How to Hear God using Prophetic Safeguards
When I was a newer Christian, I vividly remember my new Christian friends saying things like, “God spoke to me the other day.” And it was always jarring to me.
“You mean, like, you heard an audible voice?!” And most would respond,
“No! But I was reading my Bible and a verse jumped out at me, like God wanted me to read it… When God speaks, it’s not an audible voice but it feels like a super strong impression on my conscience: ‘Call this person!’ or, ‘Make this decision.’”
At first, I didn’t know what to think about it.
The Bible admonishes us to “eagerly desire the spiritual gifts especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Cor 14). But how do we practice this in a safe non-cultic sort of way?
When you read the Bible, it’s clear that God wants to give us supernatural advantages in living life — including supernatural downloads of information! Simply do a Bible study on the following verses, and you’ll see: God wants to speak to us (Jer. 33:3; James 1:5; Psalm 25:14; Prov.1:23; Hebrews 12:25)!
But it’s also clear that people can misuse prophecy too! Paul writes: “19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.” (1 Thess. 5:19-22).
So, it begs the question: How do we “test prophecy” and make sure that our impressions are truly from the Holy Spirit and not our own imaginations? Or, even worse, what if the devil is whispering thoughts to us in order to deceive us? After all, the Bible says that the devil can appear as an angel from heaven (Gal.1:8)!
Over the years, I’ve created a list of criteria to help me discern called: “Prophetic Safeguards.” Whenever I receive a prophetic word from someone (or give one), I usually run it through the following list to help me stay grounded in the Scriptures.
(1). You judge it with Scripture: The more you study and memorize it, the greater your confidence. Heb. 5:14 teaches us that when we constantly live on God’s Word, we can acquire a highly honed discernment about whether something is from God. Learning God’s word is a lot like learning a foreign language. Every vocabulary word is a tool for communication. The more you know, the easier it is to communicate. And God’s word works in a similar way. The more I memorize the Bible, it’s similar to memorizing vocabulary words. Except, I am memorizing the vocabulary for God to speak to me. Indeed, most of the prophetic words I get are simply scripture verses that are for specific people at specific times.
(2). You allow mentors at church to scrutinize your impressions – knowing you can be wrong (1 Cor 13:9-12; 14:29-30). Everyone needs wise counsel. And even good people can sometimes give bad prophetic words. This is why, whenever I receive a word from someone (or give a word to someone) I often encourage them to process it with a mentor who knows the Bible.
(3). Be especially cautious about impressions on subjects you already have a strong opinion about:
Let’s say I have a friend who’s making a decision. And I already have a super strong opinion about what they should do. All of a sudden, “God gives me a word” for them that confirms my opinion. Generally speaking, I would be suspicious about any such words! In the end, we don’t want to ascribe anything to God that isn’t absolutely him.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians who use the prophetic to bolster their self-esteems or to “add authority” to their carnal opinions (see Ezek.13:17). Some people call it “playing the God-card.” When we say: “God told me to move” — it’s a subtle way of saying: “I’m not open to your feedback.” Naturally, if a person wants to push back, they have to double-down and not only question your decision but they have to “question God” now too!
Generally speaking, if I give a prophetic word to someone, I often avoid saying things like “Thus sayeth the Lord” (the old King James approach to prophecy). It’s not wrong to use expressions like these. But, personally, I think a good prophetic word doesn’t need to be hyped up. Luke 7:17 teaches that a “good tree [a.k.a., a good prophet] will produce good fruit [good words].” If it’s a word from heaven, they will know it!
(4). Don’t assume that just because “you got a word from God for someone” it means you’re supposed to “share the word.” Most prophetic is merely for the purpose of prayer. However, if you’re sharing words to make yourself feel more spiritual, you’ll probably end up making mistakes too.
(5). Even if you know you are to “share the word,” be wise about how, when and where you share it (1 Cor. 14:39-40).
Will your word “uplift” or “oppress”? Could it embarrass or trigger other people who hear it? Should it be shared in private with mentor’s present? Or, is this a word that’s designed for public “strengthening, encouragement, and comfort” (1 Cor 14:3). Can you make a point without making an enemy? All of these things are critical to the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we “grieve the Holy Spirit” when we treat people in thoughtless ways (see Eph 4:30-31).
(6). If someone shares a “directive word” with you (eg. where to live, work, etc) let it serve as “confirmation” not “obligation.” If it doesn’t resonate with something you and your mentors already sense,then “put it on the shelf” if it doesn’t fit.
Prophecy is an art not a science. Anyone who says otherwise needs to read the Bible a bit more.
Don’t get me wrong: Prophecy can be practiced in a safe way IF we use some of the above safeguards. Remember, it’s just a tool. In the hands of mature Christians, it can be a powerful gateway to revival (see Acts 9:11-17; Acts 10:19). But, even Godly people make mistakes! And that’s all the more reason to apply Pauls advice:
“20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.” 1 Thess. 5:20