Years ago I sat in on a conversation between a pastor and one of the members of his church. The member, a young lady, kept asking a simple question: "How do I know if God is speaking to me or if its my own voice?" The pastor attempted to answer the question in the same way many Christians often do, but it didn't seem to work. Somehow, every Biblical answer the pastor offered was unable to penetrate the wall. As the conversation continued, the woman grew more agitated until finally she settled down. But to those observing the discussion it was clear she remained confused.
Some Christians have never wrestled with this problem. Others have struggled with it in minor degrees. For them simple biblical answers tend to settle the issue. If that is you, then this article, while an interesting read perhaps, will prove to be of little use (try this one instead). But for others, such as the woman in my story, no answer seems to work. When it comes to this type of person most assume they simply don't have enough faith or that they don't have a relationship with God. And while those may very well be the case for some, I suspect many are sincerely following Jesus as best they can and yet they constantly find themselves unable to distinguish Gods voice from their own voice no matter how it is explained to them.
So what do we do with this class? Do we keep offering the same answers that seem to satisfy everyone else with the hope that eventually it will click (such as "maybe you have sin in your life" or "just read your Bible" etc)? Or do we just forget about them and hope they figure it out eventually? While those may be tempting solutions, they are in fact no solution at all. Instead, I believe the best approach is to put our pat answers aside and come close to them seeking though an intimate relationship to discover why this wall exists. For the time being, allow me to offer some suggestions that may be of help to those stuck in this rut.
Analyzing the Question
One of the things I have learned is that when a philosophical question cannot be answered the problem tends to lie with the question itself. For example, if someone asks you "Who created God?" you may find yourself unable to provide a satisfactory answer. Why? Because the questioner has already convinced himself that someone must have created God. As a result the question carries the same assumption and until that assumption is removed the question will remain. The questioner may pride himself that he can ask a question no one seems to answer but such is not the case. The question is impossible to answer, not because it lacks and answer but because of the assumption that God must have been created. You must deal with the assumption first and then the question falls apart.
I would like to suggest that "How Do I know if its Gods voice or my voice?" is also a flawed question. While it may not be true of everyone who asks this question the reality is that behind this question are some pretty erroneous assumptions. Not everyone shares those assumptions of course, but many do. As such, it is impossible to give a satisfactory answer to them because no matter what you say they will always go back to the same basic assumptions (as in my story above). Therefore, in these particular cases it will not do to simply answer the question with Bible verses. Instead, we must first deal with the assumptions that are behind the question. It is my belief that once those assumptions are removed the question falls apart.
For those who struggle with this dilemma, the battle is real. They want to know if God is speaking to them but find themselves unable to figure out how. Others don't seem to have a problem. They speak constantly of how God said this or that to them. They are so satisfied with this "voice" that seems to always guide them the right way. But what about me? Is the question of myriads. "How Do I know if its Gods voice or my voice?" looms over them as an impenetrable wall with no solution in sight.
So what are the assumptions behind this question? There are many, and they don't all apply to everyone, but allow me to deal with some that I have identified in the hopes that it will stimulate your thinking.
First of all, the question assumes that God can only speak in one particular way. While the questioner may intellectually believe that God can speak in different ways, the question itself betrays this view. By assuming that Gods voice can be easily confused with your own voice you are assuming that God has only one way of communicating and that whatever this way is it is doomed to parallel your self-talk. Because Gods voice always sounds like your voice (assumption) you conclude that telling the difference is near impossible. However, Hebrews 1:1 tells us:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways...God is not confined to speaking to us in one particular way. He is not forced to speak to us exclusively in terms that parallel our own internal voice. He speaks to us in various ways and he does so in the way (or ways) in which he knows we will best understand. In the past God spoke face to face, in dreams and visions, through the prophets, through his son Jesus, through the apostles, and ultimately through his word. He also used other methods of communication such as Urim and Thummin, a donkey (in the story of Balaam), a rebellious prophet (Balaam himself), angels, resurrected saints (Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration), and thunder.
