On Hearing God’s Voice—Part 1

[Jesus said] I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. —John 10:14, 27 (RSV)

Men and women who have long made a practice of listening to God claim that they can distinguish between their own imagination and the impress of God’s will. This claim is made quite deliberately, by servants of God in all branches of the Universal Church, and in all centuries. They do not claim that this gift fell upon them suddenly. It is the product of long practice in the art of listening and they commend such constant practice to all who would qualify for the gift.

God has sometimes spoken clearly to men who have no rich background of devotional life, but the rule still holds that those who would cultivate the power to know His voice must set time aside specifically for it and set it aside every day.

Nor do those who claim this power deny that they are sometimes mistaken.

There is a possibility of error in all things human—or partly human—but the adventurous soul will not turn back because of that. One would need to abandon life if one wished to avoid the very chance of error. And there is so much to encourage us in the pursuit of this prize: so many witnesses come forward in its confirmation and so much positive testimony accumulates even among those who were hesitant to believe.

“So the soul that waits in silence must learn to disentangle the voice of God from the net of other voices—the ghostly whisperings of the subconscious self, the luring voices of the world, the hindering voices of misguided friendship, the clamour of personal ambition and vanity, the murmur of self-will, the song of unbridled imagination, the thrilling not of religious romance. To learn to keep one’s ear true in so subtle a labyrinth of spiritual sound is indeed at once a great adventure and a liberal education. One hour of such listening may give us a deeper insight into the mysteries of human nature, and a surer instinct for Divine values, than a year’s hard study or external intercourse with men.”

From —God Does Guide Us by W. E. Sangster

Today I begin a series of reflections on hearing the voice of God, a critical aspect of discipleship and a topic worthy of our discussion and sharing. I base my reflections on W. E. Sangster’s book, God Does Guide Us, a book I found tremendously helpful and one to which I return on a fairly regular basis. Sangster writes that God can and does speak to those of us willing to listen (and sometimes even to folks who are unwilling to listen) in the following ways: (1) through prayer; (2) through the Bible; (3) through circumstances; (4) through reason; and (5) through fellowship. Surely Sangster’s is not an exhaustive list and it would be a mistake to try to pigeonhole God’s voice to these ways alone. Yet his list provides us with a useful starting point and so over the next seven days, I will devote a reflection on each of these ways, using my own experiences as the basis for each day’s reflection. Today I begin by reflecting on God speaking to me through prayer.

Before I talk about my prayer life, I must provide you with the “rules of engagement” I try to follow when praying. First, I acknowledge that being able to hear God’s voice is scriptural; Jesus says as much in the passage I quoted above, and so I try to enter prayer each day acknowledging it as an act of faith that God will act. Second, I try to acknowledge each day, although not always successfully, that God is sovereign in my life. This must be more than a pious platitude and given my sinful and rebellious nature I really have to work at this so that when I say, “not my will but yours” I really mean it. Third, to be able to say to God that I want his will and not mine means that I must trust him totally and surrender myself to him. Again, given who I am, I consider this area to be a work in progress and results may vary on any given day! Last, as Sangster makes abundantly clear, to be able to hear God’s voice means that I must LISTEN.

I hate it when that happens. 🙂

Indeed, I find this latter requirement every bit as difficult as trusting God to be sovereign in my life. It is much easier for me to do the talking than the listening but of course this is just another manifestation of the brokenness of our human condition. When Jesus says that his followers hear his voice, it implies that we are listening for it. I don’t know about you, but I cannot listen to someone talking to me if I am busy talking to him. In fact, some of the most frustrating conversations occur when two people are trying to get a word in edgewise and not listening to the other. Anyone who has gotten into an argument knows exactly what I mean!

To help me listen, I use George Buttrick’s Guide-Map to Prayer, something I found in Richard Foster’s wonderful collection of devotional writings. I like it because it helps me first to center down and then organizes prayer into the categories of thanksgiving, asking forgiveness, intercession, and petition in that order. It also provides the structure for me to speak and then to listen for God’s voice. So, for example, after I finish offering thanksgiving, I try to listen for how God wants me to use the gifts he has given me. Sometimes I hear nothing (and when I say “hear” I do not mean hearing an audible voice; I’ve never heard that, even when I had my encounter with Christ back in 2004). Sometimes my mind is scattered, or I am tired, and I have difficulty concentrating. Whenever that happens I try to be patient and just move on; I assume that I should follow previous marching orders until God issues new ones. Sometimes the names of people pop into my head. At other times tasks that I need to complete come to mind. I consider these latter phenomena to be valid impulses and I immediately write them in my prayer journal for further reflection (and since I am not the brightest star in the sky, to serve as written reminders of what I must do) when I am finished praying. Keeping a prayer journal is also a useful way for me to monitor progress (or backsliding) in my prayer life and it provides me with useful information about it. When I do gain insight into my prayer life, I consider it to be God’s voice speaking to me as well and give thanks.

As with anything else, my ability to discern valid impulses from my own self-will etc., requires practice and I have found that the more I work at listening the better I get at it. There is also a consistency in the impulses I think come from God. For example, they never do harm to me or others and there tends to be a feeling of validation that I cannot explain but which is real nevertheless.

I also try to pray at regular times during the day. Taking the consistent cue from the devotional masters of past and present, I try to start and end each day in prayer, although I confess I am not entirely successful at this. This is because I tend to be undisciplined and so I must make myself start the day in prayer before I do anything else; otherwise, it likely won’t get done. Today, for example, I decided to write this blog entry before praying and find myself well into the day with the increased likelihood that I will forego prayers because of other obligations I have. Not good (but fairly typical).

Starting the day in prayer also helps me focus on what I need to do that day and ending it provides me a chance to review what I’ve done (or not done). In describing this aspect of my prayer life, I do not want to give the impression that these are the only two times I pray. To the contrary, I try to pray constantly, albeit not as formally as I do in the morning. For example, yesterday I was thinking about what to do with my blog entry today and this idea came to mind almost immediately. The impulse had all the markings of coming from God and so here I am writing about it!

To summarize, I consider prayer to be both an act of faith and trust, I try to start and end each day in prayer, i.e., I try to establish regular times to pray and stick to those times, I use a prayer model that works for me in that it helps me organize my prayers and provides me time to listen to God as well as talk to him, and I have a prayer journal in which I write down impulses, thoughts, etc. Listening is the most important piece during prayer and one of the aspects I find most difficult. In addition, and something I did not mention previously, I try to read the biographies of the saints so that I can learn from them.

Am I always successful in hearing God’s voice in prayer? No. Have I been mistaken? Yes. Is my prayer life a model for others? No, but I hope it will serve as a starting point for you to reflect on your prayer life and what works (and doesn’t work) for you.

It’s your turn now. How do you listen for God’s voice in prayer (or do you)? What are some of the markings of its authenticity? How do you discern the real voice from the false ones, and what do you do to cultivate your prayer life? Tell us your stories so that we can learn from each other and contribute to the collective testimony to the power of prayer offered by the Communion of Saints.

Tomorrow: Hearing God’s Voice through the Bible