Hearing God’s Voice (1) Introduction

Hearing God’s Voice (1) Introduction

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.

Foundational concepts

It is important to understand a number of basic principles, of which the most important is this:

God wants to communicate with us more than we want to hear him.

God is not the limiting factor. We are. This has been true from the beginning:

They heard the sound of Yahweh God as he was walking in the garden in the evening breeze. And the man and his wife hid from Yahweh God among the trees of the garden.  And Yahweh God called to the man and his wife: “Where are you?”—Gen. 3:8-9 (trans. BCM)

God was seeking the humans; they were avoiding him. It’s been that way ever since. He constantly speaks to us, and we consistently plug our ears because we don’t want to hear what he has to say.

It is crucially important that we be able to hear God

Hearing from God is important for many reasons, personal growth being one of the most important. Here are some reasons why hearing from God is vital to our lives as Christians:

To effectively minister to people. I was once conversing with a young woman who had prattled on interminably, saying nothing particularly useful. I was about to suggest that we end our conversation when the Holy Spirit spoke to me: “You must not stop now! She wants to confess something to you that she has never revealed to anyone. She feels terribly guilty about having had sex with her high school boyfriend. She will bare her soul to you if you wait long enough.” So I waited and waited while she continued to talk about trivialities, until finally she said, in tears, “There’s something I have to tell you. . .” Not only did that encounter bring a great deal of healing to her almost immediately, it had long-term effects that totally and eternally changed the lives of several other people. None of it would have occurred, however, if God had not been able to communicate what needed to happen.

When biblical principles aren’t sufficient to help us make decisions. Example: I understand that Jesus said to “give to those who ask from you.” But at this moment, do I give to this person, or do I do something else? I have no way to know unless I am practiced in listening to the whispers of the Holy Spirit. Once a homeless person, who had crashed at our house before, asked if he could stay with us. My immediate reaction would have been affirmative—had not the Holy Spirit spoken to me as I saw this friend walking down the street: “He is going to ask to stay with you. You must tell him No; but if he wants, he may sleep in your garage.” Later, this man told me that that experience was pivotal in his finally going free of alcohol and becoming a responsible individual (which he remains to this day).

To empower our prayers. A key for Jesus’ spiritual power (and for ours as well) was straightforward:

Jesus said to them, “I assure you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but rather does only what he sees the Father doing. The Son does whatever the Father is doing—for the Father loves the Son, and lets him know what he, the Father, is doing. He will even show the Son more extraordinary things than these, so that you will marvel!” —John 5:19-20 (trans. BCM)

How can we hope to emulate our Lord if we are unable to see/hear the Father? It is impossible. The Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered life is predicated upon our being able to understand what our Lord is saying and doing in our immediate circumstances. For further discussion, see “Healing and Faith: What’s the Connection?.”

There are no absolute rules for hearing God

Anyone who spells out a formula that guarantees clear signals between you and your Lord is misguided. God cannot be manipulated. In this essay, all I can do is point you in directions that will increase the probabilities that you will hear him more clearly.

No one hears God flawlessly (cf. I Corinthians 13:9)

We don’t even hear each other perfectly! Shouldn’t we expect the same in our communications with Someone we can’t see and Whose language we don’t speak very well? This lack of clarity does not mean that trying to communicate with God is risky and should be avoided, as many claim, any more than misunderstandings within families mean that we should stop talking and listening to each other. In both cases it means just the opposite: We need to listen and talk MORE. It follows, however, that. . .

We should not be dogmatic in demanding that others accept what we believe God has said

Since the beginning of the Christian era, believers have created incredible mischief by insisting they have heard or understood God correctly and therefore everyone should follow what they say. Humility is always appropriate. Unusual occasions may arise when I must decide to go it alone, following what I believe God has said even though no one else accepts it (such instances are rightly rare); but I must not condemn or disdain people who cannot accept that my revelation is from God. It is not my business to enforce what God says. He can take care of himself. On many (most?) occasions when I have shared with various people a message that I believed was from God, they did not accept it. Yet God’s strict command to me has always been, “These are my children, your sisters and brothers. Do not disdain them. They are no greater sinners than you are. Love them, cooperate with them in whatever ways you can. They are missing the blessing I have for them, and that is sad for them as well as for me, but you must never condemn them for rejecting my word through you.”

How does God communicate with us?

