You can hear God’s voice as part of a growing conversational relationship with him. Here are some proven methods to help you listen to God.
Many people would say they try to listen to God. But there is much confusion on discerning if you’ve truly heard God’s voice. I know people who were sure they had heard God’s voice and so they acted on it only to discover down the road that they were being impulsive. I’ve made the same mistake. I’ve also had people say to me, “The Lord told me to tell you…” Usually I was sure that it was not God speaking. Sadly, I’ve also talked with other people who are convinced they’re hearing God’s voice, but actually they were psychotic.
Is it Possible to Hear God’s Voice with Confidence?
“Hearing God as a reliable, day to day reality for people with good sense” is possible, writes Dallas Willard. He says, this conversational relationship with God is “for those who are devoted to the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom. It is for the disciple of Jesus Christ who has no higher preference than to be like him.” (Hearing God, p. 70)
In other words, hearing God’s voice naturally goes with living as an apprentice of Jesus. That’s what I wrote about in my book Your Best Life In Jesus’ Easy Yoke (published in 2016), which features many insights I learned from my years of study and personal relationship with Dallas Willard. The Biblical meditations and Breath Prayers and other spiritual disciplines will help you to grow in a conversational relationship with God.
It’s hard to imagine an intimate relationship with Christ that does not include regular experiences of hearing his voice. An interactive relationship with God is conversational and it helps us to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and to have the mind of Christ about all that we do. But what does it mean to “hear” God’s voice? The Bible itself demonstrates the answer. On occasion God speaks audibly, through an angel, or accompanied by supernatural phenomena, but in the vast majority of cases the way God speaks is through thoughts or impressions that he gives us.
Furthermore, in our ministry to others, whether preaching to a congregation or leading a Bible study, listening to someone who is hurting or leading an organization or group, we surely cannot have much success in advancing God’s kingdom without his words to us, primarily from Scripture, but also personal words that are consistent with the Word of God.
What is the “Word” of God?
But what is the “Word” of God and how does it relate to hearing God’s voice? We use the term “Word” of God sloppily today. We need to differentiate the various types of Words and words! There is the written Word (the Bible, not individual verses, but the whole), the Living Word (the person of Jesus Christ), the word of the kingdom (the gospel that Jesus preached), and the life-giving and life-sustaing words that God speaks (in creation and to us).
The Bible is always our clear authority and guide to help us listen to God and receive his guidance in daily life (2 Timothy 3:16). The purpose of any word or message from God, including in the authoritative revelation of inspired Scripture, is to connect us with the Living Word and if it doesn’t facilitate our relationship with the Lord Jesus than it is in error and damaging (John 5:39-40).
Respect for the Bible is essential to life as a Christ-follower, but the Bible is not part of the Trinity! Some Christians seem to put the Holy Bible into the Holy Trinity, not in their official theology, of course, but in the practice of it. Without realizing it they are exalting their own rationalism and putting God into a box that they can manage.
Dallas Willard writes:
The Bible is not Jesus Christ, who is the living Word. The Bible was not born of a virgin, crucified, resurrected and elevated to the right hand of the Father.
Neither is the Bible the word of God that is settled eternally in the heavens as the psalmist says (Psalm 119:89), expressing itself in the order of nature (Psalm 19:1-4). The Bible is not the word of God that, in the book of Acts, expanded and grew and multiplied (Acts 12:24). It is not the word that Jesus spoke of as being sown by the active speaking of the ministry (Matthew 13). But all of these are God’s words, as is also his speaking that we hear when we individually hear God. (Hearing God, p. 142)
“Methods” to Hear God’s Voice?
There are some time-tested proven methods we can use to help us listen to God’s voice. I teach these to pastors and ministry leaders in a seminary class that uses as one of it’s text books Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God.
