The Voices in Your Head

Some people say they hear messages from God. I am one of those people.

One of the central beliefs of Christianity is that God has direct relationships with His followers. He enters into two-way communication with us: we pray to Him, and He leads us. But how do we tell which feelings and inclinations are from God, and which aren’t?

This morning in the XLM Bible Study, we talked about some practical ways to tell when it’s God talking to you. My notes are below.

~

Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. 21 Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
-Isaiah 30:20-21

One of the things we talk about a lot at Crossroads is listening for God’s leading. We don’t often talk about how to practically do that. I want to talk about that today.

Here’s what we’ll go over:

  • Implement what He’s already said
  • Find quiet
  • “Test the spirits”

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. 12 He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: 13 “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”
-2 Kings 22:11-13

Josiah is a great example to us. He found the Book of the Law while he was having the temple rebuilt. He was doing what he thought God wanted. But when he read what God had said, those words became his new priority. He went on to do everything in his power to implement what he found in the book. God showed Josiah his purpose and calling through the Bible.
If you want to hear from God, start with what He’s already said. Examine the Bible. There may be something there that needs attention.

For one thing, sin affects our communication with God. If we’re breaking God’s commands, we hinder our connection with Him. As we fall deeper into sin, we feel less inclined to go to God, and our harmful desires grow louder. If you want to hear God better, strive to eliminate sin from your life.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
-Romans 12:2

For another, God has priorities for our lives. If He’s communicated something to you that matters to Him and it’s left undone, He may not move on until it’s done. This is true of what He tells us in the Bible and through other means.

Suppose you have the sense that you’re supposed to do something for God… and you happen to be right. He won’t just let go of that. You won’t be comfortable until you follow through with what God has told you, no matter how uncomfortable His request is.

But even with the Bible, it can be difficult to tell what God wants from us. Doubly so if it’s just a feeling we get during a time of prayer. So how do we tell which “leadings” are from God and which aren’t?

One discipline that really helps is quiet. Taking a moment of silence in solitude is so precious and so important, Jesus did it. It’s strange to think that God Himself would go off by Himself to pray, but He did. Frequently.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
-Mark 1:35

But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
-Luke 5:16

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
-Luke 6:12

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
-Matthew 26:36

If Jesus went off by Himself to quiet places to pray, so should we. Here is God showing us how to be human, and He makes time for solitude and quiet.

It’s easy to wedge prayer and meditation into idle moments, usually when we’re doing something else. We don’t give God our full focus. Ever try to have a conversation like that? Having a distracted conversation communicates disinterest: it says you don’t care. And how can you complain that you don’t hear from God if you don’t give him your full attention at any point in the day?

Give God a quiet moment. Set aside everything else. Pray. Then stop talking for a minute. God honors that kind of intentionality.

Silence and solitude help us sort out the various feelings and inclinations we get. They help quiet some of the voices vying for our attention. Because not everything we think might be God actually is. That’s why Paul gives us this warning:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
-1 John 4:1

We can have feelings that lead us in ungodly directions. Some of our “leadings” are our own intense desires.

…but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.
-James 1:14

So, how to we “test the spirits?” The first way goes back to our first point: Check every leading against the Bible. Our hearing is sometimes faulty, but the Bible is trustworthy. If it’s a controversial or difficult issue to interpret, talk to someone who knows the Bible well. God won’t tell you do do anything immoral. He won’t contradict Himself.

Second, apply this simple test: Find the voice that’s always right. God doesn’t lie. He doesn’t lead you astray. What He says will happen happens. Pay close attention to what your voices say and where your inclinations lead. Keep track of them, and you’ll be able to weed out the false ones over time.

So, what does God’s voice sound like? It varies. God talks so that we will understand Him. When we last discussed this at the XLM Bible Study, we found some common ground.

Here’s how it works for me. An idea will occur to me, and I will get a specific sensation in my brain. It’s kind of like certainty, or resolution. Like something clicking into place. It’s not as much an audible voice as a thought and a feeling. God uses it a lot when I journal. I’ll record my thoughts, and if something I write isn’t quite correct, it won’t feel quite correct. I’ll ask, “is it this? is it like this?” And when I settle on the right wording, the sensation will hit me. Otherwise, it will feel unresolved.

