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By 'very specific course of action' I mean some specific assignment that cannot be inferred from just reading the Bible. For example, in the case of missionaries, the question about when and where to preach next is an important one. Paul and his companions handled this dilemma as follows:

6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. [Acts 16:6-10, NIV]

Another example is Ananias, who had some back-and-forth exchange with the Lord when he was challenged by Him to go lay hands on Paul, who at the time was well-known for being an avid persecutor of the church:

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

[Acts 9:10-16, NIV]

These are just two of many Biblical examples where men and women of God received very specific instructions from God about a certain course of action they were commanded to take at the moment. "Go here, go there, do this, do that, stay here for X days and then leave, etc."

Now, I understand that some may view these Biblical instances as descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning that contemporary Christians might not necessarily follow Biblical examples verbatim, and instead they might have other approaches as to how to discern the voice of God, a calling from God or how to be led by God for very specific, concrete assignments in the mission field, in ministry, in everyday life, etc.

Question: What is an overview of how contemporary Christians discern that they are being supernaturally guided/called by God to follow a very specific course of action? How do they discern (1) the instructions themselves and (2) that they truly come from God (to avoid demonic deception)? Do most Christian follow Biblical examples in this regard? Or do they employ different, innovative approaches?

For a more exhaustive list of ways in which Paul and others were guided, see this answer.

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What is an overview of how contemporary Christians discern that God is giving them instructions to follow a very specific course of action?

As I said in the comments, I am inclined to think this question is somewhat but not absolutely opinion based as individuals will understand, interpret, and even follow the promptings of the Spirit in different ways according to different situations. Whether or not this is a denominational survey question or not, I doubt one will find an official or canon like response to your inquiry. But perhaps, I can offer a response in terms of generalities.

Following the inclination should of the Holy Spirit will leave one in peace knowing that it is the will of God.

Fr Jacques Philippe speak about inspirations and discernment from a Catholic perspective, but’s much many pertain to how other denominations would deal with this matter, especially the Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican Churches.

Spiritual Discernment

A divine inspiration cannot ask us to do something that contradicts what the Word of God teaches and asks of us. This means not the Word of God as compiled by each individual’s fantasy and interpretation, but Holy Scripture as transmitted and explained by the teaching authority of the Church. For example, a divine inspiration cannot ask me to commit acts that the Church considers immoral. In the same way, true inspirations always go in the direction of a spirit of obedience to the Church. - In the School of the Holy Spirit, p.47

The Holy Spirit may encourage a mother to be somewhat less occupied with her household cares so that she can dedicate some time to prayer. But if he suggested to her that she should spend so much time in contemplation that her husband and children suffered, there would be good reason to question the source of this inspiration. - In the School of the Holy Spirit, p.48

The most important criterion for discerning divine inspirations is the one that Jesus himself gives us in the Gospel: “A tree is known by its fruit.” An inspiration from God, if we follow it, will produce sound fruit: the fruits of peace, joy, charity, communion, and humility. An inspiration that comes from our flesh or from the devil will be sterile or even bear the negative fruits of sadness, bitterness, pride, and the like. - In the School of the Holy Spirit, p.49

We will find it much easier to discern the action of the Holy Spirit if we have the possibility of opening our hearts to someone who can give us spiritual guidance. Very often we cannot see clearly into ourselves, or discern our motivations, and light will come when we put what we are living through into words, talking to someone experienced in the spiritual life. - In the School of the Holy Spirit, p.43

If an inspiration truly comes from God, and we silence our fears and consent to it wholeheartedly, in the end we shall be filled with irresistible peace; for the Holy Spirit will not fail to produce such peace in those who allow themselves to be led by him. This peace sometimes dwells only in the very deepest part of the soul, while questions and worries remain at the human and psychological level, but it is there and it is recognizable.

By contrast, if an inspiration comes from the devil or from our own ambitious, selfishness, exaggerated need for being recognized by others, and so forth, and we consent to it, it can never leave our heart in total, deep peace. Any peace it does bring will only be superficial, and will soon disappear, to be replaced by disturbance. We may refuse to acknowledge this disturbance and relegate it to the depths of our minds, but it is still there, ready to reemerge at the moment of truth. - In the School of the Holy Spirit, p.53

Is God’s will always the choice that is most difficult? God’s will, and hence the inspirations of his grace, obviously often go in the opposite direction from our immediate tendencies, in the sense that our tendency is often toward the desire for selfish comfort, ease, laziness, and so on. St. John of the Cross tells us, in a celebrated passage: “Let the soul apply itself ceaselessly not to what is easiest, but to what is most difficult . . ., not to what pleases, but to what displeases.”

