“We do not need the sign-gifts today because inspiration and revelation have ceased with the death of the last apostle.” Well! I laid aside the Sword and Trumpet magazine, and laughed. Inspiration and revelation have ceased! Where in the Bible does it say that?
As long as humanity exists, we need inspiration and revelation from God. We are not so sufficient in ourselves that we don’t need Him to communicate with us daily. What is the point of praying if God is always silent?
If God communicates but we don’t hear Him, we need to learn to listen.
Several things have been helpful for me in my journey of learning to hear God: letting go of my ideas of how God ought to work, paying attention to the ways God might speak, and learning how to process experiences of hearing Him wrong.
1. Letting go of my ideas of how God ought to work. Perhaps one of the first hurdles to overcome in a life of learning to hear God is to recognize that God is God and He is not limited by our ideas of how He ought to operate. We all like to be in control, to say that this is how life must look, but God does not play by our plans. He is absolutely just, merciful, good, and loving, yes! But we are not always able to predict or understand His workings. We have to lay aside our preconceived ideas before we can learn to listen to Him.
God often asks me to do things that are uncomfortable. And I don’t like discomfort! But I’ve discovered that when I follow Him into uncomfortable places, I also feel a double measure of His presence and protection. I also am able hear Him more and more clearly.
2. Paying attention to the ways God might speak. What venues does God choose to use to speak to humanity? Some of the ways the Bible describes: in an audible voice, through impressions, in dreams and visions, through experiences, and through the Bible. There are many, many references describing these ways of God speaking. I think it’s important to notice the ways that God has often spoken to mankind, so that we don’t miss some way that He might be talking to us.
-Audible voice. Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Matthew 3:16-17 (ESV)
God’s audible voice may be a loud voice, as it was at Jesus’ baptism, or it may be a “still small voice” as Elijah heard after his victory at Mount Carmel. (I Kings 18-19) Sometimes we use the term “still small voice” to refer to an impression in our spirit, or the working of our conscience. But in the Bible the term “still small voice” is referring to a quiet but audible voice.
My great-aunt Alma Wagler, an Amish-Mennonite pastor’s wife, heard God’s audible voice. Alma’s daughter recounts the story:
Alma was alone in the garden one evening. I believe she was 17. She heard a loud voice calling her name. She looked around and didn’t see anyone. The voice called her name again. Then Alma heard these words, “I have a great work for you to do.”
Alma married when she was 24. Her husband was ordained to the ministry soon after they had their first baby. They had 3 more children. She worked and served and hosted and raised the family and supported the church. She and her husband were very involved in winter Bible School for youth. All those years Alma wondered what the great work was that the Lord had for her. Then, when she was 61 years old, Alma was in a bad accident. Her back was broken and she was paralyzed from the waist down. As she rode in the ambulance to the hospital, the still, small Voice said to her, “This is the great work I have for you to do.”
Alma spent her last years serving God from her wheelchair. She cooked, cleaned, washed, quilted, and sewed. Before she died, she sewed over 5,000 dresses for little girls in poor countries!
-Through impressions. Jesus heals a paralyzed man, and senses what is going on inside his observers:
And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts?
Mark 2:8 (ESV)
Here’s my friend Tim’s story of hearing God through an impression:
I was leaving the park after an evening of softball with my friends when I spotted Jeff. He was sitting in one of the pavilions with a laptop. I thought, “I should go and talk to him.” But I was heading to a restaurant to eat with a group of friends, and I drove on by. Usually, if I ignore a prompting of the Spirit, I can reason my way out of it and it eventually goes away (this happens far too often). This time, however, it only got stronger as I drove on. I knew, to be obedient, I had to go back.
I drove back and parked across from the pavilion. There sat the pink-haired teenager, watching a war movie on his laptop. As I walked up, he greeted me congenially and offered that I could join him in his movie. I declined, and asked instead if he had something I could pray about since I had felt God asking me to come talk to him. We prayed for his cousin who had some health issues.
