Posted by: Ken Brown | November 16, 2008

How Does God Speak?

In a recent post, Michael Halcomb expressed his skepticism about claims to have heard a personal message from God:

The thing is, people can rarely ever prove that God spoke, it’s like, well, you just have to take their word for it…. But then, I really think that there are legitimate instances where God speaks to people. So, I guess I’m wondering, are there any bloggers out there to whom God has spoken or speaks? If so, how does it happen and how do you know?

I responded there:

God’s voice has always seemed to me less like a source of information and more like a rather forceful and focused form of conscience, persistently (sometimes even uncomfortably) pointing toward or away from certain specific decisions. It’s not always been there (in fact, ignoring it is a pretty sure way to make it disappear!), but when I have experienced it, it’s unmistakable.

And Michael responded:

I’m still wondering just how. Your notion of a “source of information” is interesting but still, how did you hear it? Did you “feel” more than “hear”? What?

My answer grew a bit too long for the comment thread, so I’ll post it here:

The first thing I should say is that I think God’s primary means of communication are scripture and the church, but I don’t think those are the only ways he speaks, and unless I am completely nuts, I think I have occasionally heard his voice in other ways. In my own experience, those latter cases always seemed a mix of thoughts, feelings and “coincidence,” like everything in my life was pointed towards a particular choice, and usually one that I did want to make (thus, almost every time it has happened I fought God on it for a long while). At such times I always found that, if I obeyed, things turned out for the best but, if I disobeyed, they very much did not. I’ve given a number of examples in other posts, so here I’ll give just one more (omitting a few personal details):

When I was a sophomore in college, for several months I strongly felt that I needed to end a certain relationship, but I had no desire to do so. There wasn’t anything immoral about the relationship, but every time I prayed–heck—even when I didn’t, this persistent thought/feeling kept intruding. But I kept pushing it back, giving excuses, arguing with God that it would hurt the other person too much. This went on for months, until finally I got so fed up that one night I went out to the “Back 40” of our campus and prayed/yelled (I don’t normally pray out loud, let alone at a shout!) that I didn’t understand, I didn’t think I could do it, and how could I even know it was God I was hearing and not just my own twisted mind? There was no voice from heaven (if that ever happens, I’ve not experienced it), just that persistent feeling. So finally I said: “I give up, if this is really you, God, if you really want me to do this, you’re gonna have to do something drastic. Hit me over the head with a 2×4!”

I know, I know, that’s not how you’re supposed to talk to God (I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I did at all, but then again, it’d be nice to have that kind of passion again). Well anyway, I stood there for a few minutes, half expecting some crazed student to jump out of the woods and hit me upside the head, but nothing happened. So I sighed and turned around to walk back to campus, and immediately (I kid you not) I smacked my forehead on a big block of wood.

In all the time I was standing there, I had entirely forgotten where I was. Our campus had a raised set of railroad tracks that ran through the back 40, which the path crossed through a low walking tunnel. I happened to be standing just outside the opening of that tunnel, a bit closer than I realized, I suppose. So when I turned around I slammed my head right into the center brace holding up the roof. I think it was actually a 4×8, but I got the message, and a bad headache. 😉

But I didn’t listen. After all that, I went back to my dorm intent to break it off, but I didn’t follow through. In fact, I stopped arguing with God about it at all. I knew what he wanted, but I wasn’t willing to do it. So I just ignored him until finally the feeling disappeared. As it turned out, the decision (or indecision!) led to one of the most difficult years of my life. Worse, after so blatantly ignoring God, I never again felt that tug in the same way I once did.

I realize it all sounds a bit unbelievable, but there were many times in my life when similar things happened. Moreover, what convinces me that it was not just my subconscious playing tricks on me is that, when God’s voice was there, it was always unmistakably persistent and very specific–something particular I needed to do or stop doing, not a replacement for conscience, free will or critical thinking–but when it was gone, I couldn’t manufacture it no matter how much I wanted to.

Ultimately, then, I do think God occasionally speaks in a more personal way, and it should never be taken lightly when he does, but I’m not convinced this is something we should be seeking as Christians (and I remain deeply skeptical of people who claim God gave them a message for someone else). There are much more important things to our relationship with God, and more important means of ascertaining God’s will, which (I think) should always be sought in the community of faith and in consultation with scripture. To center your life on seeking some private manifestation of God’s voice will seriously distort things. After all, Christianity is not supposed to be about us at all, but about loving God and neighbor. So in the end, if you want to know God’s will for your life, don’t hide in your prayer closet; start with Micah 6:8. For if you were to truly live this out, you could hardly go wrong:

He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

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