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The scent of tropical sunscreen mingled with the aroma of spicy Mexican food as Eric (my husband, who was then nineteen) sat in the oversized restaurant booth, crunching on tortilla chips and engaging in small talk with his fellow camp counselors. They had just ended a week of being “good spiritual influences” for several hundred kids at a Christian summer camp. Now, after several days of leading obstacle courses and strumming their guitars around the campfire, it was time to kick back and take it easy. All the camp counselors were young, popular, attractive, and outgoing. And they all had one subject at the forefront of their minds: relationships.
Within minutes, they were whipping photos out of their wallets to show off the gorgeous guy or girl they were dating back home. Eric shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Only a year earlier, he probably would have had his own photo to whip out and show everyone. But God had done a powerful work in his life. He had surrendered his existence completely to Jesus Christ — including the area of relationships. He was no longer jumping into casual dating relationships and flirting with girls.
Eric had decided to trust God to bring his future wife along in His perfect time and way, without human manipulation. He had confidence that God would be faithful in this area of his life. He was learning to wait patiently for God’s perfect timing and to keep his focus on Christ.
But the idea of “waiting on God” was a foreign concept to most other Christians in his life. And he knew it would not be understood by his fellow camp counselors in the oversized booth.
After several moments of “oohs and ahhhs” while the impressive photos were shared, the question finally came that Eric had been dreading.
“So, Eric, who are you dating now? Show us a picture of your girlfriend!”
He felt his face turning red. How could he articulate his decision to trust God with his love story, without sounding like a wild-eyed fanatic? Finally he mumbled sheepishly, “I’m waiting on God.” He had to say the sentence two or three times before they made out his words. When they finally grasped what he meant, there was an awkward, unbelieving silence around the table.
“Oh, um, that’s interesting,” one of the girls said, looking at the others with an expression of concern and alarm.
“What exactly does that mean?” demanded one of the guys. “Waiting on God?”
Eric swallowed hard and tried to explain. “I’m not going to date until God shows me who my future wife is. I’m waiting for Him to put the relationship together in His own time and way.”
After another moment of shocked disbelief, one of the guys spoke up. “I totally disagree with you!” he shot back. “I believe that God gives us the choice — He lets us pick who we want to marry, and then He blesses it. We aren’t supposed to wait around for Him — it’s our responsibility to take action and make these decisions for ourselves!”
“All I know,” Eric responded quietly, “is that whenever I’ve tried to make the choice myself, it ends in disaster. And even if God lined up ten girls in front of me and told me, ‘Eric, you pick one!’ I would fall on my knees and give the choice back to Him. I would say, ‘God, You know me better than I know myself — You pick!’”
Eric’s “waiting on God” speech didn’t go over well among the camp counselors that day. But his decision to wait on God was something he has never regretted. Two years later, Eric and I met. And God unfolded a story that only He could write; a story that would have been entirely missed had either of us attempted to write our own love stories out of impatience.
We discovered firsthand what the well-known principle says: “God gives His best to those who leave the choice to Him.”
“Leaving the choice to God” is not a popular course of action these days, even among Christians — whether it’s the choice of who to marry, what job to take, or what to do with our free time.
In fact, many Christians — just like the young man who so passionately disagreed with Eric that day — believe that it is more spiritual to use our common sense, follow our hearts, make our own decisions, and then ask God to bless them.
The idea of waiting for God’s leading before we move forward with a decision is becoming a foreign concept among modern believers. Over the past two decades, several popular books have promoted the idea that God wants to train us for independence, rather than bothering Him for answers on every decision we need to make in life. Other books have taken the position that we only need to look to our personal desires to know God’s will for our lives.
If you’ve ever been confused about what role God wants to play in your decisions or how to determine His specific will for your life, you are not alone!
Let’s take a look at what the Bible has to say about hearing God’s voice and being directed by Him.
Can we really know God's voice?
In the classic film, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom’s sister, Betsy, prays a desperate prayer while suffering in a concentration camp, “Lord, don’t let me hear my own voice and think that it’s Yours!”
How I can relate to those words! It’s all too easy to listen to the voice of my own desires and emotions and assume they are coming from God. But His Word reminds us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts…” (Is. 55:8).
So how can we distinguish God’s voice from our own thoughts?
Amid the many clamorous voices of the culture, other people, and our own emotions and ideas, it’s easy to adopt the mindset that God’s voice is difficult to hear and recognize — or that He really doesn’t speak to us other than generally, through His Word.
But Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn. 3:27).
