I’ve been putting off writing this for a long time. I feel like there are many others out there who hear from God so much better than I and are more capable of writing this. Throughout the ages, a number of saints have written on this topic — all more capable than I of hearing God’s voice.
So why am I writing this article on how to hear God’s voice? I spent this past year reading what others have written about hearing from God. One thing I discovered is that each person seems to approach hearing from God differently. I think this is because we all have different personalities, and the approaches reflect the personalities. Furthermore, most were not very specific about what God sounds like. At a very minimum, this article reflects the input from one more personality. But my reason for writing is more than that. My hope is that I will also have some useful suggestions in discerning God’s voice that may not be presented elsewhere, and that I might reach some people that might not be reached by anyone else.
God wants you to be His friend
I am convinced that God’s heart’s desire is to have an intimate friendship with each one of His followers. The most frequently missing major component of intimate friendship is hearing God’s voice. God wants you to hear Him! You cannot claim to have an intimate friendship with someone you don’t ever hear from. You can read old letters from someone that point to a relationship you once had, but you can’t claim that the relationship is intimate if all of the letters are old.
Now it’s not that God has changed, or that the Bible isn’t a collection of words from God Himself. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and all scripure is “God-breathed”, as the NIV says. But God wants you to know His voice (Jesus said His sheep would know His voice). God wants you to be led by His Spirit. God wants you to experience His immense love for you. God is interactive! So if you are not hearing His voice, and perhaps have never really heard His voice, now is a good time to purpose in your heart to seek Him until you learn what His voice sounds like — then continue talking with Him for eternity!
In order to correctly hear God’s voice, it is helpful to believe that God loves you — that you are every bit as valuable as those people who we quietly envy, those who seem to reap all the blessings God has to pour out. It is important to wrestle with whether you believe deep in your heart that God loves you, and try to settle that issue. Sometimes we have trouble finding God’s voice, and during those times we will be prone to think it is because He doesn’t love us, or that some sin keeps us from hearing Him, or that we are defective in some way.
A lot of us are not naturals at hearing God’s voice, and we have put up blocks to hearing Him that we don’t even realize we have put up. Sometimes God simply wants to see if we have enough love for Him and enough character to demonstrate it through our perseverance. I am confident, myself, in God’s love for you (and me!), and that He does want you to hear His voice and be able to talk with Him. (I confess that much of my life as a follower of Jesus, I lacked that confidence — so I’m not in anyway condemning you if you also lack that confidence.) I just want you to have enough hope and confidence so that you don’t give up in your endeavor to hear from God. Being able to have this intimate fellowship with God will change your life, and you will never want to turn back or turn away.
Can unbelievers hear from God, too?
Does God only speak to believers — those who have put their faith in Jesus? This is a controversial question that no matter how I answer it will surely upset someone. If I answer just right, perhaps I will be able to upset everyone! I believe that only believers have the Holy Spirit — God Himself — living and residing in them. When we converse with God and hear God speaking to us in our hearts, it is God speaking by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, God is One — the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the Father are so intertwined, that there really is no difference. For example, Jesus told us in John 15 that both He and the Father would reside in us, even though in Romans 8 Paul tells us that it is the Spirit that lives in us.
Was that an answer? Am I saying that only Christians hear from God? No, I am not. I am saying that only Christians have God permanently residing in them. But I do believe that those who have not put their faith in Jesus can also hear from God. I base this on a few observations. First, when I became a believer, it was after months of talking with God about whether He existed, whether He loved me, and whether Jesus was really His Son. If I did not sense God speaking to me, I would not have become a Christian, at least not at that time. Second, John 6:44 says that no one becomes a Christian unless the Father draws Him. I think that “drawing” means planting a desire in people’s hearts, but can also include the effect of circumstances in a person’s life that cause a person to search for God, and which might include God speaking to us. Perhaps an extreme example of this was Saul hearing Jesus speak to him on the road to Damascus, after he was blinded by God. Let us also not forget that in Jeremiah, the prophet tells us that we will find God when we seek Him with our whole heart. Jesus Himself says that if we seek and keep on seeking, we will surely find what we are looking for. Certainly God would speak to those earnestly seeking Him, if they had genuine questions for Him.
The sound of God’s voice
What does God sound like? The hard truth is that He sounds a lot like your thoughts do. I’m sure that simple fact has kept a lot of people from recognizing that God was speaking to them. John Eldredge in “Waking the Dead” tells us that God resides in our hearts. If that is true, then when He speaks to us, it is reasonable to assume that He speaks to us from our hearts. This does not mean that everything coming from our hearts is from God, because we also have our own desires in our hearts. But it does explain why people who are thought of as “logical thinkers” or “unemotional” have greater difficulty hearing God’s voice, because they are accustomed to accessing thoughts and ideas in places other than their hearts. Many of these people, in fact, find it difficult to hear from that part of themselves at all.
