Hearing Christ speak is supposed to be a normal, everyday occurrence for Christians. In John 10, Jesus says over and over, “My sheep hear my voice.” (v 3, 4, 16) He expects us to hear so often that we recognize his voice and are protected from voices that are not his (v 3–4).
Yet somehow, we have developed the faulty notion that we are safer if we don’t try to hear at all. “Stay away from anything subjective” most Christians say.
But Jesus said the opposite. He said, “the sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice.” Not only that, unity develops as we all listen well to the shepherd . . . “they will hear my voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.” (v 16)
Like with all spiritual gifts, as well as with Christian character, learning to hear God’s voice develops with godly use. Here are a few hints to get you started.
1. God has already been speaking to you — you just didn’t recognize it was him.
Awareness is the foundation of being led by God. Remember little Samuel? God actually called him in an audible voice, but he didn’t hear the rest of the message until he realized it was actually God speaking. Then he paused to pay attention, “Speak Lord. Your servant is listening.” (I Samuel 3:7–11)
It is very rare that God speaks to anyone audibly (though he is free to do whatever he wants). However, he very often speaks by putting spontaneous thoughts in our minds. Our task is to learn to distinguish which thoughts are from him.
2. Dialogue with him via the Bible.
God’s goal is relationship. That is the whole reason he created the world. He loves us; he wants to commune with us. Let’s focus on him when we come to the Bible. Rather than always analyzing what we read, let’s ask him, “What are you saying to me today?” Rather than saying a prayer before and after our reading, we can dialogue with him throughout.
3. Steward what you hear
Remember the principle of Matthew 25:23—faithful in little, ruler over much. The idea is that if we are good stewards of what we have, God gives us more. Very often he gives us things in seed form. The Bible uses many images for this: a farmer sowing, a builder setting a foundation, a body growing. We need to be careful we don’t leave God’s precious seed forgotten and uncultivated.
How do we do steward what we’ve been given? First, we need to find a way to remember what he says. One way to do that is to write it in a journal. Some people put a note in the margin of their Bible. Whatever method we use, the idea is to keep track of things God highlights to us and periodically return to them in prayer.
Secondly, we need to obey. If we have not obeyed the first word from God, he is unlikely to give us another one. We do not have the right to pick and choose. In fact, Jesus said it was only those who were already planning to do his will who would recognize the truth (John 7:17). Surrender to God is the prerequisite to hearing his voice.
Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” It is only through practice that we develop discernment. Sometimes we want to wait to listen for God until we can be sure we will never make a mistake. That would be like refusing to try skating until you knew you could do a triple Lutz. We will always need to lean on God for discernment.
At this point, let me digress a little to deal with something that troubles some people. In the Old Testament any prophetic error was liable for capital punishment—stoning, no less. Under the Old Covenant, God’s Spirit came upon a prophet from the outside and for a specific purpose. If their words weren’t true, it was not because of error but because of deliberate deception.
However, under the New Covenant, God puts his Spirit within us to commune with us moment by moment. His interconnectedness with us is the basis for a whole new kind of relationship . . . but it also means our humanness can muddy the waters. We can (and will) make mistakes. We are no longer subject to stoning but we also shouldn’t make any “Thus says the Lord” pronouncements.
That is why Paul carefully gives both sides of the equation, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything.”(1 Thess. 5: 20–21a). Once we’ve tested, we can “hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21b). What is prophesy? It is to hear or see or feel what God is saying or doing, and then to speak or act on that.
In my next blog, I’ll share more thoughts on how to test what we’ve heard, and a personal story on how I listened to God’s voice . . . when the stakes were high.