Hearing God

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Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." And the Lord said to him, "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit."
—Acts 9:10-17 ESV

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
—Acts 13:2-4 ESV

And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.
—Acts 16:6-8 ESV

Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
—Genesis 12:1-4 ESV)

And [Abraham's servant] said, "O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, 'Please let down your jar that I may drink,' and who shall say, 'Drink, and I will water your camels'—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master." Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, "Please give me a little water to drink from your jar." She said, "Drink, my lord." And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, "I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking."
—Genesis 24:12-19 ESV

One of the interesting byproducts of reading through the McCheyne Bible reading program is that it daily shows four timelines of redemptive history. The past couple weeks covered Genesis, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Matthew, and Acts, and the one thing that is inescapable from these readings is how God moved people around to accomplish His will. YieldHe speaks to Abram and the patriarch moves out of what he knows into a foreign land. Ezra and Nehemiah are commissioned by Persian kings to journey back home to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem. God uproots Esther from her home and places her in the king's palace, proving how she was born to petition on behalf of her people in that time and place. Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness. Ananias is even given the right address for finding the man that God says he must meet. And Paul and Barnabas are selected by the Spirit and sent on the exact mission He directs.

I think it's been almost twenty years since Gary Friesen's Decision Making and the Will of God first came out. Almost every person I knew was reading the book back then, so I had to also just to see what the buzz was about. The feeling I got upon finishing the book was that it seemed to have a disparaging view of God's special and particular guidance of individuals.

Having put twenty more years on my faith in Christ, I can't escape the reality I've seen with my own two eyes in that time and the empty feeling I had in my heart upon finishing Friesen's book. To believe that God does not guide individuals at times by His voice today is to ignore the means by which our immutable God has spoken to people throughout redemptive history. Friesen's Way of Wisdom (as he calls it) seems to apply only to the moral guidance of God (the "do this, don't do that" admonitions we find in Scripture) or to application of general Biblical principles to specific situations.

I have no quibbles with Friesen's contention that God may have no specific opinion about a fork in the road before us. If that's the case, then relying on the wisdom of others or one's accumulated Scripturally-accurate wisdom is a legitimate means of following God's will.

But it's Friesen's argument against specific guidance that bothers me.

I included several interesting passages out of the McCheyne listings that kept hitting me over the head concerning the issue of God's unique guidance to unique people at a unique time, something that Friesen maintains is somewhat extraordinary for the common man.

Yet in Acts we see a common man, Ananias, not revealed here as prophet or an apostle, but as a "generic" disciple of the Lord. It's hard to escape the stunning specificity of the message the Lord speaks to him. Names, places, acts to be performed—even what the "target" is doing at the time. God lays it all out.

Too unusual? Not for today?

When Paul and Barnabas are commissioned, they are called out specifically by the Holy Spirit for the general work of making disciples in a specific place. While some may argue the place was not specifically given, I would contend that the fact that the two hopped a ship for Cyprus is quite another thing than to go to the nearest town and make disciples. The two apostles were acting under specific guidance in light of a general command.

That specificity is raised again in Acts 16 when Paul and Timothy avoid Asia for other parts, having been specifically told by the Holy Spirit not to go there. Matthew Henry's commentary is interesting here:

It was the Holy Ghost that forbade them, either by secret whispers in the minds of both of them, which, when they came to compare notes, they found to be the same, and to come from the same Spirit; or by some prophets who spoke to them from the Spirit.

Either way, that's specific guidance for a specific reason known only to God. Whether Greater Asia was not ready or that God had a more pressing need for them to go elsewhere is hard to say. All we know was that He revealed that Asia was off-limits. I personally like the contrast here when we dig deeper for the second blockade appears to be more one of circumstance. They tried to go but were prevented. The first blockade appears to be known beforehand, not being one of circumstance, but of objective revelation.

From there we go from the beginning of the Church to the beginnings of the Israelites. God speaks to Abraham specifically, but His revelation is general in that He does not tell Abraham where he should go, only that he must. In this way, the leading of Paul and the leading of Abraham affirm God desire to guide people in a certain way. From the beginning of the Book to the very end (John's specific revelation), God guides individuals in a specific way at a specific time through specific revelation to accomplish His specific will.

