Discerning God’s Word – Principles and Practices

Principles and Practices for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a pastor / friend who was asking if I would help his congregation learn how to listen to and discern God’s voice. Previously I had done a sermon at a mutual friend’s church on the importance of learning to listen to God. In that sermon, I made the following statements:

[After we begin to sense that God is speaking to us…] Finally we attempt to discern – Is this God speaking or is it just my own thoughts – how we do that is a topic for another day.

 

My friend said – “That is the sermon I want you to preach and teach at our church.”

 

I thought that it would be good to list the basic principles, insights, and general guidelines that I have learned over the years. So I would like to post these one at a time and see where this goes. Let me know if this is helpful by liking the ones that work. Remember as we look at this, that, as Dallas Willard says: “discerning God’s voice is essentially just one dimension of a certain kind of life, the eternal kind of life, a life lived in conversational relationship with God.” I think it is important to start with what we can glean from scripture about this whole process of discerning whether what we are sensing is from God or not. So fasten your seat belt – here we go.

Part 1: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer

Testing
Oftentimes while teaching on Listening Prayer, I ask the following question:
How do you know that the Bible is the word of God?

 

I find it surprising that many do not know the way the Jews determined the Hebrew canon and the ways the early church determined what should go into the New Testament canon. Although no single criteria was used, what we do know is that each text was carefully looked at and tested to see if it was actually the word of God. The tests varied – but testing for authorship; testing to see if it has passed the test of time; testing for alignment with the rest of Scripture were all part of the vetting process.
In the same way – one way to know that what you are receiving from God is to test it over time. Does it bear positive fruit in your life? (more on that later) Does it align with scripture? Is there a quiet persistence to it as compared to an urgent demand? Does it convict while not condemning and does the conviction bring real transformation? But of all the criteria that we will discuss, the most important is time. Does what you hear stand the test of time?
For more on this, see chapter 11 “Is that You Lord?” in my book: Listening to God Together (check it out on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Listen…/dp/1973148633/ref=sr_1_2…
Let me know some of the ways you test what your receive from God in prayer.
Supporting Scripture:
1 John 4:1-3 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.
Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
1 Thessalonians 4:20-21 Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.

Part 2: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer

Confirming Circumstances

Another way that we can discern that God is speaking to us is when there are circumstances that confirm what we have heard after we have heard it. We see this in the life of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was told by God to buy a particular piece of land from his cousin while all of Israel was under siege and in imminent danger of having the land seized by the invaders. Certainly not a wise investment. So Jeremiah had ample reason to doubt what he thought he heard from God. When his cousin came to him and offered to sell to him the exact piece of land, Jeremiah said:

Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. Jeremiah 32:8

Too many followers of Jesus turn it around and interpret circumstances as the word of the Lord before they have received the word of the Lord. I know of no place in scripture where God’s people use circumstances alone as the word of the Lord. For example: “I wasn’t thinking about changing jobs but this head hunter called and offered me this incredible position in California. It is so good and we need the money, it is truly a God-thing. All the circumstances worked out for us to leave here and move to California.” Certainly God uses circumstances to get our attention – but it must be either preceded or followed by the coming confirmation of the inner witness of the word of God. Not just a perfect alignment of circumstances. Confirming signs are to follow us – not the other way around with us following the signs. God is the one “who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,” (Isaiah 44:26).

Supporting Scripture

Deuteronomy 9 5Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Jeremiah 11 4bListen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God,that I may confirm the oath that I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as at this day.” Then I answered, “So be it, Lord.”

Jeremiah 32 And Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle is coming to you, saying, “Buy for yourself my field which is at Anathoth, for you have the right of redemption to buy it.”’ Then my uncle’s son Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard in accordance with the word of the Lord and said to me, ‘Buy my field, please, that is at Anathoth, which is in the land of Benjamin; for you have the right of possession and the redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

Mark 16 19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.

