God ‘told’ him to quit his job and he nearly went bankrupt
Why we need the Church to recognise God’s voice
You don’t need to be in church to hear God’s voice. The beauty of the new Covenant is that the Holy Spirit isn’t limited to a geographic place or time. In the early church, we see that the Apostle Paul heard from God on the Damascus Road. Philip heard from God while en route to Gaza. In our day, people hear from God while driving to work. Muslims have heard from God while on pilgrimage to Mecca. Some of the most significant times I’ve heard from God have been while brushing my teeth! As Jesus said, having the Spirit would be better than being physically with him because the Spirit can speak wherever we go (John 16:7).
If this is true, why do we need the church to hear from God?
God’s voice is best heard within the safety and accountability of the church community. This is the pattern we see in the early church, and there are some excellent reasons for it.
A fuzzy filter
To begin with, the church helps us to recognise God’s voice. It’s easy for us to get it wrong. Our mindsets, our desires and our experiences all act together to create a “fuzzy” filter through which we interpret our experiences. The Apostle Paul calls it a poor reflection (1 Cor. 13:9). Typically, we hear what we want to hear, and we see what we want to see.
He had interpreted his experience through the filter of his weary and exhausted mind.
I heard of a man who thought he’d heard God telling him to quit his job and trust him for his livelihood. Time went on and nothing happened. Eventually, the man lost his business, his home and nearly his marriage. Soon after, he turned to his pastor for counsel. What happened? Why didn’t God come through?
As the man shared his story, it became clear that he had not heard from God at all – rather he’d been suffering from a severe case of burnout. In other words, he had interpreted his experience through the filter of his weary and exhausted mind.
This man’s failing was not in his walk with God, but in the simple fact that he hadn’t tested his experience with those around him. It’s so easy to mix our messages with our own. This is where we need our community. We need others to help sort through those mixed messages and identify the divine one in it.
But we don’t just need the “community” as a whole. “Community” means those who know and love us. These are the people who are familiar with our character and history; our foibles and blind spots. They are also those who love us enough to disagree.
God speaks twice
A second reason we need our church communities to hear God’s voice is that God uses others to confirm his message. This is the advantage of the New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, it was more difficult to test Spirit experiences because only the prophets could generally hear from God. Now that all can hear (Acts 2:16,17), God can speak the same message to another person.
This is the dynamic we see in one of the most important God conversations in the early church. The Apostle Peter had been praying on a rooftop in Joppa while waiting for lunch when he had a vision of non-kosher food (Acts 10). God was speaking through a symbolic picture about the future of the church and the need to incorporate the Gentiles. It was a crucial message that would shape the future of Christianity around the world.
But the question was, how did Peter know it was God? After all it was lunchtime and Peter would have been hungry. Then he fell asleep and dreamt of food! What’s more, the message he received contradicted everything he’d learnt as a devout Jew. It even seemed to defy the Law of Moses!
This is the work of the Holy Spirit as God confirms his message through others.
As the story unfolds, we see God’s way of making his message clear. While Peter was hearing the Spirit in Joppa, another person was hearing from God too. In Caesarea, a Gentile named Cornelius received a vision from an angel. The Spirit brought them together so they could have a conversation: “What did you see Peter; What did you hear Cornelius?” After sharing their stories, they would have realised that God had been speaking the same message to them both.
We shouldn’t be surprised when we see this pattern in our own lives. God will speak to us individually, then repeat it to another person. Sometimes it’s as simple as the sermon in church echoing the God-conversation you’ve just had in your bedroom. Or a friend phones with the same word of encouragement you’ve been pondering that week. This is the work of the Holy Spirit as God confirms his message through others. There’s safety in numbers!
While we do not need anyone else to hear God’s voice, God works through the community to help us to experience his voice together. Hearing from God in the accountability of the church provides us with a way to test our experiences and discern them clearly. It’s only then that we can follow.
Adapted from The Church who Hears God’s Voice: Equipping Everyone to Recognise and Respond to the Spirit by Tania Harris.
Tania Harris is a pastor, speaker, author, practical theologian and the founding director of God Conversations, a global ministry that equips people to recognise and respond to God’s voice.