Life is full of decisions that do not have absolute, specific-by-name, how-to directions in the Bible. How many hours a day should my kids spend on screens? Is it okay to play certain video games? Am I allowed to go on a date with a coworker ? Is it okay to miss work because I stayed up too late the night before? We all have notions about the truth, but how do we know for sure that these ideas are coming from God? Am I hearing God? Or am I only hearing myself? Worse yet, am I hearing the temptations of Satan disguised as the leading of the Holy Spirit? Sometimes distinguishing our own ideas from God’s leading is difficult. And what if our urges are actually coming from the enemy of our souls and not from God? How do we “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5) when we aren’t sure where the thoughts are coming from?
Most commonly, God communicates through the Bible, His inspired Word, preserved through the centuries for us today. It is through the Word that we are sanctified (John 17:17), and the Word is the light for our path (Psalm 119:105). God can also guide us through circumstances (2 Corinthians 2:12), the promptings of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), and godly mentors providing wise counsel (Proverbs 12:15). If God wants to speak to us, nothing can stop Him. Here are some ways to discern the source of our thoughts:
If we are confused about whether or not we are hearing God, it is good to pray for wisdom (James 1:5). (It’s good to pray for wisdom even when we don’t think we’re confused!) We should ask God to make His will known to us clearly. When we pray, we “must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). If we have no faith, we “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:7).
Talk to God in prayer and earnestly wait for His answer. However, keep in mind that God doesn’t give us everything we desire, and sometimes His answer is, “N o.” He knows what we need at any given time, and He will show us what is best. If God says, “No,” then we can thank Him for the clarity of His direction and move on from there.
Study the Word
The Bible is called “God’s Word” for a reason—it is the primary way God speaks to us. It is also the way we learn about God’s character and His dealings with people throughout history. All Scripture is “breathed out by God” and is the guide for a righteous life (2 Timothy 3:16–17). While we speak to God in prayer, He speaks to us through His Word. As we read, we must consider the words of the Bible to be the very words of God.
Any thought, desire, inclination, or urge we may have must be brought to the Word of God for comparison and approval. Let the Bible be the judge of every thought. “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). No matter how urgent the urge, if it goes against what Scripture says, then it is not of God and must be rejected.
Follow the Holy Spirit’s Leading
The Holy Spirit is God—a divine Being with a mind, emotions, and will. He is always with us (Psalm 139:7–8). His purposes include interceding for us (Romans 8:26–27) and giving gifts to benefit the church (1 Corinthians 12:7–11).
The Holy Spirit wills to fill us (Ephesians 5:18) and produce in us His fruit (Galatians 5:22–25). No matter what decisions we’re making day to day, we can’t go wrong when we exhibit love, joy, peace, etc., to the glory of God. When we have a random thought pop into our heads, we must learn to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). Will following this inclination lead to more Christlikeness? Will dwelling on this thought produce more of the fruit of the Spirit in me? The Holy Spirit will never lead us to gratify the sinful desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16); He will always lead us toward sanctification (1 Peter 1:2). Life on earth is a spiritual battle. The enemy is eager to supply diversions to distract us from God’s will (1 Peter 5:8). We must be vigilant to ensure that what we heed is more than a feeling but is truly from God Himself.
Remember, God wants to show us the right path to take. He’s not in the business of hiding His will from those who seek Him.
Here are some good questions to ask as we examine whether or not we are hearing God: Are the promptings confusing or vague? God is not the author of confusion; He is the bringer of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). Do the thoughts go against God’s Word? God will not contradict Himself. Will following these promptings lead to sin? Those who “keep in step with the Spirit” have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24–25).
In addition, it is good to seek counsel from a Christian friend, family member, or pastor (Proverbs 15:22). Our pastors are there to help shepherd us: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).
God does not want us to fail. The more we listen to God, the better we will be at distinguishing His voice from the other noises in our heads. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, gives His promise: “He goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). Others may speak, “but the sheep [do] not listen to them” (verse 8). The better we know our Shepherd, the less we have to worry about heeding the wrong voice.