Just as there is an art to hearing God’s voice for other people, so too is there an art to receiving prophetic words addressed to you. Most people know that a prophecy must be consistent with Scripture in order to be valid. But there is also a psychological process to receiving a prophecy.
Over time, I have noticed several common mistakes that people make when receiving a prophecy. I have made several of these mistakes myself. In my book School of the Spirit, I go into more detail on how to receive and deliver prophecies in the context of a healthy church or ministry. Here are ways NOT to receive a prophecy:
Giving a prophecy too much authority. When you receive a prophecy, especially when it comes from somebody with a reputation for accuracy, it can be tempting to blindly obey a word they give. But no prophet, no matter how accurate or reputable, can trump your own relationship with God.
For example, if you are given prophetic words to remain in the church where you are at, instead of leaving to start a ministry that you feel the Lord calling you to, you should obey the Lord even if it means contradicting what you heard from the prophet. The apostle Paul modeled this principle well when the prophet Agabus warned him that if he goes to Jerusalem, Paul will be bound by the Jews and delivered over to the Gentiles. Paul’s companions urge him to stay. But Paul, knowing in his heart that God had called him to Jerusalem to preach the gospel, disregards the prophecy and continues on to Jerusalem. Paul understood that each of us is responsible for the word that the Lord has spoken directly to us, and not to anyone else.
Being fearful. When you receive a prophecy that you perceive as negative, it can lead you to catastrophize and assume the worst. When Jaime and I were engaged, a prophet told Jaime that she would need to “keep her passport up to date.” I fell into a depression, as I assumed it must mean that Jaime was being called to full-time missions overseas and that we would not get married, since I knew that I wouldn’t be traveling anytime soon. Rather than trusting that if this prophecy were accurate, God would cause it to work together with the plans that we had already put before Him, I assumed that God was coming down from heaven and blowing it up – that I was hearing God wrong.
As it turned out, Jaime did end up taking a mission trip that required her passport to be up to date, but it was nowhere like the scenario I had imagined. In retrospect, I was not in a very stable place in my walk at that time. If I had been more confident in God’s dealings with me and Jaime, I would not have been disturbed. If you receive a word that makes you feel alarmed, remember how God has led you so far and trust that His plans for you are always good.
Making dramatic changes. A good prophecy usually speaks into processes that are already in motion in your life, not into things that are completely counter to what is going on in your life. If it sounds like it is completely out of left field, then the general rule is to discard it, or at least shelf it.
Unless it is cutting out sin, rarely should you make dramatic, immediate changes in response to a prophetic word without further input and reflection. If a prophet tells you to leave a job, or move to a new place, or start a new ministry, and you have not already been considering this change, then don’t act on it right away! Seek further confirmation and wisdom in processing the word from mature believers you trust. “In a multitude of counselors there is safety.” (Proverbs 11:14).
When God led me and my family from Cincinnati to our current place in Kansas City, He gave me a prophetic dream and also confirmed it through several prophecies from other people. Usually, if the Lord is leading you to make a big change, He will both confirm it and open doors to make the way. Don’t rashly jump into a major life change based solely on a prophecy that seems to come from “left field.”
Interpreting correction as condemnation. Sometimes, the Lord offers you correction through a prophet because He cannot get through to you any other way. When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront him. David recognized this was not condemnation, but a call to repent and restore his relationship with God.
If a prophet corrects you on something that God is already working with you on, then don’t feel condemned! Feel encouraged that you are on the right track. One time, when I was in the process of studying to teach a major church history class, a close friend told me that God wanted me to quit relying on my mind and return to my first love. Now, for those of you that know me, I do tend to build the intellectual side and can sometimes get too deep into that to the exclusion of relationship with God. I immediately felt condemned and started thinking, “I need to go on a total fast from knowledge for the next year,” and, “Close all your books.”
When I took a closer look, I realized that the word spoke exactly to what the Lord had already been doing in me. That very week, He had already convicted me of a major distraction and now was giving me an opportunity to dive into a spiritual subject. God was not telling me to stop teaching the class, but rather to follow the process through and put more priority on relationship than I had been. Done correctly, teaching the class would build my spirit, not only my brain.
Inflating a positive prophecy. The idols in your heart may lead you to inflate a positive prophecy into something more grandiose than it really is. For example, someone who gets a word about “financial increase” may fantasize about becoming the next Bill Gates and move over into greed instead of whatever transformational work He really wanted to do in their heart. Sometimes, prophetic people can also sense the idol in your heart and accidentally prophesy to it instead of prophesying what the Lord really wants to address.
Some positive prophecies are also intended for the future, as something to look forward to and shelve for a later time, instead of acting on immediately. Joseph was given prophetic dreams in which his father and brothers bowed down to him, and David was given a prophecy that he would be king over Israel, but both of these heroes had to endure years of testing and character growth before they could step into the fulfillment of their prophecies. So if you receive a positive prophecy, be sure to assess it humbly and focus on the present responsibilities and opportunities that God is giving you. As you are faithful with little, God will give you more.
There are lessons here for the giver too. As you become aware of the psychological processes involved in receiving a prophecy, you become better at delivering a prophecy in a way that produces its intended effect. A key is to put the revelation into a context that makes sense for that person’s life. For example, if you hear God saying that someone has a gift for evangelism, and they are a high school student, say something like, “I see you evangelizing to your classmates and friends.” If you say, “You are a great evangelist to the nations!”, you might set up the 15-yr-old for some bizarre expectations. Putting a revelation in context eliminates the extremes in both positive and negative prophecies.
If you would like to learn more about how to receive and deliver prophecies, and growing in the gifts of the Spirit, check out my book School of the Spirit.