I found out that Jeff had become a Christian just a month before and had received a dramatic baptism of the Spirit. He was very excited about his faith. I found out that Jeff was attempting to get a copy of his high-school diploma in order to join the military. Having grown up as an Anabaptist, I believe that fighting and violence is contrary to Jesus’ teachings in the sermon on the mount. I didn’t really feel like talking about doctrine, but I dove in anyway and we started discussing scripture related to the subject. After about ten minutes of discussion, he asked, “So, basically, you’re trying to convince me not to join the military.”
“Yes, that’s the idea.” I was totally unprepared of what happened next.
Jeff reached across the table to shake my hand: “I’ve been waiting for you to come.”
“My pastor told me to take a week to pray about this (joining the military) and for the last three days, I’ve felt totally wrong about it, but I didn’t know why. But now I know that God sent you to tell me not to join the army.”
As you can imagine, Tim was glad he had listened to that impression in his spirit!
-In dreams and visions.
And the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.
Numbers 12:5-6 (ESV)
Most of the time, my dreams are just a jumble of nonsense, but occasionally I will have an unforgettable dream. When I was at Bible School as a teenager, I was struggling through what God wanted from my life. I felt pulled in several directions, and I was unsure of my ability to make wise decisions. One night I had a dream in which I was taking care of tiny babies. I woke up knowing that nursing school was the direction I was supposed to take. I wasn’t sure how the babies played into this plan, but I took the first step and applied for nursing school. During the next couple years, I worked at several nursing homes, trying to pay my way through school. Occasionally I would think about that dream and wonder, because I was working on the opposite end of the spectrum–taking care of old people!
I changed jobs when I found a position open at a hospital. I didn’t know where I would be working when I applied, but the lady who interviewed me thought she would send me either to cardiac telemetry or to the critical care unit. I really was fine with either one; I was so happy to finally get a hospital job. A week or so later, the lady called again and said, “We’re putting you in the maternity unit.” The maternity unit, I heard from the nurses, was a difficult spot to get because many people wanted to work there. They were surprised that I had been offered the job without any prior maternity experience. I thought of the dream again, and laughed. I’ve taken care of many, many babies since that day!
But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
Acts 13:8-12 (ESV)
We Western logic-lovers sometimes scowl at this one. “Experiences!” we say. “That’s not a firm foundation for faith!” I respond to that with two things. Usually people with this belief are quite strong on circumstances being a guiding factor in their lives. How are circumstances not a kind of experience? Also, these people will say that they don’t believe in personal revelation, because it doesn’t work out. They see others who think they hear God, and then mess up and it’s obvious that they really didn’t. Hmm, I say, that sounds like reasoning based on experiences…
Experiential knowledge is powerful. Many Christians can tell you when knowing God’s love “moved from their head to their heart”. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, as described in Romans.
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Romans 5:5b (ESV)
Experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit is usually what it takes for us to truly believe Him. Both Will and I have had times when we felt an overpowering sense of God’s presence, and those times were transformational for us.
Right after the most terrible six months of my life, I was being wheeled into surgery when I felt God’s presence in a way I had never felt it before. I can’t explain it–it was like the room was thick with God. An incredible warmth filled my being, and I went into surgery absolutely calm, knowing my life was guarded by Him.
I’ve also had many experiences of getting things wrong, and those experiences helped me see where I needed to grow and how I could do things differently next time. When I make a sickening mistake, I often tell myself, “well, I know better now for next time!” And I might not do better the very next time, but God keeps working and I grow!
In the Bible. The Bible is an awesome treasure-trove of God’s words to us! Many, many times I have sensed God speaking to me through Scripture. I plan to share some of these stories in the next posts. Indeed, all Scripture is God-breathed!
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
There are some who say “God speaks through the Bible only!” as if the Bible and the Holy Spirit are at odds. Do we misunderstand who the Holy Spirit actually is? Do we somehow think He’s not quite God? If the Holy Spirit brings verses to your mind, or helps you understand Scripture, you are hearing from God! (John 14:26)
3. Processing experiences of hearing God wrong. What do we do with the times when we are sure we’ve heard from God, but what we heard didn’t work out the way we thought? Thinking I have a message from God and obeying that in faith, then finding out that something went wrong is very painful. It’s easy to write it all off and say that God doesn’t talk to me and it was all in my head.