2 Peter 1 19And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,

Part 3: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer

Inner Witness

The inner witness is the most difficult one to describe and to apply. Unlike testing and circumstances that we talked about in Part 1 and Part 2 which are external, this comes from within and is the most subjective. But it can be the most powerful. Even the Westminster Confession recognizes this when it states:

our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

Although speaking about how we become persuaded and assured by the written word of God, this principle directly applies to listening to God’s voice. Here are a few things that have helped me discern when the Holy Spirit is bearing witness with my spirit that a word I have heard in prayer is from God:

    1. When there is a recognition that it is not my thought – Very often, there is something about the inner witness that sounds different from my own thoughts. Tricia Rhodes says it like this: “we are aware that a voice other than our own has joined our thoughts.” And Philip Yancey “As I persist at prayer, I recognize an answering partner who takes up the other side of the dialogue, a kind of internal alter ego representing God’s point of view.”
    2. When it brings a new insight – Oftentimes God brings a new insight into a dilemma, a relationship, or a decision that was previously not known.
    3. When it brings a sense of peace The peace of God is truly remarkable. It goes beyond our ability to comprehend it. When a word comes in prayer, a good way to discern if it is from God, is whether with it comes that wonderful peace. We may still be anxious about the future – but over and above that anxiety is the deep and unmistakable peace of God. Remember the peace belongs to Him. It is His peace. The apostle Paul tells us to let the peace of God “rule in our hearts.” Not rule as a dictator, but the Greek literally means to “act as arbiter in the games” or to be the umpire.
    4. When it has a ring of truth and quiet authority – There is something about a true word from God that carries with it an authority unlike any worldly authority. The crowds recognized this with the words of Jesus. We can discern that what we have received from God is truly from Him because it has that ring of true truth and solid authority.
    5. When it confirms something that God has said before – One of the reasons we encourage people to write things down that they receive from God is because God is quite persistent when He is communicating with His children. He may have spoken the same word before to you – perhaps in a different way but still the same idea. We can discern that a word is true because He has been speaking about this for a while.

Supporting Scripture

Matthew 7 28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.

Colossians 315And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

Romans 8 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God

1 John 2 26 I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. 27 But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.

Part 4: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer

Recognize His Voice

One of the key principles in discerning God’s voice in prayer, is that, over time, we learn to recognize God’s voice. Just as a mother can recognize the voice of her child over a cacophony of voices on a playground, we can learn to recognize the voice of God in the midst of a myriad of other distractions. We are not talking about an audible voice. We are talking about discerning the still small voice of the Spirit speaking in our spirit. Even Jesus had to have his ear woken up and unstopped so that He could recognize the Father’s voice and know what He was saying (Isaiah 50:4-8 – see my sermon from February 2020 for more details about this).

When our spirits are made alive through new birth, we are like a little baby. The little baby recognizes the voice of her parents with growing understanding. It starts out slow, but over time she recognizes the voice of the mother and the father. Initially the child takes comfort just in the voice but with no recognition as to what is being said. And as time passes, the child eventually begins to understand what the parent is saying. In a similar way, initially our recognition of God’s voice is minimal – but with experience, we grow in both recognition and understanding. As Jesus said in John 10:

3bThe sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voiceA stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Dallas Willard said in his book, Hearing God:

when God speaks and we recognize the voice as his voice, we do so because our familiarity with that voice enables us to recognize it. We do not recognize it because we are good at playing a guessing game.

[the still small voice] bears the stamp of his personality quite clearly and in a way we will learn to recognize … [and] the medium through which the message comes is diminished almost to the vanishing point, taking the form of thoughts that are our thoughts, though these thoughts are not from us.

All of this talk about the required experience and “learn to recognize” should make us humble and recognize with Thomas Merton that we will “never be anything but beginners all our life” at discerning God’s voice.

Do you remember the time God spoke to Jesus and others thought that it thundered and still others the voice of an angel? It is one thing to hear His voice, it is another to know His voice.

Supporting Scripture

Isaiah 50 4The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.

John 10 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me

John 12 27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

Part 5: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer

Deepening our Relationship with Jesus

1 Samuel 3And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

When my friend asked me to teach his congregation to listen to God and to be able to discern whether what we “hear” is from God, I said that the most important way to help a congregation discern what is of God and what is not, is by deepening their relationship with Jesus. The more we get to know the living Word of God in a deep and personal way, the more easily we can discern truth and error. The boy Samuel could not tell that it was God speaking because he didn’t “know the Lord.” The implication is that once Samuel knew the Lord, he could recognize when He was speaking. The apostle John, who spent much time resting his head on Jesus, recorded these words of Jesus in John 8:31-32:

 

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

 

Get to know the words of Jesus recorded in the scriptures. Get to know the heart of Jesus from His words and His deeds. Get to know the person of Jesus by meditating on every aspect of His life, His death, His resurrection and His ascension. Spend time picturing yourself resting your head on Jesus. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, our ability to discern what we “hear” in prayer will grow.

