Have you ever heard the voice of God? Without hesitation, there are some of you that can answer this with a resounding "Yes!" And I'm happy for you. But I'm also a bit jealous. In the twenty some years I've been a Christian, I can't recall a single time I've ever heard from God. At least, not directly. And never with 100% certainty like some of you.
On second thought, there was that one time at youth camp. It wasn't an audible voice. Just a nudge of sorts. But I was certain it was God speaking. Directly to me! And that is why I got up in front of everyone and shared that God had called me to full-time ministry. Which is crazy, considering that I liked to party and smoke weed. That I really wanted to go to school to be a physical therapist. And growing up I was, without a doubt, an introvert. At the time, I was so debilitatingly (spell check tells me this isn't a word, but I'm using it anyway) shy I would have rather cut off my own arm than stand in front of hundreds of my peers and divulge that kind of information.
For years I was certain the only explanation for any of this was that I heard directly from God. And the church reassured me of this. Time and again I had pastors, Sunday School teachers and college professors remind me that, to make a decision like that, God must have spoken to me. It seemed they had a pretty valid point. 14 hours of prayer. 18 hours preparing for Sunday's sermon. 10 hours doing outreach and evangelism. Counseling for another 10 hours. Home and hospital visits for 15 hours. 8 hours of community service. Various church and denominational meetings totaling 10 hours. Another 4 hours of anything else that needs done at the church. And last, but not least, 4 hours actually leading church services each week. I mean, what kind of nut-job would actually choose a career path that requires them to put in 114 hours each and every week?
Needless to say, I continued to believe that my desire to pursue full-time ministry had to be the direct result of God speaking to me. Which is why I changed my declared college major from pre-physical therapy to pastoral ministry. After four years of study, I inevitably landed my first (last and only) pastoral position. Coincidentally, upon leaving that church, doubt hit me hard. And, even though I realize doubt always seems to follow the moment your dreams are shattered (or is that just me), it hasn't let up much these last eight years. Doubt if I was, in fact, doing what God had told me. Doubt as to whether or not I actually heard from God that night at youth camp.
If I was just following God's voice, I can't help but wonder why things didn't work out differently? Why was I met with such opposition at the church? Why, after applying at 6 different churches since then have I not had a single interview? Why does it seem that will be the only position I ever hold in a church? Should I take this as a clear sign that God didn't actually speak to me about this sixteen years ago? It seems, according to most everyone in the church today, that when God speaks it is marked by great success. Everything works out in your favor. You win. If a venture fails, it was undoubtedly not from God.
But why wouldn't that be the case when Scripture indicates that "If God is for us, who can ever be against us?" (Romans 8:31) The only logical conclusion to draw from this is that following God will never lead to set-backs or failure, right? Well, I'm not certain this is such a great theology. And I wonder if those people that tell us "God told me..." and proceed to tell some story of great success have ever read the Bible? If they had, they might see that those that have done the bidding of God encountered more than their fair of pain, suffering, set-backs, rejection and failure. I guess what I'm trying to say is that when God speaks, it doesn't always seem to be rainbows and unicorns. At least, not according to the Bible.
To be quite honest, all of this has brought me to another important question. Does God still speak to us today? Not that I doubt he can. Nor do I doubt that he has. Clearly, God has spoken in the past. The Bible leads me to believe that he spoke directly to Abraham, Noah, Moses, David and Job (to name a few). But then God seems to stop speaking. Between the end of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and the beginning of the Christian New Testament writings there is a 400 year silence (unless you're Catholic). God doesn't speak. So, nothing is written. And this drought of Gods' voice continues throughout the New Testament. From my recollection, he doesn't speak directly to anyone, with the exception of "the voice from Heaven" at Jesus' baptism. Any time a message needs to be relayed, God sends an angel to do the talking or he uses Jesus.
It could very well be that is what people mean when they utter "God told me..." Maybe they don't literally mean God spoke to them. Perhaps it's just their way of conveying that the Bible shed light on the situation for them. Like the time Martin Luther King, Jr. said he heard Jesus telling him "I will be with you." As this is something Jesus promised, it wouldn't be too far a stretch to hear a voice making that declaration. I, too, have "heard" the promises of Scripture and found assurance, encouragement and conviction within it's pages. But to equate that with "God told me..." needs to be tread lightly. If my understanding is correct, Jesus is the Word of God, of which the Bible is an account. Unless you believe God literally dictated every single word of the Bible to the authors, "God told me..." is not an entirely accurate statement. (I happen to believe that the Bible contains the personality and words of the authors who were inspired by God.)
Or could it have been the message was from the Holy Spirit. I know, upon Jesus' departure he bestowed us the gift of the Holy Spirit. To guide us. To counsel us. To convict us. And to comfort us. And this is yet another way God speaks into each of our lives. But even this is a bit murky for me. Is that knot in my stomach the Holy Spirit doing its work? Maybe the goosebumps I get in certain situations? Or when the hair on the back of my neck stands up? I'm just not sure.
Which is why, anytime someone shares "God told me..." I cringe. Those three words bring out the skeptic in me. Maybe it's due to what I've just laid out. Perhaps it's because, as I said before, I'm not 100% certain I've heard directly from God. Then again, it might be that I've heard those words uttered as a sort of permission for all sorts of things. Things God shouldn't be put on the hook for. To quit a job. End a marriage. Make a financial investment. Take a huge risk. To exclude. To Discriminate. And to oppress. Did God actually speak? Who's to say it wasn't your conscience? Your own deep seeded desire? Individual bias? Prejudice? Indigestion from that microwave burrito? All to shirk responsibility?