“Grandpa,” little Leigh Anne asked, “How do I know when it’s God talking to me and when it’s just me talking to myself?”
Pastor James Richardson told his beloved little one, “Honey, that’s one of the hardest questions you’ll ever face in this life.”
Someone asked me the same question the other day.
Here is my attempt to answer it.
First, let’s identify the wrong answers. I know it’s of God because of the warm feeling inside me. I’ve had several Mormons tell me that. Bad answer. A dangerous one, even.
Some of us remember the Debbie Boone hit from a generation ago. “This can’t be wrong; it feels so right.”
All over the world worshipers in a thousand religions read their holy books and come away with warm feelings. Doubtless, many interpret the inner emotional reaction as a verification of their faith’s validity. They go forward into the day, assured that their faith is solid, their belief well-anchored, their lives well-lived.
I know it’s of God because it fits my convictions. This hardly deserves comment.
I know it’s of God because it’s something I was wanting to do anyway. Ditto.
There has to be a better way.
Before offering my own contributions to this discussion, let me restate the question.
The issue at hand is not “How does God speak to us?” If that were the question, the answers would include the Scriptures, holy people, circumstances, and the Holy Spirit.
That is not what we are looking at.
The question is: When we hear that voice within our hearts, how do we know this is God?
1. The voice originates from outside me.
That may not be the best way to put this, but it’s the only way I can think of. The message arrives in my mind and heart and I know–don’t ask me how, I just know–that I didn’t make this up. It came from a Source outside of me.
The message was almost like an intrusion.
Some years ago, I was doing my regular night-time walking while talking to the Father about all the things a busy husband, father, and pastor has on his agenda. Suddenly, from somewhere or nowhere, four questions appeared in my mind. (Having said that, you would think I would remember those four questions forever. I did write them down in the back of my Bible, but later gave the Bibles away. I have retained only two of the questions, alas.)
The first question was: “What’s it going to take for you to get serious about your prayer life?” And the second: “If you are not going to pray for your children, who do you think is?”
Wow. Those felt like baseball bats upside my head. Real wakeup calls.
Was I saying these things to myself? Hardly. These messages were as solidly from outside me as if I had been handed a Western Union envelope.
As someone once said while relating a similar experience, “No, the voice was not audible; it was stronger than that.”
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me” (John 10:27). As Henry Blackaby has put it, in words that forever etched themselves in the consciousness of God’s people, “If you are not hearing from God on a regular basis, you are missing out on an essential element of the Christian faith.”
So, first, the Source of the message is from somewhere outside me.
2. The message is so right. It fits the situation so perfectly.
My daughter-in-law Julie works 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. There’s always one in progress on a card table in her living room. She knows the feeling of satisfaction when she locates the right piece for that hole that has been bugging her. She may have tried a number of other pieces, and some came close to fitting. But none were perfect.
When that which is perfect is come, you know it.
When God speaks, the questions fly out the window. This is so right.
“A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?”(Amos 3:8)
When a thing is right, you know it.
3. It is consistent with the revealed Word of God.
Those of us who believe the written Word of God is His message to mankind, that Scripture “is profitable for doctrine, reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17), have no trouble believing God still speaks to individuals. However, we believe whatever He says will be consistent and in line with all He has previously said.
Somewhere I heard of a preacher beginning a sermon, “Let us read this passage from the Bible, then we will give you something solid–a couple of stories–on which to base it.”
He had it backward.
The solid foundation for our lives, for our faith, for all we do, is God’s revealed Word, the Holy Scriptures. That is the basis for all we believe and do and preach. Our words must be in conformity to that Word or we are the ones who are out of line.
A man who had belonged to a church I pastored twenty years earlier phoned me late one night to run something by me. “I want to know what you think of this,” he said.
He proceeded to tell me how “God” was talking to him out of the television set. Yes, you read that right. The television set.
It started one night when he had fallen asleep in front of the television. When he woke up, the station was off the air. As he rose to turn off the set and head to bed, a voice came to him from the direction of the TV. “It claimed to be the voice of God,” he told me.
Thereafter, over the next few weeks, that voice came to him again and again. “Sometimes, the set wasn’t even on,” he said.
It may not surprise you to learn he began to share these messages with friends. “We have a group that meets once a month for dinner and I tell them the latest things God has said.”
He said, “Joe, what do you think about this? Is it real or not?”
I said, “I’ll tell you a three-fold test for this experience, my friend. Does it make you love Jesus more, love God’s people more, and love God’s Word more?”
Long pause. Then he said, “But you don’t realize, Joe. I’ve been there and done that.”
I said, “Then, in that case, you may discount this as being from the devil. This is not from God.”
The conversation ended quickly. That was not what he wanted to hear.
4. Subsequent events bear out that the message was on target.
Once you hear from the Lord on an issue, if you accept it as His Will and do what He tells you, circumstances will confirm in many ways over the next days and weeks that it was right.
The pastor search committee told me they felt I was God’s choice for their church. My wife agreed. I said, “As soon as the Lord tells me the same thing, we’ll move forward. But nothing happens until then.”
When the chairman called to say he needed an answer, I had to get serious about praying over the matter. I shut the office door and got on my knees. Ten minutes or an hour later, it’s hard to know, I rose and picked up the phone and called the chairman. “God wants me to stay at this church,” I said, thus ending the relationship with that committee. Then I called my wife and told her.
I’ve not doubted for a minute that this was the right decision. Not even when, a year later, the call came from another church and we accepted it as the will of God, and it proved to be the hardest experience of our ministry. At every point, I knew the Lord had led us there, even though the burden was heavy and the work was slow.
One evidence in my own mind that I knew God had led me to that church was when the opportunity arose to move to a church twice the size and I turned it down. “The Lord is not going to let me move from here,” I told the chairman, “until I see this conflict through. Otherwise, the next pastor will go through the same problems I’ve had.”
Professionally, I paid a price for that decision. Within a year, I was without a job, and churches running 100 were hesitant to talk with me. “If you’re so good, why aren’t you in the pulpit?” The answer was too complex for a phone call, and usually we did not get beyond that point.
Eventually, the Lord led me to the church in Kenner, Louisiana, where we spent the next fourteen years as pastor, and to which I still belong. It was the right thing. It was a God thing.
When a thing is of God, you just know it.
Is that too simplistic? Not for me.