How do you know you heard from God?

Let’s say I’m talking with a Christian friend about the time she had to make a great big decision. Like where to go to college, whether to move to Chicago, whether to buy her house, whether to marry her husband, whether to quit her job. You know, the usual life-changing, life-rearranging decisions which people would rather God just tell us what to do, and grant us the best possible timeline.

So as my friend is describing how she came to her conclusion, she drops the inevitable, “Then God told me….”

ME. “Okay but how’d you know it was God?”
SHE. “Well I just knew.”
ME. “Just knew? How could you ‘just know’? Because it felt like God?”
SHE. “Exactly.”
ME. “Well fine; I can work with that. So what’s God feel like?”
SHE. “Oh, he’s indescribable.”
ME. “Yeah yeah; we all know the Chris Tomlin song. Now try to describe him.”
SHE. “I just felt an incredible peace about my decision. That’s how I knew it was God.”
ME. “I know what you mean. I feel an incredible peace after the barista hands me my morning coffee. But I’m pretty sure that’s not divine revelation. Describe him better.”
SHE. “I just wasn’t worried about my choice any longer. I knew I made the right one.”
ME. “You stopped worrying, so you figure God turned off the worries. And if you were still anxious, that’d mean you didn’t make the right decision. God uses your emotions to steer you the right way.”
SHE. “Yes.”
ME. “What about those people in the bible who still worried God wouldn’t come through for them? Like Abraham. The LORD seemed to be taking too long to give him a son, so he borrowed his wife’s slave and put a baby in her. Ge 16.1-4 Shouldn’t God have turned off his worries?”
SHE. “Abraham should’ve had faith.”
ME. “Abraham did have faith. Three different apostles used Abraham as an example of the very best kind of faith. Ro 4.9, He 11.8, Jm 2.23 But great faith or not, Abraham was still anxious about what God was gonna do, and decided to jump the gun. God didn’t steer Abraham through his worries. Abraham’s worries were totally his doing.”
SHE. “God would’ve taken them away if Abraham had only asked.”
ME. “You don’t think Abraham asked? Obviously he asked, ’cause God told him more than once he’d have a son—and he didn’t mean the slave’s son. God even took human form and visited Abraham personally, just so he could promise him again. Ge 18.1-15 Why go to all these lengths when all he had to do was turn off Abraham’s worries?”
SHE. “Abraham wouldn’t let God turn them off.”
ME. “Because Abraham was in total control of his worries.”
SHE. “Yes.”
ME. “Kinda like how you’re in total control of your worries, and whether they’re on or off has to do with you. Not God.”
SHE. “Right. Wait… no. You’re trying to mix me up.”
ME. “Nope. Just trying to point out emotions aren’t the Holy Spirit.

“I just knew.”

“I just knew” is a line lots of Christians use to explain why we think we heard from God. I admit I’ve used it myself.

And I’ll be blunt: It’s a cop-out. “I just knew” is Christianese for, “I feel good about my decision.” Or good enough.

We like the direction we’re going. We’ve convinced ourselves God agrees with it. We’re not all that interested in questioning whether our good feelings really came from God… or whether they came from psyching ourselves into being okay with our choice, or whether they come from Satan tempting us to shut out all the warning signs. In fact a lot of us really don’t want our fellow Christians to speak out against our decision. Our minds are made up.

This is why a lot of the things “I just knew,” turn out to really go wrong.

Happens every election year. A raft of politicians will claim God wants ’em to run for office. A slew of partisan prophets will claim God intends these candidates to win. And then they don’t. Lucky for them we don’t stone false prophets to death anymore.

Likewise a prospective groom will claim God wants him to propose to his prospective fiancée… and is dumbfounded when she says no. Or dumbfounded when they break the engagement in a few months. Or devastated when the marriage falls apart within a year.

Or a pastor will claim God wants them to start a building fund. Start a ministry. Write a book. Quit their denomination. Buy a Lexus. Anything and everything. Some of these things pan out; some don’t. You’d think a pastor’s track record of hearing God would be better than average, right? Yet they’d do just as well deducing God’s will by flipping a coin.

