Hearing the Voice of God
Through the ages, appealing to the “voice of God” has been used to justify everything from the silly to the profane. In addition, simply saying “God told me” tends to be a conversation stopper … if God tells someone something, how can you argue with that?
The idea that God speaks to people is as old as humanity itself but claims have been routinely met with skepticism from both believers and non-believers alike. From one who doesn’t believe in the existence of God, rejection of the concept makes sense. However, for those who believe, why would there be skepticism? The reasons range from over-reaction to abusive and sensationalistic claims of hearing from God to sincere theological belief that while God may have spoken in the past He does not do so today.
At the heart of the Gospel (good news) of Jesus is the reality that the experiential divide between God and man has been bridged. There is a real, loving experience of God promised to those who have come into a relationship with Jesus. Colossians 1:27 describes this truth as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The incredible hope is that the God of the universe spiritually dwells within us. This suggests the relational reality of presence, real presence! With presence comes the joy of communication. In John 10:27, Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” So, how exactly does this work? How do we listen to His voice?
When we listen to Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit who communicates the words of Jesus to us. In Romans 8:14-16, the Apostle Paul shares that: “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We are led by the Spirit as He “bears witness” with our spirit about our identity as beloved children of God. Bearing witness is real communication. It doesn’t promise an audible voice but some sort of communication that is understandable. Perhaps, the best way to understand the communication is that of a gentle, discernible nudging in our spirit. 1 Kings 19 describes God speaking to Elijah as the sound of a gentle whisper.
Two questions certainly emerge from the idea that he speaks in a gentle nudges in our spirits. First, why doesn’t He speak loudly, in undeniable ways? What makes the most sense is that God never wants to force anything on us but desires a real relationship where we are free to choose. Yelling or screaming generally leads to forced submission or rebellion. God desires our hearts. He wants us – not forced submission – so He speaks quietly. The second questions revolves around how we know if it is actually the “voice” of God and not simply what we want to hear? Certainly, discernment is needed and required. 1 John 4:1 encourages us: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
How do we develop the needed discernment? At the heart of our discernment is the text of Scripture. We can test and affirm what we are “hearing” by the Word of God. And we can trust that God does speak to our hearts because He abides with us. (1 John 3:24) Our abiding with Him is experienced as we obey His commands. In this mutual abiding (or, indwelling), we communicate with Him.
So, at the heart of our “listening” must be the Biblical text. The Spirit leads us in our application of God’s written word and also leads us in the experience of our relationship with God. Like any real relationship, current and relevant communication is needed. Over time, that communication may come through silent presence like an “old married couple” sitting on the porch enjoying one another without a word needing to be spoken.
Robert Mulholland suggests a beautiful way that we can interact with Scripture that engenders this kind of relationship:
“The how of the role of scripture in spiritual formation is not so much a body of information, a technique, a method, a model, as it is a mode of being in relationship with God that we bring to the scripture … I suggest that your top priority be to listen for God. Seek to allow your attention and focus to be on listening for what God is saying to you as you read … Listen for God to speak to you in and through, around and within, over and behind and out front of everything that you read. Keep asking yourself, ‘What is God seeking to say to me in all of this?’ By adopting this posture toward the text you will begin the process of reversing the learning mode that establishes you as the controlling power who seeks to master a body of information. Instead, you will begin to allow the text to become an instrument of God’s grace in your life. You will begin to open yourself to the possibility of God’s setting the agenda for your life through the text. Not only will this exercise begin to transform your approach to reading (and prepare you for the role of scripture in spiritual formation), it will also begin to transform your whole mode of being in relationship with God in a way that will enhance genuine spiritual formation.” (Shaped by the Word)
As we live in a posture of listening throughout our days, what kinds of things does the Spirit tend to say to us? At the core of what we hear is that we are His beloved. (Romans 8:14-16) This is the gentle consistent whisper that we receive from the Spirit. In addition, Gordon Smith suggests the following categories in his book, The Voice of Jesus:
- assurance of God’s love
- conviction of sin
- illumination of our mind regarding Scripture
- guidance in times of choice
He desires for us to live in a real relationship of love and the heart of what He says regards the nature of our relationship, barriers to that relationship, and how we can live with attentiveness to that relationship moment by moment. He loves us deeply and only specific communication can catapult us into the transformation that love provides. The beautiful truths of Scriptures can be deeply trusted but it is His gentle whispers that allow us to know.
How do we best listen? Anthony deMello offers:
“There are few things that help so much for conversing with Christ as silence. The silence I speak of is, obviously, the inner silence of the heart without which the voice of Christ will simply not be heard. This inner silence is very hard to achieve for most of us: close your eyes for a moment and observe what is going on within you. The chances are you will submerged in a sea of thoughts that you are powerless to stop – talk, talk, talk (for that is what thinking generally is, me talking to myself) – noise, noise, noise: my own inner voice competing with the remembered voices and images of others, all clamoring for my attention. What chances does the subtle voice of God stand in all of this din and bustle? … Your tolerance of silence is a fairly good indicator of your spiritual (and even intellectual and emotional) depth.” (Contact with God)
Don’t neglect the gift of real communication with the God of the universe! Live with a listening posture and the fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. And more than that, the fruit is relationship with God Himself – who is the true desire of our hearts.