So the first thing the questioner needs to do is reject the idea that God can only speak to us in one way that is doomed to always parallel our own internal voice. God speaks to us in many ways - some of which cannot be confused with our own voice. Those ways commonly include the Bible (his self-revelation), people in our lives, circumstances, convictions, and experiences. When a message passes through those channels consistently it is often a clear revelation of Gods will.
This brings to the fore another assumption, but first a story.
Two weeks ago I preached my first sermon as a full-time pastor. As I prepared for the sermon I asked God what I should preach about. I prayed several times and one day the answer came. It wasn't an audible voice but it was an impression that was clear: preach about lifting Jesus up. And that is exactly what I did. However, I could have easily sat there and thought, what if that was my own head? After all, I am a theologian. All we ever talk about is lifting Jesus up. And I just graduated from an Adventist theology program where the constant theme was "lift him up". Lifting Jesus up also happens to be my passion, so how do I know it wasn't just me that thought that?
One of the reasons why I never stopped to wonder this is because I am convinced that if God can speak through stones, a donkey, dreams, and visions then what in the world prevents him from speaking to me in my own voice? Is God not allowed to use my thoughts, passions, feelings and experiences to speak to me? Is he forbidden from using my own individuality to speak to me? I don't think so. Thus, the second assumption that must be rejected is the assumption that God cannot speak to me using my own voice.
The third assumption the questioner brings to the table is the definition of hearing coupled with a false expectation. Allow me to elaborate.
The Definition of Hearing
Some seekers ask this same question but word it more like "How can I hear Gods voice?" But before that question is answered we must first define what the questioner means by "hear". If the definition of "hear" is flawed it will be impossible to answer the question. Is there only one way to hear? Or are we capable of hearing in more than one way?
A phrase I use often is the phrase "I hear you". I use this phrase when someone is explaining something to me. I hear their story audibly and reply with "I hear you" to let them know I got it. But at times I use this phrase when the person is attempting to say something but they don't know how. They may not be able to audibly communicate their message to me but if I know what they are getting at I say "I hear you". Their message may never have made it to my ears but I nevertheless understood, and thus "heard", what they were saying. This is an example of hearing that doesn't involve a clear audible sound. Likewise, those who are hearing impaired may use different methods (such as sign language) to communicate. While they don't technically "hear" anything, they still communicate through visual means. In a sense, they still hear, they just don't hear audibly. Or what about when someone asks you "Have you heard from so and so lately?" You answer yes because you just got an email from them even though you didn't literally hear them talk. Clearly, hearing can happen in different ways and it doesn't always demand sound.
So when you ask the question "How can I hear Gods voice?" you must define hearing. In my experience, I define hearing as "all of the above". God can speak to me audibly and he can speak to me without sound. Sound is not necessary for communication so the later is just as good as the former. This leads us to our next point.
As you define hearing you must also answer the question, What do you expect to hear? An audible sound? A sound in your head? Or do you expect to receive an impression, knowledge, direction, or a sense that you understand in your mind to be a message from God? The later is as much hearing as the former. This is an extremely important point to consider for if you are expecting God to communicate to you in a certain way and he communicates in another then you will miss his message, not because he didn't speak, but because you had a false expectation of how he would speak and missed the way he did speak entirely.
God has spoken to me many ways in the past. He has spoken to me through Bible verses that hit me just when I need them. He has spoken to me through people. He has spoken to me through songs. He has spoken to me through sermons, books, and experiences. If I only expected him to speak to me as a sound in my head I would have missed all of the messages he was sending me - and in fact I did! During these years I was always expecting someone to walk up to me and deliver a dramatic message from God and it never happened. For years I felt as though God wasn't speaking to me until one day I realized that over those years I had heard his voice many times, just not the way I was expecting. Consequently, I had missed his voice.
The fourth assumption that lies behind this question is that hearing Gods voice is something that just happens. Perhaps this assumption is developed by people around us who "always" seem to hear Gods voice. Their experience leads many to feel that there is something wrong with them because they never hear Gods voice. But this is false. While I do not wish to question anyone's sincerity I am skeptical of anyone who claims to hear Gods voice all the time. But regardless of whether they do or not the fact is that hearing Gods voice is not something that "just happens". Allow me to suggest that hearing Gods voice can only happen when we are listening.