This is not unlike our relationship with any other person. Much misunderstanding in communications with others can be avoided the more we know the other person. For example, our communications with each other are often incomplete and confusing. A husband might say: “We need to make sure we keep all the food off the counter because it is the season for ants.” The wife might hear that as a criticism of the way she keeps the counters clean. But if she knows that the husband not only loves her but honors the way she keeps house, no confusion will arise.

For example, as you get to know Jesus in the scriptures, one of the things you learn about Him is that He doesn’t argue with people. Listen to the words of E. Stanley Jones:

The voice of the subconscious argues with you, tries to convince you; but the inner voice of God does not argue, does not try to convince you. It just speaks, and it is self-authenticating. It has the feel of the voice of God within it.

Another example from our own relationships is how two people who are very close know what the other is thinking without even a word being spoken. That should be our goal in our relationship with Jesus. We should know what is of Him because we deeply know Him.

The apostle Paul prays for the Ephesians and us that:

 we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, (Ephesians 4:13)

May our relationship with Jesus and our knowledge of Him become fully mature – filled with Christ.

Additional Supporting Scripture

John 14 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. [Note how Jesus ties knowing Him with understanding His words.]

Ephesians 1 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, [ Note: as we grow in our knowledge of Him, we gain wisdom and revelation to discern] 

1 Peter 3 take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. [Note that knowledge of Jesus prevents us from being “carried away” with error.]

Part 6: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer

The Written Word of God

It goes without saying that the written word of God takes precedent in all of the times we are discerning God’s voice in prayer. Without question, if you hear something that you think is from God in prayer and it doesn’t line up with the truth revealed in the Bible, you know that you are not hearing from God.

But it is not always quite that easy. In my life, I don’t think I have ever heard anything from God in prayer that didn’t line up with the written word of God. Our retreat team has sat with thousands of people on retreat over the past 30 years. In very few cases did the folks on retreat hear something that didn’t align with God’s written word. And that is not because all of the individuals on retreat were well schooled in the Scriptures. So, this section is not positioned towards the end of this document because it is less important, it is because it rarely comes into play.

For purposes of discerning God’s voice in prayer, I would divide the Scriptures up into four parts: the law of God; the God ordained principles that we can glean from Scripture; the ecclesiastical instructions given in Scripture; and the theological understanding revealed in Scripture (who is God and who is man).

The Law of God

Years ago, there was an ad on TV that promoted the wearing of seat belts. The ad ended with a man clicking his seat belt in place with the words: “It’s the law.” At that time, I was talking with a friend at church about tithing. He motioned like he was buckling his seat belt and said: “It’s the law.”

Some people would say that God will not speak to us in prayer about anything that violates the law of God. That would give the apostle Peter trouble discerning when he heard in prayer: “Rise Peter, kill and eat [these unclean animals].”[1] This clearly violated the dietary law of God as Peter knew it. So the question is: Which laws? Traditionally, dating back to Irenaeus (c. 170 AD), Christians have seen three types of Old Testament law: the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial. We find this characterization in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and the reformers. According to this perspective, the only part that we as Christians are required to keep is the moral law. The moral law was given not just for the people of Israel, but for all people because it is rooted in the character of God and His design for creation. And, in fact pre-dates the Law. The other two types of law were just for Israel.  For our purposes, let’s go on the assumption that this is true: We can discern that something is not from God if it calls us to violate the moral law revealed in Scripture. For now, we won’t worry if you sense God calling you to make a pork roast for your family dinner.

