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In our last article (God’s Plan, Our Privilege), we saw that God’s Divine purpose in creating mankind was to fellowship with men and women, and, as a natural part of that purpose, to converse with these unique creatures created in His image. We studied at length how God spoke to individuals, both sinners and saints, non-believers and believers, in the Old and New Testaments. We established that the experiences of the many “hearers” in the Bible were meant to be examples and encouragements to us that we, too, may hear from God, personally and intimately. To sum it all up in Jesus’ words: “My sheep hear My voice” (John 10:27).
Let me share a story with you from my past, over forty-five years ago, when I went on my first solo ministry trip. I was eighteen, had been a Christian only two years, and only days before had graduated from high school. Quite improbably, the Lord opened the door for me to drive from California to Dallas, Texas to teach and pray for people. At one point I found myself at a youth-group outing of an evangelical Lutheran church at some lake not far from Dallas. The youth pastor, a Dallas Theological Seminary student, asked me to share a testimony. I proceeded to share how the Lord had spoken to me about making the trip to Dallas, then had provided for my needs—getting my car fixed, providing gas money—in such surprising and unexpected ways that only He could have done it. I finished up the story by sharing how the Lord had spoken to me about being to a certain person’s home at 6:30 AM, how He had enabled me to drive through from El Paso to Dallas my last night on the road, and what transpired because I was able to be at the right place at the right time.
When I was all through sharing, the youth pastor asked if anyone had any questions. One teen girl raised her hand and asked, “What do you mean, God spoke to you?” The question wouldn’t have affected me much, except that: a) she was someone who had been pointed out to me earlier as a born-again Christian; and, b) it was obvious from the nodding heads and quizzical looks on faces around her that she was voicing the question almost all the other teens had.
“What do you mean, God spoke to you?” With the exception of a few unsaved people, I had never heard the question before. Certainly I had never heard it in the youth group I had attended. Hearing from God was, more or less, a fairly common, almost daily occurrence among us. The Spirit-filled youth group from which I had come was full of talented, intelligent, academically-gifted kids, a sort of “cream of the crop” of two local public high schools, including the student body president, the senior class president, the editor of the school newspaper, leaders from the various choirs and school orchestra, club presidents, the scholarship-winning math whiz, and (as I recall) six out of the top ten GPAs for graduating seniors that year, including one of the valedictorians. I don’t relate these honors and titles to brag about the group or the kids; I merely want to emphasize that they were normal, healthy, intelligent, well-adjusted teenagers from good homes. And these teens had been instructed, both by teaching from Scripture and example, that hearing from God was just a normal part of their Christian existence. No one thought anything of it if someone else shared, “You know, the Lord spoke to me the other day and said…”
Anyway, I answered the Texas teen’s question as best I could, but in truth it came as a shock to me. I had never had another Christian ask me that question, “What do you mean, God spoke to you?” I pondered the incident for weeks, even after I returned to my home in California. Was it really possible there were Christians who didn’t hear from God? And if so, why?
After decades of Christian experience and ministry and observation, I would like to attempt to answer those questions. Let us face unflinchingly the fact that many Christians don’t seem to hear from God, even though this privilege is a part of their spiritual inheritance. What are the reasons believers don’t hear from God? I believe four of the most important reasons are:
- A malaise I will call “Scriptural insolvency”;
- Lack of proper teaching on the subject;
- Lack of a nurturing environment in the church; and,
- A lack of practical and personal knowledge about how to listen.
Let’s deal with each of these problems in turn.
Many Christians Are Scripturally Insolvent
Did you ever begin to write a check and realize that you had to hold off sending it because you forgot to make a deposit into the account that would cover it? Or, worse, did you ever realize after writing a check that you had forgotten to make a deposit? Worst of all, did you find out after the check bounced?
A lot of Christians discover that checks they write on their account at the Bank of Divine Guidance are returned marked “Insufficient Funds.” The reason is simple enough. They have failed to make regular deposits into their “spiritual bank account” because they have neglected Bible reading and personal Bible study. Though they need to hear God’s voice, to know God’s leading, it eludes them because they are Scripturally insolvent.
