A natural question people ask when it comes to hearing God is, "What if I get it wrong?"
I have a friend that says, "Misguided obedience is better than no obedience." Meaning, it's better to seek God sincerely and actively try to hear His voice and get it wrong, than not try at all.
There's a story in Acts 16 (v6-13) where the Apostle Paul and his companions are on a Missionary journey in the province of Asia (modern day Turkey). As they traveled, we're told that they were "kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to (v6-7)." Implying that they had plans to do ministry in Asia as well as go into Bithynia, but God said no.
This could mean one of two things, either they didn't seek the Lord at all in their planning and they just simply went head into Asia. Or it could mean that they did ask the Lord, but heard wrong.
The story continues, once they were prevented from entering to Bithynia, they went to another city called Troas, where they stayed the night. During the night, Paul had a dream of a man in Macedonia, begging Paul to come because he needed help (v9). Paul's response was he and his team "got ready at once to leave for Macedonia" (v10).
I love the immediacy in Paul's response to God's prompting. There are times that I wonder if God is prompting me, and instead of immediately leaning into it to see if it is from the Lord, I readily talk myself out of it. However, Paul responds at once.
But here's what's really interesting about the story. Once Paul arrives in Macedonia, he goes to a town called Philippi. Even though the night before he sees a man in his dream asking for help, when he arrives in Macedonia he doesn't find a man. Instead, he finds a group of women, and they don't appear to need help. They've gathered by the river to pray.
Again, this raises the question, did Paul actually hear from the Lord or not? Was his dream a divinely guide dream, or just a dream that he claimed to be from God but wasn't?
Truth be told, I don't really know. But here are three encouragements about hearing God from this story
1. We're not always going to get it right.
When it comes to hearing God, it's easy to put pressure on ourselves, believing we should always get it right. Sometimes this pressure prevents us from growing in our ability to hear and respond to Gods voice. I once heard a music teacher say that listening is a learned skill. At first, I thought her statement was ridiculous. I remember thinking, "Listening is one of the five senses. You don't have to learn to listen. Either, you can hear, or you can't."
But then, I found myself pointing out different sounds to my two-year-old daughter while out on a walk. I was pointing out the birds singing, dogs barking, and a train barreling down the tracks in the distance. I was teaching her how to listen for different unique sounds.
If we have to learn to recognize different sounds out in the world, how much more do we have to learn and grow when it comes to recognizing God's inner voice in our soul.
We should also take comfort in the fact that if the Apostle Paul didn't always get it right, we may not either.
2. God isn't looking for perfection.
The point of hearing God isn't perfection. It isn't merely about guidance on what to do next in life. What God desires most is relationship, and growing in our ability to hear and recognize God's voice increase that relationship. And a deeper relationship with God enables us to hear His voice more quickly and clearly.
We had some friends over the other day, and their kids were playing with our kids in our basement. While they were playing, one child got hurt and started to cry. Once we heard the cry, we all paused to listen. We were listening to see if it was our child or not. Unfortunately, it was our daughter. And based on the cry alone, my wife and I were able to identify which of our three children it was.
The reason we were able to pick out a distinct cry out of a group of kids was due to the relationship we have with our daughter. We spend so much time with her, we can pick out the sound of her voice even if she's sobbing and not talking.
God desires that our ability to recognize His voice would come from spending more and more time with Him.
3. God is still at work in our attempts.
Even though Paul may not have discerned the Lord's direction correctly, God was still at work in the process. Not only in Paul's life but also in the lives of those in Philippi. By the time Acts 16 is over, a new church had been started, a young woman was freed from an oppressive spirit and maybe even freed from slavery, and a jailer and his family were saved. God was powerfully working in and through Paul in Philippi even though leading up to that point Paul wasn't able to execute his plans to preach in Asia, enter into Bithynia, and maybe got the details of his dream wrong.
When growing in our ability to hear God's voice, we shouldn't grow discouraged if we feel like we didn't get it right. Instead, we should see those moments as a catalyst for a deeper relationship with God, trusting that He's still at work even if we get it wrong.