Listening to God

Prepared by Colette Williams

I approached the writing of this article with some trepidation, having previously declared myself a failure in the art of hearing from God.  People would say, “The Lord told me…” and I would be filled with longing for such intimacy with God myself.

Part of my problem has been unrealistic expectations about what the voice of God sounds like.  I had a rather Hollywood version in my mind, complete with music and a heavenly choir!

Another handicap is that I am a ‘head person’, very logical and analytical, whereas people who naturally respond from the heart or gut find it easier to operate in the spontaneous, intuitive[i] realm, which is the realm of the Spirit.  And children generally find it easier than adults.

The western world has a love affair with the mind to the exclusion of the heart, as though what we can see and hear is the only reality.[ii] We have created a tunnel vision for ourselves by filtering out everything we consider unnecessary for our task-driven lives.  We fill our lives with noise, and plan every moment with activity.  This is not the sphere of the Spirit.

A rebalancing is urgently required.

To do this we need to overcome centuries of conditioning that spurns the supernatural and the spiritual in favour of logic and reason.

We were created for communion with God.  Just look at Adam and Eve in the garden enjoying fellowship with God.  There is something within us that still longs for that close, intimate relationship.[iii] And God wants to communicate with us.  Over the millennia he has done it through the beauty of creation, through the prophets, his Son Jesus, his written word, through circumstances, other people, or directly to our hearts.

Some people believe that we have the Bible, and that’s all we need.  But Jesus hinted strongly that there was more to learn, and the Holy Spirit would be our teacher.[iv] The Bible is the written word of God, full of principles and truths to live by.  Hearing from God directly can bring these truths to life, and apply them to our lives in a very individual and personal way.

Jesus’ example.

Jesus himself spent many hours in two-way prayer with his Father, often rising before dawn to go to a quiet place to pray.[v] And he spent 40 days in the desert to prepare for his ministry.  Jesus did not operate out of his divinity, or on his own initiative,[vi] but out of what he heard and saw from his Father.  Using his spiritual eyes, Jesus would see God healing the sick etc., and he would replicate it.  This is perhaps a strange concept for us, but Jesus has promised that we will be able to do all that he has done, and more, because he will send the Spirit.[vii]

We too can live like Jesus, taking our cue from what we see and hear from our heavenly Father.  And we can receive words and pictures straight from the Father’s heart to our heart, to bless, encourage, correct and guide.  To do this, we will have to train our spiritual faculties which may have degenerated through lack of use.  Paul prayed “that the eyes of your heart be enlightened”.[viii] This is surely the first place to start, with a prayer that God will do this work within us.

No doubt many of you are further along this path than I am, but even those who consider themselves beginners have probably experienced something of this already.  Have you ever had the name or the face of someone just pop into your mind out of nowhere?  You somehow know that you are supposed to pray for that person, or visit them.  Some people hear from God through deep impressions, or a sure knowing.  God is not limited in how he can speak to us – we just need the ears to hear.

Come away with me by yourselves to a quiet place…

The first and probably hardest thing in our fast-paced world, is to find a quiet place where we won’t be interrupted, and give some quality time to God.[ix] If you don’t have a quiet room with guaranteed privacy, try a secluded spot outdoors, or even in the car.  It’s not easy finding sufficient time to give to this when we are not worn out.  As Philip mentioned in the first article, we don’t have to pray in the same way every day, but can give time once a week or once a month etc. for this deeper level of prayer.

Be still, and know that I am God.[x] Quietening our spirits is not easy, and we tend to bring our busyness with us.  We find our mind racing, as our problems and the things we need to do press in on us.  Write down unfinished business or any other thought that is likely to intrude, so you don’t have to bring it with you to prayer.  Try to come with a clean page for the Holy Spirit to write on.

God will do the work.  We just need to let go of our striving, our planning, and relax into him.  Music, singing, praise, expressing love to God or even gazing at a flickering candle can all help us to focus on him and refocus our thoughts from our mind to our heart, which is vital for hearing his voice.

Many people find early mornings are conducive to this type of prayer.  We are fresher, less likely to be interrupted, and more receptive to things of the Spirit.  Many people’s brains don’t fully wake up until mid-morning, which can be a definite advantage in this type of prayer!

God usually speaks in a gentle whisper,[xi] which is easily extinguished by the intrusion of our rational, analytical mind.  There is a place for our mind in this process, but listening to God is not it.  Doubt can also override God’s voice.[xii] We need to come in faith, believing that God can and will speak to us.

Listening to God.

It was a revelation for me to learn that God speaks mostly through spontaneous thoughts that we receive within our heart.  Occasionally he speaks in an audible voice, but this is not most people’s experience.  spontaneous adj. proceeding from a natural, personal impulse, without effort or pre-meditation.

Having quietened our body and our mind, we focus on Jesus, picturing him, perhaps asking him a question, and then listening for what he has to say to us.  His thoughts will just drop into our mind spontaneously, without any help from our thought processes.  We must relax and not force the issue.  Let him do it.  If we try to squeeze out something that is not there, the result will be our thoughts and not his.

If rubbish comes into our mind, we know that Satan is trying to intrude, so we can tell him to get lost in the name of Jesus![xiii] Then refocus on Jesus.  If we want to hear from him we must be completely yielded to him, with no agenda of our own.