So what is the difference? Hearing is often done passively, but listening is intentional. You can hear someone talking without actually listening to them, but you cannot listen without hearing. So perhaps a better question would be, "How do I listen to God?" as opposed to "How do I hear him?"
When you listen, you are purposefully setting aside time to internalize what you hear and understand it. I believe that many Christians don't struggle to hear God but to listen to God. We are so busy with life and paying the bills that we have no time to just listen.
Understanding the voice of God is a relational thing and all relationships take time to grow. If a person is not taking the time to grow in their relationship with God by faith in his word and daily walking with him then they will never be connected to him long enough to learn how to listen to his voice.
The fifth assumption that permeates this question comes to us from our culture. Somehow, the church has come to view God as some kind of personal assistant who is there to guide your every step. However, this concept is not found in scripture. For example, Paul the apostle was a man who lived under the will of God. He followed God's direction and obeyed his voice. However, not once to we see Paul asking God whether or not he should be a tent-maker (Acts 18:3). That was just something he chose to do. Likewise we can see that Luke was a physician (Colossians 4:14) but not once do we get even an inkling that Luke spent months begging God to reveal to him what his career should be. In the same vein, its important to realize that men in the Bible often went for long periods of time - even years - without hearing from God at all. Its not like he was at their disposal ready to give them a detailed consultation every time they prayed and yet somehow we seem to expect that today.
This concept of God as your personal life coach who directs you to do specific things such as what career to pursue, what house to buy, or wether or not to move out of your parents house are absent from scripture. Sure, we do see God guiding people and giving them specific instructions (such as Hosea and Gomers marriage, Abrahams sojourn etc.) but those are always specific situations that are intimately related to God's redemptive plan for humanity. Outside of those isolated instances we do not see a picture of God as outlining every detail of peoples lives. Such a picture of God leads people to think that if they don't figure out exactly what God wants then they will be failures in life. Sometimes years are spent in search for Gods will on a matter where it is not necessary.
I am not suggesting that we are not to pray over our decisions. But what I am saying is that God has made us free. This idea that you have to have a divine directive for everything in your life is not only foreign to scripture but also causes many people to stay stagnant when they should be moving. God has given us principles in his word to guide our choices but seldom does he spell out the choices for us. Instead, we are free to chose our own path so long as that path finds itself within the parameters of Gods principles. My wife struggled for years to know what career God wanted of her until she finally realized that God had given her many interests. It was up to her to choose which one of those many passions she wanted to make a life out of and whichever she chose he would bless.
Does this mean that God never gives us specific instructions? Not at all. But its up to him when to do it. Our responsibility is to live our lives within the parameters of his revealed will (the Bible), pray over our lives and choices, and move forward. If God has a specific will to reveal he will make it clear to you. If he does not then just go ahead and so long as you are within the scope of his ultimate will (salvation, holiness, the great commission etc.) then you can rest assured that he will bless you.
Now some who are reading this article may be thinking, "Marcos, I have considered all this before. You have said nothing new. I still don't get it." If that is your case I am honestly not very surprised. I began this article by stating that when a philosophical question cannot be answered the problem tends to lie with the question itself. However, allow me to also suggest that the problem may lie with the questioner. The assumptions may be flawed but it is also quite possible for the assumer to be likewise flawed.
For those in this category the removal of the assumptions mentioned above may help a bit, but ultimately they will still find themselves confused. At this point then, the issue is no longer one of truth or logic but enters a different sphere. And although I am no psychologist I get the distinct impression that many who pose this question often battle skepticism, anxiety, and/ or hyper-introspection (the later being perhaps the most common). Such a struggle influences the question heavily and makes a satisfying answer impossible.