One of the other ways God consistently gets my attention is through my circumstances. When I read about something in the Bible, then hear about it in a sermon or a Bible study, then get asked about it by multiple people, I know I should check in with God about it.

Whatever makes me think God is talking, I apply the same tests: check it against the Bible, pray about it in a quiet moment, and test the leading’s accuracy.

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About Brian Armitage

Struggling to live like Jesus, celebrating mild successes.

Posted on March 17, 2012, in Christianity, God, Holiness, The Bible and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Wow, another great article Brian. It led me on a train of thought that arrived at this whole sense of dualism I get from Christianity. On the one hand, God is perfect and righteous and holy. On the other hand, God is wholly responsible for all of creation and all the imperfect, unrighteous and unholy things that come with it.

    How could God create a soul, knowing beforehand that it would be condemned to hell?
    How could God create the angel Lucifer, knowing beforehand that this action would lead to the degradation and torment of mankind?

    The only (unsatisfactory) answers I’ve heard so far are:

    1) I don’t know but God has a plan that somehow justifies everything.
    2) I don’t know, there must be some kind of Great Mystery.

    Basically meaningless answers. Since you are so good at expressing precisely what you think and you are so careful with how you choose your words, I would ask that you take a shot at this one.

    • Brian Armitage

      Great question. I’ve wrestled with this one a lot! It’s a complex issue that better minds than I have addressed at length. I’ll try to give a succinct answer.

      First, I reject the premise that God is “wholly responsible” for evil. I believe that God is powerful enough to make creatures that have the ability to actually make choices. Angels and humans bear responsibility for their decisions.

      Second, truth need not be understood to be true. If we cannot grasp a truth — for example, because it would require an eternal rather than time-based perspective — that truth is no less valid. In fact, it would be very suspicious of every aspect of a supposedly transcendent God were easily explained.

      Third, the grace of Jesus provides an answer to this dilemma. He offers us a final answer to the question of evil: grace for any and all who accept Him.

      Much more could be said. This is a big ol’ question. But I hope that’s a good start.

      • Brian, thanks for the thoughtful engagement.

        On your first point, would it be fair to say that if God did not create humans, that human suffering would not exist? That’s what I talk about when I use the word “responsible.” I mean that God made the choice to create us, and as a result of that, we can and do suffer greatly. Moreover, it is not the case that suffering is always a direct consequence of human decision. Just look at any natural disaster or diseased infant.

        To your second point, I agree. However I would say that those truths that human beings are incapable of grasping are essentially meaningless to us. In other words, if you can’t make sense of something, your only rational option is to disregard it. I suppose this is precisely why people say “there must be some Great Mystery.” So, if God has created us without the capacity to truly understand what we are and why we are here, then we are forced to either trust Him or ignore Him. Assuming God wants us to trust Him, then we must ask how trust is gained. The first ingredient in trust I think is identity. You have to know who or what it is that you are trusting, and be certain that you are not confusing that entity for someone or something else. But how does God talk to us? He doesn’t appear to us as clearly and plainly as your spouse, or your co-worker. No, he whispers across a void, and His voice is mixed with all the other spirits speaking to us. This is the very point of your article, is it not? How to discern the voices. One day I wrongly discerned who or what it was that was speaking to me. I fell into a trap, and the consequences are life-long. Not only did God allow some evil spirit to speak to me, allowing me to believe it was God, he also did not protect me and refused to reverse what was done. So trust, already being so difficult to gain, was made tremendously more difficult.

        To the third point… I’ll just not get into that at the moment.

      • Brian Armitage

        Yup. If there were no humanity, there would be no human suffering. Easy math. But consider: I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t for my parents, but my parents aren’t responsible for my choices. They’re responsible for me being here, but I’m responsible for what I do. And interestingly, the Christian worldview holds that the first act of disobedience by humans essentially broke the world, leading to what’s called “natural evil,” such as your two examples.

        But here’s what’s really important: Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross covers our responsibility and any responsibility on God’s part to pay for the suffering caused by sin.