There were, of course, no checking accounts in Bible times, but don’t reject the analogy just yet. There were treasuries, and they, too, needed “deposits” in order to be full. Consider the words of David in which he links Scripture and treasure:
Thy word have I hid in mine heart,
that I might not sin against thee.
The Hebrew word translated hid means to lay up or to store (as it is translated in the Revised Standard Version and English Standard Version translations) and to treasure (as rendered in the New Revised Standard Version and New American Standard Bible translations). God’s word, Hiswritten word, the Bible, is to be laid up like treasure in our hearts.
But let’s not stop there, because Jesus actually carried the analogy into the New Testament, talking about making “withdrawals” from the same treasure “account”:
A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things… [emphasis mine]
…every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old. [emphasis mine]
Jesus’ mention of scribes and instruction makes it clear that He was speaking of Divine truth.1
Beloved, it’s a simple fact of financial life—you can’t take out of the account what you refuse to put in. No wonder that from many years of experience, observation, and counseling other Christians, I have learned there is a one-to-one correlation between those who really hear God and those who faithfully read their Bibles. Why should this be so? The answer is simple.
The Bible is God’s written revelation of His will. He wrote and crafted His Book, He literally breathed this book out, as a means to provide you with “doctrine… reproof… correction… instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), “to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (v.15). Think of the things that God mentions providing just in these two verses: wisdom, teaching, reproof, correction, instruction. All of this has to do with guidance coming from God, with learning His will. If you don’t avail yourself hungrily and liberally of God’s clear, revealed will in written form, why should He (or you, for that matter) believe you’re serious when you seek God’s will for your life or a particular situation?
As I look back on the many times that God has led me, impressed my heart with something, or spoken to me, it has most often been by bringing a Scripture passage to mind. This isn’t surprising, because in Scripture we see God’s men and women receiving clear and unequivocal guidance from their reading of Holy Writ. Consider:
- Daniel (whom few of us know by his “heathen” name of Belteshazzar—Daniel 1:6-7), a man whose life seems synonymous with special revelations from God, was well-founded in the Scriptures. Because he had read, believed, and obeyed the kosher food laws of the Torah (Daniel 1:5, 8-15; cf. Leviticus 11; Exodus 23:19b; 34:26b; Deuteronomy 14:21e), he kept himself undefiled. Later in his life, he knew what and how to pray because he read the Spirit-inspired words of the prophet Jeremiah (Daniel 9:2ff; cf. Jeremiah 25:11,12; 29:10).
- Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (whom most of us know better by their “heathen” names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) knew the Scriptures and believed the First and Second Commandments (Exodus 20:2-6; Deuteronomy 5:7-10) and put their lives on the line for their beliefs. They didn’t even need to “seek God” to know how to respond in their hour of peril (Daniel 3). I wonder—did they have in their minds and hearts the promise at the end of the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10) as they approached the fiery furnace?
- I find this next example a little surprising because, even though it was pivotal in the life of Jeremiah, it doesn’t involve Jeremiah’s personal use of the Scriptures. Instead, the judges at his trial appealed to Scripture, specifically the writings of Micah, as a precedent. (It was a good thing, since the crowd had demanded the death penalty against Jeremiah for what he had been preaching.) Read the story in Jeremiah 26, taking special note of vv.17-19. (Cf. Micah 3:12)
- The Apostle Peter relied on Scripture for God’s leading in the days prior to Pentecost. How else would he have known that Judas’ place had to be filled, if not for the Spirit quickening two Scripture passages to his mind? (Acts 1:15-26, especially v.20; cf. Psalm 69:25; 109:8). This directed the eleven apostles in their praying. (Admittedly, they then went on to cast lots to determine the name of the replacement— v.26, but this was in the days just preceding their baptism in the Holy Spirit.) Peter seems to have known the Scriptures well, for just days later his quickened knowledge of the book of the Prophet Joel informs his preaching. He is able to look on the momentous outpouring of God the Holy Spirit and say, “This is that! This is exactly what Joel was prophesying.” (See Acts 2:14-35, especially vv.16-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32.) Peter also goes on in the same sermon to reveal the fulfillment of other prophetic utterances. (Compare Acts 2:25-28 with Psalm 16:8-11, and vv.34-35 with Psalm 110:1.) If I were going to treat Peter’s personal intimacy with Scripture exhaustively, we also could look at great detail in his two epistles.