Here are some common ways:

Strong nonverbal feelings (“nudges”)

Once I was walking to a weekly volunteer activity on the campus of the University of Illinois when I felt a “nudge” to turn down a street that was out of my way and down which I almost never walked (I had walked a particular route for years, as it was the shortest path). Several blocks down, I was delightfully surprised to find a robed minister from a campus Lutheran church sitting next to the sidewalk with a vial of ashes in her hand. I had not realized that it was Ash Wednesday! I am deeply moved by Ash Wednesday liturgies, especially the simple act of receiving the ashes and hearing the pronouncement, “From dust you were made. . .” But I have rarely attended them because I almost always fail to mark the date on my calendar. I stopped and talked awhile with the minister. She prayed for me and blessed me and then applied the ashes to my forehead. Nothing earth-shattering—yet I had received a gentle, gracious nudge from my Lord to boost my devotion and repentance. I would have missed a blessing had I ignored that slight nudge and continued along my usual route.

Through circumstances, and by opening/closing doors

Many years ago when our family was looking for a house to purchase in Urbana, Illinois, we had looked at many houses but still hadn’t found one that completely fit our needs. We had searched for months, and were frustrated. Then, out of the blue, a friend from our church called on a Friday night, having just learned that his next-door neighbor’s house was going on the market the following Monday morning. I called the owner and drove over within the hour. The house was within our price range, and was perfectly situated so that our kids could easily walk to elementary, middle, and high schools. The house was just a few blocks from our church and from an excellent public library. We gave the owner a down payment two days later, in time for him to back out of his contract with his Realtor so that he didn’t have to pay a commission. This was a situation in which we did nothing except walk through the door that our Lord graciously opened for us. We had been looking at houses for months, working with an agent, but had never found exactly what we wanted. Yet in a matter of hours God opened a series of doors that led to the perfect house for us (decades later, we still live here).

Through pictures in our minds

As you pray about a particular matter, or perhaps even when you’re totally minding your own business and doing something as innocuous as pulling weeds or slicing onions, a scene or picture may appear unbidden in your consciousness. It may involve your doing something with/for someone; or it may not involve you at all, but someone you know. In some cases, that mental picture may come from the Holy Spirit, who is showing you something that you are supposed to do, or something that is happening (or that might happen) that you’re supposed to pray about. It’s a good idea always to take these things seriously. It’s easy to ignore them.

A few weeks ago I had had to put household financial activity on hold because I couldn’t find our checkbook. For fairly long periods of time on several different days I had looked and looked, to no avail. As I was preparing dinner, an image of our office desk leapt into my mind. I had looked there on at least half a dozen occasions—but I have tried to discipline myself not to ignore out-of-the-blue thoughts. I walked upstairs to our office, looked at the desk, saw the same batch of papers that had been there for months, lifted them up, and saw the checkbook. I had looked over the desk numerous times, and thought I had sorted through those papers, but apparently I had not sorted thoroughly enough.

Through signs

Do not be put off by Jesus’ anger at being asked for a sign (Matthew 12:38-39)—he was upset because he knew the scribes and Pharisees did not genuinely want to follow God’s will, but were instead trying to trap him.

It’s OK to ask for signs that point you in the direction of what God wants. But do it prayerfully and in a spirit of complete surrender to God’s will. Do this ONLY if you are willing to commit beforehand to follow the route God gives you through the sign. Ask for a sign only because you are confused and you genuinely want to know God’s path—not because you think it would be cool to get a personal, tailor-made sign from Almighty God! And ask for God’s wisdom in knowing the best sign to request.

Earl Campbell, one of the greatest running backs in the history of both college and professional football, asked God for a sign to help him know which college to attend: the University of Oklahoma or the University of Texas. The sign he asked for on the night before he had to declare his intention? If he had to get up in the middle of the night to urinate, he would choose Texas. If he slept all through the night, he would go with Oklahoma!

As this story illustrates, the nature of the request and the nature of the sign can be seemingly trivial. The important part is to follow through in obedience once God has given you an answer, which Campbell did. (He chose Texas.)

On the other hand, I know people whose lives eventually were devastated after they asked for signs and decided that, although things didn’t happen exactly as they had requested, events occurred that were similar to what they had asked, and by stretching their imaginations they were able to decide that God had given a Yes answer. In each case, I felt strongly at the time that these individuals were in fact disobeying God, going with what they wanted rather than what God said. If you ask God to help you choose a certain path by having someone send you a dozen pink roses, and you receive a dozen red roses, that is not the sign you asked for! Our Lord is not so powerless or unimaginative as that.

Through believers who speak prophetic words

Many years ago we were having significant family problems, especially in our marriage, but also involving our children. One evening after dinner, E and I met a close friend at a local cafe. At one point our friend, abruptly changing the subject of conversation, turned to me out of the blue and said, “You do know, don’t you, that the underlying cause of your family problems is your abuse of alcohol?!”

