It seems like everyday I talk with someone who needs to hear God’s voice. “How do I help my family in this situation?” people ask. Students and others in career transition pray, “Lord, are you calling me into ministry?” In the course of our lives we need to make choices about marriage, job, where to live, and family planning. Pastors and leaders, along with other men and women in ministry or in the marketplace, need vision and strategy for their church or other organization.
In the challenges, opportunities, and decisions of our life and our work we need God’s guidance and to sense his loving presence with us.
Many years ago I read Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God by Dallas Willard. That book was one of the reasons I began meeting privately with Dallas for his guidance and prayer. One of the important ways that Dallas spiritually mentored me was in trusting my sense of God’s voice enough to step out in faith. He taught me the distinguishing markers of God’s voice and some new methods for listening and discerning. I’ve been sharing these with pastors and leaders in our Soul Shepherding ministry.
It’s a surprise to many people who have appreciated Dallas Willard’s thought-provoking books and teachings that an important way he learned to hear God’s voice was as a student attending revival meetings. He says that in those charismatic style meetings he experienced “a characteristic type of thought and impulse, which was to me the moving of God upon my mind and heart.” (Dallas Willard, Hearing God, p. 16)
What helps you to hear God’s voice? What gives you confidence to know God’s thoughts and leading for you?
“Why Can’t I Hear God’s Voice?”
My wife Kristi says, “In college I heard charismatic preachers and friends who often spoke of hearing God’s voice. I didn’t understand what they were talking about. I felt cautious and skeptical. Sometimes I felt inadequate, even ashamed. What’s the matter with me? Why can’t I hear God’s voice? I judged and questioned my faith.”
In contrast to Kristi’s experience as a student, some people are super confident and bold in speaking a message from God. I’ve had people say to me, “The Lord told me to tell you…” But I was sure that it was not God speaking! I’ve also talked with other people who are convinced they’re hearing God’s voice, but sadly they were psychotic and “hearing voices” in their head that weren’t real!
Years ago a friend of mine was sure he’d heard God’s voice about starting a business, but it was a disaster. It led him to overwork, pulled him away from his wife and children, and became a devastating financial loss. Was that the leading of the Holy Spirit or his own ego and ambition? He thought he heard God’s voice, but maybe it was his own desires? How would you know the difference? What methods would you practice to listen for the Lord’s leading and confirm it was genuine?
I’ve put the best insights on hearing God that I’ve learned from Dallas Willard (including some great quotes from his book Hearing God) and other Christian leaders, along with over twenty-five years of experience as a Christian psychologist and pastor to pastors, into our very practical Soul Shepherding booklet on “How to Hear God’s Voice”. (Available soon.)
Is it Really 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)
If you think about it, it’s natural that an intimate relationship with God would 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 he gives us. Throughout Christian history we have examples of men and women who listen to God and hear his guidance.
In our ministry to others, whether preaching to a congregation or teaching 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 discerning his words to us, primarily from Scripture, but also personal words that are consistent with the Word of God.
Jesus, our Good Shepherd, says, “My sheep
know my voice and they follow me” (John 10:4).
God Still Speaks Today
“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 can be trusted to make good use of a personal message from him. God loves to speak! This is why the Bible begins in the creation account of Genesis 1 with the refrain, “And God said…”
What a blessing it is to hear God’s voice! His words bring his life. Not only did God speak the creation into existence, he also sustains all of 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.
To Hear God’s Voice You Need Methods
By identifying “methods” for hearing God’s voice I do not mean to suggest a mechanistic, programatic, or formulaic approach. We’re exploring a personal and conversational relationship with God. The Lord speaks and it’s up to us to listen and obey. God is seeking a closer relationship with us but for us to experience that we need to seek him too.
Usually when someone hears God, even if it’s in a very supernatural way, you can look back and see ways they had been opening their heart to God. I believe this is even true when the Spirit of Christ knocked Saul (Paul) off of his horse with a bright light and loud voice from heaven. As miraculous as that story is, behind it there is still an ordinary relationship between Jesus and Paul. If you carefully read Paul’s story in Acts and his epistles, you see that he has previously been seeking God in many ways, like through the law, his mentor Gamaliel, and observing the way Stephen died embodying Christ’s peace and love for the people who were stoning him to death.
