Is This God's Voice or Mine?

Why that still, small voice probably isn't God's—and that's OK.

There’s a new evangelical theology out there, and it’s messing with our minds. I realized this for the first time when I was a new professor at an evangelical college. I was teaching philosophy of religion, and assumed that when we used the word “revelation” in a Christian context, we all knew that meant the Bible. But I was wrong.

The problem with revelation, one student said in a paper, was that you can never really identify God’s voice. And if you can’t identify God’s voice, then how can God reveal anything? I realized pretty soon that she wasn’t talking about the word of God in holy Scripture. “Revelation” meant a voice she was supposed to listen for in her own heart. But how can you be sure you’re not mistaking your own voice for God's voice? How do you know?

You have to admire this student’s honesty. She was too honest to convince herself that she really knew which of the voices in her heart was God. It’s as if there were a kind of psychological trick she was supposed to pull on herself, and she was too self-aware to believe the trick as she was doing it. And since for her, hearing God in her heart was what it meant for God to reveal Himself, she was left without any concept of revelation or how to know God. And she was just the first of many, many students I’ve met in the same predicament.

The practice of listening for God’s voice in your heart is a very new development and it’s deeply flawed. It has only recently displaced Scripture as the most important way, in the view of many Christians, that God reveals Himself to us, thanks in no small part to widespread promotion of the idea by otherwise evangelical churches and youth groups.

Some people say this way of understanding revelation is more “personal,” but I don’t see how. You can’t listen to another person just by hearing what’s in your heart. Other persons live outside your heart, and that’s where you have to listen for them. So Scripture says Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17), but directs our attention outside our hearts to find what we should put our faith in: “faith comes by hearing,” says Paul, “and hearing comes by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The word of Christ that he’s talking about is not a voice in our hearts but the preaching of the Gospel in external words we can hear with our ears.

In other words, you don’t have to get anxious about figuring out which one of your voices is God. None of them is. The revelation of God comes in another way, through the word of God in the Bible, and this is something you can find outside your heart. And that’s good news.

Since God speaks to us as a person, then we can find Him by listening to His Word. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to our hearts. But it does mean we get to admit that all the voices of our hearts are our own.

Where I teach, there are guys who tell girls, “I think God is telling us to get together.” And there are girls who are convinced God has told them to break up with their boyfriend. A guy saying that kind of thing is pretty comical (unless he gets away with it, and then it’s too destructive to be funny) but a girl who has to say that kind of thing is just in sad shape.

I can imagine how it goes. Picture a young woman getting back to her dorm after a long night, and she’s saying to herself, in a loud, excited voice: “Oh, I love my boyfriend so much! He’s so great! He takes care of me, he watches out for me ... he never wants to leave me alone, he won’t ever let me out of his sight, he’s always in control, sometimes I feel like I can’t escape ... ” And then, as her enthusiastic monologue begins to trail off, a different-sounding voice comes out of her mouth, a quiet little voice that says, “I have a bad feeling about this ... ” No doubt that’s the voice of wisdom, unlike the loud, excited voice that came before.

The sad thing is not that she listens to this quiet voice, but that she can’t admit it’s her own. She has to label it God’s voice in order to take it seriously. In my time as a professor, I’ve met a lot of young people like this who don’t believe their own feelings matter, that their own thoughts are worth paying attention to. These young people need to learn that it’s important to listen to their own feelings. Even though they’re not always right, feelings tell you things you need to know.

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When a young person has to label the voices in her heart “God” in order to believe they’re worth listening to, she doesn’t really believe it’s OK for her to be perceptive about her situation, that it’s OK to realize her boyfriend is bad for her and do something about it. In short, she doesn’t realize she has a right to be a morally responsible adult. This new theology has undermined her sense of responsibility and self-knowledge—not to mention her faith in God as a real person who exists outside her own thoughts.

But the Bible doesn't talk about the Spirit of God speaking in our hearts—at least in the cliche way we've come to understand. Instead, it reveals God to us in the face of Jesus Christ. And, as evangelicals used to know, the Spirit gives us Christ through the preaching (and the singing and the praying) of the Gospel, the Good News that tells the story of Jesus Christ. All you have to do is open your ears.

This article was adapted from Phillip Cary’s new book, Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do, available from Brazos Press in September. More info at www.brazospress.com.

