“God told me.”

There is great danger in saying, “God told me,” or “God spoke to my heart.” I hear a lot of people say things like this when it comes to making decisions, such as, “God is saying…” or, “God is leading me to…” Can God guide our thoughts or prompt us to choose wise courses of action? Yes, but we cannot be sure He is speaking to us unless we read it in His Word.

Tim Keller tells a story to illustrate this principle: The 18th-century preacher George Whitfield was one of the spearheads of the Great Awakening, a period of massive renewal of interest in Christianity across Western societies and a time of significant church growth. Whitfield was a riveting orator and is considered one of the greatest preachers in church history. In late 1743 his first child, a son, was born to him and his wife, Elizabeth. Whitfield had a strong impression that God was telling him the child would grow up to also be a “preacher of the everlasting Gospel.” In view of this divine assurance, he gave his son the name John, after John the Baptist, whose mother was also named Elizabeth. When John Whitfield was born, George baptized his son before a large crowd and preached a sermon on the great works that God would do through his son. He knew that cynics were sneering at his prophecies, but he ignored them.

Then, at just four months old, his son died suddenly of a seizure. The Whitfields were, of course, grief-stricken, but George was particularly convicted about how wrong he had been to count his inward impulses and intuitions as being essentially equal to God’s word. He realized he had led his congregation into the same disillusioning mistake. Whitfield had interpreted his own feelings – his understandable and powerful fatherly pride and joy in his son and his hopes for him – as God speaking to his heart. Not long afterward, he wrote a wrenching prayer for himself, that God would “render this mistaken parent more cautious, more sober-minded, more experienced in Satan’s devices, and consequently, more useful in his future labors to the church of God.”

Jonathan Edwards, who lived at the same time as Whitfield, commented as well on the way God speaks to us: “Impressions being made with great power upon the minds of true saints, with extraordinary experiences of grace and sweet communion with God, and attended with texts of Scripture strongly impressed on the mind, are no sure signs of their being revelations from heaven. I have known such impressions to fail and prove vain.”

God can or may guide us in extraordinary ways, and perhaps in our thoughts and feelings, but most often we’re told to seek after God in His Word. Apart from speaking by his Son, through his Spirit in the Bible, God does not promise that he will speak in any other way. That’s how hearing from God and decision-making should normally work for the Christian.