For a long time my prayer has been to be able to hear God’s voice. Over the course of many years, God has been teaching me how to listen – mostly through books, a bit through people. Here are some of the most helpful pieces of advice I have found.
Get To Know God’s Character
When I was thinking about going to seminary and whether it was God’s direction, my sister gave me a great piece of advice that has stuck with me. She said that when she is not sure if something is coming from God she weighs the thought/idea/act against what she knows to be true of God’s character and who God is. I come back to this all the time, and the more that I get to know God’s character through scripture, the clearer it becomes.
Also, the more that I get to know God’s character through scripture, the more that I recognize and experience God acting similarly and consistently in my own life. For example, I see throughout scripture that God is a redeeming God, then in my own life I see how God has redeemed so many things in me.
God replied to Moses, “I am WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you.”
– Exodus 3:14
Get In The Word
A couple of years ago, our small group worked through “The Divine Mentor” by Wayne Cordeiro and it changed my life. The Holy Spirit is very good at using scripture to speak, if we spend time in it. I would come back to the same passages over and over, and each time something new would connect with me exactly where I was at. Taking the time to pick out just one observation and application really deepened my devotions & bible study time. Some days it was harder to find something, but once I got writing about it, there was always something there for me. God spoke and encouraged and challenged me with every opportunity that I gave.
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.
– 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Learn The Difference Between The Holy Spirit And The Enemy
At the Ladies Retreat a few years ago I was given a copy of “A Confident Heart Devotional” by Renee Swope. One of the devotions talks about the difference between conviction and condemnation. This distinction has been a very significant one for me, and has helped me to identify the accusations of the enemy and conversely the voice of the Holy Spirit.
The enemy condemns in general sweeping statements about who you are as a person. The result is that you feel guilt & shame, and you feel paralyzed by it – drawn to inaction. The enemy will exploit your insecurities and areas of woundedness. It can come out in statements like, “You are a failure, or hypocrite. You aren’t good enough; you don’t have what it takes.” Or the go-to with me: “Who do you think you are?”
The Holy Spirit convicts about a specific area or item, and gives you clear steps on how to proceed in moving forward, either to right a wrong or simply to take an additional step of obedience. You will feel motivated to action, and encouraged & affirmed in moving forward instead of stuck ruminating on the negative of the past. The focus is on moving toward something better, instead of feeling bad about something that is already done. Also, with the Holy Spirit, your identity as a precious child of God is never called into question – in fact it is affirmed. “As a child of mine, I have something better for you! Let’s go this way together.” This may be stopping a behaviour, reconciling a relationship, changing an attitude, acting with generosity, learning a spiritual discipline, or any number of things.
Side-note here: This is not to say that there won’t be consequences for decisions, or that there is no need for repentance. As someone who is a bit fragile, and a profound ruminator, I have found that the healthiest way for me to understand repentance is as: recognizing that something is not the best that God has for me, and reorienting myself to move toward what is better instead.
But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.
– John 14:26
Give God Space To Respond
So when we talk about listening to God’s voice, this means prayer right? And it means not only talking to God in prayer, but also giving God the opportunity to respond. I have found this a challenge for a long time because my mind always surges at a mile a minute. If I try to pray in my head and/or listen in my head, I distract myself. My own random thoughts just take over. Now, I know that this is a skill that can be honed, so I’m not giving up on that, but in the meantime I have found that journaling has been a huge help for my spaghetti brain.
I read about a specific journaling technique in “Courage and Calling” by Gordon T. Smith. First you take a couple minutes to write about what is happening in your life (this is the shortest piece), then you start writing about how you feel about the stuff that is happening and the questions you have for God, then you write what you think God has to say in response to how you are feeling and your questions. I thought that it would take me a while to figure out this technique and that I would have a hard time figuring out what God was saying in response. But the first time that I tried it, I could barely finish writing out my question before I was flooded with God’s responses.
Certainly this is not separate from getting into the word and knowing God’s character – both of these are the foundation of being able to use this technique effectively.
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
– John 10:27
Trust And Obey, For There’s No Other Way…
When you begin to hear from God and recognize God’s voice, you will be directed to step out in faith and obedience in response. The more that you do this, the more comfortable you become with it. This is because you are training yourself – building a habit of obedience. It is also because you are creating an archive of experiences that you can recall and refer back to. You can remember what it was like when you received a direction from God, and use it as a comparison; and you can remember what it was like when you stepped out in obedience – affirmation you received, wisdom you acquired, character that was developed in you. The times when God’s instruction was ignored fade from memory much more quickly, and it’s far easier to discount them and dispute their validity.
Also, the Holy Spirit will build on your past experiences – the more that you respond, the more you will recognize the process and feel confident in it. The more that you ignore the nudgings, the fewer and further in between they become – overshadowed by the other things that are more the focus of your attention.
Another reason that obedience is helpful in learning to recognize God’s voice, is that the things that God directs us to do bring us closer to Godself. And the best place to hear God’s voice is when humbled and absorbed in God’s presence.
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says.
– James 1:22