Hearing God’s Voice (3)—Potential Barriers

Hearing God’s Voice (3)—Potential Barriers

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.

The following are some of the most common ways by which you can block your ability to hear God. These items are not in order of importance, except for the first.

Failure to forgive

Failure to forgive is the greatest single barrier not only to our hearing God’s voice but to our having most other interactions with God. This is unambiguously the most destructive sin (cf. Matthew 6:14-15, 16:21-35, Luke 6:37, 17:3-4, John 20:23, Colossians 3:13). Forgiveness/grace lies at the center of God’s heart; and since the ultimate goal of all God’s actions in our lives is to help us become more like him, resisting this core value means resisting God. How can we clearly hear the voice of someone we are actively resisting?

Deliberately turning a deaf ear to God’s earlier communications

Any kind of behavior to which I am enslaved can cause spiritual deafness, if God has been trying to get through to me that it’s time for me to deal with it. It is frequently because of pet sins in our lives that we deliberately tune out God’s voice. The barrier tends not to be sin per se, since we’re all entrenched in all kinds of sin at all times; rather, the barrier is usually sin that God is trying to deal with but we’re not cooperating. We all have scores of sins concerning which God says, in essence, “I know better than you how destructive that behavior is. But you’re not capable of dealing with it right now, so we’ll not address it—my grace is sufficient for you.” Even if they are heinous in both our own eyes and God’s, those sins don’t inherently keep us from hearing him.

But from time to time he says, “NOW is the time that we need to deal with this particular emotional chain. . .” And, probably more often than not, we really don’t like the idea of dealing with that sin, of which we are quite fond—so we ignore God’s still, small voice.

If I am enslaved by certain behaviors or attitudes from which I need healing and deliverance, and I intentionally close my ears to God when he’s nudging me to do something about those problems—how then can I expect to hear him clearly concerning other matters? I’ve already decided not to listen to him!

Failure to forgive someone; losing my temper; giving in to peer pressure; treating someone badly; lying; being addicted to virtually anything (drugs, alcohol, sexual bondages, food, texting, television, adrenaline highs from sporting activities, being entertained, surfing the Internet, being popular, being successful, worrying, being a failure, receiving approval from others, needing to engage in ministry, needing to be seen as a leader, etc.)—to the extent that I am constrained by some such thing, and to the extent that I’m flouting God’s desire to deal with that sin, then I am practicing not listening to him. Moreover, I’m practicing not trusting him—for faith says, “Whatever you want of me, Lord, I want that too, because I trust you. So show me how you want to change my life, how you want to set me free; help me to truly see what you’re doing and to hear what you’re saying, no matter how much it may hurt as your refining fire burns away the dross in my life.”

I repeat, since this concept is foreign to many Christians: It is not necessarily sin/bondage per se that keeps us from hearing God’s voice, since all of us are in bondage to all sorts of sin at all times. If sin/bondage alone inherently blocks communication from God, none of us will ever hear him. Rather, the barrier arises when God is leading me to deal with a particular sin/bondage and I refuse to cooperate: Tuning out that message tends to tune out everything else God says as well. And if I constantly practice turning a deaf ear to God, I’m not likely to become very good at hearing his voice. It’s my choice.

Failing to be generous with our money, time, attention, affection, etc.

God wants us to be very generous with the gifts he has given us. If we refuse to open our hearts and hands and wallets according to his direction (and example), we typically are tuning out the quiet voice that is constantly saying, “Open your hands. Open your heart. Give. What you have is not yours.”  Once again, we’re practicing turning a deaf ear to God! And unfortunately in this case, practice makes perfect.

Failing to listen

Times of stillness and silence, and well as both frequent and long periods of prayer, are necessary if we’re to learn to tune in to God’s voice.  Turn off the TV, the iPod, the iPad, the computer games, etc.  None of these things is inherently evil, and I have no desire to pronounce a new legalism by saying that texting or surfing the Internet or watching TV or listening to music or playing video games, for example, is a sin. Use these wonderful, God-given tools to the extent you feel they are acceptable.

We tend to reverse our priorities, however, in deciding when to use these things. Our tendency is to say, “OK, I want God to be in charge of how much I text, how much I watch TV, how much time I spend with my iPhone buds stuck in my ears, etc., so I’ll ask him to let me know when I should turn off these devices.” Most of us make the On button our default, expecting God to shout at us when he wants us to switch it off. I think that’s not a good idea. It’s a much better tactic to make Off the default: “I know these things can be a major distraction because they are so very attractive and pleasurable. So I’m going to text friends or surf the Net or play video games or watch TV or listen to music on my iPhone only when the Holy Spirit specifically informs me that it’s OK.”

