In the church today–and sometimes even outside the church–it has become increasingly common to hear someone say, “God told me…” How are we to evaluate these claims of God speaking to people? As with everything, we need to look to the Bible. In other words, is a given claim of God speaking to someone in line with Scripture?
Let’s begin with an easy example. Several years ago, there was an acquaintance of mine who was engaged. He said that God told him that he and his fiancee should move in together–and yes, having sex was implied. I don’t think a seminary degree is necessary to know that this man’s claim was false. Just to be clear, however, I Corinthians 6:18 explicitly contradicts what this man said: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.”
Another example sounds at first glance like it could be the voice of God. I was once in a Bible study in which we were trying to determine what would be our focus. One day, the leader announced that God had told him we should memorize Scripture. He added that we should recite it to one another for accountability. Now, I don’t think that anyone would deny that memorizing Scripture is a good thing. For example, Psalm 119:11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” However, what happened was that after a couple of weeks, the group moved on to something else. We had done some memorization and recitation, but no one, not even the leader, seemed very enthused about it. So, did the Lord really tell our leader that the group should memorize Scripture and recite it to one another? I don’t think so, because that activity was quickly dropped.
Speaking of church leadership: my wife and I know of a church in which the pastor said that the Lord had told him the church was going to at least triple in size. As a result, an ambitious building program was outlined. Significant money was quickly committed to this project by the congregation. For various reasons, the project never really got under way, and the church (pre-COVID-19) has since shrunk by about 60%. Did the Lord really tell that pastor that his church was going to undergo significant growth? It doesn’t seem likely, and that man has since moved to another state.
There is a very popular book called Jesus Calling, which purports to be the words of Jesus spoken over an extended period of time to the author. I had heard some voices of concern about the book, so I decided to read a few of the pages for myself. Among other things, I noticed the words “peace” and “presence” used over and over again, which by themselves are certainly Scriptural; in fact, each page has Scripture references. It was the absence of other things that I found troublesome. For example, I found nothing about the Lord convicting the author of sin; words like “repentance” and “obedience” were also absent. There was nothing about serving others or telling others about the Lord. In one-star reviews of the book, some reviewers noted these deficiencies as well. Beyond that, I am concerned about a book which is supposedly full of the words of Jesus spoken directly to an individual who for some reason has chosen to share these words with the world.
By now, perhaps you think I am just a naysayer when it comes to answering the question in the title of this post. However, let me give you a very recent example of something that sounds like the Lord’s voice. A friend of my wife posted on Facebook that she felt convicted of spending too much time on Facebook (!), so she is going to do it less. Another similar example is from my own life. My wife and I taught English in China for several years, but we came back to the U.S. sooner than we had originally planned because of aging parents who needed us. During our first year back in the U.S., the only work I had was helping write a science high-school curriculum. I had grown rather discouraged and was trying to figure out what to do next. One day I was pouring out my heart in prayer to the Lord, and although it wasn’t an audible voice, the message I received was something like this: “All of those years in China, you trusted Me. What happened?” Almost immediately, I felt a burden lifted as I acknowledged to the Lord that He was right. (He always is!) I had stopped trusting Him in the U.S. Within two weeks, I had two job interviews at colleges. I got a job offer on the spot from one of them, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The reason that the two examples I mentioned in the previous paragraph–my wife’s friend regarding Facebook and my lack of trust–are similar is that they both involved conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit. If you have never read the Bible all the way through, I recommend that you do so. You will find that issues of sin and disobedience are prevalent, resulting in the Lord’s warning and discipline. You will also find that when God’s people repent and live right, including focusing on serving other people, His blessing will come.
Are there times when God speaks messages of very specific things that He wants His people to do? I know that there are, including times from my own life. I think one of the problems is when people say “God told me…” instead of, for example, something like “I think this is what the Lord wants me/us to do. What do you think?” Regardless of what we believe the Lord is telling us, let’s always test it by Scripture; it’s also wise to get the input of other believers who know us well.