Discerning the Voice of God





Alex Tang



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by Dr. Alex Tang


Our God delights in revealing Himself to us. He revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush. He revealed Himself to Abraham, Jacob, Samuel and Paul. God talks to us. Yet often, in our busy lifestyle we do not listen and when we do, we do know how to distinguish God’s voice from other voices.

Esther de Waal wrote of the need to listen, “ If I am also true to my calling, my vocation, I must go on listening for this voice. There is such a danger that I talk about God, and enjoy talking about God, and do not stop and in the silence of my heart listen to Him speaking”.[1]

Sources of voices

We are constantly bombarded by many voices demanding our attention. What are the sources of these voices?

1.      God

God speaks to us. He is the still, small voice amidst the storms of life. His voice calls us to communion with Him and to co-operate with Him. He calls us to His Will.

2.      Satan

Satan also speaks to us. He tempts us with the fame, wealth and power. He confuses us with the tyranny of time and the busyness of life. We wants to keep us moving so fast that we do not have time to reflect and do not have time for God. We need to recognize Satan’s voice so that we can resist him and make him flee from us (1 Peter 5:9; Eph 6:11).

3.      Self

Our own self  talk to us. Persuading us to meet our own carnal needs. Our heart is so deceitful that we can be convinced that doing a wrong can make a right.

4.      Others

People are always talking to us and trying to influence us consciously or subconsciously. Everyone has his/her own agenda to fulfill. We need to recognize this and to find God’s Will for us in the short time we have left.


Ways in which God speaks to us[2]

Throughout human history, God has been communicating with us. He speaks to us by the following means:

1.      Through the Bible

Apostle Paul wrote that “ All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16,17). We, evangelicals believe strongly that God speaks to us through the Bible. But we must not limit God by insisting that He only speaks to us through the Bible and nothing else.

2.      Through Experiences

God speaks to us through our lived experience but we need His help to see the experience through ‘spiritual’ eyes.

(1)   Our Trials (Mal. 3:6-12)

The prophets Haggai, Malachi and Joel  teach us an important principle: God may speak to us through our trials, unpleasant circumstances or situations.

(2)   Common Events

At times God will speak to us through common events, like watching an eagle fly.

(3)   Miracles

God speaks to us through miracles. Miracles break through our limited understanding of the physical. Miracles point us towards God.

3.      Through Supernatural Means

(1)   Audible voice (Ex. 20:18029; Deut. 4:36;5:23-29)

God speaks through an audible voice, as in giving of the ten commandments.

(2)   Voice audible to you alone (Acts 10:19)

Peter heard the voice of the Spirit.

(3)   Internal audible voice

God spoke to Ezekiel  when he was with the elders. The elders could not hear God while Ezekiel is hearing God’s voice in his mind. (Ezek. 14:2-4)

(4)   Voice of angels (Acts 27:23-26; Rev 1:1)

Scriptures has often recorded the words spoken  by angels.

4.      Through Natural Means

(1)   Dreams, Visions and Trance (Num 12:6; Acts 2:17-18)

Dreams are images accompanied by sound and emotions that we ‘see’ when we are asleep. Visions are dreams that we experience when we are awake. In trance, there is a loss of consciousness of our surroundings.

(2)   Sentence Fragments and single words

Gods speaks to us by giving to our mind part of a sentence or single words. It is to get our attention.

(3)   Impressions

God sometimes speak to us by giving us impressions in our feelings, our physical senses or our minds.

(4)   Human messengers ( Acts 21:10,11)

He also speaks to us through other people – Christians or non-Christians.

            From the list above, it is obvious that God is speaking to us today. Jack Deere wrote, “Unless we know how God speaks, we will never understand His voice. But knowing how God speaks doesn’t guarantee he will speak to us or if he does we will recognize His voice.”[3]

Principles for Discerning God’s Voice

What Albert Outler has coined as ‘the Wesleyan quadrilateral’ is being promoted in theological studies as a way to know God and His Revelation. The quadrilateral consists in Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Scripture is the ultimate source, church tradition is the abiding source while reason and experience play supportive role. Donald Bloesch, a theologian, suggests a ‘unilateral authority’ – direct revelation- but one communicated through various means. He sees divine revelation received through Scripture and tradition and elucidated by reason and experience.[4]

In my own faith journey, I find discerning God’s voice by using the ‘three lights’ as suggested by Dallas Willard useful. The three lights are circumstances, impression of the Spirit and passages from the Bible. When all three lights point in the same direction, we can be sure  that the direction it points to is the direction God wants us to go.[5] I find that the three lights are inter-related. If there is a conflict, I should keep still until God shows me why.

