Undoubtedly, this is one of the most difficult questions I have had to answer. On the one hand, there are many who would too readily acknowledge any voice as the voice of God, and their fruits are readily apparent to those of us watching. But on the other hand, there are many who do not acknowledge any voice of the Holy Spirit at all, believing that God speaks only through his Word. I believe that there is a middle ground, but it is not at all clear sometimes what we must do to verify the voice of God.
Sometimes it is very clear and easy to verify that we are not receiving the prompting of God. Anytime we are contradicting the word of God, we are not in the will of God. I have had people come to me and say, “I know divorce is wrong, but this woman I have found is the right one for me. I believe God would have me leave my wife for this, my true love.” Such a sentiment, no matter how dearly held, is always wrong, as it contradicts the known and stated will of God in the Bible. We are to take our wives, and esteem them as better than ourselves, following the very model of Christ in laying down our lives for them (Ephesians 5). Anything which would contradict the plain and stated will of God is of our own desires, and not at all of God. So much is easy.
But the rest of it is more difficult. Consider two examples from the Bible. Zechariah had a visit from an angel, telling him that he was to have a child, and that he was to name that child John, and that John would be great in the sight of the Lord. Zechariah was old, and so was his wife, and they considered themselves to be past the age of child-bearing, and so Zechariah was naturally skeptical of the angel. In one sense I can identify strongly with him because what he and his wife had longed for was being granted to him. But perhaps Zechariah has a vivid imagination, and was wondering if perhaps he was not imagining what he wanted so strongly. I find myself quite capable of imagining the things that I want to happen, and often am not sure of what is what when I so imagine. At any rate, Zechariah doubts, probably the same thing that I would do under similar circumstances.
But the doubting gets a rebuke from the angel, who tells Zechariah that now he will be mute until the day that the child is born because he doubted the vision. Incidentally, the prayer of Zechariah is answered, for he asked, “How shall I be sure of this?”, and the angel surely gave him surety in the rebuke. Finding that he was not able to speak must have been quite a reminder for nine long months as Zechariah mused on the vision of God that he was utterly unable to share with anyone, even his beloved. Perhaps Zechariah’s example teaches us that God will, in the unfolding of time, make his will apparent. But it remains somewhat confusing to me because I remember that Zechariah was rebuked, and thus the implication that he was supposed to believe God. God I am always ready to believe—the problem of myself, and the question I am trying to answer is that I am not always sure if it is myself or the voice of God. How do I tell the difference? One thing seems certain—in this case at least—if God is in it, it will surely come to pass.
Gideon provides the second example from the Bible. He is perhaps more well-known for not being certain of the will of God than for anything else. Remember that he prayed for God to give him a sign that it is really you that is talking to me. The angel of the Lord touches the sacrifice of Gideon and utterly burns it up. That should have been enough. At least, I think I would have been fairly convinced of the voice of God speaking to me, but Gideon was not satisfied. He famously prays, first for the dry fleece and wet dewy ground, and then for the wet fleece with the dry ground. Perhaps it is best to look closer at the circumstances Gideon faced to better understand his doubts.
God sends Gideon with the vision of the angel to save Israel, but Gideon finds that it is more difficult than he himself had foreseen. Following the orders of the angel, he desecrates his father’s altar to Baal. The people of the town, finding their desecrated altar, demanded the blood of Gideon for it, but Gideon’s father refused to surrender Gideon. Almost before Gideon realized it, the people of Baal rose up against the town and were threatening to destroy it. Gideon found himself at the center of a controversy, and the Israelites began to flood to his defense, and began to take up arms. It is only at this point that Gideon lacks faith, and asks for a greater sign.
If we are to understand Gideon at all, then we must surely look toward his new responsibilities. Now he was being asked to put his very country’s lives at risk, and he was being asked to be the leader of what might well be termed an insurrection. It was not just on Gideon anymore; rather it involved the lives and deaths of thousands of people. Gideon wanted to make sure that God was directing this, and instead of deprecating him for his lack of faith, I should probably esteem his regard for his fellow man most highly. Whatever the reason, God saw fit to answer the prayer of Gideon with both wet and dry fleece. Gideon has given many of us since those days confidence to come to God and pray that his will may be made known. I have many times prayed as Gideon, that God might give me a sign, that I might know the will of God. Many of those times God has answered, and I find myself ever so grateful for the example we have been given with Gideon.
Unlike Zechariah’s example where Zechariah’s belief or unbelief did not seem to affect a lot of others, Gideon’s belief did impact a whole people. I find it very persuasive that God, in using Gideon, distills his men to a mere three hundred men, and then the Lord does the impossible with just those men. Zechariah was also an impossible example, a man past his years of childbearing, and yet with the promise of God, finding himself able to father after all. This is an encouragement to me, to notice our God of the improbable, and the impossible, yet working through our frail natures.
Looking at the two examples from the Bible, I can see God gaining glory in each, and the men getting their answers though perhaps not in the way that they might have first conceived. Gideon found himself to be leading an army, successfully, but probably far beyond his original conception of destroying Baal’s altar. And Zechariah found himself not only a new father, but the father of one of the most important men of the generation, who was to proclaim the very coming of the Son to a perverse generation. Was that far beyond the first conception of just finally being a father? I think that Zechariah found the vision of the Lord to be considerably more bold than his own vision of finally being a father.
Thus, we can learn that God will have the glory, and in the end, all will know the will of God, even though we may doubt at the first. This should give us confidence that the will of God will prevail as we watch and wait on him. But I find that I have not at all answered the question clearly. I have established that in the long term God’s will will become apparent, but that may not be of much help for the believer wanting to know whether it is of God, or it is of himself. In part 2, I will try to give several real life examples that will be of some relief, though I stress that this question is really difficult, and that time may prove the best distillate of all.