Every believer wants to hear from God. We want to know, Is this God? Is this what He’s telling me to do? In ministry it is especially important that we are able to discern the will of God—for our own understanding as well as for those to whom we minister. One of my most frequent challenges includes helping someone comprehend what God may or may not be saying to them.
The Bible relates many incidents in which God spoke to people in definite ways at definite times—and they knew the voice of God. Sometimes when God speaks to us, we clearly recognize that He has spoken. Other times, however, we wonder if God spoke or if the messages we heard were just thoughts in our imagination.
When God spoke to people in Bible times, such as when He appeared to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3), there was little room for doubt that it was God. However, God didn’t always speak in such a spectacular fashion—such as when He, on one occasion, spoke to Elijah in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:11, 12).
We often listen for the grandiose voice of God—and sometimes God speaks that way. More often, however, the voice of God comes through more subtly than that. Often God speaks through our quiet moments, through other people, and through life’s circumstances. In a crowded world of noise and life’s distractions, sometimes we have a hard time understanding what God says.
How do we take the circumstances of life, as mixed up and confusing as they can be, and ascertain what God could be saying to us? Indeed, those who follow God want to hear from Him. We want to know what is on God’s mind and to know His agenda for our lives. Through studying the Scriptures I have put together a process of discerning how God speaks and doesn’t speak through the circumstances of life.
Evaluate our circumstances in the light of God’s Word
God will never contradict Himself; He will never speak to us through our circumstances in a way that contradicts His written Word. The Bible should be our first source of information when trying to discern the voice of God.
Remember that God uses other people to confirm His voice
God often sends people into our paths to confirm His will for our lives. We will encounter people who will distract us from hearing God’s voice; but God will also use people to confirm His will. We need to distinguish between those who are seeking the heart of God and those who desire to please themselves. People who attempt to follow God with their lives can help us to hear from God.
Recognize that God operates from a plan
Acts 17:26, 27 assures us that God orchestrates His plans through the events, the decisions of life, and all the people and places we encounter so that mankind will call out to Him. Proverbs 16:9 says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (NIV).
Examine our circumstances in the light of God’s overall plan
When trying to hear from God through the circumstances of life, we should not try to make a decision on one event or set of circumstances because circumstances may or may not be God speaking to us. We should look at our life over a span of months or years. Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV) indicates that God has a definite plan to prosper us and give us hope. When we look at our lives over time, we will be able to see what God has been doing for us.
We should ask, Where has God been leading us? Has He been doing something even when we couldn’t recognize it? In the light of all God has been doing for us, does what we think we hear God saying through our circumstances make sense? We should view what happens in our lives in context with God’s overall plan. God’s ways are obviously better than ours. He will do things in ways we do not understand—God’s way of carrying out His plan may make no sense to us at all. But God is consistent. He does not change. His overall plan for each of His created beings will work.
I have had times when circumstances indicated one thing and my mind or my experience indicated another. When the Lord led me into full-time ministry, it made no sense the way He was doing it. We were out of money, had no income after the sale of a business, and had two active teenagers. But when I looked back over the span of my life, it made perfect sense. God had, for many years, been shaping me for ministry.
When the circumstances of life consistently line up over time with God’s overall plan, possibly God is trying to speak through those circumstances. Someone may be experiencing the call of God and have no idea at the time that God is speaking. When the call becomes clear it may appear to be a new idea, but it is not new to God. He has been planning it throughout that person’s entire life.
Don’t allow circumstances to keep us from hearing or obeying God
Paul spoke of the opposition he faced as he was conducting his ministry (1 Cor. 16: 8, 9). The common sense thing to do when everyone opposes you would be to leave, but Paul knew the circumstances were not indicative of God’s will for his life.
The disciples were in a boat as a furious storm came suddenly upon them. Jesus was with them, but asleep (Mark 4:36–41). Human reasoning would have said, “Give up!” The circumstances surrounding the event looked hopeless; but that wasn’t the truth of the circumstances. The truth was that Jesus had a plan outside that one-boat experience. Jesus woke up, spoke to the storm, and the storm calmed down.
Sometimes our circumstances may look gloomy, but we haven’t heard the truth of our circumstances until we have heard from God.
Ask God to show us His perspective on the circumstances
God said to His exiled people, “You will seek me and fi nd me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13, NIV). If we desire to hear from God through our circumstances, we must intently listen for the voice of God. Hearing from God is not always easy. As followers of God, we can spend our entire lives trying to discern God’s will and listen for His voice.
In marriage, communication can be hard between two people of varying temperaments. I still, sometimes, try to figure out what my wife, Cheryl, tries to say to me. When I quit trying to figure out my relationship with Cheryl, my relationship with Cheryl will be in trouble. The same can be said of my relationship with God. When life becomes challenging—as it so often does—we cannot seem to understand what is happening. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for clarification. We should feel free to ask, God, what did You mean by that?
Recently I was going through one of those challenging periods of life. I seemed to have so many negative things coming at me at the same time that I began to constantly feel sorry for myself. One day I was walking along, and the thought occurred to me that maybe God was punishing me for some unknown sin. With each step I took, the more I began to think I was hearing God say He didn’t love me anymore. Even though the thought makes no sense in light of God’s Word, that’s what happens when we allow our circumstances to speak louder than truth. I stopped midway in my walk and asked God, “Is this You talking to me? Are You trying to tell me You are unhappy with me?” In one of the rare occurrences of my life when I knew for certain God was speaking to me clearly, He said, “Does this sound like something I would say?” Suddenly it was as if God interrupted my thoughts and took my memory to Romans, chapter 8. I was reminded that nothing can separate me from God’s love.
God’s primary desire in speaking is for eternal purposes
We limit God to this finite world when we fail to remember He is an infi nite God. When we try to discern God’s voice through the circumstances of life, we should consider how what happens around us fits into God’s eternal plan to save a lost world from destruction—and to mold His children into the image of His Son.
Hearing from God is critical for His children to know His will for our lives—whether we are the parishioners in the pews or the pastors in the pulpit. We must listen intently and carefully for His voice through the crowd of noises in the world in which we live. Thankfully God has not given up on us. He still speaks to His people today. Our mission is to learn how to hear His voice.