When I was in college, I had the opportunity to go on a mission trip with our campus ministry. It was an exciting opportunity with other college students from other schools in the region, but I was hesitant to commit because of the cost. It was $500, not outrageous, but to a broke college student living on ramen noodles and Easy Mac it seemed like a small fortune. After contemplating the opportunity and the cost, I decided not to go. I didn’t think I could get the funds together.
About a week after I made my decision, I was praying in my dorm room, and I had a strong sense that I should go on this trip. When I started praying, the trip was not on my list of things to pray about. But in the middle of my prayer, God called it to mind (another example of the “inner voice”), and I sensed that He was saying I should go.
At that point in my spiritual life, I was never one to say that I heard something from God. I wasn’t sure that God spoke to people apart from His Word. I was always skeptical of people who said, “God told me.…” But at the moment I couldn’t deny that it was God who was prompting me to go on the trip. When I finished praying, I went right to my campus ministry director and told her that I was going to go on the trip. All that was left was to find $500. I had no idea how I was going to do it.
The Desire for a Sign
If you’re anything like me, when God calls you into something, you hope that God will give a clear sign of confirmation before you move forward. For example, in my situation above, I would have loved for God to say, “Bryan, I’m calling you to go on the mission trip. And if you look outside your dorm room door, you’ll find an envelope with the money that you need for the trip.” That would have been incredible and given wonderful reassurance that I heard correctly from the Lord. However, it didn’t happen. There was no envelope. There was no money. The reason being, perhaps God speaks to us in a way that requires us to exercise faith.
If I were to design a formula or a process around hearing from God, it would be, step one, hear/receive God’s instruction or call. Step two, receive a clear and tangible sign confirming God’s instruction or call. Three, respond and act on that call.
But as I read stories throughout the Bible, I find that when God speaks to people and calls them to do something, it requires some measure of faith on the part of the individual trusting that God will give them what they need once they get going.
Stepping Out in Faith
There’s a story in Acts 8 of one of the early church leaders, Philip, who receives a pretty intense and obscure call from the Lord. We read in Acts 8,
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road — the desert road — that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (v26)
Notice how little instruction and clarity the Lord gives Philip. The Lord gives him a direction, “south.” And a land marker, “the desert road.” And that’s basically it.
He doesn’t tell Philip specifically where He’s sending him. He does mention Gaza but doesn’t give any indication that Gaza is his destination. It just helps Philip set his general course. The Lord doesn’t tell Philip why He wants him to go that direction either. There’s no plan. No clear mission. No objective that he’s to accomplish. The Lord just says, “Go south into the desert.”
And what I find amazing is that the very next verse says,
“And so he started out.” (v27)
Philip just went. He received a call from God. He didn’t ask for a sign. He didn’t look for extra clarification. He just went. He moved forward in faith and went.
What if I’m Wrong?
I think one of the reasons we hesitate in responding to something we believe might be from the Lord or the reason we desperately want a sign to confirm what we believe we heard is that we wonder and question, what if I’m wrong? What if this wasn’t from the Lord? We’ll look more at that next week. But a quick answer is that I think God would rather us put the effort into practicing hearing from and responding to Him and get it wrong, then never try at all. As a father, I would rather have my daughter put in a sincere effort in her homework and get it all wrong, then never put any work in at all. God is good and gracious and will use even our failures to teach us. It’s another way that we grow in our faith.
After signing up for the trip, I had to raise $500. I sent support letters to friends, family members, and churches. It was a week before the trip, and I was still $200 short. I was greatly discouraged, starting to wonder whether or not I heard wrong.
At one of our campus ministry meetings just days before the trip, a fellow student came up to me and said they heard I was raising support for this mission trip. Not knowing where my support level was at, she sensed the Lord telling her to ask her church if they would consider supporting me. And they said yes! They were going to give the $200 I still needed. I was so excited by the unexpected news. I finally had the confirmation that I was looking for.
But what I learned through that process was that hearing from God is less about whether or not we get it right or wrong. What if I did get it wrong and didn’t raise enough money and couldn’t go? That wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world. Disappointing, yes. But not a disaster.
What I learned is that hearing from God is less about a silver bullet message or an overwhelming sign in the sky giving assurance and confirmation. It’s about engaging with God in a way that requires us to exercise our faith muscle and increase our dependence on Him. The more we do, the more readily we’ll be able to recognize His voice.