Barbara Brown Taylor writes: "Visions from God are not the exception, but the norm."
With that, when was the last time you had a vision from God, heard His voice, or felt a prompting from Him? I have a hunch we've all heard His voice, but have simultaneously wondered if it was actually God, or just our intuition, a selfish desire or perhaps that third slice of pizza we had at midnight causing us to hear all kinds of voices as we sleep.
The truth is, a cacophony of voices beckons our attention each day, shouting to us from our laptops and televisions, movie screens and magazines, saying: "Buy this! Go here. You must have this. I will take you from where (and who) you are to where (and who) you want to be!" Somewhere amid the clutter is the voice of God, whispering to us something altogether different, something more peaceful, serene and lovely. Ironically, God's message sounds just like the others. He also says, "I will take you from who you are to who you want to be," just like the 40'x50' billboard in bright lights hovering over Times Square.
With a myriad of voices competing for the decisions we make each day, how do we distinguish God's voice from all the others? Throughout my life I've asked four questions that have helped me to discern my decisions. I believe they must be asked in tandem, though, never one without the others.
1. Does Scripture reveal it's something Jesus would likely affirm?
In my opinion, 90 percent of our questions about discerning the voice of God can be resolved by asking this simple question. When I feel as if God is speaking, I ask, "Does Scripture reveal it's something Jesus would affirm?" We all know of the extremely egregious acts done in God's name, but as Christians we believe that God reveals Himself through Jesus and, therefore, while Jesus was living on earth He displayed to us who God actually is and what God actually does. The next time you hear God speak to you, directly or indirectly, check it with the life and teaching of Jesus.
2. What do the people I trust say about my vision or prompting?
Remember, we must ask these questions in tandem, not one without the other, because while my friends may say my prompting from God is "ludicrous," Scripture may reveal that Jesus would affirm it. Or vice versa, we may "think" Jesus would affirm the prompting (based on a misreading or misunderstanding of Scripture) but trusted friends could point us in the right direction.
A few years ago I received a call from a good friend. He helped us start the church I pastor in New York, but had since moved to the West Coast. It was great to hear his voice, but something was awry. He began to tell me his marriage was falling apart and he felt God telling him to "move on." The description he provided of his wife didn't at all match what I remembered of her, but his diatribe left no room for confusion: She was train-wrecking his life! He called to ask for my support and to affirm his decision to leave a crippling situation, believing it was "God's best" for the both of them. I had little room with which to work, but knowing they had been married for fewer than two years, I asked him a few questions.
"Will," I asked, "Has your wife ever cheated on you? Ever abused you, mentally or physically? Is she oppressive or has she been unfaithful in any way?"
"No. Never. Why?"
"You see, as we look at Scripture (Matthew 19:1-9) we do see a few instances in which Jesus might condone, perhaps even 'bless' a divorce, but based on all you've told me, it sounds like you're just really annoyed with your wife, and that's no reason to split up."
Silence lingered on the phone for quite a bit before I pressed on.
"Listen, Will. I know marriage can be tough. I've been married to five different women in 14 years, all of them to a woman named Allison." Unsure if he understood, I clarified, "In the past 14 years my wife has changed, and so have I. At times we've both wanted to throw in the towel, and at times we've both wondered (and asked God) if we married the wrong person, but had we given up we wouldn't be together today, and we would've missed out on the adventure we're currently engrossed in. Perhaps what you need to do is simply love your wife, best as you can, for the next six months. No complaining, no lists about what she's doing wrong. Just love and serve her, and see what happens. I'll even pay for counseling if that helps. But don't give up."
Will had called me, a trusted friend, to see if his "prompting from God" was, in fact, a vision. Or so I thought. Two weeks later he posted pictures on social media of him with another woman. I guess "God" led him to someone better for him, after all. (If you didn't sense the sarcasm and disappointment in that last sentence, I assure you, it is there.)
This is what baffles me, and I believe baffles those that aren't a Christian, the most: Men and women openly defying what Christ said in Scripture while, at the same time, declaring they're acting on a prompting from God. My friend, Alex, who is an atheist, states this kind of behavior directly, saying, "That's bullshit, man." I agree. And I've been just as guilty of it, as well. Are you certain God told you to do something that Jesus openly opposed?
3. Am I running from something or someone?
It strikes me as odd every time someone runs in to a problem, be it at work, or home, in a relationship, or one of life's "general" problems, that they often believe the best way out of the problem is to leave. They quit their job, get a divorce, break-up, or move to a different city. Sometimes they'll do them all at once, leaving a chorus of problems in the wake of their departure.
Before you declare, "God told me" to leave, quit, or move, it would do us all some good if you first asked, "Am I running from something or someone? Am I simply too afraid to face the problem?" If you are, chances are sky high you'll run in to the same problem or "someone" again very soon. While culture often tells us that at the first twinge of inconvenience or pain we need to move on (because life is about our own happiness), the reality is, quite often, the most mature, spiritual, godly thing we could do when tempted to quit, or leave, or move, is stay right where we are; If we get a sense we're just running from a situation because we're afraid to face the conflict it might mean that God wants us to learn something from our pain, and He wants to lead us through it.
(The caveat here, of course, is if you're in an abusive situation. Whether it's at work or home leave as soon as you can. You might need to get counseling, or step away for a time, or step out all together, but please don't allow the oppression to continue.)
4. Have I turned the narrative of "God and us" in to a story about "me"?
This question bookends the first one, asking if what we've heard from God is simply about making our personal life a little better, a little more convenient. The narcissist won't understand (which is why we need good, trusted friends!), but I think most of us, upon contemplation and prayer, can readily discern whether what we've heard is from God, or is simply a manifestation of our own selfish desires. If what I'm hearing is all about "me, myself and I," I can be fairly confident it's not the voice of God. The reality is, the story God is writing for us is far better than the one we'd make up on our own. Trust Him. Be Patient. He is for you.
There you go. Four questions to help you discern God's voice in your life. Remember, we need to ask each one in tandem with the others. But let me leave you with a challenge: Read Matthew 6. It's a good place to start on our quest of being able to distinguish God's voice from all the rest. Get to know God through His Son Jesus. Listening to God's voice in the quiet will help you discern His voice in the chaos.
What about you? How do you discern the voice of God? Are there other/better questions we need to be asking?