How can I know when it is God who is speaking to me?
Whenever we experience a sense of calling from God, we generally receive that experience with a degree of ambiguity. There are some markers that I look for in the process we call "discernment."
The primary marker is the presence of peace. Do I sense the presence of deep peace, even if there is conflict or threat overshadowing the circumstances?
There is a story of St. Ignatius of Loyola, if I remember it correctly. Ignatius was seriously injured in battle. During his convalescence, he found relief from his pain through his active imagination. Two fantasies particularly occupied him. In one, he imagined himself becoming a great knight and winning the hand of a beautiful lady. In the other, he imagined himself doing great works for Christ. Both fantasies gave him relief from his misery, but in the time that followed his active imagining, he discovered a remarkable difference in the quality of his consciousness.
After he quit picturing himself as a noble knight, he noticed that he was left without a sense of peace; he called it a feeling of desolation. After he quit thinking about doing deeds for Christ, there was an afterglow of peace, or consolation.
Each scenario gave him relief while he was actively thinking about it. But when he quit thinking, quit fantasizing and returned to regular consciousness, he noticed that one scenario left him peaceful and the other did not. After the hospital, he chose to live the rest of his life doing great things for Christ.
Whenever you are trying to discern the will of God, quietly sense the quality of your deepest being. Wait patiently. Maybe use your active imagination to create alternative choices. Again, wait patiently. Sense whether there is peace or confusion, consolation or desolation. Then do your best and trust God.
—The Rev. Lowell Grisham
The central focus of our faith is the belief that God has entered into conversation with us. The challenge is to be open to what God is trying to say to us. That is not always easy because we are bombarded with messages from many sources. Is it the voice of tradition or culture around us, rather than an authentic word from God? Determining that requires us to develop a stronger sense of spirituality. The deeper we go on our own spiritual search, the easier it is to hear the divine message. This search involves a lifetime commitment. The joy of the journey into the mind of God is that more and more we discover what God wants us to do with our lives. We are being addressed. God is waiting for our response.
How do we know when it is God speaking—that is the question. The first requirement is to check it out. The writer of First John advises us to, "…test the spirits to see whether they be of God." (I John 4:1). The first test is truth. God is the God of truth—all kinds of truth. The sad thing is that in the name of God, the church has sometimes done horrible things. Think of the people who were persecuted because they believed that the earth was not the center of the solar system. Remember Galileo? Much harm has been done by persons claiming to have the only answer to biblical interpretation. Such agonizing situations could be avoided if we would check out the facts. To do that requires a continuing commitment to learning. What has been proved to be true is God's message to us.
Another way to check things out is to listen to the voice of conscience. There is within each of us a sense of moral responsibility. One way of judging right from wrong is to ask the question, "How would I feel if every person in the world practiced the same code of ethics that I do?" Some call this the test of universality. A word of warning—conscience may not always lead us to do the right thing. In the name of conscience, the most heinous crimes against humanity have been committed. We have the capacity for moral decision-making. Our challenge is to cultivate the highest code of ethics.
Perhaps the most important check on whether God is speaking is the Law of Compassion. Jesus gave us the supreme demand, "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:36) Whenever we are confronted with a human being in need, we can be sure that the call of God is there for us to do whatever we can to help.
In our Christian faith, we believe that Christ has set for us the pattern of a life lived in devotion to God and in dedication to ministering to human need whenever it confronts us. As we search for truth and open ourselves to God's presence in prayer and meditation, we will discover more completely what God is trying to say to us.
—The Rev. Dr. Brooks Ramsey
The way I "check out" what I believe God is saying to me is by exploring both history and current events. Studying the Bible provides historical perspective...keeping in mind Jesus' message of love. Acknowledging God's hand in my life in times past is my second historical view. Next I talk with people whom I trust to be honest and truthful. The most difficult to explain is my "gut feeling." Is my discomfort caused by a fear of the unknown or God's leading me in another direction? I believe that God created our minds and expects us to use them. The scripture says if we seek we will find, if we knock the door will be opened. The most difficult part is having the courage to move forward through the open door. Sometimes moving forward is simply taking one small step and then remaining open to God's leading.
