"I laid my request before the Lord, and the Lord, answered me."
This is a remark, which is frequently made by persons of eminent piety. They cannot doubt that they truly hold communication with God. Addressing him either in silence or the spoken utterance of words, they find that they do not ask without receiving. God speaks to them in return.
It is important to understand the nature of the answers which God gives. In those earlier religious dispensations, of which we have an account in the Old Testament, God answered his people in various ways; by visible signs, by the cloud and the fire, by Urim and Thummim, by miracles, by audible voices. The periods of those dispensations have passed away, and the methods of communication, which were appropriate to them, have passed away also. What are we to understand, then, by the divine utterance, the voice of God, in the soul, of which those persons, who are eminently pious at the present time, have frequent occasion to speak?
We remark in the first place, that one class of those inward utterances, which are frequently regarded as returns or answers from God, appear to be impressions, or rather suggested thoughts or suggestions, which are suddenly but distinctly originated in the mind; and apparently from some cause independent of the mind itself. Sometimes the suggestion consists in suddenly bringing to the mind a particular passage of Scripture, which is received as the divine answer.
Sometimes the suggestion consists in the sudden origination of new ideas or truths in a new form of words; but truths so remarkable, either in their origin or in their application, that we are disposed to regard them as the inward, intimations and the voice of God. Of the frequent existence of such inward and sudden suggestions or impressions, we suppose there can be no reasonable doubt. It is well understood, and. seems to be placed beyond question, that they make a portion of the internal history of many pious persons.
A few remarks may properly be made on this class of inward voices; and one is, that sudden suggestions or impressions may have, and that they do sometimes have a natural origin. The natural man, as well as the religious man, will sometimes tell us, that he has had an unexpected or remarkable suggestion or impression. In the treatises which exist on the subject of disordered mental action, the existence of frequent and sudden impressions, such as have been described, is laid down, and apparently with good reason, because the results have justified it, as one of the marks of an incipient state of insanity. Another remark, which it may be proper to make here, is this. It is a common, and probably a well founded opinion, that sudden inward suggestions, or impressions may have, and that they do sometimes have, a Satanic origin. If Satan is permitted to operate upon the human mind at all, and lead it astray, of which the Scriptures do not permit us to doubt, it is certainly a reasonable supposition, that he sometimes makes his attacks in this manner. And especially may we take this view, when we consider that he is a spiritual being, and would more naturally act upon the spirit or minds of men, than upon the body. A third remark is, that the sudden suggestions or impressions, which we are considering, are undoubtedly, in some instances, from a truly good or divine source. It is hardly reasonable to suppose, that God would forbid himself a method of operation on the human mind, which he allows to Satan; and which, if it may be employed under a bad direction, to a bad purpose, is also susceptible in other hands of a good one. We may reasonably conclude, therefore, that the Holy Spirit sometimes adopts this method of operation.
It remains to be added here, that, if these remarkable suggestions may arise from sources so various and different, they should be received with caution; otherwise we may be led astray by the voice of nature or the voice of Satan; believing it to be the voice of our Heavenly Father. God deals with us as rational beings. And it is a consequence of God's recognition of our rationality, that he does not require us to act upon sudden suggestions or impressions, even if they come from himself, without our first subjecting them to the scrutiny of reason. And it is here that we find the ground of our safety in respect to a method of operation upon us, which otherwise would be likely to be full of danger. Accordingly, when a sudden suggestion is presented to the mind, we ought to delay upon it, although it may seem at first sight to require an immediate action. We should compare it with the will of God, as revealed in the Bible. We should examine it dispassionately and deliberately with the best lights of reason, and with the assistance of prayer. Indeed, if the suggestion comes from God, it is presented with this very object; not to lead us to action without judgment and without reason; but to arouse the judgment from its stupidity, and to put it upon a train of important inquiry. And when this is done in a calm and dispassionate manner, and with sincere desires for divine direction, we have good reason to believe, that we may avoid the dangers which have been referred to, by detecting those suggestions which are from an evil source, and may realize important benefits.
But we ought not to feel, that in our inward conversation with God, we are limited to such occasions as have been mentioned; and that we have no inward response, except by means of sudden and remarkable impressions, which are liable to the dangers which have been indicated, and which generally exist only at considerable intervals from each other. On the contrary, we have abundant reason for saying, that it is our privilege always to be conversing with God, and always to receive the divine answer.
— edited from The Interior or Hidden Life (2nd Edition, 1844) Part 3, Chapter 8 by Thomas Cogswell Upham. His blog is managed by Craig L Adams and can be found here: http://thomascupham.blogspot.com