A friend emailed me recently, concerned because she wonders if she heard God wrong. I won’t go into specifics because hers is a very common concern among people learning to listen to God. It’s one I also experienced when I was first starting out in my two-way conversations with God. The dangers of hearing wrong seem huge:
- We could fool ourselves into hearing what we want to hear, which sets us up for disappointment or confusion
- We could hear something that leads us down a wrong path
- We could hurt someone by sharing or acting upon wrong information we supposed was from God
I wanted to reassure my friend that she had heard accurately. But I have no way of knowing that. I’ve been listening to God for quite a few years now, and I don’t have 100 percent confidence yet. Listening to God like any other aspect of the Christian life is, after all, an act of faith. I doubt that I will ever be 100 percent sure that I always hear God right. But there are several things the Bible assures me of that help me.
Jesus’ sheep hear His voice. If we’re His sheep, communicating with Him is our birthright. He wants us to hear Him speak to us. As sheep, we need to hear from Him for our own well-being and protection; The witness of Scripture. The Bible is full of stories of people who engaged in two-way conversation with God. God speaks often, personally, and specifically to people—and all the more so in these post-Pentecost days when His Spirit indwells us.
The alternative stinks. If we do not hear from God, then the best we can do is to “lean on our own understanding,” which the Bible explicitly warns against. I’ve tried that before—and that to me is far scarier than chance of hearing wrong. I figure that Jesus wants me to hear His voice, He takes responsibility for me as my Shepherd, He expects me to listen to Him, so when I intentionally invite Him to speak to me, I can trust Him to safeguard me from horrible mistakes.
Still, there are several things I do to improve my confidence about hearing God accurately.
- I saturate myself in the Scriptures. By doing so, I have developed a good sense of God’s ways and His character. When I hear something, I ask, “Does that sound like God’s character, based on how the Bible reveals Him? Does it sound like the way He does things?” If not, then I hold what I’ve “heard” very lightly.
- I dialogue with God regularly, nearly every day. I do not just jump in for big decisions. I do not use God like a crystal ball so I can know my future. To me, hearing from God is all about the relationship. And as a relationship, I want to engage in conversations about all kinds of things, frequently. Developing an on-going conversational relationship with God safeguards me from mistakes and deception because, over years of regular practice, I know how God speaks to me. I know how His voice sounds when He is talking to me personally.
- I try to follow through on the things God leads me to do or the things He invites me to try. When my goal is friendship with God and bringing joy to Jesus, I have a built-in protection against deception.
- When it sounds like God is giving me a directive or a promise about some specific situation, I usually seek confirmation. Especially when following through on something I’ve heard God say requires action that involves others, I really want to make sure I’ve heard Him correctly. So I ask Him to confirm His message to me. Or I ask someone else who has a lifestyle of hearing from God well to help me discern. I give it time until I am sure I have heard Him right. God is okay with this. He patiently gives us what we need to trust Him.
- I realize that God’s ways are higher than mine, and that He often operates on an entirely different timetable than I do. In my early days of hearing from God I sometimes would hear Him say something, but then when it didn’t seem to come to pass in the time or manner I thought it would, I would decide that I had heard wrong. Eventually, however, I discovered that what I had heard was often accurate—I’d just made assumptions about it that went beyond what God had actually said. These days, I try not to put God on a schedule or to picture in my mind the specifics of how He will do what He has said He would do. I try to just wait and keep the conversation going. Often He gives clarity as we go along.
I’m glad my friend asked her question. It’s an important one. And she reads this blog—so I’d love for others of you to join in the conversation. How do you know you’re hearing from God accurately? Do you have any encouragement to share?
Friends, this week I am at a spiritual formation retreat, which is part of the two-year program I’ve been doing through Renovare;. While I’m away, I’ve asked my friend Connie Willems, former editor of Discipleship Journal, to share an article from her newsletter with you. Like me, she has been on an exciting journey of learning to hear from God personally, in the context of relationship. I think you’ll appreciate what she has to say.
I’ve been doing an intense Bible study over the past year on how God speaks, whom He speaks to, and what methods He uses. I want to make sure that as we relate and listen with God, we’re doing so in ways that match His character and habits as revealed in Scripture.
One of the first things I noticed was that when God speaks in the Bible, He is talking with people He knows by name. That may seem stunningly obvious, but seeing the stories one after another really drove it home to me. As I paged through Genesis, I noted that
The Lord said to Cain . . . (4:6)
The Lord appeared to Abraham . . . (18:1)
God came to Abimelech in a dream . . . (20:3)
The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven . . . (21:17)
The Lord appeared to Isaac . . . (26:2)
God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night . . . (31:24)
God said to Jacob . . . (35:1)
Time after time, I noted, God talks with an individual, often addressing him or her by name. In fact, it wasn’t until much later — the book of Judges — that I saw God speaking to a group of unnamed people. The more I pondered this, the more I realized that seeing God speak (and even dialogue) so personally corrected a perception I hadn’t been aware I held.
