I heard this NPR piece talked about on the radio yesterday and need to listen to the whole thing. It's a fascinating topic.
My own christian journey started in 1984, thru the testimony of a pair of Keith Green disciples who lived in a van and heard the "Spirit's" voice on everything from what to eat for lunch to the type of demons afflicting someone. When I left the tutelage of that duo and started attending a middle of the road evangelical church with "balanced" charismatic leadings ala Calvary Chapel in 1988, i found people who loudly derided the notion of praying about what God wanted them to eat for lunch, but who still consulted the Spirit's voice on things like where to go to college, what charity to give to, who to speak with about Christ, what job to take, WHO to marry, etc... Essentially it was the exact same principal, just with a more respectable, family-friendly veneer.
As I understand it, charismatics and evangelicals have been saying "God told me this" or "God told me that" since the 1970s.
This practice predates the 70's, at least in Protestantism, and was rampant among the Wesley-era Moravians who used to do things like "consult the oracle" (open the Bible randomly, like casting lots, and point to a passage). Wesley himself practiced this for a few years and so did many of his disciples. "God's leading" on mundane matters was also common during the first great awakening, but it wasn't until Charles Finney's era and then later the Welsh revival at the turn of the century, that it became prevalent. If you read any biography of that revival's leader, Evan Roberts, you know two things right away: the guy heard the Spirit speak to him about almost every detail of life and he was very likely mentally ill.(particularly post-revival, when he entered a severely depressive state and became a virtual recluse) It was Robert's movement that directly spawned modern Pentacostalism and Charismatic streams. The influence of those movements is so deep, that today even conservative non-charismatic denominations use Robert's language and model about God speaking to them about minute details and future decisions. Blackaby's "Experiencing God" program in the mid-90's, did much to encourage this posture within conservative churches who did not believe in the extant, supernatural gifts of the spirit, yet were now encouraged to hear god speaking to them about where to go and what to do with their life.
I think the whole practice is incredibly dangerous, to put it nicely. To be blunt, it's a real mindf*ck. I've felt its destructive effects in my own life to this very day-- guilt about possibly "doing my own thing in the flesh" and forfeiting some subjective blessing, anxiety about not doing EXACTLY what God wanted me to, real timidity/passivity about decision-making, excessive introspection and self-flagellation... and on and on the debilitating phobias go. Do I blame this teaching about hearing God's voice for all this? You bet.
In 1992, I was accepted to a Bible College and was about a month from leaving. At that time, well-meaning elders and brothers in the faith warned me about doing the will of God and "making sure" this was what God wanted from me. Mind you, this was in a conservative evangelical church. As the time drew nigh for my departure, so did the warnings about "really hearing from the Lord" about this decision. If going to school wasn't what God really wanted, I could botch up my life and end up shipwrecked, they said. Taking their advice, I drove to the west coast of Florida, got a hotel room and locked myself in there for days, praying and fasting-- wrestling with the Lord for an "answer". I was there for three days in darkness. Deafening silence. When I left, I went to Hardees and had a double bacon cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milk shake. I never went to that Bible College as a result of my non-encounter with God. And in retrospect, what a godsend! I drove back home across alligator alley with the tiny, new idea firmly planted in my brain-- something was seriously wrong with the evangelical Kool Aid I'd been guzzling.
I could go on and on. Over 20+ years in the evangelical church, I experienced this type of thing more times then i could count.
I would never argue about God speaking mysteriously to people, in a general sense. I still feel His presence at times and occasionally sense emotionally the music and sounds of that other world, yet to come. Those longings and surprising experiences are much sweeter and meaningful to me now in middle age than they were in my youth. But the idea of receiving specific, "personal communication" in any kind of normative sense, should be troubling to anyone. And that is what much of the evangelical church teaches. Not only that, but the individual is also responsible and expected(required?) to hear God this way and make decisions in their life accordingly.
