Q: How can you hear the voice of God, or can you? Is it just reading the Bible? What if you can’t seem to hear the voice of God reading the Bible?
There are many ways in which God chooses to speak to His people. Consider the life of King David. David spoke audibly with God (2 Samuel 2:1). David experienced signs in his circumstances from God (1 Samuel 24). David also heard God’s voice through the voice of another person such as Samuel or Nathan (1 Samuel 16; 2 Samuel 12). David also learned God’s voice through reading the scriptures (Psalm 18). The question then is how did David discern these were God’s voice?
This is especially relevant because we also have examples of these same conduits being misused and not coming from God’s voice. There are times when people are deceived in their thoughts and heads by demons or the Devil (John 8:44, 1 Kings 18). There are also times when our circumstances may point to something that is not really from God (1 Samuel 15). There are also times when people will claim to be speaking for God when really they are not (1 Kings 13, Deuteronomy 13). There are also people who will twist Scripture to fit their own ideas (2 Peter 3:14-18). So what are we to do?
The question then in light of all this ambiguity is where can we find clarity? And if you think about it, these four ways that God speaks can be ranked in terms of clarity. God’s audible voice or inner voice in our heads (which many think would be the most clear) is actually the least clear because there is no way to confirm it. Signs are then a little bit more clear because other people can see it and evaluate it, but they are also fleeting and their meanings ambiguous. Others speaking to you is clearer because it is actual words, but even then it may be misconstrued and you don’t have full trust in that person’s authenticity. The last which is the Scripture is the most clear because not only can other people read the same words that you are reading, but they are the same words from when they were first written to now and they will be the same words in the future.
Therefore, we must allow the more clear ways that God speaks to define the less clear ways. How can you be certain that someone is speaking for God, if you are not certain of what the voice of the Scriptures is? In Acts 17, the Bereans weighed Paul’s message against the Scriptures because while Paul could be suspect, the Scriptures were certain. Then as we understand God’s Word and God’s messages from others, we can become more certain of when we see signs or when the Spirit speaks to us (whether inner or outer voice). We cannot go about it in the reverse order. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit will remind us of what He has said (John 14:26), not teach us new things. If you have not learned the voice of God from the Bible, then the Holy Spirit has less vocabulary and options in what He can remind you of.
So we arrive at the second question: How do we hear God’s voice through the Scriptures? The first question in response to that is “what are you listening for?” The reason why many don’t hear the voice of God ringing throughout the Scriptures is because they are listening for an audible voice or a personal letter to them. They scan the scriptures for something which will say “Dear _____, this is what I want to say to you in the year 2012 regarding your recent Facebook post.” Then they are disappointed when they don’t get it and say that they can’t hear God’s voice.
We must understand that God’s voice in the Scriptures is not being spoken directly to us in the audible particular way that we often think we want. The Bible is full of letters, poems, histories, and prophecies that were given at particular times with particular people in particular places. It just so happens that the primary participant of all of them is God. Therefore while the Bible is not speaking directly to us, it is open directly to us to hear God’s voice speaking to others, as it were. In that way, the specifics are not exactly related to us, but the character, being, substance, and purpose of the God who is speaking is the same for us as it was for whoever the particular book was written for. It is as if we are able to stand next to the unchanging God while He talks to someone else. Even though God is directly speaking to someone else, we can get to know God just as well at the original audience. This means that we can learn who God is and how God works. We hear His voice through Scriptures, not in an audible way, but in the way that we learn His character and being.
The second question is then, “how do we know that what we hear and learn from God in the Scriptures is right?” For instance, you read in Deuteronomy 4 and 5 God did not want His people to go into the Promised Land with idols and that in fact God wanted to prosper His people. Our takeaway is that God is a God who cannot be contained and that God is a God who loves and wants to bless His people and to do that He gives them laws to keep them from harmful things. How do I know this is from God? There are three ways that I want to propose:
Does the rest of Scripture support this? Scripture does not contradict itself (if you disagree with this, write an example on the comment card). Therefore we can look at the rest of Scripture and ask “is what God just showed me correct?” Does God seem to be finite anywhere else? Is God containable to what man makes? No. Does God want to bless and prosper His people? Yes. Does God give them rules and boundaries that they might stay in the blessing? Yes. So far so good.
Go to the less clear ways of hearing God’s voice. Ask other godly people whether this truth is true. That’s one of the reasons God provides the church to begin with. Pray and ask God whether or not these things are true and listen for His answer or lack or refutation. If you’re not sure what a particular passage is speaking to you, then ask a teacher or a pastor whom you trust is in a real relationship with God. After all, if someone spoke to your in a different language through a translator, you wouldn’t doubt that person’s existence. In many ways, teachers and pastors serve as translators until you can learn the language well enough on your own.
Follow it and see. Here is one of the hardest things to do. You learn that God cannot be contained and any idol that you have is an attempt to contain God. You want to know if this is really from God. Do it and find out. If your idol is money, then tithe and on top of that give to the poor and the needy. Then you discover that God can provide for your needs, and on top of that He fills you with a joy that money never gave you. At the end of it, you can look back at what you heard from God and say “yes that was God.” One of the many reasons why people don’t acknowledge the voice of God is because they do not follow what He says (James 2:19-27).
As you continue to hear and obey God’s voice, it becomes clearer and clearer when it is Him who is speaking and when it is not. This clarity is not so much a matter of recognition of tone, pitch, or cadence as it might be with another human being, as it is a matter or recognition of character. We learn to hear the person behind the voice and thus can assert “God would say that”. For instance if you heard a voice telling you to burn down your house, you could be confident that that was not in God’s character and not something He would say. On the reverse when you hear God’s voice convict you of your sin despite your own justifications, you can be fairly confident that voice is God’s because that is something that He would talk about. The more we know the living God in the scriptures, the more we can discern that same living God’s voice in our every day lives.
It is our great desire for all believers that they would hear God’s voice through all the different ways God speaks. However, consider yourself in a situation with another human being. What if you talked to that person, but that person kept question whether you were really speaking to them. And rather than talk back and try to engage in a conversation with you, that other person just spent hours and hours contemplating whether you spoke or not. You would not be able to have a relationship with such an asinine person. We are often that asinine person. We demand that God speak to us, but we are not listening or we are listening for God to speak in the way that we want (when many times we don’t even know what we want) while God is yelling at us in the way that we really need.