Does God speak to Christians in dreams or in our hearts? If we have never had this experience, then are we missing something and should expect it? Is there a danger of relying on a personal word from God instead of looking to the definite word of God given as the Bible?
Disclaimers and qualifiers: I agree that the “God told me” ploy is sometimes abused to claim authority for subjective impressions, and some self-generated ideas. Many young Christians hear of these experiences and then expect to hear God speak to them. Hearing nothing, these novices become discouraged or bitter. I think that any reporting of individual encounter with God should be done very carefully, and is better left to face-to-face conversation than blogs, books, conferences, or sermons.
Against the deniers that God speaks to Christians directly, apart from the Scripture, I disagree that this aspect of living in relationship with God contradicts the sufficiency of Scripture as some assert. We must take seriously the statement in Romans 8:14 that Christians are led by the Spirit of God, but what does this mean experientially?
I think that since Jesus’ experience is the pattern for us, then we should take his experience of having been taught by and having heard from his Father as the model for our experience (e.g., John 7:16-17). In the book of Acts, Luke continues this picture of Jesus’ life in the Spirit as normative for the church led by the Spirit, both for the gathered church (Acts 13:2; 15:28) and individually (Acts 8:29; 10:19; 11:12; 16:6-7; 20:23).
If we look across Scripture, we find dozens of cases in which God “stirred up” or “opened” human hearts, and spoke to people directly or through dreams and visions. These are direct and subjective encounters with God, and they are much more prevalent in the New Covenant because of the cross and the indwelling Spirit. Clearly some of these cases are exceptional, but the New Covenant experience of life in the Spirit is a new situation of receptivity to verbal communication with God. John 10:26-30 “My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me” seems especially clear that God desires to engage us in direct and personal communication, as a shepherd with sheep.
Scripture is given to us as the public revelation and ground for all religious experience (Sola Scriptura), but I think the passages cited above are clear that God does not limit himself to speaking through Scripture.
Some of the difficulty is semantics, since Christians on the Pentecostal side will make larger claims for experience of the Spirit’s leading, while non-Pentecostals can have the same experiences and speak of them much more modestly. Pentecostals that I know will say revelation to describe their experience, but they actually mean illumination as something distinct from canonical revelation, and not additional to it.
Most people who affirm God’s ongoing communication in personal life are quick to say that the sure word of Scripture and the discernment of mature fellow Christians are important for discerning God’s thoughts that may be communicated in the midst of our minds. I agree that any Christian should have long experience of several years in hearing God’s word as written before they should expect much of God speaking in a direct, relational way described above. Scripture is the guide to recognize God’s voice, just as in any personal relationship knowing the person gives us the ability to discern “that sounds like him” from what may be dismissed as self-generated or another imposter voice. I think that God can be trusted to provide assurance that indeed he is speaking, and we can also ask for confirmation.
In my own experience, I have had startling guidance and assurances through reading the Bible habitually. Phrases jumped out at me or gripped me in heavy ways. When I did not expect it, I have also experienced God reminding me of Scripture at odd times, or giving me a sense with nearly a physically felt pressure on my chest of what he wanted me to do (or not do). I think that God does speak in the midst of our thoughts, even about what may seem to be small matters in daily life. I think we are able to dismiss or ignore God’s warnings, assurance, and guidance as self-generated; alternatively, I think we can imagine that self-generated initiatives were God speaking to us, so we must be careful.
Many things God might have to say to us do not correspond to some statement in Scripture, but they must not contradict it. Knowing the Bible is necessary for discernment here. Perhaps God will refrain from speaking until he knows we are ready to respond. God always meets us where we are, and then leads us from there. Sometimes, I think that we might not want God to speak to us; we prefer to keep him shut up in the Scripture instead of intruding into our thoughts and challenging us in uncomfortable ways: “You must forgive him…Go and talk to her…I love you…I will take care of you…I want you to love her…” Several times for me, the startling contradiction to my own way of thinking has helped me recognize God’s verbal presence, the action of a mind alien to my own. This strangeness of God’s guidance is common in the prophets who were told to do crazy things that made them seem like madmen to others.
On the level of theology, we can argue about whether or not this is a biblically-warranted experience that God speaks to people. I think that in the New Covenant, we have many examples that God wants and has provided for this sort of experience. People have abused it, as noted above, but the abuses do not mean that we abandon any expectation or despise others who live in it.
On the level of experience, we can be boastful or disdainful (two unhappy responses), or willing (with some fear and trembling, cf. Phil 2:12-13). I hope that we would all be willing for whatever encounter with God that he might provide for us. I warn that there is a cost that comes with listening to God if he does speak—we are obligated to respond and cannot pretend we did not hear. This warning holds for all of God’s speaking that is already written for us as the Bible, and for any of God’s speaking that might intrude upon us when we least suspect it.