When I was growing up, people around me received messages from God. Then these holy savants would tell everybody. Some heard deep booming voices, as if God were calling from inside a hole. Others saw what I imagined as a huge billboard, flashing with lights like a Broadway marquee: "You've seen the Lord. Go forth and brag about it." In smaller print beneath the headlines: "For the Jesus hotline dial 4-h-e-a-v-e-n." Others heard celestial music and claimed to have seen Jesus hovering over them like a Blackhawk helicopter, perhaps calling, "Join Jesus' army today!" These vision-seeing, voice-hearing people quickly informed me that unless I was experiencing similar phenomena, I was not a Christian. If God had not swooped down and yelled for me— like the announcer on the Price is Right, "This is God. Come on down!"—then I could not call myself one of them, a Christian.
I wanted to hear God speak to me. I wanted to say with certainty, the certainty of seeing visions and hearing voices, that I was a Christian. I imagined God in a game of chase, tagging me as one of them, a Christian. But the fact is I didn't see flashing lights, I didn't hear deep baritone voices, and I didn't see a flying Jesus.
I figured that I did something bad, something wrong, not to be seeing things. I tried hanging at home more; maybe He had been calling while I was out. I said extra prayers in case there was a prayer quota to meet before you were let in. I gave extra in the offering plate, hoping my generosity would speed up the process. I even dragged myself to a tent revival, but I couldn't go down the aisle to the screaming, baptizing evangelist because I wasn't seeing lights or hearing voices or feeling the spirit. I stopped listening for God's call and stopped waiting for a flying Jesus.
Instead of a holy transmission over some intergalactic PA system or that flying Jesus calling out to me in a stopped moment of time, I finally heard God's call swell up from a forgotten place, inside me. After all the waiting and wanting, the voice that called was my voice, soft and weak, crackly and unsure, hesitant and afraid. I knew this forgotten voice was indeed God's because it rose above the noise around me—the noise of our culture's dos and don'ts and shoulds, the noise of my making plans and controlling situations, the noise of others saying who was Christian and who was not.
In a moment that resolved all past confusion and discouragement, I realized that this voice, God, had been having a conversation with me all along, like Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz having on those red shoes, all along. Because I was focused on the call coming in a Hollywoodesque way, on wanting to know when it would happen, on thinking with my head instead of my heart, on getting what I wanted when I wanted it, I couldn't hear God's voice deep inside of me, all along.
Hearing God's voice was like being beaten up in a back alley. I fell into a dark empty place wrought with hangovers and unsoothable sadness, out-of-control anger and tears, mixed-up thoughts, lost smiles and forgotten happiness. This stormy place laid bare in me the raw understanding that I would need help to resurrect myself, to find me. The journey of learning to recognize God's voice was exhausting, and confusing, and humiliating, maddening, frustrating, and embarrassing. I didn't have time for these problems. This detour was not part of my plan, my carefully scripted scheme.
This dark disturbing experience stripped away the deafening noises dampening His voice in me. By giving up my plan, my answers, my timetable, my agenda, I was able to create enough space in my thick, hurting head to remember that I am a child of God. I was tagged by God when I was born. God's visions and God's voices came into being with me, as part of me. My back alley mugging allowed me to stop living my plan; to listen and to hear; to see the present; to live this day.
I knew that it was God speaking to me because I could hear myself call back and my spirit became light. Years of heaviness were lifted from me. The burdens of doing the right thing, of being chosen, of forcing my way down a path ceased, and I was stilled. A new yet wobbly courage started to live in me, and I became comfortable in my own skin, in my own circumstances. I felt safe and certain and grateful. Nothing around me had changed, but everything was different.
I knew that it was God's voice speaking to me because I could smile again.
How do I know when it is God who is speaking to me? By testing the "message" against Christian tradition, Biblical understanding, and talking about it with trusted friends.