- James led the great Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as it sought God’s mind and will, wrestling with how the Gentile believers fit into God’s economy. There had been powerful testimony from Peter, Paul, and Barnabas (and, by implication, probably strong arguments put forward by the “Judaizing” element in the church). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, James delivered the final decision in the matter, a decision informed, enlightened, and empowered by a powerful word on the subject from the Prophet Amos (vv.13-21, especially vv.16-18; cf. Amos 9:11-12). This great word settled the matter and a decision was made that has affected every one of us “Gentile believers” ever since. Praise God that James knew the Scriptures!
- Perhaps the greatest example of receiving guidance from the Scriptures is the Lord Jesus Himself. When faced with an extreme hour of temptation early in His ministry, His response was unequivocal and Bible-founded: “It is written… it is written… it is written” (Matthew 4:1-13, especially vv.4,7,10; cf. Luke 4:1-13). There’s no need to seek God’s will if you already know it.
If we’re talking in financial terms, “the bottom line” is this: if you are serious about hearing from God, you will make it part of your loving discipline (you are a disciple, are you not?) to read the Scriptures daily, faithfully, and attentively, like someone greedy to lay up treasures in a vault somewhere. With just a little effort, you can read through the Bible every year by reading just a few chapters per day, less than four pages per day in most Bibles. (It’s a rare Bible nowadays that doesn’t have a few pages devoted to a through-the-Bible-in-a-year reading plan.) Think of it as a year’s worth of deposits, no different from a year’s worth of paychecks (but with lots more left over at the end of the year!). And—just like paychecks—keep making regular deposits year after year; that is, keep reading through the Bible on a yearly basis. If you expect to make withdrawals when needed, you have to make deposits daily. Hide—store up! treasure!—God’s word in your heart, so that your “checks” on the Bank of Divine Guidance are always honored.
Lack of Clear Teaching on Hearing God
Paul introduces a very helpful spiritual concept in Romans 10:12-17:
- For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.
- For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
- How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
- And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
- But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?
- So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. [emphases mine]
The apostle, of course, is speaking of the Gospel, but this principle is true of all truth. How do you know to believe God for something about which you have never heard (or, to refer back to the last section, about which you have never read)? Did you know to believe for salvation until it was explained to you? Did you even guess it was possible to receive a pure heart from God until someone challenged you from the Scriptures with the fullness of the salvation Jesus offers? And weren’t you just like the Ephesians who said, “We’ve not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost,” (Acts 19:2) when somebody asked you, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?”
It’s the same with hearing God. When that young Texas belle asked me, “What do you mean, God spoke to you?” she was indicating that it was the first time in her life that she had been forced to consider that it might be possible for an ordinary person to hear from God. Her relationship with Jesus was held in check within the parameters of her experience, the experience of those around her, and the teaching (or lack thereof!) that she had received. Perhaps when she read her Bible (if she read her Bible regularly), her mind was walled off from even asking the question, “God, if you could speak to so-and-so in the Bible, could you speak to me, too?”
The problem isn’t just that some Christians aren’t taught that they can hear God; Christians in certain circles are actively taught that God only speaks through the Scriptures and circumstances. The explicit teaching or implicit inference in such instruction is that God doesn’t directly speak to believers any more.
