I have written a book on the Bible that will be published in the Fall of 2017 called Reading to Grow: A Field Guide to the Bible. In the book, I’ve tried to answer most of the questions my students have asked about the Bible in my last decade of teaching college students. The book provides a survey on how to interpret and apply the Bible, explains how language relates to God, and even provides a section on how to choose a good translation. One of the topics covered has to do with the practical aspects of daily living with God’s word. Specifically, how do we find divine guidance?
One of the most asked questions from students is surprisingly not about a tough objection to Christianity, but about God’s will in their daily life. I’ve heard so many say, “How do I know whether God wants me to….” It is easy to fill in the blank with the questions they’ve asked. Whether it is going to college, where to go, starting a business, or marrying a particular person, these are all major decisions people make. A Christian that wants to be ‘in God’s will’ often spends countless hours trying to discern exactly what God wants from them in these realms.
One particular bit of advice I’ve heard is that a Christian should listen to the ‘still small voice’ in their heart to find God’s will. This statement is so popular that it has become synonymous with really ‘hearing the voice of God.’ When a friend says to pray about something, the follow-up with them usually contains some reference to ‘hearing’ from God about the subject.
These references are all taken from the passage in Scripture where Elijah is running from Jezebel and meets God on a mountain. In 1 Kings 19, we find the story. Right before this, Elijah had the prophets of Baal put to death after proving Yahweh is God and Baal is not. Upon hearing that Queen Jezebel sought to put him to death, he flees into the wilderness. God speaks to Elijah while he is in a cave and asks what he is doing. God then directs Elijah to go out of the cave to stand before the Lord. The text then says in verses 11-13:
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The popular reference fails to correspond to what is really occurring here. When looking at this passage note that Elijah didn’t hear this voice in his heart. He audibly heard God’s voice in his ears. There was no inaudible voice in his heart. The application of the phrase ‘still small voice’ to a feeling in the heart of a person abuses the context of the narrative.
BUT, one may aver, this is how God speaks to me through my heart. I feel things and know it is God’s voice even if it is not audible. So, even if the Elijah reference doesn’t directly address how God is speaking to me, I can still use the language of a ‘still small voice’ to express my experience of God’s guidance to me.
There are at least three problems to note about this response. First, Christians should use Biblical phrases in a way that is consistent with the Bible. When they are not used in accordance with the Bible, people think these phrases are simply God’s way of directing us. The phrase taken out of context becomes what people think the Scripture says to do. It actually misses the point of the narrative and leads to an immature and unbiblical approach to decision making. This leads to a second danger. Using this particular Biblical phrase in a way it is not used in Scripture gives divine sanction to decisions made due to hearing this still small voice in the heart. Of the many teachings about the heart, God clearly says that the heart is deceptive above all things (Jer. 17:9). Allowing our heart to guide us and giving it divine sanction is dangerous! A third danger is that people equate their feelings with divine guidance due to misunderstanding what the voice is with which God speaks. All Christians recognize that God does speak to us. Without question, He speaks through His word. In directing our attention from God’s objective word to our subjective feelings opens up a world of troubles. I’ll ask friends that speak this way: how do we know these subjective feelings are really God talking? How do you know it isn’t indigestion from bad Mexican food or a deceptive demon?
We can have the assurance of what God has revealed about how we should act in His word. To trust our feelings as if they equal God’s still small voice in Scripture is not only wrong, it is dangerous. Those really seeking what God wants from them can find all they need to live a mature life in the Bible. Remember what Paul tells us in 2 Timothy (3:16-17): All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. We should strive to read, memorize, and apply God’s word daily to have an abundant life.