Some people may be thinking of similarities with eastern religions, yoga, TM, spirit guides etc.  The approach may be similar but the goals are completely different.  Our goal is communion with God, which is a gift from God.  There are many counterfeits, but there are also safeguards to make sure we don’t venture into dangerous territory. (more later)

Words and pictures.

Hand in hand with the words from God are the pictures from God, mentioned in the Bible as dreams and visions.  These are not daydreams of our own making, but dreams or pictures generated by the Holy Spirit.

There is a solid Biblical precedent for this.[xiv] In the Old Testament the prophets, originally called seers, recorded the words and pictures they received from God for the people, and in the New Testament dreams and visions are linked with the movement of the Spirit in the last days.[xv]

God regularly uses visions to speak his words within our hearts.  These come as spontaneous, unsought inner pictures, where we may see Jesus and fellowship with him, and receive from him.  Whole chapters could be written on this, but space forbids.  We can simply present the eyes of our heart for him to enlighten and develop, so that we can see whatever he wants to show us.

A very helpful tool in this process is journaling.

Mark Virkler[xvi] calls it “the single greatest facilitator to my on-going communion with God.”  And the Rev. Graham Humphris, Synod General Secretary, claims that journaling has revolutionised his life.  In a very demanding and stressful work situation, journaling has been a real lifesaver as he shares his innermost thoughts with God and receives from him.  For Graham it involves reading the scriptures prayerfully, praying about what the Holy Spirit has drawn to his attention, then recording those thoughts and answers.  Some people find typing or speaking into a recorder more time-efficient.

We write out our prayers and God’s answers, which act as a diary of our spiritual journey and interaction with God.  Again there is a Biblical precedent.  The Psalms and the Prophets are full of people seeing or hearing from God and writing it down.  Likewise the book of Revelation.

Journaling is helpful in several ways.  For some it provides the key to actually hearing from God.  As we sit expectantly with pen poised, he speaks, and as we write it down he continues to speak until the flow of the Spirit stops.  This is when our rational mind comes into its own, as we read and test what we have been given.  It’s important not to do this while we are still hearing from God, as any doubt or judgement from us will stop the flow.  Writing it down keeps the promise alive and our faith strong as we read again later what we have written.  Journaling also preserves the integrity of what God is actually saying.  We may misinterpret the message, or change it subtly over time, like Chinese whispers.

It is vitally important to test what we have been given.[xvii]

Much damage has been caused by people who acted on what they mistakenly thought was from God.  Firstly we can check it against scripture.  In the early days it would be helpful to check out everything we’ve received with a trusted Christian friend, to verify that it is consistent with God.  Later, when we’re confident in recognising God’s voice, it will still be important to check out anything requiring major action.   As Christians we are in community, and we need to be accountable to others who will keep us on the right path.  No Lone Rangers here!

When we receive communication to our heart or spirit, there are three possible sources – God, ourselves, or Satan.  If it’s from ourselves it will be born in our own mind, of our own creation, a result of our own thinking, and probably fairly self- centred.

Thoughts from Satan will be intrusive, unsettling, destructive, negative, condemnatory and fearful.

Wisdom from God[xviii] will be instructive and upbuilding.  His thoughts are different from ours.  They are wiser, more merciful, discerning, concerned more with attitudes and motives, getting straight to the heart of the matter.  They may produce in us a sense of excitement, encouragement, faith, conviction, awe, and peace.  And they will be in line with scripture and the character of God.

Achieving the balance.

“Our capacity to hear and see on a spiritual level can be seen as the two primary spiritual senses used to interact with God.”[xix] This is a challenge to our 21st century rationalism, but for the Christian who longs to commune with God, it is the pearl of great price, worth perseverance and all that we have.  And God has promised, “you will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”[xx]

Many tasks, and every act of ministry, require both sides of us – our mind and our heart, the analytical and the intuitive.  Bible reading especially must be done with the mind and the spirit, so that the Spirit can work within us.  All our faculties must be yielded to God for his use – body and mind, left-brain, right-brain, heart and soul, spirit and imagination – if we are to fulfil our spiritual potential.  As we give ourselves to developing this area of prayer, the eyes of our heart will be enlightened and we will grow in communion with God.

My coverage of a complex topic like this is obviously quite superficial.  I have drawn heavily from Mark Virkler’s book, “Dialogue with God” and thoroughly recommend it to those who wish to go deeper.  It is available at our Christian bookshops, along with others that deal with the same subject.  I hope these notes from a fellow traveller will help you get started or continue on a journey that is brimming with rich possibilities.

[i] Intuition – direct perception of facts independent of reasoning process
[ii] 2 Corinthians 4:18
[iii] Psalm 42:1-2
[iv] John 14:26
[v] Mark 1:35
[vi] John 5:19,20, John 8:28
[vii] John 14:12
[viii] Ephesians 1:18
[ix] Mark 6:31, Matthew 6:6
[x] Psalm 46:10
[xi] 1 Kings 19:12
[xii] Hebrews 11:6
[xiii] James 4:7
[xiv] Isaiah 1:1, 6:1, Ezekiel 1:1, Jeremiah 1:11, Amos 1:1, Acts 7:55, 10:9-16
[xv] Acts 2:17
[xvi] Mark Virkler, ‘Dialogue with God’
[xvii] 1 Thess. 5:21; 1 John 4:1
[xviii] James 3:17
[xix] Mark Virkler, ‘Dialogue with God”
[xx] Jeremiah 29:13