First a word of caution. By speaking of “methods” for hearing God’s voice I don’t want you to misunderstand me. Hearing God is certainly not a mechanical sort of process in which we put our prayers into the vending machine and out comes the answer we want! It’s not like if I do A then God will do B. No! We can’t engineer our way into hearing God’s voice. The Lord God is sovereign in all things and in any given situation he may chose to speak a message to us or not. God is the initiator in the spiritual life — always. This is why when we hear God’s voice it’s often a surprise to us that he’s spoken or what he’s said.
On the other hand, we can’t be passive, sit back and just expect that we will hear God without preparing ourselves in any way — rarely God may break in that way, but that is not the normal way that we grow in a conversational relationship with God. Normally, we need to seek God, for instance by meditating on Scripture, spending extended time in solitude, or seeking godly counsel. Having a method to hear God just means we have an approach that we’ve found helpful to submit ourselves to the Lord who speaks.
Of course, like anything else in the spiritual life, it takes time and practice to learn to discern God’s voice and respond to it. Hence, the problem that we’ve all experienced: we’re in a critical situation of discernment and we feel we need to hear God’s voice soon, but we really haven’t yet learned to grow into that kind of a relationship. We need to accept that in that particular situation of need we may not have enough time to learn how to hear God’s voice. However, it can motivate us to learn so that next time we’re more prepared and better able to hear God if there is something he wants to say to us personally.
When it comes to seeking to hear God speak the most important thing to remember is to set that in the larger context of our discipleship to Jesus. We are talking about growing in an intimate, conversational relationship with God in which we are learning to abide in Christ and bear fruit for him — that is what is important (John 15).
But we may become consumed with urgency about “knowing God’s will” and having his help to make the best decision. This is telling of a deeper problem. Dallas says, “My extreme preoccupation with knowing God’s will for me may only indicate, contrary to what is often thought, that I am over concerned with myself, not a Christ like interest in the well-being of others or in the glory of God” (Hearing God, p. 28).
Jesus, our Good Shepherd, says, “My sheep know my voice and they follow me” (John 10:4).
What a blessing it is to hear God’s voice! His words bring his life. God spoke the creation into existence (Genesis 1) and sustains all life by his words (Hebrews 1:3). Today he is still speaking to our hearts in “gentle whispers” (1 Kings 19:12) that create and renew life in us and around us. He speaks to comfort us, correct us, and guide us. He speaks because he loves us and wants to be in an interactive, intimate relationship with us.
So we pray with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3).
Did you notice the context of Psalm 23? Do you know when it is that we sheep are guided by our Shepherd onto the right path? It’s when we’re delighting in him as what we want — so much so that we lie down with him in green pastures, beside still waters. We hear God’s voice when our souls have been restored by resting in his grace. But many of us are rushing around, stressed out, too busy, straining to make things happen for ourselves.
Jesus says to us, “Come to me… I will give you rest for your soul… My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). It’s by learning to live and work in the “easy yoke” of Jesus that we are able to hear his voice regularly.
Is God Always Speaking to Us?
In one sense God is always speaking. All the life that we see in nature and people, including ourselves, is a result of God’s words that have given us life and continue to sustain our lives. Dallas Willard says, “Christ the Son [is] continuously ‘sustaining all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3) and as the very glue of the universe” (Hearing God, p. 75). Truly, “In [Christ] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Furthermore, God reveals himself to us in birds singing and ocean waves flowing and all the aspects of his creation. Certainly, his words in Scripture are alive and continuously speaking knowledge and application into our lives (Hebrews 4:12).
In another sense there are many situations in life in which God does not want to tell us what to do or even to speak a personal message to us. God is not a blabbermouth! He appreciates some silence. He does not want to tell us what to do all the time, treating us like robots, but would rather give us room to act as responsible adults and make decisions. Of course, in all this God is with us. As is the case in ordinary human relationships, God’s most important “communications” to us often are nonverbal.
