Monday, September 22, 2014

Hearing God's Voice

I just returned yesterday from a men's retreat in Wisconsin during which I promised to post this article on hearing God's voice (parts of which I have previously posted quite some time ago). So for all my amazing brothers in Wisconsin, here you go!
It all starts with hearing His voice! God has invited each of us into a wonderfully close relationship with Him, and all true transformation flows out of this relationship with Him. Transformation happens not through self-effort (which leaves us still in control) but through surrender to Him and Holy Spirit-empowered obedience to His leading. As we yield to Him, really take time to be with Him and listen for His voice, He draws near to us and we cannot help but be deeply changed! The Holy Spirit guides us and empowers us so that we become more and more like Jesus even while we learn to live in His love.
Obviously, the key in all of this is to hear God’s voice clearly. No relationship can grow without ongoing communication. But is this for you? Yes! Everyone who fully surrenders to the Lord can hear His voice clearly and continually. The following different renderings of John 10:27 should be encouraging to you. The first translation tells us that we can hear Jesus’ voice. The second translation assures us that we can recognize His voice. The third translation reminds us that the way to hear His voice is to come to Him with a willingness to listen (obey)! All three meanings are possible, so I believe we can treasure them all.
John 10:27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. NRSV
John 10:27 My sheep recognize my voice; I know them, and they follow me. NLT
John 10:27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. NIV
Are you one of His sheep? Then as you take time to listen, coming to Him with a willingness to obey what you hear, you will hear His voice and experience His love. As you do this, you will find that He is always speaking! The verb tenses in John 10:27 are all present tense. John 10:27 literally reads, “My sheep are hearing my voice. I am knowing them, and they are following me.” This sounds to me like we can be hearing Jesus all the time! Other verses tell us the same thing. For example, Romans 8:14 literally reads “For as many as are being led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (The Spirit leads us by continually speaking to us).
The core of the Christ life is an increasingly intimate relationship with God, and constantly improving communication is essential for that relationship to grow. And because God’s desire is for each believer to hear Him on his/her own, not through a “pastor” or other teacher, it is crucial for you to learn how to hear Him well. Just how important is it for you to hear God’s voice for yourself, up close and personal? I answer that with another question: How else are you going to build a relationship with Him? How else will you know what to do as a believer in any assignment God has for you? It takes a revelation of God’s wisdom to live life as He intends it, doesn’t it?
The NIV rightly translates Proverbs 29:18a “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint.” The CEV translates it “Without guidance from God, law and order disappear.” The ESV alternate says “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people are discouraged.” What’s my point here? It’s that discouragement and destruction happen when God’s people aren’t hearing Him and obeying His voice. Note that this means more than reading the Bible. It refers to immediate words from God (in line with Scripture) continually being spoken to us.
So how can you improve your ability to hear God’s voice? First, let’s think about how God communicates with us. What does God’s voice sound like? What types of means does He use to communicate with us? First, because God is infinitely creative, He chooses to communicate in a lot of different ways, crafting His communication to the unique needs of each of His children. Having said that, Scripture and the experience of God’s people through the ages show us that there are some ways that God often uses to communicate. Books about hearing God list things like impressions, an inner voice, an audible voice, dreams, various types of visions, angels, etc. What I want to concentrate on, however, is the communication that I believe God most often uses to communicate with us as we seek to follow His Spirit throughout the day. That communication usually starts with our receiving nudges and impressions that eventually grow into words (and/or pictures) that grow into the internal conversation with God that Paul refers to as “praying without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Yes, I believe that it’s possible to hear God all the time! How else can we be led by the Spirit? And I have found that this communication usually sounds like me! That is, God’s inner voice sounds a lot like my inner thoughts, except it comes from a slightly “different place” within me (it takes time and practice to discern this, however). How do we learn to hear this inner voice consistently?
Learning to hear God’s voice is a process, and most folks find that they can hear God only rather faintly at first. So if you are new to this, don’t be disappointed if the communication seems faint as you begin. Those of us in the Western world are especially not used to receiving input from anywhere beyond our 5 senses! The existence of a spiritual world beyond the physical world takes time for us to adjust to, so be patient with yourself as you learn to tune into the spiritual realm where God chooses to communicate with His children.
We said earlier that God’s communication most often starts with nudges and impressions. It was a “nudge” from the Holy Spirit that first brought you to God, wasn’t it? Somehow you knew that God was communicating with you and inviting you to surrender to Jesus. So you have already heard God clearly at least once! And as you surrender more to Him, the impressions will grow stronger as you learn to tune into them. You will find Bible passages coming alive and you will know that God is saying something directly to you. The same thing will happen as you pray or wait quietly before God. Something will come into your mind that “feels like” God. It may be an impression that you should pray for someone, or perhaps it will be the sense that God is addressing something in your life (unforgiveness, a wrong attitude, etc.), or you will sense Him communicating His love for you in a fresh way. (This is one of His most frequent “words” to His people). As you respond to these nudges and impression in obedience and/or with thanksgiving, they will get stronger and louder.
A.W. Tozer describes this process in The Pursuit of God. “It is important that we get still to wait on God. It is best that we get alone, preferably with our Bible outspread before us. Then if we want we may draw near to God and begin to hear Him speak to us in our hearts. I think for the average person the progression will be somewhat like this: first a sound as of a Presence of walking in the garden. Then a voice, more intelligible, but still far from clear. Then the happy moment when the Spirit begins to illuminate the Scriptures, and that which had been only a sound, or at best a voice, now becomes an intelligible word, warm and intimate and clear as the word of a dear friend. Then will come life and light, and best of all, ability to see and rest in and embrace Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and all.”
So hearing God is a process which usually starts with nudges or impressions that grow into clear conversation with Him. And although God uses many different ways to communicate with us, the most common way is the internal voice. So how do we improve our ability to hear the internal voice of God? Let’s look at seven S’s for hearing God’s voice. Before that, though, I remind you that the first step in your hearing God’s voice is for you to believe that you can hear His voice! Many believers don’t seem to believe this! Psalm 23:2 says that the Lord as our Shepherd leads us beside still waters, and being led to still waters requires us to hear His voice. And John 10:27 doesn’t say “some of my sheep hear my voice.” You can hear God’s voice! Now for the seven S’s!
Seeking. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” This verse promises that people who fervently seek to know God and hear His voice will find that God always responds! This wonderful promise boils down the requirement for finding and hearing God into something we can all qualify for: desire! If you really want to hear God’s voice, you will learn to do so.
Scripture. When God speaks, what He says sounds like the Bible! Getting God’s Word into our lives gives the Holy Spirit a vocabulary to use for speaking to us. I find that the more of God’s Word I memorize the clearer His voice becomes and the easier it is to distinguish His voice from my own voice. Hearing God’s voice often starts with hearing God speak through His written word. That’s one reason why we encourage folks to write down what He says through His Word. If you aren’t already doing so, try giving God the opportunity to speak to you in this way. Take some time to sit quietly and read the Bible, asking God to speak to you. I can guarantee that if you do this with expectancy, you will hear His voice.
Surrender. Would you spend a lot of time talking to someone who wasn’t responding to what you said? The people who hear God best always approach Him with an attitude of absolute surrender, yielding their lives to God’s loving embrace and His purposes. To hear God’s voice clearly, you must approach Him with a willingness to do what He says without hesitation or reservation! Smith Wigglesworth often boiled the Christian life down to one word: yield. He told his hearers, “Yield and yield and yield!” You see, even though God’s desire in communicating with us is to build relationship with us, like any good father, He won’t speak much to the person who isn’t willing to follow Him. One sure way to improve your hearing His voice, then, is to start obeying those “nudges” you get from Him. The nudges get “louder” as we come ready to obey and then follow through with obedience. Try it!