There is a very well-intentioned, though reactionary (and therefore unbalanced), purpose behind this sort of teaching, and it dates back to the days of the early Protestant Reformation. Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox Churches had, in their various ways, added layer upon layer, sediment upon sediment of men’s traditions, half-truths, and un-truths to the truth of the Bible. A battle-cry of the Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli was, in essence, “Let’s cut away all that is man-made in our belief system and let’s return to the basics in the Bible, God’s infallible revelation.”
So the early Protestants, along with their spiritual heirs up to this very day, with their Bibles in hand—and carefully studied—have always been justly suspicious of and rejected anything smacking of “revelation” derived from extra-Biblical (i.e., outside the Bible) sources—whether men (i.e., 2 Timothy 2:18; Revelation 2:2) or angels (e.g., Galatians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 11:14).
But in their defense of Biblical truth, some have gone to an extreme, saying that everything we need to hear from God has already been spoken. They believe that once the canon of Scripture was established (or perhaps when the last book of the Bible was written, even before the Church made final determination about which books were in the canon of Scripture), God basically quit speaking and revealing; He had said all that He needed to say.2 As a corollary to this view, the teaching is that there are no more words in tongues, interpretation, and prophecy, because God’s revelation in the Bible is complete.3
So if Christians are erroneously taught that God no longer speaks directly to us, the underlying reason for such teaching has a noble motivation, to wit, to stand for the integrity of God’s written revelation in the Bible. I say “Amen” to their motive. But how can I know that God wants me to make a ministry trip to Dallas unless He speaks to me? Because of the impoverishing effect of their teaching in this matter, I beg these brethren to turn back to Scripture and to give themselves to a study of the plethora of Bible passages mentioned in our last article Hearing God: God’s Plan, Our Privilege.
Lack of a Nurturing Environment
Assuming that we have received proper, balanced teaching on the subject, we find that, like everything else, hearing God is something that we learn by trial and experience. And this is something best learned in a nurturing church environment, where proven, experienced believers with a track record of hearing God can instruct and encourage and guide. As I mentioned in the last article, Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice.” (John 10:27) He didn’t say, “My lambs hear My voice.” Lambs are a part of the flock. Of course, they always hear the voice of the shepherd when the rest of the flock hears it; but from lack of experience they usually don’t recognize the voice, don’t understand what they are hearing, and so they don’t know how to respond. From watching the rams and ewes, they eventually come to understand and respond to the shepherd’s voice. This is a good picture of how young Christians can be helped to discern the voice of God—they get feedback from mature, experienced believers.
An example of a (very!) young believer getting such feedback and learning to hear God is the story of Samuel. In fact, it’s a perfect practical example of a “lamb” learning from a “sheep.” You will recall the story from 1 Samuel 3:1-18. Young Samuel heard the voice of God, apparently audibly, three times (vv.4,6,8). Each time, he reported to the dozing high priest Eli, not understanding Who had called him by name. At last Eli perceived that God was speaking to the boy and told him how to respond (vv.8-9). The next time Samuel heard, just minutes later (v.10), he knew how to respond because he knew to Whom the voice belonged. God entrusted Samuel with a very clear and sobering message (vv.11-14). From that time forward, Samuel was able to hear and discern the voice of the Lord for the rest of his life.
Where you fellowship and worship, can you get “feedback” when you think you’re hearing the voice of God? Unless someone can confirm or correct you, how do you know you’re right?