The default should be silence—making space in our minds both physically and emotionally to relate directly to our Lord, interrupting that silence only when we feel the Spirit’s nudge that it’s OK. (I’m reminded of a friend who was a raging alcoholic, and who told me with a straight face that he was definitely seeking God’s will about his drinking. An example: on the way to a liquor store, he had asked God to give him a sign if God didn’t want him to buy alcohol. Nothing had happened, so he had concluded that God was OK with his drinking!)

When our minds are constantly barraged by competing voices, of course we can’t hear God! It’s not that God is pissed off at us because we’re constantly listening to music or to news programs or whatever, and he therefore says, “Well, if she’s going to fill her mind with that stuff most of the time, I’ll show her—I just won’t talk to her!” Of course not. God earnestly desires to deepen his relationship with us, and he never stops trying to do so. But if we are to learn to listen to him, we have to devote time and effort to it. We have to practice. It’s our choice. We’ll get what we want.

Jesus spent hours and hours at a time alone with the Father, sometimes all night. He didn’t do that just for show—it’s because he needed that intimate time alone with the Father in order to follow the path he had been given. Why in the world would we think we can get it right by having a fifteen-minute quiet time every morning?

The question is, what do we want more than anything else? That’s what we’ll get.

Failure to trust God

We won’t listen for God if we don’t trust him. If we believe God is capricious and is not on our side, then we unconsciously will close our ears to him. We don’t want to hear him, because we fear what he might say—that he will tell us something we don’t want to hear. I know many people who probably will never be able to hear God’s word to them, because they incorrectly believe that he is a stern tyrant whose delight is burning people in hell, and they’re terrified to hear anything from such a despot! Who knows what terrible or embarrassing thing he might tell them to do?!

Failure to trust was Elijah’s problem in I Kings 19:3-13. Elijah felt that obeying God would get him killed! So instead of meeting Ahab at the entrance to the valley of Jezreel, Elijah ran away. God’s eventual word to him wasn’t what most of us would have expected. Even though Elijah had just participated in one of the most dramatic actions God ever performed on this planet, God unambiguously demonstrated that he wasn’t particularly interested in theatrics: God was not in the storm, or the earthquake, or the fire.

God was intensely interested, however, in Elijah’s listening to his heart. And God’s first whispered word to Elijah was, “What are you doing here?” Presumably the point was, “This isn’t where I told you to be—are you going to listen to me and trust me and obey me, or are you going to become fixated on all the dramatic stuff? Yes, you might be killed if you meet Ahab. But you need to trust me.”

Fear of getting it wrong

Count on it: you will get it wrong! We all get it wrong. But God’s grace covers our screw-ups. Always. The entirety of scripture, in one sense, is a description of human screw-ups and God’s redemption. He loves you. He’s your Daddy. What father gets upset when his baby tries to walk but keeps falling down? He rather takes great delight in watching his adorable child try her best to ambulate on two feet, even though it’s a long process that involves a lot of falls and a lot of wobbliness. The alternative is not learning to walk at all!

Likewise, your Father in heaven is cheering you on as you try to grow in hearing and obeying him. He smiles on your heartfelt attempts, even when you get it horribly wrong. At least you are trying! And he is there to help you, to hold your hand. He is even more eager than you are for you to become proficient in your efforts, since the more clearly you are able to hear his voice, the more intimate will be his relationship with you. And that’s why he created you in the first place.

Failure to hang out where God tends to do a lot of speaking

It’s a good idea to hang out where other people, at least in theory, are open to hearing from God. Participating regularly in fellowship with other people who love and seek Jesus can sensitize you to those subtle whispers that characterize the most common communications from God. I’m not sure why this is true, but long observation tells me it is. (For more details, see the essay How Important Is It to “Go to Church”?.) It’s not that God takes offense at your failure to “go to church” and decides to punish you by giving you the cold shoulder. Nor, however, does he reward you for attending church services by giving you greater sensitivity to his voice.

I suspect it’s a question of the way our minds tend to work. If you attend a lot of Audubon Society meetings, you’ll probably find yourself unconsciously paying more attention to—perhaps even hearing for the first time—a lot of bird songs that were there all along but which you had not previously noticed. My incredible auto mechanic, Peter B. in Urbana, is an unsurpassed expert on all sorts of cars. His depth of knowledge is awesome. Once I drove a used car to his shop to ask him to perform a buyer’s check. Before I had even opened my door to get out of the car, however, Peter appeared in front of me and said, “Take it back. You don’t want that car.” He explained that, as I drove up, he had heard (from inside his garage!) a very subtle sound that revealed a grave problem deep inside the engine. He tried to point out the sound to me, but I’m not at all sure I heard it. It’s not that Peter was actively listening, anticipating my arrival, wondering if he might be able to impress me. He didn’t even know I was coming. He was busy working on another car in his shop. But because he works with cars all day long, his ear was unconsciously tuned to all sorts of subtle sounds that most mortals wouldn’t notice. Immerse yourself in almost any specialized environment, and you will become sensitive to parts of creation that you probably hadn’t been aware of before; immerse yourself in the lives of people who know and seek God, and you are much more likely to hear God’s voice more clearly, and become more sensitive in general to spiritual phenomena.