Wow! Knife in the heart! Trauma! I knew as clearly as if her speech had been accompanied by fire from heaven and a chorus of angels that our friend was speaking the word of God to me. She was prophesying in the truest sense of the word. And that’s all it took. We had tried expensive counseling, we had tried various other tactics, but what it took was God speaking his word through one of his children. Not only did her pronouncement convict me of my sin—it also contained supernatural power, as is common when God speaks his word, that actually created within me the ability to respond to the word. From that hour, I stopped abusing alcohol.

Through people who have no idea they’re actually speaking God’s word to us

*I once emailed a ghostwriting client after sending her the first project I had written for her, explaining how important it was that she clearly communicate her feelings about what I had done. She is Asian, from a culture in which I knew it was not acceptable to be extremely direct. I told her, however, I couldn’t help her if she was not willing to be honest with me in evaluating what I had written for her, even if she thought it was disastrously bad. After I sent the email, I began to fret: Had I been too direct with her? Would she be offended? Was I out of line in demanding such honesty from her? I wanted God to show me the truth so I could be certain in the future to be appropriately sensitive to her culture.

Seconds after sending that email, I read some incoming emails, one of which was from my friend Karen. In the meantime, I unconsciously had begun humming to myself the Billy Joel song “Honesty.” As I idly hummed, I opened Karen’s message, which was totally unrelated to anything I was doing. But precisely when I got to the line in the song (playing in my mind) that says honesty is “mostly what I need from you,” I read the only words in Karen’s email that were in all caps: “HERE IS WHAT I NEED FROM YOU.” Wow, I thought! It was a trifling matter, but I was sure God was telling me, through Karen’s email, that my comments about honesty had been appropriate.

*Having worked at various jobs for ten years after college, our daughter felt she should go to graduate school in a field different from her undergraduate Theatre-Russian degree. After applying to a variety of programs at several schools, she was admitted to American University in Washington, D.C., in a graduate program focusing on international studies; and to a master of broadcast journalism program at Columbia University. Two very different fields, two very different schools. She had no idea what to do. She felt that she wasn’t at all good at hearing God speak directly to her. Knowing that her choice of school/program would strongly affect the direction of her entire life, she asked God to show her unambiguously which school to go to. She flew to D.C. for an orientation for prospective grad students at American University. During a lunch break from all-day meetings, she was in a large, crowded dining room filled with other prospective grad students. A woman walked into the dining hall from a door on the far side of the room, wove her way among many tables, and made a beeline for the table where our daughter sat. Andréa learned to her amazement that this woman “happened” to be chairperson of the department to which Andréa had applied! After the woman asked if the prospective students had any questions, our daughter confessed her perplexity at having to choose between American University’s school of international studies and Columbia University’s school of journalism. Immediately, this chairman of her (possibly) future department at American University looked our daughter straight in the eye and said, “If you’ve been accepted to Columbia’s graduate school of journalism, you should go there! That’s an opportunity of a lifetime.” That was the sign for which our daughter had prayed! Although this professor had no idea she was doing so, she was speaking God’s word.

Through scripture

For some people, a particular passage of scripture might leap off the page, provoking an unbidden conviction that there’s a particular way in which they are to apply that biblical statement. In this case it’s perfectly fair to take something out of context, since the point is what God is saying right now, not the original meaning of the text.

*When I was a junior in college, I started feeling nudges that I ought to fly over spring break from my home in Dallas to Los Angeles in order to tell some friends there what I had begun to learn about the power of the Holy Spirit. Shy and inexperienced as I was, flying by myself to a humongous, strange city would have been a gigantic and outrageous step. While I was praying about these highly unusual feelings, I decided to spend some time reading the Bible, asking God to show me somehow through scripture what I should do. I opened my Bible randomly, and my eyes fell directly on the following words in II Samuel 2:1: “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” The LORD said to him, “Go up.” Granted, the passage spoke of cities (plural), not of a city, and it dealt with cities in Judah, not in California, and the person addressed was David, not me. But the statement nevertheless was so strongly related to the question I had in mind at that very moment, and those few words were the precise ones my gaze fell on when I opened my Bible. I took this as God’s word to me—yes, I should go to Los Angeles. My question had absolutely nothing to do with the original context of the passage. God could have accomplished the same thing by having my eyes fall on a statement in the Dallas Morning News or in Time Magazine. But in this case he used the Bible. The important lesson here is that we should always have our spiritual radar tuned to picking up these fleeting hints from God. More often than not, these items will be confirmations of something we already believe we have heard, not the primary message (if I hadn’t already been considering my trip, it would have been an imprudent stretch of imagination to read that II Kings passage and think for the first time, “Oh, God is telling me to go to Los Angeles”; that would be beyond the pale of reason).

