Hearing God "Speak"

Several years ago I sat in a “vision” service of a local church and heard the pastor declare to his listeners that while he was hanging out in the woods recently God “spoke” clearly to him and revealed to him a 2020 vision for the church – in other words what their church would look like by the year 2020. The pastor was clear that his vision was “without a doubt a clear word from God.” Of course, this “God-given” vision included larger attendance and giving numbers, more campuses in surrounding cities and bigger influence locally and globally. I even remember vividly the pastor suggesting God informed him they would reach a certain numerical attendance goal based on some type of misguided “tithing” principle where God would give them 10% of the number of people who lived in the specific cities where they planned to launch campuses. 

I was somewhat shocked by the confidence with which the speaker made his declarations based on the premise “God spoke” these promises to him. I asked my wife when we got in the car, “What happens when 2020 arrives and these things have not happened?”  Here we are. 2020. And the vision God “clearly” provided that day in the woods? Unfulfilled - almost every component - unfulfilled. What happened? Did God change his mind? Or maybe the listener who was so confident and clear on what God was saying missed it or misheard God or heard some other voice? And if he did not hear the voice of God that day, how can his listeners be confident of the other hundreds indeed thousands of times this type of “God told me” language is employed to put forward the next “God-given” vision or mandate to the church?

On a side note: Scripture is clear true God-called prophets and spokespeople do not “miss” it or “get it wrong.”  If they do speak fallaciously in the name of God, they are labeled “false” prophets and we are instructed to avoid them.

I am not a complete cessationist (the belief supernatural gifts ceased after the Apostolic Age of the Early Church) for two primary reasons: 1) I do not find it taught clearly in Scripture and 2) I refuse to put boundaries I don’t find in Scripture on how a sovereign God does or does not reveal Himself in His creation. With that being said, I believe we must be guarded when speaking on behalf of the Almighty in areas where He has not already clearly spoken in His inspired Word. Some have labeled this position cautious continuationism (the spiritual gifts continue but must be exercised with caution and in submission to Scripture).

God is not a genie to be manipulated nor a pawn to be used with our natural tendency to shine the spotlight on ourselves even when evoking the name of God.  We must proceed with caution when we make use of language that claims the authority of a God who is unable to misspeak or mislead. We need to be hesitant to use the phrase “God told me” and more inclined to base our assertions on what God has already said clearly in His word.  Words of knowledge and prophetic utterances should always be weighed in light of what God has already said and affirmed by other leaders in the church who spend consistent time in God’s word.

I believe God speaks. I believe God the Spirit lives inside of us and points us to the truth. I believe God illuminates our minds and hearts as we ingest His inspired Word. I believe God works through experiences and situations and relationships and history and gospel proclamation and other Jesus followers and everyday life to point us to Jesus and to remind us of who He is and who we are in Him and of our absolute dependence upon Him. I believe God is active in our world so we need to pay attention.

It seems clear in the New Testament that as the dust settled after Pentecost and the Early Church was birthed that God’s methods of revealing Himself once again evolved (see Heb 1:1-2). It is also evident that the writers of the later New Testament books & epistles recognized this shift. Paul encourages his protégé Timothy to focus on preaching the Word (which he argues is competent for equipping). The apostle emphasizes again and again to the fledgling faith communities in specific cities to stay centered on the message of the cross – to protect, preserve, proclaim, and pass on the Gospel. His instructions on how to live out the Christian faith are grounded strictly on the finished work of Jesus. And by the time we reach the final words of what became the New Testament canon, we are warned of the danger of adding to or taking away from God’s already spoken Word.

For these reasons alone we must proceed with caution when speaking on behalf of God especially if what we are claiming is “from God” is not already found in Scripture.

Do I hear God “speak” to me? Absolutely. Let me provide some examples.

When I behold His creation, I hear God speak of His glory and the work of His hands.

When I fall more deeply in love with my wife, I hear God speak of His church as a bridegroom that He will present holy and blameless.

When I hear my children laugh, I hear God speak of the unconditional love our Heavenly Father has for His sons and daughters.

When I watch the birds of the air, I hear God speak of how much more His provision is for me.

When I participate in genuine fellowship with other Jesus followers, I hear God speak of how the unity of His people stands as a testimony of His goodness.

When I read of His sovereignty, I hear God speak of how we are chosen from before the foundation of the world and how He is reconciling the world to Himself.

When I enjoy a meal with family or friends, I hear God speak of how He provides our essential needs day in and day out.

When I hear stories of radical grace, I hear God speak of a grace that is bigger than our sins.

When I experience and exercise forgiveness, I hear God speak of how we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven so much.

When I watch someone come to faith in Christ, I hear God speak of His invitation to come and believe.

When I struggle, I hear God speak of coming before His throne to find grace to help in my time of need.

When I doubt, I hear God speak of His faithfulness.

When I stray, I hear God speak of His mercies that are new every morning.

When I sleep, I hear God speak how He is near even when we lay our heads down at night.

When I weep, I hear God speak of how Jesus wept and grieved.

When I hurt, I hear God speak of His compassion and kindness.

When I suffer, I hear God speak of how it is through the road of suffering that Jesus was glorified and we are refined and matured.  

Do I hear God speak? Every day in almost every way … as I pause to behold the bigness of our God, as I am drawn into communion with Him through the work of the Holy Spirit, and as I am engaging the living and active word of God that pierces and refines my soul. He is speaking.

Be encouraged Jesus follower who feels inadequate because you do not “hear from God" like those standing on the stage. Be encouraged – He is speaking – we just need to stop, lean in and listen.  Stop waiting for visions in the woods and open your Bible (God's breath on a page). Ask the Holy Spirit to awaken your spiritual eyes and ears. Pay attention to what is around you. And soon you will learn God is speaking in more ways than we can comprehend.  

One final story: during a season of extreme brokenness and restoration in my life, I was wrestling one morning with the labels people were pinning on me based on my own failures and sins (liar, manipulator, sinner … you get the picture). My heart was heavy and I was reading Romans 8 when God spoke to me from this verse: “There is therefore now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The Holy Spirit brought a freshness in those words I had never experienced. It was as if God were saying to me: “Devin, why are you so consumed with the labels everyone has for you when I have labeled you NOT condemned? You are in Christ Jesus. Now live like it.”  I wept. God spoke to me in that moment through His living and active word to remind me His labels for me are the only ones that matter and He has declared me Not Condemned.  That moment was a milestone in my path of restoration.

Did I hear God speak? Absolutely. His truth became clear and made real to me through the Holy Spirit. So be cautious when speaking on behalf of God – what you say has lifelong and eternal implications.

Let those who have ears hear.

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