And in the first chapter of James, we are told to ask God when we need specific wisdom for our daily lives. I love the simple clarity of the Philips translation:
"If any of you does not know how to meet any particular problem, he has only to ask God — who gives generously to all men without making them feel foolish or guilty — and he may be quite sure that the necessary wisdom will be given him" (Jms. 1:5)
In Proverbs, we are told not to lean on our own understanding, but to acknowledge Him in all our ways, and expect Him to direct our paths. (See Proverbs 3:5-6.)
And in the Psalms He reminds us, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye” (Ps. 32:8).
All throughout Scripture it is clear that God desires to guide us, direct our paths, give us wisdom, and show us the way we should go. What an incredible privilege! He doesn’t leave us to figure things out for ourselves; He desires to be intimately involved in the details of our daily lives.
But are we allowing Him to? Are we inviting God to be the Ruler of our daily lives and decisions, or trying to keep Him in the position of “back seat driver” — only asking for His opinion when it’s convenient and comfortable to do so?
To help answer this question, let’s take a closer look at the biblical pattern for hearing God’s voice and discerning His specific will for our lives.
In her book Tramp for the Lord, Corrie ten Boom describes the way that she made decisions about where to travel and minister. She would place her Bible and her map on the bed, and prayerfully ask God to direct her to the part of the world that she was to go to next. Sometimes He would direct her to specific Scriptures that made her way clear, other times she would be strongly burdened for a particular country or people group.
This may seem like a presumptuous or overly simplistic way to hear from God, but her stories of His clear leading are truly remarkable. For example, one time she felt impressed to go to South America. Even though she had no contacts there and did not speak the language, she and her assistant traveled across the world to get there. When they arrived, hungry and exhausted, there seemed to be no clear open doors for where they could stay or minister. But God continued to reassure Corrie that she was in the center of His will. And soon, through a supernatural set of circumstances, she was led to a group of pastors who were meeting secretly — because of government persecution — and praying that Corrie ten Boom would come in person to encourage them.
When I read stories such as these, I often find myself wondering, Can every Christian learn to hear God’s voice that clearly, or is it only a privileged few that have a better handle on His guidance than the rest of us?
I believe that it is possible for God to personally lead and guide us with as much clarity as He did Corrie ten Boom, but also that His clear leading is conditional upon the state of our souls.
Corrie ten Boom — and many other Christians like her — heard God’s voice clearly not because they were “special Christians” but because they were walking in the biblical pattern for being led by His Spirit.
Let’s explore some of the key requirements for hearing God’s voice clearly in our daily lives and decisions.
Jesus tells us plainly, “without Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).
We must abide in Him, as a branch clings to the vine, in order to live the fruitful lives He has called us to. This principle is the opposite of saying, “I’ll make my own decisions and then ask God to bless them.”
We are not to lean on our own wisdom or understanding as we navigate life’s decisions. We are to be dependent upon Him; always having a listening ear and a heart-attitude that says, “Not my will, but Yours be done!”
Even Christ, when He walked this earth, did not make His own decisions; He waited for the Father to speak to Him, lead Him, and guide His every step. Though Jesus had every reason to trust in His own judgment and reasoning, He deliberately chose to be dependent upon the guidance of His Father:
"I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (Jn. 5:30).
If we are charging ahead with our own plans and agenda, without submitting to God and waiting for His guidance, we can’t expect to hear His voice or be led by Him.
James reminds us, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit,’ whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that’” (Jms. 4:13-15).
If you truly desire to hear God’s voice and be led by Him, take some time to let Him show you whether you are truly dependent upon Him. Are you completely submitted to His will, or are you pressing your own agenda? Are you abiding in Him daily, or are you rushing ahead with your own plans? Does your heart echo the words, “Not my will, but Yours be done?”
If not, take some time to let God deal with your heart. Ask Him for the grace to surrender everything to Him; to lay down your most precious dreams and desires at His feet. Surrendering to Him may seem like a restrictive step, but in reality it is the only path that leads to true life! And when you are truly surrendered to Him, you’ll begin to hear His voice and sense His leading in your life like never before.
Another flawed-but-popular notion among Christians today is that we can look to our personal desires to determine God’s will for our lives. Eric once talked with a young man who declared that since it was his greatest desire to be a film producer, he knew that was what God wanted him to do. When Eric asked if he’d ever submitted that desire to God, the young man looked at him oddly. “Why would I need to do that?” he asked, “It says in the Bible that God gives us the desires of our hearts — so I already know this desire is from Him.”
Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” At first glance, this verse may seem like a free ticket to “do whatever makes you happy” or “expect God to give you everything you want.” That’s the mentality this young man had. But let’s take a deeper look into what this verse is actually saying.
First, God giving us the desires of our hearts requires delighting in the Lord.
