One question people often ask ministers is how to recognize God’s voice.
Maybe they’re trying to decide whether they should change careers in midstream. Or debating whether to continue a potentially life-saving medical treatment that’s exhausted them physically or financially. Or trying to discern whether to enter a religious vocation.
After nearly 40 years in the ministry, I still don’t know any foolproof way of hearing the Lord’s voice. Wherever there’s a fool — and we’re all fools — there’s a way to foul it up.
But I do think there are things we all can do to the make our reception of God’s words clearer. Here are some of those things:
1. Be open. Believe God wants to talk to you. Remember there are many ways to hear. St. Paul said there’s only one Spirit, but a variety of effects. Each person is different, so God may talk to each of us differently. Don’t try to dictate how God must speak.
2. To the extent you’re able, try to have no will of your own in the matter. Yield. Say, “I’ll do whatever you say, or else do nothing if that’s your preference. I only want to know what’s best.”
3. Pay attention to a tiny, nearly inaudible voice. There’s a passage in the Hebrew Bible where the prophet Elijah waits to hear from God in a rock-smashing whirlwind. Nothing. And then in an earthquake. Nothing. And then in a fire. Nothing. When the word of God finally comes, it’s “a still, small voice.”
We expect God to make the dramatic, grand gesture — to skywrite our answer in red smoke, attended by lightning bolts and angels’ hosannas. Way more often, he whispers in our ear. His voice is an impression, an unction, a strong hunch.
4. Consider the circumstances. God frequently uses them. If you think God’s told you to play in the NBA, but you’re only 5-foot-4, weigh 100 pounds, couldn’t make your high school’s junior varsity team and can’t jump over a shoebox — then that’s probably not God’s voice you’re hearing.
If you feel God is calling you to uproot your family and move to Denver, and you’ve never considered living there before, and yet, out of the blue, two different corporate headhunters email to ask if you’d be interested in great job openings in Denver — pay attention.
5. Seek out wiser people. Sometimes others identify our strengths, weaknesses and potential better than we do. Get the opinions of level-headed, experienced friends who have your interests at heart and will be honest with you.
God uses good counselors to enable us to see ourselves, and him, more clearly. They help us find options we hadn’t considered. They also may point out areas in which we tend to delude ourselves and make the same mistakes again and again.
6. Pray. One definition of prayer is “to interview God.” I like that. As a former news reporter, I know that what the interviewee has to say is always more important than what the reporter has to say. You, the reporter, ask questions, then shut up and listen. And you write down what the interviewee says.
When looking for divine guidance, it helps to ask God what he thinks — then shut up and listen. And listen some more. And write down what you hear so you don’t forget it.
7. Study the Scriptures. Regardless of what you believe about the Bible’s inspiration, it certainly contains reams of ancient wisdom and revelation that have guided men and women for thousands of years.
The more of it you know, the wiser you become. Yes, there are exceptions — people who can quote the Bible cover to cover and yet remain morons. But generally, the better you know the Bible, the better you recognize the Lord, his ways and his voice.
8. Depend on the Holy Spirit. If you’re not a practicing Christian, feel free to skip this point, no harm, no foul. But if you’re a Christian, you believe you’re indwelled by the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. You’ve got a piece of God himself right down in your soul, guiding and teaching and leading you 24/7. Trust he’ll move you in the right direction.
9. Note where your peace is. Mystics maintain that the path of God is the path of peace, particularly the path of inner peace. The closer we get to God’s will, the more peace we feel, even when the outward circumstances still look uncertain. There’s a peace that surpasses all understanding.
If you somehow know you’re headed where you’re supposed to go, and you’re fine with whatever the outcome may be, that’s an especially good sign.
10. Confirm everything by multiple witnesses. This is important. Don’t just look for one of the above confirmations. Look for two or three.
If you’ve heard a still, small voice, and then circumstances surprisingly fall into place, and next you realize you’ve got an uncanny peace about the situation that defies your usual fretfulness — congratulations, you’ve probably heard from God.