Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks by Priscilla Shirer

Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks cover imageSummary: Discerning the Voice of God is a spiritual discipline that can be learned.

I am about eight months into a project to understand what people mean when they talk about discernment in the Christian context and how it can be learned and discussed. If you include the books that I read as part of my training to become a spiritual director and my previous general interest reading, I have read about two dozen books, many of them more than once, on the topic of discernment. I certainly do not believe that I have a clear understanding of all aspects of discernment. I continue to find new aspects of discernment that I had not thought about. And I have about two dozen more books on my list. But I have a handle on some aspects oft I have tentatively committed discernment tha to. That matters because in the case of Discerning the Voice of God, there are many areas of agreement, but my problems primarily come in three areas and my tentative commitments influence those.

First I want to mention the good. She is right that we can learn about discernment. And I think she is right to suggest that goal of discernment is to see is not to see if we will make the wrong choice. This quote from toward the end of the book I think is right.

“But here’s what I want to encourage in you—the big message of this chapter, perhaps the big message of this book. Try never to forget it. Here it is … There’s no code for you to crack. No puzzle He’s waiting for you to put together. No stick He’s dangling in your peripheral vision, then snatching away when you turn your head toward it. He’s not sitting up in heaven with the cameras rolling and stopwatches ticking, testing whether or not you’re spiritually sharp enough to figure out the next move He wants you to make.”

She follows that will what she understands the purpose of discernment to be:

When God speaks and causes your spiritual ears to hear Him, it is for the purpose of making Himself known to you. And not just in a textbook way. He wants to turn your knowledge of Him into your experience of Him. So when He speaks, you’ll recognize His voice because in following its directive, you will be put into position to experience God’s character in your life.

Primarily because of her theological commitments to the sovereignty of God and a cessationist understanding of the role of the spirit, we disagree on how discernment works and the method. Her method is summarized in her Five M model. She calls on us to look for the Message of the spirit, search for a Model in scripture, live in a Mode of prayer, submit to the Ministry of Eli (this is really about seeking after mentors and getting advice so the spiritualization of this one seems a miss), and expect the Mercy of confirmation. I would not disagree with any of these as tools of discernment.

However, throughout the book, her primary advice is to be a student of the scripture. I am all for understanding scripture. I think the Bible is the primary place we use to challenge our biases. All scriptural reading is interpretation and one of the book’s weaknesses is a lack of understanding of how cultural bias impacts us. For instance, virtually all of her illustrations of discernment are gendered. Men go to men’s bible studies or have business decisions to make; while women seek discernment about being stay-at-home mothers or home-schooling their children. If we do not understand how our cultural biases influence our scriptural reading, we will read our current cultural biases into scripture to confirm our desires.

This comes up in her discussion about drinking alcohol. She acknowledges that there is not a universal prescription against alcohol, but there is no discussion about how our current evangelical culture impacts her conviction against alcohol. Again, to be clear, I think she can have discerned that alcohol is wrong for her and that she can do that through reading scripture and seeking advice. But if she has not done any work to understand how other Christians at other times have understood alcohol, then she is not doing the work that her model seems to call on us to do.

And she regularly reads things into scripture that may be hinted at, but are not directly stated. For example, she says, “Wonder how many years Elizabeth and Zachariah disagreed with God’s timing on providing them a child. They never stopped praying until the days had obviously passed for them to conceive and bear children.” But scripture doesn’t say they never stopped praying for God to provide them with a child. She has read that into the passage and then takes that as a scriptural principle. Continuing to pray is a good idea, but when she invokes it as a scriptural principle instead of her interpretation of scripture, she draws on the authority of scripture to confirm her suggestions.

A lot of her somewhat off-handed advice is really good. For instance, she suggests that one of the ways we discern God’s voice is that God is loving and that the loving voice would be from God while the condemning voice is not. That generally is good advice if not taken too far to confirm our prior cultural values. She also suggests that God is patient, and if there is a push to make decisions quickly, that can be a sign that the decision may not be from God.

Part of what I appreciate about this advice is that she understands how God speaks to her. One difficulty in discussing discernment is that personal experience differs from universal prescriptions. This is especially true because her commitment to a particular understanding of God’s character and sovereignty is central to her understanding of discernment. For example, I have real questions about how she understands the character of God when she so positively commends this quote from Oswald Chambers, “Have you ever heard the Master say something very difficult to you? If you haven’t, I question whether you have ever heard Him say anything at all.”

Earlier in the book, she talked about God’s voice being loving, but then she assumes and directly says that if there is a choice between an easy thing and a hard thing, God’s voice is probably to do the hard thing. My concern about her use of scripture again comes up here.

“Suffice to say, when instructions from God are difficult—like Abraham’s were, like yours and mine often are—we tend to be slow to obey. Yet when God told him to do the unthinkable, Abraham immediately left for the mountain. And because he obeyed at once, he experienced God’s divine intervention.”

She suggests that Abraham has a history of immediately following God’s direction. But that wasn’t universally his mode of obedience. Hagar and Ishmael are counterexamples. We need the counterexamples in scripture to help us realize that the people of the Bible were not somehow different kinds of people. They were fallen, just like we are.

My final main concern is that her reliance on God’s sovereignty feels like it can cause people to submit to harm because it is God’s will. I believe in God’s sovereignty; I question whether we, as finite creatures, can perfectly understand God at all times. I think we can tentatively understand God. But one of the things that has led to my research into discernment is exactly this: what are our limits of understanding in regard to discernment?

Toward the end of the book, there is this passage:

My friend and mentor Anne Graham Lotz once said, “I never make a major decision in life, especially one that will affect another person, before I have received direction from God.” Yes, I expected her to say that. I feel conviction that I should expect it of myself. But what penetrated my heart was what she told me next—that for every major decision she’s made in life, there’s a specific Scripture verse she can point to as the one that God used to personally direct her. “When circumstances would have made me doubt a decision,” she said, “His Word has carried me through. And not once has He led me on a wrong path.” That’s powerful.

I read that section right after I saw on Twitter that Ann Graham Lotz wrote about the April 8 solar eclipse as the final portion of a Hebrew letter Aleph written over the US with the last three eclipses and was a sign of the end times. After the eclipse, she withdrew that post and rewrote it again. But that was an example of when you get into the habit of attributing to God our thoughts about God, it is easy to get into problems. And when we claim that we “always” do anything, we are probably fooling ourselves.

Overall, there was some good advice here, but I had a problem with the tone and orientation toward God calling us to do hard things. (That includes the concern about how the very gendered advice can lead women to submit to abuse.) I am also concerned about the problematic issues around her views on God’s sovereignty. If you are new to the discussion of discernment, I suggest starting with Hannah Anderson’s All That’s Good.

Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks by Priscilla Shirer Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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