If we as Christians have a kind of spiritual experience, we may wonder whether it is a prompting from the Holy Spirit and how to process that experience. If it was God speaking to us, how do we know it was truly Him? Jesus figuratively describes his disciples as sheep who follow his voice (John 10).
For believers, the question is not whether or not God exists or still leads us today. That much is presupposed. The question is rather how. How does God speak to us today? Only in the Bible? Through the whims of our imagination? If we have some kind of spiritual experience, how do we know if we are hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, or if we are simply fabricating our own spiritual experience based on subjective personal desires?
Two Sides of the Coin
I used to have a pastor named Peter Fehr that would rarely answer my polarized questions directly. Instead, he would often wisely answer me by offering “two sides of the coin” for me to consider. I would like to follow in footsteps of Pastor Fehr and offer you “two sides of the coin,” or two extremes that I believe are important to avoid as we contemplate this topic together.
One Extreme: Lifeless Religion
One extreme in responding to work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our world is to deny the Spirit’s work altogether. While this extreme will typically acknowledge the Bible as important, the work of the Spirit can be blatantly ignored or totally denied.
In the Bible we see that fear is a typical response to an encounter with God and in some cases this resulted in people distancing themselves from God. In Exodus 20:18-21 we see the Israelites responding to an encounter with God by demanding that Moses should talk to God on their behalf because they were afraid. They made human barriers to keep the Lord at arm’s length. Sometimes we likewise create rules and forms of lifeless religion to help us do the same thing, insulating us from God.
Confuses Relationships with Formulas
What this extreme does is confuse living relationships with concepts and formulas. Instead of worshipping the living God, we end up worshipping systems, rules, and a lifeless religion of our own making. While rituals and religious systems can be tremendously helpful for us in our worship of the Lord, utilizing them to worship God is much different than falling into a worship of the rituals themselves.
If we only know about God without actually knowing and experiencing God, our faith is essentially worthless. Jesus talks about the future day of judgment where people will come to him who only appearto be his disciples (Matt. 7:21-23). His response to these individuals is sobering. He will say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
These individuals apparently never had a relationship with Jesus. It seems that it takes more than religion or outward action; it takes a relationship with Jesus, which will require some sort of personal encounter with the Lord.
This Doesn’t Mean
This does not mean that if we become a bit legalistic that we are somehow no longer Christians. Nor does it mean that we are unsaved because we don’t dramatically “hear God’s voice” as claimed by other people.
What this passage does, however, is provide a stark warning against relying on our own religious systems to get us into heaven. It is a warning to people in both extremes to come back to Jesus. We must not settle for a religion that worships rules and formulas—keeping a true relationship with God at bay. But neither should we settle for a religion that worships subjective or even manufactured experiences. Encounters with Jesus are necessary for this relationship, but the nature of that encounter, and the extremes we may see around us, are the point of this discussion.
Another Extreme: Endless Subjectivity
The other extreme is one that has little regard for the truths found in the Bible, and attaches an authoritative, “Thus saith the Lord” to anything one wants. It conflates and confuses one’s individual thoughts or feelings with the very voice of God, leading to endless subjectivity about the will, word, and work of the Holy Spirit.
For people caught in this extreme, the truths of the Bible are often denied in favour of fanciful visions and dreams. Interestingly, this extreme is also prone to idolatry. Rather than worshipping systems and rules, it worships dramatic and emotional experiences in place of the Lord, exchanging objective truth for subjective interpretations of experience.
Consider an example from the world news of 2016 of a man who was touring a South African national park with his church group when they came upon a pride of lions feeding on an impala. He got out of the vehicle and attempted to use the Holy Spirit to miraculously control the wild animals.
He was attacked and was taken to hospital for emergency surgery. He said, “I do not know what came over me…I thought the Lord wanted to use me to show his power over animals.” Obviously he misunderstood, which led to a physical injury, though perhaps his ego may have been hurt more than his body.
In a book called Holy Hunches, Bruce Main writes, “Sincere, pious, churchgoing people have acted on hunches that have brought scores of people destruction and ill will. Hunches have burned innocent people at the stake, sparked crusades, and led to genocide—all justified by someone’s interpretation of God’s calling.”
Because of the great danger of us getting things wrong, but inspired by the possibility of us getting it right, Main refers to listening for nudges of God as a “holy hunch,” a term both hopeful and humble. Main is open to God’s leading but also desires people to be cognizant of the damage that is possible.
It can be dangerous to brazenly declare that we have heard a message from God. This is not a new phenomenon; it also occurred in ancient Israel. Jeremiah 23:38-40 addresses false prophets when it says, “Although you claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ this is what the Lord says: You used the words, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ even though I told you that you must not claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord.’”
Oracles of severe punishment follow this statement for these false prophets. Just because one thinks that something is from the Lord does not necessarily make it so. Given the danger of misunderstanding spiritual experiences, one would be wise to be careful about how or if we claim something was from God.
All Kinds of Ways
In our response to what we suspect to be an encounter with God, we have the capacity to follow God’s leading to become His hands and feet in the world. There are many examples in the Old and New Testaments of God somehow communicating things to people in all kinds of ways leading to powerful ministry. If we are not careful, however, we could also become conduits of destruction because we let our own ideas get in the way of God’s.
Possible Ways Forward
In an article from The Gospel Coalition, Andrew Wilson offers several practical suggestions for better discerning what is and is not the voice of the Lord. To summarize, Wilson says we must check these experiences against the teaching of the Scriptures, against the character of Jesus as revealed in the Bible, that we should consult with our own spiritual leaders, church communities and on top of that examine the fruit of the experience.
Each of those points could be elaborated upon greatly. Suffice it to say, however, that these measures help prevent believers from being entirely subjective, providing some helpful safeguards against misinterpreting the voice of the Lord, and discerning if something is or is not from God. These measures also encourage believers to actively listen for the voice of God, in our experiences, church tradition and community, and especially in the Scriptures.
Continue Seeking The Lord
So how do we respond to what seems to be an encounter with God? Ignoring it out of fear is not a helpful option. Neither is blindly assuming that all such experiences are actually from God. In reference to 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, Francis Chan writes in Forgotten God, “Some conservatives may quench the Spirit by ignoring His working, but surely putting unbiblical words into the mouth of God is a form of quenching the Spirit as well.”
I believe that we must live in the tension created by these two extremes: refusing to ignore the authority of the Scripture on the one hand, and on the other hand refusing to ignore the voice of the Good Shepherd when he does, in fact, speak.
For some, moving forward might mean living more humbly, recognizing that God’s will is often drastically different from our own and submitting our experiences to the authority of the Bible. For others moving forward might mean to live more boldly, stepping out in faith when the Holy Spirit leads.
For all believers, this means responding to God’s voice when He calls, however he calls—responding and discerning not just as individuals, but as parts of a larger Christian community. So, by all means, listen for the voice of God both in the Bible and through the “holy hunches” given by the Spirit of God. Be bold, but also be humble that our lives may be truly obedient to the Lord and avoid the idolatry of both extremes.