For those who struggle with skepticism, I have been there. Skepticism certainly gets in the way of communicating with God. "When we pray, we 'must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind' (James 1:6). If we have no faith, we 'should not expect to receive anything from the Lord' (James 1:7)."* Nevertheless, we must always remember that God is "a merciful and faithful high priest" (Hebrews 2:17) and that he does not shrug us off due to an honest struggle with doubt. Instead, he draws nearer to us in our weakness and guides us toward the truth. But skepticism, left as it is can certainly make us deaf to the voice of God. The only solution is to tackle your questions with an open mind and wrestle with them honestly. Skepticism itself is not wrong, it is the love of skepticism that places us beyond the possibility of belief. In my experience, it was honest study that helped me overcome doubt. However, one key must be embraced before the journey through skepticism begins and it is this: if you want to doubt you will always have plenty of unanswered questions to hang your doubts on. But if you want to believe God will give you all you need to make an intelligent decision. Faith is not blind, it is reasonable but there is always plenty of room for doubt if that is what you desire.
For those who struggle with anxiety, I too have been there. As such, I can attest to the fact that anxiety does not respond to truth or logic. So if a person finds this issue especially difficult to conquer it could be that anxiety is getting in the way which makes it impossible for any rational explanation to work. If that is the case, the issue ceases to be exclusively of faith or truth and becomes one of health. It was only through both truth-seeking and temporary medication and counseling that I was able to conquer the anxiety that crippled me. What is interesting is that during this time I did not learn anything new. Instead, I was exposed to the same truths that I had been exposed to before, only now a proper medical approach made it possible for me to think rationally and assimilate the truth that was previously impossible to grasp. For many it is anxiety itself, not the mystery of Gods voice, that is the wall between them and God.
And what of hyper-introspection? This struggle is often intimately connected to anxiety. Hyper-introspection is a "crippling, morbid self-analysis... that [in the Christian context] directs all our spiritual attention toward self and our efforts rather than toward Christ as the object of saving faith".* Those who are hyper-introspective (as I once was) are always brooding over self, perpetually asking "what if?" questions, and over analyzing every detail of every thing. Those who struggle with this will find it impossible to ever find a satisfying answer to the "Gods-voice" question because no matter what answer is given, the seeker will over-analyze and dissect the answer until he or she has crawled back into unbelief. Those who are hyper-introspective are known to be hard on themselves and think too much. When faced with a decision such as who to marry this type may get a thousand yes's from God and still not be convinced. Fear often paralyzes them and they are unable to make the big decision out of dread of being wrong. But you can only play this game for so long before it becomes obvious that it is your own perceptions - not Gods voice - that are the problem. This class often stay stuck in the same place for years and are unable to move forward no matter how many evidences of Gods approval lay before them. Because hyper-introspection is often related to anxiety once again the solution needs to be both spiritual and medical. The mind needs to be taught to relax once more so that the person can think rationally without over-analyzing everything.
So if God speaks to us in many ways, if he can communicate to us using any means he wants - including our own voice - if his voice can be audible or soundless, if you are open to the many avenues by which he communicates, if you are seeking not simply to hear but to listen, and if you are living your life within the parameters of his will - seeking his guidance but likewise moving forward in the freedom he has given you, does the question "How do I know if its Gods voice or my voice?" even make sense? I would like to propose that without those assumptions the question loses its force. Instead, the question that needs to be asked is not "How do I know if its Gods voice or my voice?" but "How can I make sure I am listening to God so that I don't miss his message?" The questions are miles apart.
And finally, challenges to emotional or mental health can also affect our ability to deal with this question and healing those wounds are just as important as immersing ourselves in the truth of who God is and how he speaks to us.
While this post is not exhaustive I hope it can give some of you a few things to think about. I don't pretend to have answered the question entirely here. In fact, I am certain that there is much that would aid this conversation that I have not mentioned so please feel free to comment and share your own thoughts about this below.
Further Reading: How can I know if I am hearing God, hearing Satan, or hearing my own thoughts?
* Read more: http://www.gotquestions.org/hearing-God.html#ixzz3PF0KZfJ0T
** See more at: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2012/11/are-you-too-introspective.php#sthash.thQbQ0eB.dpuf