–by Sam Williamson
“Why is it that when we speak to God we are said to be praying, but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?” —Lily Tomlin
The First Time I Heard God’s Voice
I was ten years old the first time I heard God speak. It was autumn, a new school year had just begun, and a new fad was spreading among my adolescent classmates.
I was raised in a conservative Christian church where Sunday school teachers taught us the Ten Commandments. The teachers were vague about the meaning of adultery, and I didn’t feel concerned. They weren’t very clear about coveting either, so I felt safe.
They made up for their ambiguity when it came to cussing. Instead of an elusive “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain,” they precisely taught, “Don’t swear.” And when they said, “Don’t swear,” they meant, “Don’t cuss.” For us, cussing was a sin on the order of mass genocide.
One day while playing schoolyard tag, I tagged my girlfriend, Diane, and she shouted, “Shit!” I felt a horrible shockwave race through my body, as though I’d been hit in the gut with a sledgehammer. Forty-five years later, I still feel that visceral punch, and I can exactly picture the playground gate where Diane cussed. I gasped for air but nothing came.
Looking back, it seems silly that a cuss word could cause such a shock, but it did. I expected God to cast down a lightning bolt and burn Diane to ash. The thought almost paralyzed me.
But not quite. I leaped back seven feet in case the bolt went wide.
And then…. nothing happened. Not one thing. The game continued. No lightning bolt. Not even a firefly. I felt as shocked by the absence of righteous retribution as I had been by the cuss. The shock might have even been greater.
My juvenile understanding of Christianity was simple: God blesses good people and he punishes bad people. In my unsophisticated ten-year-old mind, blessing meant being cool and punishment meant being un-cool. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the foul-mouthed kids became cooler while the clean-speaking kids grew un-cool.
The wicked flourished and the righteous were trampled.
I decided that God could not exist. Oh, it took a week or so of watching the wicked prosper, but there was no doubt in my mind. God didn’t exist. It was all a cruel hoax.
The next day I unleashed the filthiest mouth in the city of Detroit on my classmates. I said things even the wicked feared to say. (They still harbored some fear of God, but I knew better.) The “shit” word was cussing for kids; I dropped F-bombs like hardwood forests drop autumn leaves—and I didn’t even know what the F-word meant.
I was a poet in profanity.
Then, at the end of that day, alone in my bedroom, God spoke to me with a fierce, undeniable, and certain clarity. But all he said was, “Sam, I am real, and you don’t understand.”
Above all else, God wants us to know him personally—he wants a personal relationship. But we mostly want to know direction: “Should I take this job or that job?” We want information; God wants a conversation. We want to know answers; God wants us to know him.
When God spoke to me, I was deeply moved, but not by his answer to my question, Why do the wicked flourish? God never even hinted at an answer. I was moved because I had actually heard his voice. I had begun to know the person of God, not just the facts of God; I had met him.
God always gives us what we most need, but he doesn’t always give us what we think we most need. Our deepest need is to know God. More than answers, inspiration, information, or guidance, we simply need to know God. That’s why Paul wrote, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8).
Before my first date with my wife, I knew a lot about her: she was a farmer’s daughter, she studied social work, and she had attended Hope College. And she was cute. But on our first date, over a glass of wine, she told me of a secret longing. And I fell in love. My informational knowledge had just been trumped by a personal connection.
Knowing about God isn’t enough. Paul prayed, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:16–17 par).
God Wants Us to Hear Him
God is always speaking to us, and he wants us to hear him. The first time I heard him in my bedroom—and I really did hear him—I wasn’t looking to hear from God. I thought he was a hoax. But he spoke anyway, because he longs—God himself longs!—for conversations with his family and friends.
I am amazed, dumbfounded even, at modern Christian teaching. We hear leaders claim that Christianity is about a personal relationship with God, but their teaching is limited to abstract doctrine, principles for good behavior, or devotional inspiration. In other words, most modern Christian teaching addresses our intellect, our will, or our emotions. Few are the credible teachers who teach us about hearing God—though they should—or about knowing him personally. Yet that is what the Bible says he desires.
