God communicates directly with us through His Word, the Bible. The Holy Spirit also communicates with us. Additionally, God can also use a godly friend or mentor to provide counsel full of wisdom (Proverbs 12:15).
How can I tell if I'm really hearing God or if it's just my own thoughts, or even Satan?
Though the Bible is full of God's will, we face decisions, big and small, nearly constantly that are not spelled out in Scripture. Should we buy the house? Downsize? Where should we go for vacation? How much should we volunteer? Should I date a coworker? How much screen time should we allow the kids? How do we know what will please God today?
In 2 Corinthians 10:5, we are told to "… destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ." How do we do this when we aren't sure where the thoughts come from?
First, we must understand what God has already communicated with us—through His Word, the Bible. This is the best way to weigh our decisions. "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16–17). There are scores of instructions for us in the Bible, and as we read and pray, we may find the answers to our dilemmas. When the answer isn't spelled out, we can pray.
Prayer is communicating with God. When we pray, we talk to God, and we listen for His leading. James 1:5 tells us that when we ask for wisdom, God will grant it. So, we should ask Him for help and listen and watch for His answer. James 1:6 follows this instruction with how to ask and listen: "But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind" (NIV). We ask in faith, or we should not expect to hear from God (James 1:7). He will answer. Often, God answers prayer with "yes," "no," or "wait."
When Christians listen for the Holy Spirit, we should have faith that He is with us always (Psalm 139:7–8). The Holy Spirit is our advocate (Romans 8:26–27) and desires to benefit the church (1 Corinthians 12:7–11).
God tells us to test the spirits (1 John 4:1) and we should strive for wisdom (Proverbs 4:7). Our modern world is full of noise, distractions, and diversions to distract us from God's will (1 Peter 5:8). We should not trust our feelings, but discern what is from God. To do so, we can ask a short series of questions that may help us discern.
First, is what we are "hearing" confusing or vague? God does not cause confusion, He brings peace (1 Corinthians 14:33).
Do our promptings go against God's Word? God does not contradict Himself.
Will your decisions lead to sin? "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16).
So, if the answer isn't apparent in the Bible and by prayer you have trouble discerning an answer from God, or even just to confirm the answer you think is apparent, seek wisdom and direction from a pastor, Christian friend or family member, or someone else who seeks and shows wisdom from God (Proverbs 15:22). GotQuestions.org, our parent site, has multiple articles that may provide insight as well as a team of volunteers who are happy to help with any individual questions you might have.
Believe this: God wants to help you make decisions that honor Him. Jesus said, about Himself, "When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice" (John 10:4). The better we know our Good Shepherd, the better we'll be able to discern His voice. Learn to listen for His leading. Practice your discernment. Pray for wisdom. Study the Bible. Seek confirmation from others you trust walk with God. Believe He wants you to honor Him.
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