What Does It Mean to ‘Hear God’?

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Yesterday, I began a series of posts about hearing God with the question, “Does God Speak Today.” Today, I want to continue that theme by asking a second, but related question.

If God speaks, how does He speak? And what does it mean to “hear God”?

The various ways God speaks[1]

Dallas Willard outlines six ways Scripture tells us that God speaks. I want to take a moment to simply outline those, and then connect that with hearing from God:

  1. Phenomenon plus voice: There is a recognizable sense experience that accompanies a voice. When Moses hears God’s voice at the burning bush serves as the most recognizable example of this type of revelation (Exod 3:3-6). Other examples are God’s word to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai that was accompanied by lightning and earthquakes (Deut 5:23), or the bright light that accompanied God’s voice at Paul’s Damascus road conversion (Acts 9:3-8).
  2. Supernatural messenger or angel: There is a divine messenger from God who brings a word from God. Think of Mary hearing God’s message from the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38) or Joshua encountering the angel of the Lord before the Fall of Jericho (Josh 5:13-15). There are countless examples of this angelic messenger coming to people to give God’s message.[2]
  3. Dreams and visions: Some of us have heard stories of Muslims who experience dreams and visions that lead them to faith in Jesus. This idea appears in Scripture, whether in Paul’s nighttime vision of a man compelling him to change course in his missionary journey to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:9) or Peter’s rooftop vision of a sheet filled with unclean animals that brings a message about Gentile inclusion in the church (Acts 9:10-13).
  4. Audible, but disembodied, voice: Think with me of the young man, Samuel, who is awakened in the night by a voice calling his name, “Samuel” (1 Sam 1:3-4). Thinking it is the priest Eli, who he serves, Samuel runs to Eli. But it is only after a few occurrences that Eli realizes it is God speaking to Samuel. The response Eli encourages him to offer has become paradigmatic for those wanting to hear from God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (3:9). No physical presence, yet God’s voice is clearly heard.
  5. The human voice: “No means of communication between God and humankind is more commonly used in the Bible or the history of the church than the voice of a specific individual human being.”[3] In this way, God speaks to a person and also through a person. Thus, God spoke to and through the prophets. God spoke to and through Moses. God spoke to and through the Apostle Paul. A human voice is used as a conduit for God’s word. We speak of this today when someone brings us back to God’s word in one way or another in our lives.
  6. The “human spirit,” or “still small voice”: Lastly, God can speak through the human spirit, or the still small voice. Unlike the other means, which come from outside of a person, this final way that God addresses comes into our spirits – “our own thoughts and feelings, toward ourselves as well as toward events and people around us.”[4] This is what the Apostle Paul is describing when he says in 1 Corinthians 2, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11). Within our spirit our deepest thoughts are found. Within God’s Spirit God’s deepest thoughts are found. God communicates with us in this deepest place and we listen for it. The invitation at the end of Psalm 139 describes the invitation of hearing from God in our spirits by His spirit: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

Of the six ways that God speaks, Willard says that these last two – God speaking through a human voice and God speaking into our spirits are the “most important ways God speaks to us” because they are “most suited to his presence in our lives as a close personal friend” and “to the development of our personalities into his likeness.”[5] They engage us personally and rationally. When God speaks through another human it is the preeminent objective way that God speaks because it comes from outside of us and is most clearly understandable in ways that dreams and visions, supernatural phenomena, or angels are not. God speaking into our spirits with His still small voice is the preeminent subjective way that God speaks because it comes from within us and addresses us in the most personal way possible.

Often when we talk about hearing God speak in this way, the immediate concern many have is how all of this relates to the Bible. So let me just address that concern very succinctly.

We believe God speaks.

We agree that the preeminent objective mode of God speaking is through a human voice.

The highest encounter we have with this is Jesus, who is the Word of God incarnate. He is the ultimate word of God.

On the one hand, the Bible is the record of God speaking through human voices.

On the other hand, the Bible has authority derived directly from the inspiration of God in a way that no other record of God’s Word.

When we talk of God speaking and humans hearing, all of this is subject to the authority and guidance of Bible as God’s one-of-a-kind written word. The Bible derives its authority and guidance from the God who speaks. This is how Paul describes this reality to a young pastor, Timothy:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

Let me be as clear and specific as I can be. Any “word from God” that we sense we receive should be tested against the trustworthy guidance and authority of the Bible. If the “word from God” contradicts the Bible, then it is not a word from God. Either we have misheard it, misunderstood it, or mis-assigned it to God (i.e., is coming from another source than God).

 


[1] This section is drawn from Dallas Willard, In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 92-105. That book was later republished as Hearing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999, 2012).

[2] Willard lists Balaam (Numbers 22:22-35), Gideon (Judges 6:11-24), the parents of Samson (Judges 13), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:6-13), Daniel (Daniel 9:20-27), Joseph (Matthew 1:20-25), Zechariah (Luke 1:11-20), Mary (Luke 1:26-38), the women at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:2-5), Peter (Acts 5:19-20), and Paul (Acts 23:11; 27:23-24).

[3] Willard, In Search of Guidance, 97.

[4] Willard, In Search of Guidance, 101-102.

[5] Willard, In Search of Guidance, 97.

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