Hearing God

phone

Lily Tomlin once noted that when we talk to God we call it prayer, but when God talks back we call it schizophrenia.

More than 90% of Americans say they pray regularly.  Are you one of them?  When you talk to God, do you hope that he will talk back?  Is there any reason you should not expect him to?  How do you know when you have heard from God, or when your own head or someone else’s opinion is messing with you?

Addressing this topic, Jesus said, "My sheep know my voice." But how can that be? Does God mysteriously enable us to know his voice at some point in our spiritual journey?  If not, when and how do we learn it?  The simple answer is that we learn to hear God’s voice the same way we learn to hear every other voice — in relationship. We learn the voices of our parents because we hear them nearly every day for about the first two decades of our lives. We learn the voices of our friends as we hear them regularly. So to hear and learn the voice of God, we must have gone well beyond a transaction with God ("here’s my prayer of belief, now give me my salvation") and dived wholeheartedly into a relationship with Him. If the person who bagged your groceries yesterday calls you on the phone today, you almost certainly will not recognize his voice. If the person who gave birth to you calls you today, chances are good you will recognize her voice.

So to recognize the voice of God we must be living in a daily and consistent relationship with Him. God speaks through scripture (and certainly through many other things as well), and so we must learn scripture. We cannot hope to know God and recognize his voice if we have not spent time reading his words. As you read this blog right now, those of you who know me personally can actually hear me saying these words. You know that the words bear the stamp of my personality. You can envision me saying them in a sermon, or sitting with you and speaking them to you personally. The thought that these words might not belong to me has not even crossed your mind. Those of you who do not know me, if you were to spend a great deal of time reading my posts on this blog, and then one day show up to my church where I teach, you would recognize my voice even though you had never heard it before. You would hear in it the spirit of the words I write here.

Just as this blog bears the stamp of my voice, God’s Word bears the stamp of His. As we read God’s Word, we will come to know His voice, to sense themes that God often "hits on," and to hear certain tones that we will come to realize as belonging to Him. For example, in God’s Word we see again and again that Jesus does not condemn.  He will correct us and expect us to learn to live holy lives, but He will not condemn us. He never did in the gospels, and the rest of the New Testament consistently bears this out. So in our lives when we are hearing voices of condemnation, we will come to know that this is not God’s voice, because God does not speak this way.

Hearing God is not usually mystical.  If you have read more than four or five of my posts, you probably already have a pretty good idea what "my voice" sounds like — what things are characteristic of me and what kinds of things are not.  In a very real sense, we have built a relationship as I speak to you through writing and you hear me through reading.  How could we, then, immerse ourselves in the life and teachings of Jesus and come away having no idea what his voice sounds like?  The only way this is possible is if we have moved away from common sense and completely mucked it up in mystery.  To a very real extent, you could with some reasonable accuracy determine the voice of Jesus even if you do NOT believe he is alive today as the eternal God!  How much truer should this be for those who believe he is alive today, and who make it a point to study his life and teachings and spend much time listening to that voice?

Of course there are always individual cases.  You may have a situation going on in your life that Jesus simply did not address.  What then?  Is it pretty much a crap shoot?  Of course not!  After a lifetime of knowing my parents, I could pretty much discern – if it were my intention – what they would have me do in nearly every situation, based simply on how familiar I am with their character and values.  Even in situations where I’m not positive, I would have a pretty good idea.  So it is that as we live in relationship to God and come to know him better, we can better discern God’s character and values and will find ourselves increasingly able to separate God’s voice from the competing voices of our culture, own own desires, and a thousand other voices that constantly are screaming out to us.

Incidentally, celebrating this post, as it is my 100th!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • Happy Hundreth!

  • Sorry, this comment is not related to the post. It is a good post though. I just finished following a discussion about living together before marriage. It was a difficult topic to respond to being that there is a strong potential to offend people when stating opinions. I mention it as a possible blog spot. I’d be interested to see how your readers respond to the question, “why should people live together before marriage?” or “why should people not live together before marriage?”

    • Hmmm…I’ll think about where I could go with that, Nate, other than simply posing the question.

  • Jeff Vannest

    You said, “we learn to hear God’s voice the same way we learn to hear every other voice — in relationship.” In my experience, God’s “voice” is the only one that requires relationship since I can hear clearly even perfect strangers. To use the same analogy, the only thing good communication requires is a shared language.

    Merton said, “The speech of God is silence.” Maybe we do a disservice to the idea of relating to God by referring to His voice at all? Just a thought.

    • Jesus didn’t seem to have a problem referring to the “voice” of God. If the metaphor worked for him as a teaching device, it’s probably acceptable (if not important) for us to consider it in those terms. Merton acknowledged that we can never discard the ways in which God speaks more obviously/directly as we take up meditation (silent prayer). What I have said stands, but of course only in context of other things I have written, including thoughts on the necessity of silence and meditation.

      Incidentally, it’s not true that God’s voice is the only one that requires relationship since you can hear even perfect strangers clearly. You know from experience that you sometimes cannot hear even your wife clearly when she’s talking to you in the same room! Diplomacy is an art form because we know that nothing is more difficult than hearing someone clearly and being heard clearly in return.

    • I’ve thought much about your comment today, and continue processing through all the levels at which I think there’s a disconnect between what I’m saying and what you may be hearing. On your question about doing a disservice to the idea of relating to God by referring to his voice: it occurred to me that if there is an issue to be raised in the idea of knowing God’s voice, the issue is probably far greater with the word “knowing” in the context of spiritual things than with the word “voice,” which is clearly metaphorical to begin with, even in Jesus’ use of it.

      • Jeff Vannest

        There’s no doubt that “voice” is metaphorical, which means that we must very quickly arrive at ideas like “hearing”, “understanding”, “leading”, “knowing”, etc. On that topic, the only thing I know for sure is that a lot of people claim to hear the voice yet very often disagree on what it means. I wish that “knowing” God were not as complex as it seems.

        • Jeff — No doubt many claim to hear it and disagree on it. This is one of the most frustrating and disheartening aspects of church life. I think there are understandable reasons for this problem that can be seen even between people who speak face to face. My forthcoming book, You Know More About God Than You Think, will specifically address what I believe are the similarities and differences between how people relate to one another and how we relate to God.

          I think a lot of theological concepts have been made more difficult than they need to be because they have been so mucked up in philosophy-speak that they have often abandoned common sense.