What would you do if someone you knew told you that God spoke to him or her? Your friend Bob comes up to you and says in all sincerity, “God spoke to me this morning.” What would you think? What would you say? Or would you just take three big steps backward?
Let’s be honest. There are a lot of nutty people out there! I know a man who told me with a straight face that God said it was OK for him to cheat on his wife—and then God instructed him to divorce her! He also claimed that God gave him all sorts of bizarre predictions for things that just didn’t happen. Of course, I didn’t take him seriously. In fact, I thought him a little bit nuts, especially when he told me that God talks to him audibly, regularly. I didn’t think he communicated with God so much as with the other side of his own brain.
Frankly, when people talk about God communicating with them, we get in our heads the image of a crazy guy, possibly wearing a placard with a Bible text on it, who is convinced that God told him to start a commune. But you have to wonder, if there is a God out there who loves us, who gave us a Bible to guide us, couldn’t He communicate with us?
Even if the answer to that question is Yes, which I believe it is, the key question is, How can we know if it’s really Him?
In Bible times
The Bible is full of stories about people’s experiences with God. Of course, that was thousands of years ago. We seem to think that biblical times were different than today. And they were. There was no electricity. There were no computers, cell phones, apartment towers, or airplanes. Times were certainly different, but people weren’t. People are people, regardless of time or country.
Have you ever noticed that when you meet someone from a different country or culture, at first they seem so different and foreign? When you first start talking to them, you expect there’ll be a lot of smiling and nodding. But then you start sharing thoughts about your kids or getting married, about worries for the future and caring for aging parents, and suddenly you realize that they aren’t so different after all!
I think if we could chitchat with some of the people from the Bible, we’d find the same thing. We’d find that they had the same doubts that we do, the same fears, the same tendency to get so bogged down with life that they forget to take the time to listen to God.
So how does God talk to us? Burning bushes and voices from heaven don’t happen too often. In fact, events like that occurred only a handful of times in the Bible, and that was over several thousand years. Most of the time, the Bible just tells us that God said something. But how did He say it back then? How does God communicate with you and me in our everyday lives?
There are so many times that we long to hear God’s voice. Sometimes, there’s a major decision to be made, and we want to know that we’re going in the right direction. It might be the choice to get married, to buy a home, or perhaps the choice to make a major career move. We pray, and we think, If only God would tell me the right thing to do!
Has your heart ever been broken? Perhaps a loved one has died, or your world is rocked by the doctor’s diagnosis that you have a severe, life-threatening illness. Maybe it’s the end of a marriage, when your spouse walks out on you, or the loss of a career that gave you your sense of worth. It’s times like these that we look up into the sky and long to hear God’s voice.
God, where are You?
Elijah was one of God’s Old Testament prophets. He obeyed God in some very challenging situations, but following one particularly stressful encounter with the forces of evil, he found himself running for his life from a wicked queen who wanted to murder him. He was terrified! If anyone ever needed a conversation with God, Elijah did at that moment.
God decided to give him a very intense experience. First, God sent a powerful wind, so strong that it tore rocks apart. But the Bible says, “The Lord was not in the wind.” Next came a monstrous earthquake, but again the Bible says, “The Lord was not in the earthquake.” Then there was a roaring fire, but “the Lord was not in the fire” (1 Kings 19:11, 12).
Elijah, in his very human weakness and desperation, was looking for God in all the wrong places.
We do the same thing. We look for God in the loneliness we feel after a death or after being abandoned. We look for God in the terror and confusion we feel that surround our memories of abuse. We look for Him in our anger and rage at the unfair world that keeps knocking us down. We see the misery of the world around us, and we look for God in the misery. But we can’t find Him.
Elijah was looking in all the wrong places too. But after looking in the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, he heard “a gentle whisper” (verse 12). And that gentle whisper was the voice of God.
God is not in our misery. He’s above it. He feels our pain the same way a mother does when she sees her child cry in pain, and He’s there to comfort us. Like a child who falls and hurts himself, we have to look up for our comfort. We have to listen for the gentle whisper.
