Hearing God’s voice (2)—How to Practice

Hearing God’s voice (2)—How to Practice

Even though I use terms such as “hearing God’s voice” or “hearing from God” and a few other phrases, these are shorthand terms. By them I mean more generally “receiving communication from God,” no matter how that happens. God communicates with people in myriad ways. The precise mechanisms of that communication are unique for every person. So when you read below about “hearing God’s voice” or “hearing God,” please interpret that to mean “getting the message,” no matter how it comes across.

If you feel condemnation or hopelessness, it isn’t God

Nervousness is OK, and even a bit of mild fear. But there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). If the message you are “hearing” (however it comes to you) brings guilt or condemnation, it is not from God. Note also a sneaky variation on this lie: The enemy might whisper in your year, “Yes, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, but you are not in Christ Jesus! Because of your particularly odious sin, you are not acceptable to him!” That’s a lie too. If you want to belong to Jesus, you belong to him. It’s that simple. He loves you!!!

When appropriate, confirm what you hear by consulting people who are experienced in hearing God

Listening to God’s voice is not supposed to be a mysterious, tricky operation. Remember, he wants to communicate with you! And he wants you to be clear about what he is and is not saying. So by all means: if you believe God is directing you in a particular way that may have significant or perhaps controversial consequences, prayerfully share your thoughts with and seek the wisdom of more experienced believers. If it’s a more mundane matter, just go with your gut feeling and use the situation to help hone your ability to discern God’s voice. It typically takes years to work into a situation where you are comfortable with your back-and-forth communications.

Feeling that God wants you to do something really weird

This is not uncommon in the experience of people who seriously undertake to discern the voice of God. You can almost count on it. And you can almost certainly ignore it. It’s a quirk of human fallenness. We want desperately to learn how to recognize God’s voice, but we are tripped up by one (or both!) of two snares: (1) We may have an unconscious feeling that, because of our excessive wickedness, God has a deep desire to embarrass and humiliate us. Therefore he will ask us to do something extremely weird for no other reason than to demean us and put us in our (extremely low) place. (2) The opposite temptation involves spiritual pride: I convince myself that other people get the easy stuff, but God has a very special calling for me, and he’s going to do very powerful things through me, and therefore he will tell me to do something that’s really bizarre in order to test me and prepare me for bigger things. Me, me, me. There are many variations, depending on which misconceptions about God are foremost in our particular minds, but we might even hear something like, “I want you to stand in the middle of the local mall for two hours, singing ‘Jesus loves me’ as loudly as you can.” A friend of mine was in the process of doing something similar to that before he was arrested. It wasn’t God, but he had been unwilling to test this “revelation,” and he suffered mightily for his negligence. He eventually became an atheist.

I’m not saying that, on extremely rare occasions, God doesn’t ask his followers to do something that’s strange and embarrassing and humiliating. Isaiah had to walk around naked for three years. Ezekiel had to lie on his side for nearly fifteen months, and build little models of Jerusalem and place toy weapons around it—how many people would look at that and NOT think he was crazy? God is not beyond asking his followers to do something outlandish. But if you’re trying to learn how he communicates with you, and if you’re genuinely seeking his face with all your heart, please note that one valid approach is to go with the probabilities: First, the odds are literally less than one in several billion that he’s going to tell you something really outlandish. Second, when he does instruct someone to do something highly unconventional (think Isaiah, Ezekiel, Abraham), I can assure you he leaves in that person’s mind no doubt that it is indeed God speaking. I’ve had a lot of experience in this, both in my own life and through people I’ve known. And I can tell you with highest confidence that, if you’re hearing something exceedingly weird from a voice that you think is God, and if you have any doubt whatsoever that it’s really God, then it isn’t. Ignore it. This silly game happens to multitudes of people who genuinely try to learn how to recognize God’s voice, and it goes with the territory. If you find you can’t ignore it, then go to some people who are experienced in hearing from God and seek their counsel.

No innovative theology

Here’s a corollary to the previous discussion. God is not going to give you a radically new theological understanding! That has happened a handful of times in human history, but chances are gazillions to one against its happening to you. God is, by and large, not nearly as interested in theology as we are. Witness his total disregard for even addressing such issues as how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other; and how the God “Who is One” is able to have a Son (the Old Testament says nothing that would even wildly hint at this concept!). If you receive a “revelation” that promotes something that is quite innovative theologically and that cannot be clearly seen in scripture, I can almost guarantee that you’re hearing incorrectly. New concepts, new theological terms, unique doctrines, etc., tend to arise not from the Holy Spirit but from individuals’ needs to feel important.