If we take this broad view of God “speaking” then we can say that God wants all of us to live in a conversational relationship with him. Brother Lawrence, Frank Laubach, and other devotional masters show us a way of life that is intimate with God in which we “practice God’s presence” or “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Not perfectly, of course, but more and more so. The emphasis here is on our awareness of God’s presence and activity around us and being responsive to his leading. But within this close relationship with Christ we can discern God’s “higher thoughts” and thus walk in his “higher ways” (Isaiah 55:9).
Dallas Willard teaches that “the content or meaning of his detailed and individualized communications to us always finally takes the form of the inner voice, a characteristic type of thought or perception” (Hearing God, p. 195). The Bible teaches that this inner voice in our spirits is like “the candle of the Lord” (Proverbs 20:27, KJV). Dallas elaborated: “The thoughts and feelings in the mind and spirit of one who is surrendered to God should be treated as if God were walking through one’s personality with a candle, directing one’s attention to things one after the other.” (p. 102)
The ideas that God impresses upon our minds are always consistent with the Bible and often they arise in response to study or reflection upon Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Sometimes God’s thoughts come to us through what a person says to us. Occasionally God communicates to us in special ways through dreams, visions, angels, and other mystical experiences. Of course, the most common way God “speaks” to us is nonverbally, just being present with us to love us. For instance, God is present to us in nature and in the circumstances of our lives. We can notice God — his beauty and love, and wonderful works — all around us.
To hear the thoughts that God impresses into our minds is not automatic — we must learn to hear God’s voice by effort and experimentation in the course of our normal daily life. Each of us needs to learn from personal experience what it means to hear God given our unique background, personality, and life situation. They way that you hear God is likely to be somewhat different from how I hear God. In fact, hearing God’s voice is so personal that most people are not even able to recognize God’s voice without someone to help them discern it! Remember that Samuel was taught to hear God’s voice by Eli. Later Samuel taught David to “inquire of the Lord” and discern what God was saying to him.
Dallas Willard says, “Generally, it is much more important to cultivate the quiet, inward space of a constant listening than to always be approaching God for specific direction” (Hearing God, p. 200). To reiterate, the critical issue in hearing God’s voice is to grow in a conversational relationship with God, training with Jesus to become the kind of person who walks with God continually and is prepared to hear God’s voice and obey.
Discerning God’s Voice from Other Voices (What God’s Voice “Sounds” Like)
Those who have walked with God for years will tell you with confidence that God’s voice has a distinctive quality. They are able to cite many examples of God sending them important messages. Over time they have developed spiritual discernment.
The Bible teaches the importance of “discerning spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10) or “testing the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). But we who trust in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ don’t need to be insecure or fearful about discerning between good and evil spirits — we can actually grow to be confident because Jesus has given us an Inner Teacher, the Holy Spirit, as an “anointing” that “abides” in us and teaches us all that we need to know (1 John 2:27).
Jesus says that he is our Good Shepherd and we are his sheep that he cares for and guides safely. He gives his all for us — he even lays down his life for us! Jesus speaks to his sheep and we can learn to hear and know his voice and differentiate it from that of the “hired hand” (the false shepherd) who leaves us vulnerable to the thief (Satan who comes to steal, kill, and destroy) and the wolves (John 10:1-21).
What is God’s voice like? Five hundred years ago Ignatius of Loyola gave some very helpful teaching on discernment. Regarding the different spirits that may move us he says:
The good angel touches the soul gently, lightly, sweetly, like a drop of water going into a sponge. The evil spirit touches it sharply with noise and disturbance, like a drop of water falling onto a stone (The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, p. 127-128).
