Lord, does the Bible really teach that You want to ‘talk’ to me, personally, in my heart? And does it teach that You want to do this all the time?
Some years ago, I came to the Lord with those questions on my heart. I had been on a long, confusing, battle-fraught journey to reach this point where I could honestly ask Him. As a child, I was taught how wonderful it is to ‘hear’ God through the Bible, but also that any other way of ‘hearing’ God was a rival to the Bible and a threat of ‘adding to the Bible’: at best unnecessary, at worst heresy.
And then at age 18, I started to hear a “Voice” that I had heard once before in childhood, but then forgotten. It sounded a lot like my father’s voice: oh-so-loving loving, parental, calmer than mine, authoritative, capable of being firm. It came gently, as thoughts inside my head, crystal-clear and unexpected, interrupting my own less-loving thoughts. It said, I love you. It said, I don’t want you to do that anymore. It said, Come spend time with Me and let Me heal your heart.
It asked me to give up things I didn’t want to give up and do things I didn’t want to do. So initially, I fought it, kicking and screaming, “You can’t tell me to do that! That’s not in the Bible!”
When I fought the Voice, I was miserable. When I submitted, trusted, and obeyed, the losses hurt but the joy, peace and comfort of His presence more than made up for it. My life was transformed.
But I had never been taught that what was happening to me could be real. Let alone real and good. Let alone real and good and necessary.
I didn’t know how to discern ‘Not God’ from ‘God’ except to ask ‘Does it contradict the Bible?’ And I had a lot of thoughts that weren’t God and yet didn’t contradict the Bible! I tried obeying every thought that popped into my head, and ended up terrified and confused. I tried to shut the whole thing down, but missed Him terribly.
In one glorious experience, when He was healing me of a long grief, a significant loss, I heard the Voice say Come put your head on My shoulder and cry. The sense of Jesus sitting on my bed was so real, I could almost ‘see’ where His shoulder was, and ‘feel’ the warmth of Him and the smell of Him. I put my head down and cried there and came away healed and freed.
Consciously, I thought, “That is the sort of experience that happens once in a lifetime,” and “I will have to wait until I die and go to heaven to ever experience Jesus like that again.”
Subconsciously, I spent the next five years trying to earn back that sense of His presence.
Meanwhile, I had asked everyone I knew what they believed about God speaking, and I had lined their answers up on a spectrum. The most extreme position on one end was: “If you believe God is saying anything to you more subjective than correctly interpreting and applying the Bible as it was intended to be understood in its original context, even if you believe God is making one Bible verse ‘jump out at you’ more than other verses, you are adding to the Bible and this is ‘anathema,’ forbidden and accursed.” The most extreme position on the other end was, “The Holy Spirit wants to speak to you all the time, even to tell you whether to eat apples or pears for lunch, and you should listen and obey.” Everybody else I loved was somewhere in the middle.
And me? I didn’t know. But I kinda didn’t want to know either. Because not knowing was an excuse not to have to obey. I moved up and down the spectrum at will. If I sensed God saying, “I love you,” I said, “Hurray! God talks to me!” If I sensed God saying, “Go do this thing you weren’t otherwise planning to do” (although He never expressed an opinion on apples vs. pears!), I said, “Hey, You can’t tell me to do that. That’s not in the Bible.”
After five years of me wanting to feel close to Him without having to obey Him, God finally got my attention. The thought occurred to me that maybe when I had signed up for Jesus to be my Lord, the absolute Boss of My Life, I had really been signing up to obey Him no matter how He chose to communicate with me. I told Him, “I don’t know the truth about how You speak, but I promise that no matter how You choose to speak, to the extent that I know it’s You, I will obey You.”
I broke the promise. A lot. But it still changed my life. When I obeyed Him, He took me places I would never have gone, did things through me I could never have done, and took on all the lies and fears in my life in hand-to-hand combat. He brought people into my life who had experienced what I had: ‘seeing Jesus’ and ‘hearing Jesus’ give them pictures and thoughts and words that healed them of great trauma. And He whispered hope into my heart,
“What if I don’t only want to speak to you to heal great trauma? What if I want to speak to you all the time? What if I already am speaking over you all the time, whether or not you learn to listen and hear Me? And what if I really want you to? What if the Holy Spirit came to make your whole life one long ceaseless experience of Jesus? What if what I gave you that day you ‘saw’ Me sitting on your bed is not a taste of what I want you to wait to have in heaven, but a taste of what I’m yearning for you to receive by faith all the time? To picture the ways My word says I am with you and believe that it is true?”
I started to picture the Shepherd carrying me (Isaiah 40:11), the “Everlasting Arms” under me (Deuteronomy 33:27), the Savior holding me as one of the children on His lap (Matthew 19:13-15), His arms surrounding me “as the mountains surround Jerusalem” (Psalm 125:2). I imagined sitting on His lap “seated with Him in heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) the way He is “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). While I was washing dishes, walking the dog, falling asleep at night, I pictured that closeness with Jesus and dared to believe that it was really true.