Scripture is filled with metaphors for the nature of God’s relationship with us. We are his sheep, his friends, his children, and—breathtakingly intimate—his spouse. These are relational metaphors. And the essence of relationship is communication.
Communication is so important to the human soul that many countries have outlawed solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment. Yet we Christians teach Christianity as though it’s a philosophy class or a code of ethics. We treat the Bible as though it’s an auto repair manual instead of a personal letter from God.
Christians are great at doing clinical, detached dissections of biblical metaphors, exegeting the essence of their meanings. But God wants us to wear those metaphors like clothes—to put them on, live in them, and make them real. He wants us to begin to hear his voice.
Yes, it’s helpful to understand the exegetical meanings of scriptural metaphors. It’s better to meet their Author.
He Really Does Speak to Us
Our Father wants conversation. He wants us to learn to recognize his voice. He literally speaks so we can literally hear. He doesn’t always say what we want him to say; he often doesn’t speak in the manner we expect; and hearing his voice requires us to learn to listen. But he is always speaking.
Scripture is filled with passages that teach us God speaks today. Here are a few for the skeptical (emphases mine):
- The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name. (John 10:3)
- Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known. (Jeremiah 33:3)
- Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)
- When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for . . . whatever he hears he…. will declare to you…. (John 16:13)
- Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. (Isaiah 30:21)
- Whoever is of God hears the words of God. (John 8:47)
- I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. (Psalm 32:8)
- God’s Word overflows with his longing to converse with us; he wants us to hear him, speak with him, and have a discussion.
Hearing God Isn’t Reserved for Spiritual Giants
Most of us are nurses, mechanics, office workers, clerks, engineers, teachers, maybe mid-level managers, or stay-at-home moms or dads. We feel like spiritual Pygmies. Of course God doesn’t speak with us, we tell ourselves, we don’t have the spiritual stature of Mother Teresa.
While that humble self-opinion is a terrific place to start, it is a terrible place to stop. God never speaks to us (or others) because of our (or their) greatness. He speaks because of his greatness. He loves to speak with spiritual adolescents. Paul writes, “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the surpassing power is of God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7 par).
It sounds spiritually humble to be like the people of Israel who said to Moses, “You speak with us, but do not let God speak with us.” But such prayers only reveal spiritual shallowness on our part. It’s as though we prefer to listen to God’s servants rather than hear God himself.
It is God’s glory to speak with us nurses, mechanics, and clerks. That way it’s clear that the greatness belongs to God and not us. Humility is the key. Think of whom God spoke with in the past:
- Abraham was a heathen called out of idol worship when God invited him on a journey.
- Moses was a murderer who fled justice.
- Gideon was a coward hiding in the back recesses of a cave.
- Samuel was a child.
- Jonah was an intolerant, insensitive, grace-lacking bigot.
- The disciples often acted like buffoons, and every one of them abandoned Jesus.
- Paul persecuted the disciples of Jesus.
- Balaam was a wicked man whom God spoke to through a mere beast of burden, his ass.
- And I was a ten-year-old atheist.
Each story is different except for one thing: God didn’t choose to speak with any of these people on the basis of their maturity, goodness, or spiritual giftedness. Many of them were less mature, more rebellious, and had fewer spiritual gifts than you.
“Oh,” you might think, “but God chose them (even the rebels) because he saw their natural gifts. He knew he could do great things through them.” That kind of thinking—and we all think that way occasionally—is contrary to the gospel. The gospel is always about God working with people who are completely unworthy of his attention. (That’s why it’s called the gospel.) He doesn’t use our greatness as much as he uses his own greatness to bring about something great in us.
God can make the littlest among us great, but he can’t use the greatest among us until we become little. God wants to speak to you (O little men and women!) words of comfort, love, conviction, and hope. Yes, you.
How Do We Recognize His Voice?
