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6 Ways to Tell if God is Speaking to You

Not Sure If I'm Thinking Or If God is Talking to Me

Don’t know how to tell if God is talking to you? It’s a common problem.

When I was a kid, folks at church taught me that God speaks to each one of us. I learned about Moses talking with the Burning Bush, and Paul’s blinding encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. These stories were inspiring, but they seemed so different from anything in my experience. I never heard voices, saw lights, or witnessed shrubberies bursting into flame and giving me terrifying instructions. (If I had, I’m sure my parents would have taken me to the psychiatrist immediately.)

It took me a long time to understand that God can speak in many ways, many of them far less flashy than the miracles recorded in the Bible. For me, I know God best through a deep intuitive knowing. A sense of truth and rightness beyond words. Still, that’s pretty subjective. It’s often hard to know for sure when I’m receiving a message from God, and when I’m lending way too much credence to my own personal feels.

In this post, I’ll lay out some time-tested criteria that Quakers and other Christians use to gain a better sense of whether a message in our lives is coming from God, or another source.

Moral Purity

The first test is that of moral purity. To carry out this test, just ask yourself honestly: This thing that you think God is telling you to do – would a kind, loving, fair person do that thing? If the answer is no, the message you’re sensing may not be from a divine source.

Patience

If the leading you’re sensing is morally upright, that’s a positive sign. Still, even good things can be twisted if not done for the right reasons. Another way to get a sense of whether the leading is from God is to see whether it is patient. Urgency is often a sign of the ego, rather than divine calling. Ask yourself: Do I have to act on this concern right now? Is it possible for me to wait? Will this leading still be valid in a day, a week, a month?

Consistency with the Bible

A third way to test a leading is to examine it in light of Scripture. Does your sense of God’s call mesh with the broad witness of the Bible? This is a complicated matter, because the Bible does not set out detailed instructions on every possible matter of discernment. Nevertheless, it’s good to check whether the leading seems consistent with the general thrust of the biblical witness. For example, leaving your spouse for another romantic partner might seem like a good idea, but a quick examination of the Gospels reveals that Jesus expressly spoke against this.

Resonance with Tradition

Of course, the Bible is best read and discerned together in community. The church community has produced tradition that can be helpful in evaluating possible divine promptings. It’s good practice to ask: How has your community handled this kind of leading before? Is this the kind of action that other respected members of the community – past or present – have engaged in? Just because a leading deviates sharply from the past practice of the community does not mean that it is wrong, but it is definitely a good reason to proceed with care.

Unity

Another very helpful test of a leading can be to share it with your community in Christ. Let them bring their discernment to the matter. This can be especially helpful with big leadings that tend to impact the community as a whole. Willingness to submit your leading to the discernment of the church is a sign of patience, which bodes well for the authenticity of the message.

The Cross

One other traditional test for possible divine leadings is whether it crosses our own will. That is, does this leading go against the grain of your personality? Is it something you would like to do for your own reasons, or does it actively contradict your self-will? A leading that calls you to confront your fears and engage with people and situations you would normally avoid is more likely to be genuine.

No Guarantees!

I’ve found these tests for useful in my own discernment, but there is no silver bullet. All of them can be gamed by the ego, whether the individual’s or the community’s. However, by taking the time to test our sense of God’s leading in these ways, it’s more likely that we’ll hear and respond in a way that brings us closer to God and blesses our life together.

How about you? What ways have you found to tell the difference between your own ego and the will of God?

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  • Daniel Wilcox

    Michael,

    Thanks for bringing up this tough subject. It makes me think of John Woolman and his efforts to seek for Quakers to realize the horror of what they accepted in the case of slavery.

    You make some strong points, especially the tests of “Moral Purity,” and “Patience.” If only Christians of my generation had followed these two guidelines so much tragedy, suffering, and heartache would have been avoided. And who’s to know how many wonderful, transforming changes would have come to humankind.

    But at 68, I still feel utterly lost when it comes to “knowing” God’s will. I spent many a year caught up in that honest and devout search. I read many Christian books on the topic especially in my teens and twenties. But, often, especially when I had to make major choices, and it wasn’t a question of moral purity, I felt like you mentioned: Why couldn’t we receive from God vivid, lightening-clear direction?

    In my experience, and after a life-time of involvement in the church (until recently), and a deep knowledge of Christian history, I am convinced that “Consistency with the Bible,” “Tradition,” and “Unity” don’t work, aren’t reliable, and often lead to horrific and evil consequences when followed.

    Since this is a comment, not my own blog:-) I won’t go into particulars. But suffice to say Christians have justified everything from slavery, to war, to torture, to slaughter of civilians, to persecution to_______ by quoting biblical events and the text, following tradition, and seeking unity. And all of that in my lifetime!

    Slavery wasn’t justified, Thank God, by Quakers, but by Calvinists. However all the others ethical issues I raised were strongly disagreed about even among Quakers, as well as other Christians. One Quaker Yearly Meeting my wife and I belonged to, in which I was a Quaker history, faith and practice teacher, actually defended the development and threatening use of nuclear bombs! Of course based on the Bible, Tradition, and Unity.:-(

    And I’ve been a member of a “liberal” yearly meeting. Bad news there too! when it comes to discerning God’s will.

    Among sincere Quakers there are extreme disagreements about spiritual gifts, prophecy, same sexuality, euthanasia, etc.

    How is the Friends’ statement “Christ has come to teach us himself” in any sense true?

    I finally threw in the towel:-(

    But I am glad that you are still seeking to live in God’s presence.

  • Jason

    Micah, many times I have had a leading that has gone against what my head has told me to do, but in a good way – calling me to be braver, kinder or just do things differently than I would have done otherwise, and it has turned out to be a better outcome than my original prejudice could ever have produced. So I would I would add one more to your list, albeit only guagable with hindsight: “Works out better than I could have done alone.” Learning to recognise these kind of leadings is difficult, but pays considerable dividends, in my experience.

    • That’s a great way to recognize a true leading after the fact, Jason! Those confirmations are very helpful in feeling secure in decisions made.

  • Quaker Girl

    Some of us do have visions and see the light. These experiences have been shown to be an important part of spiritual experience throughout Quaker and all of religious history and yet we marginalize these friends and push them to the sidelines calling them crazy though they are experiences what our core religious texts say are par for the course. Comments like “my parents would have sent me to a psychiatrist” undermine mystically oriented friends from growing into their gifts and letting their light shine, which I believe is the hope for all friends.