There is question that I get asked on a regular basis…..and, admittedly, its mostly me asking myself this, but it is, “How do I know its God talking?” I should say, that the way I normally ask this question is just like the title of this post. The basic intent is, how do I distinguish between God and something else, or between God and myself?
I’m gonna start with a little bit of a story time. When I first started the process of becoming a pastor, I had to be able to answer that question. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that I kind of knew, for a long time, that God was calling me to this. But when I was getting started I had no idea. I was just a clueless kid.
As it happened, I was also a very confused kid, and was going through several different majors in college. Finally, when I was getting ready to settle on my last one, I was having a long conversation with my Dad, and we were trying to figure out what I was going to do with a music degree. Music was what I finally settled on to major in. We were talking about a number of different things, and at one point he pipes up and says, “Have you ever thought about becoming a pastor?”
For one of the few times in my life I was speechless. Because here was something that was letting me answer the question about spicy pizza. Because it wasn’t me, but my Dad who was making the suggestion, I really had to take it seriously. I couldn’t just say that it was spicy pizza giving me heartburn and causing me to have crazy ideas. For me, that was one of the most important times that I heard God’s voice. It didn’t come down to me as a voice on high, or it didn’t sound like Morgan Freeman, or George Burns. Instead, it came to me in a way that I was going to listen to, and understand.
But that still doesn’t really tell us how we know it’s God talking. That seems to be the sticking point. It’s always easier to have hindsight than it is to understand in the middle of something. If you do a quick Google search on “How do I know that God is talking” it becomes pretty clear that ideas run the whole gamut of things. Most posts basically come down to, “you’ll know it when you hear it” then they try to wrap it up in churchy and religiousy language, and then they toss in a bunch of scripture passages.
It’s not that what they’re saying is bad, but it’s just not all that helpful. What I’m hoping, is that what I say below will be helpful, and not sound like a lot faith-based buzz words. But, before I get into that, there is one thing that we have to keep in mind. And this is that you have to be willing to hear, and you have to be willing to be wrong. This is the key, and its the one thing that we miss too often. Too often, when we attempt to listen to God, what we’re looking for is God to confirm what we already want. The first step in hearing God is knowing that we might be wrong, and be willing to accept that.
Now that that’s out of the way, lets look at what does it really take to hear God. For me, it comes down to three letters RWT – Reading, Writing, Talking.
Reading: This is one of the basic places that we start. So the real question becomes, what do I read. The first answer is the Bible. Scripture is always a good place to start, but don’t limit yourself to scripture. That’s because it’s not always the easiest thing to understand, especially when you have questions. I know that there are a lot of people that are probably pulling their hair out right now because I’ve said that, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Read a variety of things. Get books that are recommended to you by other people you trust. They don’t even have to be specifically about listening to God, but they should spark your thinking. When that happens, then we begin to see God more clearly at work.
Writing: Now I know there are many out there who would say that they don’t like to write. And I’m completely cool with that, and there’s more to writing than just putting words on a page. When I say writing, in this case, it means that you work through different things. One of the ways that I write is that I walk around my house, asking a question, and then I work through different answers to it. Essentially what I’m doing is “writing” out responses, partially so that I’m ready whenever someone asks me a question, but also because that’s another point when God will take us down a different path. In the middle of this, you probably won’t hear a clear voice that sounds like Alan Rickman (that’s for all you Dogma fans), but what you will find is that thoughts you weren’t expecting pop up that take you into places you didn’t think about. A lot of times, that is God at work speaking to us, trying to tell us something.
Talking: For me, this is probably the most important one. This is one of the ways that we begin to really know that it’s God and not some spicy pizza. Like the story I told at the beginning, it wasn’t until my Dad asked me the question that I began to really hear what God was saying. One of the key things for us to remember is that God wants us to understand what he’s telling us, so one of the things that he does is that he uses/puts people in our lives to help us hear. One of the first places you start is with people that you trust. Talk to them, ask them for advice or feedback, and be ready to hear what they say. Often, that’s where God is. He’s in the middle of our lives working to help us understand, and using the people around us to tell us. Sometimes God will even use strangers who happen to be at the right place at the right time that point us in the right direction. But again, the most important part is to be open and talk to other people.
What I Haven’t Said
So you are probably thinking to yourself that there are some things that I haven’t talked about here, or that are missing. One of the most notable things is that I don’t have any scripture references in this post. There’s not a chapter and verse anywhere to be found. Would you believe that I’ve done that intentionally? Honestly, I would rather that you read scripture and not listen to me quote it. That, and it’s really easy to find scripture that says what I want it to say. Instead, I want you to listen. God speaks through scripture, but I want you to find that for yourself.
I also haven’t said anything about prayer. We’re told that prayer is the way that we talk to God. What’s going unsaid here is that all of what I’m describing here is prayer. It becomes prayer when we go into it with the intent to hear, and the willingness to be wrong. When we do that, even if it is through reading a book, or talking with friends, then we are praying, because we’ve opened ourselves up to hear what God is saying.
And then the last thing that I haven’t said yet, is that whenever we do stuff like this, we need to do it from multiple points of view. Even if its a point of view that you think is not just wrong, but heretical. There is still a lot that we can learn. Part of what we may learn, and hear from God, is just how wrong it is. But what may also happen is that we hear that we’re wrong, and that that point of view isn’t heretical at all, but a clearer understanding of God’s will.
It’s that last sentence that makes this whole process of listening to God so hard. That’s the thing that I think keeps us away from hearing God so much. Its the fear that what we know is wrong, and that what we view as being not just wrong, but a heresy is right. But this is what God does when we listen. While it may be hard to hear some things, when we listen and follow, our lives become different. And in time, what we find is that they also become more complete, because through our listening God is helping us to become the person that he made us to be.