At the risk of seeming to digress from this topic of hearing God, I would like to draw some illustrations from the use of the charismatic gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:10; 14:1,3, etc.). This isn’t so far-fetched as it might seem, for what is prophecy, for the person delivering the message, other than hearing what God is speaking and giving it forth vocally? A wise retired pastor I know once told me,
“You know, there is a big difference between prophecy in the Old Testament and prophecy in the New Testament. In the Old Testament it was the job of the prophet to say, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ But in the Church, when members speak out prophetically, it is the Church’s job to say, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”
He was referring specifically to Paul’s teaching about judging messages in tongues and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33. Of course, my subject is neither tongues nor prophecy, but it’s easy to see how this “judging” matter applies. In fact, maybe “judging” is too strong a word, because what I’m really after is the concept of helpful feedback.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. In the first church I pastored, a new fellow started attending. Let’s call him Woodrow, though that’s not his real name. Woodrow was on fire for God and wanted to move in the spiritual gifts. During his very first meeting with us, he gave forth a “prophecy.” I put “prophecy” in quotes because, quite frankly, it was a meandering, pseudo-spiritual declamation, daisy-chained with Scripture quotes; it was well-meant, but hardly Heaven-sent. Because we took Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 14 seriously, the pastors and elders were faithful and consistent about the matter of judging such words. The church, by that point, was fairly mature in such matters and no one—except Woodrow—was under any delusions that they had heard a word from God. They took it as what it was—somebody “trying,” but just sharing from his own enthusiasm and imagination.
Now sometimes such “words” are so outrageous, erroneous, or disruptive that something needs to be said right in the meeting to set matters straight.4 This is sometimes very necessary in the context of what Paul said about “judging” such words. The downside of using this approach indiscriminately is that after a few “Woodrows” get “shot down” and publicly embarrassed or humiliated, only the brave few will ever venture to make a peep.
But in this case, since we leaders knew that a) Woodrow's “word” was fairly innocuous; and, b) the church was mature enough to pass over it in love, I waited until the end of the meeting. Then I approached Woodrow, put my arm around him and said, “Woodrow, you know that ‘word from God’ that you shared with us?”
He beamed sheepishly and said, “Yeah?”
“Well, it wasn’t a word from the Lord.”
Woodrow was punctured, crest-fallen, and started turning an interesting shade of pink.
“But,” I continued, “you gave forth what you thought was the word of the Lord, stepping out in faith. If you feel like you have another word from the Lord, I want you to step out in faith again. It’s like learning to walk. We may fall down a lot, but we gain experience. In the same way, knowing what isn’t a word from the Lord gives you something to compare against next time.”
I guess I must have delivered my “judgment” with enough love, because the next Sunday, Woodrow shared a word from the Lord again, a short word, clearly delivered—and he was, in that lovely phrase of my English brethren, “spot on!” What was the difference? Somebody who cared had given him feedback when he missed the word of the Lord. Did I “judge” his word again the second week? Absolutely! After the meeting I encouraged him that he had really shared a valid word from the Lord. His faith was reinforced. This is how it’s supposed to work.
Will you forgive me if I pause a moment with an exhortation to pastors and elders? Maybe it’s only true in Virginia where I live. Maybe it’s only the churches I visit. Or maybe you’re taking your Woodrows aside after the meeting to set them straight privately. But from where I sit, it sure doesn’t seem like it. Like Woodrow’s “word” that first week, many of the so-called “prophecies” I hear in Pentecostal and charismatic congregations are little more than a few Scripture quotes strung together with butchered “King James” English. Worse, it seems like the more vapid the supposed “word,” the more likely you are to stand up in the pulpit and say something as simple as, “Amen” or as affirming as, “Well, we thank God for that word.” My hardworking brethren, there is an obligation inherent upon us in our role as leaders of the flock. Your people want to hear from God, they want to obey the exhortation that tells them, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God…” (1 Peter 4:11a). But they need guidance, feedback, and encouragement.
Now let’s return from our digression about Woodrow and judging words of prophecy to the subject at hand—hearing God in a “nurturing environment.” It seems to me that at a certain point in my pastoral ministry, counseling got a lot easier. It’s because I was often led to ask a question: “What do you think God is telling you to do?” or “How do you feel that God is leading you to deal with this?” Do you know, almost everyone I counseled had an answer for those questions. And about ninety percent of the people were absolutely right about what God was telling them or how God was leading them. They didn’t need me to “give them the word of the Lord.” What they did need was somebody to give them feedback, to encourage them when they were right and to provide some “negative feedback control” (as we used to say in my days of systems analysis) when they weren’t.
