15 Sep God “Told” Him to Quit his Job and He went Bankrupt: Why we Need the Church to Hear God’s voice
You don’t need to be in church to hear God’s voice. The beauty of the New Covenant is that the Spirit of God speaks to us wherever we are! This is one of the reasons Jesus said having the Spirit would be even better than being with him (John 16:7) – the Spirit is not limited to a person’s physical body as Jesus was. Some of the most life-changing times I’ve heard God’s voice have been when nobody else is around – in the car, on a jog; even while I’m sleeping! What’s more, we know that plenty of people hear from God independently of the church. In the Middle East, story after story tells of how Muslims have met Jesus in a dream (Read Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World?). God speaks to those who don’t know him, just as in biblical times.
So then, why do we need the church to hear from God?
God’s voice is best heard within the safety and accountability of the church community. This is the pattern we see in the early church and there are some excellent reasons for it.
A Fuzzy Filter
First of all, the church helps us to recognise God’s voice. When it comes to hearing from the Spirit, we know that we can get it wrong. We interpret life within the framework of our own minds and hearts. Our mindsets, our desires and our experiences all act together to create a “fuzzy” filter through which we hear from God (1 Cor. 13:12). That means we often mix God’s messages with our own. Typically, we hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see. This is why we need the community of God’s people. We need others to help us sort through the mixed messages and identify the divine one among them. But it’s not just the “community” as a whole that we need. “Community” means those who know and love us. These are the people who are familiar with our character and history; our foibles and blind spots. Because they know us, they are in a better position to make an objective assessment of our experiences.
I heard of a man who thought he’d heard the Spirit telling him to quit his job and to trust God for his livelihood. Time went on and nothing happened. Eventually, the man lost his savings, his home and nearly his marriage. Afterwards, he went to his pastor for counsel; “Why didn’t God come through?” As he shared with his pastor, it became clear that he had not heard from God at all – he’d been suffering from a severe case of burnout. He had interpreted his experience through the filter of his weary and exhausted mind. This man’s failing was not in his commitment to God, but in the fact that he hadn’t talked about his experience with someone who knew him.
This is the main reason we avoid doing “dream interpretations” at the God Conversations website (Read Why We Don’t do Online Dream Interpretations). When a stranger approaches us for advice, we have no context for their lives. We do not know them or their story. It is pastorally unsafe to judge the situation of someone we don’t know and whose trust we haven’t earned. God’s pattern is that we discern our experiences in the context of healthy and authentic relationships.
God Speaks Twice
The second reason we need the community of God’s people is that the Spirit uses other people to confirm his messages. Again, this is the advantage of the New Covenant. Under the old schema, it was more difficult to overcome subjectivity since only the prophets could hear from God. Now that everyone can hear from the Spirit (Acts 2:16,17), God can speak the same message to another person. In other words, God speaks twice.
This is the dynamic we see in the early church. On one occasion, the Apostle Peter was sitting on his rooftop waiting for lunch when he had a vision that contained an important message from God (Acts 10:9-23). The images of non-kosher food was a symbolic message about God’s heart for the Gentiles and a major turning point in the church’s mission. The question was, how did Peter know it was God? He was hungry after all. Then he fell asleep and dreamt about food!
The answer becomes clear as the story unfolds. We see that while Peter was hearing from the Spirit in Joppa, there was another person hearing God too. Over in Caesarea, Cornelius received a vision from an angel (Acts 10:1-8). The story shows how the Spirit brought them together – and they realise God had been speaking complementary messages to both of them. God confirmed his message through another person.
We shouldn’t be surprised when we see this pattern occurring in our own lives. God speaks to us individually and then repeats it to another person. Sometimes, the sermon in church will echo the same conversation we just had with God at home. Other times, someone in our household will have the same dream we just had. This is a work of the Holy Spirit confirming his message through community. There’s safety in more than one witness.
Party with the Spirit
There’s one final reason why we need the church to hear God’s voice. No one person experiences the fullness of the Holy Spirit. We need others in the church to show us what God is like. It’s not that different to human relationships.
Say you have a friend you’ve come to know fairly well. One day you attend their birthday party. You meet their family, their work colleagues, their next door neighbour and the friend they went to school with. As you listen to the stories of your friend from the perspective of others, you begin to know them in ways you’ve never experienced before. You see the fullness of who they are.
It’s the same dynamic with God. When we meet others who know him, we get to know him better. We hear stories of how God’s spoken to them. We witness how God works with others in different situations. Then we start to recognise his voice more easily than we ever could on your own.
The Spirit is not confined to a church building, to one individual or a specific time of the week. However, God has given us community so that we can discern his voice together. Hearing from God within the accountability of godly relationships provides us with a way to test our experiences and deepen our understanding of his ways. It’s the way God has designed it to be.