I had a friend from outside church who was always hearing from God. It seemed like he had a direct hotline to God, while all I had were smoke signals and myopia. Sometimes I envied the simplicity and immediacy of his fellowship with the Lord, but most times I was cautious and doubtful. My reservations had to do with the content of what he claimed to have heard: often messages of judgment on the world, or Singapore, or the Church, and what the church should do. Most times I listened patiently and occasionally I felt perturbed, and even irritated.
It is wonderful for anyone to have an interactive fellowship with the Lord, and for one to have experiences of dialogue and conversation with God. He can even share his personal experience, “The Lord said to me….”. But when he starts saying, The Lord says this about you, about the church, about the world, and this is what must be done, it is a different thing. He has moved from the sphere of private experience to the public domain where his words can have implications and bind the conscience of others. Such claims to have heard from God need to be discerned (1 Thessalonians 5: 19-22). Discerning the voice of the Lord is important for otherwise it can hurt people, the church, or bring the name of the Lord into disrepute.
Such was the case with Jose Flores Pereiras, a Bolivian ex-drug addict pastor, who hijacked Aero Mexico’s flight 576. He threatened to bomb it unless he got the ears of President Felipe Calderon of Mexico. Jose Flores had “heard from God” that a great earthquake is about to strike Mexico City. It was an earthquake “like none there has ever been”. Having tried for six months to contact the President without success, he had in desperation, resorted to a liquid laden receptacle with lights on it. It took a pilot to persuade the pastor to release the 107 passengers unharmed. When the SWAT team arrested him, a few other passengers were mistakenly taken into custody too because Jose said there were three persons working with him. It later turned out that Jose was referring to the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit working with him on this unholy venture. And why did he chose 9/9/09 to hijack the plane? Because 999 turned upside down is the Satanic 666! By God’s mercy, he was not hurt. This story underlines the importance of discernment of God’s voice and the interpretation of apocalyptic scriptures.
The best people to discern the Lord are those who continually experience the unconditional love of God. I was meditating on the Gospel of John chapter 21. Jesus had called out from the shore in the early but dark hours of dawn, “Have you caught any fish?” And Peter and the disciples who had fished all night without success replied, “None.” Then Jesus said, “Throw your nets to the right side of your boat.” Which they did and they caught so much it shocked them!
Peter and the other disciples were too caught up in work to notice who was the one on the shore. But John alone perceived that the stranger who spoke was Jesus. Tellingly the text described John as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. The inference I draw from this is that those best equipped to discern the Lord’s voice are those who have matured from having tasted and felt the length and breadth, and height and depth of the love of God over and over again. Children of the heavenly Father who have drunk deeply from the fount of God’s grace and love are most able to distinguish the voice of love. Like nets in the hands of hardworking fishermen, they have been mended and made whole by divine love. It is love and grace that distinguishes God’s voice from Satan’s and from ours.
The Holy Spirit speaks to us in our thoughts. These thoughts are so natural we think they are ours, but later on reflection learn to recognize that it is an inspiration from the Lord. He also speaks to us as we meditate or reflect on the scripture or experiences of the day as Peter found out: “while Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him….” (Acts 10). Such precious illuminations or ideas need to be journalled in a notebook or smart phone or e-journal to see if they persist and are of the quality of love we are familiar with. This way we learn more and more his gentle whispers.
Another principle of discernment is that it is best done together with the Christian community. “It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit….” were the opening words of the final decision made by James and the elders of the Jerusalem Chrisitian community(Acts 15). The many scripture injunctions to be humble, teachable and submissive to one another, and to the leaders God has appointed over the church provide a healthy environment for hearing God. Collective spiritual intelligence is better than the lone judgment call. God has placed us in a body that grows and thrives because the members are inter-dependent for real growth to happen. Such spiritual environment is where spiritual discernment can best be practiced as a corporate discipline.
Having mentors and spiritual friendships with others we can confide in and receive mature input and feedback is an important part of discernment. I have spiritual friends who have been immensely helpful in discerning with me what God is doing in my life. In addition, during prayer retreats I have had spiritual directors and found them to be insightful guides. The Roman Catholic function of spiritual direction has in recent decades regained some acceptance in the life of the evangelical church and this augurs well for future.
When I read the report about Jose Flores Perairas, I thought, “Oh no another Pentecostal-Charismatic wreckage….another horror story where “hearing from God” is put in a scary light”. More fodder for the mocking secular press. The report only served up another example of why it is better to stay in the boat rather than try to hear and obey a living Lord. Why risk being like Peter who almost ended up being known as the apostle who drowned? Yet Jesus is the one who, in the midst of our stormy seas, lovingly coaxes and invites us to ride the storm, which is why hearing from God is an essential despite the attendant risks. Just do it with the discernment of one who is deeply loved and highly favoured, and discern God’s voice with the spiritually intelligent.