Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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Learning to Hear the Voice of God

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Photo Credit: Daniel Maat (Flickr)

Since the earliest days of my faith, I’ve been blessed to hear God speak to me in a clear, though often quiet, way—sometimes challenging me to take a step of faith, other times correcting me, often just reassuring me, and occasionally prophesying about my future. 

I was recently asked how this works and how I’ve cultivated communication with God—how do you hear and recognize His voice? How do you get Him to talk to you, period? Let me start by clarifying that I am in no way special: God will speak to everyone who believes in him—it’s just a matter of listening. As John 10:27 says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” As believers in Christ, we have access to God, and therefore access to his commands. (God can also intercede in the lives of non-believers and speak to them, too, as with Saul.)

Still, I know that saying “just listen” isn’t necessarily the best advice, since it assumes we all know what the voice of God sounds like. But if you're a new believer, or have simply never heard God speak to you, it’s hard to listen for a voice you don’t yet know! So first…

Learn what God’s voice sounds like. 
Consider the Bible your manual for communicating with God, and also your litmus test for judging the words you think are coming from Him. Scripture—which is entirely God-breathed, according to 2 Timothy—will help familiarize you with God’s voice and his commands. If you think He is speaking to you, but the words you hear don’t sync with scripture, you can be certain it was not, in fact, God. He will never contradict his Word.

Figure out how God speaks to you.
For me, it’s often through scripture—God will place a verse on my heart—and also through the Holy Spirit, that invisible part of the Trinity that dwells inside all Christians, prompting and whispering. Here’s an example: Several years ago, while I was praying, God led me to Genesis 12:1, the verse where Abraham is told to go out of his country to the land that God would show him. I shared this with a friend—and I was admittedly confused: What was God telling me? Some months later, this same friend was praying about a last-minute mission trip to Haiti, shortly after the earthquake, and God led her to Acts 7:3—a New Testament verse that quotes Genesis 12:1. She took this as confirmation that she was to go on the trip—but also as a prompting to bring me along. When she spoke with the trip coordinator, she found out that two spots remained. A week later, I was on an airplane. 

Crazy? Yes. Coincidental? No. Listening—and responding to—God’s voice requires faith. It’s easy to dismiss his commands as coincidence or a product of your imagination. But I firmly believe that God speaks to those who have the faith to listen. Sometimes, that means going out on a limb and choosing to believe, even when you have doubt. Realize that the first time you step out in faith will probably be the hardest. But, for me at least, faith begets faith—I’ve reached a point in my walk where I can hear from God and experience little doubt that it was Him, because I'm so familiar with his voice and how he speaks to me. 

For my sister, God speaks through dreams and patterns—say, seeing the same person over and over in unexpected places. For others, it might be through the words of people: pastors or encouraging friends or family members. And God may speak in different ways in different seasons. Even so, I think it’s helpful to know where to look—if you familiarize yourself with his favored mode of communication with you, it will become easier to recognize his voice. 

So how do you do that? By consistently communing with God, and making him a priority. That means reading your Bible, praying, and going to church, but also finding God in the everyday, whether through music, nature, or time with a friend. For me, a prayer journal and daily Bible reading, even for just a few minutes, is key; I've found that looking back on past prayers, and reflecting on how they've been answered, is a great way to see evidence of God's hand and how he works. For my husband, hearing from God means simply stepping away from the chaos, sitting in silence, and praying/reflecting, a practice that often teaches him new ways of praying that are more in line with God's will. 

Bringing God into your daily life will help you tune into him, so when he does speak, you're prepared to listen, receive, and mentally check what you're hearing against scripture. Bottom line: If you're in His Word, you're better able to receive His Word. 

Ask God to speak to you.
This might sound obvious, but have you prayed and asked God to talk? In Jeremiah 33:3, God promises, “Call to Me and I will answer you and tell you great and incomprehensible things you do not know.” Interestingly, the Hebrew word for incomprehensible is betsuroth, which means “walled up” or “fortified,” used often in the context of cities. Which brings me to my next point, arguably the most important one…

Practice immediate obedience. 
There’s perhaps no better Biblical example of a fortified city than Jericho, which was not only physically walled-off, but was also full of people who were resistant to the will of God. But then the Lord spoke to Joshua, and gave him what probably sounded like a crazy set of instructions for conquering Jericho: March around the city for six days, and then on the seventh day, have the priests blow their trumpets and the people shout, causing the city walls to collapse.

Can you imagine God telling you that this was how you were to win a war? It would be tempting to dismiss him altogether! But Joshua didn’t—in fact, in Joshua 6, after God gives his instructions, Joshua immediately mobilizes his troops, telling them, “Move forward, march around the city, and have the armed troops go ahead of the ark of the Lord.” He didn’t delay his obedience to pray about it more, talk to half a dozen friends, or just sleep on it. He acted. 

Most of us will never face a situation like this. But how about the one described in Matthew 19:21? “Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” This verse has honestly always terrified me a little bit, because it’s such a drastic command. How would I respond if God told me to sell everything I have and give away the cash? Would I be eager to listen and obey? Or would I decide that surely he didn’t mean everything and just have a quick yard sale and donate the proceeds to my church? If I did, I’d only be deceiving myself, because partial obedience is actually disobedience. 

I can certainly relate to the fear of turning your life over to God, and then having him issue some crazy command: Move across the world. Tithe half your salary. Quit a job you love. But I also have realized, in my own life, that immediate obedience is critical to keeping the lines of communication with God open. Notice that Matthew 19:21 doesn’t say “sell your stuff, then maybe a year or two later, follow me.” Jesus speaks with immediacy. 

If you hear from God, I urge you to act as quickly as possible, doing whatever it takes to set his will in motion, whether that means writing a check, reaching out to a pastor, or making some other move he’s calling you to do. (Notice in John 10:27, mentioned above, that hearing God's voice is paired with an action: following God.) Immediate obedience is often rewarded with clarity of purpose—and the protection and favor of the Father. Take Luke 6:46-48 as proof:

Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say? I will show you what someone is like who comes to Me, hears My words, and acts on them: He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. When the flood came, the river crashed against that house and couldn’t shake it, because it was well built.

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