About 20 years ago I was working through a study called Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby. He made the statement that if you, as a Christian, are not aware that God is speaking to you then you have a serious spiritual problem. When I read this my first thought was that I must have a serious spiritual problem. I knew I had not experienced the audible voice of God or a dream or vision like those described in the Bible. However, upon further consideration I discovered that God was actually speaking to me frequently. The best example of that for me was that I knew that when I read the Bible I could tell that my spirit was being stirred and that God clearly was speaking to my soul and asking me to examine my attitudes and actions. Besides when reading the Bible I also discovered that God was speaking to me by the Holy Spirit through prayer, the church (and my Christian friends), and through my circumstances, just as Blackaby said would be the case.
Ever sense the Experiencing God study I have wrestled with being able to correctly discern the source of some of my thoughts, impressions, feelings, and ideas and to distinguish which ones are actually of God. This is especially the case when I’m concentrating on trying to discern what God’s will might be for me in a particular situation and when it appears that God may be seeking to get my attention and reveal something important to me – something that I should perhaps be aware of or act on. Through speaking with others it is clear that this is a perplexing issue for many Christ followers.
Over the years I’ve read articles and received teaching on hearing from God and discerning His voice. The following link to a message by Pastor Rick Warren is the best general message I’ve heard on the topic of recognizing God’s voice. Click HERE for a link to the Rick Warren message. I’ve also printed my notes from the message below for your use should a written version be useful to you. It is not a transcript but rather my takeaway from the message. It also incorporates some notes from my friend Larry Rosenthal. RMF
Learn How to Recognize the Voice of God
You can’t have a relationship with God if you don’t hear from Him. If all you do is speak to God in prayer and not hear back from Him it is a one-way relationship. God wants to speak with you.
You need to learn how to determine if your thoughts, ideas, mental sensations, feelings, impressions, etc., are from God, Satan, or simply your own thoughts. It’s important to know how to discern if it is God speaking to you – or not.
Proverbs 14:12 NIV
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. I.e., the wrong way can be fatal!
1 John 4:1 NIV
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. [Don’t believe everything someone says just because someone says it is a message from God; test it first to see if it really is. (Living Bible)]
So, it is possible to test a message to determine if it is from God? There are seven tests, or filters, that can be used.
1 John 4:2-3 NIV
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
In one moment you can get a message from God and the next moment get a message from Satan. Here is a classic example. Jesus was with the twelve disciples and He asked Peter who he thinks Jesus is. Peter replied, well Lord you are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus looked at Peter and said you have spoken the truth. Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but that idea, your statement, came from God.
Then, immediately, Jesus told Peter that He (Jesus) has to go to Jerusalem and be crucified and die there. Peter said, no don’t let them do that to you. And then Jesus replied back to Peter – Get behind me Satan. (Jesus was seeing that the thought Peter just spoke did not come from God but from Satan.) That’s how fast it can happen — how very fast thoughts can shift from God to satan or to our own self-generated thoughts. [See Matthew 16:13-23]
We quickly went from a truth, the fact that God’s church would be built upon the true foundation of Jesus as the Christ, to a lie – for it was Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that secured our salvation.
There are seven ways to determine if a thought or idea you have is from God. These seven tests form a filter. If it passes all seven, no picking and choosing, but all seven, then you can be confident that it is from God.
John 7:17 NIV
Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. [Anyone who wants to do His will can test this teaching and know whether it’s from God or whether I’m making it up. The Message]
[And note, this is key — You’ve got to be wanting to do God’s will. See, e.g., Romans 12:1-2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will. RMF]
Here are the seven tests:
#1 – Does it agree with the Bible? God’s will won’t go against or contradict His word. God will never tell you to violate a principal He has already given you in His word.
Luke 21:33 NIV
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
God’s word is eternal. Truth doesn’t change. It’s always true. If it’s true, it’s been around forever. People say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” No – God said it and that settles it, whether you believe it or not. God cannot lie. Humans lie. Opinions change. Science changes. So the first question to ask is this idea I have consistent with and in harmony with God’s word.
Jesus said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God with God’s. (Matthew 22:21) So if you get an idea that you don’t have to pay taxes then you know it’s not coming from God. In Proverbs it talks about how God will bless a business that is fair and truthful. (See, e.g.: http://www.backtothebible.org/10-financial-principles-that-are-biblical) God will ultimately not bless a business which skims and cheats. So, if you get a thought about cheating or cutting corners that idea did not come from God.