Miscellaneous observations

Don’t be seduced by the seeking-God’s-opinion-on-everything syndrome

Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:19-20 provide profound glimpses into God’s intentions for humankind. He created us to be like him—creative, intelligent, fun-loving. He let the humans decide what to name the animals, how to landscape the garden, etc. In essence, he created a delightful planet-in-the-rough and said to the humans, “Let’s see what you guys can do with this! Be creative. Have fun. I’ll be happy to provide advice and help when needed, but essentially this place is intended as your playground, your art canvas. . .”

Christians who have begun learning to hear God’s voice sometimes become so obsessed with seeking guidance from God that they are afraid to make any decisions on their own. You don’t need to pray about what brand of toothpaste to buy, or what color to paint your house. It’s not impossible that God, in his infinite knowledge, will have an opinion about such things: Perhaps he knows (but you do not) that you’re allergic to an ingredient in a particular brand of toothpaste, or he knows (as you do not) that you’re going to need to move to a different city in a year and you’ll get several thousand dollars less for your house if you paint it that color than if you keep the current color. But you don’t need to anxiously pray in order to obtain the Spirit’s guidance about toothpaste brands or paint colors. He is quite capable of communicating such things to you, as long as you constantly keep your spirit tuned to him. The default mode for most of us should be going about our daily lives, making decisions based on love and wisdom and intelligence and, if I may add, good taste—and keeping our “receivers” tuned to the Holy Spirit in case he wants to comment on anything we’re doing. Unless he knows something you don’t know about potentially drastic consequences of a seemingly trivial act on your part, God generally enjoys simply observing you, being with you hour by hour, seeing what choices you make. It is one of the things that delights him so much about people. It’s why he created us to be so much like him.

So make your own decisions. Boldly. You generally don’t need to ask his guidance unless you genuinely don’t know which way to go—in that case, God is more than happy to help. Otherwise, he delights in observing how you decide to do things.

There is power in not sharing when we get it right!

I’m aware of the many scriptural urgings to proclaim God’s mighty works. It is often the case, however, that as soon as we hear from God in an unambiguously validated way, we find the first excuse to tell as many people as we can. Yet our motivation often is unbelief—we’re so happy that this one quasi-miracle happened (God spoke to me! Am I cool or what!?), and we unconsciously suspect it may be a long time before anything that cool happens again, and so we squeeze as much mileage as possible out of this one occasion. I’ve found that, if I keep quiet about instances when I “get it right” and use what I’ve experienced wisely, it builds my faith in a much more powerful way than if I go blabbing my tales to everyone. The latter is often just a way to elicit kudos for myself, so people will see what a super-spiritual guy I am.

We need to know scripture

We need context into which God can insert his thoughts. Scripture is a record of things God has done and said in the past. Failure to study the scriptures can be a major handicap. Can you imagine how difficult it would be for foreigners to learn English if they rarely read English-language literature, newspapers, and magazines?  We need to become as familiar as possible with God’s thought processes, with his values, with the ways in which he has acted and spoken in the past, in order to create “handles” on which we can hang the things he speaks to us now.

It’s important to test what we hear

We need not necessarily test everything we hear from God, especially those brief encounters we have with him in our daily activities. In those situations, we generally can just follow what we think we’re hearing and see what happens. But when our decisions or actions will affect other people, or when we think God is saying something that might have significant consequences, it is important to test, test, test what we think God is saying in order to be certain we’re correct!

And it’s just as important for the big-time prophetic types to test as it is for us peons. There is great potential danger to those who often hear from God, if they don’t constantly test what they hear. The time will come when they’re tripped up! They’re so accustomed to their thoughts’ being from God, they mistakenly assume that their thoughts are always from God—a precarious position to be in. A day eventually arrives when they claim to have heard God but in fact they haven’t—and either they’re devastated when they discover they’re wrong, or they refuse to admit they’re wrong. I know of one very powerful prophet who lost his faith altogether because of such a scenario.

Probably the more common problem is that people insist that they are correct in hearing God’s voice and refuse to listen to anyone else, refuse to test their word—after all, they are the experts at hearing God! Bad mistake. We prophesy in part. We hear in part. We see in part (see I Corinthians 13:9-12). No one gets it right all the time. Our Lord fasted and prayed for 40 days before he finally was convinced he had heard God correctly that he was in fact the Son of God. Can we be any less cautious?

