Over the last couple of posts I have explored one of the amazing and mysterious promises from Jesus in John chapter 10: that as his followers, we can and should hear the voice of God. Jesus identifies himself as the good Shepherd, and us as his beloved sheep. When he calls, we are to listen and respond.
In the last post I shared some of the valuable wisdom that I picked up from Dallas Willard on this topic, which lays an important foundation. In the next post I will share the simple, everyday grid that I use for staying alert to the voice of God. Today I want to share the four filters that I believe should be applied whenever the topic comes up of listening for and discerning the voice of God:
Filter 1: The Bible is the source material for discerning the voice of God
There are a number of people in my life that I look to as models for what it looks like to remain in constant conversation with God, and here is something that is true of them at all: they know the Bible. It makes sense – how else would we hope to translate the unseen, invisible world of God into the concrete, tangible world of human beings?
Let me say it another way. In Psalm 119.11 the author says that he has “hidden” the word of God in his heart (some translations say “treasured” the word of God). I love this verse, and see it as a core dimension to discerning the voice of God. Every time we come in contact with Scripture we have an opportunity to grab onto some divine raw material – raw material that can be used by God at a later point to speak directly to our heart.
This changed the way I read Scripture. As a younger person, Bible reading (and study) often felt laborious. But once I discovered the power of Scripture as source material for hearing God, my enthusiasm level increased exponentially. I began to see each reading as an opportunity to invest in my inner treasure trove, and prayed that God would at some point use it to speak either to me or to someone else.
Filter 2: The Bible is the ultimate litmus test for discerning the voice of God
This is very similar to the first point, but I think it needs to be spelled out separately. By definition there is a lot of subjectivity to the idea of hearing God, and there needs to be some type of objective standard that we are held to. In Romans 10:17 the Apostle Paul says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” In other words, we will never hear anything from God that contradicts the Bible.
I’ve heard Christians make claims of hearing God on everything from unhealthy relationship habits to excessive gambling tendencies. While there may be some topics that I am hesitant to challenge someone’s discernment process, that is not true of these. If one of us thinks God is calling us to something that contradicts the wisdom of Scripture, we can safely assume that it’s not actually God talking.
Filter 3: Discernment of God’s voice happens best in community
I’m walking a bit of a tightrope here, as I do believe that God can and does speak to each person individually. In the next breath, however, I want to emphasize the communal nature of discernment.
There are a lot of places in the New Testament that I could point to for this point. Romans 12.2 is one that jumps out quickly to me. Here Paul says that we should collectively work to discern and test what God’s will is:“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
This often gets applied as an individual command, but that misses the larger point of Paul’s admonition. He is clearly talking to a community of people, and even emphasizes in the preceding verse that they should offer “their bodies” as a living sacrifice to God. So in other words, if we are going to discern the voice of God (and therefore the will of God), we should do it as a community.
This is the case even in John 10, when Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd and us as the sheep. He calls each sheep by name (individual), but is also moving the flock as an entire group (communal). It’s a both/and process of individual discernment and communal discernment.
Filter 4: Humility is Paramount
One of the consistent, and slightly alarming verses repeated throughout the Bible is this: “God opposes the proud, but lifts up the humble.” The topic of hearing God is one that draws out our pride as fast as anything. It’s easy to see why – the idea that fragile human beings can have direct communication with an Almighty God is something that infuses us with power. It’s good for us to live with an expectation that God can and will speak to us. But pride comes sneaking in pretty quickly after that.
One of the most common forms of pride that I see comes in a simple but sinister form. It’s reflected in the language we use. It drives me crazy when someone starts a conversation by saying, “God told me…”
It doesn’t matter what comes next in the sentence. If someone starts by saying, “God told me…” I find that I already don’t trust the person. Why? Because none of us knows for sure that God is talking to us. In his book Hearing God, Dallas Willard succinctly summarizes it by saying this:
“When God speaks to us, it does not prove we are righteous or even right. It does not even prove that we have correctly understood what he said. The infallibility of the messenger and the message does not guarantee the infallibility of our reception. Humility is always in order.”
Humility doesn’t mean that we stop listening for God. Or that we pretend that we don’t sense God leading us or speaking to us in some way.
Humility just means that we don’t present the message we think we are hearing as “infallible” (to use a word from Willard’s quote). Humility means that while we recognize that God’s word is never wrong, it doesn’t guarantee that our reception is always right. Humility means that we recognize we don’t live in a vacuum, and that the word of God in our lives is meant to be discerned in community.
So there it is – the four filters that I encourage anyone to apply to the process of discerning the voice of God. If you have other ones, or thoughts on these, I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time!