Dallas Willard emphasizes that God’s normal way of communicating with us simply to impress thoughts or perceptions into our minds. He says that God’s voice has a particular quality that with experience we can discern:
The quality of God’s voice is more a matter of the weight or impact an impression makes on our consciousness. [Its] certain steady and calm force… inclines us toward assent… We sense inwardly the immediate power of God’s voice… the unquestionable authority…
It is a spirit of exalted peacefulness and confidence, of joy, of sweet reasonableness and of goodwill. It is, in short, the spirit of Jesus, and by that phrase I refer to the overall tone and internal dynamics of his personal life as a whole… Those who [have] seen Jesus [have] truly seen the Father, who shared the same Spirit. It is this Spirit that marks the voice of God in our hearts. Any word that bears an opposite spirit most surely is not the voice of God. And because his voice bears authority within itself, it does not need to be loud or hysterical (Hearing God, page 175, 177).
We know that Satan “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14) and this is why we need to be careful to discern the spirits. But we also know that Satan is “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and “the accuser” (Revelation 12:10, KJV) and he can’t help but give himself away if we pay attention. When he speaks to us it’s with shiftiness and aggression. He argues, condemns, pressures, and tries to convince us to do what he wants.
Our own “internal critic” or legalistic conscience may sound pressuring or harsh, as may a loved one or another person who has an agenda for us. But as we’ve said, God speaks matter of factly. He doesn’t need to push or pressure us. He encourages us in a gentle but strong, assured sort of way. Even when God convicts us of sin or challenges us we sense the goodness of what he’s saying and the gracious, life-giving purpose he has for us. “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17, NIV 1984).
“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” God said to Jeremiah (33:3). God is not reluctant to speak to us if we need to hear from him and could be trusted to make good use of a personal message from him. He loves to speak and so the Bible begins in the creation account of Genesis 1 with the refrain, “And God said…”
God loves to speak, but are we listening? Jesus often said, “If you have ears to hear, listen!” Listening to God is so easy that even a child can hear God. My favorite example of listening to God is the story of the little boy Samuel who learns to pray, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9-10). And he hears God’s voice.
I heard God speak to my heart as a child. Perhaps you did also or one of your children. Sadly, as adults we may lose the childlike trust that is needed to hear God — we may complicate things, get distracted, or harden our hearts so that we have great difficulty hearing what God wants to say to us.
Hearing God’s voice and sensing his guidance can be part of our normal lives. We can think of the general way that God guides us in daily life as being like a GPS Navigation System that we may use when driving to an unfamiliar destination: God’s Word, Providence (Circumstances), and Spirit-impressions. These are also referred to as the “Three Lights” (FB Meyer, The Secret of Guidance, written in 1896). (In “Hearing God’s Voice Today” I briefly explain this GPS.
Here are six methods for hearing God’s voice. They’re not formulas but general patterns that complement one another and can be used together.
1. The Peace Plan
As a boy when I asked my mother for help discerning God’s guidance she always asked me, “In which scenario are you at peace? Where God guides he gives peace.”
But probably you’ve noticed that when you’re seeking God’s guidance or needing a word of encouragement from him often you’re not at peace! In fact, we may find ourselves so torn and distressed about a difficult situation or decision that we’re quite anxious. Anxiety is a sign that you have conflicting emotions and probably some repressed emotions too, like fear, anger, sadness, or shame. It’s not likely that you’ll hear God’s voice when you’re emotional pipes are backed up with negative feelings! So the first need is to address your anxiety and emotions. Then you may be able to hear God’s voice.
A case in point is grief. When you lose a loved one you go through a lot of emotions, like shock, sadness, anger, fear, confusion, and loneliness. You wonder who you are and if you’ll be okay. It’s similar with other losses like divorce, losing a job, or a health crises. It takes a lot of energy and time to work through the emotions of grief, to get the help you need from people who support you, and to re-stablize your identity and life. In time God’s peace will settle back into your soul, but in the early stages of recovery from a loss waves of grief will overwhelm you.
It’s difficult to endure grief so many people find that they want to make a big change in their life with the hope that things will get better for them. I’ve seen this many times in counseling. Someone is depressed about a loss and so they get married, move to a new house, change jobs, or make a major purchase. If we ask God to provide for us in this way he may do it because he is so generous, but it’s usually not the best thing. Changing your circumstances might change how you feel temporarily but it won’t change you; it’ll distract you from your grief, but it won’t bring true comfort or healing.
