Now, if you’ve checked out my article about six ways God speaks to us, you might be wondering, “How do I know it is God speaking to me?” How can we know that what we think we hear from God is actually from God?

I don’t know about you, but I often wonder how I can know if I’m actually hearing from God and not my own desires or thoughts.

Is this really conviction from the Holy Spirit, or am I feeling the energy of my coffee mixing with this killer song that has me singing loudly in my truck on a sunny day (windows down)?

The truth is that whether we’re listening for his voice through Jesus’ life, creation, culture, other people, Scripture, or the Holy Spirit, it’s possible that we’re mishearing God. All of us bring baggage (i.e. assumptions and life-experiences) to different words and ideas, and that baggage impacts the way we interpret God’s nudging in our lives.

I remember the first time I was confronted with some cultural baggage that was impacting the way I interpreted Scripture. In Seminary, I took a class called “The History of Christianity In North America and Canada.” In the primary textbook, the author pointed out how the word “freedom” is a foundational word in American culture. He challenged us to consider how our understanding of “American freedom” has impacted the way we read the Bible. I was blown away! It had never occurred to me that my cultural setting of being in America could impact the way I interpret the concept of “freedom” in the Bible. Over time, I’ve discovered my cultural context has impacted quite a few other ideas as well!

And that’s what’s tricky about our baggage—you could also call them blind spots. Cultural ideas, denominational statements, and life experiences shape the way we interpret and understand who God is, who we are, how we read the Scriptures, and how to know if we are hearing God correctly or not.

The tricky thing about blind spots is—well—we’re blind to them! And that’s why it’s so important to make sure we are really hearing from God, and not just hearing from our own presumptive expectations of what we think is true.

Here are some examples from my life of when I’ve misread Scripture, misheard the Spirit, received bad advice from other people, and internalized cultural ideas that were questionable at best. I’m hoping that by sharing these, you may be able to determine if you’ve misheard God or not.

#1: Mishearing God by Misreading Scripture

I used to live in Colorado Springs, which is most known for the iconic mountain that is visible from everywhere in the city. It’s a fourteener (meaning it rises higher than 14,000 feet in elevation) called Pike’s Peak.

So when I used to read Psalm 121:1, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from,” I used to picture Pikes Peak, and assume the Psalmist was looking at the mountains in Israel and was amazed by the power, majesty, and might of the glorious terrain. Maybe he was thinking, “If God can make these powerful mountains, my problems are small in his hands!”

It’s a beautiful and true idea—that God is powerful and my problems are small in his hands—but that’s probably not what the Psalmist was thinking about.

I discovered this during my very first seminary class in a building situated at the foot of Pike’s Peak.

The professor, Dr. Dave, pointed out that in the Old Testament, there are numerous references to the “high places”—temples on the top of mountains where the foreign gods were worshiped. When the Psalmist looked at the hills, he could have been looking at these temples. If so, his proclamation of trust in the One True God of Israel was not about majestic mountains, but about turning away from idols.

He also pointed out a few other ways this verse could be translated based on the cultural context in which it was written—a context that I had never considered before.

Since that class, I’ve read quite a few books, and have been in numerous discussions about how reading the Bible is engaging in a cross-cultural experience. This means that there could be times where we misread the Scriptures—like me with Psalm 121, or more grotesquely, when the American South used Scripture to promote slavery in the 17-19th centuries.

For two great books on misreading the Bible, check out Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes by Dr. Kenneth E Bailey or Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Dr. Brandon O’Brien and Randy Richards.

#2: Mishearing God by Mishearing the Spirit

Between high school and college, I spent several months in Romania as a summer-camp staffer. When my time there was coming to an end, I started to feel convicted that I should stay. The conviction—which I thought might be the Holy Spirit—was nearly as strong as the calling I felt to go to Romania, and the ministry I was working with could have used more help.

What made this situation difficult, however, was that I didn’t have any more money raised and I wasn’t in a place to get a job in Romania. I also didn’t have a visa, and I was scheduled for college classes that began in the fall. Yet all of the same Scriptures that confirmed my calling to Romania in the first place came flooding back, and I even had someone in Romania suggest that I stay. She reminded me of how much I had connected with the kiddos, and said something to the extent of, “You were born for this.”

But I wasn’t supposed to stay in Romania, and looking back now I’m so glad I didn’t.

When I returned home, my high school sweetheart and I were reunited, and a few years later we got married. I graduated from college, and that degree has opened so many doors that God had planned for my life. In the moment of conviction I was so torn, but looking back now I can say with 100% certainty that God had other plans for my life.

Conviction is a powerful thing, especially if we feel it might be the conviction of the Holy Spirit, but it’s okay to ask God for confirmation of our convictions.

I believe that even our convictions should line up with the wisdom of Scripture and the wisdom of the right people in our lives. I also believe God is eager and willing to use things outside of our conviction to show us that it is indeed his voice we are hearing.

#3 Mishearing God by Following Bad Advice

As good and encouraging as the intentions were of the person who advised me to stay in Romania—she was wrong.

