Contemplative Life

SOUNDINGS: “Learning to Hear God”

This reflection is part of our Discernment: Hearing God in a Noisy World Series.  Discerning God’s unique voice is one of the most important skills for a Christian and is absolutely crucial for our intimacy with God and our ability to follow him.  Unfortunately, our world is engineered to prevent us from cultivating the skill of discernment.  Because of these realities, we will be offering a series of resources, reflections, and programs throughout the year to help all of us learn to better recognize and respond to God’s unique voice.  We hope you’ll join us along the way!

**This is the adapted transcript of a sermon given in 2016.  If you would prefer to listen to the audio from the sermon, you can do that HERE or by clicking on the image.**

To be a person of discernment is to be a person who has become adept at hearing God.  This is easier at some times than others!

Peter Marshall was one of the most acclaimed ministers in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century.  He was a great preacher and particularly well known for being the long-term chaplain of the United States Senate.  Dallas Willard tells a story about him in his book Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.  Marshall was Scottish, and he happened to be back in the United Kingdom:

One foggy, pitch-black Northumberland night, he was taking a shortcut across the moors in an area where there was a deep, deserted limestone quarry.  As he plodded blindly forward, an urgent voice called out, Peter!  He stopped and answered: “Yes, who is it?  What do you want?”  But there was no response.

Thinking he was mistaken, he took a few more steps.  The voice came again, even more urgently, Peter!  At this he stopped again and, trying to peer into the darkness, stumbled forward and fell to his knees.  Putting down his hand to brace himself, he found nothing there.  As he felt around in a semicircle he discovered that he was right on the brink of the abandoned quarry, where one step more would certainly have killed him.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could hear God clearly like that all the time?   Most of us would like that.  It would make hearing God a lot easier if, well, I could hear him like that.

If you’re reading this, here’s something I’m assuming about you.  You want to hear God.  You ask questions like, how can I know God’s will, or how can I know what God is saying to me?  While these might be some of our most vexing questions, they’re also just gorgeous, because they come from a true love for God, a real desire to do his will.

It’s probably also true, though, that this topic of hearing God is one that is characterized not only by longing, but also by confusion, and some really legitimate questions.  So let me ask a few of them:

  • How many of you have ever wondered, how can I tell the difference between God’s voice and my voice?
  • How many of you have ever wondered if a thought you had was God’s voice, or maybe some holdover voice from your own baggage?
  • How many of you have ever felt like God was saying something to you, but some other dominant voices in your life really disagreed, so it became confusing?
  • Have you ever heard the thought or even had it yourself that, well, God spoke in the Bible so anything you need to hear from him is found in his Word, and anything else is suspect?
  • Maybe you have been on the receiving end of a “God told me” statement and you weren’t so sure about it, but there was really no easy way to respond because you couldn’t disagree with God.
  • Have you ever heard someone else’s story about God speaking to him or her, and wished God would speak to you like that?
  • Have you ever had the thought, “Well, it wasn’t a burning bush, but it really seems like this is from God. How can I be sure?
  • How many of you have ever waited for a burning bush so you could be sure of what God said and that it was him who was saying it?  In other words, you were afraid to move until something phenomenal happened to confirm God’s will.
  • How many of you have ever received what you felt like was silence from God, and you weren’t sure what to make of that?  You asked, “Why isn’t God speaking to me? Why is he so silent?

Many of us can find ourselves in many of those questions.  It takes time to learn and to figure out how God speaks so that we can begin hearing his voice.

Being able to confidently hear God’s voice leads to a whole other relationship with God, so much more than merely a relationship characterized by master and servant.  Far better is the language of the relationship between a loving father and child.  Even better than that is the language of relationship that Jesus gave us in John 15:15.  “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

Taking these two images together, Dallas Willard writes, “The biblical record always presents the relationship between God and the believer as more like a friendship or family tie than like merely one person’s arranging to take care of the needs of another.

And there’s another sort of relationship that happens when we have learned how to hear God and make hearing his voice a lifestyle.  This is from Oswald Chambers:

Get into the habit of saying, “Speak, Lord” and life will become a romance (1 Samuel 3:9).  Every time circumstances press in on you, say, “Speak, Lord” and make time to listen… As we listen, our ears become more sensitive, and like Jesus, we will hear God all the time.

What a promise, a life with God like a romance!  And what an invitation–hearing God like Jesus.

So it’s worth taking the time to really dive into learning as much as we can about hearing God.  This is not so much for the sake of learning and the accumulation of knowledge but rather so that each of us can claim this promise all the more and live into that invitation.  If hearing God is confusing for us then we want to move past the confusion so that we can say yes to the invitation.

Dallas Willard opens his book with this conviction: “I continue to believe that people are meant to live in an ongoing conversation with God, speaking and being spoken to.”

From the back cover of Hearing God, “In this book, Dallas provides rich spiritual insight into how we can hear God’s voice clearly and develop an intimate partnership with him in the work of his kingdom.”   There is the link between prayer and action, between spiritual formation and the Kingdom.  We are learning to hear God’s voice so that we can partner with him for his kingdom work in the world.