Even if you pray and seek God about the decision it’s difficult to hear his voice in a season of unrest.
So the “Peace Plan” for hearing God’s voice is to talk with a friend you trust or journal some prayers to process your emotions. The Apostle Paul, perhaps the greatest psychologist of all time besides Jesus himself counseled us: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God and the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
If we’re full of inner turmoil how can we expect to hear God’s voice? If we don’t even know how we feel about something what makes us think we could begin to know how God feels about it? Taking time to talk and pray through your emotions with someone who serves as “Christ’s ambassador” (2 Corinthians 5:20) for you will help you to settle down and get into a position where you can better discern God’s guidance. In the case of grief or another major life disruption you probably need at least a year to get support and to re-stablize.
Then beside the “still waters” you’ll be better able to discern Good Shepherd’s “path of righteousness” (Psalm 23:2-3).
It was in 1544 that Ignatius of Loyola developed the classic model for discerning God’s voice and leading in The Spiritual Exercises. His book lays out a practical manual for doing a four-week retreat featuring meditation on Gospel readings that engages the senses, reflection and listening prayer, and spiritual direction. It includes teaching about listening to God’s voice. I’d like to emphasize one part of his teaching that I’ve found especially helpful: becoming, as one Jesuit (a monk who follows Ignatius’ way) said, “passionately indifferent” to all things except loving and honoring the Lord Jesus Christ. Along these lines Ignatius says:
It is necessary to keep as my objective the end for which I am created, to praise God our Lord and save my soul. Furthermore, I ought to find myself indifferent, that is, without any disordered affection, to such an extent that I am not more inclined or emotionally disposed toward taking the matter proposed rather than relinquishing it…
Instead, I should find myself in the middle, like the pointer of a balance, in order to be ready to follow that which I shall perceive to be more to the glory and praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul.
I should beg God our Lord to be pleased to move my will and to put into my mind what I ought to do in regard to the matter proposed, so that it will be more to his praise and glory…
Which choice helps me to love God better? How would I advise another person I have never known? If I were at the point of death what would I wish I had done? On Judgment Day how will I wish I had decided? (The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, p. 77-78).
To achieve this indifference in a situation of decision or opportunity you may have to begin by processing through your emotions as described above. You become indifferent about which direction to go when you have the matter fully submitted to God — you’ve abandoned the outcomes to him and and settled in your heart that in either scenario you can be happy because you belong to the Lord and you’re serving him in his kingdom. However your situation turns out the Lord is your portion and his love is better than life (Psalm 63:3) so you are fulfilled!
A simple abiding prayer that helps me submit a matter to God and stay in a neutral, listening position is:
“Lord, I want your will, your way, your time… Your will, your way, your time…”
I repeat the prayer gently in quiet, focused prayer. Then throughout the day whenever the issue comes to mind I return to the prayer, even if only for a few moments.
I can testify from personal experience that achieving true neutrality under God about an issue helps you to discern God’s wisdom. Of course, it takes time and training truly to become passionately indifferent to all things except Jesus. We discover that the more this is true for us then the easier it is for us to be content “in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry” because, like Paul, we can “do all things through Christ who strengthens us” (Philippians 4:13).
3. Fast and Pray
A fruitful method to help us listen to God and discern his guidance is fasting and prayer. Fasting from food (and to a lesser extent fasting from other things like media) can help us to break free of the sins, distractions, and emotions that may be inhibiting our ability to hear God’s voice.
Fasting was often used by people in the Bible and it’s been used by God’s people over the ages. Jesus for forty days to help him hear God at the start of his public ministry. The prophets fasted continually to help them proclaim the word of the Lord to people. In the book of Acts we see the Apostles fasting to help them receive God’s guidance.