But what exactly is the moral law? Has any denomination or church codified it? Certainly, it is not Immanuel Kant’s definition of the moral law.[2]  I think some of us are like Supreme Court Justice Black who when talking about pornography said: “I know it when I see it.”[3] We know what the moral law is instinctively.  But is that true? In the age of the Spirit, post-Pentecost, God has promised to write His law upon our heart.[4] I would say: Yes, the moral law is written upon the heart of every believer. The apostle Paul also said that non-believers actually know God’s righteous decrees.[5] Paul even  says that the moral law is written on the hearts of non-believers.[6] That is another matter. But for this article, let’s keep the argument concerning only followers of Jesus who are listening to God in prayer. Even as believers, we don’t always have a pure heart and a pure channel to that law written upon our heart. Using the moral law of God written upon our heart as a means of discerning truth and error brings us back to a more subjective approach to discerning the voice of God in prayer. It works but is not black and white given our own propensity to follow our own ways (which are not God’s).

I would say that a vast majority of the moral law is clearly understood. Nine of the ten commandments could be considered the foundation of the moral law of God (Sabbath keeping is considered by some to be rescinded under the New Covenant). But take a pretty clear cut-command like: “You shall not murder.” You are a believer who has been drafted into your country’s army. You will be trained to kill your enemy. Is that murder? Or take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s role in the assassination of Adolf Hitler. Or the command: “You shall not steal.” Is there ever a time that God would tell you to steal something? Was stealing a slave from his cruel master ever permissible. Might God have led you to work for the underground railroad in the mid-nineteenth century? Even stealing has some areas of nuance.

We could go on and on with examples. But, although there are nuances, we can generally use the moral law as revealed in Scripture as a means for discerning God’s voice in prayer. See Appendix A for my attempt to codify the moral law of God.

Biblical Principles

The Bible is chock full of wonderful principles that help order our lives. The book of Proverbs certainly has its share of principles. For example, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”[7] I have found this a wonderfully practical principle that has helped me many times. But can we use it to help us discern what we think God might be saying to us in prayer. Might God ever call us to a hard answer? I am fully convinced that there are times we are to deliver the hard answer and it may incur wrath. Certainly, Jesus gave a few hard answers in His day and wrath certainly followed.

Turning to one example from the New Testament, Paul writes to the Galatians a principle that seems to be at the top of Paul’s list of Godly principles: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”[8] This is such a priority to Paul, he says that when we do this, we fulfill the law of Christ. But can we use this to help us discern God’s voice in prayer? Might God direct us not to carry another brother or sister’s burden that has come to our attention? Of course. Right now, age and a health issue in my family are preventing me to invest in my brothers and sisters as I once did. In this season, I cannot carry my brother and sister’s burdens. This past week, an elderly neighbor shared his newly discovered health issues. I wanted to tell him – “Any time you need a ride or some help with something – let me know.” But in prayer, I realized I could not share his burden.

So what can we say about using Biblical principles in discerning God’s voice in prayer? Two things: First, we need to recognize things that are essentials in the Scriptures. Many denominations and independent churches do a good job identifying those. (Many do not). We need to make sure that we understand those essentials and use those to weigh what we are hearing from God. Is believer baptism one of those essentials? Is an elder led church an essential? (More on this in the next section.) Many things in Scripture are principles that not essential. A principle, can, at times be fungible. I believe that God may direct us to do something that goes against a principle in Scripture. For example, it is a principle that we are to give our monetary offerings to God first – not give Him what is left over. This makes a lot of sense too. As humans, our wallets (and bank accounts) tend to leak. So, giving up front is not just a Biblical principle, it works well given our nature. But it is possible that God may direct you for a time, to not practice that good principle.

That brings up the second thing: What principles in Scripture are fungible? The apostle Paul makes an interesting statement in his letter to the Romans. In talking about eating food that was sacrificed to idols:

Romans 14: 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

Remember that the council of Jerusalem specifically said to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols.”[9] The council puts it in the category with abstaining from sexual morality. Clearly, we don’t consider abstaining from sexual morality a fungible principle. Who would say: “If you commit adultery – but are doing it believing by faith that God has given you the go-ahead, then it is not sinning!” Of course, Paul was not defining what is not sin, but what is sin in this letter. Herein is the difficulty and some guidance.

First some guidance.  We need to take Paul’s statement about doing everything in faith very seriously. If we receive something that we believe is from God (given the principles and practices outlined here), we need to act on it in faith. If we act on it without believing it is from God and thinking that it is wrong, that is sin. Or if we don’t act on it even though we believe it is from God, that is also sin.