They’re not alone. Quite often the results of “God told me… and I just knew” are underwhelming. A lot of us suck at determining whether God really did say anything.

So “I just knew” isn’t gonna cut it. And it actually doesn’t cut it in the scriptures either. Anybody can psyche themselves into thinking they heard God. Mormons do it all the time: If they pray really hard, and feel a warm or burning sensation, they claim it’s Heavenly Father pointing them the right way. Well anybody can do that. I psyche myself into feeling warm every winter. And if I were a drinking man, I could get similar results with Scotch. It’s not God.

Jesus’s apostles instruct us to confirm what God says. This means objectively prove it to be true and correct. Not hope really hard it’s him. Not psyche ourselves into thinking it’s him. Prove it’s him.

So how do we do this?

Does “God” sound like the bible?

Most of the reason I tell Christians to read their bibles, is ’cause that’s what God’s voice sounds like. He inspired the prophets; 2Pe 1.21 he inspired the scriptures. 2Ti 3.16 The bible reads like he speaks. If you know your bible, you know what God sounds like.

No, this doesn’t mean he sounds like any particular translation. God’s not gonna speak to you in KJV English, with the thees and the thous and the thines. Not that he couldn’t, but there’s no reason to. I’m not talking about the phrasing. I’m talking about the concepts. The ideas. The themes. The intentions. God’s thinking is gonna resemble the bible’s thinking.

When we’re about to sin, God tells us, “Don’t do that.” Yeah, we might think we’re just recalling some verse in the bible where God likewise said, “Don’t do that”—and sometimes we are. But occasionally we don’t know these verses. Or we’re very unlikely to remember them: We skimmed them because we read Leviticus and found it so boring and barely remember a thing. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit’s job is to remind us of everything Jesus teaches, Jn 14.26 and so he does. And if what God told you matches the bible, there’s your confirmation. Do that.

Of course, by “matches the bible” I mean legitimately matches the bible. God’s not gonna quote his own bible out of context. And if he does, it’s a test—’cause you’re supposed to know better, and catch him.

Ezekiel 4.10-15 NASB

10 “Your food which you eat shall be twenty shekels [8oz;225g] a day by weight; you shall eat it from time to time. 11 The water you drink shall be a sixth of a hin by measure; you shall drink it from time to time. 12 You shall eat it as a barley cake, having baked it in their sight over human dung.” 13 Then the LORD said, “In this way the sons of Israel will eat their bread unclean among the nations where I will scatter them.” 14 But I said, “Oh, Lord GOD! Behold, I have never been defiled; for from my youth until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by animals, nor has any unclean meat ever entered my mouth!” 15 Then He said to me, “See, I will give you cow’s dung in place of human dung, so that you may prepare your bread over it.”

Betcha you didn’t know that was part of making “Ezekiel bread,” didja?

In this icky little story, the LORD told Ezekiel to make ritually unclean bread by cooking it over human crap. And Ezekiel immediately objected because he knew God’s commands: You don’t do that. So God didn’t force him to do it. Still made him cook it over crap, so it was still nasty, but ritually acceptable. God only wanted him to make the point that what Israel did was just as unclean.

Anyway. Whenever God appears to contradict himself, that’s what’s going on. He’s not revising the scriptures. He’s making sure we’re awake and paying attention. He doesn’t want brain-dead followers! Cult leaders and false prophets do, but God surely doesn’t.

Probably the easiest and fastest way to catch a false prophet, is to catch ’em misquoting or misinterpreting scripture. ’Cause they always do. Part of their scam is they wanna sound authentic: Lots of bible quotes, lots of biblical-sounding language, lots of proof-texts. But how they get away with stuff is they mangle the scriptures like Satan itself. If you know your bible, you’ll catch ’em every time. The Holy Spirit is never gonna misquote his own bible!

So keep reading your bible. And always double-check any prophet’s bible quotes. (And be prepared for wise Christians to always double-check your bible quotes.)

What did “God” tell your fellow Christians?

God doesn’t only talk to you, y’know. (Or only me.)