God created sex to be the glue between a husband and wife. Don’t reduce your standards to what the world would have you believe is ok with sex these days. These ideas are not from God. Even if some angel showed up and said here is some new stuff, some new standards of morality you should believe, new thoughts, new messages, new books claiming to be God’s word, anything not in sync with the Bible, we are to reject it.
Galatians 1:8-9 NIV
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! [As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Revised Standard Version]
#2 – Does this idea make me more like Christ? Why doesn’t God just take us to Heaven right at birth? The reason is that our life on earth is a test and a trust and a temporary assignment so that we can learn how to become like Jesus — so that our character is ready for Heaven. God put us on earth and left us here instead of taking us directly to heaven because He wants us to become more like Jesus in character. Jesus is the standard against which I evaluate every thought, opinion, philosophy, fad, etc. Things on earth are not easy. That is because everything on earth is imperfect and broken. Every mind, body, relationship, people, weather, all are broken. There is no perfect marriage, economy, country, church, environment. All are broken because of sin. Right now God is more interested in your character than in your earthly comfort. We need to become like Jesus in character.
Philippians 2:5 NIV
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. [In your lives you must think and act like Christ Jesus. New Century Version]
2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
When you get an idea ask yourself would Jesus act or do this in this way. Asking what Jesus would do is a good question. God gives us specific biblical guidance to help us answer that question. E.g., God says Jesus is like the fruit of the spirit so Jesus is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
James gives us some things that Jesus is and some things that Jesus isn’t.
James 3:14-17 NIV
If you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts …such “wisdom” is of the devil…. The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial, and sincere.
Notice that there are two things that will alert you that a thought or idea is not of God but of the devil, and seven that it is from God. If it is motivated by bitter envy (i.e., how to get even, how to get revenge, how to retaliate, etc., you are not hearing from God – it is a Satanic idea. And if the thought involves selfish ambition or self-serving actions then it is not of God but rather the devil. God did not put us on earth to live for ourselves. However, it is easy to be deceived into using God for selfish purposes by attributing thoughts and plans to God which are not from Him.
To the contrary the Bible says that ideas from God are pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial, and sincere.
– Pure – If the idea comes from God then it’s going to be Pure. So, any impure thought is obviously not from God.
– Peace-loving – Ideas from God promote harmony, not conflict; reconciliation, not division; peace, not war or separation. Be a bridge builder not a barrier builder. Is the idea one which will lead me to help others? Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers – they are the children of God. Ideas from God will not result in gossip. Remember that Satan is the accuser (Rev. 12:9-11). All gossip is satanic. When you criticize, condemn, and gossip you’re doing the devil’s work for him.
– Considerate – Will this idea hurt or harm anyone else? God is concerned about the well-being of other people. We need to ask what impact the thought or plan will have on other people.
– Submissive – If you’re submissive you’re humble and teachable. You’re willing to have your idea looked at and evaluated by another person. What does you Life Group think about it? If you have an idea and don’t want to tell anyone or your wife or husband about it, then it didn’t come from God.
– Full of mercy – You’ve been forgiven. You have been shown grace. And you should do the same for others. God has given you a lot of slack and you need to do the same for others. When people say they have heard from God and then they judge others, that shows that they have not heard from God. People who criticize do this. People who are harsh and critical and accusatory and judgmental have not heard from God. It takes no intelligence to criticize. A fool, an idiot, can criticize. We can look at all kinds of surface issues with anyone and find all sorts of things to criticize them for. But it takes wisdom, intelligence, and maturity to find the beauty in others and give them the benefit of the doubt. [1 Cor. 13:4-7 seems to me to be a good standard to consider when seeking to apply mercy in a situation. i.e., does it fit the definition of love? RMF] So, if you’re going to be merciful you’re going to be gracious to others. And, you will not try to manipulate others by using the God card, i.e., God told me such-and-so ….
– Impartial – If a person truly hears from God then actions flowing out of that will be without favoritism or bias. It will lead to treating and speaking to everyone the same way.
– Sincere – Thoughts and actions resulting from hearing from God will be sincere, i.e., not hypocritical. They will be honest, true, and authentic.
#3 – Does my church family confirm this idea? This is important because we are not meant to live life alone, but with other people in relationship. Ask other mature Christian friends who are serious about following Christ. What do they think? This is why it is so important to have a godly support network and church fellowship. If God has genuinely spoken to you then other Christians will confirm it when you talk to them about it.
Ephesians 3:10 NIV
God’s intent is that through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known.
God wants to use other people in my life. If I feel a resistance, any hesitancy, about testing the idea with others, then that should be a huge red flag. If mature believers question it then I should also.
