So God is calling me to do something...or is he? I haven't heard an audible voice but somehow I have the sense that God is saying something – just to me. I don't want to be gullible – perhaps it is just wishful thinking or my own ideas formulating. On the other hand if it is God speaking to me I certainly don't want to be disobedient. If only I knew for sure it was God's voice...
The problem is I have heard too many crazy claims. I've heard boys say to girls, "God has told me that you should be my girlfriend". And I've heard a girl respond to this somewhat creepy chat-up line with an abrupt, "Well he hasn't told me that so push off". I've also read more sinister stories like the primary school teacher who recently physically attacked skateboarders because apparently Jesus told him to.
On an almost daily basis we hear news of atrocities committed because somebody thought God was telling them to do it. But I have also seen people clearly led by God to do incredible things – adopt children, quit their jobs to help the vulnerable, become a a social worker or a politician or a scientist. I even met someone who felt God told him to give away a year's wages.
So how can we know if God really is speaking to us? Here are five pathways that may help:
1. Search your heart
Sometimes saying we have heard from God is simply a means of justifying what we wanted to do anyway. The infatuated young man who seeks divine backing for asking the object of his affections out on a date is one obvious example. Many of the wars waged around the world involve egomaniacal leaders who put words in God's mouth so that they hear him saying just what they want him to say.
So if we think God is speaking to us, we must first check our hearts and our consciences to see if we are using God as a ventriloquist's dummy for our own desires. One way we can respond to God's voice is to pray with the Psalmist, "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).
2. Search the Scriptures
I have all sorts of strange thoughts that come into my head, often influenced by how much coffee I have imbibed or how much cheese I have eaten before I go to sleep. I can easily be moved by a movie or a news story. My priorities and ideas shift around depending on who I have spoken to, what I have read and how I feel. Having an external reference point to assess God's voice and priorities for me is vital.
For Christians the Scriptures provide the clearest revelation of what God wants of us. Scripture provides both clarity and authority when it comes to God's direction in our lives. We get clarity through direct commands such as the Ten Commandments where God sets out what he considers normative for Christian obedience. We get authority from the fact that Jesus himself demonstrated how to use the Bible appropriately to remain obedient to God. I say 'appropriately' because even our use of Scripture can be biased, whether it is our love-struck young example pointing to "You shall go out with joy" (Isaiah 55:12), or those egomaniacal dictators pointing to genocides in the Old Testament.
Sadly, Scripture has been used to justify many horrific things. We must make sure we have done our homework to understand the original intent and context of the Bible. If we are feeling led to do something that is contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible, however sincerely we may feel it, we are being misled.
3. Search out the counsel of friends
Our consciences are slippery and our desires and hopes are too easily confused with God's voice. Even our use of Scripture can easily become self-serving. But we can employ another way to test the guidance we think we have received from God by searching out the counsel of others. Having friends whom we can use as sounding boards when we think God might be leading us can be very helpful. It is often easier to justify something to ourselves than it is to convince others. Sharing the leading we have received can bring a sense of objectivity to our reasoning.
Of course this is not an infallible measure either, as we could subconsciously choose friends who will tell us what we want to hear, or perhaps, as was the case with Job's friends/comforters, all of our friends could be mistaken. But as part of the checks and balances of listening to God, involving others in our reflection is vitally important.
Christian discipleship was never meant to be a solitary practice. It was always intended to take place as part of a church community. Not that this always makes it easier – as different friends add in their views, God's voice sometimes becomes even less clear – but as we continue to pray and discern with praying and discerning friends, if God is trying to tell us something there will be clarification.
4. Search your wisdom and experience
Some people treat divine guidance as intentionally irrational, but this runs counter to what the Bible actually says. The Proverbs describe the search for wisdom and discernment as one of the highest goals of human existence (Proverbs 2:1-11). The quest for wisdom comes with the promise that we will know how to make good decisions and choose the right paths. Being a Christian disciple means loving God with every part of our being: "heart, soul and mind", as Jesus puts it, and deliberately choosing to ignore your mind is deficient discipleship.
Of course our reasoning can be flawed and biased. Sometimes in the Bible God asks people to do things that didn't seem wise at all or that deliberately take his people in a direction that is counter to the ways of the world. "Sell everything you have and give to the poor" is a clear command Jesus gave to the rich young ruler which didn't seem like a wise financial decision. But for those of us who are not being spoken to face-to-face by the Son of God incarnate, I would argue that if guidance we think we might have received does not appear to be wise and rational, we need to search for wider and clearer confirmation.
5. Search for confirmation
In some Christian churches prophetic utterances are encouraged. A prophetic word is a potentially God-given insight or message to help Christians serve God in our current context. I come across many Christians who tell me they have received a prophetic word regarding decisions they are making. Sometimes they are clearly God-anointed words that help them to walk with confidence in an otherwise difficult decision. Sometimes they are bizarre, unlikely or just bad advice thinly disguised as prophecy.
The kinds of prophetic messages that the New Testament seems to state will continue into the Church age are not doctrine-defining new revelations from God but rather insights and pointers for how to serve God in our time. For example in the New Testament, when Paul received a prophetic message to take the gospel to Macedonia, this was an extra nudge in the right direction. For the content of the message he shared, Paul preached the Scriptures and retold the historic events of Jesus' life. I believe that God still operates in this way and any prophetic words we receive will call us back to check, uphold and share Scripture. This is why Paul commands the church in the Greek city of Thessalonica to be open and also to be discerning – he tells the church: "Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:20).
When I feel that God might be speaking to me I search my heart and search the Scriptures, I take advice from friends with wise counsel and I apply my wisdom and common sense. I also try to remain open to prophetic insight, which I will test against Scripture. There is no infallible test to make sure that we are really hearing direction from God, but I believe these pathways can act as helpful checks and balances so that we can sincerely seek to hear, honour and obey our God.
For me the ultimate test is whether, hand on heart, I can say that I am seeking first God's kingdom. I come across people seeking to hear the voice of God on all sorts of decisions. Whether they are trying to decide whether to go for a new job, move to a new area to help plant a church, visit a neighbour, forgive a relative, switch political allegiances or adopt a child, often the problem is not our ability to hear the voice of God, but the courage, grace and willingness to obey it. That's a whole different article...
Dr Krish Kandiah is a Contributing Editor to Christian Today and founder and director of Home for Good.