During the worship service, a woman whispered quietly to Julie: “I have a word from the Lord for you. You will be like the prophetess, Anna, in Luke 2. You will be widowed after seven years and spend the rest of your life ministering in sweet service to Jesus.”
“Don’t you see me standing here?” I wanted to ask. “Julie’s my fiancé. We’re getting married in June.”
I held my tongue and looked at the young girl who would soon be my wife. If this nosy woman were right, I’d be dead in seven years. On our seventh anniversary, I stayed awake until midnight just to be sure that the voice she had been listening to was not God’s.
God’s Voice Vs. the Voices of Others
God’s voice is not the only voice that speaks. Self and Satan can both wreak havoc in the lives of Christians who are unable to distinguish among the three.
Have you ever wondered why there are so few prophets in the Bible?
God asked Hosea 1, “Do you want to hear me speak?”
“I’d love to be your prophet.”
“Then, go marry a prostitute.”
God asked Jeremiah, “Do you want to hear me speak?”
“God, I’m too young to be a prophet; but, I’d love to hear you speak.”
So God spoke to Jeremiah 1. But the price of hearing God’s message was high. The people cursed him, mocked him, tossed him in jail, and bound him in chains. They threw him in cisterns and beat him senseless. They humiliated him in stocks in the marketplaces. Worst of all, the people never believed a single word he said.
One day God commanded Isaiah 1, “Take off your clothes.”
“Don’t ask me why. Just take them off.”
“Well, for how long?”
“Until I tell you to put them on again.”
So Isaiah stripped off his clothes. Imagine the scene as he walked naked down the streets of Jerusalem. “Hey, Isaiah,” mocked the people, “where are your clothes?”
“I took them off.”
Can you imagine the looks when he said, “Well, I heard this voice…”?
Finally, three years later, God spoke: “Isaiah, put on your clothes and declare this word from Me: ‘As I have bared your buttocks, so I will bare the buttocks of Egypt and let the Assyrians spank them.'” Can you imagine that for three years he walked around bare-bottomed and the message wasn’t even for Israel (Isaiah 20)?
Hearing God speak carries a high price tag. In Exodus 20:18-19 the Israelites refused Moses’ invitation to come to the mountain and hear God speak: “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But, do not have God speak to us or we will die.’”
When we hear the voice of God nothing is ever the same again. Hearing from God produces a dramatic long-term calling that may well alter our choices, lives, values, focuses, and behaviors.
This is a paradox. While hearing from God might cost us our lives, the voice of God opens the floodgates so that the Living Water of the Holy Spirit might flow from our innermost beings (John 7:37-39) and open the door to abundant life (John 10:10). Full love and intimacy with Jesus can occur only when we hear Him speak.
Ways We Can Hear God Speak
When is the last time you heard God speak? Some of us say, “Recently.” Others might say, “It’s been a long time.” Tragically, others say, “I am not certain that I have ever heard God speak.”
In a day when the secular world is crying for answers, too many Christians are stuttering.
I count at least nineteen different ways in the Bible that God speaks into the lives of His people. You may think of some more. If we have ears to hear, we can’t miss what He has to say.
Discerning What God’s Voice Sounds Like
The voice on the phone was familiar. I’d spoken with her before. She announced that she had a message for me from God. Without pausing, she launched into a detailed pronouncement that my wife Julie and I would soon suffer a divorce. I had neglected my wife, she said, and failed to build the kind of marriage that God intended for pastors; and thus, the penalty would be the forfeiture of my marriage.
I knew enough not to laugh out loud or tell her what she could do with her message. Later, I considered the implications of her words. What if she were right? After all, the pages of Scripture are filled with stories of unusual people who did strange things as God led them to pronounce, “Thus saith the Lord, (fill in the blank)!”
After all, there was some truth in what she said. What pastor ever spends enough time with his family? Was God upset and getting personally involved? Surely not?
I called one of my spiritual advisors. “Jack,” I said, “I need your advice. I’m ninety-nine percent sure that her message was not from God. Just help me verify for certain.”
He responded, “Did the warning give any hope for reconciling the marriage and avoiding the divorce?”
“When God warned of doom in the Bible, He usually provided a means for avoiding the consequences—often by repentance and/or restitution. Did the message provide any hope for averting the divorce?”
“Then the message was not from God.”
Over the years, I’ve developed a biblical checklist of what I think God’s voice sounds like. The list is in broad generalizations and is certainly not complete, nor foolproof. No one point is sufficient to prove or disprove the voice of God. Nevertheless, I believe that these principles are helpful when they line up in a sensible, godly fashion.
God speaks in my innermost human spirit. Self or Satan speaks in my Soul (Hebrews 4:12).