The word "delight" in this verse means “soft and pliable.” In order to truly delight in Him and receive the desires of our hearts, we must be soft and pliable to His will and His ways. If we cling tightly to our own desires, we aren’t truly delighting in Him.
Secondly, it says that God will “give you” the desires of your heart.
"Give" in this verse means to “deliver” or “put.” In other words, as we delight in Him, He puts the right desires in our hearts.
Think about how exciting that is! God actually shapes the desires of our hearts to match His desires for our lives. It’s not about God giving us what we want; it’s about the amazing, supernatural work of grace that changes our desires to be in line with His.
One of the ways that you can tell God is shaping the desires of your heart is that you begin to desire things that seem strange to the rest of the world; you begin to desire treasures in Heaven instead of treasures on earth.
I remember a moment when Eric and I felt a strong desire to adopt a little unborn baby in need of a family. We already had two young children and a very full ministry, but for some reason we felt inexplicably drawn toward bringing this child into our home. We prayed one night and asked God for the privilege of raising this child. Then we stopped and looked at each other, wondering: Why do we both desire something that is only going to make our lives more complicated and challenging? That’s when we realized that God was shaping the desires of our hearts. It wasn’t something we would have naturally asked for — but something God had burdened us to pursue.
Think about the many missionaries throughout history who have felt strong desires to go to places in the world where nobody else wanted to set foot. Gladys Aylward went to war-torn China because she couldn’t find anyone else willing to go there to preach the Gospel. Jim Elliot and his fellow missionaries were like children on Christmas morning in their excitement to reach the Auca Indians — though nobody else wanted to even go near them. Jackie Pullinger couldn’t wait to get into the Walled City of Hong Kong — a filthy, crime-ridden place where even law enforcement was reluctant to go.
Why did these men and women desire such strange things? Because they were soft and pliable toward God’s will and they had allowed Him to shape the desires of their hearts.
If you have personal desires and dreams, I encourage you to start by laying them at Jesus’ feet and asking Him to shape the longings of your heart. He may choose to grant certain desires you already have — for instance, the desire to get married and raise a family — but it is crucial that our desires are first completely yielded to Him.
Submitting your desires to God can be a scary thing to do. But if you are willing to take that step of obedience, you will experience firsthand the well-known principle that expresses, “God gives His best to those who leave the choice to Him.”
When Eric and I first began to sense that God may be leading us beyond friendship and into a more serious relationship, we made a strange decision. We chose to take a week apart, to not have any contact with each other, and to simply pray and wait on God for direction. We didn’t want the distraction of being around each other to cloud our ability to hear God’s voice. We took time to fast, to pray, to seek God’s direction in His Word, and even to gain counsel from trusted godly people in our lives. That week became such a crucial part of our love story. Instead of rushing ahead and presuming we knew what God was up to, we chose to take a step back and wait on Him.
Waiting on God for direction was not an easy thing to do. I was eager to know what the next steps were and where things were headed in our relationship. Inwardly, I would have preferred to just rush ahead and start making decisions. But by the end of that week, I knew it had been worth it. Instead of wondering whether my own desires and emotions were leading me, my feet were on the solid rock of God’s Word and His direction.
Psalm 27:14 tells us, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (NIV).
Why is the phrase “be strong and take heart” associated with waiting for the Lord? Because taking time to wait and let God make your path clear requires strength of soul — it requires faith. The Bible says that God is a “rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Do we believe that promise? Are we willing to diligently seek Him in order to find the reward that He has for those who wait expectantly on Him?
One of the reasons that many of us shy away from waiting on God is because we are afraid that His plans for us will be miserable compared to the plans we have for ourselves. It’s often easier to skip the step of waiting on Him, stop up our ears to His still small voice, and plow ahead with what seems good to us.
I used to imagine that if I truly waited for God to direct my steps, I would end up living the life of a sad, lonely spinster, sitting forlornly in a rocking chair and staring wistfully out the window for the rest of my life with a fifty-pound Bible in my lap.
But as I learned to lay my life before Him and truly wait on Him to guide me and direct my steps, I discovered the opposite was true! He didn’t have depressing, miserable plans for my life. His plans for me were good. He wanted to give me a hope and a future. As Corrie ten Boom so often said, “God has only plans, not problems, for our lives.”4 But I would have missed His plans completely if I had not taken time to wait on Him and seek His face before rushing ahead with my own will.
If you are facing any kind of decision — small or big — I encourage you to take purposeful time away from outside input and distractions and to truly wait upon God. Spend time in His Word; ask Him to speak to you specifically through Scripture and through giving you a clear sense of His direction in your own heart.
And as it says in Proverbs, “…those who seek Me diligently will find Me” (Prov. 8:17).
