Thoughts on Hearing God's Voice in Community
I am convinced that God still speaks today. How could a God who spoke the cosmos into being and whose very essence in human form was referred to as “the Word” (John 1:1-12) clam up after the New Testament was written? After all, Jesus clearly said, “my sheep recognize my voice” (John 10:27). Asserting that God no longer speaks today doesn’t make good theological sense. It’s not Jewish or Christian. It’s deist.
But Scripture does hold a unique place in the revelation of God. What is it that makes the New Testament of a qualitatively higher order than a word that we might hear from God today? Well, it’s complicated and I’m certain that I don’t know all the nuances. But in my understanding, the trump card of the New Testament (that is, what makes it Scripture) is that it carries apostolic authority. The writers of the New Testament were either apostles (part of the original band of twelve – plus Paul who was recognized by the early church as an apostle) or they were closely associated with an apostle’s ministry. Mark and Luke were connected to Paul’s ministry. Jude was Jesus’ half-brother. It took the early church over two hundred years to confirm which writings carried the authority of Scripture. The twenty-seven books that we call the New Testament are known together as the canon. “Canon” means “rule” or “standard” and the writings of the New Testament have met the rigorous standard of apostolicity. For that simple but profound reason, Scripture is no longer being written today. But that doesn’t mean God no longer speaks. It does mean, however, that whatever word we might think we hear from God today must be in alignment with the revelation of Scripture. Think of Scripture as a “filter” with which we test all prophecies or words of knowledge we receive from God.
How might this work in a church? How can we learn to hear from God? I’ve never been part of a church that valued the gifts of prophecy or words of knowledge. That’s too bad, because Paul highly valued the gift and coveted it for the believers in the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 14:5 – I suggest you read the whole context – Chapters 12-14). I don’t believe that prophecy is part of my gift mix, but I know that I’ve heard God’s voice. In one instance, I was strongly impressed that a good friend of mine should have the elders of the church anoint her with oil and pray for the healing of her eye. She was quickly losing her vision and doctors could only explain it but not cure it. She was anointed with oil and prayed for and the degeneration in her vision was fully arrested. I believe the prompting that I sensed was the voice of God. In another completely different instance when I was very angry at one of my children I heard God almost say audibly, “Bob, your anger will not accomplish my purposes.” The word almost literally stopped me in my tracks. I could take you to the exact place where I heard that word today. Most often, however, I hear God in quietness, especially while I’m journaling, reflecting on Scripture and the issues of my life.
Hearing God, I believe, takes practice. We learn to discern God’s voice over time. Most often, His voice is quiet and comes with a sense of peace and settled-ness. Over time, I’ve come to recognize it. I’m sure many of you share the same experience. But there are also many other voices competing with God’s in our life. It could be a voice of pride or insecurity. Or perhaps it might be the voice of fear or even the voice of Evil which would seek to destroy us. That is why Scripture is a necessary filter. Along with Scripture, I also believe that the wisdom of the community is invaluable in discerning whether or not we have heard the voice of God. Within the church there are mature people who can help us determine if the word we hear is consonant with Scripture and the nature of God. We observe the discernment of the community in Acts 13:3 as the church leaders continued in fasting and prayer before they confirmed the word to send Barnabas and Saul on their mission.
What if someone has received a word they believe the whole church should hear? I think it would be prudent for that person to humbly and privately share their impressions with the leaders of the church (pastors or other trusted leaders – who are, after all, charged with the spiritual health of the church) and allow them to discern the word according to the written Word and the consistency of God’s character. If the word is confirmed, it can then be shared with the whole church.
One word about humility. It is very telling if the person who receives the impression/word from the Lord offers it in humility. God’s Spirit is not pushy. Jesus promoted and modeled humility. If a person shares a word in a demanding manner (to be heard), that word, to me, would be immediately suspect because the conduit for God’s word (the person sharing the word) contradicts the character of God himself.
I’m not experienced in these matters. I certainly do not know it all. But this is a conversation that any church desiring to hear and discern the voice of God should have.
By the way, three people shared “words” that they heard from the message I shared on discerning the voice of God in community. They’re good words and they just might be from the Lord:
1. There is unity here. (This was an especially encouraging word.)
2. This (the message we heard this morning) is a good word.
3. I want to be a catalyst for unity in the church (from a person who has the position and ability to function in that way).
Lord, give us ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.