There are so many good sections and insights in the book, and so much interaction with Scripture.  One of my favorite sections is where he goes through the six ways God spoke to people in the Bible. 

  • a phenomenon plus a voice (think the burning bush),
  • a supernatural messenger or an angel (think Gabriel to Mary),
  • dreams and visions (think Peter on the rooftop),
  • an audible voice (think Samuel),
  • the human voice (think Moses to Pharaoh), and
  • the human spirit or still small voice (think Paul who speaks of us having the mind of Christ). 

Of this list of six ways that God speaks to people in the Bible, here’s the line from Willard that I love. It’s so encouraging:

Perhaps the first thing to say [about this list] is that there is no foundation in Scripture, in reason, or in the very nature of things why any or all of these types of experience might not be used by God today [emphasis in original]. 

In other words, Willard is saying of those six ways that were just listed, there is no reason to believe that none of them can happen today.  In fact, there is every reason to believe that they can.  And God speaking in those ways in the Scripture demonstrates to us ways that he is able to speak, and there is no reason to think that he doesn’t do that anymore.  Isn’t that exciting?  There are ways that God can speak to us, and he uses a lot of them.

There are a couple of huge basic affirmations here:

  • God speaks.
  • God still speaks.
  • He has spoken in a lot of different ways.
  • God speaks in a lot of different ways.

Considering these affirmations, we sometimes find it hard to hear God because we expect that he’ll speak in one way and listen very intently for that tone of voice or that way of communication, when in fact he may be speaking to us in another way.  Because we’re practicing selective listening, we don’t hear him, and we might be tempted to think he’s not speaking, even when he is!

A dear friend of John Yates’ and mine was once involved in a serious dating relationship that was moving with lightning speed toward marriage, but neither of us knew about this relationship until after it had broken up.  I was close enough to this person to share that I was surprised that we hadn’t heard about it, so I asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?”  And he said, “Because I knew what you guys would say!”  Had he come to John and me about the wisdom of this relationship, we might have been able to share our concerns.  But he didn’t want to hear those concerns, so he closed himself off to one way God could have spoken to him.  Sometimes we don’t hear God because we expect him to speak in one way, when he is actually speaking in another.

As we continue to dive more deeply into how we hear God, we want to start with some basic truths and fundamental principles, and let one of the most beloved stories in the Old Testament give them to us, the story of Eli and Samuel found in 1 Samuel 3.  (You may want to pause reading this article here and read that chapter)

The context is that Israel has been through the Exodus and the wilderness, and has inherited the Promised Land.  They were governed for a long season by judges, and the last judge, Samuel, enters the scene now as a little boy.

 Samuel had an unusual birth.  He was the direct answer to his mother’s prayer and was given in service to God.  So he grew up in Shiloh near the tabernacle, the precursor to the temple, where God’s presence dwelt, and he was raised by the priest, Eli.

After some years recounted in 1 Samuel 2, chapter 3:1 picks up the story.  “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli.  And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.”

But then God breaks his silence and speaks audibly to Samuel, now a young man, who is in the temple.  Samuel thinks it’s Eli, so he runs to Eli, says “Here I am,” and Eli says “I didn’t call you.  Go back to sleep.”  The same thing happens again.  Finally, a third time, God calls again, Samuel runs to Eli again, and Eli finally understands that it’s God’s voice calling Samuel, and Eli says something different this time, beginning in verse 9:

Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’”  So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”  And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.”  Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle.”

From this story of hearing God’s voice we can learn a lot about hearing God’s voice, and here are some of them.

