How does God communicate with us? How can you tell when He’s communicating with you? What do you do when you receive a message from God?
Samuel had the same questions.
Samuel Learns to Recognize God’s Voice
The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.
2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel.
Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
6 Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”
7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
11 And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. (1 Samuel 3:1-11)
So, how do we become listeners to hear God speaking to us? How can we emulate Samuel's words of "Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening" in our own lives?
First, we need to understand how God communicates.
How Does God Communicate?
Let’s list the methods God used in Scripture.
1. Direct verbal communication. Sometimes, God communicates with people directly, as in the case of God with Adam and Eve, or Jesus with Saul on the Damascus Road, not to mention Jesus’ earthly conversations
2. Through angels. God sent His angels to speak to various persons in the Bible, including Hagar and Mary the mother of Jesus.
3. Via dreams. Joseph and Joseph are great examples of this form of communication.
4. In visions. The prophets Daniel and John both had visions.
5. Through prophets. God gave His words to deliver to the people both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Some of the prophets words were forms or foretelling; some were forth-telling. In other words, sometimes a prophet tells the future. Other times, they simply reveal a true statement from God.
6. Through punishments and blessings. God communicated His pleasure or displeasure by either sending plagues and war on the disobedient or by providing protection and bounty to those who were following after Him.
7. By Divinely ordained consequences. An example of this is found in Numbers 5:16-22 in reference to a woman accused of adultery:
“‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. 17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a cursenot harm you. 20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— 21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”
“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
The adulteress woman and the innocent woman were both to drink the same water mixed with dust, but only the guilty woman would receive the negative consequence.
8. Through nature. David acknowledged God in saying that he was fearfully and wonderfully made. And in Romans 1:20, we read,
"For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."
There are also those odd stories about a talking donkey that was trying to protect his master from an angel and a great fish that swallowed and then spit out a recalcitrant prophet.
9. Through miracles. Though this may overlap with some of the others, a miracle is always communication from God. From the parting of the Red Sea to feeding 5,000+ people with extremely inadequate supplies, God used those stories to teach the people something about Himself.
10. Casting lots. In 1 Samuel 10:20-22, God used this method to help the people choose their first king.
When Samuel had all Israel come forward by tribes, the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. 21 Then he brought forward the tribe of Benjamin, clan by clan, and Matri’s clan was taken. Finally Saul son of Kish was taken. But when they looked for him, he was not to be found.22 So they inquired further of the Lord, “Has the man come here yet?”
And the Lord said, “Yes, he has hidden himself among the supplies.”
The Apostles did the same thing when they chose Matthias to replace Judas as one of the Twelve.
11. Through His Presence / the Holy Spirit. One of my favorite stories is found 1 Kings 19:11-13:
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
In 1 Corinthians 2:10-16, Paul tells us that God’s Spirit living inside us communicates with us and helps us to know what God is thinking.
12. Through Scripture. God reveals His will and His heart for us through the words of the inspired writers. Deuteronomy 30:9-10 reads,
“The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, 10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
And Romans 15:4:
“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”
I especially appreciate how the writers of the New Testament often referred to or quoted the Old Testament to validate their arguments.
So, these 12 methods are all ways that God communicated with people in the Bible. Each one has at least one example in both the Old and the New Testament. The question is: Does God still communicate with us in these ways?
Does God Still Speak in All of These Ways?
The short answer is yes. Though the modes of communication may have changed slightly, He has not retired a single one of them.
- speaks to people directly,
- delivers His message through angels,
- gives us dreams,
- provides visions,
- uses what others say (whether they be “prophets” or preachers or a Christian friend),
- disciplines us and blesses us,
- allows us to suffer the consequences of our or others’ sins,
- confronts us with the wonder of nature,
- shows His power in miracles,
- guides us through life’s circumstances (such as open and closed “doors”),
- nudges us with the Holy Spirit, and
- teaches us the Scriptures and the writings of other Christians
God may not have communicated to you in these ways, but there are plenty of trustworthy Christians, both historical and contemporary, who have claimed that God has used these methods to speak to them.
What If I Don't Hear God Speaking to Me in All of These Ways?
God does not speak to everyone in the same way. We all have different personalities and different spiritual gifts. You should, however, experience God speaking to you in some of these ways.
If you are open to God communicating with you, He will. But, like the boy Samuel, you may need to learn to recognize His voice and the ways that He wants to speak to you.