He is not wrong to say this, in that context. But we should not interpret his maxims wrongly, or take as a systematic rule for discerning God’s will the principle that in any given situation what he asks of us will always be what is most difficult. That would make us fall into an exaggerated ascetical voluntarism that had nothing to do with the freedom of the Holy Spirit. We might even add that the idea that God is always asking us for what we find most difficult is the kind of thought that the devil typically suggests in order to discourage people and turn them away from God.

God is a Father, and he is certainly a demanding one because he loves us and invites us to give him everything; but he is not an executioner. He very often leaves us to our free choice. When he requires something of us, it is to help us grow in love. The only commandment is to love. We can suffer for love, but we can also rejoice in love and rest in love. It is a trap of our imagination or of the devil to picture a life spent following God as something imprisoning, in complete, constant contradiction with all our own desires, even the most legitimate ones. - In the School of the Holy Spirit, pp. 55-56

When the suggestion that comes to us is about much more important things—a vocation, a change of direction in our life, choices that may have serious repercussions on other people, or else something that clearly goes beyond the habitual rule of life for the vocation we have received—then it is essential not to decide anything without submitting that inspiration to a spiritual director or a superior. - In the School of the Holy Spirit, p.62

We should also realize that certain movements that are apparently good (because their object seems good) may not be so in reality, but may in fact come from the devil, who is cunning and sometimes impels us to do something that, although it appears good, would be contrary to God’s will for us and would produce harmful results in our lives. - In the School of the Holy Spirit, p.42

True discernment coming from God will gives us peace know that we’re are following the will of God. Lucille Robinson explains this in her book Inspirations of the Holy Spirit.

Again speaking in generalities the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints state that prayer is a means to receive guidance of the Spirit. Again this is a common and universal principle of all Christian denominations.

Seek council from a trusted pastor, priest or another Christian in good moral standing would be beneficial in discerning the our inspirations.

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A good scholarly talk is one by the evangelical Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland. He deals with epistemological issues here.

A discussion of the epistemological issues are also discussed on J.P. Moreland's blog here.

I like what J.P. Moreland has said & written on the subject of discerning God's guidance.

One may ask, "What about the concerns brought up by some folks of the more skeptical persuasion? Are they valid?"

To being with, it is important to highlight epistemic assumptions. A key question is whether we should we have more confidence in the possibility of satanic deception than in the ability to hear the Shepherd's voice with the gift of prophecy? In other words, as Christians, should we have more confidence in God’s ability to bless than in Satan’s ability to deceive in this area?

In particular the following thoughts from J. P. Moreland I find persuasive:

"...the examples of God speaking to people (including ordinary people—Gen 25:23, Acts 6:5, and 8:6, Acts 19:1-7, esp. v. 6) throughout both Testaments are meant to teach us how we can expect God to speak (without, of course, expecting God to continue to give authoritative scripture to the whole church)...."

"God speaks to people to correct wrong thinking (Phil 3:15; cf. Eph 1:17, I Cor 14:24, 26, 30-31)...The Holy Spirit speaks to us in applying the Bible’s teaching to our specific situation (I Cor 2:14)...God speaks to us to give us guidance (Isaiah 30:21, John 10:3,4,16,27, Acts 13:2, 16:6, James 1:5). In the John texts, Jesus says his sheep hear his voice..."

"Jesus is our model in communicating with God (John 5:19). Jesus is not speaking about His unique prerogative as God or Messiah, because the context is Jesus doing the works of the Father due to Jesus’ intimate communication with Him (and subsequent empowerment by the Holy Spirit), and Jesus explicitly says that we will do greater works than he did (John 14:12)."

"If Jesus needed to be lead by the Father in this, how much more do we? Moreover, it is now widely acknowledged by NT scholars that Jesus did what he did as a human being we are to model ourselves after in dependence on the filling of the Holy Spirit and in communication with the Father (cf. I Cor 11:1, I Thes 1:6)."

"Finally, Jesus delegated his authority to us and we need the same tools he needed to carry out that delegation...God sometimes speaks by placing impressions in our minds (Nehemiah 2:12) and through a still small voice (I Kings 19:12)..."