I'll end this analysis of Scriptures from McCheyne's list by noting the specific way in which Abraham's servant prayed for specific wisdom so that he could bring back the right wife for Isaac. His appeal is to God's promise to Abraham, interestingly enough, because Isaac needed a wife to fulfill God's covenant with his master.

In Genesis and Acts we see dozens of instances of God imparting specific guidance to specific individuals for a specific purpose that accomplishes God's specific will. Why should we expect any less of our unchanging God today?

What follows is just one story, and not the most earth-shaking of the things I've seen, but the simplicity of it makes the point.

Not long ago, I was sitting in one of our armchairs reading the newspaper, my son having gone down for an unexpected nap. I was partly through a gripping article when God told me to get up and go outside. I felt silly because I had no idea what I was supposed to do when I got outside. Standing there in my driveway, trying to find some purpose in being there, I decided to check our mailbox at the end of the long, hidden driveway that leads up to our house. I crossed over the road to the mailbox in time to see a car coming up the little hill that crests at the mailbox.

The car never made it to the top; it conked out thirty feet from where I was standing. I walked down to see what was going on. An obviously less well-off woman with two young children was trying to start her beaten-up truck—no luck. A quick check revealed she was out of gas.

Now I have no real need for gas here. Most of my farm equipment is diesel. I keep a single 2.5 gallon gas can for the lawnmower and weedwhacker, but I use them so infrequently that the whole container lasts a year and half. Just a few days before, I had drained that tank. Without any need to have it filled right away, I nevertheless had topped it off the day before all this. My house and driveway are impossible to see from where her truck died. None of the three neighbors near me were home.

Living off an unmarked county road, the speed limit is 55. I cautiously filled the tank since I was right on the yellow line and people can't see over the hill. No cars had come by the entire time this was going on—not unusual. Still the situation wasn't great because any car coming up behind her truck would be stupid to pass and would have to sit. We didn't have a whole lot of time to chat.

But I did have the opportunity to tell her this story, telling her that I was a Christian and had heard God ask me to help her even before her truck died. I made sure she knew that God loved her very much to look out for her and her children that way. Just as I was about to get even deeper, those cars that had held off for the entire time all showed up at once. I had to let her go on her way. She was very thankful.

I don't know Gary Friesen. I wonder, though, if he has a way to explain that encounter. I wonder if he were sitting in that armchair reading the newspaper if he would have gone outside on account of God telling him to.

Are we limiting God? Even more, are we missing out on wondrous blessings if we don't believe that God works this way in guiding people? Some would argue that the encounter was guidance I wasn't actively seeking, but I'm not sure if Ananias or Abraham were expecting God's knocking on their heart's door, either. Sometimes we seek God and sometimes He comes to us.

Anyone who puts God in a box is going to live a small life. He gives us as much as we are willing to believe.

I don't know about you, but a small life doesn't interest me in the slightest.

Update: For more on this issue as it applies to prayer, please see "Hearing God: The Prayer Example."

Tags: Guidance, God's Will, , Church, Faith, Christianity, Jesus, God

18 thoughts on “Hearing God

  1. Caleb W

    I think there are two dangers: one is to be so much seeking after specific guidance that you never develop wisdom and maturity in applying God’s moral principles than he has revealed in scripture. On the other hand, there’s the danger of not listening for and listening to God’s specific guidance when he does, sometimes, speak like that. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut division between God’s general and specific will, but such distinctions can be useful for discussion if their limitations are recognised.

  2. Ken Fields

    Dan,

    Having grown up in Baptist circles, this kind of reasoning and thinking is foreign to me. So, could you please clarify a few things?

    If you receive direct guidance…how do you discern between God’s voice and any other voice? And, in this account, would you have attributed the voice to God if there had been no truck and no lady near the end of your driveway?

    Please understand that I am not asking these to be a booger. Nor am I intimating that you are always hearing voices! I’m just a Baptist trying to understand…

  3. Steven S

    Dan � well put (as always). For me, those occasions on God speaks to me are a key part of my understanding that God is not some distant entity who is too busy running the universe to bother with me; but rather that he is personally interested in me and my life.

