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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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