They were, like Peter, needing somebody like John to tell them, “It’s the Lord.” (Read John 21:1-7.) Once Peter knows that the voice he’s hearing belongs to Jesus, he just… well, dives right into the invitation.
Other examples of this kind of nurturing, feedback, and confirmation can be found in the Scriptures, including:
- We often think of Nathan as the brave prophet who exposed David’s sin and was the instrument of his repentance. But Nathan was also used of God to correct a well-intentioned plan David had to build God’s temple. (In fact, this is a good example of a prophet being set straight by God on a mistaken “okay” he had given to somebody in God’s name.) Read the story in 2 Samuel 7. (The parallel passage is in 1 Chronicles 17.)
- Saul (later “Paul”) heard Jesus speak to him audibly (Acts 9:1-9; 22:1-11); a short while later what he heard was confirmed by Ananias (9:17-19; 22:12-16).
- Let’s use Peter as an example again. Whether he knew it or not, Peter had received a Divine revelation from the Father, and Jesus confirmed this to him. “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
More examples could be produced, but I trust that the point is made. More of God’s people hear from God than they suspect. What is needed in many cases is to receive some instruction, guidance, nurture, and confirmation about what they are hearing.
How Do I Listen?
To recap: We have learned that God wants to speak to His children and that He does—“My sheep hear My voice.” We have explored three reasons why many Christians don’t hear from God: they don’t read their Bibles, they are improperly taught, and they aren’t encouraged with feedback. In the introduction to this article, I also listed the fourth reason that many Christians don’t hear from God—they lack a practical knowledge about how to listen to the Lord. That point deserves an article by itself, and so will be reserved for the next article in this series, Hearing God: Part III: Get Quiet and Listen.
- There is a sense in which we could apply Colossians 3:16 to this subject as well: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” However, here the “in you” is plural. Therefore the import is that as we bring our heart-repositories together, we can edify and admonish one another, and worship from hearts full of and captivated by Divine Truth. ↩
- In a sense, this is something like Deism, a theological stance which views God as having “wound up” the universe like a watch, since which time He has just let it run without any intervention needed or offered on His part. ↩
- Such brethren have to have some sort of Scriptural justification for a viewpoint, so they hang this teaching on the somewhat flimsy lynchpin of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, especially v. 10, where “that which is perfect” is interpreted by them to be the Bible. I am unaware of any unbiased Biblical commentator who would agree with this interpretation. ↩
- I can think of another incident from the worship life of the same church. One Sunday morning we were experiencing a wonderful flow of praise heavenward, when suddenly, the spiritual atmosphere was shredded, the same way a noisy chainsaw chews through the peace and quietude of a woodland retreat. A visitor, whom I will call Sister Sadie, someone we had never seen before (and never saw again afterwards) cut into the middle of a song with a very loud, commanding, so-called message in tongues. She was very practiced, and apparently hailed from the “old Pentecostal school” where such words are delivered like non-stop machine-gun fire.
Following our Scriptural mandate (1 Corinthians 14:27), we normally would wait on God, after a word in tongues was given, until somebody with an interpretation would speak forth. But it was clear that Sister Sadie was out of the flow, out of order, and didn’t have a word from the Spirit. So, while her machine-gun-like delivery rat-tat-tatted on, I glanced over at Brother Terry Haugh, my co-pastor, with a look that said, “It’s your turn this time.” He gave a single nod, indicating his understanding and assent. We waited for Sister Sadie to run out of steam. Then Terry said, very wisely and simply and sweetly, “Well, there’s not going to be an interpretation to that tongue. Let’s turn to song number so-and-so in Redemption Hymnal.” The meeting was recovered, we picked up the flow of the Holy Spirit in worship right where it had been lost, and on we went. The church—and Sister Sadie—understood that the word had been judged. Although we tried to do it with as little embarrassment to her as possible, the matter had disrupted the public worship, and so it had to be addressed publicly and immediately. I’d be willing to bet that it was the first time “Sister Sadie” had ever had a word judged according to 1 Corinthians 14:30. ↩