And it was.
And for the first time Jesus stopped being something that was supposed to be more satisfying than all my ‘idols,’ and became to me someone Who actually was.
And that might have been the happy ending if I had been brave enough to share these experiences with others and to experience Jesus this way in community, particularly, in that Jesus-designed community called church. But I had swallowed two pieces of poison the enemy could use against me. First, I had heard individuals in my church speak very disparagingly of such experiences of God. I thought, “If I tell anybody, they’ll really hurt me.” And secondly, I had heard a lot of bias against Christians that were “too charismatic.” I didn’t know exactly why such people couldn’t be trusted, but I embraced the prejudice. I was afraid of being labeled as one of them and rejected too.
So I didn’t know that there were churches out there that taught Sunday School classes on the kinds of experiences of God that I had in secret and was afraid to tell anyone. I didn’t know there were books written on how to discern “God” thoughts from “not-God” thoughts and sermons about how this was supposed to be normal. I didn’t know there were congregations where hundreds of people listened to God and heard the exact same loving Voice I did. I didn’t know they could have helped me.
Afraid to tell the community I did have, and afraid to reach out to brothers and sisters in Christ who were different, I was alone. Alone and thinking, “My pastors and teachers were wrong in what they told me about this. Maybe they were wrong in everything, and I’m right. Maybe I don’t need them anymore.”
Did you catch the difference in the tone of that voice? That voice that feeds on bitterness and trades in pride?
So the thing that everybody fears the most, the thing that makes people think the whole listening to God thing isn’t worth the risk–it actually happened to me. I listened to the enemy and thought he was Jesus. For a season of my life, I did things he suggested to do and thought I was obeying God. Discovering that that was happening was the most upsetting thing that has ever happened in my life so far. But I’m still here. I survived to tell the story.
And I’m still listening to Jesus.
I marvel at that, sometimes. I think if there’s anybody who should have given up, thrown in the towel, and said this isn’t worth the risk, it should be me. But I’ll never say that.
God rescued me. He exposed my deception (by sending people who heard His voice telling them to!), reconnected me to His word and His people, and healed my shaken heart. He brought me into a community where there was good teaching on how to hear His voice in ways that are healthy and safe. Never stop seeking God through the Bible. Find trusted people you can share what you are hearing with and ask, “Does this sound like God to you?” It’s like a three-legged stool whose three legs are The Bible, Other Christians, and the Holy Spirit: if you remove one leg, let alone two, you’re likely to fall. But if all three legs are secure, so are you.
(The metaphor of the three-legged stool comes from Can You Hear Me? By Brad Jersak, and the teaching on Biblical safeguards and wise counselors comes from Dr. Mark Virkler of Communion with God Ministries).
So God brought me to a place where I was hearing Him and it was “working.” The fruit, as Jesus said (Matthew 7:15-20), was good.
But I was still thinking, “I have finally learned how to manage my apparently dangerous tendency to hear things from the Holy Spirit in a way that does not hurt myself or others,” and not, “I have learned how to experience the God of the Bible in the way He wants all Christians to, and I should be teaching others what I have learned.” And God was challenging me to make that enormous shift.
Because after all, if I would say that learning to “see” and “hear” my Heavenly Father and my Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit in this life is the best thing that has ever happened to me (and I would), how can I keep that to myself and claim to love my neighbor as myself?
And to make that shift in my thinking from, “hearing God is my secret I’ve always felt ashamed of” to “hearing God is my testimony that I want to share with the whole world,” I knew I would need to know it was really in the Bible. Not just in one or two places, but in the main point of the whole story. So I went to God to ask if that was true.
And when I did, my Bible exploded. Blew up in my face. I want to say, “Scales fell from my eyes” the way happened to Saul of Tarsus. And maybe that is exactly the right thing to say. Because Saul of Tarsus had, like me, read and loved and trusted the Bible his whole life. Yet he still rejected the God of the Bible when that God showed up in the Person of Jesus. And once Jesus had knocked him down, blinded him, unblinded him, and showed him He was the real thing, I love to imagine the joy and wonder with which Saul reread his Bible with new eyes and found that Jesus was in it everywhere!
I plan to write the next series on my blog to share with you the treasures I found when I reread my Bible with the scales off. But it all boils down to this: What if hearing God personally doesn’t ‘add to’ or ‘take away’ from the Bible, what if hearing God personally fulfills the Bible? What if the thing God had in Genesis 1-2, lost in Genesis 3, and has been fighting tooth and nail to restore ever since was 24-7 conversational intimacy with YOU? What if you don’t have to wait until heaven to hug Jesus and converse with Him and live together like you’re really best friends? And what if the thing Jesus was crucified for was that?