And I don’t think we need to spend much time on this one, because I’m guessing you’ve probably received some bad advice in your life too. Notice that above I mentioned the importance of listening to “the wisdom of the right people.”

I would define the right people as someone like my mentor Robert. He’s old, and proud of it. He has life experience that has just about seen it all. He cares deeply for the success of me and my family. He cares deeply about praying and advising me toward what he senses God would want for my life. He asks good questions and listens, and then uses more good questions to guide me to my own decisions. He is a “right person” in my life, and it’s a good thing too because advice is tricky!

That’s why advice should be confirmed by God’s Spirit, the Scriptures, and people we trust. And if we’re still in doubt—again—we can ask God for more confirmation.

#4. Mishearing God by Internalizing Incorrect Cultural Ideas

There are messages in culture that sound so true, but can be dangerous. For example, the phrase “follow your heart.”

How many times do we hear this phrase on shows like the Bachelor or Bachelorette? How many times does Disney lead us to this idea at the climax of the movie? How many songs have misguided us with this lyric or one like it? And I don’t know about you, but it sounds like really great advice! I’ve followed this advice before. But this advice could be dangerous depending on the state of our hearts.

According to Proverbs 4:23, our hearts need to be guarded and protected because as our hearts go, so do our actions. Here’s an example: in Jeremiah 17:9, the Old Testament truth-teller challenged people in Israel with the fact that their hearts had been corrupted, and had become “deceitful above all things.”

Jesus also picked up on this idea of a corrupted heart when he called out the religious leaders for being people who follow their broken hearts to “evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19).

If it could happen to the people of Israel, it could happen to us! And if our hearts have been corrupted, and we follow our hearts? Well that’s not going to be good.

So it’s not that this cultural idea is so off base that by itself it could lead us away from God, but if this idea is not held in check by the wisdom of Scripture, the wisdom of the right people, and the Holy Spirit, we could follow our hearts in the opposite direction from God’s best.

 

So, “How do I know it is God speaking to me?

The Scriptures suggest we need God to help us discover the truth. John 16:12-13 reads, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.”

In the following chapter of John (Chapter 17), Jesus prayed for his first century disciples, and encouraged them regarding all of the tough stuff they were about to face in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He let them know that he still had stuff to say to them, and that it would come through the Holy Spirit.

I think God works in the same way today.

We are not alone to decipher all that we think is from God. The Spirit himself helps us in our weaknesses and in our confusion, and can guide us into all truth.

Two important notes I’ve found helpful to remember when it comes to hearing from God:

First, if we’re going to hear from God, we need to be listening for God.

No one modeled this better than Jesus.

Jesus modeled silence, solitude, and stillness as a way to hear from God. He often climbed mountains, away from the crowds, to be strengthened, encouraged, and empowered by his Father. It’s hard to hear if you’re not listening, and even Jesus took time to step away from the chaos of disciples, miracles, and teachings to listen to his Father.

In our world of noise, we need to do the same thing. Church tradition offers what has been coined “silence and solitude” as a Christian practice that encourages us and helps us hear from God.

For me, this often looks like sitting in the woods for a few hours without anything but my heart, mind, soul, and a journal. I pray for a bit. I think and allow my thoughts to wonder a bit. I listen to the sounds of the birds, and the creaking trees. I write down phrases I feel God is developing in the quietness of my heart. And when it’s too cold, I sit in a chair in my bedroom looking out of the window, following this same routine.

But silence and solitude doesn’t mean we have to find a completely silent place (for many—like me in my house with three kids ages 12 and under—this is impossible). It could mean getting into a space with limited or no distractions and no devices.

We can find a place where we can close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and simply listen.

Second, sometimes it’s wisest to wait.

Sometimes when God hasn’t spoken yet, it means we are supposed to wait.

About 12 years ago, I was accepted to a position for a company, but I also had to fundraise my salary. Fundraising can take a while, but in my desperation to get going for God, I quit my other job—the one that, you know, paid me. It was one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made! It took another 8 months for enough money to come in. My family and I barely made it, and all of that was unnecessary.

Looking back, God never told me to quit my job. I do think God led me to the new position, but he was quiet when it came to the question of timing. Instead of waiting for him to either a) bring in the money or b) say, “Okay, now is the time,” I dove into the shallow end of the pool and found out it was empty.

If you get to a decision moment, have to make a decision, and don’t feel “clear” about it yet, be encouraged that God is with you in your decision making. But if you have time, follow the advice of the Ents in Lord of the Rings, “Don’t be hasty.”

As a wise mentor once told me, “all you can do is make the best decision with the information you have in front of you knowing that later you may look back with more information and see that it wasn’t the right one.” And that’s where it is such a joy to follow Jesus! Even if you make a mistake, we serve a God that can redeem mistakes, and even use those unfortunate moments for his glory and our good (like he did when I quit my job and he still took care of my family).

For more on different ways we hear from God, check out the first of this two-part article, “When You Need to Hear from God: 6 Ways God Speaks to Us.