He speaks with anyone who will listen to him and obey. Often he’ll tell these fellow obedient Christians the very same thing he tells you. If he has a message for your family, your community, your church, your town, your state or nation, you’re hardly gonna be the only follower he shares this information with. He wants everybody to hear it! So he spreads it around.

Thing is, God might have the same message, but not give everybody all the same pieces of the message. Fr’instance say God wants you to sell your house. He’ll tell you about it, ’cause it’s your business. But other people will hear it slightly different.

  • YOUR SPOUSE. “Sell your house.” [Hey, sometimes people do hear the very same message.]
  • YOUR KIDS. “Don’t get too attached to your room. You won’t be in it forever.”
  • YOUR PARENTS. “Start saving up. The kid may be asking for a loan.”
  • YOUR NEIGHBORS. “Clean up your yard. Your house needs to look nicer.” [For your realtors—but they won’t necessarily know why.]
  • YOUR PASTORS. “These members are about to make a big change.”

You’re gonna find yourself surrounded by people who heard from God, who each got pieces of a puzzle which fit precisely with the message he gave you.

Some of them will realize they need to share this message with you. Problem is, some won’t. They’ll assume their message is private, and needn’t be shared with anyone. Or they’ll be gutless—“I have no idea whether that was really God, and I don’t wanna look like an idiot.” Or they won’t care; they’re used to ignoring God. Worst-case: They kinda know what God’s message is about… but Jonah-like, they want you to do otherwise, so they keep their mouths shut.

This is why we Christians need to communicate with one another. Share everything God gives us. Sometimes even pry stuff out of other people which God told ’em. Because you never know which bits confirm your bits. I’ll tell someone, “Y’know, the other day God told me I need to watch the skies, and I have no idea what he meant by that,” and they’ll get this look on their face like I just hit ’em with a shovel, because it perfectly jibes with whatever he told them, and now they know their message was from God.

And I may still not find out what my own message meant… kinda like we really don’t know what Jesus meant by “I saw you under the fig tree” in this story:

John 1.47-50 NASB
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”

Yeah, many Christians have different theories about what Jesus meant. But the point was Jesus’s statement got way more of a response from Nathanael than the mere words should. It confirmed something Nathanael knew, and now he knew Jesus is Messiah.

So talk to your fellow Christians. Find out what God told them. It may be odd and weird and make no sense—but put ’em together, and it’ll blow your mind.

Ever tried putting out a fleece?

Sometime during the 12th century BC, the LORD picked Gideon ben Joash to rescue Israel from Midian. At one point, Gideon, suffering from a bit of doubt, set up this test for God:

Judges 6.36-40 NASB
36 Then Gideon said to God, “If You are going to save Israel through me, as You have spoken, 37 behold, I am putting a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I will know that You will save Israel through me, as You have spoken.” 38 And it was so. When he got up early the next morning and wrung out the fleece, he wrung the dew from the fleece, a bowl full of water. 39 Then Gideon said to God, “Do not let Your anger burn against me, so that I may speak only one more time; please let me put You to the test only one more time with the fleece: let it now be dry only on the fleece, and let there be dew on all the ground.” 40 And God did so that night; for it was dry only on the fleece, and dew was on all the ground.

This is where we get the saying “putting out a fleece.” It means we ask God to prove it’s really him, by putting him to some sort of test and seeing whether he goes along with it. The test is the “fleece.” It doesn’t have to be a literal fleece, of course.

I’ve met various Christians who insist we ought never, ever do this. Never put God to the test. Remember when Satan wanted Jesus to jump off the temple, and our Lord responded, “Don’t put God to the test”? Mt 4.7, Lk 4.12 Hence they insist we never put God to the test like this; it’s forbidden. Jesus said so.

But the context of Jesus’s quote was when Moses warned Israel against testing God like they did at Massah. Dt 6.16 At that time, they not only doubted God was even there with them; Ex 17.7 they were willing to stone Moses to death and return to Egypt. Ex 17.3-4 In other words, don’t test God when you’ve already made up your mind it’s not him. Don’t test him with a rotten attitude of doubt, unbelief, and rebellion. You know, like Satan’s attitude when he told Jesus to go take a flying leap.