    Ken � speaking for myself, I go back to John 10 where Jesus indicates that His sheep will recognize His voice. There is a distinctive quality to how God speaks to me (when he does) which I have learned to recognize over years of walking with Him. It took a while to identify it; but I eventually did. As you suggest, there are times when God directs me and I see no obvious effect (for instance, he once had me take an alternative route driving into work, and nothing interesting happened, and there was nothing on the news about my usual route). I still believe it was God, and trust that there was a reason. I have that faith because the times God has directed me and indicated as part of that direction what the consequences will be, it has always happened as He said.

    As an example of my own � I was praying once and God said I should go for a walk along a specific route, and that at a specific intersection I would meet someone who needed me. I obeyed, and as I approached that intersection, I saw a friend approaching from another direction, crying. They had had a fight with a family member and I was able to comfort them. The times God has been that explicit are rare; but I have a short list of stories like that.

  4. Caleb,

    I have no problems with moral guidance at all. I think most of us who have been Christians for a while know what the Bible says about things we shouldn’t do. I find it interesting that when the Gentiles received the Gospel in Acts, everyone wanted them to have a set of rules and actions to follow, but Paul argues:

    Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?…Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.
    —Acts 15:10,19-20 ESV

    Not a big list of do’s and don’ts—at least compared with the entire Jewish Law, which the Gentiles did not know. How would these new Gentile converts know how to live if they didn’t follow the letter of the Law? By the Spirit, who guides into all truth.

    As far as clear-cut distinctions go, I would have to disagree with you in that many people force the issue by claiming that the kind of guidance that God gave Ananias when he was told to go see Paul at a specific location doesn’t happen to Christians today. I don’t think it’s the case that we should be eliminating ways in which God can work.

    Curiously, Friesen attempts to create a dichotomy where Christians in the past saw none. He debunks what he calls The Traditional View that God does provide specific guidance like the examples I gave from Scripture. I find this curious, especially in his use of the word “Traditional” because it truly does fly in the face of what millions of Christians that have gone before us have believed. Talk to missionaries extensively and you’ll find that most of them, if they didn’t believe in the old “Traditional” view before they hit the field, did so after a few months of field work! I’ve read enough biographies of missionaries and great Christians through time to know that they most definitely expected God to give them the kind of specific guidance I discuss—and they got it, too.

  5. R,

    The links you gave don’t seem to vary much from Friesen’s position. The problem is that this position cannot explain the Lord coming to Ananias and telling him to go to a specific house where he will meet a man named Saul.

    Gilley’s reasoning against this type of guidance is, “How do we know we’re hearing God?” It’s very simple to ask him, “How did Ananias or Abraham or Paul know they were hearing God?” If he can answer that question, I’d be more willing to hear him out. The problem is that folks who take that route never answer that question.

    In the first part of the second series, Gilley makes several assertions that make me wonder if we’re even reading the same Bible. He says that God only speaks to the major players in the Bible, with rare exceptions. But that simply isn’t true. The Bible is filled with relatively nameless folks who receive God’s guidance, make that known briefly, and are then never heard from again. Ananias in the Paul example is certainly one of those nameless people.

    Gilley also seems to have a low view of the role of God in redemptive history outside the canon. He talks about “major players” in the Bible, but then makes it sound as if there never again was an important Christian after that. Gilley would be hardpressed to claim that a John Hyde in India or Hudson Taylor in China were not “major players” considering there may not be a Christian presence in those countries if they hadn’t gone there. (And the revivals in both those countries today—revivals that make our country seem spiritually dead—are the direct outgrowth of the work of Hyde and Taylor’s guidance.) Read about how God guided Hyde, for instance, and it reads exactly like we see in the Bible.

  6. Anonymous

    As to how to recognize His voice, He does say, “My sheep will hear my voice.”

    In “Experiencing God,” Blackaby and King do provide some description of God’s voice, and they quote a number of scriptures. Anywhere in the Bible where God speaks to men, they recognize His voice! Even Pharaoh in Abraham’s time.

