The Holy Spirit is the enabler of the Christian life. He helps, counsels, comforts, and advocates for us (John 14:16). He speaks to us through Scripture, fellow believers, visions and dreams, and impressions upon the believer’s heart. This article is about that last category–impressions, sometimes called promptings or whispers. Many Christians struggle to know the difference between divine impressions and mere thoughts and feelings. Today, I want to dive into the depths of this problem and discover how we can distinguish the voice of the Spirit from the other voices in our heads.
Many Christian thinkers have addressed this problem and suggested that certain markers be used to test an impression, whether it be divine or common. I think it would be beneficial to go through some common markers that I personally find compelling. I will briefly unpack them to see where each ones usefulness in discerning the Spirit begins and ends.
The most commonly suggested marker is the Bible. If the impression aligns with the written Word, it is safe to act upon it. This is based on the notion that God will not contradict Himself. If He says one thing in the Bible, He will not then say a contrary thing to you.
It is good to test things against Scripture (Acts 17:11). The Bible is a great resource for knowing the Spirit, for it was written by the Spirit Himself (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21). If you desire to know the Spirit, or the Father and Son for that matter, you must subject yourself to the discipline of Bible reading.
With that said, this marker has limitations. You see, the Holy Spirit often speaks to us regarding extra-Biblical matters. For example, in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit prevents Paul and Timothy from speaking the Word in Asia and Bythnia. As Wayne Grudem, author of Systematic Theology, observes, “Of course, no written principle from the Old Testament Scriptures would have led them to conclude that they could not preach in Asia or Bythnia. The Holy Spirit must rather have communicated His direct guidance to them in some specific way, whether through words heard audibly or in the mind, or through strong subjective impressions of a lack of the Holy Spirit’s presence and blessing as they attempted to travel to these different areas.” For this reason, we will not always be able to directly apply Scripture to a given impression.
Something else to note, while not necessarily a criticism of this marker, is it only works if you know what the Word means. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day believed He was a blasphemer not because they did not know the Scripture, but because they were blind to the truth of it. You see, we need the Holy Spirit to even understand the text. Right off the bat, we have encountered one of the mysteries of this problem. No understanding of spiritual things can be gained apart from the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). We need the Spirit to discern the Spirit. Indeed, I am relying upon the Holy Spirit to “lead me into all truth” even to write this article (John 16:13).
Another marker is peace. We know that God is a God of peace, (1 Cor. 14:33) and He gives His peace to us (Phil. 4:7). It may follow that a genuine impression from the Spirit would be accompanied by peace. Then you may say that if you are not at peace, you should doubt that the Spirit is speaking to you. However, we can expect the flesh to resist the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-17). While there may be peace in your heart, there is conflict between the Spirit and flesh. This conflict can obscure that peace. Unsettledness in the face of a divine impression may be attributable to the flesh’s cries of protest. Therefore, further discernment is necessary.
Another way to discern the Spirit is by asking fellow believers about your impression. The Bible says that there is safety and victory in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 11:14, 24:6). Beyond that, there are those who have been given the gift of discerning between spirits whom we may consult (1 Cor. 12:10). It would be wise to utilize the great resource which is the church of God, especially about significant life decisions.
Just remember that other Christians have limitations in discernment just like you. They may be biased by their theological persuasion, denominational background, or personal stake in the outcome of the situation at hand. I would suggest you consult one whom you admire spiritually, who is far enough removed from the situation to be unprejudiced.
There is also the marker of conscience, the innate moral sense. Christians should always strive to maintain a clear conscience before God and man (Acts 24:16). Dr. Charles Stanley, in his book The Spirit-Filled Life, suggests that conscience is a tool of the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin and lead us toward righteous action. He writes, “Many Christians aren’t sure when the Holy Spirit speaks to them. Yet these same believers would readily admit that they have an active conscience. When believers feel the prick of conscience, there is a good chance that they are hearing from the Holy Spirit.”
One must keep in mind, however, that the conscience is only as good as the moral system of the individual within whom it is nested. Also, it can be, as the Word puts it, seared (1 Tim. 4:2). For this reason, people can commit heinous acts of evil and feel no guilt. The conscience must be gradually transformed along with the whole person by the renewing of his mind (Romans 12:2). Put simply, he who follows the Spirit always has a clear conscience, but he who has a clear conscience is not necessarily following the Spirit.