God expects us to ask him for things; to petition him in any and every way. And sometimes, included in our prayer requests, will be fleeces. ’Cause we want proof God really gave us a message: Did he really say it? Will he really do it? And he’s okay with granting us proof. Throughout the bible, people put tests to him, and he answered these tests. He even suggests them. Want him to move the sundial backwards? 2Ki 20.9-11

Malachi 3.9 NASB
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and put Me to the test now in this,” says the LORD of armies, “if I do not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.”

A lot of those same Christians who insist we ought never try putting out a fleece for God, totally quote the Malachi passage about testing God to see whether he’ll bless us for tithing. It’s almost like they’re willing to undermine their own convictions over money… but let’s not go there today.

True, a lot of Christians do the fleece-thing wrong. We’re not looking for confirmation of something God already told us: We’re looking for an initial sign. We ignore God’s voice (probably ’cause we don’t like what he’s saying) and want something else to tell us God’s will… and tell us what we already wanna hear. “God, if you want me to divorce my husband and run away with his brother, have it rain on Thursday!” Since God neither approves of divorce nor incest, weather doesn’t matter—it’s a no.

Or we’ve overcomplicated the interpretation. Our fleeces should be a simple yes/no indicator: If God does it, yes that was him talking; if God doesn’t, no it wasn’t. Too many Christians create fleeces with multiple interpretations: “If it rains Thursday, take the bank job. If it snows Thursday, take the bakery job. If it hails, join the Navy.” And too many of these fleeces are rigged: When there’s a 90 percent chance of snow, we know how the deck is stacked.

A proper fleece never stacks the deck. The reason Gideon asked for a second test was because there was every chance the first test wasn’t good enough. Dew tends to fall on everything, so wet ground but dry fleece is a little bit plausible. Now, the likelihood of dew making only one thing wet but nothing else, is much smaller. (And God went to the trouble of making it soaking wet.) If it’d happen anyway, without any interference from God, it’s natural, not supernatural. Fleeces need to be uncommon, unlikely, and obviously God.

If it’s God, it produces fruit.

If God really does objectively exist in the universe—he’s not all in my head, but anyone and everyone can experience him—we oughta see objective proof. If he tells a person to do something, and they obey and do it, we oughta see results which reflect the source of the command. We oughta see success. And by “success” I mean what Jesus means: Fruit. God’s character oughta be all over it, and God’s kingdom oughta grow by it.

Deuteronomy 18.21-22 NASB
21 “And if you say in your heart, ‘How will we recognize the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ 22 When the prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, and the thing does not happen or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you are not to be afraid of him.”

Suppose God does tell a Christian to run for office. What ought we see as a result? The growth of God’s kingdom.

No, the politician doesn’t necessarily have to win. (As many of them will point out… especially right after they don’t win.) But we should still see kingdom growth. People will love one another. People will turn to Jesus. People will start obeying God’s commands. People will minister to one another. More of the kingdom will be visible in this world.

Is that what happens when politicians run because “God told me”? Nah. Usually there’s bad fruit—works of the flesh. People are just as divisive and partisan, if not more so. Slander, lies, trickery, deception, irrational fear, anger… the usual. These are evidence of a fake prophet—a presumptive politician who never did hear God.

Same with all the other folks who claim “God told me.” If God really told you to marry someone, we oughta see his kingdom grow as a result: The marriage ministers to others, encourages other Christians in their marriages, produces godly children who voluntarily follow Jesus even after they reach adulthood, and the spouses grow personally. If God really told you to start a church, we definitely oughta see kingdom growth… not just your own prestige. God never tells us to do things solely for our own profit. Yeah, we might profit, but that’s a side effect. God’s intent is to profit everybody, Christians and pagans alike, by growing his kingdom.

So there ya go. If you wanna be sure you (or someone else) heard God, confirm it. Double-check the scriptures. Share with fellow Christians. Ask for signs. Look for fruit. Prove it’s God. Then, that done, follow him.