There is a hunger in many souls to hear directly from God, to hear His voice and to get revelation directly from Him. While this desire is, I think, generally good, I have concluded that wrong thinking in this area led to most of my big mistakes in life. What follows is what I have learned about hearing from God. It helps me now every single day. All feedback is welcome.
Most of us know people who are quick to say, “God told me.” It is a powerful claim of significance and legitimacy that is difficult to dispute. We may also know the longing, especially in painful or difficult circumstances, to “hear a word from God.” We want to be comforted, to have clear direction, to understand. This longing feeds psychics and fortune tellers the world over, as well as energizing much of the “prophetic” in Christian circles. Yet when touching the supernatural there is always danger, and we must be very careful.
Jesus speaks openly on this topic, yet (as is often the case) His point is easy to miss. “He that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep … and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out … and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.” (Jn 10:2-5) Let us ponder this for a bit.
Jesus points out a simple fact: sheep know their shepherd’s voice instinctively; it is not something they are ever confused about. Sheep hear many kinds of voices, but they immediately respond to and follow only their own shepherd’s voice, and they do this without having to discern or test it.
While it is true that we are to “test the spirits,” (1Jo 4:1) the context for such testing is not discerning whether we are hearing from God or not … but whether someone else is. When someone else claims to have direct revelation from God, we must check everything they say using both wisdom and the Bible.
But sheep don’t test the voice of their own shepherd. When a shepherd speaks, his sheep respond to him immediately because it is built right into their nature to do so; sheep do this instinctively. When they hear other voices, and they will hear other voices, they don’t respond in this way. Jesus is saying that when God speaks directly to us we will know this immediately and without any doubt or reservation; we will be unable to act as if someone other than God has spoken. If we do not respond instinctively in this way, it is another voice that we are hearing, not God’s.
So, unless we want to be led by the demonic, it is wise to dismiss all direct spiritual revelation which we are able to dismiss. One thing is certain from Jesus’ teaching: we will not be able to ignore God, to dismiss His word to us as if He has not spoken; so every form of direct spiritual revelation that is offered to us which we are able to ignore, we should. This is, in fact, profound, fundamental to all healthy spiritual life.
The reality is that the Holy Spirit generally leads His children from within, as a very part of them, not through external direct revelations or impressions. “Christ in us,” the Spirit of Christ, works in us “both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Php 2:13) God dwells in believers in a place the enemy cannot occupy: “in us,” where we cannot tell Him apart from ourselves. Believers are one spirit with God (1Co 6:17), such that when the Spirit is leading we do not sense anything external, but it seems to us perfectly natural and organic, as our very own thoughts, our very own wills … because it actually is.
It is from within our very wills, hearts and minds, not externally from the outside, that God generally leads believers. Believers are very active in this process, not passive. God works in us by becoming one with us, transforming us into His likeness, engaging us, completing us and enriching us. As we yield to Him we do not become less ourselves but more; we do not grow passive and yielding in the use of our facilities, but increasingly discerning and deliberate and powerful.
In losing our lives, (Mt 10:39), in dying to ourselves (Ro 8:13), we do not shut down the natural capabilities God has given us, our very ability to think, reason and will, but only our unholy passions and cravings. (Ga 5:24) While we purpose to walk with God He leads us in and by our very act of willing. As we engage our minds in prayerful meditation and reflection on His Word, both alone and in community, God gives us new insights and teaches us through our very act of thinking and reasoning. Our Lord calls us to think, will and act for Him (Col 3:17), and as we do He teaches and guides us through this very activity.
The enemy cannot work like this in believers, but instead must supplant, usurp and replace us, enlarging himself and weakening, diminishing and de-activating us, pushing us to the sidelines. Satan calls us to die to ourselves in a much different way than God does: the enemy tempts us to neglect the very tools God has given us to discern his own tactics against us, our own intellect and ability to reason. He lies to us about their purpose, moving us to consider their use unspiritual, fleshly and carnal, so that he may render us ineffective for God, or worse. He wants us to lay these aside and trust the external impressions and feelings he offers us as if they are from the Holy Spirit, and convince us this is what it means to “walk in the spirit.” (Ga 5:25) It is perhaps the enemy’s primary means of deceiving and destroying God’s elect, and how he attempts to live vicariously through us.
When Satan speaks to a believer, and he may do so nearly constantly, in a veritable stream of strategically crafted impressions, he is attempting to deceive, kill and destroy. (Jn 10:10) While he may actually be speaking truth much of the time, and helpful truth at that, his ultimate purpose is to win the trust of his victim so that he will be able to deceive. He does not do this in a way that would expose himself. His manner may be very familiar, inviting and accepting, or he may be intimidating and demanding, depending on our particular weaknesses. Whatever the tact, his aim is to imitate God, the Holy Spirit, and he can make his tone and manner to be absolutely anything he wishes. We cannot tell it is the enemy merely from the content of what is spoken, or by the tone or manner of the voice. If we try to discern the source of an impression using these types of litmus tests, we will most certainly fail.
Once the enemy sees we have begun to trust him as he uses a particular tone or manner, as we fail in discerning him and begin to presume God is speaking to us … the enemy has us positioned right where he wants us: a willing and obedient servant, unwittingly allowing him to live through us, poised to do most anything he asks.