The teaching can be and has been abused, of course. But I wouldn't characterize it as an exclusively evangelical or charismatic perspective. It's the way God sometimes (with heavy emphasis on sometimes) operates in human history. It can lead to all kinds of strange and tragic places. I had a college roommate who used to literally pray about whether God wanted him to eat peanut butter or tuna fish for lunch. This is nuts (well, technically only one of the options), and he was nuts. Not surprisingly, he was paralyzed by inaction. He wouldn't do anything unless he experienced a clear leading from God. And consequently he didn't do much.
But sometimes God works that way, and I don't want to discount those times. In the Scriptures, God operates this way time and time again. He takes an old man who ought to be enjoying his retirement years and personally tells him to hit the road for parts unknown. He tells an old dude living in a landlocked country to build a big boat. He tells Philip to take a hike in the desert, where he encounters, of all people, a eunuch in the court of the queen of Ethiopia. Bizarre, bizarre, bizarre. And there are hundreds of such examples.
There are three possible responses. One, this is just weird. Maybe God operated that way for special people long ago, but he doesn't work that way now. Now we have the Bible, and 2,000 years of church history, and we don't need that kind of special revelation. Two, this is the way God always operates. God cares about whether you eat peanut butter or tuna fish. Three, this is weird, but it's part of God's character. He reveals himself to human beings in all kinds of ways.
I would suggest that the third option is the only viable option. That third option doesn't preclude the importance of the Church, or the sacraments, or God's word, or wise counsel, or any of the other ways that God can and does speak to human beings. But it leaves open the option that sometimes God communicates directly to human beings. Why? Because it's what he does. It's what he's done throughout human history, and it's what he's done throughout the history of the Church.
Two quick stories, and then I'll shut up. About seven years ago God told me not to take a job, and it was weird. It was weird because I needed a job, one that paid real money so I could pay my bills, and this one promised to be a good gig that paid lots of money and that would look good on my resume, etc. How do I know that God told me? Because I felt, or intuited, or grokked, that I wasn't supposed to take it when I prayed about it. I didn't hear an audible voice or anything of the kind. I just felt supremely uncomfortable about this job, and it was far beyond the normal nervousness or jitters that accompany a new job. I shut up about it, didn't tell anyone, and took the job. It was a disaster from Day 1. I had the boss from hell who took credit for the work I did, blamed me for things I didn't do, lied to his superiors about me, and got me canned within a few short months. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. Am I reading back into those pre-job days because of my lousy experience? Nope. I knew, and I mean I KNEW, that I wasn't supposed to take that job. I knew it before I took the job. And obviously I wish, in retrospect, that I had listened.
Second, a few years ago I was strolling the streets of downtown Columbus on my lunch hour, a normal, middle-aged corporate American on a normal work day. God told me to speak to a young woman walking toward me. Now, this is something I don't do. I don't approach random strangers and strike up conversations. I'm a quiet, bookish introvert who would rather eat Drano than speak to someone I don't know. I particularly don't approach random young women, possibly because of fear of arrest. But I KNEW, unmistakably, that I was supposed to speak to that young woman. So I did. And on a busy street corner I heard this woman's sobbing life story, heard about her divorce that had been finalized the day before, and, upon asking her if I could pray for her, did just that. She thanked me and told me that I'd made her day a little more bearable. She went north and I went south and I've never seen her again. Weird? Oh, weird as hell. But I'm totally convinced that God personally told me to do it.
This stuff is utterly unpredictable. I have no idea why it happens, why it happens when it does, and why I might be singled out for these bizarre little dispatches from the supernatural realm. But I'm convinced that they happen. And I'm convinced that they happen to many people, and that they've been happening throughout human history. There's no way I would ever discount them. And there's no way I would deny that people (including myself) have mis-heard the voice of God, have manipulated the voice of
God to their own ends, and have ignored or downplayed the more usual ways that God communicates to his people in favor of these more bizarre if more spectacular revelations. Everybody loves fireworks, me included. It's just that sometimes those are Molotov cocktails, not fireworks.
Take it for what it's worth.