Was That God?–Some thoughts on spiritual discernment.
Can people today still hear God’s voice? Does He still give visions and dreams?
In fact, the Lord expects His followers to be able to hear from Him, to be led by Him and to be able to discern whether a thing is of Him or not.
God is a person and He communicates to us as another person. If I’m talking to a friend I can recognize the distinction between my thoughts and hers because when she speaks to me, she speaks her mind to me, not mine. We may even think the same thoughts–but when she tells me what is on her mind, the thought comes from her and not from me. There is a quality of “otherness” present when we listen to others–called such to show that they are not me. Moreover, when I spend more and more time with a friend, I come to be able to know not only her voice, but also the way she thinks and the types of things she would say. For Christians, the Bible is our way of becoming well acquainted with the Lord’s voice and with His heart. By listening to Scripture, we learn how He expresses Himself, what He deems good or bad, and what is important to Him. So the first step in being able to discern God’s voice speaking to us will be to know what He has already spoken.
With respect to dreams, many people have very strange dreams with no spiritual significance whatsoever. They can often be a playing out of all the thoughts and feelings that we have not yet processed. But I don’t think the answer is to dismiss dreams entirely. Rather, we have to discern. I’ve found that the way to tell a spiritual dream from a dream arising out of our own soul is the same as recognizing the voice and leading of the Holy Spirit versus our own thoughts and feelings. We know what our own thoughts and feelings are like, and our own thoughts and feelings are not God, as overwhelming as they may be at times. For some there will come a time when they perceive a voice, a leading, a vision or a dream that they know is distinct in nature from their everyday thoughts, daydreams, and dreams. They will know that it wasn’t just a playing out of their own thoughts, wasn’t just a reflection of their own feelings. When that happens, it’s time to pray for an extra measure of discernment to be able to understand whether it was, in fact, from the Lord and if so, its meaning.
There’s no shortcut or guarantee to always getting it right when discerning whether something is genuinely from God. But I do think that remembering the principle of “otherness” is helpful in our discernment. We may have many thoughts and feelings that are perceptive and valid, but even our right thoughts and feelings are not God, even though we may have many thoughts and feelings in response to what He reveals.
Another discernment issue is recognizing the leading of the Spirit. God does not always speak or give a dream or a vision. Sometimes He simply moves, like the sound of a mighty rushing wind in Acts. The Gospels also tell us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to fast. And we are further told that the sons and daughters of God are those who are led by the Spirit of God. To be led by the Spirit must mean that we are followers. And if we are followers, then we are not walking after our own will and following our own ideas, but rather that of the leader. We may have great thoughts about how things should go, but we aren’t the leader, the Spirit is. And our job is to get on board with where He is going, not chart our own course.
We will also be able to perceive the presence of the Spirit where His fruit abounds within us. That fruit is: love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness, self-control. Galatians 5 tells us that when we are walking after the Spirit those qualities will characterize our lives. They are not habits or values to adopt–but fruit. It’s not something that we can strive for or control, but rather it’s a litmus test. If that fruit is not being produced in my life, then I’m not walking after the Spirit. If they are, then I am. So if I am attempting to discern how the Spirit is moving and whether He is truly present, I have to look for that fruit.
Sometimes we may be considering a move that by all human reason seems perfectly fine, but for whatever reason we have no peace regarding it. We may attempt to convince ourselves that this move is right, we may list out all the pros and cons, we might marshall the opinions of others to help prove that his is the correct decision. But peace may still be absent. I would take this lack of peace to heart because there will be times when even our best reasoning will not be enough to effectuate the will of God. God sees the beginning from the end and everything at once, but we have not only a limited slice of time, but we also only know certain details. We have to be willing to follow the Spirit when He is withdrawing His peace (essentially, when He is resisting us in our spirit, causing inner conflict). He knows infinitely more than we know, and God may also have a purpose in mind that we aren’t yet aware of.
It takes a lot of faith to believe that God is speaking to you or has revealed something to you. We must be discerning and quick to recognize what comes from the soul versus the spirit, and we must recognize the otherness of God. But we can’t let fear of getting it wrong stop us from listening to His voice, or heeding a dream or vision. So long as we are genuinely desirous of the truth, love the truth, and will believe the truth even if it goes against our own thoughts and feelings, God will give us truth and we will not be deceived.