Have you ever heard God speak to you audibly? Surprisingly, according to a study by Tanya Marie Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist, roughly 10 percent of Christians claim to have had an audible experience with God. And as she notes in an article on CNN, this does not mean that those who have this experience are crazy or abnormal.
Has Jesus ever appeared to you visually, or in physical form? For more than 20 years, throughout the Middle East, there are many converts from Islam that claim Jesus has appeared to them visually, and that experience led them to change their faith and become followers of Christ in lands where such a change can cost them their lives.
A few times in my life I have experienced auditory hallucinations brought on by extreme stress and fatigue, and even as a result of prescription medication. But I’ve never heard God speak audibly.
But he has spoken to me.
Many Christians today believe that God speaks to them in various ways. The difficult part is determining whether it is God who is speaking or is it the midnight snack? It would be one thing if God spoke to everyone in a single way—audibly for anyone to hear. But it seems that such occurrences are rare. There are ways that God speaks, or we might say, makes his intentions or will be known to an individual. But these experiences are mostly subjective. How do you know that it isn’t your emotions, or mania, or fatigue, or lack of proper medication, or even malevolent spirits?
I’d like to provide you with a guideline to help you discern whether or not God is speaking to you. But first I want to clear up a bit of a misnomer.
You may have heard about things like, “practicing the presence” of God, or waiting quietly in prayer to hear God speak. These are useful methods of quieting ourselves to help us focus on scripture and spiritual things. But more often than not people do not hear God speak this way regularly. We cannot, by using some fixed method, get God to say something to us. To put it bluntly, if God is going to speak to you he will speak to you when he is good and ready; and nothing we do or say can make him speak before that—if he chooses to speak to you at all. God is sovereign. We see this in scripture. Usually, when God spoke to someone in scripture they were not “practicing the presence.” They were busy doing other things. God, we might say, interrupted them, and spoke. We can see this in the lives of Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, Saul, David, Jeremiah, Paul, and many others. God will speak when he feels like it and not before—and not without redemptive or revelatory reason.
When a Christian claims that God is speaking to him or her the claim is not so much that God is speaking as in two people speaking audibly to one another (thought that is possible). Rather, we can best understand this concept by saying not that God is speaking, rather, he is revealing himself to us in some fashion. There are five ways that God usually does this:
God reveals himself through conviction
God reveals himself through the speech and actions of others
God speaks audibly
God reveals himself visually
God reveals himself through scripture
A few years ago I had one of the strangest experiences of my life. I was working in Mongolia television at the time and a foreign man came to see me in my office. He knew that we aired Christian television programming and that I was the leader of the ministry. He wanted to talk to me about what God was doing in his life and the conviction he was feeling about going to China as a missionary. He was struggling greatly, believing that God had revealed to him that when he goes to China, he will never leave—that he would die there for his faith. Needless to say, he was very nervous about this. I tried to encourage him and shared a passage from the book of Revelation with him that I always found of great comfort. As I shared with him he slid off his chair, dropped to his knees, thrust his arms in the air and declared, “This is from the Lord, God is speaking through you!” He left my office intending to leave Mongolia and make his way to China as soon as the time was right. He was ready to live and die for his love of Jesus.
What did this man experience? He experienced God revealing himself to him in three ways: (1) he was convicted about God’s will for his life, (2) he felt God was speaking to him through others, and (3) he was suddenly convicted through scripture, giving him personal confirmation of what he believed God was saying. (Some might say that God would not reveal a person’s death to them. I would counter by saying that Jesus told Peter how he was going to die in John 21:19).
This man’s experience was the most common experience that Christians have today. And one of his experiences was the most important—God revealing himself through scripture. I’ll explain why in a moment. First, let’s briefly look at each of these fives ways that God reveals himself to us.
God Reveals Himself Through Conviction
In John 16:8 Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come and that he would “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” What is conviction in the biblical sense? Biblical conviction is to be absolutely convinced of something regarding God and spiritual things. Every Christian first experiences this when he or she comes to faith in Christ. We become convicted about our sinful state and who Jesus is and what he has done for us on the cross and his resurrection. If you are not convicted about Jesus then you are not a Christian.
As our Christian experience continues we will have conviction from time to time about ongoing issues of sin, opportunities to share our faith in some way, and issues of obedience to Christ. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, who is working within us to make us more like Christ. Do you want to understand what the Holy Spirit convicts us about? Read John 16:7-15. Everything you need to know is right there.
When God first spoke to me about his ministry calling in my life I was deeply convicted. It was one of those experiences when I could say that I knew, that I knew, that I knew God had revealed his will to me. I then moved to the next step which was to seek confirmation through others of what God was doing. That brings me to our next point.