When I heard God as a ten-year-old, it wasn’t through an audible voice. There was no handwriting on the wall (except perhaps what I had crayoned on it when my mom wasn’t looking), nor was there a burning bush or a levitating tablespoon. I wasn’t even reading the Bible. (Remember, I was a recent convert to atheism.)
Yet something stirred in my soul. It was as clear as an audible voice and as powerful as a thunderclap. Somehow I knew God had spoken real words to me personally. There was an inner resonance, a quickening in my heart. And I knew it was God.
When the Emmaus disciples reminisced about their unexpected discussion with Jesus, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us?” I too experienced a voice burning in my heart. It thrilled and delighted me. And changed my life.
Methods and Moments
We are imperfect creatures, so we miss the diverse ways and multiple occasions through which a perfect God speaks to us. The book of Job declares, “God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it” (Job 33:14). God is infinite, and he speaks in countless ways and settings.
Yet we finite creature impose on God our limited expectations for how he speaks, in manners we’re familiar and comfortable with, or perhaps the only ways we know. Certainly God speaks to us through those means, through Scripture study and Sunday sermons. He’s just not confined to them. He is, after all, the most creative Being in the universe, and he communicates with us through an infinitely imaginative mixture of methods and moments.
Throughout this book, I’ll reinforce those two principles of methods and moments. It’s vital to keep them in mind if we want to grow in our ability to hear God’s voice clearly. Let’s look at them more closely.
Part of the reason we fail to perceive God’s personal word to us arises from false expectations constructed when other people recount their experiences. We too often hear people share descriptions of God speaking as though they happened like a scripted dialogue:
I asked God: What should I do with my life?
God replied: Are you willing to take a risk?
I said: Yes, but I don’t know what to do.
God said: Move to Timbuktu.
When friends tell stories like this, we think, I never hear God converse with me that clearly. Let me tell you a secret: they don’t either. At least not most of the time. Those reports are shorthand summaries of hours spent thinking, praying, hearing nudges, getting senses, and recognizing God’s voice.
God employs multiple methods to communicate with us; he is not a paint-by-number God. If we limit his voice to just, say, the scripted dialogue or biblical studies, then we will miss his voice when he speaks in other ways. Below are his more common methods.
A Responsive Resonance
God often speaks by nudging our hearts in response to an external circumstance. The nudge may be described as a burning in our heart or a sense of the weightiness of a particular moment. Perhaps a Scripture passage jumps out at us in prayer, or we overhear a chance comment by someone at the next table, and our hearts know something significant is going on.
For example, “While Paul was waiting [in] Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16, emphasis added). Now think with me: idols filled every city Paul visited, but something in that moment stirred him.
A Spontaneous Nudging
Sometimes God unexpectedly nudges our heart to pray for a friend or to act on an issue. It comes not so much as a direct word as a general perception, an inner detection of a movement of God, unprompted by any event.
I once had a sense to pray for a friend. I wasn’t sure what to pray, so I phoned him. He had been just been let go from his job that day. We prayed on the phone. He was touched by my concern, only I hadn’t been concerned—I hadn’t even known. It was God who was concerned and who spontaneously nudged me.
Occasionally God speaks a direct word—usually just a sentence or two, or perhaps just a phrase. This chapter opens with the story of God speaking to me in my childhood atheism: “I am real, and you don’t understand.” God has spoken directly to me at other times too, to leave the mission field or repent to my spouse.
I would guess, though, that most direct words don’t come to us out of the blue; at least not as much as they come to us after sensing a resonance in our heart. Only as we follow that resonance in prayer and reflection do we hear direct words.
God will often bring past events to mind. Sometimes he surfaces a memory so we can deal with its grip on our lives, and sometimes he recalls it so we can take appropriate action. A few years ago, I remembered my twelve-year-old self saying something harsh to a neighborhood kid. A short while later I bumped into that kid, now grown. I reminded him of the story, and I repented. He too remembered it, and he wept as I repented. That occasion began an eighteen-month journey of repenting to people from my past, and every repentance, though embarrassing, brought new life to both the repentee and the repenter.