My son and I
I’m a young mother. My son is still under a year old as I write this, and I, too, long to hear God’s voice. Parenting is new to me, and I realize that I’ve never loved anyone the way I do this little boy. It scares me! Sometimes I look to other mothers to see how they do things, wondering if I’m doing this right.
In one of my family’s social circles, I had been feeling constantly paranoid. There didn’t seem to be any reason for my anxiety, and I was beginning to worry that something was wrong with me. I didn’t seem relaxed and happy like the other mothers. “God,” I prayed, “please fix me! Help me to relax. Take away this horrible anxiety!”
But nothing happened. Every time my husband and I met with this group, I felt nervous and afraid to let my baby out of my arms. I prayed and prayed. Every day I prayed for the safety of my son and for the faith to relax and stop worrying constantly about him being hurt. The anxious feelings stubbornly would not go away, despite all my prayers. All I could do was to keep praying for my son’s safety.
Then one day, it all came together for me. I discovered that one of the people in this group—a person who had shown a very special interest in my little son—was a convicted pedophile. And suddenly, it all made sense—my alarm, my anxiety, my discomfort that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. All along, I’d been searching for God, asking for Him to give me His peace, when that wasn’t what God was trying to do at all! The anxiety was God’s gentle whisper, telling me that my son was not safe, that now more than ever; he needed his mother to protect him!
God created us with an instinct, a sixth sense, some people call it. Sometimes God speaks to us in this part of our minds. I don’t mean a spooky, fortune-telling kind of communication. I’m referring to that gut feeling, the sense we get when something just doesn’t seem right. This is the part of us that “knew the minute I saw him that I’d marry him.” It’s our conscience that won’t settle until we do the right thing. It’s that feeling of unease when we see someone do something that isn’t quite legal. It’s the feeling of righteous indignation we get when we see someone being mistreated, the protective feeling that kicks in when we see a child that’s lost, the alarm that goes off in our heads when we see a creepy man trying to lure a little one away when the parent isn’t looking.
We tend to take the credit for these gut-level reactions, but we need to consider the real possibility that these instincts didn’t originate with us, that they came from our Creator! David described it this way: “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; / even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7).
What about our “baggage”?
We all come with our life experiences, our insecurities, our pain, our memories, and our opinions all balled up into one mess inside of us. We call it baggage because we carry it along like a heavy suitcase, and no one is free of it. So how do we know whether it’s God speaking to us or whether it’s simply our own baggage making some noise? How can we tell whether we just want something so bad that we convince ourselves God is telling us it’s OK?
How can we tell whether we’re hearing God or our own brains? I’ll suggest a couple of ways.
Be still. The first is found in one of King David’s songs: “ ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ ” (Psalm 46:10). Sometimes we need to take a break from our hectic schedules, turn off the TV, the answering machine, and the telephone, and just spend a few minutes with God. In fact, if we make a daily habit of taking those quiet moments to sort through our thoughts and feelings, praying and opening ourselves up to our Creator, we can begin to recognize the difference between the clamor of our brains and the quiet whisper of God.
God’s Word. Another thing to remember is that God will never tell us to do something that goes against His moral principles. The Bible tells us that God is unchanging: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). This means that the God of the Bible is still God today! He will never tell us to do something that goes against His laws. He will never tell us to be unfaithful to our spouses, lie to our bosses, cheat on our taxes, or lash out in revenge. God is always true to His nature, and He will never change!
So how do we know God’s will? We read about Him in the Bible. We read His instruction for our lives, His moral principles that can guide our choices. The Bible is filled with stories about people who reached out towards God, just like we are doing. We read about their struggles and their triumphs. We read about their failures and their very human relationships with the God of the universe. And from the choices they made—both the right ones and the wrong ones—we learn.
And as we read, we listen. Because just as desperately as we want to hear God, God wants to talk to us even more.