I went through a time like this a few months ago. The situation involved some close friends hearing and obeying God’s word to them and it really looked like God majorly let them down. It was devastating. (I wrote some about it here.)
Through the experience, I faced a bit of a faith-crisis. I felt like I stood at a crossroads, and had the choice to either believe that God speaks and we can hear him, or to believe that God doesn’t speak outside of the Bible and it’s up to me to find my way. The Bible bore witness to the first path; the physical evidence (in this case) was pointing to the other path.
When it came down to that, I realized that I could not go down the road of unbelief. So I had to trust God and trust that He speaks, even when evidence seemed contrary. I realized that many heroes of faith in the Bible did this—they believed God even when it seemed like He was not keeping His end of the deal. I decided that I needed a “faith shelf” in my mind to shelve things that don’t make sense to me but are not going to stand in the way of living a life of faith.
In the end, God DID do what He said—it just happened in a different and more wonderful way than I imagined! I needed the reminder that God’s timetable and way of working things out can look very different from my ways. And my faith was strengthened. I learned from that crisis that we are not always as wrong as we think and sometimes it just takes more time than we thought to see God come through.
Even when I am wrong, I know that I need to keep trying and not let Satan use that failure to discourage me in my relationship with Jesus. It’s the relationship with Him that will help me hear better as I try to obey Him the best I know how.
Believing in God will mean we have to take a leap of faith, not just once, but many times. We have to clear the slate of our notions of how God is allowed to work. We have to obey, even when we are not absolutely sure that we heard Him. But as we learn to listen to Him, we will be rewarded with a spirit at peace, in sweet fellowship with our good, good Father.
How do preconceived ideas keep you from hearing God? What ways have you most often heard Him? How do you handle times of hearing wrong?
11 thoughts on “Hearing God’s Voice (Part 4 of 7): Learning to Listen”
Thank you for writing and sharing what you have been learning. It’s been a blessing. If I may, I’d like to share an experience as well.
Often God speaks in pictures as well. (And maybe you’ll address this in another post, or maybe that would fall in the category of impressions). Often while praying, God will give me a picture of someone to pray for and words to give. This is the most common way I have heard Him.
However, dreams are often the most vivid and clear directives. One time while preparing for a blog post, I woke up because I had heard an audible voice telling me what to write. The last half of the blog post was almost entirely the words I heard spoken to me. Incidentally, that is the most read and most shared post that I have on my blog.
Often as I’m writing I feel that Presence you described as a “thickness in the air”. His Presence is an encouragement to me to speak Truth regardless of how others may receive it.
Keep on writing and sharing your experiences!
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Yes, God speaks in pictures. I left that out because my post was getting too long, but I should have included it. Receiving a picture from God is very powerful.
One experience with that–when my first baby died and I was drowning in grief, God gave me a picture of a little girl laughing and running through a field of wildflowers. I can’t describe how healing that picture was for me. It assured my breaking mother-heart that my child was well and happy and loved in Heaven. Such a simple picture, but so profound.
It sounds like you are quite advanced in the skill of hearing God! I’m thrilled to learn of stories like yours. God is real and working!
Thank you so much for taking the time to write this post! So many good things here! It reminded me of an experience I had about a year ago…where I felt impressed to do something which seemed contrary to logic. =) So I did what I felt God was asking me to do…and for a little it seemed like things were going to work out; only to have the whole thing fall through….and I lived in devastation for a few weeks. I think that’s when I question and wonder if “it was just in my head/just my idea, etc.” Turns out that God worked things out in ways that are SO MUCH BETTER than the original plan! Wow! Somedays I’m still amazed! =) It’s been a good faith-building expereince for me….to know that God really does care about our dreams!
No, I don’t always get this “listening” thing right, but seems to me that God would rather have us move ahead in faith and obedience and get it wrong sometimes…..than to refuse to move at all because we aren’t absolutely SURE what the right thing is to do. Hope that makes sense! Blessings!