Stillness. It’s amazing to me how many people think that they can hear God in the middle of the noise of their crowded lives. Have you ever tried to carry on a serious conversation in a noisy restaurant or while the TV was going? It’s impossible! God often speaks very, very softly, so we need to really get still to hear Him. In fact, when you first start trying to hear Him, you will find that you face not only external noise but internal noise as well. Even when we get alone and quiet, most of us find that our minds at first are filled with “noisy thoughts” that drown out God’s still, small voice. What can you do about this? First, be quiet! Make prayer a two-sided conversation, not a laundry list or a 911 call! If God can’t get a word in edgewise, it’s not likely that you will hear much. For me prayer is now well over 50% listening. Second, take the time needed to get still. Get alone, tune out the outside noises, put on some soft worship music if that helps, and just sit until your soul quiets down. “Coming to interior stillness requires waiting. Any attempt to hasten the process only stirs up the water anew.” Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child (Kindle Locations 508-509). Certain scripture passages have helped me get still and may help you, too (Psalms 46:10 and 131:1-2, for example). Finally, don’t give up! Most of us are so unaccustomed to stillness that it takes practice to get really still. But when you do get still, hang on! You will find God speaking volumes to you, and you will learn how to take that stillness with you wherever you go.
Solitude. We can’t form a relationship or recognize someone’s voice in a crowd. Learning to recognize how someone communicates—with both verbal communication and non-verbal communication—requires us to spend time alone with them, doesn’t it? Our relationship with God is no different. If we want to get to know the subtle nuances of the ways He communicates, we must spend time with Him alone. It is impossible to learn to hear God just by attending meetings. That may help, but it cannot take the place of time alone with Him. I have found a direct connection between how much time I spend alone with Him and how well I recognize His voice. And I have never met anyone who took the time to be alone with God (to listen) who didn’t learn to hear God well. Again, try it! Take the time in your life that’s yours to invest as you wish and spend it alone with God and see what happens!
Spiritual friends. God’s people were never meant to live in isolation, so in spite of what we said about solitude, part of your learning to hear God must happen as you live in relationship with other believers. Learning from people who know how to hear God well and living in community with others who long to hear God well has helped me to hear God better. I also believe that it’s possible for those who hear God well to pray impartation into others. My own hearing level greatly increased after I was prayed for by men and women who hear God well. I have also learned more about hearing God from books by authors who know how to hear God. Two books that have helped me are by Jack Deere: Surprised by the Voice of God (a big book!) and A Beginner’s Guide to Prophecy. Other books by authors like Andrew Murray, A.W. Tozer and others have also helped me. You really need to find people who hear God consistently and ask them to pray for you and assist you in this. Find a spiritual friend or two and learn more together!
Spiritual Language. Most people who have activated the personal gift of speaking in tongues (“spiritual language”) report that regular exercise of this gift helps them hear God better. One friend of mine was able to hear God so clearly that when he ministered he could sometimes call out license plate numbers of people in his meetings! (It was always interesting to go somewhere with him!). When I asked Herb how he learned to hear God so clearly, he said that one thing that really helped him was praying in his spiritual language. Herb explained that God’s voice seemed to originate from the same place that his spiritual language came from and also built him up spiritually, as 1 Corinthians 14:4 says. You will find that your hearing level will increase as you pray often using this gift.
One last thought for you about hearing God: keep practicing and you will get better! Jesus makes an amazing promise in Mark 4:23-25: 23 “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. 25 Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” Do you see the promise? Jesus promises that if we give attention to what we are already hearing, we will hear even more! Since hearing God forms the foundation of all else in a maturing life, I recommend that you start increasing the volume now!
For another great resource on hearing God’s voice, check out Mark Virkler’s free download at