Don’t be too curious

Most of the time, you should not expect to discover why God directs you to do something.

He occasionally gives us satisfying peeks into what he’s doing, providing dramatic confirmation that we have indeed heard him correctly. But more often than not, we simply hear his voice, obey him (or at least what we think is him), and proceed with our lives, having no clue why he had us do a particular thing. My advice is that you avoid speculating about such things. If you need to know, he’ll tell you.

Not knowing

Most of us rarely know with certainty whether it was really God we were hearing. I am confident that on many occasions when I believe God is speaking to me, I’m getting it wrong. Even when I test the message thoroughly. I am broken! In some instances, I may get the gist of the message right but some details wrong. At other times, I may be deceiving myself from the beginning, making the whole thing up myself. That goes with the territory. We have two basic choices: (1) We can try to listen to the Holy Spirit, acknowledging that we’re going to get it wrong a great deal of the time but realizing that it’s better to hear him sometimes than not at all. (2) We can decide that, given the risks of making mistakes, we will not even entertain the possibility of his speaking to us. I suggest that the latter is immeasurably more dangerous than the former.

Don’t overanalyze

God is in no way confined to working within our poor, broken system of logic and reason. We can mess up his plans if we attempt to make God’s words/actions fit into our categories. Moreover, he sees things we don’t see.

Example: I spent several months being highly perplexed during my first year of graduate school at the Presbyterian Seminary in Austin, Texas, because God appeared to give me two logically contradictory directives.

Directive #1: The Holy Spirit told me I should apply to Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I replied that that was ridiculous: I had a C average in college, had engaged in zero extracurricular activities, and had been so apathetic that I never even showed up to have my picture taken for the university’s yearbook. Not once. There was NO extrernal evidence that I had even attended Rice University! There was no way in the world I would be admitted to Harvard. But God persisted, saying I must apply to Harvard and that I would be accepted and that I must enroll there. Moreover, as a sign that I believed him, he told me to drop a particular class that was required for graduation from the Seminary but that would not be offered for another three years—meaning that, if I were not accepted at Harvard, I couldn’t graduate from the Presbyterian Seminary with the rest of my class.

Directive #2: God had said I must marry E, whom I had met and with whom I had fallen in love the previous year (for the full story, see You Must Marry Her). While I was in my first year of graduate school in Austin, E was in her senior year at a small college in Arkansas, majoring in violin performance. She was applying to many graduate programs in violin—in Baltimore, Rochester, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and a few other places I have forgotten. The Holy Spirit told me that I must live in the same place where E lived the following year, in order to court her, since he definitely wanted me to marry her (an opinion with which I dramatically agreed—the problem was that she wasn’t in love with me, so how could I win her love unless I was with her?). Wherever she went to graduate school, God insisted, I must move to that same city in order to court her. When I tried to point out to God that he had already told me to move to Cambridge, and how did that fit with his telling me to go wherever E went, the response was profound silence. Nothing. Zilch.

E knew nothing of these matters. At that point we were just “good friends.” Of course I didn’t mention my application to and acceptance at Harvard, since I was morally obliged to avoid pressuring her in any way.

I was accepted at Harvard. And what a relief and a joy that spring when I received a letter from E mentioning that, while she had been accepted by several graduate schools, she had decided to attend the New England Conservatory of Music—in Boston, of which Cambridge is a suburb. Dilemma solved. I thought that it might have been nice of God to tell me what was going on from the beginning so I wouldn’t have agonized about the logically contradictory commands he had given me, but he never apologized.

Don’t psychoanalyze either yourself or God

It is not uncommon that thoughts about a friend will pop into my mind, seemingly out of nowhere. Then I figure that perhaps God wants me to pray for this person, and I begin to do so. It’s that simple.

Early in my Christian life, however, I would foolishly psychoanalyze the situation: “You probably thought about Laura because that girl who just walked past you looks a lot like Laura. It’s not the Holy Spirit leading you to pray for Laura, but rather an accidental perception of a random person on the street.” (For a tragic but dramatic account of the potential deadliness of this approach, see the first two paragraphs of Why Intercessory Prayer “Works”) Later, however, I realized that God is quite capable of reminding me to pray for Laura by inserting thoughts about her directly into my mind; and that he is just as capable of arranging for the Laura-look-alike to walk past me in order to make me think about Laura so that I can pray for her. He’s a pretty creative (and playful!) guy. So rather than wasting time figuring out the genesis of my thoughts about Laura, I would just start praying for her. Even if it was an accident rather than the Holy Spirit’s doing, it certainly can’t hurt for me to pray for the woman.