Yet another marker is common sense. God has given us all the ability to reason (some more than others), and our reason can aid us in discernment. For example, it is logical that the Spirit would not prompt us to do something we would do without being prompted. I do not remind my wife to brush her teeth before bed because she is going to do it whether I remind her or not. I do, however, remind her to floss because she tends to forget that. Likewise, we may expect the Spirit to tell us things that we have forgotten, are not expecting to hear, or do not want to hear.
To take another example, the Holy Spirit, though He lives within us, is a person distinct from ourselves. Why, then, would it be difficult to hear Him speak? Is His voice not distinct from our own? We do not have to “incline our ear” or “be sensitive” to the voice of other people to know when they are speaking to us. Their voices simply manifest themselves to us without our control. We may expect to experience the Holy Spirit’s voice the same way.
Common sense observations like the two above can be helpful but should be regarded lightly. Like conscience, reason is a human faculty subject to human error. There are many things we do not understand, and such is the Holy Spirit.
It is worth noting too that while common sense can help us tell when the Spirit is speaking to us, the Spirit’s promptings themselves will often fly in the face of common sense. Because of our limited knowledge and intelligence, there are things we should do that we could never know apart from the Spirit. Think of how nonsensical God’s message seemed to Ananias when He commanded Ananias to heal Saul, a murderer of Christians. Yet Ananias obeyed! While you should not discard your reason, let it always be subject to the Spirit.
At this point, let us zoom out and take a broader view of Scripture. God speaks many times in the Bible, and we can learn about how He speaks from what those instances have in common. I do not recall a time in the Bible when God speaks and is not understood clearly. Now, one may refer to the account of Samuel hearing God’s voice and thinking it was Eli. However, it appears that, in this instance, God spoke audibly to Samuel. That does not make for the strongest case study of God not speaking clearly. The fact that Samuel thought it was Eli is more an indication of Samuel’s immaturity than God’s obscurity.
Regarding the Spirit specifically: after the Spirit was given to the New Testament church, there is no indication that Christians struggled to discern His voice. Therefore, we might conclude (as some have) that where there is confusion about whether or not God is speaking, God is not speaking. This idea is in keeping with our common sense observations above.
However, when God has spoken clearly, confusion may be deliberately introduced by the flesh and the devil. For example, Adam and Eve understood clearly when God said not to eat the forbidden fruit. It was only when the serpent began to speak that the command became unclear to them. The serpent deceived Adam and Eve, causing them to sin. There was nothing confusing about the Word spoken through Jeremiah, but the darkened hearts of those who heard it refused to accept it. In the same way, demonic influence and our own sinful nature may interfere with the Spirit’s messages to us. Thus, there may be confusion about what God has said that does not come from God Himself. The key to hearing God clearly then, is to recognize and resist the flesh and the devil.
Recognizing the Voices
How can we recognize the flesh and the devil in contrast to the Spirit? The flesh continually looks to gratify its own desires of pride and pleasure. The devil deceives, accuses, and destroys. The Spirit, on the other hand, comforts, counsels, helps, and advocates for us. He reminds us who God is, what He has done, and what He has said. He drives out fear and gives us power, love and self-control. These truths alone have proven very helpful in discerning the voice of the Spirit in my own life.
Resisting the Flesh and the Devil
Knowing how we can recognize the flesh and the devil, we must resist them both. Resist the flesh by dying to self (Galatians 5:24). Consider yourself dead to the body of sin, making no provision for it (Rom. 6:11, 13:14). Resist the devil by refusing to give him a foothold in your life (Eph. 4:27). Do not only fight temptation, but flee from it. When it is in your power to do so, do not even chance to engage with it. If you do this, the devil will flee from you (James 4:7). Finally, pray and ask the Spirit to help you. He desires that you do the will of the Father. There is no reason to believe that He will not answer your prayer.
Let us hear the end of the matter
If I have not made it clear up to this point, I do not believe there is one works-every-time litmus test for discerning the Spirit. There is no marker, or even any combination of markers sufficient for every conceivable instance of confusion. Are we bound, then, to wallow in uncertainty, without hope? God forbid!
Read the Bible, and let it light your way. Seek the peace of God. Consult the body of Christ. Maintain a clear conscience. Use your God-given reason. Die to self. Resist the devil. Ask the Lord to help you. If you do these things, your powers of discernment will increase. This process is not instantaneous but requires constant practice (Heb. 5:14). If you err along the way, there is grace in Jesus Christ. Press on, brother and sister, resting in the knowledge of the grace of God.