This past week, I spent an afternoon at our association’s High School camp. I was curious—I had never been to our camps and we have some teenagers in our church who rave about it. During the afternoon chapel session, the director and counselors partook in a Q&A session, which I think is a good thing. One question in particular came up that caught my attention: “How do you know if God is speaking to you?”
This question is one that intrigues many people—kids and adults—and the following Sunday evening when I did the lesson for the youth group, since most of them were not able to go to camp, I brought it up as a point to discuss, and again it was a good discussion.
So how does God speak to us?
It is interesting the variety of answers you get if you ask that question. It seems the Bible, as the word of God, should be the obvious and objective answer yet in my experience it is the one that is named the least. Often people say: he is a still, small voice in your head that you listen for when you pray; or, he stirs your emotions and your feelings (kind of a gut feeling or a thing of intuition); or even, he sometimes gives you dreams.
But are these valid? Should we tell people to expect God to speak to them in quiet voices, feelings, and dreams?
If the question is: has God spoken in this way? Well, yes, he did speak in voices and dreams to people in the Bible. Or: can God speak in this way? He’s God he can do anything he wants so long as it is not against his nature. But does God speak to most people in such a manner? Well let’s think about that one item at a time:
The still-small voice of God. This is one of the most popular ways people think God speaks. It seems to be based on the story of Elijah from 1 Kings 19 where the prophet goes onto a mountain to speak to God. First a wind tore the mountain, then an earthquake, then fire, but it was not until Elijah heard a whisper in a thin silence that he knew God was there to speak. And it’s true, God did speak in the midst of a whisper at that point. But, this is the only story off the top of my head where I can recall God speaking in a whisper. With Moses God spoke through a burning bush, in the wilderness God spoke to Israel through sounds like thunder on the mountain so much so they were afraid and asked to no longer hear his voice, to Job he spoke in a whirlwind, to Jesus at his baptism in a voice from heaven, the same at the transfiguration in a way that frightened the three disciples, and again the same with Paul on the road to Damascus.
In the overarching storyline of Scripture, when God spoke to people a still-small voice was the least likely way he spoke. Most often if his voice was heard it was as a frightening thunder.
Along with this, the still-small voice is often connected to prayer. I heard one person say recently, “When you pray you can’t do all the talking, you have to take moments to be silent and listen for the voice of God.” My problem with that is I cannot think of even a single example in Scripture of prayer involving contemplative silence. Indeed, prayer by its definition is speaking to God, and when Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Matthew 6 he gave them words to say and at no point told them, “Then you must be silent and listen.” The silent listening would be more akin to meditation, but meditation in Scripture is always focused upon the words of Scripture. In the silence, we listen to God speak through the word he has already provided.
And, of course, nowhere does the Bible tell us that we will hear the voice of God audibly—loud or soft. In fact, Peter, one who did hear the loud thunder of God’s voice said, “We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:18-20).
Basically Peter said, “I’ve heard the voice of God but you have something more sure to listen to—Scripture.” Therefore we should not be in the business of telling people that God will speak to them as an audible voice, a voice in their head, etc., nor that they should listen for a still small voice in their prayers. And if they do hear a voice they think is God, they should test it against the sure words of Scripture.
A feeling or intuition. This is another popular way people “feel” God speaks to them. “I just feel like God is leading me to this,” or “God has given me a peace about this.” I will grant that the Bible does speak about people being led by the Holy Spirit, but it never defines what that leading is like other than what Jesus said in John 16—that he convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. But these are very specific convictions of truth, and most people’s “feelings” about things don’t qualify for one of these categories.
I once heard a preacher tell a story about his drive home one day. He said he felt the Holy Spirit telling him that he needed to deviate from his normal route and take another one, so he did. Nothing happened along the way, and nothing happened (at least newsworthy) on his normal route. Yet this man told the story, convinced he would have been disobeying God if he had taken his normal route. Really? And is it wise to tell people to listen to their feelings that have no backing in Scriptural revelation and tell them they run the risk of being disobedient if they don’t?
I only recall one story in the Bible that has to do with “feelings” in such a way. In Luke 24, two men were walking along the Emmaus road and Jesus appeared, walked with them, and explained himself through “all the Scriptures.” When they reached the village, Jesus broke bread with them, their eyes were opened, and Jesus vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
A couple of things to note about this: first, their hearts didn’t burn in general, their hearts burned in response to hearing Scripture. This certainly was some sort of intuition but not a general feeling about things like taking another route home. Rather it was the conviction of the words of truth. Furthermore, though their hearts burned they did not recognize why it was or even who Jesus was until they broke bread and their eyes were opened.
And when it comes to specific feelings like peace about a situation—sometimes the right thing does not produce peace in the soul. Take Jesus in the garden before his arrest, for example. He was absolutely devoted to the crucifixion, for it was the right thing, but he was by no means at peace about it.
Feelings come and go and are subject to the corruption of sin. Feelings should not serve as a basis of decision making. But if we really “feel” God is leading us to do something, we again must check it with the sure word of God.
Dreams and visions. Finally, we have dreams and visions. This perhaps is most popular today in more charismatic circles. Without a doubt, in the stories of the Bible both Old Testament and New, God spoke to many people through dreams and visions. Could God still speak to people in this way? Absolutely. Does God still speak to people in this way? Maybe or maybe not.
Though God did speak in dreams, nowhere does the Bible tell us to expect such dreams as a normal part of our Christian walk. And God never promises that he will continue to speak to people through dreams. Like above, if we have a dream we think might be the voice of God we must check it against Scripture. After all, we all have many dreams throughout the night, some which we remember and many which we don’t. Dreams can be caused by all sorts of things already in our minds. They may possibly be a communication of God, but they are not the sure communication of God through Scripture.
In conclusion… Psalms 19:1-2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” And in John 5:39, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
How does God speak? His creation, of which we are a part and of which we are immersed in, tells of his glory and attributes. They tell us how big and wonderful God is, he has poured speech into the heavens. Yet God’s sure voice comes through Jesus. And we know for certain that we have seen and heard Jesus when we dwell in the Scriptures, written as God’s voice to us.