The voice of God is not limited to nudges or even words. Sometimes God plants pictures in our mind. Around 1915, my grandfather received a mental picture in which the letters KWANGSI were spelled in red letters across the sky. He visited the local library to discover that the letters spelled a province of China (now spelled GuangXi). He prayed and felt called to be a missionary. He spent the next two decades living in that very province, and he founded four inland China churches with new believers. God speaks in many and various ways. Sometimes he even paints pictures.
Past generations encouraged Scripture memorization. I was always a miserable student of memorization, but I find that God frequently brings passages to mind at just the right moment.
Once, talking with a man in deep trouble, I found no wisdom or words to offer. Then out of nowhere a verse came to mind: “We comfort others with the comfort we’ve been given” (a rough paraphrase of 2 Cor. 1:4). I sensed God telling me to comfort my friend with the comfort God had given me. Nothing wise, just comfort.
Since my Bible verse memorization is abysmal, it simply had to be God!
Visions and Dreams
I’ve never had a divinely inspired dream or a vision, but people whom I know and respect get them, and in them God can speak. Visions are different from images; they are more akin to short video stories, such as when Paul was directed in his sleep: “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). There’s no reason to believe God cannot give us such visions today.
This is perhaps the hardest to recognize, because these thoughts feel so much a part of us. Yet God-shaped thoughts influence the thinking life of every believer on earth. Not only can God’s Spirit in us speak a direct word to us, but he can also shape our very thoughts. How many times have you felt utterly empty, no words to pray with and no ideas to act on? Then, unexpectedly, a brilliant and obvious thought streaks through your mind. C. S. Lewis believed this to be one of the most common ways God speaks to us:
Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The listener’s role and through
My dumb lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.
God speaks in many and various ways. Who are we to limit him?
God speaks with more methods than we normally attribute to him, but he also speaks in more moments that we imagine. I believe he wants to speak in every moment. He doesn’t limit himself to Sunday sermons or personal prayer times.
Many chapters in this book describe how to recognize God’s voice in various situations, but it’s worth remembering that his many moments include times of scriptural meditation, watching a movie, counseling with friends, brainstorming, driving your car, sitting at the coffee shop, moments of curiosity, and even times when God seems silent.
God mixes his many methods of speaking with the limitless variety of moments in our lives; he creates an infinite assortment of opportunities to recognize his voice. For example, take the one “moment” of reading the verse “God is my shepherd, I shall not want.” God may remind you of another verse, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves”; or he may stir within you, in response, a resonance of his great care for you; or he may speak a direct word, “You are not coming to me to get your wants fulfilled”; or he may give you an image of a contented child.
Our lives are filled with multiple moments—from waking at 2:00 a.m., to an afternoon walk, to an unpleasant meeting with your boss—and into each of those many moments, God can speak through his many methods.
God Is Always Speaking
God invites us to walk with him even in—maybe especially in—our ordinary moments. When we learn to recognize that inner quickening, that burning in the heart, we begin to hear God speaking all the time.
Flying to New York to speak at a conference, a stranger said something about public speaking. I heard God convict me of the purposeless life I was living.
I attended a weekend retreat with fifteen men to discuss the possibility of working together. I heard God flesh out details about his dream for my life.
While watching the movie The Fisher King, a pretty grim film, I heard God say that he sees me to the bottom and loves me to the top.
On a long walk last week, God interrupted my thoughts about finances to think about the creep of modern culture into modern Christians’ beliefs.
And forty-five years ago, my girlfriend cussed, God spoke in the absence of lightning, and it changed the life of this ten-year-old reprobate.
This article is excerpted from the book, Hearing God in Conversation – How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere, chapter one (c) 2016 by Samuel C. Williamson. From Living Bulwark, August/September 2016, used with permission.
Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere, by Samuel C. Williamson, published by Kregel Publications, 2016, available from Amazon.