Top Comments

Drew Istotle

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Drew Istotle commented…

I respect your view but think it's sort of a cop out. We clearly receive our primary lessons form the bible, but Jesus said he sent the Holy Spirit to give rememberance of thing he said, didn't say and things to come. So the Holy Spirit speaks truth to us all of the time about things that are in the bible...and things that are not. Your position that everything is in the bible reflects more a fear to say outright...that God can speak to us in Spirit. I understand that this is difficult to explain. How does one explain SPIRITUAL COMMUNICATION? It can't be put in words...because it's supernatural. You just know what God is saying. I can hear your objections: "But that's our own mind speaking!" Is it? I didn't say we actually hear words in our mind. The bible says God is a Spirit and those that worship him do so in Spirit, so talking to God by Spirit...is how it works. You learn to do it more...with experience in faith.

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rachelfromsydney commented…

So, I'm not saying at all that God can't do what he used to, but these days God doesn't often speak to us/ guide us with the same methods he used to.
Back then, the Bible was still being written and God was still in the middle of revealing to us his plan for salvation.
But check out the start of Hebrews. It basically says "in the past God spoke in a whole bunch of ways but now his message to us is the revelation of himself in Jesus".
We have all we need in Jesus and the Bible. Making godly decisions etc. isn't about listening out for a voice, it's about weighing the choices against biblical wisdom and asking God to give us wisdom to make a good choice.
I'm not gonna say that God doesn't appear to people in visions etc but certainly you can trust the Bible to be from God in a way that you can't trust anything else to be. If you do hear a voice, there's no way of knowing that it's actually God speaking to you, you've gotta check it really carefully against what you know from the Bible.
It seems that visions of Jesus are pretty common in conversion stories from Islamic countries, but that's very different to one of us having a vision- they probably don't have access to the Bible so it may be that God uses visions to get their attention and get them to seek out his word.
I know everyone has a very different experience and opinion on these things and I certainly don't know God's exact stance of visions etc these days but just be wary of where you get your ideas from, hey....
:)

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Anonymous commented…

I understand what the author is trying to say; Sometimes Christian use the 'God's voice in their heart' as a crutch, as opposed to acknowledging that, sometimes, their feelings are valid and can be trusted.

HOWEVER, based on past experience, I can not subscribe 100% to the notion that the "voice in my heart" NEVER comes from God, but is actually my own and only my own. Although I can agree that the "voice in the my heart" isn't ALWAYS God's voice, I MUST acknowledge that, SOMETIMES, it is definitely God's voice.

From past experience, I have come to realize that God's voice often speaks with logic and wisdom that is SO contradictory from the other 'voices' in my mind/heart. When my emotions, MY logic, and even others around me have endorsed my intentions and selected path... but yet a nagging voice, for some reason, and seemingly out of nowhere, begins to warn me to do otherwise, it's likely God's voice.

Case in point :: A fews years ago, I met this girl whom I liked. Based on my 'list' of things I liked and didn't like in the opposite sex, she seemed to fit with flying colors. She claimed she was a Christian, she seems to be the type of mature, kind, Christ-honoring and attractive girl that I wanted a relationship with. Everything looked great on paper... NOTHING could be wrong, and nothing seemed wrong. We hung out. The chemistry was awesome. In a few months time, we finally became an official couple.
NOT MORE THAN 24 HOURS into the relationship, I began to experience this foreign sense of anxiety. It came out of nowhere and it was gradually increasing. By time the 3rd day of our relationship rolled around, it was eerily clear that, for some reason, this relationship wasn't right. I did not know WHY the relationship wasn't right, but the heavy feeling that it wasn't right was strong. My stomach began to sink. My mind was spinning, agonizing over this weird foreboding that SOMETHING about this relationship, this new girlfriend, this SITUATION was NOT a good idea. I just couldn't figure out WHY! I had done all the preliminary checking and prayer for a girlfriend. I was attracted to her. I WANTED her. I liked her. Everything looked good. Everybody said we were 'cute' together and I agreed.

...but that voice.

On that 3rd day of our relationship, I eventually broke down and listened to it. I broke up with her. I told her "For some reason, I think this relationship is not in God's timing" (my best explanation). She was devastated. It was weird, too, because once I broke up with her there was this sudden liberating peace. It felt like fresh air.

But I didn't follow through.

We kept in close contact. Hanging out. Visiting each other...and eventually, getting WAY too intimate and involved until we slid right back into a relationship. Next thing you know, that voice was back and in full force; but only THIS time, I ignored it. I convinced myself that it wasn't God, but perhaps my own voice and my own confusion that would eventually subside.

It never did.

