Sometimes religious people really annoy me.
Real life requires real answers — or sometimes at least the admission that we don’t have an answer — not churchy platitudes. Warm, religious-sounding words, full of all the right terminology but devoid of any real power don’t help anyone. Fluff. Drivel. And that’s how I felt when I finished reading one preacher’s advice on “How to Recognize God’s Voice.” So let me throw in my two-cents worth.
First, my disclaimer. If I were any kind of expert on hearing God’s voice, I’d probably be the happiest and most successful man on the planet. But I’m stumbling and fumbling around here, trying to discern my way, just like the rest of us. But there are — in my limited experience — some pretty basic signs that help shed some light on the murky fog a lot of us walk around in. And the key lies not so much in hearing God’s voice — I believe God is speaking to us all the time. The key lies in recognizing the voice when we hear it.
Let me start by killing the churchy platitude that set me off: “The number one way God speaks to us is through his Word, the Bible.”
Pardon my French, but let me just call bullshit on that one.
That’s like saying that the number one way your parents — or your lover — speak to you is through some user manual. God constantly whispers in your ear, tugs at your heart, gives you a sense of intuition or a “gut feeling.” God is always talking. And he isn’t waiting for you to crack open that leather-bound book.
But just to clarify, my beef isn’t against using the Bible to learn more about God. I just take issue with pretending it’s a book of magic with answers to all your questions. And if you’d only read it … blah blah.
The God who walked with Adam in the Garden in the cool of the day, the God who spoke to prophets in the Bible … spoke. I was reading yesterday some stories about King Saul and King David in the Bible, and was struck how often that phrase kept popping up: “the LORD said to Samuel …” Yeah, how? How did God speak to him? Did Samuel crack open the Scroll of Leviticus and read, searching to discover who Saul’s replacement would be? Yeah … no. Guess what? While the Bible contains a record of God’s words to us, and he often speaks to us through it, the Book itself will often not be very helpful when you’re actively looking for some guidance. At least if you’re expecting the answers to be there in black and white.
A starting point …
We have to begin with the assumption that God wants to speak with us.
And for some people, that may be a huge leap of faith. But consider this: that image mentioned earlier from Genesis, God walking with Adam, talking with Adam, calling out to him … God speaks. And why did God create humans to begin with? Okay, we may be crossing over into philosophical territory here, but surely it’s more than just to worship him — despite all those great songs we may sing in church. This might sound heretical, but I do not believe we were created to worship God, nor is that our primary purpose in existence.
Based on what I can tell from Scripture, it seems pretty clear to me
that we were created for relationship with God.
Friendship. Hanging out. Socializing. Fellowship. Communion. Intimacy.
If God wanted you principally for worship, well, he’s already got plenty of angels for that. Again, theological speculation, but a common thought is that he wanted someone with a free will, someone in his own class of being, to choose to love him, to hang with him. I don’t mean to be flippant about it. But let’s be real. Some of the great figures in the Bible were called the “friends of God”: Abraham and Moses for starters, and Jesus said he no longer called his disciples servants but friends. We could list other references, but you get the idea. We were created for love, to be loving partners to/with/for God.
What is the meaning of life? What is our primary purpose? Relationship. Friendship. With God and with each other. So, at least that one church tune we sing so often got it right: “I am a friend of God … he calls me friend.”
And if you can make that leap, if you can embrace that basic premise, then you’re well on your way to learning how to recognize his voice. How do you talk with your friends?
Email? Letters? Texts? Sure. And we can put the Bible in that category. I’m not ruling it out (despite my tirade above) — the Bible is, as my pastor says, God’s love letter to us. I’m just saying it’s only one way he speaks with us — and not the primary way, at that.
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God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding. (Job 37:5)
When we want to talk to our friends, most of us actually speak, we use words. We use our ears. And we use our hearts. Sometimes we use touch. Sometimes it’s just a nudge. Sometimes it’s eye-contact. Imagine sitting across the room from the object of your affection. How are you signaling him or her? How long can you go without communicating with him? How long before you want to hear her voice?
Why would God be any different?
Sure, he created the universe. He’s paying attention to that irregular star activity in the Horse Head Nebula, and the surge of dark matter floating closer to our Milky Way (can you tell I’m no astronomer?). But he did take the time and effort to create humanity, and the Psalms tell us that he knew us — as individuals — before we were even in our mothers’ wombs. That’s some pretty personalized attention. And don’t think for a second that he suddenly lost interest when we turned the age of 12. That Holy Love Literature tells us our individual names are written forever in heaven, that we are the apple of his eye, that he sings over us. Pretty heady stuff. So I think it’s safe to claim that he still wants to hang with us — on that individual, personal level.
