My “Samuel experience” occurred in college. God began to personally guide me in unexpected ways: emotional and mental impressions, visions, dreams and specific encouragement from others.
My newfound excitement accompanied me as I went home for a college break. I said to my dad, “You never told me God could personally speak!” He said, “Sure, of course He can.” I was amazed at the frank and normal way he responded to my question. Here I thought I was going insane.
And maybe I was. Does God still speak to people in these subjective ways, or are those kinds of experiences (visions, dreams, impressions) taboo for 21st century Christians? Had I wandered into theological error?
Christians usually fall into two broad categories. Those in track A consider wisdom (common sense), precautionary prayer (praying to God about what you plan on doing in case it might not be a good idea), scripture (obeying orthodox teachings) and heeding mature, godly counsel the definitive way in which God directs.
Proponents of track A consider their methods objective while labeling other methods as subjective. They tend to place higher priority on Christian freedom. For example, you can choose any job so long as it is not inherently sinful. The same understanding is applicable to finding a spouse, a house or a car. I snuggly fit into this category for the first 13 years of my Christian life.
Those in track B add spontaneous promptings of the mind or will from God as another way in which God speaks. I fit into this category for the last eight years of my Christian life. While searching for a job, a wife and a house, I experienced God’s direct involvement in these moments just like Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24. However, I do not know if that will always be the case for everyone, nor can I fully discern how acutely my own emotions shaped my faith journey.
So what’s the deal? Are some Christians right and others wrong? Even respectable authors disagree. There are those who consider mental and emotional impressions either immature reflections of Christianity (i.e. the Corinthian Church), unhealthy human-derived impersonations of God’s voice, or, at its worst, a form of pagan divination. Still others passionately assert that God frequently speaks through impressions and other similar methods. How are we to respond and act when our own spiritual champions fall on different sides of an issue?
Spend time educating yourself. This must be done in order to ascertain the entirety of an argument and to see how each author, even those with similar views, differs from another. For, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Proverbs 18:17).
Each side presents strong arguments. Hearing from God proponents frequently cite three bible passages: 1 Samuel 3, 1 Kings 19:9-18, and John 10:25-28. In contrast, opponents describe in vivid detail the chaotic mess this whole hearing from God thing can become. To them, there is nothing worse than Christians perpetrating foolish acts due to a sincere, but misguided belief in God’s voice.
When someone says, “God spoke to me,” what does that mean? As I studied this idea, I came to see it as a broad way to define a sudden movement of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life in which they feel like they know God’s will in a specific situation.
How would these people attempt to hear from God? Those who claim to experience the Spirit’s leading cite diverse models: intense journaling, prayer-listening, listening to spontaneous thoughts while in nature, systematic scripture reading with an openness to hear about a personal issue and praying continually, then responding to the subsequent movement of God.
3. Find Common Ground
Both sides unequivocally endorse obeying God’s Word, living righteously, seeking outside counsel and praying before, during and after decisions are made. If this is agreed upon by everyone, then it is probably a significant insight, worthy of future imitation.
So, how then should we live? My practical side always kicks in after engaging in theological homework. First, be sure to test everything. This includes those who view “following the Bible” as sufficient for their faith walk. God blessed us with a faith community for a reason. Don’t be that person who shames the faith by acting foolishly.
Second, recognize the possibility of a supernatural occurrence while being realistic about the fact that 99 out of 100 days will be plain-Jane ordinary.
Third, be merciful to those who do not share your unique perspective on how God interacts with His people. Ultimately, each side strongly believes in their stance. Wherever you fall in this debate, realize that trusting in God will be the best thing you can do whether or not you experience special guidance from God.
Cliff Gehret attends and pastors youth and young adults at Indian Valley Faith Fellowship in Harleysville, Pa. He is happily married to Corey Gehret, the love of his life. Together, they are pursuing God while raising their children, Johannah and Ezekiel.