If I Were a Skeptic, I’d Still be Intrigued by These Stories

A woman has a vision of a man she’s about to date and goes onto marry. A man has a dream of a hand reaching into his heart and wakes up free from the symptoms of the abuse he suffered as a child. Another woman has a recurring vision of an unknown tribe from China who she is invited to work amongst shortly after. There’s scenes of the future, insights into the past and understanding of the present. In all of these experiences, God is understood to be speaking to bring healing, reconciliation and empowerment to his people.

Researching People’s Experiences of Hearing God’s Voice

During the course of my three years of doctoral research, I’ve listened to over 70 people from 3 different churches share about their experiences hearing God’s voice. My focus has been on experiences that involve new or previously unknown information and are predictive or directive in some way. Often this part of the process can be tedious for researchers as it involves time-consuming recording, transcribing and coding of data, but not in my project. The stories are ‘out there’. They result in life-changing decisions, audacious acts of courage and endeavours that break people out of their comfort zone and lead them to do things they wouldn’t normally do. The results are often miraculous. They echo the heart of Jesus when he promised us his Spirit would continue the work he started here on earth 2000 years ago (John 14:16-18).

Of course there are a few not so great stories in there too. One man thought he’d heard God telling him to resign his job and after nearly falling bankrupt, realised he had only “heard” the symptoms of burnout. Another woman thought she’d heard God tell her about a prospective husband and later realised she’d only heard the voice of her desires. But the vast majority of those in the sample have recognised in their experiences the same voice as the one who came to bring good news to the poor and set the captive free (Luke 4:18). And having discerned it, they’d determined to follow.

The Impact of Hearing God’s Voice

The beauty is in the outcomes. There’s healing, wisdom and insight. There’s the overcoming of fears, reconciliation of broken relationships and extraordinary acts of generosity, kindness and service. But I’m not alone in my findings. Recent research by sociologists Poloma and Green in 22 US churches showed that hearing God experiences such as these were directly correlated to increased evangelism (people wanted to tell others) and increased expressions of “godly love” (people wanted to give and serve others).1 The experience created the impetus and motivation to trigger acts of outreach, generosity and service.

I’ve often thought as I was sorting through the data that, even if I were a hardened skeptic, I’d still be impressed by the outcomes. Of course, as any sociologist will tell you, you can never prove that it’s God speaking – sociologists work from a posture of “methodological agnosticism” – you can never prove the source of the experience scientifically, but you can observe and report its affects. What is clear is that these experiences are making an inexplicable and profound difference. Yes, there is still volition involved; there is still active participation and effort that works with the experience to seal and reinforce it, but it’s clear that the initiative for change and growth in these stories is with the experience itself. For believers, it’s evident that the same God who walked the planet in the incarnate word Jesus, is still calling, healing and leading his people. The Holy Spirit is doing the work!

Doing Things You Wouldn’t Normally Do

One of the most intriguing findings of my research was that on most occasions, hearing God’s voice contributed to a person doing something they would “never ordinarily do”. The largest single factor in discerning divine origin was the ‘otherness’ of the voice. So, in response to the question, “how did you know it was God?”, people repeatedly said things like; “I wouldn’t say something like that,” “I’d never heard of that idea before” and “It had never entered my mind.” It was clear to the hearer that this ‘voice’ was not their own. The voice didn’t confirm pre-existing attitudes, mindsets and behaviours, but acted to challenge it. And because they understood it to be from God, it held authority that called for an appropriate response.

What does this mean for us? These stories remind us about the importance of hearing God’s voice. We were promised that when we choose to follow Jesus, we are given the Holy Spirit to speak to us (Acts 2:16,17). Jesus said the Spirit would do two things. Firstly, he would remind us of the truths he had taught while on earth – he would remind us about who God is and what he came to do (John 14:26). These powerful truths are recorded for us in the pages of Scripture and the Spirit speaks through them to apply them to our lives. But as Jesus said, there was far more to be said after he left the earth, so his Spirit would also speak to us about “things to come” (John 16:12,13). There was more to be said than what could be written in those pages. The Holy Spirit is given to us today to be the continuing voice of Jesus so that his ministry could be extended throughout the world and through every person who chose to follow Jesus (Acts 1:8, Acts 2:16,17). The Holy Spirit is given to us so that we can follow Jesus (John 10:27). The most important question is then, “What is God saying to you?”

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