That's a very good question, a very important question! I know from personal experience that it can be quite challenging to discern (when you hear a "still, small voice" in your spirit) what is coming from you, and what is coming from God.
How does God speak to us?
And sometimes His commands are very direct. Once I was visiting a renter, driving a small pickup truck. I stopped by to pick up rent. When I spoke with the lady of the home at the door, I did notice there were young children around, but didn't think much of it. I went back to my truck and started the engine, prepared to leave. Suddenly I had a very distinct and shocking impression that something was very wrong. It was just as if someone had shouted "NO!" but I didn't hear an audible voice, or anything like that. I sat there, stunned, my foot on the brake. It was a very strong impression, and I had no idea where that had come from.
Confused, I put the car into "park" and got out and looked around. To my shock and horror, I discovered a young boy, maybe 3 years old, sitting playfully on the back bumper of my truck. Had I backed down that driveway, as I intended, I would have probably run over and possibly killed him.
I am absolutely sure that God issued that very direct and unmistakeable command to me, in order to save that child's life. (Read the whole story here.) I also put dreams and visions in this same category: Dramatic ways God occasionally (but not usually) speaks to us.
Another way the Holy Spirit speaks to us is through brothers and sisters in Christ who are committed to God and whom you trust to tell you the truth. If a brother shares something with me, I take it to God in prayer. "Is this true?" I ask. "Is this from You? Please confirm this, if so." Then my conscience (which is yet another way the Holy Spirit speaks to us) will often let me know whether or not it is.
Confirming the still, small voiceFinally, there is that "still, small voice," impressions we gain, and wonder whether or not that is God speaking to us. God's interaction with Elijah, on the run from Jezebel, teaches us that He usually does not speak in a loud voice, it is usually just this — a still, small voice. I think this is mainly what you are interested in learning. If you get such an impression, I would take the following steps in order to confirm it:
- First, it must not violate any principle of Scripture. For instance, is what you are hearing in complete harmony with the character of God and the fruit of the Spirit? If so, it may be God speaking.
- Take it before the Lord in prayer, and ask Him to confirm it. God is never in a hurry. I believe He loves it when we wrestle with Him in prayer in an attempt to discern His will. I've never been disappointed after doing this.
- There are times when it is very difficult to decide which course of action God desires you to take. It is at these times I believe it MAY be appropriate to "lay out a fleece." Remember? This is what Gideon did in Judges 6 when God was impressing upon him to lead Israel. He said (and I'm paraphrasing for length): "If you will save Israel by my hand, then give me a sign." He laid out a fleece (the skin of a sheep) on the ground overnight. He asked: "If in the morning there is dew on the fleece only, and not on the rest of the ground, then I will know you are leading me." And in the morning it was so. But, he still had doubts. So that night he prayed, "If in the morning there is no dew on the fleece, but on the ground all around there is, then I will truly know that you are with me." And the next morning, it was so. So Gideon knew that God was speaking.
I don't recommend this third option, in most situations, because to me it borders on "testing God." (Especially, doing it twice, as Gideon did!) Obviously this was a very special situation and Gideon wanted to be absolutely sure he was hearing God correctly. If he had moved forward thinking that God was leading, when He really wasn't, it would have been disastrous for all.
Praying for shut doorsAlong the lines of a fleece, if I think I am hearing a still, small voice from God, in addition to praying it over, and filtering it through Scripture, and talking with trusted Christian friends, I will finally pray: "God, I believe I hear You speaking to me. So I am going to step out in obedience. But Lord, you know that I am dull of hearing. If I am not hearing You correctly, Lord, would you please shut a door in my face and prevent me from misrepresenting Your will." I don't believe God will let us misrepresent Him, if we truly seek His face in a matter.
Is that helpful? Please let me know what you think.
By the way, sometimes God will speak to you, through others (or to others, through you), and they (or you) won't even know that's what is happening. This has happened several times in my life. God has spoken a divine word to me through someone who had no idea he was sharing something from the Lord. Or I have shared something with a brother — a thought, or an impression, or even an opinion — which God used to speak truth to their heart. Later, they shared with me that it was God speaking to them, through me. Even though I was unaware of this at the time.
When have you heard God speaking to you? What did that look like?