Fasting is a discipline of self-denial — we go without food for a period of time to train our bodies to be submitted to God. While we fast we learn to draw our nourishment from the manna of heaven. Some people fast for physical cleansing, but the real cleansing is spiritual and emotional: hidden problems in the body and soul will come to the surface and can be brought into the healing light of God’s mercy and grace. Another thing about fasting is that it clears space in our souls: the time we would’ve spent eating is free for prayer and continually we can re-direct our attention to God.
One caution about fasting as a method for hearing God’s voice: it usually doesn’t work very well to fast about an urgent matter unless prior to doing this you’ve already learned how to fast. When you first try fasting you find that you keep thinking about your experience of fasting: being hungry, having headaches, wondering if you’re doing it right, trying to make something happen. But fasting is not about you, it’s about God. The point of a fast is to feast on God, to hunger for him and his words and to keep your attention on him and what he is doing.
4. Dr. James Dobson’s Method
Dr. James Dobson, a Christian psychologist, best-selling author, and the founder of Focus on the Family is very deliberate about listening to God in his life and ministry. He describes a simple, very practical way of praying to help him listen to God and receive his guidance:
I get down on my knees and say, “Lord, I need to know what you want me to do, and I am listening. Please speak to me through my friends, books, magazines I pick up and read, and through circumstances” (quoted by Dallas Willard in Hearing God, p. 199).
This approach is quite simple and yet it is profound at the same time. Notice that Dr. Dobson is active in his listening to God for discernment. He’s submitting himself and all that he’s involved with to the Lord and to his Word. He is alerting and mobilizing himself to be prepared for how God will speak to him through a variety of inputs in his daily life. He is paying special attention to what’s going on inside his soul and outside in his circumstances.
Dallas Willard has followed Dr. Dobson’s method and testifies:
I have followed this simple method of listening for God’s voice in many situations — in university teaching, research and administration; in family and business affairs, in writing and conducting sessions in conferences and seminars. It is the furthest things from a legalism or formality for me, and God also takes ample occasion to slip up on me by speaking to me words that I am not seeking in this way (Hearing God, p.200).
5. Observing Regular Times for Listening to God
Just like we set aside time to read or study the Bible, pray the Scriptures, practice Abiding Prayer, intercede for loved ones, or serve food to the homeless we are wise to make a space devoted to listening to God — to be still and quiet and simply ask God, “What do you want to say to me? What are you doing that you want to participate in with you?”
This is what Samuel learned to do. Beginning as a little boy he prayed, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9, 10). Through his life he inquired of the Lord matters and he taught David to do the same. Early in his years as King David was careful to follow Samuel’s mentoring on many occasions when enemies were attacking or he had important decisions to make. But later David stopped seeking to hear from God. Right after he had the affair with Bathsheba.
Dallas Willard teaches that if we maintain a usual practice of setting aside time to be still and attentive to God then when the situation comes that we need to hear a particular word from God we will be better able to listen confidently and wait patiently for what God has to say.
To listen to God is a spiritual discipline. It’s a discipline that we practice alongside of other disciplines like Bible study, meditation, and contemplative forms of prayer. It’s like learning a subject in school or exercise at the gym in that as you gain new knowledge and strength it becomes part of your foundation that helps you to gain still more knowledge and strength. So the more we take God’s Word into us and recognize his hand moving in our life and in our heart the easier it is for us to recognize God’s voice with clarity and confidence going forward.
I find it helpful when listening to God — whether it’s part of Lectio Divina, in response to a dream in the night, or in regards to a decision I need to make — to get out paper and pen and write down what I think God might be saying to me. When I do this I turn off my internal editor who is prone to say, “Did God really say that? How do you know it’s not just your own thoughts?”
When I set aside concentrated time to listen to God I just let my pen flow. Or if I’m at the computer I just let my fingers type what God seems to be saying. I may start by writing down my name because I’m receiving a personal message. I open my mind to the stream of God’s thoughts. Of course, after I’m finished journaling what it seems to be that God is saying to me then I review it carefully, examining the message in the light of the Holy Scriptures, perhaps seeking feedback from spiritual friends, and always watching for God’s confirmation over time in my circumstances and the ongoing impressions he makes on me.