God tends to speak with gentle leadings in contrast to what I often perceive to be the compulsive, clamoring, loud demands of Self or Satan (1 Kings 19:11-13).
God’s voice produces freedom. Self’s or Satan’s voice often produces bondage (Matthew 11:28-30).
God tends to speak when we are consciously seeking Him. Self or Satan tend to speak with sudden intrusions of thoughts into the mind (Jeremiah 29:12-13).
When God speaks there is a definite sense that everything is under control. When Self or Satan speaks there is an inner sense that something is out of control (Psalms 37:4).
God gives clear-cut, specific directions. Self or Satan often communicates in confused, uncertain wonderings.
God convicts of specific sins. Self and Satan often accuse in broad generalities that leave a lingering sense of haunting and unfocused guilt (John 16:8).
God speaks with 100 percent truth that can be tested by the Word of God. Self and Satan often traffic in lies, deceit, and half-truths (John 14:6).
God’s voice always leads to a deep, abiding sense of peace. Self or Satan often do not (Philippians 4:7).
Communicating Holy Spirit to Human Spirit
We were considering the relocation of our church operations. Full parking lots and six weekend worship services had maxed out our site. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror one Saturday I almost dropped my razor at the thought that flashed into my mind. Instead of going to all the trouble and expense of relocating, why not purchase the eight houses surrounding our property? We could build a new worship center and expand our parking lots to make room for new growth. I thanked God for revealing this new course of action.
I told our church leaders what God told me and led the church to make plans to purchase the adjoining houses. The surrounding subdivision deed restrictions required that a majority of the one-hundred fifty-six nearby homeowners agree with the required rezoning and sale. Six months, numerous unpleasant neighborhood association meetings, and well over one hundred irate neighbors later, we called off the deal.
I was still licking my wounds when a wise saint said to me privately, “You ignored the Tenth Commandment: ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.’”
The most precious times I have with God are when we are communicating Holy spirit to human spirit. I often refer to my human spirit as my “knower.” Like, have you ever had those times when you just knew deep inside that God was talking to you? Most Christians tell me yes.
The preacher was preaching on Jesus searching for lost sheep. All of a sudden, deep in my “knower,” I heard the voice of God: “Roger, you’re a lost sheep.” I was only seven, but the voice seemed so real. I said to Mom and Dad that night after church, “I’m a lost sheep, aren’t I?” Over the next several days my parents explained about lost and found sheep. I gave my heart to Jesus as my Savior and Shepherd, and was lost no longer.
Two weeks later it was like the preacher stopped preaching and God was speaking to me. Deep in my “knower” He told me that one day I would be a preacher, too. And become one I did.
I am careful in listening for the voice of God. His is not the only voice that speaks. I don’t want to be misled by my own imaginings, and I certainly do not care to be fooled by Satan’s temptations, accusations, or deceits. Neither do I want to be led astray by human ignorance, stupidity, or misguided spirituality.
Following the guidelines of Hebrews 4:12, I quiet my mind and allow the Word of God to “divide between soul and spirit.” As I listen, I try to discern whether what I hear emanates from my soul (my mind), or from my deep, inner, human spirit where the Holy Spirit lives. The soul is the inner part of me which is my own mind or self. The soul is my organ for intellect, will, and emotions (Hebrews 4:12). My human spirit is the center of my worship and communication with Jesus.
As we mature spiritually, our increasing spiritual experience and discernment allow us to distinguish between soul and spirit. The ability to distinguish between them is critical because God indwells and speaks in our human spirit while Self and Satan have access only to our soul. When we discern that the internal voice is coming from our spirit we know that God is speaking. When we discern that the internal voice is coming from our soul, we know that Self, or possibly even Satan, is speaking.
When properly cultivated, our human spirit is most dependable and useful in hearing God speak. God speaks to us in the Bible and we speak to Him in prayer. This is described as praying in the mind. The Holy Spirit also speaks to us in our innermost human spirit. We speak back from out of our innermost human spirit to the Holy Spirit. This what Paul calls praying in the spirit.
Whenever I sense what may be a word from God, I refuse to accept it until I carefully consider whether I am hearing from God, Myself, Satan, or hard-of-hearing, misguided humans. When people say, “God told me…” I often respond, “How are you certain the words were from God?” If they can’t give a definitive answer then I seldom consider the message they are delivering. I don’t want to make a mistake and follow the wrong voice.
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Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
Editor’s Note: This Ask Roger article features insights from Roger’s daughter, Brie Barrier Wetherbee, a sought-after Bible teacher and conference speaker, author, analyst, and Christian theologian.
Pastor Roger Barrier’s “Ask Roger” column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.