Learning to discern God’s voice is vital to our life and ministry. But hearing God speak is not like using a vending machine! It’s part of growing in a conversational relationship with him.
All relationships have natural ebbs and flows. In our most important relationships we probably experience times of enjoying intimacy and times of being separated for one reason or another. This is true in our relationship with God.
What does it mean when you can’t seem to hear God’s voice? What do you do?
The Wailing Wall
A few years ago I helped to lead a “Walk Where Jesus Walked” pilgrimage to Israel. This included a visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, which is just below where Israel’s temple used to be. The Wailing Wall is a symbol of prayer not yet answered despite years of pleadings.
Day and night Jews gather there to grieve the destruction of their temple and to pray for its restoration and for and God’s blessing on their nation. And they offer many personal prayers and meditations.
People put little pieces of paper with prayers in the cracks between the rocks of the wall. Others recite from the Torah as they face the wall, sitting on a chair and rocking back and forth.
There was a journalist who was assigned to the Jerusalem bureau of his newspaper. He got an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall. After a few days he realized that whenever he looked at the wall he saw an old Jewish man praying vigorously.
The journalist wondered whether there was a publishable story here. He went down to the wall, introduced himself and said: “You come every day to the wall. What are you praying for?”
The old man replied: “What am I praying for? In the morning I pray for world peace, then I pray for the brotherhood of man. I go home, have a glass of tea, and I come back to the wall to pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth.”
The journalist was taken aback by the old man’s persistent prayers for so many people. “You mean you have been coming to the wall to pray every day for the needs of people around the world?”
The old man nodded.
“How long have you been coming to the wall to pray for these things?”
The old man became reflective and replied: “How long? Oh, maybe twenty, twenty-five years.”
The journalist was amazed. “How does it feel to come and pray like this every day for over 20 years?”
“How does it feel?” replied the old man. “It feels like I’m talking to a wall!”
Recently, Does Prayer Feel Like Talking to a Wall?
Maybe you feel like you’re praying to a wall!
We all feel that way sometimes. There are times when it seems like God isn’t answering our prayers. There are times that we don’t hear God’s voice. Even if we know the Bible and are filled with godly wisdom there are some situations in which, at least for awhile, we don’t know what God’s thoughts are.
What are we to do when we don’t hear God’s voice?
What Dallas Willard Does when He Doesn’t Hear God’s Voice
I teach a seminary class on “Hearing God.” It’s a very practical class which pastors find to be very helpful. The main text book I use is Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God. He has many helpful things to say on the subject from the Bible and life experiences. For instance he shares his personal method for listening to God. In fact there are a variety of very helpful Methods for Hearing God’s Voice.
But what does Dallas do when he doesn’t hear God’s voice on a particular issue? Does the author of Hearing God always hear God’s voice? No! He readily admits that sometimes he does not. What does he do then?
Obey the Lord: love God and your neighbor. Dallas says that is always the best advice in any situation of uncertainty or distress.
In addition Dallas says that when he has sought God on an issue and doesn’t have clarity he lets go of seeking an answer from God. He says he’s not disappointed or worried. Instead he goes about his business, maintaining the general attitude of listening to God as part of his daily conversational relationship with him, and he trusts that God will speak to him as he proceeds if God wants to.
And Dallas trusts that if God does not explicitly direct his steps that it means that God wants Dallas to make the decision himself.
Dallas elaborates on his thinking:
It is God’s will that we ourselves should have a great part in determining our path through life. This does not mean that he is not with us. Far from it. God both develops and, for our good, tests our character by leaving us to decide. He calls us to responsible citizenship in his kingdom by saying – in effect or in reality – as often as possible, “My will for you in this case is that you decide on your own…
A child cannot develop into a responsible, competent human being if he or she is always told what do to…
What we want, what we think, what we decide to do when the word of God does not come or when we have so immersed ourselves in him that his voice within us is not held in distinction from our own thoughts and perceptions – these show who we are: either we are God’s mature children, friends, and coworkers, or we are something less (Hearing God, p. 204).
Are We on Our Own?
Dallas teaches that if a disciple of Jesus doesn’t hear God’s voice of guidance despite seeking him and listening then it means that God wants us to make the decision on our own, to show forth our character.
Making a decision on our own may feel like being abandoned to you. But that is not what Dallas is saying. He’s encouraging us to take responsibility to make a good choice and to trust that God’s hand of grace will be with us as we make decisions and carry them out. And so Dallas urges us to keep looking for God’s hand of grace and to keep listening for his voice even as we move forward.
Dallas has personally given me this counsel at times when I’ve waited on God and been left uncertain: make the best decision you can and watch for God’s hand to move.
This is challenging for me because I’m the kind of person that likes to know with certainty what God is leading me to do, but sometimes I don’t have that clarity. So it helps me to realize that God is with me and that sometimes he doesn’t want to tell me what’s the best thing to do, but wants to see what kind of decision I’ll make.