(1)   Circumstances

When God speaks to me, He speaks to me in my own context, my own circumstances which is unique and different from what other people is going through. He comes to me through the filters of my worldview, my lived experience and my present situation. Hence I must hear Him in my own context. I believe that God wants me to hear Him and obey His Will. Thus I believe that He will open a way into His Will if I am ready to follow Him.

(2)   Impressions of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit was given to us as the Counselor (John 14:26) who will lead us into all things of God. I believe that the Holy Spirit can and does speak to us. He can speak to us through supernatural or natural means as indicated above.

Roger Barrister, a pastor have developed a checklist[6] to see if the impression is from God :

(i)                  He speaks in my innermost spirit. Satan and self speak in my soul or human mind. Discerning between soul and spirit requires patience, practice and careful cultivation.

(ii)                He speaks with gentle leading (1 Kings 19:11-13)

(iii)               His impression produces freedom (Matt 11:30)

(iv)              He speaks when I am seeking Him (Jer.29:12-13)

(v)                There is a sense that everything is under control.

(vi)              He gives specific directions.

(vii)             He convicts us of sins (John 16:8)

(viii)           His impression can be tested by the Word of God.

(ix)              His impressions lead us to a deep, abiding sense of peace. (Phil. 4:7)

      Aside form the checklist above, another way to discern the impression is familiarity. Our Lord Jesus said that His followers listen to the Shepherd’s (His) voice and train them to recognize it easily. They know how to follow (obey) because they know His voice[7]. (John 10:3-5,27) I believe that we can be so familiar with God’s voice or impression that we can recognize it, just as we can recognize a friend’s voice over the telephone without seeing his or her face.

(3)   Passages from the Bible

God speaks to us through His Word. As we spend time in bible study, in meditation and in spiritual reading (lectio divina), we find that God does speak to us about our particular situation and about His Will for us.(2 Tim 3:16,17)

            After using the three ‘lights’ in discerning the voice of God, I also find it useful to run it through with a spiritual friend or a more mature Christian. For me personally, I have not found a spiritual director yet but I believe spiritual direction[8] is useful in helping us in reliable discernment.


The ability to discern God’s voice and not be let astray by other voices is a basic essential skill as we seek to follow His Will. Without this basic skill, we will not be able to grow in Christ. We will be running round in circles as we listen to a hundred conflicting voices. There will be no peace. No spaces to grow spiritually.

Discretion(Discernment), then is able to pick out the word and will of God amid all the conflicting voices emanating from the devil, from oneself and from others. The discerning, balanced person is that way partly because of natural, God-given endowment, partly through experience, and completely by grace. Experience teaches us when our asceticism or our self-indulgence is likely to be harmful. By discernment we know ourselves, and so humility presupposes discretion, just as discretion presupposes humility. None of this happens without experience and imagination. Through them, we learn the boundaries marked out by discretion. Discernment then is the opposite of naivete; it is wisdom won at the risk of error.[9]

It is reassuring to remember that if we are sincere to discern God’s Will, He will not disappoint us.

                                                                                                                                                    Soli Deo Gloria


[1] de Waal, Esther A Seven Day Journey with Thomas Merton. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant 1992  p. 44

[2] Deere, Jack gave a comprehensive summary of how God speaks to us in Chapter 7-10. This section is based on his work, Surprised by the Voice of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996  p. 97-156

[3] Ibid p. 156

[4] Donald Bloesch gave a good discussion on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and his own proposal for a theological method  in. A Theology of Word & Spirit. (Christian Foundations Book 1 ) Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992  p. 208-211

[5] Willard, Dallas Hearing God. Downers grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984,1993,1999 p.169-172

[6] Barrister, Roger Listening to the Voice of God.  (The Pastor’s Soul Series) Minneapolis MN: Bethany House, 1998  p.53-59

[7] Johnson, Jan When the Soul Listens : Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer (Colorado Springs CO: NavPress, 1999) p. 42-45

[8] See Baker, Howard for a useful discussion on Soul Keeping:Ancient Paths of Spiritual Direction (Colorado Springs CO: NavPress, 1998)

[9] Feiss, Hugh  Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1999)  p. 113




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