What if God Doesn’t Communicate with Me Often?
Most of these methods of communication are rare in a person’s life. I think of Abraham, the “father of faith,” who did have multiple conversations with God. But he also lived to be 130 years old, and if you count how many times God spoke to him, it doesn’t even add up to once per decade!
The godliest Christian isn’t claiming to see angels or to witness miracles every day. Most of the dreams you have are random nonsense or brought on by what you were thinking about that day. God doesn’t use that method of communication very often, and He may never use it in your life.
But other methods He can use every day. We can all witness the evidence of His power and care in the natural world every time we look at our own bodies or step outside. We should be able to feel His Holy Spirit working in us, recognize His teaching through Scripture or devotional reading, and receive His insights from the words of our fellow Church members around us.
If you don’t find God communicating with you in those ways on a regular basis, ask Him to open your heart and mind.
How Can I Tell if It's Really God Speaking to Me?
We’ve all heard the stories of people claiming to receive a word from the Lord that just doesn’t sound right. Other people do grievous things because “God told them to.”
I’ve found 5 ways to test whether what you’re receiving is from God or not.
1. Remember that God will never contradict Himself. As 1 Samuel 15:29 says,
"He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”
God isn’t going to say one thing in Scripture and then, tell you something completely different. He isn’t going to tell your spouse to lead your family one direction and tell you the opposite. He isn’t going to tell the church down the road one truth and tell yours something that would turn the Body of Christ against itself.
In some cases, both people or both bodies of believers could be wrong, but both can’t be right. So, test everything by what the Scriptures have revealed and what the historical Church has held to.
2. Compare it to what you know of God. Just as He communicates in the same ways over and over, His message doesn’t change very often. If you feel that God may be telling you something or directing you to do something that He’s revealed to or told other people to do, the chances are high that He’s giving you that same message.
If God is telling you something completely new, even if it doesn’t contradict Scripture or historical Christian teaching, question it. Why would God tell you something He’s never told anyone else?
3. See if others can confirm what He's saying. I love how the story of Moses and the burning bush ends. God has been directly communicating with Moses, and Moses keeps trying to get out of what God is telling him to do.
But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”
14Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you.
Ha! God had already been talking to Aaron, and he was already on his way. When God tells us something, and then, someone else says that God was communicating the same thing to them, that is a very indication that what you’re receiving is true.
In Matthew 18:19-20, Jesus says,
"Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
We can be confident when our Christian brothers and sisters agree with us. We know that we have more of a chance of being in God’s will when others can confirm it.
4. Wait for the message to come again. Similar to waiting for others to confirm the message, there’s wisdom in waiting to see if God will repeat what He’s saying. Gideon set the fleece out twice. If God wants to communicate with us, He’ll give us more than one opportunity to receive it. He may say it once in our Scripture reading, once in the sermon that week, once in something a friend says, and confirm it with an inward nudge from the Spirit.
If you only receive a message once, there’s more of a chance that it wasn’t actually from God.
5. It's not you. This one’s a little harder to define, but I believe that you can tell when something is outside of your thought pattern or outside of your control. You can recognize an outside influence guiding your thoughts, feelings, or circumstances. Your mind wasn’t going in the direction that communication came from. It was like Someone else just interrupted your thoughts. Or maybe there’s something you really don’t want to do, and if it was up to you, you wouldn’t. But there’s Something else pushing you.
Taken together with all of the other tests, this can be another strong confirmation of God’s activity in your life.
What Should I Do with What God Tells Me?
God doesn’t tell you something for no reason. So, when He does communicate with you, here are the two things you should do.
1. Believe and obey. When God communicates with us, it needs to change us in some way. Maybe it strengthens our faith, or draws us nearer to Him, or gives us a new perspective on who we are in Christ, or challenges us to live up to our salvation. Whatever the purpose, we can’t walk away from it the same. We need to respond in faith and obedience.
As James 1:22-25 says,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
2. Share with others. Here’s where we’ll finish our story about the boy Samuel.
Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, 16 but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”
Samuel answered, “Here I am.”
17 “What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.” (1 Samuel 3:15-18)
When God reveals something to us, it’s never for ourselves alone. God wants us to take that message and use it to encourage, teach, inspire, or convict others. God communicated with you, and now, He wants to use you to communicate with someone else.
So, with Samuel, let us say, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.”