    I would say (having heard God’s voice several times) that God doesn’t shout. He doesn’t have to shout. I wouldn’t call His voice “small” but that’s probably the best description. It’s a quiet but firm voice. I suppose in print I’d put it in small caps. His voice rings with His authority, too. It is definitely recognizable.

    I think that those who want to hear His voice should ask themselves just one question. Blackaby and King confront this issue, and I’m going to pose it as a question.

    If you knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God was talking to you, would you obey His voice – regardless of what He told you to do?

    If the answer is no… are you really Christian? And if you won’t obey His voice, why should He speak to you so directly? Such a one merely seeks a new experience to add to the plethora, and does not choose to follow Him.

    If the answer is yes… are you sure you haven’t heard Him already?

    I suppose the question could be put more simply: “Are you willing to hear Him?” But that begs some questions – like willing obedience.

    “Obey my voice, and I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.”

    As if all were expected to hear it.

    – RWF

  7. brian

    Dan,

    Have you read Friesen’s book since that first time 20 years ago? I think you’re getting your wires crossed on some of the things he says. The “traditional view” of knowing God’s will that he critiques is the view that God leads through “nudges” or “promptings” which are internal and subjective. Many people describe this as “hearing God’s voice” although they don’t literally mean an audible voice. Friesen recognizes visions, angels, God’s audible voice, etc as means of particular revelation which are supported by scripture. Now, he might argue that they’re not normative, but he won’t argue that they don’t happen.

    Given that, your statement that Friesen “debunks what he calls The Traditional View that God does provide specific guidance like the examples I gave from Scripture” is an inaccurate representation. For example, Friesen’s view has no problem with God speaking audibly to Ananias.

    The two main things Friesen takes issue with are :

    1) That God has an individual will for each believer
    2) That God leads through inner nudges and impressions

    I know Decision Making is a long book, but if you don’t have time to re-read you might consider check out Friesen’s site which has some good summaries and excerpts from the book – http://www.gfriesen.net/sections/will_of_god.php

  8. Brian,

    Thanks for writing.

    A few comments:
    1. Individual will—The problem here is that the person open to the leading of the Spirit will by the very act of hearing God and acting upon that hearing conform to God’s will for his/her life. I think it’s presumptive to speak for God to say that He does not have an individual will. The words spoken over Peter by Jesus concerning how Peter’s life will play out, for instance, gives us a glimpse at what some of God’s will is. Any pastor truly “called” to the ministry is following God’s individual will. The fact that God gives different gifts and talents to people shows another way that His will is imparted into our lives. The examples I gave in the post prove that point, too. God wanted Abraham to get up and go. Clearly that is an individual guidance for Abraham since not everyone was given that same calling.

    2. Nudges and impressions—One man’s nudge is another man’s clear direction. One man’s “God said to go down to the bus stop” is no less valid than another man’s “God told me to go down to the bus stop, take the 1:30 line downtown and meet a guy named George on the corner of Main and Vine St.” Again, if you read the lives of great men and women of faith, particularly those who were missionaries, you see all sorts of varieties of guidance. Some means may not look like much, but they give as much information as is needed to accomplish the task. In my case, I put down the newspaper and went outside. That was all the obedience that God needed from me in response to His guidance. In the end, that woman was provided for in her time of need.

  9. brian

    Dan,

    While I disagree with your views on guidance and God’s will, I was not attempting to get into a debate on the subject.

    My point was that you are misrepresenting Friesen’s viewpoint and I think it would be helpful to read back over some of the stuff he has written. Your response back to me does not deal with that at all.

  10. Brian,

    I think you’re missing what I’m saying in refutation to exactly what Friesen’s point is on the individual will for people. I understand exactly what he’s saying. I did address this in the original post and this is how: If Friesen insists that God does not have an individual will for people, then God would never make Himself known by speaking into a believer’s life in such a way that provides guidance. The fact that God would do so destroys the argument that no will of God exists specifically for an individual. If God does speak to a believer and provide guidance by what would be attributed as a specific supernatural guidance, even one instance of that occurring means that God has a specific will for that individual that differs from what He may have for another individual.

    Is that clearer?

  11. brian

    Dan,

    1) You didn’t answer my question. When was the last time you read his book?