If you fall into this group of people, a book that would probably be helpful is one by Mark and Patti Virkler, called “Communion with God”. As an exercise for people who put themselves in this group, may I suggest the following: to sense what that part of you sounds like or feels like, take some quiet time and read very, very slowly Psalm 23. Pause after every verse and let it sink in. Think about what it means to have the Lord as your shepherd, or what it means for the Lord to take you to green pastures and quiet waters. This may help you access your heart. Perhaps once you learn to access this part of your heart you might try thanking God for the things that come to mind during your pause after each verse. For example, we might pray “Lord, thanks for being such a good shepherd to me, and for taking care of me in such a good way.” You may pause after such a prayer to see if in your heart you sense that maybe the Lord is saying anything in reply. Try not to be disappointed if you don’t hear answers in your heart. Even people experienced in hearing God’s voice sometimes don’t find answers. Nevertheless, unless you try to listen and genuinely seek God for answers, you will probably not hear anything from God.
The fact that God speaks to us from our hearts also explains why people can truly believe they have heard from God on some issue when in fact they didn’t. They only heard what was in their hearts and not what God was saying. Those who are able to hear from their hearts easily still have to learn to discern God’s voice.
Since God sounds like me, how do I know when it is God, and when it is me (and can’t the devil sound just like me, too)? First of all, when God speaks to me, He never contradicts what the Bible already has said. Second, from reading the Bible — particularly the Gospels — we see how Jesus compassionately cares for people. We can use knowledge of His character to sort out other things we might hear. The final and important tip I have on discerning whether what we hear is from God is that in most cases, words from God are accompanied by a sense of peace. That is, we feel that even though turmoil or other things might result from doing what God told us, we have a sense that God is in it and ultimately everything will work out right.
The devil’s voice gets us in two main ways. First, He will try to challenge God’s character. That’s exactly what he did in the Garden of Eden when he suggested that God lied to Adam and Eve about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The second way the devil tries to get us is to accuse us, and make us believe that whatever sin we are worried about is large enough that we are no longer acceptable to God, either for a short period of time or for all eternity. He sometimes suggests that whatever it was we did was the unpardonable sin. Common lies that he tells are things like, “God doesn’t really love you”, “There’s something about you that makes you unacceptable to God, unworthy, lower than all other Christians”, “You have to take care of yourself, because God won’t”, “God is distant and doesn’t get involved in things in your life”, “There is no such thing as eternity — our time on earth is all there is”, “God is untrustworthy”… I guess you get the picture, because the list could go on and on.
Whenever we detect a lie, we need to remind ourselves of the truth. Romans 8:35-39 is helpful here, because it reminds us that if Jesus gave up His life for us, surely there is nothing in all of the realm of possibilities that can separate us from that love. God is not only loving, He is love. God is also faithful, trustworthy, and all-powerful. Do you think the devil stands a chance against God?
God sometimes brings conviction of sin. I’ve been convicted of sin by God, and accused of sin by the devil. The difference was that with conviction by God, I still felt acceptance and had hope of being able to turn from the sin. With accusation from the devil, I felt hopeless, ashamed, and rejected.
Wisdom on learning to hear
If at all possible — and except in the most extreme cases, this ought to be possible — whenever you begin learning to hear from God, you should do this while being in relationship with other believers who are more advanced in hearing from God than you are, who will be able to encourage you and be able to point out to you things that really don’t seem to be from God. Some people have a tendency to throw themselves too heartily into hearing from God and throw off wisdom and restraint. Having balanced believers in your life will keep you from going to ungodly extremes by helping you discern what really is from God and what is from other sources. Wisdom comes in being willing to listen to these respected brothers and sisters, even when your enthusiasm might urge you to act on what you are hearing.
It would be wrong of me to fail to mention how we should think about ourselves and others if we believe that we and others hear from God. First, be prepared to make mistakes and that others will make mistakes — and not just a few. In general, words that greatly impact the direction of our lives, like those related to vocation or marriage, should be confirmed not just by hearing, but by other Christian we respect and who have a reputation for hearing well from God. It’s an awesome thing for God to speak to us. We truly ought to take seriously what God says to us, but because we are prone to error in hearing, interpreting, and implementing what God says, we should proceed with great humility around other Christians. We need to be especially careful when what we hear has implications for other believers.
Even if we think we have heard God speak something for another person, we should also seek God about whether that is for us to share with the other person, or whether we are simply to pray about it on behalf of the other person. We sometimes feel like since we have heard from God, we need to force others to obey what we think we heard. It is never our job to make others obey God, and we would be wise to be as honest as we can with others, while not being personally offended with what they do or don’t do with what we share.
The greatest obstacle to hearing from God is distraction. We have so many thoughts running through our heads that it can be difficult to hear through all that noise. Madame Jeanne Guyon, Francois Fenelon, and other spiritual greats of history tell us to not get bent out of shape by these thoughts. Just let them come and go. When we get frustrated with these thoughts, we only make matters worse. We need to try to stay relaxed. I suppose if you think of something that really does need to be done later in the day and you’re worried about forgetting it, you should just jot it down on a piece of paper, and get back to it after you’re time of seeking God is over.
There are stationary ways of hearing from God, and mobile ways. I have never heard anyone break it down in these two categories, but since I find that I can hear from God much easier when I am walking, it begs for this type of categorization, especially since many writers suggest Bible reading and journaling as part of their methods for listening to God — neither of which are easy if you are going to take the mobile approach.
