Part of the Christian walk is living in relationship with God, and this includes listening to Him. Unfortunately, we often find it easier to listen to ourselves or, even worse, to an enemy who deceives us. As a result, it’s important to learn discernment, to learn to recognize when God is leading us instead of some alternative. A practical and Biblical way to do this comes from recognizing that God’s will can be manifest in multiple ways, and as we see these different ways, they can provide confirmation. As I began to learn this, I saw a pattern repeated in my own life, in some Christian writings, and in Scripture.
The thing I had noticed in my own walk was the number of times I would have some leading in the Spirit that would later be reflected in circumstances or in Scripture, or in both. This isn’t the idea of looking for signs; in most cases they would come about spontaneously, as if God was taking the initiative to bring clarity. The result was often multiple expressions of God’s leading, in an almost Trinitarian combination of the Spirit’s voice, God’s actions, and the Word.
Later, when reading “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby and Claude King, I ran across his description of knowing for sure whether one has heard from God. His advice was very straight-forward, summarized near the end of chapter eight. There, the authors describe George Mueller’s approach for discerning and testing the will of God, and how it involved prayerful listening, studying the Word, and looking at circumstances. This was exactly what I had experienced in my walk. It really solidified my understanding to see something that had been a personal insight so clearly expressed by other mature Christians. But even that wasn’t as good as seeing the same thing expressed in the Word, and that is what happened next.
In Acts 15, the early Christian church came together in what has been called the “Jerusalem Council”, to consider the matter of Gentiles becoming believers (Acts 15:5-6). There was much debate when they came together, but then Scripture gives us the testimony presented by three different sources: first Peter, then Barnabas and Paul, and finally James. Interestingly, each one brought a perspective that matched the three aspects mentioned above.
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,
And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
Acts 15:7-8, 12-15 (emphasis mine)
Peter first described the presence of the Spirit in Gentiles as proof of God’s acceptance. Remember also how his own experience was characterized by the Spirit’s activity in directing his steps (Acts 10:19). Paul then described how God was working in the world to confirm the same message. And after listening to their testimony, James lined it up against Scripture and showed how the Word confirmed what they had been saying. So even here, we see the same three aspects of God’s direction.
I think each of these aspects of seeking can be approached both passively and actively. Regarding the Spirit, God may interrupt us, but we can also deliberately spend time in seeking, listening prayer. Looking for God to act, we can wait until we notice something (like Moses at the burning bush), or deliberately ask God to give us some confirmation (like Gideon before the fleece). And regarding the Word, we can learn it so well that passages come to mind appropriately (see John 14:26), or we can study it and seek passages that speak to our situation at the moment. Sometimes He just talks to us, but sometimes we need to spend time seeking Him.
Perhaps not everything we hear from God will follow this pattern; sometimes we only need to listen to the still, small voice. But sometimes, these things can help us guard against listening to the wrong voice.
There are other aspects to wisdom, some of which are also illustrated by the account of the Jerusalem Council. For example, the fact that they came together illustrates the importance of seeking counsel from other mature believers. (In fact, this can be a part of discipleship as defined here, since working with another mature believer can be very instrumental in learning to hear and confirm God’s voice.) And in the letter that resulted from the Council’s discussion, they explicitly commented on using both spiritual discernment and their own perspectives in working it out (Acts 15:28). Sometimes our own efforts, using the gifts God has given us, are an important part of seeking the best path.
So we need to be listening for God’s leading, but also be discerning in what we hear. Learning to listen to God’s voice in the different ways He speaks is an important way to know that we are hearing from Him. As we walk with Him in this way, we get better at knowing His voice. By following His voice, we get the blessings of obedience.