God Reveals Himself Through The Speech And Actions Of Others
My next step was to seek counsel from godly believers about what I thought God had revealed to me. The first pastor I talked with said very plainly, “I think that God has probably called you to that ministry.” However, when I presented my convictions to my wife, let’s just say that she wasn’t pleased. She felt completely different. She was 180 degrees from where I was. So I decided to be patient and wait. Years later, without me saying anything to my wife, without me trying to convince her, she went completely in the other direction, saying, “God has called me to follow you wherever you go. If this is what you’re convinced God is doing, then let’s go.”
In the book of Acts we see God using various people to speak to others about what he was doing, or what he wanted them to do, or what would happen. In Acts 11:28 “Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius.” Paul was used by the Spirit to convict the Apostle Peter of his sin of favoritism when he said, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14).
Even the great Apostle Paul sometimes heard God’s will through others. In Acts 21:10-11, “A prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, this is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
God Speaks Audibly
When Jesus was baptized, the Father spoke audibly for others to hear. “A bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Matthew 17:5). When Peter visited Joppa, this happened to him: “A voice came to him, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.’ Again a voice came to him a second time, What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky” (Acts 10:13-16).
God can and does speak audibly. There is nothing in the scripture which precludes God from speaking in this way. However, it is very rare.
God Reveals Himself Visually
This method was mainly used in the Old Testament period, though it also happened in the New Testament period. In almost every case when God appeared before someone they were struck with overwhelming fear. This happened to Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. In each case God was also revealing something of extreme significance. God doesn’t appear to men to make them feel good. In these cases something incredible was at stake in Israel’s redemptive history. Even the Apostle John was overcome in Revelation when God appeared before him.
As mentioned earlier, there are Christians who live in very difficult countries, or countries where they are severely persecuted, where Jesus appears to certain people to reveal himself to them. There are, in fact, a great number of such people. Sometimes he appears to them physically, but most of the time he appears to them in dreams. This is an area where we must be very careful. Dreams are utterly subjective. While the scripture does present testimony about people to whom God appears in dreams, it is not the most common of ways God speaks. But he still does it.
For 16 years I have kept the following to myself, waiting for God to fulfill something he said to me 23 years ago. It is now happening. In 1996 Jesus appeared to me in a dream. I won’t relate the whole thing here. Suffice it to say that it was very disturbing. Toward the end of the dream, as he was leaving, I asked him about my ministry calling to a specific area of the world. I was in doubt. “Did you really call me to this?” I asked. With a look of disappointment on his face he said, “Yes.” My doubt had disappointed him, but he still confirmed that which he had revealed to me eight years earlier. These kinds of confirmations radically changed my life.
If the Lord were to ever appear before you, you can be assured that it is for no small reason. Yet we should keep in mind that this is exceedingly rare, even more so than God revealing himself audibly. In fact, the scripture warns us about how our own minds can deceive us in matters such as these (Colossians 2:18).
God Reveals Himself Through Scripture
In our day this is the most important way that God reveals himself. In fact, all other experiences must be measured against the principles of scripture to be validated. Why?
We know that the Holy Spirit, God himself, is the author of scripture (II Peter 1:21). The Holy Spirit will never reveal anything false or incorrect (Titus 1:2). Thus, anything which God may say to us in any one of these ways must comply with scripture. The Holy Spirit will never say or reveal anything that contradicts what he has already said. If you feel you have heard something from God but it doesn’t match scriptural principles then you can be sure that God did not reveal it.
There is also a warning here about using scripture to confirm what you think God may be saying. While many people have read the Bible and even read it daily, many people are also ignorant of its context. We sometimes forget that the Bible was written in cultures, and to cultures that are dramatically different from our modern age. It’s literary forms and declarations can be easily taken out of context so that we misinterpret or use scripture outside the very thing is was written to communicate. Some people approach the Bible in a mystical fashion. Beware. Scripture is easily twisted, but it can never be broken (John 10:35). My favorite example of this kind of abuse is in John 10:10 where Jesus declared, “The enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy.” Some Christians think, based upon that passage, that Satan comes to steal their money, or job, or prestige, or possessions, and so on. Yet John 10:10 has nothing to do with these things at all. Therefore, if you seek confirmation of God’s will or word to you, be sure you are reading scripture correctly.
I believe that God speaks today. He has spoken to me. He has spoken to people I know. He is not a dead or silent God, though he doesn’t alway speak when we want him to. He is sovereign.