At this point, I hope we have settled in our minds and hearts that God can and must be heard by his sheep. But exactly what does his voice sound like? How can we know when God is speaking to us?
Back in my student ministry days, a teenager named Phillip had been involved in our youth group for about a year. One day as we were riding down the road together, Phillip turned to me and said, “You’re always saying that God spoke to you; God said this or God said that to you. But I don’t understand. I can’t tell when God’s talking to me. How can you be so sure?” Phillip’s searching question was a wake-up call for me. I’d been working with him, trying to disciple him for months, yet I’d never taken time to explain one of the most fundamental parts of the Christian life (and the most precious to me): learning to recognize God’s voice!
The Characteristics of His Voice
One of my fondest memories is of my mom’s distinct voice calling me to come inside for dinner. Even if I was several houses away, that high-pitched yell got my attention: “Dwaaayne! Come to supper!” (For those of you who aren’t well- versed in “Southern-fried” English, “supper” is another word for dinner, except greasier!)
How did I know that it was my mom’s voice? I’m asking this somewhat obvious question so we can enumerate some less-than-obvious answers. There were actually four characteristics that assured me that voice in the distance was indeed my mom’s.
First of all, my mom’s voice was familiar to me. I’d heard it many times before and could distinguish it from everyone else’s. The Shepherd’s voice is also a familiar voice.
Let’s return now to John 10. Read verses 4 and 5. The sheep follow the shepherd’s voice because they’ve heard his voice before, and they’ve learned to recognize it. Even a newborn baby will sometimes turn toward its mother when she speaks because the baby has heard her familiar voice so many times before birth.
Second, my mom’s voice was not only familiar, it was also personal. She clearly said my name: Dwayne. Likewise, when God speaks to us, he wants us to know exactly who he’s talking to. So he calls us by name.
Read the last part of John 10:3. Jesus says the shepherd calls his sheep by name.
Third, my mother’s voice was easy to recognize because it was simple and clear. What if she had said, “Dwayne, I implore thee to make haste and move in the general direction of thy homestead with the express purpose of finding sustenance and renewed energy for thy body”? I would have said, “Do what?” I’m thankful that our God knows our level of understanding, aren’t you? He willingly puts his words in a language even I can comprehend!
Now read John 10:9. How much more simple can words be?
Anyone can comprehend them. There is one other characteristic I could always count on in my moth- er’s voice: It was loving. I knew that behind her words was a pure love and commitment to nurture me. Even when her voice was raised in correction or frustration, her words ultimately served to
make me better. (Of course, the belt she used on me did its part, too!)
Notice the love and grace in Jesus’ words in John 10:10-11. The thief (Satan) wants only to steal, kill, and destroy us. But Jesus’ goal for us is to live
Many of us walk around feeling guilty and condemned for sins we’ve already confessed to God. Despite our attempts to believe God has forgiven us (as he promises he does), something inside us keeps recalling those sins and short-comings, pushing us down even further. That “something” is actually someone: His name is Satan, the “accuser of our brethren” (Revelation 12:10, NKJV). He seeks to condemn us with his words. The Lord, by contrast, will never speak to us to condemn us. He wants only to give us abundant life. Even when he’s rebuking us, his purpose is still ultimately to make us more like his Son (Romans 8:29).
(I realize that some reading this right now actually grew up hearing condemning and hateful words from those you respected and cared for the most. You may find it particularly difficult to imagine a God whose every word to us is motivated by pure, selfless love. I encourage you to allow those words in John 10:10-11 to pour over you at this moment. Go back and read them again. Allow the good Shepherd to speak words of encouragement to your soul. Imagine him speaking those words to you right now. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. He really is speaking to you in his amazing language of love.)
The Contents of His Words
To be sure we are discerning God’s voice, however, we need to not only consider the characteristics of God’s voice; we also need to examine the content of his words.
Charles Stanley, in his classic book, How to Listen to God, cites five criteria for confirming the voice of God in our lives:
1. God’s voice is always consistent with the Bible. (God will never tell us to do anything that contradicts his written Word.)
2. God’s voice might conflict with human wisdom. (God’s ways do not always make sense to us.)
3. God’s voice will likely clash with our fleshly nature. (Our old carnal selves will want to do just the opposite.)
4. God’s voice may challenge our faith. (God will consistently stretch us to reach higher levels of belief.)
5. God’s voice will often require us to be courageous. (Doing God’s will is not for wimps. Obeying him will often require bold action.)
Now let’s read Jahaziel’s words in 2 Chronicles 20:14-17 in light of these criteria.
It’s clear that the words the people of Judah received that evening were most certainly God’s specific instructions to them in their situation. After hearing from the prophet, they were to go back home and rest in preparation for the battle. Even so, I’m fairly sure some of them still tossed and turned that night. On the eve of possible annihilation, they needed more than a “check-off list” assuring them that what they had heard was indeed God’s direction to them. Intellectual confirmation wasn’t enough. Their hearts still lacked a necessity: faith.
Jehoshaphat realized that missing element when he said to them the next morning, “Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful” (2 Chronicles 20:20). No matter how much we reason in our heads about God’s voice, we still have to make the decision in our hearts to trust him.
I remember trying to discern God’s will as a teenager. It seemed the more I prayed about what he wanted me to do, the more confused I became. I thought, “What if the voice I hear is really Satan’s disguised to make me think it’s God’s? Or what if it is, in fact, God’s voice, but Satan wants me to think it is his voice, so I won’t obey it? Or what if God is speaking to me, but somehow I am misunderstanding what he is saying, and Satan is using my confusion against me?” Whew! What a mess I was in!
In fact, I was so torn by these opposing thoughts that one night during a revival service, I knelt and literally beat the pew with my fists as I cried out to
God for clarity. The evangelist saw and heard my anguish. So immediately after the service, he came up to me and said, “You know, you don’t have to beg God for anything.” (I must admit, that made me mad at first. After all, what did he know about my dilemma?)
A couple of days later, I “happened” to be reading in Philippians 3. And that’s when I saw it for myself; that’s the moment I discovered a principle that
has had a most profound effect on my fellowship with the Lord over the years.
Please turn to Philippians 3 right now. Read verses 7-14. Notice what Paul is “pressing” toward.
As I sat there soaking up those Scriptures, I found myself saying, “Yes, God, that’s what I’m trying to do, too. I so want to win the prize of knowing you and doing your will in my life!” I had read up through verse 14 many times in the past but had always stopped there. However, this time my desperation pushed me forward. It was actually the very next verse, verse 15, that set me free from my turmoil. What I read there made my heart almost leap from my chest.
Reread verse 14, and continue through verse 15.
Did you catch it? Did you feel the impact of those wonderful words: “If on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you”? What exactly did Paul mean? He meant just what he said: If you and I are “pressing toward the mark” with a maturing heart determined to please God, he will not allow us to make a mistake or misunderstand his leading. Hallelujah! No more beating the floor in frustration and hopelessness. I will hear and know his voice. He will make absolutely sure of it. He loves me so much he won’t let me go astray. What an awesome God we serve!