The difficulty is that I believe that most of the Biblical principles are fungible. They are the way we are to order our lives. But they are not hard and fast rules. We need to read the entire Bible and be looking for the Biblical principles upon which we are to live our lives. That is because I believe they reflect God’s heart for mankind. But they are not laws. Knowing the breadth of these principles will bode us well as we live our lives. But we cannot use them to discern God’s voice in prayer.

That said, when we sense God saying something that goes against one of these Biblical principles, we need to go into it with our eyes open. Know that God is calling you to an exception. We need to be a little more diligent is using our other principles and practices to discern: “Is that really You, God?

Ecclesiastical Instructions

There are many things written in the Scripture about the operation of God’s ecclesia: the Church. The ordering of worship, the appointing of elders, baptism, church discipline and so on are all described in Scripture. These are not exactly laws nor can they exactly be considered general principles. How are we to use what the Scripture teaches on these issues to discern God’s voice in prayer?

Let me give you two examples. Imagine that you are part of a Reformed denomination that believes in infant baptism. You believe God has shown you through the scriptures that believer baptism is the proper approach to baptism. As a result, when your child is born, you and your spouse decide to dedicate them to the Lord. In prayer, you hear God saying that you should submit to your elder’s interpretation of the Scripture – which would mean that you would baptize your infant child. You sense Him telling you that by dedicating your child you would bring disunity within this particular church. How does one use the written word of God to discern whether what you are hearing is from God in that case? Could God be speaking to you about something that goes against what you think the Scripture says? Is the solution more study of the Scripture? Perhaps – but I have some very studious pastor friends who fall on opposite sides on this issue. I am not sure more study is the solution. What is the right path in using the Scriptures in this case?

Here is another example. Imagine that you believe that God has ordered and structured the church in such a way that it should be run by a plurality elders. You have moved to a new town and like the local Anglican church. It is alive. It preaches the gospel. The people love one another. There are new believers regularly being added to the flock. But it is not governed by elders. You join the church and after a few years join a church plant team to form another Anglican church in a nearby town. You and your spouse discern in prayer that God is calling you to join this team. But you will be starting a church that is not elder led. How does one use the Scripture to discern in this case? Could God be speaking to you to go against the Ecclesiastical instruction to “appoint elders.”[10]

I believe that Ecclesiastical instructions cannot help us discern what we hear in prayer for the same reasons I gave for fungible principles. They are given to help us order the church such that it will flourish but they are not hard and fast laws.

The Theological Understanding

One of the most important disciplines in listening prayer, is spending time in God’s presence – letting Him reveal who He is and who we are. In fact, I believe that it is the primary thing God wants to reveal to us in prayer. God uses the written word of God as His primary vehicle to reveal who He is and who we are. But it is through words that He speaks to us that makes these words come alive. Thus, the written word of God must be used to help us discern what we are hearing in these areas. Although there is not complete agreement across all of Christendom, there is a lot of consensus about the basics of who God is and who we are.

    • God is one.[11] He is the sovereign creator[12] and sustainer of all things.[13] He is perfect in holiness.[14] He has existed for all of eternity in three unique persons:[15] Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At His very essence, He is love.[16]
    • God the Father is Spirit[17] and is the life-giver[18], the Almighty[19] one and supreme authority over all creation.[20] He is the one who fulfills the father role to us His children. He is the initiator of the redemption of mankind.[21]
    • Jesus Christ is the living Word made flesh.[22] He is the image of the invisible God.[23] Through Him and for Him all things were made[24] and are held together by the word of His power.[25] He is the King of Kings who will one day give all authority back to the Father.[26]
    • The Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of all those who are born again.[27] He is a distinct person of the Godhead. He mediates the presence of Jesus wherever He goes.[28] He is actively convicting the world of sin and of righteousness.[29] He bestows gifts on His people.
    • Man is made in the image of God but has been irrevocably broken by sin which no man repair. Only through regeneration by the Spirit of God can things be set right. At our core, we are loved by God even in our broken state.

