Do we need to “hear from God” before we make a decision? And what if we have a friend who claims to have heard God’s voice on something, but we think they are mistaken? How do we question their decision without undermining their faith? This is a really sharp question from a listener named Matt.
“Pastor John, I have a question about addressing issues with people who have prayed about a certain decision and feel that God spoke to them. Is there a way to lovingly push back when this seems like what they apparently ‘heard’ from God seems like a poor choice? How do you critique their choice without shaking their faith and making them doubt their ability to ever hear from God?”
Well, I would go through five steps with them, perhaps. This may be over time rather than in the moment. But these are things you need to establish with the person in order to help them understand this rightly.
1. Scripture Is Supreme
The first thing I want to establish is that Scripture trumps spiritual gifts. The principle is found in 1 Corinthians 14:37–38, where Paul says this: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”
“The normal pattern of discerning God’s will is a transformed mind that assesses with the instincts of God by the Spirit through the word.”
Now, remember, he’s saying that to prophets: “If anyone thinks he’s a prophet.” So this is a person who claims that because he’s spiritual, or because he has a close tie-in with God, he has a word from God about something he should do or say. Paul is saying, “Now wait a minute. If I say something that preempts what you just said, you need to submit to what I say because I’m writing Scripture as an authorized apostle.”
Now, the implication of that for us is we have the New Testament as the apostolic deposit. Therefore, that is the criterion for assessing whether someone has discerned truly the will of God.
If you perceive that a person is about to do something because they think they have a hotline to heaven, or a word of prophecy, or a word of knowledge, or some kind of dream or vision, and yet it is unwise on scriptural grounds, then on this principle, you can ask them to reconsider, not because you don’t think God can speak today, but because you have been told by God how to discern what is true and wise and what’s not.
2. Normal Pattern
The normal Christian pattern of discerning God’s will is by a transformed mind that assesses things with the instincts of God by the Spirit through the word. Let me show you what I mean. Romans 12:1–2 says,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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.
I’m arguing that there is, in Romans 12:2, an implicit normative pattern for discerning the will of God. The implicit normative pattern is to be transformed in the renewing of your mind. You can study how that happens by the Spirit through the word in the writings of Paul. But that’s different than a sudden breaking in of a word from outside. I would try to encourage somebody to develop this as their normal pattern of discernment.
Here it is again in Philippians 1 in Paul’s prayer: “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9). Now, why would you want your love to abound with knowledge and all discernment?
He answers in Philippians 1:10: “So that you may approve” — that’s the same word as back in Romans 12 — “what is excellent.” How do you know what the excellent path is? There’s a fork in the road and one path is to be chosen over the other. How do you discern the excellent path?
He continues, “that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness” (Philippians 1:10–11). That’s what we want. We want our lives to have been marked by making righteous choices and bearing righteous fruit.
This text says it comes by your love being supplemented with, or informed by, knowledge and discernment so that you can test and approve what is excellent out there. Both of those texts, Romans 12 and Philippians 1, set a normal pattern of discerning the will of God by a transformed mind and a love informed by knowledge and discernment rather than ordinarily receiving special words from God.
3. Dethroning Prophecy
The spiritual gift of prophecy, as the typical means by which one might receive a special word from God, is fallible.
“What God values most is our holiness in every decision rather than the decision itself.”
If somebody thinks that the gift of prophecy results in people going around today speaking Scripture, adding to the Bible, they’re going to bring down the wrath of God on them.
First Thessalonians 5:20 says, “Do not despise prophecies.” I don’t want you to deny that there’s such a gift of prophecy today. You can go to the Desiring God website and see the series of articles that Jon Bloom did a while back on the nature of biblical prophecy today. I think they are good.
But the verse continues: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:20–21). I think that implies that the gift of prophecy should be weighed and discerned, not assumed to be Scripture-level infallible truth.
You have a biblical warrant for saying to your friend, “Remember that biblical gifts of prophecy and wisdom and knowledge coming through a fallible human mind like yours and mine. It must be tested by Scripture.”
4. One Infallible Book
Also, Matt asks, “How do you critique their choice without shaking their faith and making them doubt their ability to ever hear from God?” I would say that you encourage them to see, to feel, and to believe that it’s one hundred times more precious and wonderful that we have a book like the Bible, where we can count on every line of it (properly understood) being infallible.
It’s amazing that we have such a large, glorious revelation from God. You suggest to them, then, that it’s more likely that they will have a reliable gift of prophecy, a reliable gift of wisdom or word of knowledge, if they are submitted to the Scriptures and saturated with the Scriptures, because the Holy Spirit is always consistent.
If you are immersed in the word of the Scripture, the word of the Spirit, it is much more likely that you will be able to discern the voice of the Spirit if he’s leading you in some other way that will always be finally tested by the one infallible source we have — namely, the Scripture.
Finally, what you might do or say is remind your friend that what God cares about most when it comes to doing his will is our holiness in every decision rather than the decision itself.
“The Bible is the criterion for assessing whether someone has discerned truly the will of God.”
Think of decisions like whom to marry or what house to buy or where to live or what job to take or whether to buy this shirt or that shirt. In every decision, if you are acting in a biblical, holy way, God is pleased. Here is 1 Thessalonians 4:3: “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” That’s a wonderfully liberating thing.
Those are the five strategies in the bigger picture that I would use to try to help a friend not elevate a word from outside the Bible about a decision which you, judging by the Bible, regard as a poor decision.