Proverbs tells us, “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 26:12).
All throughout Scripture God makes it clear that He opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. When we are prideful — believing that we have things all figured out and we don’t really need God’s help — that’s when we are setting ourselves up for a major fall.
In fact, the wonderful promise in Psalm 32:8-9 about God’s guidance, is conditional upon the fact that we cannot be marked by pride:
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, Which have no understanding, Which must be harnessed with bit and bridle…
If we are stubborn like a horse or mule, we cannot be led by God. Rather, our pride controls us just like a bridle controls a headstrong animal.
I once knew a Christian young woman who felt compelled to date a married man. She had all kinds of justifications for this course of action — he was going through a divorce and wasn't planning on staying with his wife anyway. He was a Christian man who had just made some mistakes, and most of all, she felt free to date him because she “knew” God had given her that freedom.
Why was this young woman so off-base in her ability to hear the voice of God? Simply put — pride. She was so confident in her own wisdom, her own reasoning, and her own ability to hear God that she was veering completely off-course without even realizing it. A closer examination of her life revealed that she hadn’t taken time to pray about the situation because she “just knew” it was okay for her to move forward.
What a danger pride is to our souls! When we are wise in our own eyes, we will be even less successful than a fool.
How can we avoid becoming wise in our own eyes? Here is a key truth that can keep pride at bay: God will never lead us to do something that contradicts His Word or His nature.
Anything that is done in fleshly pride is not inspired by Him — no matter how “right” or “spiritual” it may seem at the time.
Maybe you’ve felt drawn to start a relationship with a non-Christian man. Maybe you’ve justified this decision with all kinds of “spiritual-sounding” arguments about how you can be a good witness to him. But in choosing this path you are pridefully choosing to ignore God’s clear command, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14).
And when we allow pride, rather than God’s Word, to dictate our steps, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.
I’ve known prideful young Christians who feel justified in angrily confronting other Christians that they disagree with. They are fleshly, arrogant, and demeaning in their approach, but they have convinced themselves that they are being led by God because of the “truth” they are defending.
Once again, pride is in control and not the Spirit of God. And as James poignantly tells us, “this wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic” (Jms. 3:15).
The fear of the Lord is crucial to avoiding the trap of fleshly pride. Proverbs also tells us, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil” (Prov. 3:7).
We can’t treat Jesus — Lord of Heaven and earth — like a casual buddy who has a few good things to say. He must become our King, our Lord, our Master. He must be lifted high above our own thoughts, ideas, opinions, and human wisdom. We must adapt our thoughts around His truth rather than try to adapt His truth around our own ideas.
Remember, when we humble ourselves in His sight, He will lift us up. (See James 4:10.)
In addition to guiding us through His Word and the still small voice of His Spirit, God can also speak to us through the godly counsel of others. When Eric and I first began our relationship, we felt that God was challenging us to invite our parents to become a key part of our love story. Not to dictate our relationship, but rather to provide godly counsel and accountability along the way.
I never would have imagined that asking my parents to be a part of my love story would lead to such beauty. But it did! Rather than being controlling and dictatorial, they were life-giving and encouraging. My dad and Eric met on a regular basis to talk about how he could win my heart in a godly way. (And what girl wouldn’t feel like a princess with the two most important men in her life talking about winning her heart?)
If you have godly parents, consider how you can invite them to provide godly counsel to you as you navigate important life decisions. Even if your pride tries to keep you from doing so, receiving godly counsel can be such an important key to hearing God’s voice and following His leading.
Gaining input from others isn’t a replacement for seeking God on your own and having your own relationship with Him. Rather, godly counselors can provide confirmation to what God is showing you, as well as words of caution or re-direction when needed. If you don’t have godly parents, ask God to bring Christ-centered leaders or mentors into your life who can fill this role. The older generation often has a lot of godly wisdom to share — if we will simply humble ourselves to invite their counsel into our lives.
Of course, it’s important to make sure that your godly counselors are truly speaking things that line up with God’s Word and His nature. Don’t look for counselors who have a casual regard for His Word, but those who truly build their lives around God’s truth.
Proverbs 15:22 reminds us, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed" (NIV).
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Do you want to know God’s voice and be led by Him? Never forget that He is not trying to hide His wisdom from us or make His voice obscure. Rather, He is ready and waiting to direct our steps, as a good Shepherd lovingly directs His sheep. Jesus illustrated this in a parable He told:
“…[he] who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (Jn. 10:2-4).
What an amazing joy that He does not leave us to figure things out on our own, but is ready to gently and clearly show us the way we should go. All we must do is open our ears and seek Him with all our hearts.
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