Dallas explains that in these situations his experience is that it’s like God is handing him the keys to his car and saying, “Go ahead and take it for a drive.” So Dallas says,“I set myself to hold the matter before God as I go about my business and confidently get on with my life” (Hearing God, p. 200).
In other words, as we mature in Christ God gives us opportunities to be responsible adults. Of course, he’s still with us as we proceed and we are wise to rely on him and keep interacting with him as we do.
So even when we don’t hear God’s specific guidance we don’t need to worry or be upset because God loves us and he is with is – even if we’re not feeling this at the moment. “God will never leave us or forsake us” the writer to the Hebrews reminds us (13:5). And as John Wesley said succinctly at his death: “Best of all, God is with us!”
It’s Humbling Not to Know what to Do!
When God called Abraham to go to the Promised land he didn’t know how to get there — but he knew the Lord who was with him. He trusted the Lord as he went along, step-by-step. (Hebrews 11:8-9) It’s humbling not to know what is the best decision but to proceed anyway in the wisdom you have, doing what is right and loving trusting that the Lord is with you and guiding you even though you’re not hearing his voice.
Peter’s words are helpful here: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore under God’s mighty hand and he will exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:5-7).
“Due time” may seem to be taking a long time! But the point of your trial is to trust God, casting your anxiety on him and finding his grace sufficient for you. And if you humble yourself under God’s hand and look closely — perhaps with the help of a spiritual friend or mentor — you will be able to see in hindsight that God has been at work guiding you, loving you, and helping, though maybe not yet with the pressing need or question that you are struggling with.
We need to remind ourselves that the main point of “Hearing God” is our opportunity is to grow in a trusting and responsive interactive relationship with God.
Hearing God is not primarily about receiving detailed directions for our daily life decisions. It is about learning to submit to Christ in all that we do and to develop an overall relationship with him as Jesus’ apprentices in his kingdom.
It’s out of an intimate, interactive relationship with Christ that we learn to hear God’s voice and learn to trust his gracious presence with us even when we don’t get words from him. At times God is present with us in loving silence.
Growing in a conversational relationship with God is not so much about getting directive messages from God when we need them — it’s really about doing all that we do in the presence of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Why We May Be Upset if We Don’t Hear God
Many people I talk to get upset if they don’t hear God’s voice. I’ve had the same struggle with God many times. But I’ve had to reckon with Dallas’ challenging words: “We may insist on having God tell us what to do because we live in fear or are obsessed with being right as a strategy for being safe” (p. 205).
Maybe we want a life without risk? But Dallas teaches that only risk can produce character. In the spiritual life to risk is to venture beyond our merely natural abilities by relying on God’s upholding power with us.
Paul teaches us to “Walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). In other words, “Walk by trust in God and not by your emotions.” (It’s always helpful to be aware of our emotions, but never good to be dependent on them — they make wonderful servants but terrible masters!) Our walk of faith is tested when we don’t hear God’s voice. The challenge is to put our confidence in the resources of the invisible kingdom of God in our midst rather than relying on our circumstances and feelings.
Sometimes the challenge of not hearing God’s voice is part of a larger experience called the Dark Night of the Soul. You may have heard of this, but do you understand what it is and how to deal with it?
Saint John of the Cross taught about the Dark Night of the Soul in the 16th Century. Long before this Psalmist prayed many times in the midst of a Dark Night, crying out to God, “Why is your face hidden from me?” (Dark Night Psalms include Psalms 13, 42, 46, 59, 77, 88, 91, 143.)
The Dark Night of the Soul is a time in which we don’t feel God’s presence, we don’t hear his voice, and it seems that God has left us on our own. It can be a depressing time; it is quite a trial. All depressions and all trials are not examples of a Dark Night of the Soul — only those in which we feel spiritually dry and distant from God.
The Dark Night is not a time in which you’re being punished by an angry God for your sins. It is a kind of loving discipline, a testing to encourage growth. It’s because of your growing righteousness and maturity in Christ that the Sovereign Lord brings a Dark Night.
And the Dark Night is not resolved by trying harder to be a good Christian so that you can feel his love or get his blessings!
The Dark Night of the Soul is a certain kind of trial in which God is working in a very specific way with a mature Christ-follower. God withdraws the felt sense of his presence for a season to take the disciple of Christ on a deepening of journey of opening up his or her heart.
It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but the Dark Night is actually an opportunity to develop a stronger faith seen in the capacity to express love for Christ and to worship God for nothing – as Job did, or Abraham leaving his son on the altar, or Paul when his thorn in the flesh was not taken away, or Jesus on the Cross.
The Dark Night is a time to experience a deep, deep longing for God and to learn to find meaning and joy in the longing. It’s a time to remember past times of experiencing God’s grace. The Dark Night is a time to trust the light of Christ within even though it’s dark all around you.