These Biblical truths about God and man (and the many other truths in Scripture) should be used to help us discern what we hear in prayer. Anything that we hear in prayer that goes against who God is and who we are as revealed in Scripture can be dismissed. For example, if we were to hear God say that we are unlovable, we would know that this violates both who God is and who we are as revealed in Scripture. The apostle John uses the litmus test of the historical fact of Jesus coming in the flesh for discerning truth and error.[30] Anything that we hear that denies that Jesus, the second member of the Trinity did not come in the flesh is clearly not from God.

Even here, there can be some challenges. I believe that the Scriptures reveal a Triune God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not just one God wearing three masks. That is called modalism and is rejected by most of Christendom. But I have brothers and sisters in Christ that are not Trinitarian. And even though the Scriptures appear to reveal a God in three distinct persons, this understanding has come through man’s interpretation of a number of Scriptures. What would you do if you heard from God: “Hear child! The Lord is One. Although I have revealed myself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – yet I remain as one and the same.” We could immediately reject it based on what we have been taught. But I believe that if I were to hear that, I would take it as an invitation to dig more deeply into the Scriptures and how others have come to see God as Three persons in one.

Summary

How does one use the written word of God to discern if what we hear in prayer is from God? I believe that God wants us to so soak in the written word of God that we truly know the heart of God. And that as much as possible, we are to strive to have the heart of God as revealed in Scripture etched on our heart. Where we know the moral law inside and out – not just the letter of the moral law but the spirit of the moral law. We are to grow in our knowledge of all of the principles God has revealed in Scripture. And, as we soak in the word, we come to a full understanding of who God is and who we are. With this heart, we are then able to take the whole counsel of God into the discernment process. We can discern when a higher law may be involved. If we hear something from God that violates either one of the fungible principles or goes against the moral law of God while fulfilling what you sense is a higher part of the moral law, we need to take extraordinary care. More time in prayer, more time with other believers discerning together and more careful self-examination of your motives and your own heart on the matter are required. Finally, we must strive to maintain a posture of humility in our listening. Even after all of this, we may be wrong.

Appendix A

A brief summary of the moral law of God

    • Love God and Love Neighbor  (Luke 10:27 Paul calls this “the Royal law” Jesus said: “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” Matthew 22:40)
    • The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12 Jesus said: “For this is the Law and the Prophets”)
    • Love one another (John 15:12 – a special command to the community of faith)
    • Have only one God (Exodus 20:3)
    • No Idolatry (Exodus 20:4-6)
    • No Blasphemy (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 24:14,16, 23)
    • Honor parents (Exodus 20:12)
    • No Murder (Exodus 20:13)
    • No Adultery (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22)
    • No Stealing (Exodus 20:15)
    • No Lying (Exodus 20:16)
    • No Coveting (Exodus 20:17)
    • No Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)
    • No Sorcery and Witchcraft (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 13:5, 1 Samuel 28:9)
    • No Bestiality (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:16)
    • No Incest (Leviticus 18:6-18, 20:11-12,14,17,19-21)
    • No Homosexual acts (Leviticus 20:13)
    • No Sexual immorality (Acts 15:29)

Notes

 

[1] Acts 10:13

[2] “human action is only morally good if it is done from a sense of duty, and that a duty is a formal principle based not on self-interest or from a consideration of what results might follow.”

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_know_it_when_I_see_it#:~:text=The%20phrase%20was%20used%20in,for%20obscenity%20in%20Jacobellis%20v.&text=Though%20%22I%20know%20it%20when,himself%20in%20his%20short%20concurrence. Seen on May 24th, 2021

[4] Jeremiah 31:31-34

[5] Romans 1:32

[6] Romans 2:14-15 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

[7] Proverbs 15:1

[8] Galatians 6:2

[9] Acts 15:29

[10] Titus 1:5

[11] Deuteronomy 6:4

[12] Genesis 1:1

[13] Psalm 55:22

[14] Leviticus 11:44-45

[15] The trinity is whispered in the Scriptures not proof texted

[16] 1 John 4:8

[17] John 4:24

[18] John 5:21

[19] Genesis 17:1

[20] 1 Corinthians 15:28

[21] John 3:16; Isaiah 63:16-17

[22] John 1:1

[23] Colossians 1:15

[24] Romans 11:36; Colossians 1:16

[25] Hebrews 1:3

[26] 1 Corinthians 15:28

[27] Romans 8:11

[28] John 15:26

[29] John 16:8

[30] 1 John 4:2

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