  1. There is variation in the amount that God speaks (1 Samuel 3:1).  “And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.”  There had been times when the word of God wasn’t so rare, when there was a frequency of vision.
  2. There is such a thing as faithfully following God without knowing him.  This is the difference between our faith in God and our relationship with God.  You see in 1 Samuel 3:7, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”  That’s interesting because in chapter 2:18 “Samuel was ministering before the Lord”; verse 21, “Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord”; verse 26, “Now the young man Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man”; then chapter 3:3, “Samuel was lying down in the temple.”  All that to say, it’s very interesting that there is such a distinction between serving God and knowing God.
  3. Being in the presence and the place of God is a good place to hear God.  It was in the tabernacle that God spoke to him (1 Samuel 3:3).  “Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.”  It’s not the only place that you can hear God, obviously, but I will say being in church is a great place to hear God, with the presence of his people and the presence of his praise, the presence of his Spirit together.  Being where God is is a great place to hear God.
  4. God knows us by name.  We heard it in that story of Peter Marshall; we heard it in the story of Samuel.  Verse 4, “the Lord called Samuel, and he said ‘Here I am.’” Verse 6, “the Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’” Verse 8, “the Lord called Samuel again.”  And then in verse 10, “the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times [not once, but now twice], ‘Samuel! Samuel!’”  A direct implication of the fact that God knows our name is this:  that God wants a unique relationship with us.
    The God who knows your name knows you and wants a unique relationship with you.   Again, from Dallas Willard:  “We might well ask, ‘How could there be a personal relationship, a personal walk with God—or with anyone else—without individualized communication?’”
  5. Sometimes others don’t hear the voice we’re hearing.  We don’t get out of this passage that Eli was hearing the same voice.  Samuel was hearing the voice, going and reporting it to Eli.
  6. At the same time, sometimes we need others to confirm that it is, indeed, God’s voice to us (1 Samuel 3:8, 18).  This is where Samuel gets some real help from Eli.  It finally dawns on Eli: “Wait a second.  This isn’t my voice, but he’s clearly hearing a voice.  He must be hearing God’s voice.”  And Eli gives him something simple to do.  So the ministry of folks who are farther along in their spiritual journey and can help us hear God’s voice becomes really important in our own development.  I’m thinking of “older and wisers,” or the ministry of spiritual direction, a particular ministry that is designed to help a person listen to God.
  7. Then there’s the appropriate response when we wonder if God is calling us (vv 4, 6, and 8), which is to say, “Here I am, for you called me.”  I love that as a response when we are not sure what the voice is, when we are not sure what’s going on, when we’re not sure what God is saying or if God is saying anything.  It’s just wonderful to throw open our hands and say, “Well, here I am, for you called me,” and see what the Lord does.
  8. Then there is the quintessential response to God’s voice.  “Speak Lord, for your servant listens” (1 Sam 3:9, 10).  This is the fundamental requirement for hearing God: listening.  It’s kind of obvious, of course, because if we’re not listening we can’t hear, just like in any other conversation, in any other relationship.  If we are not listening, we cannot hear what the other person is saying.
    We’ve all been on the receiving end of those conversations— when someone just keeps on talking, and you try to get a word in edgewise, but it’s clear that they are not paying attention to you.  They would have a hard time hearing what we would have to say because they were unable to listen.  It works the exact same way in our relationship with God.  Something I learned a long time ago is that if you want to get some really good clues as to how our relationship with God works, study how actual human relationships work.  We’ve been given them as insight into how relationships work, and a lot of those lessons translate over into our relationship with God.
    God is quite happy to be on the receiving end of our continual monologue, of our anxieties, of our concerns, of our petitions, even our praises.  Why?  Because he’s patient, gentle, gracious, and merciful.  But he really loves it when we stop talking and we say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant listens,” and when we create space to be able to hear what it is he is wanting to say to us.
    Consider the life of Jesus who again, and again, and again went off into a desolate place or withdrew into a quiet place by himself to pray.  We see that all throughout the book of Luke.  Jesus is constantly pulling away in order to be in relationship with his Father, to be in conversation with his Father (e.g., Luke 4:42; 5:16 and SO many other places).  The best definition of prayer that I’ve been able to come up with so far is this:
    Prayer is a conversation with God as if he is actually there, because he is there!
  9. Back to Samuel.  As we listen, God speaks (1 Sam 3:11-14).  It is a word of judgment on Eli and his house because Eli’s sons, also priests, were blaspheming God, and Eli as the chief priest knew about it and didn’t stop them.  Not only can God speak, he can speak quite specifically.
  10. And God’s word to us isn’t always about us!  Sometimes God wants to say something to us for somebody else.
  11. God’s word can lead us into uncomfortable situations (1 Sam 3:15).  The Lord speaks to Samuel something very sobering, some very bad news for his mentor.  “Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord.  And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.”
  12. God’s word is verified by its coming to pass.  In chapter 4, we see that what God spoke to Samuel is exactly what happened.  Israel went out to battle against the Philistines.  They not only lost, but they lost the ark of the covenant to the Philistines—a national catastrophe—and Eli’s two sons were killed.  One of the best ways to know whether or not something is actually a word from God is, of course, in retrospect.  Did it happen?  Because God’s words always happen.  It’s in their nature.  That word of God to Samuel came true, because God’s words come true.  We see this in verses 19 and 20 of chapter 3.
  13. God’s call and word to us is broadly recognized by others (1 Samuel 3:19-20).  That’s another way we can know if it is God speaking to us.  “And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord.”  The word of God to Samuel came true, as did all the rest of them, and God’s word through Samuel was broadly recognized by others, just as it is often in our case, as well.
  14. What would it look like if you really prioritized learning to hear God and become familiar with his voice to you over these next several weeks?  We will be offering both a Reading Group and an Online Seminar on Willard’s Hearing God, and we have created a helpful Resource Collection on Discernment we hope will be a blessing to you.  Those might be good places to start.  At the end of the day, though, we really just want you to consider how your life might change as you seek to move deeper in your relationship with God…

From a master and servant…

To a loving father and a beloved son or daughter…

From a cherished friendship… 

To a thrilling romance.

On the Journey,

SOUNDINGS” posts consider topics that are important for our society, for the Church, and for our own spiritual journeys.  To ‘take a sounding’ is a nautical term about using depth to determine where you are and where you’re going.  These writings are designed to do just that.  Please share this post with friends you think might appreciate it.  If you would like to get SOUNDINGS posts from me sent directly to your inbox, click here.
Share this post

Keep Growing

Do you want robust Spiritual Formation resources delivered straight to your inbox each week?

We have received a generous $50K matching donation! Give by June 30th to Double Your Impact