"Regarding the claim that when God speaks, it is clear and we don’t have to learn to hear his voice, (A) it seems that Samuel needed to learn to distinguish/hear God’s voice (I Sam 3:1-21); (B) there was a school of prophets in the Old Testament and, among other things, it would seem natural to think that they were learning to discern/hear God’s voice; (C) In the NT, prophesy is a gift that, as will other gifts like teaching or evangelism, grows and develops with time and experience as one learn to enter more fully into the practice of that gift. That is why there were tests of prophesy (I Cor 14:29, I Thes 5:19-22), viz., that as people learned to hear God, they sometimes made mistakes and gave words sincerely though they were mistaken. (D) We have to learn God’s most authoritative speech, the Bible, through hermeneutics, exegetical practice and so forth, and many believers are mistaken about what exactly is God’s biblical speech (in debates in textual criticism and differences between Catholics and Protestants about which books belong in the canon)."

"If God has allowed there to be differences about what belongs in Holy Scripture and we have to work hard to learn to rightly divide it, why can’t there be differences about whether a personal communication was/was not from God and effort needed to learn how to understand such communication?"

J. P. Moreland is very careful to point out that there is a certain amount of ambiguity interpreting and discerning prophetic phenomena.

Examples of how to flesh out Moreland's view of epistemology on the above noted series of blog posts by Timothy Bayless. He is a student of Moreland and also a graduate student in philosophy.

Following in the footsteps of his mentor J. P. Moreland, Bayless challenges the epistemic assumption that if God communicates today it must be so overtly overwhelming that there is no possibility of “not hearing.” Of course, it is possible for God to communicate in such a manner. However, there is no reason to think that he must always do that. Like Moreland, Bayless also makes this case with great philosophical acumen and theological precision.

In relationship to prophetic impressions that he gets, Moreland speaks of sharing them with a cautious disclaimer. For example, he describes discernment faith (i.e. a species of fides historica) being a type of "degreed" proposition. Moreland looks at a scale from one to ten and asks people, who desire to share prophetic impressions, to evaluate how sure they are of hearing from God. He claims to practice this principle himself in the following manner.

First of all, Moreland expresses a humble statement that sometimes he only has about a 70 to 30 percent ratio of confidence that he is hearing from God.

Secondly, Moreland describes his experience of hearing from God as being composed of a series of thoughts that come to him from outside of himself. As he puts it, they "pass through and than they are gone." His lecture reminds me of how the Stanford-based anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how some Christians describe the spiritual sensation of God talking back.

Thirdly, Moreland cites the cases in which there is over a 50/50 percent ratio of certainty. When that happens, he writes about his personal practice in which he claims to simply step out in faith to make choices with the limited information that he believes is prophetically discerned "in part." However, if there are important and weighty decisions that might be influenced by this possible prophetic impression, he will run it by others. And, of course, his test is done in the context of having Scriptural ethical standards.

I believe that what Moreland does in redefining prophecy is to simply remove the obstacles for common sense to be truly common sense. For example, among other things, Moreland writes about how he believes God speaks through providential circumstances. He defines a providential circumstance as a highly or very unlikely event with a special significance for a journey in life. In this way, Moreland views providential circumstances as being important in the confirmation and corroboration process of the gift of prophecy - i.e. hearing from God.

So, does the New Testament gift of prophecy function in such a manner that there is no human element of discernment involved on the part of the one who is sharing prophetic words, insights, etc.?

That above question depends if one believes there is a distinction between the special level on inspiration involved in the composition of canonical Scripture and the common level of inspiration with prophetic gifts. Typical Reformation theology would allow for the possibility that God can speaking outside, but not apart from His written external Word, to His people in times of prayer.

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    Would you mind summarizing the contents of those links and including quotes and timestamps? The idea is to have a self-contained answer that is useful even if the videos/articles end up being taken down. Aug 13 at 6:04
  • Great presentation of a typical Evangelical Cautious Continuationist view (that denies, as you put it, the epistemic assumption that if God communicates today it must be so overtly overwhelming that there is no possibility of “not hearing.”) to responsibly discern with theological and philosophical integrity. Not an overview answer (which needs to include other denominations), but given the challenge to articulate this particular position in a way that takes into account subjective experiences, it deserves special mention. Aug 19 at 7:56

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