I have been doing this for many years. It is so encouraging for me to go back and read my journals. Time and again I have been encouraged when something challenging that I discerned God to tell me to do worked out well. And there have been times that I have been amazed when I sensed God say that he was going to do something unlikely and as I did my part by waiting, trusting, and observing that he actually did what he said he’d do! (I shouldn’t be amazed when God does what he says he’ll do!)
6. Dallas Willard’s Paradoxical Method
Dallas’ personal method to help him listen to God is quite pragmatic and helpful. He begins by setting aside time for concentrated listening to God in the way we’ve just discussed: he talks to God about the situation, asks God’s counsel, meditates on Scripture, quiets himself to listen, and waits. Sometimes he does this for hours.
Then Dallas adds some wise, paradoxical counsel about stepping back from intensive focus on discerning God’s will:
Personally I find it works best if after I ask God to speak to me in this way, I devote the next hour or so to some kind of activity that neither engrosses my attention with other things nor allows me to be intensely focused on the matter in question. Housework gardening, driving about on errands, or paying bills will generally do. I have learned not to worry about whether or not this is going to work. I know that it does not have to work, but I am sure that it will work if God has something he really wants me to know or do. This is ultimately because I am sure of how great and good he is.
Often by the end of an hour or so there has stood forth within my consciousness an idea or thought with that peculiar quality, spirit and content that I have come to associate with God’s voice. If so, I may write it down for further study. I also may decide to discuss the matter with others, usually without informing them that “God has told me…” Or I may decide to reconsider the matter by repeating the same process after a short period of time. Remember Gideon (Judges 6:11-40). Remember too that scientists check their results by rerunning experiments. We should be so humble. (Hearing God, p. 199-200)
The beauty of this approach is that it guards us against straining to hear God’s voice. If we press too hard or if we worry it inhibits us from discerning what God may be saying. But when we step back from active listening in meditation and prayer and instead relax about the whole issue by engaging lightly in a mindless activity it puts us in a different space. Insight from God is liable to just pop in!
It’s a paradox: we strain to hear God’s will on a matter and hear nothing, but we let go and trust that God will speak to us if he has anything to say and we hear his wisdom.
I have often strained to hear God on an issue and then when I finally relinquished the matter to God and stopped pressing I was able to hear him! In particular I have experienced this when I’m jogging long distances. Running on trails by lakes or up in the hills in solitude relaxes me. (I’m sure the endorphins help!) As I’m running along I enjoy the beauty of nature and meditating on Scripture and sometimes my mind wanders onto the situation I’ve had a question about. Sometimes God’s wisdom suddenly comes to me just then as I’m jogging!
Re-Run your Experiment
What do you do when you think you’ve heard God’s voice?
We should always hurry to obey the teachings of the Bible. But personal messages we receive from God about specific situations are different — even if we receive them in the context of studying or meditating on a Bible passage. We’re wise to be careful about acting too quickly on our personal discerning of what God is saying to us, as we may need to wait longer. As we quoted Dallas above, “Remember too that scientist check their results by rerunning experiments. We should be so humble” (Hearing God, p.200).
When God is Silent
What do you do when it seems that none of your methods to hear God’s voice work?
We need to be careful not to use methods as gimmicks to obtain guidance from God to secure ourselves. If what’s truly most important to us is growing in relationship with God as an apprentice of Jesus then we’ll understand situations of not hearing God’s voice as a learning opportunity. God may want us to make a given decision without his specific directive, but by relying on him with us.
My book Your Best Life In Jesus’ Easy Yoke is inspired by my conversations with Dallas Willard on apprenticeship to Jesus. It will help you draw closer to Christ and hear God’s voice and to trust him when you don’t hear God’s voice.