How do you hear God’s voice? When you so desperately want to listen to God, why does God seem to so rarely speak?
I’ve been thinking a lot about those questions lately, and I thought today I’d just jot down some of my thoughts. They may be a little disjointed; I’m still working this out. But I know it’s a frustration many of us share, and I thought we could talk about it.
When I’m talking about hearing God’s voice, too, I’m talking about hearing God tell you very specific things about your situation–things that can’t just be found in Scripture. Are you supposed to move to another state? Are you supposed to have another child–or not have another child? Are you supposed to marry this particular person? In Scripture God gives us principles, but not specifics. He leaves the specifics for us to wrestle through. But often we’d prefer the wrestling to end because we’d like to hear God say something specific.
For most of us, that “specific” message is a rarity; it’s not an everyday thing.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how to hear God’s voice as much as it tells us how NOT to hear God’s voice
I wish there were passages that would tell us something like, “if you need to make a decision and you want God to tell you what to do, all you have to do is X, Y, and Z!”
That would be wonderful. But instead there are more passages about when God WON’T answer prayer–when we ignore justice and ignore the poor (Isaiah 1:15); when we’re proud in prayer, assuming we’re right (Luke 18:9-14); when we’re not really sincere and don’t give God our best (Malachi 1:7-9); when we don’t treat our spouse well (1 Peter 3:7)–there are more, but basically when we’re deliberately living against how God wants us to live. When we won’t forgive others, God says, He does the same to us. By the measure we use, God will use to us.
That’s a stern warning. If we want to hear from God, then, we really do need to get our hearts right.
But let’s take even another step back: Is it good theology to think that there’s something special that we can do to “make” God reveal His plans?
I think we have this backwards. We think that we should be able to do something that will make God speak to us–as if God is waiting to reveal all of His plans to us if we will just do the right dance. But isn’t that making God into Aladdin, where we rub the lamp and then He delivers for us?
If God speaks, it’s because God wants to speak–not because we make Him.
So does that mean that we can never hear God speak?
No, I don’t think so. But it does mean this:
If we want to hear God’s voice, we need to give God opportunities to speak
One thing I’ve found in the last year is that I tend to hear more “nudgings” and “confirmations” when I take time specifically to ask God questions and give Him a chance to reply. When I journal questions that I’m having, and then read relevant books and read my devotionals and the Scripture for that day, it’s amazing how often I feel those nudges or even specific words that keep recurring–verses that I’m praying over someone, for instance, I’ll see 20 times in the week after I started praying for them, whereas it was a verse that’s hardly mentioned normally.
But on the days when I don’t take that time to journal and to pray and to read, I very rarely hear anything, because for me, confirmation usually comes from those moments.
When God asked Gideon to lead an army against the Midianites, Gideon put out his famous fleece, asking God, “if you want me to lead this army, then tomorrow morning, let the fleece be wet with dew and the ground around it by dry.” The next day, it was just like Gideon had asked. But what if that was a fluke? (Don’t we second guess ourselves all the time? Was that really God? Isn’t it presumptuous of me to assume that?). So he put out the fleece again and asked for the opposite. He got it.
Now, I don’t think that the principle should be that we never walk forward in obedience without massive physical confirmation. What’s interesting about Gideon’s story is that he was asking for a sign to confirm something that God had actually told him to do. Why do you need confirmation when God speaks? Because we’re not sure it’s God. You’re not asking God, “did you really want me to do this?” What you’re really asking God is, “Did I really hear you?”
Personally, I think putting out a “fleece” (whatever that may look like) is perfectly reasonable after you hear something wild from God. But I don’t think putting out a “fleece” for every decision we make will work, because if God didn’t speak, He has nothing to confirm.
Which brings me to this:
If God really wants you to do a specific thing, He’ll tell you.
Often when we have to make a decision we don’t want the pressure. We’d rather be able to say, “God told me to do this.” But what if God is honestly giving you a choice? What if He’s saying, “I trust you, walk forward, let’s see what you can do.” If God wants you absolutely to do one thing over another, He will tell you. If He doesn’t, then maybe it’s because He really is leaving it up to you.
And I think that’s why the “fleece” thing for every decision doesn’t work. If God is leaving it up to us, then He’s leaving it up to us. And we need to walk forward.
After all, isn’t wrestling an important part of faith? Maybe walking forward despite the silence is worth something. Maybe trying to work out what is the right thing to do, even if God is silent, is better than twisting ourselves in knots trying to get God to speak.
But what if you believe God did speak? How do you live with doubt?
Often God prophesies something and then is silent. He told Abraham that Abraham would have a son–and then nothing happened for 25 years (other than Abraham taking matters into his own hands in the interim). He prophesied through the prophets about Judah and Israel’s captivity and return.
More often than not, God’s specific words are followed by years of silence.
When we read the Bible stories about how the prophets or the patriarchs doubted in the meantime, we often interpret that to mean that they doubted God. I’m not sure that’s really true. I wonder, instead, if they doubted their own ability to hear God. You can totally believe in God and yet second guess yourself all the time. Did I really hear that? Was I right that that’s what God was saying?
And doubting that you can hear God is almost scarier, because if you believed that you heard God, but you were wrong–then how do you hear God? Is God then unknowable?
And don’t we all want to know that we serve a God who does speak, and whose voice can be discerned? Because if we can’t hear God, and if we can’t discern His voice correctly, then God is no longer personal. And that’s almost scarier than giving up on the thought that there is a God at all. An impersonal God, or one who plays with my emotions? That seems worse than none at all.
So what are we supposed to do?
I think we just walk forward. You give God opportunities to speak, but don’t assume that you can “make” God speak or reveal exactly what you’re supposed to do in every situation. Don’t assume that if you don’t have a “word from the Lord” that you’re somehow doing something wrong. Yes, examine yourself to make sure there’s nothing in your life that’s keeping God from answering your prayers. But remember: God speaks when God wants to speak. Let God be God.
And in the meantime, pray lots and teach yourself how to listen. Listen to the nudgings, to the little things. He promised that His sheep would know His voice (John 10), so follow Him closely. But don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed because you don’t have answers, or because you’re in a season of waiting. Unless you’ve been specifically told to wait, then move forward.
This week we’ve been talking about what to do when you feel like you want another baby, and your husband says no. Often we couch those discussions in terms of what God told us or what God wants. There are times when God does give specific words, and we do need to follow them. But if He doesn’t–don’t worry. Move forward. Keep listening, even in the silence. And I do believe that you will feel His love and acceptance and grace, even if you don’t hear a specific answer.
What do you think? Have you ever heard a specific word from God? What did that look like?