook this week. He asked: "What is your #1 question or concern about hearing God's voice?"
He received nearly 200 responses to his question, and not surprisingly, the majority of them had to do with distinguishing God's voice from the devil's - or our own.
Just for fun, I asked my children what their #1 question was. Two of them said the same thing: How do I know if it's God speaking? My youngest, who does hear from God occasionally, has come up with a solution to this problem. As I took a long walk with this adorable one last night, he explained how it works. He knows that God wants us to put others' interests above our own (Philippians 2:3), and so he decided that when he hears several voices in his head, he'll choose the second one, since Satan probably always wants to speak first!
Certain religious traditions have gone so far as to oversimplify the process of hearing God, teaching what I call the "Stoplight Approach." Afraid of encouraging people to "imagine" what God might be saying, they teach instead that God has only three answers: Yes, No, and Wait. Ouch. One look at the elaborate prophecies in scripture, Old or New Testaments, is enough to convince me that God is by no means limited to a three-word vocabulary!
But how do we overcome our fear of hearing Him? And how do we discern His voice, if He really is speaking? Thankfully, we are not limited to childish conjecture when it comes to hearing God. I believe there is a better - and biblical - way.
A Better Way: Three Steps to Discerning the Voice of God
1. Draw Close
James 4:8 reads: "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (NKJV). There are two types of proximity: physical and emotional/spiritual. In a crowded room, I can pull up a chair and sit near you in order to hear what you are saying: this is physical proximity, and it is a necessary requirement for hearing. The closer we are to someone, the more we hear. We draw near to God in this way by spending regular time in the Word, which is the starting point for all of His communication with us.
The second type of proximity is emotional or spiritual. Growing intimacy with someone gives us access to a broader range of communication because of a heart-to-heart, trusting relationship. As we know someone better, we can almost anticipate what they might say or do in a certain situation. Similarly, as we spend time getting to know God and sharing our hearts with Him, He reveals more of His heart to us. Communication expands far beyond "Yes, No, and Wait," becoming deeper and more meaningful.
The best way to discern God's voice is to be intimately familiar with the real thing. Just as a bank teller is trained to recognize a counterfeit by handling hundreds of real bills first, so we need to train ourselves to recognize truth when we hear it. As we read in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the Word of God is our measuring stick:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God,
and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof,
for correction, for instruction in righteousness,
that the man of God may be complete,
thoroughly equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17 NKJV)
2. Seek Counsel.
Jesus also tells us in John 10:5 that His sheep will "by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of a stranger."
There is safety in numbers, especially for sheep, and it is no accident that Christ uses the analogy of sheep with a shepherd to describe believers like us. The predators - spiritual foxes, wolves and lions - are mentioned many times in Scripture, and a quick look at nature assures us that it is far safer to mingle with the flock than to set out on our own. I can think of several examples of times when I was attacked by the enemy, and all of them were situations in which I was alone or didn't run an idea by a trusted friend first.
Even the greatest Old Testament prophets like Elijah and Samuel didn't act on their own. They participated in training schools or mentoring which helped them hone their skills in the area of hearing God. Christ also demonstrated discipleship of his followers, spending most of His waking hours with those He trained. It is "by reason of use" (Hebrews 5:13-14) that our senses are trained to discern both good and evil.
We are called to fellowship and mutual accountability with others. This is not just for our safety, but for our maturity:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God...that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things
into Him who is the head - Christ.
We grow in fellowship with others, and we need the witness and counsel of those around us to help us discern whether what we hear is "right on."
3. Look for Confirmation.
That said, there are times when God will ask us to do something that is atypical, that goes against the crowd. In these cases, we are justified in asking God for confirmation. Just as it is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw us to Christ, it is the work of God to confirm the Word of Christ in us, with signs and wonders if needed. I regularly ask God to confirm things for me, and there are plenty of Scriptural precedents for this. He is a loving God who backs up what we do in faith and does not let us wander too far off track. We do not need to fear that we will "miss it!" He is so much bigger, and He knows our hearts.
I pray that the Lord will show you any areas where religious tradition or personal fears have kept you from hearing His wonderful voice. I am asking Him to - right now - set you free from areas of bondage that may have resulted from stepping out in faith and being hurt or shut down in the process. If you have given up on hearing God because someone in authority told you it wasn't possible or you heard wrong, I pray that you will have the grace to forgive - and then to go back to where you left off. May you begin again to familiarize yourself with His sweet whispers, and may His voice be the sweetest thing you hear.
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c. Deborah Perkins, 2014. All references NKJV unless otherwise noted.
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A severe hearing loss from childhood caused Deborah Perkins to develop what she now calls her secret weapon: tuning in to God's voice. A Wellesley College graduate and an award-winning writer, Deborah is now a wife and mother of 3 boys. Deborah has devoted over 25 years to professional and lay Christian ministry in New England and beyond. Her passion is inspiring people to cultivate greater intimacy with God.