        I disagree that it’s rational to disregard that which you don’t understand. It’s not rational at all. For example, I regularly rely on various devices – cars, computers, central heating – whose inner workings I don’t fully understand. I don’t need to understand them fully: I’m convinced by the evidence that they’re real and they work. Similarly, I can’t fully explain the mechanics of how God is three people and one person at the same time, but I know that He is. I recognize that it’s a mystery I can only describe by analogy, but it’s still true.

        I’ve been wrong about God’s voice, too. Once, I wanted something badly and I thought I heard God tell me I’d have it. It wasn’t God. Messed me up for years. But in time, I learned the difference between the voices. God didn’t reverse what happened, but He brought me through it, and now I’m on the other side. And again, if you want to talk about what happened to you in detail, feel free to email me.

        He’s not done with you yet.

  2. As somebody who used to practise hypnosis, I have seen people’s hand stuck to the table when they’re wide awake, I’ve seen them forget their name for minutes, etc etc.

    How / why? It’s as simple as this: they *expected* it to happen and they *believed* it would happen. 100%.

    It doesn’t surprise me, from this viewpoint, what else the mind can achieve. I honestly believe that if you think 100% something will happen, the phenomenon will elicit. ESPECIALLY with the level of conditioning churches impose on people.

    Even people who ‘hear God’…is it a clear audible voice? If so, that may indicate a psychological disorder or an EXTREMELY strong belief / expectation that God will contact them in that way.

    If not, how do you know it’s God? Why is it people thought they could hear Thor, Vishnu, and so on?

    • Brian Armitage

      I actually addressed a few of your questions in the last few paragraphs of my post. To reiterate:

      -it’s rarely an audible voice.
      -supposed communications from God must be compared to the Bible for consistency.
      -supposed communications from God must be tested for accuracy over time.
      -if a given “voice” is ever incorrect, it’s not God.

      Your point about overwhelming expectation is well taken. I’ve been there. However, believers (myself included) have also heard from God by various means when we didn’t expect to or want to.

      I can’t speak for anyone who claims to have heard Thor or Vishnu speak, nor do I know of anyone who has ever made such a claim.

      • “it’s rarely an audible voice.”

        God’s all-powerful. Why not?

        “supposed communications from God must be compared to the Bible for consistency.”

        The Bible is not historically backed-up. It’s also extremely inconsistent to begin with. For example, if God came to you in your mind and told you to love homosexuals, it would be in accordance with the “God is loving” Biblical verses, but NOT “Homosexuals must be put to death” verses. As you can see there’s a contradiction.

        “supposed communications from God must be tested for accuracy over time.”

        How do you test how accurate the voice of God is? Surely if it’s God, it’s God.

        “if a given “voice” is ever incorrect, it’s not God.”

        Oh, how convenient. So in other words, you could have voices all the time, but only if they’re right is it God talking?!?!??!

        This just frustrates me. I’m willing to be sincere but when I hear things like “If it’s wrong, it can’t be God”…that’s just ridiculous.

      • Brian Armitage

        It’s not that God can’t speak to us audibly. It’s just like you said: He’s all powerful, so He gets to decide what means He uses. Are you assuming an audible voice is the best way?

        I wholeheartedly disagree that the Bible is not historically backed up. There are volumes of scholarship to support the historicity of the Bible.

        Your example of a contradiction is faulty. You misunderstand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments (more precisely, the old and new covenants). The command to kill people who violate certain laws was for a certain point in Israel’s history, which has now passed. Christians, by the way, are called to love homosexuals, even as we recognize the immorality of homosexuality.

        I’m honestly confused about your frustration. If you have a message you think comes from God but turns out to be factually incorrect, you should assume the source of that message isn’t God.

        And again, by “voices,” I mean thoughts, inclinations, urges, coincidences, feelings, sensations, etc. that we interpret as God speaking. There are lots of things we could interpret as God speaking. Not all of them are. That was my point.

    • Brian Armitage

      Oh, and a possible case-in-point: I only saw your comment because I had a seemingly random urge to check my spam folder. It ended up there, possibly because of your repeated use of “100%.”

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