How does God speak to us? This is a question I’ve pondered for years, despite my strong belief in God, years of Christian service and many experiences of God being present and active in my life. Perhaps it is a lust and desire for a more mystical experience that I hear other Christians testifying to, or the guilt of not spending enough time praying and meditating on Scripture. Or maybe God has spoken to me, but due to my stubbornness and foolishness I’ve ignored Him.
I am not alone in these sentiments. From church retreats to casual social gatherings, I hear a desire and often frustration from even the most dedicated believers of the lack of connection they have with God. Whether it is a hunger and thirst for righteousness that Jesus blesses in the Sermon on the Mount, or a desire for a spiritual experience to brag about, so many Christians that I have encountered feel as if God has never spoken to them. If He did, they wouldn’t have noticed.
In the book Hearing God – Developing A Conversational Relationship With God, the late Christian theologian Dallas Willard explored many of the frustrations and confusions about hearing from God. Willard told a story of an older woman who had a deep interactive relationship with God, but for some reason did not believe God was actually speaking with her. He used the story to argue that many Christians who are deeply connected with God never feel as if they hear His voice, because they have a certain expectation as to what God’s voice would look and sound like. Willard responded to these sentiments by first pointing out that God speaks to people in various ways and forms, pointing out how God spoke to His children in different ways in the Bible. He also asserted that many people seek to hear God’s voice in a particular way for selfish reasons, in order to obtain their own safety, security and sense of being righteous. Willard further noted that such motives do not invite us into an interactive relationship with God.
Willard’s analysis is both comforting and convicting because it reminds us of how God speaks to people in various ways. Furthermore, Hearing God challenges the selfish desires that many Christians have in wanting to hear God’s voice, including the longing to predict the future and the craving to feel more “righteous” than others.
There is certainly value in hearing from God, and with a strong and committed relationship with Him, we will hear His voice. Yet, it is essential that we earnestly seek his power, presence and prevalence over our lives and that we understand what is required of us to draw close to Him. Below are three things that we must understand about hearing from God.
Seek God through prayer and Scripture
To hear God, one must actively seek Him through prayer, Scripture and intentional community. Reading the Bible, as author Ruth Haley Barton suggests, is like reading a love letter that God wrote to us. Neglecting the study and meditation of Scriptures is rejecting a key component of God’s communication. When it comes to prayer, we are able to be in constant dialogue with God, sharing our praises and confessions, our laments and our supplications. Finally, being in intentional community with other believers provides a space for mutual encouragement and the execution of spiritual gifts for upliftment.
Recognize the different ways God speaks
God speaks to us in different and distinct ways—from sermons and testimonies, to dreams and life-altering experiences. One of the most notable ways I heard God speaking to me is through a book, The Flinch. Although it’s not a theological book, The Flinch convicted me on my lack of compassion and service for a brother in my community who was demonized by others. It is essential that our eyes, ears, and hearts are open to how God speaks to us, because they are often different and distinct from how others experience God and they may also vary from time to time. God is not confined to a box and nor is He limited. To truly experience His presence, we must recognize the many ways He speaks and proceed by listening intently.
Remove false expectations
Stories are powerful in serving as inspiration and encouragement for both Christians and seekers who are wanting to know God. Yet I have found that too often, the stories that highlight one’s encounter with God has caused some envy within me and bred within me a false expectation of having a replicated experience to share with others. As a result, my prayers have been fueled with vicious vanity and strident selfish ambition, for the purpose of having a “high” spiritual experience rather than genuinely seeking God more intimately. Vanity and selfish ambition are some of the biggest threats and roadblocks to building an authentic relationship with God and it is essential to remove any false expectation of an enlightened spiritual experience that will breed such behavior. This is not to say that deep spiritual experiences are false, quite the contrary. God has spoken to people through such experiences, both in Bible times and in modern days. The problem is when a vain lust of a deep spiritual experience is disguised as a genuine pursuit for God.
Hearing God provides true value and enrichment in life, but it is important that we are constantly seeking Him daily and embracing His wonderful grace. Like any relationship, vulnerability and constant conversation is necessary to create genuine depth. If you are angry with God and dealing with real pain, you should lament in His presence, and be vulnerable with fellow believers about the struggles you are coping with. Furthermore, you must make critical time for God and community. There is no growth or connection with God if your busy schedule keeps you from investing in the relationship. Seek and pursue God and He will speak and reveal things to you.
Jonathan Holmes is a Christian who has advocated for racial justice in Chicago for over two years. He has written about the intersection of race, class and Christian faith for multiple magazines and is an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction. Follow Jonathan on LinkedIn.