In certain Christian circles it’s not that unusual, in the process of corporate decision-making, to hear “Well, God told me…” Fill in the blank. We should do it this way. If we do this, it will not be a good thing. You’re the woman for me. The possibilities are nearly endless.
We serve a communicative God. One of the first things we see of Him in the Bible is that He spoke. And because He is the same yesterday, today and forever, we believe that He still speaks today.
However, today as in Biblical times, there are numerous people who claim to speak for God, and not all of them do. How should we discern the voice of God among the other voices?
“God told me” may, in fact, be accurate, but it can (and more often than not does) have the effect of shutting down discussion and manipulating or blackmailing people into following whoever says “God told me”. You’d better do what I say, because I’m speaking on God’s behalf. If you don’t, you’re disobeying God, and you don’t want that, do you?
How should we handle these people who tell us adamantly that “God told me” thus-and-so? We don’t want to reject a genuine leading of God, but at the same time we don’t want to follow a false or mistaken prophet.
It’s also vital that we distinguish these two options. Many of those who tell us “God told me” may be less-mature believers who may be describing a genuine leading of God in more absolute terms than is warranted on this side of Pentecost. There’s a difference between sincerely trying to hear the voice of God and getting it wrong, and deliberately setting out to mislead. Not everyone who gets it wrong is a false prophet.
The Bible gives us several tests which we are enjoined to make of any word or message coming to us. Because while not everyone who gets it wrong is a false prophet, there are those who are. As the Scripture says, “Brothers, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1).
The first test is found in Deuteronomy 13. “If a prophet or one who foretells by dreams appears among you and announces a miraculous sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder takes place, and he says ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them’, you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer”. Does this word or prophecy line up with what God has already spoken in the Bible? Does following it bring us closer to God or further from Him? Is it obviously contrary to Scripture?
If the answer is that it lines up with the Bible, well and good. If it can’t even pass the first and most basic test, it must be rejected, no matter who it is from. As even St. Paul himself said, “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8).
The second battery of tests is found in Deuteronomy 18:14-22. “The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so. The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him… You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”
This is the test of accuracy. If we have established that what is being said does not contradict the Bible (so far as we understand), we are instructed to test and see whether what is being predicted comes true.
Far from cutting off discussion, “God told me” ought to provoke a careful weighing of the message. No-one to whom God has genuinely spoken has anything to fear from such a weighing. The process of weighing simply allows other people to affirm that the Lord has indeed spoken.
Is it true? Is it, in fact, accurate? God has given us the tests for a reason, and He expects us to use them. He’s also given us wisdom, and He expects us to use that as well.
The thing both the one to whom the message has been given and those who are listening should bear in mind is that we are weighing the message, not the individual.
We aren’t under the Old Covenant any more, with its limited outpouring of the Holy Spirit (for prophets, priests and kings) and its draconian punishments for falsely claiming to speak for God. We live on this side of Pentecost, and all of us have the Spirit. As the people of God, we all have the ability and responsibility to hear God. No-one gets to shift the blame for disobedience onto what someone else told them. And equally, no-one gets to set themselves up as sole arbiter of the Will of God. “God told me” may be just a way of expressing your individual certainty in what you have heard, but it’s not that helpful. We still have to test it, and you need to humble yourself for that. “I believe the Lord is saying…” or something similar is far better. We aren’t the One Mediator. We’re imperfect humans, and sometimes even the best and most mature among us get it wrong.
On the other hand, we who are listening need to humble ourselves to the possibility that God may indeed be speaking. We should not reject the word of the Lord just because we don’t like the way it was spoken.
Even if this is a word from the person’s own spirit, it may still have truth to it. We might need to handle the situation carefully, affirming that yes, you have brought up a truth that we need to face up to and deal with, but no, this might not be from God but from you yourself.
Hearing God is not actually that difficult. After all, He wants us to hear and to get it right. But if you’re finding that God’s words line up exactly with your own prejudices and opinions, you may want to re-examine the source. After all, all of us fall short of the glory of Jesus Christ.
There are times when a word isn’t so simple to test. How do you weigh a message about whether or not to purchase a particular property as a church building, for instance? Following this word could conceivably open the door to new avenues of ministry or new capabilities, and thus lead us closer to God, or it might leave us in the shackles of debt and discouragement. While Gideon’s “fleeces” weren’t necessarily as much of a pattern for our behaviour as we might like to think (did he really need repeated “signs” from God after getting the message directly from an angel?), there’s more of an element of truth to it than we sometimes want to believe. Don’t lay fleeces, we’re sometimes told. That’s unbelief. Just get on with obeying God.
That’s all well and good on an individual basis, but sometimes it really isn’t clear what we should be obeying. It’s not unbelief to request confirmation from the Lord, even through something unusual like a sign. It is unbelief to go on asking for signs as an excuse not to obey, but if you genuinely want confirmation or clarification, that’s a different matter.
God knows how much we have invested in this. If we go off on some random escapade, He knows how much of a hole it might put our family into financially. He’s not asking us to do anything unreasonable, or if He is, He’ll make it abundantly clear that that is indeed what we should be doing. That’s why we have the tests – so that we can know He’s in it.
For corporate decision-making, God’s normally going to speak corporately. This may be through one person acting as a messenger, but even then, we all have the Holy Spirit, and He will confirm to those who listen that this is the word of the Lord. Or not. Weighing the message is important. It lets us all get on board with what God is genuinely saying and weed out the false and the well-meaning-but-mistaken. If you fall into the “well-meaning but mistaken” category, that’s ok. We all get it wrong sometimes, occasionally embarrassingly so. Humble yourself, receive grace, and go on with the Lord.
One more thing. If we disagree with someone over a particular thing we believe the Lord has said (either through different beliefs about a “God told me” message or even through differing interpretations of the same difficult passage of Scripture), they may not necessarily be resisting God and rejecting His Word. They may just have a different understanding than you.
They still believe in the same God. They still follow the same Jesus. We’re still the same family of faith. We may come to a parting of the ways over a decision or an interpretation of Scripture, but it need not be an acrimonious one.