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27 April 2016

How do you know you heard from God?

“I just know” isn’t gonna cut it.

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 make people wanna ask God for advice, because since he knows the future, maybe he can steer us in the right direction.

So after my friend made the request, but before she made the big decision, 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 worried, it’d mean you didn’t make the right decision. God uses your worries to point you the right way.”
She. “Yes.”
Me. “What about those people in the bible who 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 great faith. Ro 4.9, He 11.8, Jm 2.23 But great faith or not, Abraham was anxious about what God was gonna do, and decided to jump the gun. God wasn’t directing Abraham at all through his worries. His 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-woman’s son. God even took human form and visited Abraham personally, so he could promise him again. Ge 18.1-15 Why go to those lengths when all he’d have to do is 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’ve 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 hope God agrees with it. We’ve convinced ourselves he does. We’re not really interested in questioning whether this good feeling really came from God… or whether it came from psyching ourselves into being okay with it, or whether it comes from the devil distracting us from our worries. In fact, we really don’t want our fellow Christians to speak out against it. Our minds are made up.

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

Happens every election year. A raft of politicians will claim God wanted ’em to run for office. Some will even claim he told them they’d 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 wanted him to propose to his prospective fiancée… and is dumbfounded when she says no. Or when they break the engagement in a few months. Or when the marriage dissolves within a year.

Or a pastor will claim God wanted them to start a building fund. Start a ministry. Write a book. Leave their denomination. Buy a Lexus. Anything and everything. Some of those things pan out, some of ’em 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 discerning 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. Obviously 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 interpret it as God. 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.

God wants us to confirm what he said. That means objectively, definitely 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 the voice of God 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 sometimes we don’t know those verses. Or we’re very unlikely to remember them. 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 KWL
10 “The daily food, which you’ll eat all the time, will weigh 20 sheqels. [8 ounces, 225 grams]
11 The water, which you’ll drink all the time, will be a sixth hin. [0.92 quarts, 0.83 liters]
12 You’ll eat barley hardtack, baked in front of them over human turds.”
13 The LORD said, “Likewise Israel’s sons will eat unclean bread in the nations I expel them to.”
14 I said, “Aee, my master LORD! Look, my soul isn’t unclean!
I never ate something found dead, nor roadkill, from childhood to now!
Such disgusting meat never went into my mouth!”
15 The LORD told me, “Look, I’ll let you use cowflop instead of human turds.
Make your bread over them.”

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

But in that story, God instructed Ezekiel to make ritually unclean bread, and Ezekiel objected because he knew God’s commands: You don’t do that. He didn’t do that. And God didn’t force him to do it. God only wanted to make the point that what Israel was doing was just as unclean.

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

And probably the 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 mess us up—and how they expose themselves—is they mangle it like the very devil. The Holy Spirit is never gonna misquote his own bible!

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

What did “God” tell fellow Christians?

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

He speaks with anyone who will listen to, and obey him. And often, he’ll tell those fellow 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 it spread around.

Thing is, God might have the same message, but not give everybody the very 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 get 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 realtors—but they won’t necessarily know why.)
  • Your pastor: “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 it with you. Problem is, some won’t. They’ll assume their message is private, and needs to be shared with no one. Or they’ll be gutless—“I have no idea whether that was really God, and I don’t wanna look stupid.” Or they won’t care; they’re used to ignoring God. Worst-case: They kinda know what God’s message is about, want you to do otherwise, so they’ll keep their mouths shut.

This is why we Christians need to communicate with one another. Share everything God gives us. ’Cause you never know which bits will confirm which other 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 something he told them, and now they know that message was from God. And I may still not know what my message meant… kinda like we really don’t know what Jesus meant by “I saw you under the fig tree” this story:

John 1.47-50 KWL
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said about him, “Look!
An Israeli who’s truly without trickery!” 48 Nathanael told him, “How do you know me?”
In reply Jesus told him, “Before Philip went to call you, I saw you standing under the fig tree.”
49 Nathanael told him, “Rabbi, you’re God’s son. You’re Israel’s king.”
50 In reply Jesus told him, “Since I told you I saw you beneath the fig tree, you believe me?
Oh, you’ll see greater than that.”

Yeah, Christians have our theories. But the point was Jesus’s statement got way more of a response from Nathanael than the mere words should. It confirmed something.

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 KWL
36 Gideon told God, “If you put salvation in my hand for Israel, like you said,
37 look: I put a wool fleece on the threshing-floor.
If dew is only on the fleece, yet all the ground is dry,
I know you’ll save Israel by my hand, like you said.”
38 And it was so: He rose early in the morning,
squeezed the fleece to drain the dew from the fleece, and filled a bowl with water.
39 Gideon told God, “Don’t flare your nostrils at me—let me just say this;
let me test you this once; please just once.
The fleece—please, make only the fleece dry, and all the ground be dewy.”
40 And God did so: By nightfall, the fleece alone dried, and dew covered 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.” (Unlike Gideon’s test, it doesn’t have to be a literal fleece, of course.)

And various Christians will 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 ’Cause don’t put God to the test. It’s forbidden. Jesus said so.

More accurately, Jesus quoted Moses, who warned Israel against testing God like they did at Massah, Dt 6.16 where they not only doubted God was there, 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 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 these prayer requests, will be fleeces. ’Cause we want evidence God really gave us a message—that he really said it, that he’s really gonna do it. And he’s okay with that. Throughout the bible, he answers these tests. He even suggests them. Want him to move the sundial backwards? 2Ki 20.9-11

True, a lot of Christians are doing the fleece-thing wrong. We’re not looking for confirmation of something God already told us: We’re looking for an initial sign. We’re ignoring 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’re overcomplicating the interpretation. Our fleeces need to 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 KWL
21 “ ‘When you say in your heart, “How can we identify a word which wasn’t spoken by the LORD?”:
22 When the prophet speaks in the LORD’s name, and it’s not my word—
it’s not something the LORD’s spoken; it won’t come to anything.
The prophet spoke it in pride. Don’t fear them.’ ”

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 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.