In other words, Paul had been using some methods in a spiritual training program. His heart was warming up to a true relationship with God.
Dallas Willard emphasizes growing in
a conversational relationship with God.
Methods to Discern God’s Voice
In “Methods For Hearing God’s Voice” I unpack twelve practical strategies for growing in a conversational relationship with God. This includes examples from the Bible on how God speaks to people and many real life stories from pastors and other people I’ve helped in learning to discern what God is saying. Some of these methods I teach will be new to you. When you experiment with them you’ll be surprised by what God will do!
1. Lectio Divina
This ancient Benedictine approach for Scripture meditation is a reliable and refreshing tool for hearing God speak to your heart through his Word into specific situations in your life and ministry. There are a variety of approaches to Lectio Divina — you’ll find ours to be emotionally engaging, less like Bible study and more like meditation.
2. 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.” The Bible teaches us to be governed by God’s peace (Colossians 3:15). Central to this approach is how we deal with our emotions, needs, and questions.
3. Spiritual Empathy
Often we’re not able to hear God’s voice because our soul’s piping is clogged up with repressed emotions. When you try not to feel distress, pain, or neediness you’re numbing all of your feelings, all of your soul’s receptivity. God speaks his thought-feelings into our thought-feelings (the two are connected) so to hear his voice we need to open up our channel of communication.
4. The Ministry of a Christ’s Ambassador
We all need a soul friend, spiritual director, or counselor who listens to us and helps us process our personal experiences and tune into God’s presence and words in our lives.
5. Immanuel Journaling
Immanuel Journaling a fresh way of “thought rhyming” with God’s Spirit through receiving God’s empathy for your embodied emotions and life situation, which in turn enables you to receive God’s encouragement and instruction. (Joyful Journey by Jim Wilder, Anna Kong, John and Sungshim Loppnow)
6. Dream Interpretation
In the Bible God spoke to the Josephs (Joseph the son of Jacob and Joseph the father of Jesus), the Psalmist, and others through dreams. God still speaks through dreams — sometimes in prophetic words and more commonly in the wise discernment that comes with understanding the unconscious emotions and insights that are expressed in what appears to be a random or funny story or symbol.
You can learn more about biblical dream interpretation here.
7. Fast and Pray
In the book of Acts we see the Apostles fasting to help them receive God’s guidance. When we fast from food we make a space of time and activate our senses for attending to God’s presence and voice. But most people who fast don’t know the Biblical teaching. They fast for physical health benefits, as a religious sacrifice, or as a technique to get something from God. Fasting is feasting on God’s word.
8. Dobson’s Common Sense Listening
When Dr. James Dobson, a Christian psychologist and the founder of Focus on the Family, has a special need to hear God’s voice he simply asks God to speak to him through the conversations and activities of his day. It’s a simple method. Even Dallas Willard testifies to it’s power.
9. Ignatius’ “Passionate Indifference”
From Ignatius, the 16th Century Spanish monk and mystic, I learned to imagine myself in Gospel passages and practice the daily examen (“How am I sensing God’s presence today?”) in order to grow in my intimacy with God and discernment. His spirituality culminates in a whole-hearted devotion and submission to Christ that one Jesuit (follower of Ignatius) called “passionate indifference”. The best way to discern the Lord’s leading in a situation is to become indifferent with a passion to all outcomes except knowing Christ and helping others to join you.
Ignatius’ methods help us to discern
the Holy Spirit’s movements in our life.
You can learn more about Ignatian Meditations here.
10. Observing Regular Times for Listening to God (Being Still)
Just as we set aside time to read the Bible or do another spiritual discipline, so also we can set aside time to be quiet and listen to God. To do this well we need to use some tools for abiding prayer, like a Breath Prayer from the Bible, prayer posture, or being in a nature setting.
11. Dallas Willard’s Paradoxical Method
When we need God’s guidance on a matter we may tend to strain in order to hear his voice. Dallas teaches us to learn the opposite approach of stepping back from our intensive focus on discernment and wait. The best way to do this is to engage in a light, mindless activity. When our minds are relaxed and open God’s thoughts can slip in!
12. Re-Run Your Experiment!
Good scientists test their results. That’s humility and wisdom. This is how we should approach hearing God’s voice.