Hearing God’s Voice and Discerning God’s Will
Article by Larissa Lee
When someone says, “God told me…” I instinctively cringe. I’ve had self-appointed prophets use “God told me” to emotionally manipulate me. We’ve all likely heard an evangelist claim “God told them” we should give them money. Many well-intentioned people have thought that God told them to take a job or marry someone and it turned out disastrously. Hearing the voice of God and discerning his will can be a perilous journey.
Yet, we believe Christianity is a relationship with God, and every relationship involves dialog. I talk and the other person talks back. Logically, if I can’t hear God, then my relationship with him is a one-way conversation and that’s not much of a relationship.
I do not believe God intended us to have a one-way relationship. In the book of John, Jesus told his disciples that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (14:17,15:13) and to teach us everything and remind us of everything Jesus said (14:26).
I believe God wants to have a dialog-based relationship with us, that we can know who he is, what he wants us to do, and who we are in him. I have a dialog-based relationship with God and he has spoken all of these things to me. I believe he will also speak these things to you. I believe that you can hear him and that you can learn to discern what is his voice, what is your own mind or flesh, and what is the enemy.
So, let’s start with a practical guide to hearing God’s voice:
(1) Find a quiet space and a time when you aren’t rushed.
Bring a notebook and a pen. Leave your phone somewhere else. Eventually, you’ll be able to hear God anywhere, even when things are loud and busy. But to start, you will need it to be quiet and undisturbed so that you can get used to his voice.
(2) Ask him to speak and then listen.
Don’t put expectations on the experience. Give God the space to speak to you however God wants to. Use the notebook to write whatever thoughts you have during this time, whatever images come to mind, anything you feel or sense. No judgments, just write. God speaks to some people in thoughts, to some in pictures or visions, and to some in a gut-feeling kind of way. All of this is fine. Often, we don’t hear God because we have a preconceived idea of what God sounds like.
(3) Discern what you have heard.
Whenever you are done listening, read through what you have written and ask the Holy Spirit to show you what is from God. Some of the thoughts or pictures or feelings you had may not be God. That’s okay. Compare what you have heard with how God reveals himself through Scripture (more on this in a second). If you have a friend or pastor you trust, you can show it to them and ask them what they think. Eventually, you will get used to what God’s voice sounds like, but it’s okay to be cautious.
Hearing from God is a practice. The more you do it, the more obvious and clear his voice will be. If you only seek to hear from him in a panicked moment, and you are desperate to know what to do, it’s probably not going to be as effective. God isn’t looking to be a Magic 8 Ball. He wants to have a real, interactive relationship with you.
How do I know if I’m hearing God?
1 John 4:1 tells us not to believe every spirit but to test the spirits. John goes on in the chapter to explain that one easy test is whether or not the spirit acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus. Whether it is something you are hearing in your own heart and mind or from the mouth of someone claiming to speak for God, if what you are hearing does not follow the teaching of Jesus and submit to him, it’s not of God.
Galatians 5 lays out for us the differences between the flesh and the spirit. If what you are hearing is from the flesh or from the enemy it will prompt you towards impurity, strife, jealousy, anger, and so forth (there are several lists in scripture that point out the things that are not of God. Another good one is in Romans 1:28-31). If you are hearing from the Holy Spirit it will lead you towards love, joy, peace, and all of the other fruits listed in Galatians 5:22-23.
Let me give you an example from my life. A while ago, there was some miscommunication at the place where I was working. My boss was making a lot of changes to our hours, pay, and sick leave. I felt like the way he was handling it was haphazard and disrespectful. I was praying about it one day when I had a thought: “You should talk to Jake* and tell him what’s going on. He should know that all of this is happening.” Jake was a guy on my team and I knew that he would feel angry if he knew what was going on.
Even though I had this thought during a time of prayer, it wasn’t God. If I have a thought that leads me to exploit someone so that I’ll feel better about myself, that’s not God. When I’m frustrated and I want others to feel frustrated too, I am exploiting them to justify the way I am feeling and that’s my flesh. If I have a thought that prompts me to create dissension or strife, that’s not God; that’s the enemy.
It’s really easy to put a spiritual twist on our own desires. I could’ve told myself, “God wants me to protect Jake so that he’s not blindsided by this.” But that wasn’t the truth and I knew it. There’s also scripture that I could look at that would tell me how to handle this situation. (Go directly to my boss and be honest with him. Be humble, slow to anger, slow to speak, and things of that spirit). The voice I heard was violating scripture, so it was definitely not God.
What about when I can’t compare it to scripture?
What if we are asking whether or not we should take a job, or get married, or something like that? What if we think we’ve heard from God and it doesn’t work out?
Many people think they have heard from God but are afraid to make a move because they might be wrong. The important thing to remember is this: God is a good and faithful redeemer. If you make a wrong decision, that doesn’t mean that God can’t use it for good. He is actually very talented at taking stuff that we’ve messed up and using it for his glory. There is more grace than we think there is.
If you need to make a decision about a non-scripture issue you can do this:
1. Ask God to speak to you and to give you wisdom.
2. Check your heart to make sure your decision isn’t selfish, or harmful to someone else.
3. Seek godly counsel and see how it compares to what you have heard. Then make a decision. If you somehow got it wrong, God can handle the mistakes.
It is also important to note that just because something doesn’t work doesn’t mean that you didn’t hear from God. God has a will, people have free will, and angels and demons have free will too and the choices of all of these entities have a real impact on our world. There are a lot of wills at work at any given time. Sometimes, things don’t go as planned.
Lastly, even if you didn’t hear from God, even if you got it wrong and heard your own desires or got blinded by the enemy, don’t give up. In every relationship there are misunderstandings. The more you seek to hear God, the more clear his voice will become. There is grace to get this wrong and keep going.
You can hear from God. He wants to speak to you. You will have to be intentional and willing to make mistakes, but if you seek him, you will find him. He is not far from any of us.
Larissa Lee has worked with Youth, Worship, College, and Children’s ministries.