Practice both hearing and obeying

It happens to all of us. We try to listen to what God is saying, but very quickly we hit a solid wall. A common underlying problem is that, early on, the Holy Spirit gently told us something we didn’t want to hear (e.g., you need to forgive that person; you need to sell your BMW and give the money to the poor; you need to stop sleeping with so-and-so; you need to turn off your TV and spend a couple of hours in prayer every evening). Because we don’t like what we heard earlier, we turn the volume control on God’s voice virtually to zero—but then we turn around and complain that “God doesn’t speak to me.” Duh! How can I hear God communicating with me when I have clearly demonstrated my distaste for what he says?

Remember: He loves you! Everything he tells you is for your blessing, for your joy. Even if what he says seems hard at the time, or even impossibly painful (those kinds of instructions often involve romantic relationships), obedience in the end will bring you greater joy than going your own way. God is very smart. He knows a lot of stuff that you don’t know. And he loves you. Trust him!

Give grace to people who don’t accept that what you say is from God

Even if you are 100% confident that you’re right, don’t be self-righteous and condescending. Joshua and Caleb were right when they said Israel could conquer Canaan, that God would give them the victory (Numbers 13-14). Everyone else got it wrong, fearing they would be destroyed if they tried to take the promised land. The result was that all Israel, including Joshua and Caleb, had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they were given another opportunity to take the land. Joshua and Caleb were correct, but they didn’t thumb their noses at everyone. They went along with the rest of the people, remained good little Israelites, and didn’t complain. We often have to do the same thing. If you believe God has given you a message for your church, for example, and if the leadership doesn’t accept it, you should not sulk about it or leave the church, even if you pray and fast and remain convinced that you’re right and they’re wrong. We all get things wrong. I get things wrong. You get things wrong. The leaders of your church get things wrong. We’re all sinners. Just live with it, and love everyone, and do your best to serve that portion of the body of Christ where God has put you.

Doubt is inevitable—just don’t wallow in it

It helps to remember that we will misunderstand God’s communications to us. We will get it wrong. God understands that, and it doesn’t make him mad at us. I have made major life decisions based not on my own reasoning but on highly specific things I was convinced God had said: changing fields of study from liberal arts to the sciences, going to a particular graduate school, remaining in a church that was hostile toward me, starting my own business, even choosing to have more children (obviously, my spouse was in on that decision!). With the exception of the Holy Spirit’s instructions to have more children, I have from time to time doubted the validity of all the other major decisions—were they actually from God, or were they from my imagination?

But guess what? It doesn’t matter!

Paul strongly assured us (Romans 8:28-29) that God will take everything in our lives, even the momentous screw-ups, and use them to bless us, to make us more like Jesus. Our Lord has specialized in that radical kind of grace since the beginning of creation. If you act on what you believe God has said, and at some point—perhaps immediately, or perhaps decades later—you think, “Crap! Maybe that was just my imagination! Maybe my decision was horribly wrong!,” you must realize that the blood of Jesus cleanses you from all sin. He has it covered. He knows infinitely better than you how badly you’re going to mess things up while trying to listen to and obey his voice. Even when you get it wrong, he still adores you. He will continue using what you have done to bless you. Because we live under such an umbrella of forgiveness and grace, doubt is always inappropriate. If I were to decide that I completely mis-heard God when I went to graduate school in genetics, I would say only, “Sorry, but I’m not going to fret about it, because this is where I am now; God is with me, and has promised to bless me even when I screw up, so I’m not going to give it another thought. If I got it wrong, at this point it’s God’s problem, not mine.”

One of the most inspiring statements of that sort that I have heard came from a friend who declared, “I understand now that I never should have married X. God tried in vain to warn me. But we are married, and I’m going to try to follow the Lord in this marriage, and I trust that God will bless me and our children who came from this marriage.” What a profound faith! Spoiler alert: that was a long and blessed marriage.

Jesus was not exempt from doubts. Satan wouldn’t have tempted him in the specific ways the gospels describe if Jesus hadn’t been susceptible to doubt regarding what he thought God had said. Jesus knew the scriptures, for example, and they said NOTHING about God’s having a son. But Jesus had just heard God say—or at least thought he had just heard God say—that Jesus was God’s son. Jesus spent 40 days praying/fasting, and clearly this was one of the major items he was addressing, since it’s the focus of two of the three temptations for which we have a record:

“There’s no way God really said that!” the tempter crowed. “Either you heard him wrong, or you’re insane. Come on, you know the scriptures, Jesus, it’s ludicrous to think that God has a son—much less that, of all the people who have ever lived, YOU’RE that son!  Do you recall something like ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one!’  Get a life!  You’re certifiably bonkers! Tell you what: if you’re the Son of God, you ought to be able to do anything. You can test this crazy idea right now, ‘Mr. Son of God’—just turn this rock into a loaf of bread.”