That relationship lasted a crazy, long, hard year and a half. It was never a comfortable, settled, healthy relationship. All sorts of things went wrong, things I had never before experienced or encountered. The hardship was unfathomable. However, when we finally broke up in the fall of 2007, that amazing peace, once again, fell upon me. THIS time, I didn't go back. It was a hard year ahead of me as I went through the pains of separation as a result of insecurity and delusional regret (tough times).
Once I overcame that struggle (the year after my breakup), I was able to take a retrospective look at the relationship I had left behind, and the voice that I had ignored for almost two years. In the beginning, that voice didn't make sense (as far as its reason) - although what it was SAYING did make sense. In other words, I knew that the voice was saying 'don't do this', but I didn't know WHY it was saying it. Now, it makes perfect sense. Only GOD knows what will come in the future. Not me. And it was GOD who KNEW what would have happened if I stayed in that relationship - which is why it didn't make sense to ME in the beginning. He knew what was going to happen and He was warning me since day 1... and He never stopped trying. It wasn't until I could look BACK and see the reasoning behind His voice.

To this day, nearly 3 years passed that experience, I still wish I had listened to that 'voice'.

When a 'voice in your heart' contradicts everything you FEEL... everything you THINK you want... everything that everyone else endorses... maybe it isn't YOUR voice after all. When that 'voice in your heart' only becomes stronger and pertinent, clearly telling you to 'zig' when your own logic tells you to 'zag'... take it seriously. The most recognizable trait, I found, that differentiates God's voice from my own feelings is how SPECIFIC His voice is. God isn't ambiguous. He doesn't speak in coded language. His voice may not give a REASON, but it does give CLEAR direction and warning followed by a very real sense of PEACE once heeded. ...and contrary to what part of this article suggests, MY feelings don't have that ability.

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Ashley commented…

Hmmmmm. The problem with that is we were never meant to have a personal relationship with the Bible, a text, but with the Living Jesus Christ. A personal relationship with another human being consist of two way conversation, emphathy, connection, emotions. Why would God create that connection for us in relationship to other humans but not Him, if He is the author of that? Another issue is we interpret scripture based upon our past experience, our upbrining, our culture, etc. How do we discern if what we are reading is being interpreting truthfully (notice how I did not say "correctly")? Satan wants to convince us that God is not interested in intimately connecting with us because if we experienced that, we would begin to fathom the extent of His love and that makes powerful Christians.In scripture, those that walked with God, HEARD from Him, they weren't reading scripture. I would encourage you to sit in silence and open yourself up to hearing the Lord. It will probably bring up fear, insecurities, doubt, anxiety, which will make you even more aware of a deep sense of lonlieness that He actual desires to feel.It will draw TRUE awareness of how your heart experiences God, as oppose to the mind, which can easily grasp teaching, text etc. In the heart is where we feel the pain of our past, the pain of our parents and others. This is what TRUELY teaches us about Who God IS? If you settle for just reading scripture as a way to hear from Him, you will surely miss out on His healing, and His Prescence that was originally offered in the Garden. "They hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn and I would heal them." Is. 6:10, Matthew 13:15, Acts 28:27

I would suggest some readings from Thomas Keating such as Centering Prayer, or Richard Rohr's "Radical Grace" possibly looking into Immanuel Approach as a start that will open you up to the Incomprehensible Beauty that is an experienced relationship with Jesus Christ. Do not settle for "biblio-idolatry"

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Anonymous commented…

I generally agree, however i believe, while we cannot restrict to how God speaks to his people, God can speak through how we listen, whether in our heart, outside of our heart, in our head, i can't specifically pinpoint it to a source when God does speak and i hear his voice. But like the author of this article pointed out, i wish to say, these "God speaking through our heart etc" will never ever contradict what the Scripture has laid out. Any voice speaking to us if it is of God, will never contradict the Word of God (Scripture) and for Spirit-filled believer, the Holy Spirit in us will bring to agreement. The problem with modern day Christians is that we never ever recognize the voice of God, and we seldom do spend time with God to be able to hear Him.

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FireandFocus commented…

I can't say that I agree with the notion that none of those voices is Gods. Thateliminateswords of knowledge (spiritual gift), prophecy and the entire book of 1Corinthians. I've heard God tell me things I could have never ever known that saved my life. I've seen God prophetically move in the lives of loved ones and speak through gifted believers. I agree with your idea that scripture is His ultimate Word. The two shouldn't compete. At the same time, it's important to inform the masses that God is speaking and at times, He will speak to you.

Ian McKerracher

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Ian McKerracher replied to 's comment

I agree and would add that it really is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that an "inner voice" is God when it is ourselves or worse, our enemy. The notion that only scripture is revelation is perhaps overstated in this article. God may speak to an individual about individual things and where the check and the balance lies in two-fold. Is it opposed by scripture? (rightly divided obviously) Is it opposed by godly people who are close enough to you to say an appropriate word of support or non-support. The "Living Word" in your heart MUST line up to the "Spoken Word" and the Written Word" or you are going to get into trouble.

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