Absolutely! Do you care more about your students being perfect, or about them loving you and trying their best to please you? 🙂 I agree, I think God is honored when we at least TRY!
Thanks for sharing your story! Sometimes we’re afraid to talk about the times that don’t make sense to us, but if we can share our doubts and failures as well as our successes, it takes the pressure off to perform a certain way and helps encourage each other to keep trying! I love when God shows up to redeem a situation going bad, and I’m glad He did that for you! 🙂
I love reading your blog, especially this series on Hearing God. Leon and I have countless experiences like these. God is so good, but we must get rid of our preconceived ideas of how we think He works. Blessings.
Thanks for your encouragement! I’m always blessed to hear of others who care about hearing from God.
Rosina, I am finally now reading your blog series on hearing God’s voice. What a mine-field of a topic! 🙂
I have not yet read all your series, but felt I had to comment after reading the following:
“Sometimes we use the term “still small voice” to refer to an impression in our spirit, or the working of our conscience. But in the Bible the term “still small voice” is referring to a quiet but audible voice.”
Thank you! You are exactly right. Even Dallas Willard gets this wrong. Thanks for being more careful with Scripture than many on this point. (I confess I have gotten so tired of the misuse of this “still small voice” passage that I have been tempted to throw out the idea of God speaking through impressions, but I realize that such a conclusion is equally without exegetical warrant from this passage!)
I have tiny quibbles with some of your use of Scripture, but am being blessed by the overall trajectory of your thoughts. One thing I’m curious to discover as I continue reading: Do you discuss how we should understand God’s times of silence? If I perceive correctly, even in the New Testament we see that God spoke in clear and dramatic ways to the apostolic church only relatively rarely, and that even the apostles knew times of relying on their own perceptions–and sometimes temporarily even “getting it wrong”–without a clear word from God.
Thanks for sharing what you have been learning as you walk with God. I long to hear his voice whenever he wishes to speak, with fewer impediments on my part.
Thank you for your kind words, Dwight!
I would love to learn more about interpreting the Bible from a Bible scholar like you! 🙂 I’m glad if my series can be an inspiration, as imperfect as it is.
If you’ve read through the whole series by now, you’ll have noticed I talked about the times of silence in my last post. God’s family is so valuable to me during those painful seasons of silence.
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I try to remind myself that I would rather obey the Spirit’s prompting and fail than ignore His voice. As you implied, I often learn to be sensitive to His voice through trial and error.
I once felt led to give a message to someone that I didn’t want to give. I intentionally went to a gathering that I knew the person would be at, but I failed to deliver the message. Yet, right after I left, I somehow felt impressed to go to the store. Sure enough, I saw them at the store and gave the message. The response wasn’t what I hoped, and I felt sick to my stomach for a long time afterwards. When I shared the experience with friends, I felt stupid…but reading your article reminded me that I don’t know the ending to that story. My version of success isn’t necessarily God’s version.
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God spoke the word “Arabah” to me in the mid 1990’s.
I’d been to church and a visting preacher said if you want to hear God speak try praising him. I went home and followed that instruction. In the evening, I got out my bible – I didn’t read it but instead asked God to bless it to me and gave some praise and worship all by myself. I heard the word Arabah spoken to me very very clearly. I thought “What was that?”. I did some reasearch on the Word Arabah and as you say it means desert. Not just any desert – i think it is known as the Desert of the Prophets – a place of Spiritual training – a place where you turn to God in dependence. The Holy Spirit first led Jesus into the Desert and he came out in Power.
Your Website has blessed me – like you i have had a major setback in my life. Due to a nurological problem and bad eyesight in one eye I’ve had some major restrictions on what I can do for a living.
The one thing on my mind at the moment is the many Titles Given to Jesus in the book of Isaiah, One of those Titles is Wonderful Counselor. I do like to be independent and make my own decisions but according to the Word we can get Counselling from the Lord. Do we ask him for advice – would we listen and act on it if he did?
That’s a good question… How many times do we actually ask God about something, then do what he says?
I’m sorry about your health problems. May you feel God’s presence in your desert!