Proverbs 11:9 NIV
With their mouths the godless destroy their neighbors, but through knowledge the righteous escape. [The wisdom of the righteous can save you. Good News Bible]
Listening to the wisdom of Christian friends can save you a lot of time, money, embarrassment, heartache, and possibly even your life. People mess themselves up because they have no Godly friends and/or fail to heed their godly advice. We need a small group to keep us in check. If you’re not in a Life Group you’re skating on then ice and you don’t know where the thin ice is. And, the advice of godly friends should be available on a regular basis. We all need feedback when evaluating impressions from God.
Proverbs 11:14 NIV
For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers. [In the multitude of counselors there is safety. King James Version]
Caveat: Beware of searching for people who will agree with what you think you’ve heard from God. Talk with truly mature friends who you are confident will level with you and provide honest feedback.
#4 – Is it consistent with how God shaped me? This test filter will save us a lot of money if we listen to it. God decided what He wanted us to do before we were born. He shaped and developed us into who we are today.
Job 10:8 NIV
Your hands shaped me and made me.
Form follows function and function follows form. Our function and purpose should be directed by the way God has shaped or formed us. He has shaped us into people who can function in the way that He has purposed for us. We are each unique, and just the way that God wants us to be. We shouldn’t try to be anyone other than who God created us to be. We should study our SHAPE to help us know how God wants to use us – how He wants us to function. What you’re good at is a good indication of what you should do with your life.
Ephesians 2:10 NIV
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
SHAPE determines purpose. God doesn’t want us to neglect any special skill, ability, or talent He has given us. Likewise, we shouldn’t try to function in some way which is beyond what God has gifted us for.
Romans 12:6-8 NIV
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
If you get an impression that you’re to do something that is totally opposite of who you are, your SHAPE, then it probably didn’t come from God. [Note that there are examples in Scripture of God using unlikely people to accomplish His plans and objectives. In those situations we were witnessing a demonstration of God’s power and grace. He may wish to use you in some way that is at variance with what you see as your SHAPE. I believe in such rare cases He will make it abundantly clear to you so that there is no doubt. RMF]
Just because you love something does not mean you should do it. If you’re good at something then people will confirm it to you. Your SHAPE, what you’re good at and what will ultimately be fulfilling to you, determines God’s purpose for you. Pastor Rick Warren is not shaped to be a Top Gun Naval Aviator! [I would dearly love to be a professional bass player and have a blues band. The rub is I’m just not capable of playing bass with the necessary skill and artistry. RMF]
You hear this often: You can be anything you want to be. That is just not true. However, you CAN be all God shaped you to be. Big difference. And you’ll find fulfillment in what God has shaped you to be. True leading from God will not contradict what He has shaped you to be.
[For a full treatment of this filter on hearing from God go to: http://www.purposedriven.com/day30/. Also recommended is Todd Wilson’s great book: More – Find Your Personal Calling and Live Life to the Fullest Measure. RMF]
#5 – Does it concern my responsibility? If it doesn’t pertain to you then why would God speak to you about it? Every believer has direct access to God. He really does not need to go through you. So don’t try to get God’s word for somebody else.
Near the end of His ministry on earth Jesus told Peter that Peter would be martyred for Him. Peter immediately looked at John, his fellow disciple, and asked “What about him?” Human behavior. And Jesus basically told Peter it is none of your business.
John 21:18-22 NIV
Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved [John] was following them. When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him? Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
Look at this lesson. Don’t worry about others. Simply focus on following Jesus. This is the WITTY Principle: What Is That To You.
We get in trouble when we ignore this. We need be concerned only about what God is saying to us – not someone else.
[For brief Kay Warren video on the WITTY principle click HERE. RMF]
Don’t try to be the Holy Spirit for someone else. When you want to honestly hear from God concentrate on what He is saying to you about you. He will speak to you about your current situation and how He wants you to change or what He wants you to do. It is very presumptuous to think that God wants to speak to you about someone else.
The same goes for someone else telling you what God has said to them about you. Unless the person is confirming something that God is already speaking to you about you, you can listen to what they say but you need not give it much credibility. If it is important for you to know God will reveal it to you.
Romans 14:4 NIV
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
This is talking about God being the Master.
The phrase: “God told me to tell you…” is very dangerous. Why doesn’t God just tell them Himself, directly?
Satan can discredit God’s work when well meaning Christians assume God’s roll. You ARE NOT the Holy Spirit to your wife, your kids, or anybody else.
Guidelines on how God may speak to me through others or to others through me:
A. Be patient and pray. Give God a chance to speak directly to them first. You can pray that they will be receptive to what God tells them when He speaks to them directly.
