Week 5, Day 3: Discerning the Voice of God
Too many voices, it won’t take long;
which one’s right and which one’s wrong?
And yours is most likely to be misunderstood.
- Lifehouse, “Cling and Clatter”
God told me that we were going to get married. Or at least I thought it was God. The fact that I’m not married to my first girlfriend now means that I’m either married to the wrong person … or I may have heard God wrong. (To be clear, I’m not discounting that this can happen; I’m just saying I misheard at least once!)
One of the most common challenges for a follower of Jesus is discerning the voice, the will, and the work of God. How do we know when something is from or of God, and when something is from or of ourselves? Whether we are mulling a decision, considering a situation, pursuing a calling, or otherwise seeking to honor God in our lives, God promises to provide the guidance we need, and whatever guidance we receive comes through the Holy Spirit. And yet, even as we seek to hear from God, we should note Dallas Willard’s warning:
Hearing God is but one dimension of a richly interactive relationship, and obtaining guidance is one facet of hearing God. It may seem strange but doing the will of God is a different matter than just doing what God wants us to do. The two are so far removed, in fact, that we can be solidly in the will of God, and know that we are, without knowing God’s preference with regard to various details of our lives. We can be in his will as we do certain things without our knowing that he prefers these actions to certain other possibilities. Hearing God makes sense only in the framework of living in the will of God.
God has given us feelings to serve as thermometers — helping us gauge our feelings so that we might better know our own motivations. He has given us minds to make wise decisions — we are commanded to love God “with all of your mind,” after all. And he has given us free will to make whatever choices we please — whether those choices are God-honoring or not.
But God has also given us other — external — methods of discernment. We need to remember that, whether or not we receive divine instruction about a specific decision or situation, God has given us plenty to go on already. From the last few weeks, we know who we are called to be: like Jesus, image-bearers of God, ambassadors of the kingdom of God; free in the affirmation of God to love God fully and to love others with the love of God; graced by the Holy Spirit, the power and presence of God himself, enabling us to work with God to bring about the renewal of all things. Any decision we make should be in the framework of that journey of growth and maturity and becoming more like Jesus.
Moreover, there is the Bible. The apostle Paul says, “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible is the written word of God that testifies to the living Word of God, that is, Jesus. If your inner sense contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture, embodied in the life of Christ — for example, to love your enemies, seeking their good; or to not oppress the poor or the immigrant — it is your inner sense that may need correction. Obviously, this means you have to know what the Bible says — and we will be looking more at how to read the Bible in a few weeks. It also means you need to be aware of different understandings of Scripture, so that you can know what is clear and what is more open to interpretation.
There is also the church, the community of faith. We were not created to do life on our own, nor are we simply redeemed by God for a personal relationship. Instead, we are saved into a new family, a new community, which Paul calls “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). As the body of Christ, empowered and indwelled by the Holy Spirit, we are Jesus’ continuing presence on the earth to one another, to those who are far from God, and to those in need. The Holy Spirit often speaks and gives guidance through other believers, whether it is your friends, your small group, those who are more mature in the faith — elders or pastors or a spiritual director. They can remind us of the truths about ourselves and the truths of God.
Finally, there is the fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul describes what follows the work and transformation of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Ultimately, if something is of God, it will lead us to become more like God, more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, and so on.
None of these methods is intended to stand on its own, but rather they are supposed to form the structure for a God-centered decision-making process — and, more than that, a God-centered life.
More than a decade after that misheard word, I was dating another woman. There was no voice that told me that Carolyn was the one I was to marry. Instead, there was a more holistic practice of discernment both individually and in community, a consideration of who I was becoming and what part marriage might play in that, and an acknowledgment that there were some elements and experiences in our relationship that I could only credit to the Holy Spirit. And yet, even then, with all of that, what I heard as I sought God in prayer was “You choose. And I’ll be with you.”
REFLECT & RESPOND
Head: Is there a way or a process by which you tend to make decisions? What does it look like?
Heart: What are some decisions you are facing right now, whether it pertains to your spiritual journey or to your life in general?
Hands: What would it look like to discern God’s voice in your decision-making process? Invite someone in your church — a small group member, a pastor, a mentor — to offer some insight into a decision facing you.
Lift up a particular decision in your life to God and ask God to help you grow in discernment.
"Hearing God makes sense
only in the framework of
living in the will of God."
- Dallas Willard