Does God speak to us “in our hearts”? (Part 3)

August 26, 2013

goodnews1As 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.

8 Responses to “Does God speak to us “in our hearts”? (Part 3)”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I see your point about (paraphrasing) if you only know if it is God or not by how things turn out, then there is no reason to believe that “God spoke” as opposed to “learning from experience.” (Right?) But I don’t think the matter is as simple as that (and you may not as well). The fact is (or I think so, anyway) that sometimes ideas “come to you” which are not anything you would have “expected” just coming from your own mind. To use a biblical example, the Holy Spirit told Philip to take a jog in the desert. That is totally unlike what he would likely have come up with on his own while in a Samaritan revival. When he did, he ended up with a witnessing opportunity which may well have opened up a whole new country, Ethiopia (and continent?), to the gospel. Certainly this would have “confirmed” for Philip that it was really God’s “voice” that he heard.

    Of course, “God spoke” in “clear” ways throughout scripture. So the phenomenon at least had validity at some place and time. The question is to what extent that phenomenon is still valid today. In my opinion, there is no “foolproof” way in which Christians “know” it is God talking. But that surely does not mean he never does! It just means we have to “test the spirits, whether they be from God.”

    I can think of a few instances in my own life where I felt that some idea came from God, even though it was a “it worked out” type of “proof” of it. Once I was faced with a very tough decision which I won’t go into. As I was considering the matter, one of my sisters called me “out of the blue.” I told her about it and she said she would pray. A few minutes later she called back and said she felt like I should do it. So I did. It worked out. I can’t “prove” it was God, but I believe it was. And I have had other instances where I suddenly felt “at peace” with some decision I was wrestling with, did it, and things worked out. So, no voices, no “absolute proof,” but I just don’t think God has simply relegated his “‘speaking to us” to the dustbin of history.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I certainly don’t think it’s simple. Maybe the takeaway is to urge extreme caution when speaking about God’s “speaking.” It is fraught with peril. But like you and most believers, I imagine, I’ve felt that same sense of peace at times and a sense of God’s call, at times. Often, discerning that call isn’t an inward voice so much as examining circumstances: given that all these things happened, I sense that this is what God wants me to do. But there’s always plenty of grace when or if I get it wrong.

      Historically speaking, we Protestants have been deeply mistrustful of the tradition of the Mystics, and for good reason. Let’s be clear, then, that Protestants who habitually say, “God told me this or that,” are very much part of that tradition, whether they like it or not. That CT interview was called “The Mystic Baptist” for a reason.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Also, I sense that the Mystics are hip and cool among many mainline Protestants and hipster, “emergent” types because the Mystics don’t worry too much about the Bible. Who cares what God said thousands of years ago? We have a direct line to what God is saying right now!

        No, I’m not suggesting that Dr. Stanley has anything other than the deepest regard for the Bible (the thought is laughable), but his language points in the direction of the mystic tradition: I have something more than the Bible and my wits to guide me.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    I do certainly agree that people who go about spouting “God told me” as a matter of general practice are suspect. And that a lot of people who do that also tend to “supersede” scripture. Just, let’s not rule the whole thing out because of “bad actors,” as it were.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I know, I know… You’re right. I guess, for me, Cary’s book was a needed corrective to some sloppy theology that had crept into my thinking.

      You want to find out what God is telling you? Spend more time in God’s Word!!! That’s the place to start.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Agreed.

      • brentwhite Says:

        And let’s face it: many Christians put more stock in “what God is telling me now” versus “what God said then.” 😉

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I agree again. Case in point–my own dad, retired missionary, who has a convincing personal testimony of being called to that vocation, also had another “message from God” which I dispute because it does not seem to me to be consistent with scripture. So, to “err” on the side of caution is probably preferrable to putting “too much stock” in such things. All I want to say, though, is that, in my opinion at least, I just don’t believe it ALL to be “a thing of the past.”


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