I sort of had an unstated idea that God broadcasts His speech to everyone, somewhat like a radio station sends out a signal; it’s up to us to tune in and hear — or not. That hidden thought was exposed when I saw God talking so often with one person. He knew exactly whom He was talking with, what the person’s name was, and why He was taking time with him or her. God was being highly personal and very deliberate.
I’d experienced times that God spoke with me, but I’m not sure I recognized just how personal those interactions were. God hadn’t wandered into a conversation with me because I was the only one around. He had chosen to speak with me because He knew me and wanted to talk with me.
While God is omniscient and therefore knows everything, it’s still stunning to experience that He knows our names . . . He knows us. Hagar expressed this wonder after the angel of the Lord came and found her in the desert. He addressed her by name, talked with her, and gave her direction and a new vision for the future. Afterward, marveling, she named God El Roi, “the God who sees me,” saying, “I have now seen the One who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).
Note: Connie writes this newsletter along with our mutual friend, Buddy Westbrook. If you’d like to subscribe to their free newsletter, Talking Points, click on http://eepurl.com/kBRBX.
Some time ago, I heard someone describe a deeply painful personal situation. He shared his story in matter-of-fact tones, describing what was, what is, and, what in his mind, always will be. Day after painful day, nothing changed. Experts had weighed in: improvement is out of the question; to hope for it is a set-up for disappointment. It will never get better, it will always be like this. So in his discouraged thinking, coping and surviving are the best he can hope for.
My heart has ached since hearing him tell his story. I hurt for him because I know that “always” and “never” are not part of God’s vocabulary. God has good plans for this person—that’s a fact. He is not excluded from the abundant life Jesus came to bring. But in his discouragement, he can’t see it or even hope for it. Which certainly puts a damper on prayer.
I don’t fault him, though. I’ve been there. I remember a season when I also was in an impossible-seeming situation that caused me persistent, unrelenting, unbroken pain. “It won’t always be like this,” a well-meaning friend said, trying to encourage me. “Yeah, I know, “I replied gloomily. “ It’s going to get worse.” I utterly believed that.
Truthfully, in many ways, it did get worse before it got better. But when I was in that pit, I wasn’t able to see that by God’s grace, it really would get better eventually. My painful season was not a permanent condition. God saw me and heard my cries and He delivered me.
God is a Rescuer, a Savior, a Redeemer, and a Helper. That’s His character—that’s who He is. He “is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam. 3:25-26). In painful seasons, our “weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5, NLT). It will not always be this way: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him’” (Lam. 3:22-24; see also 2 Cor. 4:17; Ps. 103:9, 126:5); Is. 12:1, 54:7-8; Hos. 6:2).
I’m not sure the person I told you about would be able to respond to a spiritual pep talk. Sometimes trying to pump up another person’s faith does more harm than good, so I’m not going to try it. But when I was in a similar dark place, I appreciated the prayers of others who could lend me some of their faith (see my blog from last week, “Brother, Can You Spare Some Faith?”). They prayed with hope that I didn’t have and that comforted me. So that’s what I’m doing for this person. I know that because of God, his situation is not impossible. It does not have to always be this way. So I’m praying for him, asking first for God to give him hope, and then, also, to bring the rescue he so desperately needs.
It’s always encouraging to hear others’ stories of God’s rescues. Do you have an impossible-always-never story you can share?
Sometimes I seem to have more faith to pray for other people’s situations than I do for my own. Their “giants” seem smaller than mine. I can pray for their needs longer without being tempted to give up. I can envision miracles more easily in their circumstances than in mine. I know it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s just how it is.
A while ago, God put it on my heart to pray with unusual (for me, it was unusual) faith for a friend’s rather large burden. I am pretty sure this will be a long-term prayer assignment, but that doesn’t bother me. I am confident that what I’m asking for is God’s will, and I am confident that He can do it, so I am asking Him to do what seems humanly impossible, but is an easy thing for Him. It is a joy to pray for my friend’s situation—and to watch God respond in small yet undeniable ways.
Meanwhile, quietly and on her own, my friend had been praying for an “impossible” situation of mine. It’s something that frankly, I hardly even talked to God about anymore—I’d prayed for it for so long without seeing any signs of an answer that I’d all but given up. Somehow it came up one day, and I learned about her quiet intercession for me. So I asked her about it. She told me she really believes that God is going to come through for me in it—so she keeps praying. The fact that it felt hopeless to me didn’t faze her; she had faith to spare.
