The question is “How do you know?” We contend, based on the Scriptures, that God’s Spirit continues to communicate with believers today, as He has throughout history, and even more so, since Jesus prophesied and commanded his disciples to be led by the Spirit after He returned to the Father (John 14-16).
Okay, so given this instruction, how do we know when the Spirit is speaking? Does “speaking” equal an audible voice? If it is non-audible but internal, how it this communication to be distinguished from our own thoughts?
How do you know? The question comes both from skeptics of “modern-day” revelation–the classic “maybe it’s just last night’s pizza,” as well as a sincere learner, seeking practical understanding of the ways and means of this ministry that our Lord has called us to. It’s a fair question either way, and I want to touch on a few shreds of how it can possibly be answered. Largely, it depends on exactly what is being asked.
If “how do you know?” means “by what means does one arrive at absolute certainty,” I think the answer is–rather obviously–you don’t. If it is a matter of objectively verifiable assurance or nothing, then, I admit, we will be stopped before we begin. Very freqently a friend of cessationist persuasion puts this kind of chalenge to me.
It’s a strange notion though–because in no other area of life may we depend on this level of knowledge. I mean, I wish engineers and architects to have their facts and figures straight, and doctors and pharmacists to exercise care and precision every step of the way.
But for the most part, we go through our day, sensing and approximating and relying on unconscious recognition and “good enough” knowledge. When I was learning to drive, I recall my instructor asking how we know when we are in the center of the lane. I imagined some mental calculus about lines on the road and the position of the hood ornament or some other practical measure. His answer was none of these. Essentially, one learns just to know–to do it by feel.
Generally, we do the same with spelling and grammar, using the “sounds right” and “looks right” principle. These are far from fool-proof, of course, and accuracy varies from person to person, but unconscious awareness is a powerful tool, and we use it far more than we do conscious calculation.
Some people object to the notion of the Spirit speaking through an “impression.” What we experience as a “hunch” or “impression” is an extremely common mental phenomenon. That “I’ve forgotten something” feeling often happens when I’m walking out the door, and experience has shown me that I ignore it to my own regret. It usually reflects reality, though the specifics don’t rise above the surface of awareness. It is a very real, useful, and valuable part of our mental processes.
We perceive many things without that awareness achieving the precision of “knowledge.” Recognizing voices is another prime example. When my wife calls me from across the house–as she does not infrequently–though I cannot see her, though the sound is muffled, and though I may not make out the words–I know it to be her though I cannot begin to prove it. Likewise in a crowd at the park or at church, it is usually possible (though not infallably) to identify which call for “Dad” coming from behind is for me and which is not.
Recently our cat went missing. After several days, my presumption was that she had been accidentally killed and I was resigning myself to the idea that we would not see her again. But arriving home one evening, when the neighborhood was still and quiet, I heard the faintest sound of a meow. I would not have thought it possible, but instantly I “knew” it was our cat. Though I could offer no objective evidence, I also had no real doubt, and was convinced enough brazenly to wake my neighbor and ask him to open his garage door. I suspect she (the cat) knew the sound or our car, as we somehow mangaged to discern our pet’s voice from all the nearly identical sounds in the neighborhood.
So the answer, much of the time, is you don’t know–even if you do “know.” We are made to operate on perception and awareness that are perfectly elusive and hardly able to be objectified or proven. So it is, much of the time, with the Spirit.
Practically, then, once we are convinced that the Spirit of God does communicate to our spirit, we do ask ourselves the same question “How do I know” all the time. Frankly, I have noticed something about perceiving something prophetic for someone–my typical reaction is to feel fairly certain that it is “just me.” In this case I’ve learned–paradoxically–that when it “feels” as if it is “just me,” very often it turns out to be what I later conclude to be genuine communication from the Lord. I can be much more certain afterward, when my “word” correllates strongly with several others from other sources, ties in with, say, something the person was reading or what he/she was recently praying, or some other connection, and ends up giving significant upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation. These kinds of “impressions” are often well-verified after the fact, but all-too easy to dismiss ahead of time.
What is the Lord liable to use, to bring an idea to our attention? When I was still a cessationist, one day I was chatting with a missionary friend, a lady who struck me at the time as–well, rather “spacey” in this regard (though I changed my opinion and honor the memory of this saint who served the Lord even to martyrdom.) She told me once she was praying in a room where several boxes were stored. One of these had “chain saw oil” printed on the side. Her thoughts were immediately carried to a brother back on “the field” whose name was Chang So. “And oil represents the Holy Spirit” she told me. My first reaction was that the notion was a bit silly–the Spirit speaking by a play on words and a simple coincidence. I wish I had a great story of precise timing–the beloved national Christian being plucked from danger at the precise instant my friend’s prayer rose to heaven. But I have nothing to prove anything here. I just know that one way or another he came to mind and she prayed for him.
Was that the Lord? How do we know? We don’t know. But I’m pretty sure of a couple of things: it was sufficient to cause my friend to pray for the man. Why should the Spirit disdain to employ a “silly” method such as this, if it effectively brought the result it did, to one open to it? Second, given my disposition at the time, I would have missed it, the idea being altogether too “silly,” and it is I who would have missed an opportunty of service to the Lord.
But is this Biblical? Consider the Lord’s communication to Jeremiah, at the very beginning of his prophetic career, when he was just learning to hear the voice of the Spirit:
And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see an almond branch.” Then the LORD said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.” (Jeremiah 1:11-12 ESV)
I’m afraid that the mechanics of what is happening in this brief exchange is obscured in translation. What Jeremiah sees (either in a vision or physically) is the branch of an almond tree, in Hebrew shaqed. Upon which the Lord replies with a pun: “I am watching (shoqed) over my word.”
Now, here’s a bit of something I definitely cannot prove, and even has the virtue of being a bit “silly.” Even the apostles would have had to know when the Lord was indicating He was about to act. Jesus Himself said He only did what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19).
Peter said to the lame man “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6) How did he know he had healing available for that man at that time? The text doesn’t tell us.
Paul “saw” that a man had faith to be healed (Acts 14:9). How did he see? How did he know? The text does not tell us.
Peter prayed for a woman named Dorcas or Tabitha and raised her from the dead. How did he know this woman would be raised? I’m not sure he did know, but someting about the circumstances may have struck him as almost déjà vu.
Once Jesus healed the daughter of a man named Jairus. Mark records the incident this way:
But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking. (Mark 5:40-42 ESV)
Now here is Luke’s account of Peter raising Dorcas:
So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. (Acts 9:39-41 ESV)
Now the Dorcas event had to recall the raising of the little girl by Jesus. But there is a “silly” coincidence of Dorcas’ Hebrew name Tabitha (both mean “gazelle”). It differs by one letter from “little girl”: talitha. Is this significant? Maybe. Maybe not. But, though Luke does not tell us the Aramaic, the words Peter spoke would have differed from Jesus words on that previous occasion by that same single consonant:
- Jesus: talitha kumi (“child, arise”)
- Peter: tabitha kumi (“Tabitha, arise”)
Is it possible, that as the Lord was using Peter to continue the works of Jesus, and as Peter was learning to trust the voice of the Spirit, that He used coincidence and a play on words to direct Peter’s prayer? I don’t know, but it certainly looks to me as if Peter consciously imitated Jesus at that moment–building on the similarity of two words.