B. God will use you to confirm what God has already told the other person directly. This happens frequently.
C. God usually uses me (us) without us being conscious of it.
Romans 14:10,13 NIV
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister ? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. [We will all be judged one day, not by each other’s standards, or even our own, but by the judgment of God….It is to God alone that we shall have to answer for our actions. Phillips]
#6 – Is it convicting rather than condemning?
Conviction = Comes from God. He speaks to us to correct us and to develop our character. He loves us, and wants to help us mature toward greater Christlikeness.
Condemnation = Comes from Satan. It is just to criticize. It is motivated by his hatred for you. Condemnation gives you a bad guilty feeling. I’m a jerk. I’m worthless. I’m useless. This is not coming from God. If you are a Christian and feel that you are a bum or worthless, that you have no value, then you can be sure it is not from God.
Romans 8:1 NIV
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,…
God never attacks my value. He does not speak with condemnation. He will point out my sin but He will never attack my value. We are children of God and He loves us. He will simply never speak to us in a condemning way.
Here’s how God speaks into our lives.
Revelation 3:19 NIV
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. [Those whom I dearly and tenderly love, I tell their faults and convict and discipline. So be earnest and repent (changing your mind and attitude). Amplified Bible]
So when we err, God is anxious to help us get back on track by changing our mind and attitude. Condemnation, however, is like a dark cloud of doom. Conviction is like a pinpoint of light where God says, confess and lets change it together. Conviction is specific and clear and goes away as soon as you respond to it appropriately. Condemnation never goes away because it’s Satan continually applying the guilt.
Man’s system of justice has two parts. Conviction in the courts and then sentencing (condemnation). God’s system of justice is different. It has three parts. The Holy Spirit lets us know that we have sinned – that’s conviction. Then, when we acknowledge our sin and repent Jesus is faithful and just in bearing our condemnation for us. Then comes God’s forgiveness to us – forever. What a great deal. That is really good news. The feeling of conviction should last only as long as it takes me to repent. Condemnation is vague and general and never goes away
Be careful and don’t mistake low self-esteem for God’s voice.
Revelation 12:10 NIV
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of His Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.
Satan is the accuser of believers. He minimizes your sin before you do it, then he maximizes it after you sin.
#7 – Do I sense God’s peace about it? If I feel pressure, confused, overwhelmed, then maybe I’m caught up in myself and am not hearing God’s voice.
1 Corinthians 14:33 NIV
God is not the author of confusion.
So, if you’re feeling confused and anxious it is some other voice than God’s. God, as the perfect parent, wants us to understand what it is that He expects of us. The only time we could legitimately sense God’s pressure in our lives is if He is telling us something and we’re resisting. But there is always peace when I’m doing what He’s asking me to do.
Satan wants to drive people compulsively and God wants to draw us compassionately. Satan wants to take our compulsions and use them against us. Ninety percent of what God will say to us is encouragement. If all you ever sense is confusion and frustration then you’re not hearing from God. Here is the way God speaks to us:
Philippians 4:6-9 NIV
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
When you hear from God and then put it into practice, when you do it, then you will have peace. It’s not just a matter of hearing – but of hearing and then acting on it.
Proverbs 22:17 NIV
Pay attention and turn your ear to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach. [Listen to this wise advice; follow it closely, for it will do you good, and you can pass it on to others.]
Listen to hear it from God, do it, and pass it on.
Jesus said it pretty simply. We need to become like little children and be open and trusting to God and listen for His voice. Why do we make it so hard? If you’re not hearing God, then maybe you have some sin in your life that you need to get rid of. Maybe a relationship, a habit, a hurt. Maybe you’re harboring unforgiveness and don’t want to let that person off the hook — and you need to confess it. Any sin in your life will come between you and God and will make hearing clearly from Him more difficult.
If you have never heard God speak to you then you need to get to know Jesus Christ. You need a relationship with Him. You may have been in church all your life – but you can have churchianity without Christianity. You can have religion without relationship. You can know all about God and not really know Him. Here’s the mark that you know God.
John 8:47 NIV
Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.
If you don’t hear from God then maybe you’ve never been saved — you’ve never been born again. Maybe you’ve never stepped across the line in faith; you’ve never put yourself totally in His hands. You can do that right now. Confess your sins and put your faith and trust in Him. Repent. Ask His forgiveness and turn your life around. Make Him your leader. Be obedient by being buried with Him in the waters of baptism and then arise and walk with Him in a newness of life. Your life will be transformed for eternity.