It was fun to realize that God had given her spare faith for my need, and He had given me spare faith for hers. It was like we were trading faith. And in the process, our faith in God for our own situations is increasing.
I point out to her the little ways I can see God working in her circumstances. And she does the same for me. We’ve talked about how hearing things from the other’s (more objective) perspective, boosts our faith: God really does seem to be doing something here!
Maybe there’s someone in your life who needs some of your faith to intercede for their “impossible” burden. What do you think, brother, sister . . . can you spare some faith to pray for them?
Have any of you have similar experiences? I’d love to hear about them. Or any other thoughts you have about faith and intercession.
A “Let’s Talk” reader posted an interesting question on my blog last week. “When you pray ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done,’ is whatever happens then God’s will, and our part is to submit to His apparent will?” she wanted to know. “Or is it more like, ‘Here I am, send me?’ Is that a passive prayer of acceptance, or an active prayer of ‘Sign me up!’?”
My reader’s question is a bit tough to address because of course I believe in submitting to God’s will and accepting His plans for me. But I also need to say that although I firmly believe in God’s sovereignty, I firmly do not believe that everything that happens is God’s will. Evil is never God’s will. He is light and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). He does not will child abuse, oppression, deception, rape, murder, or any kind of injustice. It is entirely contrary to His character. Can He redeem it? Of course! But does He will it? Never.
So if we are praying about a situation that involves any kind of evil, but the evil persists, in order to see God’s kingdom come and His will be done, we must continue to pray until either the situation changes or He tells us to stop or change the way we are praying.
Similarly, if our prayer is about something dear to us—the welfare of a child, a close friend’s health, a prodigal family member, a painful relationship—we can be sure that our concern is also dear to God. He invites us to cast our cares on Him because He cares about us (1 Peter 5:7). He tells us not to worry about anything, but to pray about everything (Philippians 4:6). So if we pray and the troubling circumstance doesn’t change, we should continue praying—unless He tells us to stop or change the way we are praying.
The Value of Persistence
God places high value on persevering prayer. Jesus teaches this in Luke 11 when He tells the disciples to “keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (v. 9, NLT). He says it again when He tells His disciples the parable of the persistent widow “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1, NIV). We see it in the example of Elijah who prayed for rain seven times—even though the first six prayers didn’t bring about so much as even a tiny cloud (1 Kings 18). We see it in Job who for chapter after chapter keeps making his case with God until finally He shows up. We see it in Abraham who haggles with God over Sodom and Gomorrah until he is assured that his nephew will be saved (Genesis 18). We see it in David, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Zechariah who all cry out, “How long, Lord?” And in Daniel who fasts and prays for three weeks, not knowing until the angel showed up, why God had seemed to delay (Daniel 10). It seems that persevering prayer is the scriptural norm.
So what’s the bit about “Until He tells us to stop or change the way we are praying?” As most of my readers know, I believe that prayer is a two-way conversation. If it’s just monologue, we’re missing out on a lot—including the Holy Spirit’s help in knowing how to pray. God meant for prayer to be one of the primary ways we develop our relationship with Him. So He intends for us to tell Him what’s on our hearts and minds—but also intends for us to listen to what’s on His.
“Stop Praying for Physical Healing”
Several years into my husband’s battle with multiple sclerosis, I sensed the Lord inviting me to pray for his healing—until he was healed or He told me to stop. But my prayer was more than simply repeating, “please heal David.” Each time I went to God it seemed like something new was unfolding with how He wanted to take care of us, what He wanted to show us, and how He was working in our lives, even though we weren’t seeing physical improvements. My relationship with God grew and deepened more during those two or three years than it had during the sum of my Christian life up to that point.
But one day when I talked to God about my husband, I sensed Him saying clearly that I was to stop praying for David’s physical healing and focus instead on praying for his spiritual, emotional, and relational healing. I cried buckets when I heard Him say that—but it made sense to me based on the months of conversations we’d shared. So I stopped praying for physical healing, and prayed for my husband to become whole in other ways. Some of the things God did in answer to those prayers astounded me.
If I had just prayed two or three times and then passively accepted that my husband was going to die, I would have missed out on the incredible care Abba wanted to give my family and me during those hard years . It made sense for me to keep that request before God even though ultimately it wasn’t answered the way I’d hoped.
So I suppose if I have to give an answer, I’d say that I don’t really believe in passive prayer, per se. Should we accept His answers after He makes them clear? Absolutely! Should we submit our wills to what He reveals? Of course! God does sometimes choose to let me in on what He’s doing, so I’d rather keep the conversation going than assume prematurely that whatever happens (or doesn’t) is His plan.
Thanks so much for the great question! If others of you have a thought to share or a question about prayer you’ve been pondering, I’d love to hear from you.