Back in Eden, when Adam and Eve were hiding afraid and in shame after their little dalliance with rebellion, it is God who goes in search for them: “Where are you …?” So why do we think he suddenly dropped into a passive mode? Is he waiting for us to brush the dust off the old King James Bible we got as a Sunday School prize, and read chapter after chapter, straining to find his will in the black and white verses? “Oh, I see Steve is looking for my guidance about whether he should get serious with this guy he’s dating. Guess I’ll make him work his way through Colossians where I hid my will for this situation.” Umm, no. Seems silly, doesn’t it? But isn’t that what most of us think? “I need help. I want to know what to do, or at least what God would like me to do … about X or Y … So I better read the Bible.”
Hey, the Bible is great. I’m a firm believer in Scripture. God speaks to me using it all the time. When I’ve got deep issues I’m troubled with, it’s amazing how suddenly a verse will jump off the pages, highlighted in spiritual neon, and it’ll ring inside me with new meaning I never saw before. And there it is: the answer I’ve been looking for. But it wasn’t the magic of the Book. It wasn’t even the words themselves on the page. It was the activity of the Spirit, making those words come alive. It’s what theologians call illumination — spiritual highlighting.
And he does the same “spiritual highlighting” with all types of situations.
It’s the message that’s important; not the medium it comes through. God can speak through my trusted friends. He can use a song on the radio. He can use a preacher. He can use a TV commercial or a Facebook status. He can use an audible voice from Heaven. He’ll prompt your intuition, or give you a fresh moment of inspiration, a thought you’d never had before. From what I know of God, it seems like he’ll use whatever means, and as many means, as possible to communicate with us.
Filtering out the Background Noise
But when you’re reaching out with your heart, there will also be a lot of background noise: your own thoughts and worries, other people’s opinions, coincidental signs. How do we filter all that out?
The way we know it’s from God is that there will be this gravitas to it. It will ring like a bell inside us with power and heaviness, and it will fit. It will fill every corner of the question we’re chewing on. And there will be absolute certainty: done deal, “this is it!” The answer will “settle” inside you with a kind of solidness to it, like the closing of a door on the question. And then there will be peace. Like freshly fallen snow on a quiet winter night. Like a cool breeze blowing across you after a time of sweat and strain. These are tell-tale signs. These are the work, the activity, of God’s Spirit. And that’s how you recognize God’s fingerprints on the answer you’re looking for.
God is Spirit. And you are a spiritual being, created in his image.
And though he will speak to you in a wide variety of ways, recognition of his voice is a spiritual activity.
You’ll know it in your gut.
There are no clear-cut methods, no great formulas or strategies to reach that point where words suddenly take on divine significance, where you suddenly develop ears that discern that whisper of the Spirit or eyes that see his illumination. But when you’re genuinely seeking God, when you want to hear his voice, he won’t hide from you. Like a lover, longing for your presence, he may string you along a bit, just for the pleasure of your company. But he won’t leave you guessing. And he won’t put you through religious gymnastics, he won’t make you wade through holy texts. Hey, if you’re already there, he may speak to you through them. But if your heart is open, he could just as easily drop a flash of insight on you while you’re walking at your favorite park.
Elijah was in trouble. It’s another story in the Bible. He’d just had a major spiritual high, a victory in wiping out the false prophets of Ba’al. And then he crashed. Fear gripped him. Uncertainly hounded him. And he sought God in the sacred places, the place where God had moved in history. He ran to historic Mt Sinai. And God shook him up. The answer he was looking for was not in the fire. Not in the earthquake. Not in the wind. It was in the still, small voice. That whisper deep inside, whispering “this is it.”
Hearing from God is not some extraordinary phenomenon, reserved for saints and the sober-minded. It’s normal for us to seek divine input. It’s part of being human to reach out and communicate with the God who created us. So, as Jesus once told a group of his followers, “ask — because the one who asks receives. Seek — because the one who seeks finds. Knock — because to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Go ahead. Ask. Then keep your ears open to hear, keep your eyes open to see the answer.
To hear God’s voice, pay attention. Just be listening. He’s always trying to talk to you. The answer will be there. To recognize God’s voice, to know when it’s really him, look for the gravitas, that sense of “settledness” in your gut.
It isn’t that hard. You’re asking. He’s speaking. We just need to learn to recognize that internal resonance, that ringing of certainty and truth, that finality when the answer comes. You’ll feel it. It will be a knowing in your gut more than in your head. That’s the “still, small voice.”
STEVE SCHMIDT is a teacher at Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs here on IMPACT’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.