“How do I know whether it’s God’s thoughts or mine that I’m hearing when I’m listening in prayer?” That’s a question I hear quite often–and obviously a very important one.
When I first began trying to hear from God in earnest, I was pretty concerned about being misled. I was so worried about hearing the wrong voice, that I almost didn’t even want to try. But then I realized that if I did not seek to hear from God, that the alternative was to “lean on [my] own understanding” (Prov. 3:5)! That usually didn’t work out too well for me! So I decided that if Jesus said His sheep hear His voice (Jn. 10:27), then I was going to believe Him and count on Him to help me get it right and not hear the wrong thing. Here are some things He showed me:
1. If it’s His voice, it will sound like God. How does God’s voice “sound”? Well, He has a distinct tone of voice. We learn from Scripture that He is kind and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love. He does not condemn or accuse (thought the enemy certainly does!). He is gracious and loving. He is holy and righteous. He is gentle. He is a good Father and faithful Friend. When we hear God speak, He speaks true to His character. How do we get to know HIs character? By reading His Word.
2. If it’s God’s message, it will align with His written Word and will not contradict it. (It will frequently be more specific than Scripture, however. God really does want to help us know what career to pursue, whether to replace or fix our car, what medical treatment to pursue, and what church to join–but we’ll have to get that guidance by listening to His Spirit because are not specific verses that apply to those situations.) This is another reason why it is so important to ground listening prayer in the written Word of God.
3. God’s words will lead to good fruit. If you were to follow through on what you think God is saying to you, where would it lead in two, five, or ten years? (Mt. 7:16-20).
4. His words will be wise, according to God’s wisdom. What’s God’s wisdom look like? Check out James 3:17 to find out some of its qualities.
5. His words will stand up over time. Ask God to help you see if what you are hearing will stand up in a storm or if, like the guy who did not listen to Jesus’ words and built his house on the sand, it will come crashing down in the wind (Mt. 7:24-27).
6. What God says will be wiser and higher than your own thoughts. Often the things we hear from God are things we never would have thought of on our own. Sometimes He surprises us with His creativity. Often He challenges us with His “high road” challenges (when on our own, we would prefer to take the path of least resistance).
7. On the other hand, if we’ve known the Lord for a long time, then His Spirit has lived inside us for a long time, too. For as many years as you’ve trusted in Jesus, His Spirit has been living inside you, nudging, warning, comforting, counseling, guiding, teaching, and so forth. Chances are, you’ve already been hearing God for a long time. You may have confused His thoughts from yours because you’ve been hearing Him speak to your heart and mind for so long that His voice has become very familiar.
8. When listening to God in a group, what you hear will often agree with what others are hearing, providing confirmation. If it does not, that may mean that you all need to listen some more to get on the same page with each other and God. It could be that what you are hearing is a piece of the bigger picture and asking God more questions until He shows you how what you are hearing fits with what the rest of the group is hearing.
These eight tips have helped me tremendously as I’ve sought to become more consistent in hearing and trusting God’s voice. Nevertheless, they are not foolproof. Nevertheless, God has shown me that hearing from Him is not a science. I will never be able to prove with 100 percent accuracy that it’s God I’m hearing and not my own wild imagination. Like every other aspect of my life with Him, hearing from God is an act of faith. However, I’ve come to realize that He wants me to hear from Him even more than I do. So it boils down to my willingness to believe that He, the Good Shepherd, will guard me from falling into a ditch. And I can assure you that in the years that I’ve been practicing listening prayer, He’s never let me down.