*The eminent Christian theologian/pastor/martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced this kind of urging from the Holy Spirit. In 1939, when he was agonizing over the question of whether to return to his native Germany from New York, one factor in his decision was his reading, “Do your best to come before winter” from II Timothy 4. The statement stayed with him all day long, he wrote, “pursuing” him, and helped him decide to go back to Germany where he could share his people’s suffering—and where, short years afterward, he was executed by the Nazis.

Through silent words in our minds

*A few weeks after E and I were engaged, she had a very dramatic experience of this sort. At the time I was in my first year of graduate work at Harvard Divinity School, and she was in the first year of a master’s program in violin at the New England Conservatory of Music. It was early February, and the spring semester had already begun. We were to go later that evening to a rehearsal of a madrigal singing group directed by the wife of a Harvard professor. Since we didn’t have to be there for another forty-five minutes or so, we decided, as we commonly did, to take advantage of the time and pray together. As we prayed, E felt the following words resonate silently but unambiguously in her mind: “I want you to go to Harvard Divinity School NOW.”

Needless to say, it seemed an absurd statement. The school’s admissions committee was just beginning to consider students for the following September, for which applications had closed a couple of months earlier. I won’t go into the long string of “coincidences” and semimiracles that occurred one after another, day after day. Here’s the short version: That evening at madrigal singers, E mentioned her desire to the only professor she knew at Harvard—the man whose wife “happened” to direct the madrigal singers, and to whose house she “happened” to have been invited several times to play chamber music. He didn’t blink an eye. Turns out he “happened” to be head of the Divinity School’s admissions committee. And the student at whose apartment we were meeting was one of only three students at Harvard Divinity School whom E knew—and he “happened” to be the only student on the admissions committee. Professor K told E to get her material to the Committee on Monday. After several more semimiracles I won’t take time to relate, she was admitted for the semester that had already begun two weeks earlier, and quickly became one of the top students at the school.

One does NOT ask Harvard University to admit you immediately for the spring semester, after the spring semester has already been in session for two weeks! But E did, and she was admitted. It was clearly the work of the Holy Spirit. And it all began with a few words in her head—words that were so astounding that her rational mind couldn’t possibly accept that they were from God, but words that “hit” her with such force that she dared not ignore them.

Through random aspects of our environment

A radio announcer, for example, might say a few words that unexpectedly jump out at you (very likely completely out of context) and you feel, “That’s God speaking to me.” Or you may be highly concerned about a certain problem, and your eyes fall on a newspaper headline that “happens” to be lying on a table in the restaurant you’re just leaving, and the headline addresses your concern in an astounding way, and the Holy Spirit pierces your mind with the knowledge that he has just given you a clear answer to your problem. (I suspect that our Lord has a lot of fun arranging these kinds of messages.)

Earlier I described how God led us to the house we purchased many years ago, and in which we raised our children. On my initial drive to see the house (an eight-minute drive at most), I “happened” to turn on my radio to a Christian music station (to which I virtually never listened), and the only song I “happened” to hear was one about how “this house belongs to you,” or something along those lines. That sign provided a significant boost to our confidence that God was behind our purchasing this house—a great comfort, given that we had to make a gigantic financial decision immediately.

These kinds of signs—that are totally nonobvious, and that we recognize only through eyes of faith—appear ludicrous to nonbelievers. I can argue as well as ardent skeptics that such things are mere coincidences, and I could make as strong a case as any atheist for how foolish it is to make major life decisions in part on the basis of subtle incidents that appear innocuous and irrelevant. But, as my friend Walter used to say, “It’s amazing how much more often ‘coincidences’ happen when I pray.” It’s easy to miss these “environmental” signs. Even when they occur, and we obey, and it seems clear that the Holy Spirit is behind them, I recommend that you think twice before sharing such stories with nonbelievers—they really do seem absurd to anyone who doesn’t know the reality of a God who is intimately involved (often displaying a sly sense of humor) with every tiny aspect of our lives!


Hearing God by experiencing his peace in our hearts

I am sufficiently convinced that this way to “hear God” is so universal and powerful, that it has its own section.

Earlier I said, “Anyone who spells out a formula that will guarantee clear signals between you and your Lord is mistaken.” I firmly believe that. Nevertheless, although it’s not necessarily easy, letting God’s peace guide your heart is as close to a foolproof way to discern God’s will as you will find.