We can be certain of one thing here: the enemy neglects no opening we give him (Ep 4:27); he will be trying his level best to achieve this state in every committed believer. I fear he is largely successful with many of us, corrupting the spiritual life in far too many ignorant saints today. Satan is not stupid, and he is not lazy; he is brilliant and he is relentless; he has been at this game for nearly six millennia … and he is at war with the saints. (Re 13:7) Don’t think we can outwit him. We can’t; the mere presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit will not protect us if we are ignorant of his devices. (2Co 2:11)
We are no longer taught how to defend ourselves against this kind of infiltration and deception, against the onslaught on our spiritual sanity. The enemy sees to it that any good teaching here is stamped out, drowned out, and cast out. Understanding this dynamic and learning to defend ourselves against his wiles effectively takes out his only real weapon against us. Make no mistake; the concept is vital to our spiritual well-being.
Listen, friend. If and when God decides to speak directly to us from the outside, apart from our own wills such that we are essentially passive in the experience — which is generally quite rare — we will indeed know that it is God, and any thought of a “test” will be out of the question. Only God is able to cause us to know that it is Him when He speaks. When God told Abraham to offer up his only son Isaac as a burnt offering (Ge 22:2), Abraham did not test this word to see if it was from God: in fact, he could not test it. Abraham simply obeyed, knowing without hesitation or qualification that God had spoken and what God wanted. If we aren’t that sure about our experience, then let’s ignore it and be on our way.
Develop the regular spiritual discipline of immediately dismissing every single thought or impression which seems to come to you rather than from you. If you become aware that you might not be the source of a thought or impression, if it is something that you did not intend with your own will, if it did not spring naturally from within you, and if you are also able to think that the source might not be God, if you are able to even ask the question, “Who are you?” — then don’t evaluate the input … ignore it. Filter out everything you can which does not originate within you yourself.
It may take time to train yourself to notice what is going on within your mind and spirit, to become aware of these dynamics. At first, you may find it difficult to discern what is internal and external, and feel uneasy upon the discovery that you have largely been driven by a constant stream of external suggestions and impressions, that you have not been living intentionally and deliberately on our own, that you have not been thinking and feeling for yourself. Not to worry: we have all lived under this debilitating stream, for it is in this type of spiritual and mental passivity that the enemy “works in the children of disobedience.” (Eph 2:2) Such passivity of the mind is the chief basis of demon possession, (see the classic, War On The Saints) and it is the primary means whereby the enemy has gained his footholds and strongholds in our lives. The first step to freedom is learning to recognize the problem, and then seeking God for the power to overcome.
Once we become children of God, by the power of God we must train our minds to resist the enemy’s constant attempts, like a relentless spiritual parasite, to live through us in this manner. Learn to ignore his every nudge, every whisper, every smooth suggestion, every clamor … even every feeling … everything that is offered to us — we do not need any of it. In Christ we may ignore him entirely and learn to think, feel and act in progressively greater freedom. Resisting the enemy is truly a battle, and we grow in it over time as we walk this out in the power of God. The discipline is basic to what the Bible calls, “girding up the loins of your mind” (1Pe 1:13), and it is foundational in spiritual warfare.
It is foolish then, understanding how God works in believers, as well as how the enemy does, to try to hear from God, to quiet our minds and spirits, to empty them in order to hear God speak. This is not what God means when He tells us to wait on Him; the very concept of this kind of mental passivity is completely foreign to the Bible, and it is extremely dangerous. (1Pe 5:8-9) When our minds are left deliberately passive and receptive to input from the spiritual realm we invite the enemy in like a flood … whose chief aim in every believer is to imitate God in order to steal, kill and destroy. Little is more foolish, ignorant, or harmful to our spiritual lives.
As a general rule, do not seek special rhema words from God. Walk in wisdom: “this is the principle thing.” (Pr 4:7) Be content with the revelation God has already provided, and with the way that He has chosen to reveal Himself. When we really do need direct, special, supernatural revelation, God will certainly provide it; we need not ask Him to do so; He will speak very clearly and unmistakably as and when He pleases.
Meanwhile, let’s avail ourselves of the means God has already provided for us to discern His will, to prove it. (Rom 12:2, Eph 5:10) Spend a LOT of time in the Bible, memorizing it, hiding it in your heart, meditating on it, obeying it, discussing it with others, asking Him to teach you and give you wisdom. With all of your getting … get understanding. (Pr 4:7b)
Connect often with spiritual brothers and sisters and listen for truth and wisdom in them. Ask them to challenge you, to question you, to check out what you are thinking and why. Root out all of your lies as if they were poison, and think of this process as a team effort.
Note carefully any problem texts in Scripture that don’t integrate seamlessly into your theology, beliefs which do not square up precisely with the entirety of His Word. Replace every deception with truth as best you are able. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Mt 7:7) Be humble, carefully considering any kind of criticism, repenting promptly of dead works when you find yourself in any error. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (Ja 1:19) Look for clarity, look for simplicity … and look at consistent example of Christ, how He only did what His father within Him was doing. (Jn_5:19)
Look for truth where God has already placed it, and don’t take ultimate comfort or find your significance in anything or anyone but God Himself. (2Co 10:17) Rejoice over Him all the time … and you will find that the hunger for that “rhema” word of God … is finally and completely satisfied.