Through the past two blog posts , I have held up a vision of the God who speaks in various ways and we as His people hearing from Him. That is the vision I want to put in front of us. The prophets heard from God, and their hearing is unique from ours as authoritative Scripture. However, their hearing is not unique from ours in that the Bible tells us the people of God will relate to God as He speaks and we respond.
So, how do we move from the vision of what this is into the reality of hearing God in our everyday lives? Let me suggest a few ways.
Cultivating relationship with God
While it is possible that God will interrupt our lives when we are not looking for Him, I believe the ordinary and regular way that God speaks to us in the context of an ongoing intimate relationship with Him that is cultivated day after day.
In Scripture, we encounter strong relational metaphors for God and His people
- Parent –child relationship (“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” – Hosea 1:1)
- Spousal relationship (“‘In that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘you will call me “my husband”; you will no longer call me “my master”’” – Hosea 2:16)
- Friend relationship (“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” – John 15:15)
It is within this ongoing relationship with God that we learn to hear His voice.
And so, if we really want to hear the voice of God, we must do whatever it takes to draw near to God, to become familiar with who God is, to read Scripture and pray, to gather in worship and meet with others who are like-minded, so that we might build relationship with God and become more familiar and comfortable in His presence. The more we are with Him, the more likely we are to hear His voice. The less likely we are with Him, the less likely we are to hear His voice.
The words of the prophet Jeremiah have been helpful for me in this way:
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)
So of primary importance in hearing God is knowing God, and cultivating relationship with Him.
Learning to Listen
Second, I would suggest we need to learn how to listen for God. When you want to ride a bike, you have to learn how to do it. I still remember my parents and my older brother helping me learn to ride a bike with training wheels and eventually getting a new bike. I still remember teaching my own children how to ride a bike.
If we have to learn how to ride a bike, and we experience some bumps along the way, how much more should we expect that we need to learn how to hear God? Let me suggest four practices that I think will help us cultivate a listening relationship with God
- Read Scripture slowly and reflect upon it: If we want to hear from God, then the easiest place to begin is with the Bible. Since we know the Bible is trustworthy and authoritative, we can readily learn to know the character of God and the quality of His voice by reading the Bible. However, let me make one qualification about this. We need to not only read the Bible, but reflect upon the Bible. Many times we read the words of Scripture, but do not let them really trickle down into our lives. We need to slow down and prayerfully read Scripture, pondering the truths into our souls. The longest of the psalms, Psalm 119, is an extended reflection upon the power of the Scripture to shape, guide, correct, and enlighten our lives. We need to let it have its way in us. When reading Scripture, if we want to hear from God, we should read a passage, then take time to read it again, reflect upon it, and let it shape us. If you like to write, you may want to journal about it. If you are a verbal processor, you may want to talk with a good friend about what you are hearing. When we approach Scripture, we should ask, “what does this mean?” But the Scripture has not had its work in us until we ask the next question, “what is God speaking to me personally in this?”
- Take time in silence and solitude with God: Think about Peter in Acts 10. Three times God gives him a word with a vision about the inclusion of the Gentiles. Peter was on the roof in the middle of the day. He was undistracted by others and by the hustle & bustle of life so that he could be attentive to God. Without silence and solitude we will not hear the voice of God. It would be like every time you wanted to talk to your best friend or spouse you turned on the television, the radio, and the blender all at the same time. If you really want to have a conversation you need focus and attention. Few things help us with this more than silence and solitude with God.
- Talk with God through your day: The first two practices, reflective reading of Scripture and solitude/silence, must happen at a set time and in some place. But this third practice leads us to learn how to hear from God all times and all places. In his letter to the believers in Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul instructs them to “pray continually” or “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17, NIV and NASB). The life of hearing God must continue into our lives beyond set times and places. Some of the best guides on this are two men from vastly different times: Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk, and Frank Laubach, a 20th century missionary and worldwide ambassador for literacy. Both of these men learned how to cultivate everyday conversation with God, both speaking and hearing. I would encourage you to read their books, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and Laubach’s Letters by a Modern Mystic and Games with Minutes. Hearing God does not mean we withdraw from life but that we engage in life with God. We can begin to converse with God in the midst of our activities, work , and other conversations. Let me use an example from my own life. Not too long ago, I was was in a long planning meeting with others, trying to work together to come toward a strategic plan for an initiative. My first inclination, if I am honest, was to present my best thoughts and hear others’ thoughts so that we can figure this out together at a purely human level. Unintentionally, this was largely a work on the horizontal plane of human relationships and strategies. About two hours into the meeting, I began to realize that what we most needed was to hear from God. What was God speaking to me and to others in that meeting? What was it we most needed? I began to talk a little less, and listen a little more, both to God and to everyone there. I found the surging of my own desire to be heard and my own longing for people to hear and agree with my points began to settle down. I began to ask God, what it was He wanted to do. The heavens did not rip open and neither did an angel open the door to the meeting room, but I did sense that God was stirring us into a specific direction for the conclusion of that meeting and next steps. I sensed I could join in with God in that as I tried to listen to Him while engaging in the conversation.
- Obey what you hear: Finally, let me urge us to the simple practice of obedience to what you hear. The reason God speaks to us is to draw us close relationally, but also to draw us deeper into the life He has for us. One important practice for us is to obey what we hear God speak. The Apostle James describes how important this is in his letter to the early church. He writes: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:22-25). When you hear God speak, obey it. If it is a dramatic thing, ask God for confirmation in His word, through wise counsel, or through your circumstances. But whatever you do, do not fail to do what God speaks into your life. The more we fail to obey, the less likely we are to hear God in our lives. First, we will stuff our ears and dull our hearts through disobedience. Second, He will not entrust us with a word, but will take it and give it to another. The word given is a word to be responded to. Hearing God means obeying God.
Now, one of the saddest moments of my young life in bike riding came shortly after I learned to ride and was given a new bike for my birthday. I was turning from the steep slope of our driveway to the sidewalk in front of our house, and I completely wiped out. The new bike had a few scrapes on it, as did my elbows and knees. Now, I had a decision at that moment: should I give up bike riding forever or should I dust myself off, get on the bike, and keep learning how to ride? Thankfully, I took the latter course, eventually, learning to ride smoothly. As time went on, I learned how to ride with no hands and do some simple tricks on my bike to impress my friends in grade school.
If we have to learn how to listen to God, should we not also expect that there will be bumps along the way? When those moments arise – when we don’t hear correctly, or we’re not sure if it’s us or God, or when we get confused in one way or another – we have a decision: will I give up on developing a conversational relationship with God or will I confess my confusion or failure and try to keep learning? I hope you’ll choose the latter route so that as God speaks to us His people, we will have ears to hear, and lives ready to walk with God wherever He calls us. We may not end up looking like Hosea or Jeremiah, but we will become more truly ourselves as we step more deeply into the adventure of life with God.