Satan quoted scripture to Jesus, and he quoted it correctly. Satan was right so far as biblical theology was concerned, since the idea that God had a son contradicted scripture. But God had just spoken from heaven, and Jesus said he had to live according to EVERY word that proceeds from God’s mouth, including the one God had just spoken.

The risen Jesus, then, completely sympathizes with you when you doubt what you have heard. He did too. And because his grace covers you whether you heard correctly or whether you got it wrong, you need never be fearful about hearing him incorrectly.

Take small steps

When we genuinely try to listen to God, he’s usually quite gentle. Although many of the things God appears to show us seem trivial on the surface, nothing God does is unimportant. He meets us wherever we are, and more often than not gives us small, seemingly insignificant experiences with which to practice. Usually, we can obey that inner voice without potential embarrassment; and when we get it wrong, we simply chalk it up to experience and learn from it. It’s like learning to recognize another human being’s voice—it takes time to become familiar enough with someone’s voice that we’d recognize it almost anywhere. God’s occasional leading in seemingly frivolous everyday matters is simply his grace to us, because he loves us and cares for every aspect of our lives. Jesus reminded us that the Father knows exactly how many hairs are on your head; Jesus spoke those words, not to show how omniscient God is, but rather to demonstrate how omnicaring he is!  Our increasing ability to be sensitive to him in “little” things improves our ability to hear him on those handful of occasions, often over several decades, when there are life-changing consequences.

Example: I was washing dishes one afternoon when I thought I heard the Holy Spirit say, “Go to your computer RIGHT NOW and check your email. There’s a message that you must respond to immediately.” So I did that. It was easy: It wouldn’t cost me anything if I was wrong. As I checked my email I saw a message that had arrived a few minutes earlier, from someone who was in desperate trouble. I responded immediately by return email, then telephoned this person. After we talked for about half an hour, everything was fine. But the situation was quite urgent, and had I not obeyed that nudge that I thought was God, this person could have experienced truly disastrous consequences.

Follow God’s leading even in the face of opposition, when appropriate

*Do what you think God is saying even though you stand alone. This is very risky, but it sometimes happens—this tends to be “advanced” stuff with which most of us won’t be challenged. A biblical example is the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark (Acts 15:36 ff.). Neither Paul nor Barnabas would have advocated a strong position unless they had prayed about it and believed they had heard from God. Yet each had to follow what he thought God was saying. Paul thought God said not to take John Mark, Barnabas believed God said to do so.  In the end, they went their separate ways—Barnabas continued to travel with John Mark, but Paul traveled with Silas, a new companion. Each of these apostles in the end had to obey what he thought the Spirit was saying, even when opposed by his most trusted friend.

*The Holy Spirit told a friend of mine to prophesy to a charismatic church that had experienced a great revival, but that was falling into a disastrous heresy in which the congregation’s leaders controlled virtually every aspect of the members’ lives. He tested and tested the message he had been given, and could conclude nothing other than that it was indeed from the Holy Spirit. He spoke the word in front of the congregation, but was bodily removed from the premises. It would have been easy not to deliver the message, but my friend was obedient even in the face of potentially terrible embarrassment.

*Bruce Olson was only 19 when, against the wishes of his parents and virtually every other adult figure in his life in Minnesota, he bought a plane ticket to Venezuela in obedience to what he believed was God’s command. After a number of years during which he encountered every possible kind of opposition (including from Christian missionaries) as well as miserable diseases and near-death experiences, Olson ended up being used by God to transform the lives of many indigenous people who had not previously heard of Jesus. Such actions in the face of a wall of opposition are quite rare, and when they do happen they often result from the individual’s fantasies, not from the Holy Spirit. But Olson’s experience demonstrates that, on rare occasions, God actually does act in that way. (See  Bruce Olson, 2006. Bruchko: The Astonishing True Story of a 19-Year-Old American, His Capture by the Motilone Indians and His Adventures in Christianizing the Stone Age Tribe. Lake Mary, FL—Charisma House.)

