Listening to God’s voice

There is a lot of superstition doing the round as to what it means to listen to God’s voice. It is not at all unusual to find people talking about ‘listening to God’ and generally meaning something akin to sitting in silence waiting for something utterly unclear to happen. It is like some sort of synergistic meditation-cum-prayer that owes more to Buddhist philosophy than anything we might read in the Bible.

Tim Keller, in his book on prayer, makes the whole issue incredibly simple for us:

Prayer… is a response to the knowledge of God, but it works itself out at two levels. At one level, prayer is a human instinct to reach out for help based on a very general and unfocused sense of God. It is an effort to communicate, but it cannot be a real conversation because the knowledge of God is too vague. At another level, prayer can be a spiritual gift. Christians believe that through the scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit, our understanding of God can become unclouded. The moment we were born again by the Spirit through faith in Christ (John 1:12-13; 3:5), the Spirit shows us that we are not simply God’s subjects but also his children, and we can converse with him as our Father (Gal 4:5-6).

The knowledge of God for instinctive prayer comes intuitively and generally through nature (Rom 1:20). What Christians know about God comes with verbal specificity through the words of scripture and its main message – the gospel. In the Bible, God’s living Word, we can hear God speaking to us and we respond in prayer, though we should not call this simply a “response”. Through the Word and Spirit, prayer becomes answering God – a full conversation.

There it is in a nutshell. God speaks to us generally, through nature, and specifically, through his Word of which he grants understanding by the Spirit. We speak to God in prayer. This is a response to what we read in his Word and also an instinctive calling out to God through which we are driven back to his Word again to hear him speak to us afresh.

The mystical concept of ‘listening to God in prayer’ is, therefore, something of a category mistake. Prayer is our speaking to God. We don’t listen to God in prayer, we speak to him. Likewise, God doesn’t speak to us in prayer – that is the means by which he hears us speaking to him – he speaks to us through the Word.

There really is no need to sit in mystical silence and wait for some audible voice or random thought to pop into your mind. Nor, if you are doing such things, do you need to wrestle with questions of whether that was, indeed, the Lord speaking to you or if the burrito you had for lunch is playing havoc with your digestive system.

If you want to hear the voice of God, open up your Bible. If you want to respond to God’s voice, get down on your knees and pray. That is the means of conversation with God.

 

2 comments

  1. Hi Stephen! I believe God talks to us in many ways, but he certainly talks to me directly during times of prayer. So I feel it’s important to point that out, as I know others experience this as well. Here’s how I described this experience in a recent article on my blog:

    God is capable of producing in human beings a mode of mind that is like a veil – it prevents us being aware of Him. He is also able to reveal Himself to the human mind, by speaking directly to it in a mode similar to but distinct from contemplative thought. It is God who makes thoughts arise in our minds, both contemplative thoughts, and those thoughts that are His speech to us. We can experience thoughts that are ours, and others that are God’s. They are similar, but distinct, and all are from God.

    As well as speaking to us directly, God also reveals Himself in visions, dreams, and Scriptures. For those to whom God has granted insight, the wonder and harmony of creation is further evidence of His existence and His nature.

    I hope that makes some kind of sense. God bless you and thanks for writing on a subject that confuses may!

    Steven

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    1. Clearly God is capable of speaking to us however he wants. It is also true that God is sovereign over all things, including our thoughts. This is true even to the point that we only pray because God has moved us to pray in the first instance.

      I guess my questions would be as follows:
      1. How do you distinguish between the thoughts of your own minds and those you have determined as from God?
      2. Where, in scripture, do you see examples of people praying and God responding in the way you describe in the middle of their praying (which is distinct from visions/dreams, etc)?
      3. How do you view this in respect to Heb 1:1-2? Jesus is the Word – the very expression of God – and we call the Bible God’s Word as it is the very Word of the Word himself. Scripture itself (cf. 2 Tim 3:16).

      Even if we want to suggest God speaks to us in ways beyond scripture (such as creation more generally) I still don’t see that he does so through prayer. Prayer is specifically us speaking, not the Lord.

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