If I genuinely want to know God’s will about a choice I need to make—let’s say whether or not I should go on a date next Saturday with Jennifer, a new acquaintance—I can follow two simple steps: (1) pray; (2) when I feel a strong sense of peace about one of the possible choices (in this case, either Yes or No), I then go with it.

It’s that simple. At least in theory. When this approach doesn’t work, the primary reason in my observation is that we aren’t willing to put in the effort to pray until we have an answer. It takes practice and perseverance. God’s supernatural peace isn’t something he casually tosses over you like a beach towel sixty seconds after you begin to pray. It might seep into your consciousness gradually. And it might require a lot of time and effort.

When you first begin to seek God’s will in this way, you may have to spend a lot of time in prayer for an answer to what may appear to be an inconsequential question. Let’s stay with the “Should I go on a date with Jennifer?” question. Yes, that seems trivial. One silly date. What’s the big deal? On the other hand, one date can permanently alter the direction of my life—it could lead to marriage! So if I have a restlessness in my heart about whether I should go on that date, I first have to decide if I even need God’s input—after all, it’s just a date! Wisdom, however, tells me that the uneasiness I feel may be a warning sign that this may not be “just a date.” (Without that sense of restlessness, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to ask God about it. Do not ignore vague feelings of unease—sometimes they can be life changers!)

Let’s assume I decide to check it out with God, so I ask him to show me whether or not I should go out with Jennifer next Saturday. But nothing revelatory comes into my mind, and I perceive no signs from God (e.g., I don’t turn on the radio and immediately hear the song, “Jennifer”). And no one phones me thirty seconds after my prayer to say, “Hey, I think you ought to ask Jennifer out this weekend.” And I perceive no words in my mind instructing me in the way I should go. I decide that, since I appear to have no other options, I’m going to have to pray diligently about it. Now if I am a neophyte in this hearing-God business, I may discover that it requires a great amount of time and attention: Just to learn God’s will about this one stupid date, I may end up praying for hours! Sheesh!

But if I am faithful in seeking and seeking and seeking to know the mind of my Father, at some point the following will happen: I will end up feeling a deep peace about one of my choices. Let’s assume that it goes this way: After much prayer, I feel profoundly at rest when I think quietly about having this date with Jennifer; I feel a slight hum of joy vibrating in my breast; I feel right about it! And when I imagine not going out with her, I feel dissatisfied and anxious. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart and my mind, showing me that I should go for it! That is God’s peace, and I will do well to submit to it.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.  —Colossians 3:15

I strongly advise waiting awhile, however, after you believe you’ve experienced God’s peace, before making a final decision. The cautious approach says, “OK, Lord, if this really is you giving me incredible peace about dating Jennifer this weekend, make that feeling of peaceful confidence grow even stronger! If it’s not you, make it go away.” That’s a safety check to be sure I didn’t talk myself into feeling peaceful because I really want to go on that date. And the Holy Spirit is usually quite faithful either to make the feeling stronger or to remove it. I have experienced this kind of communication from God on thousands of occasions, and he has never failed to come through. After all, he wants to communicate with me even more than I want to communicate with him!

The good news is that we can grow increasingly susceptible to the Holy Spirit’s gift of peace. It’s a gradual process in most cases, but well worth the discipline. The reward is beyond joy. We’re talking about the Creator and Redeemer of the universe here—do you want to know his take on things, or not? If you do, you’ll have to put in time and effort. Although the increase in sensitivity isn’t linear, the more you practice this means of hearing God’s voice, the easier it becomes to sense his peace. Early on, you might pray for hours and hours (not necessarily in a single session) before you feel that peace flowing into your heart to show you the correct way. After several years of following this approach, you may be able to discern God’s answer in minutes or even seconds. (Or not: Especially in momentous, life-changing decisions, we often generate so much noise in our minds that it can take extraordinary effort to get to the point where we sense our Lord’s will.) In everyday kinds of decisions, you may be pleasantly surprised how adept you become at discerning God’s mind when you permit his peace to be your guide.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. —Philippians 4:7

Obviously, if God usually speaks to you by a different method (e.g., he generally speaks to me through words in my mind), you may find this approach less necessary. Yet I encourage you always to submit all communications from God to the “peace test.” However you have heard from God, be certain that your heart remains deeply at peace with that word. If that is not the case, remain skeptical about what you have heard.


I urge you to continue reading on this subject: Click on Hearing God’s voice (2)—How to Practice; and after that, Hearing God’s Voice (3)—Potential Barriers.