The furrowed brow added intensity to his words: “I sense…I feel…there’s someone here who needs to confess. You’re stressed and anxious, your stomach is in knots, and there’s pain…great pain. God is convicting you of sin.”
“Or,” said another man, pointing to the buffet table, “maybe the pizza didn’t agree with you!”
There was a ripple of good-natured laughter in the room. How could we know? Was it God – or was it gas?
In 2013, North Langley Community Church held a prayer ministry training seminar, and a visiting pastor expressed concern about properly discerning the voice of God. Is it God? Our own flesh?
A deception from the enemy?
We must be ready to evaluate everything people claim they’re speaking on God’s behalf. But how? We can find valuable insights in 1 and 2 John about how to “test” what we’re hearing.
1. Right doctrine… discerned in community
The Word of God is the primary means of recognizing God’s voice. Do the “words” given contradict the “Word” of Scripture, or do they line up with what we already know about God and his kingdom (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15)?
Here, many of us face a dilemma. We may not feel confident that we’re familiar enough with the Bible or understand it correctly. The good news is that letters such as 1 and 2 John were written not just to individuals but to a community – all the biblical instructions to love, live righteously, obey and “test the spirits” were corporate instructions. So, our first priority in discerning whether we’re hearing from God is to consult with our community of leaders and peers who are well-versed in Scripture and wise in its application.
2. Right actions… promoting community
In the historical context of 1 and 2 John, members of the community had broken off and were teaching false doctrine (which paralleled the gnosticism addressed in Colossians) – presumably as itinerant prophets (2 John 10–11). These secessionists were labelled “antichrists.” They had withdrawn from the main body of believers and were actively attempting to convert others.
All of the above are red flags, actions contrary to what the Word of God calls “right behaviour” (1 John 2:18–20). If what we’re saying or hearing encourages isolation or a critical spirit, or creates barriers that separate the community of believers on issues other than salvation, then it’s likely not from God.
3. Right attitude… benefiting community
1 John 4:2 says, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” The word for “confess” is a Greek transliteration of a Hebraism that means not just “to agree” – demons agree on who Christ is and tremble (James 2:19) – but “to celebrate” and “to fully live in accord with” Jesus (Hebrews 13:15). That a demon cannot do. There was no praise in the Gerasene demoniac’s acknowledgement of Christ as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God”; it was sheer torment (Mark 5:7).
Those who truly hear from God have an attitude of humility, devotion and joyful celebration. Their lifestyle and character attest to godliness, and they manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Matthew 7:15–16; Galatians 5:22–23).
4. Right fulfillment…acknowledged by community
We may be tempted to think the most important test is whether or not a prophetic word is fulfilled. And yet, Scripture doesn’t give this litmus test the highest priority. While the Old Testament teaches true prophetic words come to pass and false words fail (Deuteronomy 18:22; Isaiah 41:21–24; Ezekiel 33:33), another test trumps this one. Deuteronomy 13:1–3 says, “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, ‘Let us follow other gods’…you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.”
Some prophetic words, although accurate, are actually demonic in origin. Accuracy in reflecting reality (present and future) is a significant commendation to the authenticity of the prophecy but far from infallible. True prophetic fulfillment leads to true worship.
The true test
Scripture clearly offers us tests for discerning a word from God. At times, there may be errors to correct and darkness to rebuke. However, no one grows in an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, and it’s crucial we take risks. In humility, love and accountability, we can facilitate the “light” of the Holy Spirit to dispel these shadows, placing the focus on God rather than the enemy or the failings of our flesh.
The church community can provide a safe environment where we, the people of God, can grow in our practice of the gifts of the Spirit and be encouraged to learn to recognize God’s voice. No lamb is born knowing his master’s voice, but there is much we can do to help one another learn to hear, heed and recount the words of our Good Shepherd.
“No,” I said.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” asked my fellow leader.
“No, I don’t want to do it. Besides, my stomach hurts. I think that pizza gave me gas.”
The fellow leader promised to support me, shared some Scripture, and prayed with me over my reluctance to deliver a prophetic word to a friend I hadn’t seen in years.
An hour later, the deed was done, albeit clumsily and abruptly. There was no way to gracefully say, “I had a dream last week that you were unfaithful to your wife.”
My friend was shocked into silence. He looked down, cleared his throat and haltingly asked me whether I had told his wife. I assured him I hadn’t. But God might. After all, he told me.
After two years of hard work, Vic and Annie (not their real names) are now solid in their marriage, restored to fellowship in their church, and actively counselling other couples in crisis.
It was worth the risk. Because sometimes, it’s not gas.
—Nikki White serves as director of worship and prayer for women’s ministries at North Langley (B.C.) Community Church.
Updated Feb. 6, 2014: edited for clarity.