For me, walking tends to distract parts of my brain that seem to interfere with hearing from God. It is especially useful to get out into nature, if at all possible, because things of nature have a way of leading our heart into praise for God, which seems to make our hearts more receptive to God’s voice. I find that I have a hard time hearing from God walking around my neighborhood, just because I somehow keep parts of me alert to greet neighbors and people I know, and this distracts me from God. On the other hand, walking the streets of Washington, D.C., near where I work doesn’t seem to distract me. Perhaps the city is impersonal enough that I don’t feel I have to interact with others. My favorite spot to walk and talk with God is a retreat center that is an old farm with trails mowed in the fields, and more trails in the woods, and benches everywhere. In general, places that are set apart for people to hear from God are excellent to visit, because you tend not to get disturbed by others, and because the spiritual obstacles to hearing from God are less.
My first silent retreat was at an Episcopal convent. I learned to walk slowly and gently on that retreat. I thought the purpose was so that I would not disturb others by my shoes clomping loudly on the wooden floors. I have realized, however, that walking slowly helps me hear from God. I can’t explain why that is. Perhaps it is an aid to attentiveness. People in love who are trying to communicate with each other walk slowly together. Why would it be different when walking with God? Faster walking is for when we need to get things done, not when we have deep things to communicate. I noticed on a recent walk that when I slowed my pace, I began hearing God, and that as soon as it picked up again, it’s like God’s voice vanished. It might just be my quirkiness. But if you are having trouble hearing from God walking, try it. Walk reverently, monk-like.
I want to say a few words about stationary ways of hearing from God. First, it is helpful to find a place and a time that you won’t be interrupted by the activity of other people. Often early in the morning or late at night are best. This may also be true because we are not in the midst of busy activities at those times, and I also think that darkness outside is a sign to our bodies to be settled and still. Second, it is helpful to have a place where we feel comfortable, and have things that help us enter God’s presence. Some people like a cross or crucifix, others like to light a candle. You don’t have to do any of these things. For me, I find a cup of coffee seems to set the pace. For me, coffee speaks of peace, so it works! (I told you each person had their own quirks!) A lot of people like to have a Bible handy, and many like to write in a prayer journal. Leanne Payne wrote “Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God’s Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal”. It is about prayer journals — and so much more — a worthwhile book to read.
Some people like to have Christian music playing. That will sometimes help settle my heart as I begin to pray, but for me it often becomes a distraction after I have really entered into my time of listening to God. Reading from the Bible is a helpful introduction into prayer for many. It helps settle and focus the heart. In terms of preparing our hearts to hear from God, it seems most helpful to read only short passages that lead us into recognizing the greatness of God, or lead our hearts to worship, or perhaps even lead us into asking God about that passage.
What I’m really suggesting is that there are a lot of possibilities as to what might be helpful to you in calming yourself so that you can be aware of God’s presence and hear His voice. You will have to experiment to find out what works for you.
There is a question about whether to think of God being up in heaven (external to you) or in your heart. When I was younger, I used to think of God being external. Now, I think of Him being right with me — right in my heart. For me, this way of picturing God is much more helpful than the way I used to think of God. In my earlier days, God often seemed so distant that I couldn’t seem to reach Him. Of course, the truth is that God is up in heaven AND inside our hearts — so theologically, either way of looking at it is fine.
In talking with others about how they hear from God and what God sounds like, I realized that there are probably two categories of hearing from God. I’m not sure these categories are independent, or even really different at all — yet it seemed like a useful clarification. The first and basic way is an awareness of God’s presence with you. The second is when you are seeking God’s guidance on a decision you have to make. The first doesn’t necessarily involve you “hearing” anything. Nevertheless, you have a genuine sensing of God being with you and being available to you. It’s like being around a spouse or an old friend when you don’t have to say anything — you’re just enjoying being together. The second involves God giving us a “yes”, “no”, or other sort of direction on a decision we have to make. It seems some people are much better at one or the other, and there are some who only have experienced one of the other. For me, I have experienced both, but since I don’t have frequent life course change questions, I spend more time simply being aware of God’s presence.
In many ways these categories are on a continuum. In between would be simple questions about what God means or thinks or feels. Questions about what Bible verses mean, or how He feels about friends of yours… things like that. In general, when I am aware of God’s presence, I find it easy to ask these simple questions. So, to me, asking the life direction questions is relatively easy, too. The difficulty is that because I have so many feelings about the life directions, I have to get through my feelings so I can genuinely sense what God is saying. When my own heart is invested in a situation, it makes hearing God’s heart more challenging.
I hope that something I’ve written is helpful to you in your walk with God. While a lot of what I do in my practice is repetitive (because I’ve discovered what works for me), don’t feel like you have to copy anything I’ve suggested. We really are all very different. Please consider reading what others have written, because others might have better ideas for you than I have given. I have made a short list of recommended reading that is available on my website.
Don’t give up in seeking God. He loves it when you spend time seeking Him! He knows that it is a way you express your love for Him. It is a fragrant offering, even if you feel like you haven’t heard from God or reached Him in anyway.