    2) Your using the term “individual will” in a different sense that what Friesen is using it. Obviously Friesen does not discount the Biblical accounts of Moses, Ananias, Paul, etc. And yet he still critiques the popular notion of “individual will”. Which says that he means something different by it which would not invalidate these accounts.

    3) You misrepresent him when you say he “debunks what he calls The Traditional View that God does provide specific guidance like the examples I gave from Scripture”. The problem is, the examples you provide are not what he is debunking. He is critiquing the nudge/impression type of guidance which is not what you’re examples are about.

  12. Brian,

    I read the book about twenty years ago, read a portion of it again about ten years ago, loaned it out to someone who asked to read it, then never saw the book again.

    This does not mean that I’m foggy on the book. Just in the last few months there were extensive reviews of it online at several blogs, including Tim Challies’s.

    We’ll have to disagree on the individual will issue. If he says that there is no specific individual will of God for each of us, well, I think he’s wrong and I’ve shown why. When he talks about people struggling to find God’s will and coming up empty, this is exactly what he’s talking about.

    As far as the nudge/impression view goes, I also showed why I believe he’s wrong in that regard, too. Now what I didn’t say is that people always get that form of leading right. That says nothing about God’s guidance and everything about our own maelstrom of noise inside us.

    I believe that Friesen downplays supernatural leading to the point that it becomes a non-issue. He may say he leaves an opening for it, but in presenting his arguments the way he does he doesn’t show that it’s something he believes can be a normal part of every Christian’s life.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

  13. brian

    I have no problem disagreeing on the matters of guidance and individual will. As I said, my point was not to debate these.

    My issue all along was that your representation of Friesen’s view – and more accurately how he supports his view – is skewed. But, I think we’ve spilled enough ink so that anyone still reading this thread can make up their own minds.

    I’d be interested in the reviews of Decision Making that you’ve run across. I tried to find the one at Challies.com but couln’t find it. E-mail me if you don’t want to list them here – brian [at] reasonwhy [dot] org.

    Hope you have a great weekend.

  14. Godzheart

    Hey Dan, I came across this article, and too many times now I find that when God speaks to me about something, he stresses on the things I should pay my interest to in more ways than one.Your article now being another one.I have been studying the same as you’ve written, in my blog. Its amazing how God would have His children “know” what to do and what a blessing it is not only to the person who listened and obeyed but also to the people who have been touched by the life of the person who listened to God and obeyed.

  15. tommy

    Dear Dan

    “Are we limiting God?” “Anyone who puts God in a box is going to live a small life. He gives us as much as we are willing to believe.”

    I totally agree with what I have paraphased above. There are two aspects to it though:
    1. In the context of, say I Cor. 1:23, neither miracles nor wisdom should be the focal point of our pursuit. Yet God may still perform miracles while we are taught not see this as the primary concern!

    I guess God’s way and wisdom is above us. It is inaccordance with HIs revealed will that we should decided as what should be done. Epeciallyso, if we still proclaim that HIs revealed, written words is the ultimate guidiance for all matters of faith and practices.

    2. the second point being: whether we see that the church at the time of Acts is a full-fledged one and should be made a blue print of all churches even in our times.

    What has happened at Acts’ time is epoch-making and different from our time! (eg Start of the promised work of the Holy Spirit). These are in the “once-and-for-all, once-and-forever” category.

    In turn, the full body of New Testament was not yet canonised nor even fully written.

    In view of the above, I tend to think that what is done then may bot be equally applicable today. We may not ne able to copy them all incidences in a wholesale manner. This certainly include the direct revelation as a common mode of God’s communication to man.

    In fact we can find cases, when God has clearly demo (like Anaias and Sophia’s lying and death) and established his unambiguious intention and teaching, He does not repeat this in every case afterward both in OT and NT. God is graceful to us and allows time for us to come round in many cases.

    Overall, I find encouraging to seek to hear God’s revealation has a few pitfall in today;’s terms: falling into occult worship, new age spirituality, over-valuation of personal experience more than what the Bible teaches, just to name a few.

    The above is just some of my personalthoughts.

    To add, I enjoy your honest sharing.

    Blessings

    Tommy, Auckland, NZ
    2006-08-27

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