As I’ve written about in two previous blog posts, here and here, Phillip Cary’s book Good News for Anxious Christians challenged me to rethink my understanding of how God speaks to us. Or should I say “speaks” to us in quotation marks? Because I’ve never met a Christian who claims that God spoke in an audible voice, only as a strong intuition in their heart.
And that’s exactly the kind of anxiety to which Cary is addressing his book: How do we know? How do we discern God’s voice from our own? According to people who believe that God has spoken to them, there aren’t many criteria for deciding: One criterion would obviously be, “Does this ‘voice’ contradict what God has revealed in scripture?’” That doesn’t seem especially helpful to me, since many choices we make in life won’t contradict scripture, yet we wouldn’t say, therefore, that “God told me” to do this thing.
Another criterion seems to be that God’s “voice” is a really, really strong intuition. It’s a gut feeling. How else do we interpret, for example, what Baptist pastor Charles Stanley says about “hearing” God’s voice in this interview from earlier this year in Christianity Today?
You often say in your books and preaching that God speaks to you, tells you things, and gives you messages. What is that like for you? Is it a thought? Is it a voice you hear?
For me, I get this strong sense of feeling that’s so clear, so direct to me. Like this week, something happened and I thought, Well, I could do thus and such, and God said, “Don’t do that.” I don’t hear a voice, but it’s so crystal sharp and clear to me, I know not to disobey that.
I think that comes from early in life as you learn to listen. You make mistakes; after a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn’t turn out right.
Did you catch that? “[A]fter a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn’t turn out right.” So God’s voice is something we discern over time, through trial and error. We make a decision based on an intuition that we think represents “God’s voice.” It turns out poorly. So we decide that wasn’t God’s voice. Then we make another decision based on an intuition. It turns out well. So we decide that must have been God’s voice.
Am I misinterpreting what Stanley is saying here? I don’t think so.
If Cary were reading this, he would say that what Stanley is really doing—which is what all of us Christians should do—is learning to make wise decisions. Over time, often through bitter experience, making wise decisions becomes easier (I hope!). Maybe it even becomes automatic, something we’re not even conscious of. The Bible exhorts us not to ask God to tell us what to do in every situation, but to ask God to give us wisdom. With wisdom, we can often make the right decision no matter what life throws our way.
So perhaps Stanley isn’t obeying the voice of God so much as the voice of wisdom? Who knows?
Regardless, I’m guessing that most of the time the difference isn’t that important.
But I believe the way we speak about our decision-making is. Look at the Stanley quote again: for him, making a bad decision means disobeying God. That’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of opportunity to feel guilty! Why can’t we just say we made a bad decision, but in good faith, and that making a bad decision isn’t necessarily a character flaw or a sin? That it isn’t necessarily the result of not praying hard enough?
Someone asked me if I (or Cary) wasn’t limiting God’s role in our lives by suggesting that God doesn’t speak to us nearly as often as the “evangelical mystics” among us think. On the contrary: if I’m right, then God will work to bring good out of any decision we make and any circumstance we face. It’s just that some decisions are better than others.