This section appears at odds with my earlier discussion about ignoring off-the-wall, weird messages. But that’s OK. Dealing with spiritual realities is never particularly systematic. Chances are extremely high that you will never encounter genuine, weird messages. And should God ever call you to such a rare, unique ministry, he will make it unambiguously clear that the calling is indeed from him.

Listen for God at all times, but don’t try too hard

Leave your receiver on, but don’t surf channels. Don’t create a spiritual/listening vacuum in an attempt to “get” a message from God. If you do that, you WILL “get” a message, but it may not be from God! It is very common for people to strain to hear something. They are determined to get a message from Almighty God. One large church with which I’m familiar even teaches explicitly that, anytime you “need” to have a word of prophecy from God, he will give you one. And in such situations, people are almost certain to hear a message—but it often will be either from their own imaginations or from evil spiritual forces that are always happy to fill spiritual vacuums.

Don’t try too hard. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need your help. He is not a heavenly podcast guaranteed to deliver a desired message at the flick of a button, or a heavenly version of Man’s Best Friend who on command can be prompted to “Speak!” If you genuinely want to know what (if anything) he is trying to communicate to you, he is quite capable of making himself heard. But the prerogative is always his, not yours. Simply keep your spiritual ears open, and then go about your daily business. If he wants to say something to you, he’ll say it.


Fasting can be an extremely powerful tool in our becoming more “connected up” with God. But we must be highly cautious about making it into a legalism, and of seeing fasting as a way to manipulate God. If you want to know more about fasting, I suggest that you find people who have a lot of experience in it and discuss the question with them.

Don’t brag

You don’t need to say “God told me. . .” in order to follow through on the things you believe God is saying. Try to avoid saying, “I feel led to say,” “I feel led to pray,” “The Lord told me,” etc., except when such phrases clearly are needed. Example: If you’re asked to say a few words before your church congregation—e.g., to make an announcement—and God provides a semimiraculous confirmation of what you’re supposed to say, consider NOT telling that story when you make your announcement. Ditto if you feel God directly leading you to pray for something—you don’t need to tell anyone that. Just pray it. God’s word carries its own validation. Simply do what you feel God has called you to do, or say what you believe he has directed you to say—and if you were hearing God correctly, his word will accomplish what it’s intended to accomplish. Anything more than that often stems less from our trying to glorify God than from our wanting to impress people with our super spirituality.

Experiment (carefully)

Often we subconsciously know what God is saying to us, but we just don’t admit it to ourselves because we don’t like what we’re hearing. If you can’t discern anything that seems to be from God, try this exercise (as long as you don’t become legalistic about it or take it too seriously): After a time of prayer and of honestly committing yourself to follow God’s way no matter what he wants, ask yourself, “If God were to speak to me, what do I think he probably would say?” And then obey. Sometimes this is a useful exercise, sometimes it isn’t. It may be worth trying when nothing else seems to be working. Just don’t obsess about it.

Here’s a story that illustrates how crucially important it can be (1) to learn to hear God, (2) to always have your “receiver” tuned in and the volume turned high enough that you won’t miss what God is saying because of mental background noise, and (3) to follow through!
Years ago when I was in graduate school, Christmas holidays were coming up and I was getting ready to fly home to Dallas the next day. While I was in my room packing, a name came into my mind that I hadn’t thought of in years—the name of a biology teacher in my high school. I had never been in this man’s class, and could not even recall what he looked like. But his name came abruptly and solidly into my consciousness. Briefly, I debated whether this could be the Holy Spirit nudging me to pray for this man. I was very busy, however, and quickly convinced myself that an unknown environmental stimulus had created a random association in my mind with this man’s name. I dismissed the thought.
Next day I flew to Dallas. The day after that, a front-page headline in the Dallas Morning News described how a local high school teacher had shot and killed his wife and children the day before, and was in jail for murder. Yes, it was the man for whom I had not prayed!
As Aslan said in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, “No one is ever told what would have happened.” But I strongly suspect that man’s wife and children would be alive today, and he would not have been sent to prison, had I been obedient to the Holy Spirit and prayed when, I can imagine, our Lord was searching throughout the world (apparently in vain) to find someone to intercede.
I am at peace about this tragedy, because I am convinced that our Lord Jesus will “draw all human beings to himself” (John 12:32). But I am ashamed for my laziness and disobedience, and immensely saddened by the pain this man and his family went through. I expect to see them all in the resurrection and to beg their forgiveness.
In the meantime—it is of immeasurable importance that we hear God and that we respond to him!