When one is prompted to do or say something, is that prompting from God or from the flesh? Is the voice God’s voice or one’s own desires, which run contrary to God’s will?
When his will and ours seem closely aligned, how can we tell if he is speaking to us? We can interpret God’s voice from our own — with practice and discipline.
A Cloudy Communication
As if God’s ways are not mysterious enough at times, we face the problem that “our desires can muddy our ability to hear God’s voice,” wrote Tania Harris. “This makes it all the more difficult to differentiate between our voice and God’s.”
God’s specific will for us is seldom clear, but even if it was, we might be inclined to overlook or distort his will. His ways frequently contradict earthly direction or lead us away from the immediate fulfillment of temporal pleasure.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
In other words, those plans are known by God and not by us. Even when one’s path is only revealed one step at a time, we are urged to trust the Lord’s direction knowing that the destination is certain.
The Well-Lit Path
But not everything is unclear. The Psalmist wrote, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies” (27:11). He taught that “all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (25:10).
Psalm 119:105 praises God, saying “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” If we follow God, we will be guided by him.
The Psalms above offer visual representations of God’s personal revelation to us, but is this the same as hearing his voice? If we were to wait for audible revelation, then most people would not hear God’s voice at all. We still “hear God,” however, in several ways.
Through Our Pastors
Some believers avoid church, but they listen to sermons on YouTube given by pastors they do not know. They select messages they want to hear instead of joining a local church community and staying there, whether in person or via Zoom.
The local pastor’s message does not always suit individual yearnings or curiosity. His sermon topic is too challenging, or boring, or controversial. Accountability to a community threatens one’s pride and autonomy, or a bad experience has turned one “off” of church.
But a pastor is given a message for his congregation, God’s message for a group of people. “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15).
Each pastor is a shepherd for a specific community of seekers and believers. The congregation of that church (in person or via social media) is the flock a pastor has been called to guard and to nurture.
“When the pastor lives a life of prayer like Jesus and becomes intentional about discipleship and spiritual formation,” wrote S. Joseph Kidder, “God will use them to transform the church into a sanctuary for spiritually transformed lives.”
Prayer-centered pastors speak God’s Word over their sheep. Those who avoid the local shepherd’s sermons are also losing the chance to hear God’s voice and to know it is his voice, not their own.
Although God provides general revelation through a sermon delivered to tens, hundreds, or thousands of people, there are often special words of private revelation nestled within those sermons. To discount this possibility is to limit the reach and power of God’s Word, which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).
Speaking to the Christian’s individual needs in the moment was not the purpose for which Scripture was written, but many times the pastor will hear “I felt as though you were speaking directly to me.” If one’s local pastor is an obedient servant of Christ who preaches the gospel weekly, any inner voice urging one to avoid his sermons is unlikely to have come from the Lord.
Through Study of Scripture
Billy Graham wrote, “The authors of Scripture made it clear that God was speaking to them and through them. More than 3,000 times they said, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” He speaks to us through Scripture, directly and generally.
Thanks to the Ten Commandments, one knows that a voice, which urges one to start an affair with a married coworker is not the voice of God. But what if that is an emotional affair? We can argue that the Ten Commandments do not speak specifically to this question, but again we would know one’s personal voice from God’s voice because Christ taught that our thoughts matter.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).
God sees the heart; he wants our obedience to his laws to start there. We do not always need a personal word about a temptation, which is similar to ours in order to discern God’s voice from our own sinful desires.
Yet it happens that, while reading Scripture in the middle of a confusing season, he will appear to speak directly. One wonders “should I act now or wait?” That morning’s devotional verse is “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Psalm 130:5).
A calendar at work reads, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14). A card arrives in the mail from a friend. “Thinking of You” with a verse “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him” (Lamentations 3:25).
Is it possible the Lord is saying “wait”? Obviously, one would want to explore these verses more carefully in context, but believers often report that God has used Scripture to get their attention and to provide the security they need to believe this was his direction, not their own.
Through Other Believers
Tania Harris recommends that we listen to wise counsel from friends; people who can “see through the fog that is created by your preferences and longings.” Good friends know each other well; teachers know their students. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).
Of course, the writer refers to good and godly counsel. But the point is that Christians need the counsel of other people; a constant reliance on one’s own counsel is unhealthy. Paul teaches that “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
The speaker, as part of a body of believers, would also hear that truth. While non-Christians can still impart wisdom, Western culture generally promotes self-reliance. If one wants to hear godly wisdom, this needs to come from people who are maturing in Christ; people who desire to obey God.
Through Regular Prayer
There is no guarantee that, during prayer, one will hear the voice or discern the direction of God regarding a specific issue. Oswald Chambers explained that “the biblical purpose of prayer is that we may get to know God Himself.”
We pray in order to worship and praise the Lord; to come into his presence by the power of the Holy Spirit given us by the Risen Christ. Yet, the Lord in his mercy can and does speak to us through our prayers in words we hear as though from God.
They might pop into one’s mind as a voice or a picture. How does one know this comes from God and not from a sinful longing? We must trust the Spirit. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
That peace comes from the Holy Spirit, and we recognize the Spirit’s voice when we ask God to inform the desires of our heart (Psalm 37:4). Start there, praying for God’s will rather than our own. Follow the Lord’s prayer through praise, thanks, and confession before asking for anything.
You Will Know
God’s voice will be recognizable if we apply all the steps above. Confusion could be a mask for denial if the Lord’s voice is saying something, which is tough to hear. If one nurtures a regular relationship with God through prayer, study, and fellowship, one starts to recognize the Father’s voice. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.