I wanted to skip this topic because teachings vary so widely and when I finally changed my mind on Christianity, I was involved in a community that didn’t teach the practices I’m about to share in this post. So what gives? Why not just skip to the Bible we all can examine? What about that real biblical contradiction I promised?
Well, I can’t leave this out. By overcoming this challenge, I gained tools not only for the Bible, but for life in general.
It’s hard to think of anything that has captured the imagination of Christians recently as aggressively as the idea of hearing the voice of God. The notion is, to many, so obviously Christian, so undoubtedly biblical, that its truth is beyond question.
Greg Koukl, Does God Whisper
I listened closely to the vulnerability and honesty in their voices as other young adults in the circle opened their hearts on today’s topic. Doubt. Some said it was a sin to confess and turn away from. For others it was an essential part of strengthening faith. Others saw an intellectual challenge to be dealt with rationally. Many thought it was a blend of those. When it got to be my turn, here’s what I shared:
“I want to have a personal relationship with God, and so I try to listen, and sometimes I think I hear God speaking in my heart. But sometimes it’s incorrect. The hard part about obeying is that God doesn’t tell you when you’ve heard Him wrong, and so I’m thinking of ways to keep obeying until I finally admit it. It wasn’t God that time.
The idea that God is sort of, just watching me go through this process… it makes me consider the possibility that I’m running both sides of the relationship and sometimes it works. It’s not what I thought a personal relationship with Jesus would look like.”
Up until the end of my faith, I rode the highs and lows of this issue like a roller coaster. Well, if you stretched out a roller coaster from 2006 to 2012, that is. At several lows, I didn’t give up hope that God would speak, but I gave up on the notion that God was trying to speak to me and I could get better at hearing God’s voice if I kept learning. That was the part of this teaching that I doubted the most.
I still prayed and felt God’s presence in worship, but I didn’t want to do anything that ran the risk of an imaginary conversation with God. Not every church I went to encouraged learning a skill of two-way conversations with God, but the ones that did in my last few years in high school had a lasting impact on what I thought was normal and possible for intimacy with God.
How this affected everything else
My desire to avoid imaginary conversations with God spilled over into other aspects of my daily walk. Whether I was asking God direct questions and listening for answers like some Christians do, or just keeping an ear out for guidance like I think many more believers do, I struggled to tell the difference between God’s subtle direction versus my own imagination. The context of this struggle made me question if there was any difference between God working through circumstances in my life and me just putting meaning on things. Sometimes it worked though, and the hope that someday I would get to be with God and it would always be like that made me look forward to heaven.
A few things about my relationship with God nagged at me:
- God’s knowledge, personality, vocabulary, and interests seemed to shift along with mine.
- Most of the time, God’s messages didn’t include observable claims, but when a part of what He said was testable (ie, go to this empty room and pray to me alone), it wasn’t always correct.
- I thought back to the lessons and conversations about Hearing God’s Voice in high school, and I remembered how I was encouraged to hold onto what seemed right, and reinterpret or simply set aside what turned out to be wrong.
Later on, I saw the wisdom in #3 in some contexts, because this softens the authority when someone is trying to hear God’s voice for another person. In college, I went back to a similar church for a workshop, I think when I was on break. One facilitator said some of what he was about to say would be words from God, and some of it may be the influence of bad pizza. We had a responsibility to test it. This was their application of 1 Thess 5:20-21.
While I appreciate the safety gained from the pizza disclaimer, there’s another consequence to approaching revelation in this way.
If we hold onto what works and disregard the rest, our confidence in the process will necessarily be greater than it should be. As for interpretations, the more reinterpretations a revelation is allowed to undergo, the less of a miracle it is when it works.
Saving the Bible
As I wrestled between trying and not trying, a series of articles by Christian teacher Greg Koukl called Does God Whisper provided a lifeline for my faith. He said what I didn’t have the words to say when I tried to bring up doubts: (links to Pt 1, 2, 3,)
“[My] question is not about whether there can be profound intimacy with God, or supernatural interventions by Him, or dramatic movements of the Spirit, or deep emotional experiences, or Spirit-directed insight into Scripture, or even whether God can or does speak in the modern era. I’m convinced each of these is true.
Rather, does the Bible teach that, as a matter of course, every believer can expect his or her own private revelations, two-way personalized communications, and custom-tailored guidance from God? Is this a skill that can be learned?”
Koukl saved the Bible from being disproven by my experience, by teaching the context of popular hearing verses such as “My sheep hear my voice.” And in Part 3 when he talks about “God trying,” it hit the nail on the head for me, because it didn’t make sense that an all-powerful, all-loving Being was trying to speak to me, yet my lack of skill in hearing was a big enough obstacle to thwart His attempts.
Still Hoping for God’s Voice, and how I was a jerk
Through 2011 and 2012, it helped my faith when I limited my time in churches that tried to hear God’s voice. Though I didn’t disappear. The excitement of possibly having conversations with God always had somewhat of a hold on me, even when I was most against it. I thought it was biblical to believe God could still speak to people sometimes and maybe I would get to hear His voice someday after all.
Image of worship found on the internet for illustration purposes only. No idea what this church believes. Probably awesome people who would make good pizza. Also I think the image of pizza at the top of this post looks delicious and is not responsible for any mistaken revelations.
But this hope also frustrated me. Sometimes I responded dismissively or flippantly to anything that sounded like I ought to be able discern God’s will, such as “What do you think God is teaching you in this season?” or even “How has God used our ministry in your life?” These are harmless questions and if I could go back in time I’d tell myself, “you know they aren’t talking about that listening thing, so just pick something positive to share.”
At one of the low points I left a church because members were having visions that I was initially excited about, but then decided they were probably imaginary because in my opinion they contradicted the Bible. After noticing I wasn’t coming back, they wanted to meet with me and hear me out but I was too angry to accept the invitation so I just ranted in an email. Later on I felt guilty for how I had handled that, especially when I read an article about how pastors have to deal with major interpersonal issues all the time, so I reached out and apologized. I’m grateful they accepted my apology.
Years later, I accepted an invitation to be interviewed as a nonbeliever, for a special event at a church I never went to before, and I made sure to remind the congregation that pastors in general face lots of interpersonal conflicts so it’s important to be kind to them.
So, what it came down to for me is that I didn’t want to mistake a relationship with myself, with a relationship with God. I had learned from experience in my first quarter at college in 2008, that there are no God-given shortcuts to finding a healthy church, and for the rest of those 4 years I was working out that there are no shortcuts to figuring out what a “personal relationship with Jesus” is all about either. The lessons that I took from this inner struggle were the following:
- God’s not necessarily going to intervene to correct me or any church if we’ve heard Him wrong; I’m going to discover what’s true through a long process of life experience, paying close attention to evidence, and it could take quite a long time to realize if I’m on the wrong track.
- When it comes to finding truth, holding onto what resonates and disregarding the rest is not a good habit to be in when listening for God’s voice for yourself, or when listening to people who claim to hear any supernatural voice.
- The more ways a revelation can be understood, the more likely it is that one of those interpretations will be right, but it’s also less miraculous when it works out.
These principles played a role in the rest of my story, and I believe our planet would be a brighter place if everyone embraced them.
I wanted to apply these principles to the Bible, and I haven’t forgotten my promise to share what I think is the most clear Biblical contradiction. That will be in Part 4.
This post is part of a series, here are all the posts: