“Christmas will be even more special with Annie,” enthused my older daughter. Annie was a refugee from Angola living in London. The Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture had asked us to host Annie for Christmas in Derbyshire. The previous year Annie had spent Christmas very alone in her empty hostel. My wife, two daughters and I were delighted with the prospect of Annie enriching our Christmas. But I thought I had still better pray about this sizeable decision. “Jesus, this is all OK with you isn’t it?” I asked. “Thank you for asking, Roger,” seemed to be the calm, kind reply.

“It’s good to learn to talk like this. But it would be better for Annie to stay in London.”

I asked Jesus the reason for this strange surprising advice. All that came was a repeat. “It would be better for Annie to stay in London.” Into my mind popped some friends in London who had had an asylum seeker living with them before. I phoned the friends. “No, sorry,” they said. “Two Indian work colleagues are already coming for Christmas lunch this year.”

My wife and daughters were cross. It made no sense. Why try to stop us doing something so worthwhile? Could that really have been Jesus speaking?

We agreed to host Annie regardless.

Ten days before Christmas the Medical Foundation organiser rang us. She sounded embarrassed. “I’m very sorry, but we’ve just heard something new. Annie’s friends have planned a big birthday party for her – on Christmas Eve. I’m really sorry, but she won’t be able to come to you in Derbyshire for Christmas.” I couldn’t help reassuring the bemused organiser that Jesus had already told me it would be better for Annie to stay in London. I phoned the friends in London again. Their Indians weren’t coming after all. Annie had her party on Christmas Eve and spent a happy Christmas Day with our friends in London. It was better for her to stay in London.

Open your mind… and your Bible

Before 2000 this story would have been unimaginable for me. I never heard Jesus speaking that clearly and easily. But in 2000 I twice happened to be visiting churches where American theologian Mark Virkler was teaching ‘How to hear God’s voice’. On the first occasion, led by Mark, I really did hear Jesus speak to me and thought I would look into this further, one day. After the second time I could put it off no longer. Jesus spoke to me about Annie through the pattern Mark teaches. Mark calls it ‘The four keys to hearing God’s voice.’ Many of us believe that God speaks today through the Holy Spirit. We accept that there is a gift of prophecy which is given to some people. But we don’t hear Jesus speaking to us personally, except in occasional inklings. We have heard sermons encouraging us to listen to God. We believe that the promise that we will hear a voice speaking directly to us saying, “This is the way,” is for now, rather than for the next life. But how on earth? If we want to listen, what do we do?

Begin with the Bible. Think of people who heard God speaking, about whom the Bible describes a little of how they began to hear. Who comes to mind?

Moses at the burning bush, Samuel in the Temple, Elijah on Mount Horeb are three characters many think of. You may have others in mind.

Now think: ‘Where were these people?’ Moses was on the far side of the wilderness, a long way from his father-inlaw’s home. Samuel was in the Temple at evening. The lamps were lit but the work was all done. Elijah was at the end of a long journey running away from likely retaliation. Each was away from home, away from the routine of the day, in an out-of-way-place or an out-ofthe- busyness time. The same is true for most Bible characters listening to God.?

So what about us? Mark Virkler has four keys to listen to God…

1 Be still, relaxed, mentally away from everyday worries.

Then think, ‘What was in their mind just before God spoke?’ Moses was looking at a bush burning, or not burning, probably thinking, “Wow! What?” Samuel was resting, looking at all the Temple furniture gleaming gold, with the smoky incense rising in the lamplight. He too probably was thinking a gentler, “Wow, that’s so lovely!” Elijah had just seen the dust and stones stampeded by a fierce wind, seen the whole earth ripple before him, seen an impossible fire come out of nowhere. “Wow! What?” may understate what was in Elijah’s mind. Seeing something of the glory of God is common to people in the Bible just before they hear God.

2 Focus on a picture of the glory of God – who is Jesus.

We who know that in Jesus we see God’s glory perfectly, the glory of the only Son, full of grace and truth, are better not looking anywhere else. We relax and look to see Jesus in our imagination. It is easier first to imagine we are in a relaxing out-of-the-way place and then look round to see Jesus with us there. Or we imagine ourselves in a Gospel story with Jesus. We follow the example of many people in the Bible and put ourselves in a position, a frame of mind to hear God by looking at the glory of God.
When God speaks to us, He speaks from the Holy Spirit within us, not usually from outside us. Flowing as a stream of living water from our heart, (John 7:38) thoughts, impressions, pictures come into our minds. This ‘wisdom from above’ is pure and peaceable, willing to yield, gentle, full of mercy and good fruits (James 3:17). We don’t work; we receive in faith what comes to us by grace. This gives the third key...

3 Welcome the Holy Spirit flowing from within in impressions, pictures, words.

Faith is important. We need to believe that what comes is from the Holy Spirit. But faith without works is dead or barren (James 2:20). It is important to do something which expresses our faith. In listening to God, voicing or writing down what comes to us is the expression of our faith in action.

4 Write out or speak out what comes.

Once we have written or spoken what comes to us, we can then examine it. We can check if it is consistent with Scripture. We can ask other people if they think it is from God. This examination is necessary and important. But if we examine too quickly, we interrupt the flow of the Holy Spirit. First we have to receive in faith. Then we examine, and weigh what has come to us. ?

Woody Allen or John Wayne?

These four keys came to Mark Virkler through a year he had set aside to find out how exactly people hear God and know it is God speaking. Brought up in a fundamentalist American church, Mark slowly learnt to accept that God has not stopped speaking since the Bible was completed. He asked people who could hear God how they did it. “You just ask God to speak and He does,” they would reply unhelpfully. “He doesn’t to me,” Mark would think.

“What exactly do you do to listen to God? And how do you know it’s Him speaking?” “Well you just ask, and you sort of know when it’s Him. You just know that you know.”

“That’s no help. With me it doesn’t just happen,” replied Mark, frustrated. He is more of a Woody Allen than a John Wayne American. Mark went to anyone who could possibly give him workable answers. He went on a retreat in New York led by Roman Catholic Jesuit monks. They pointed him to the importance of picturing Jesus through a Bible story, and welcoming the impressions that come to us as we reflect on the day. Sometimes people ask, ‘Where did this picturing come from?’ The answer is from the established Christian tradition of the Jesuits. The four keys summarise teaching from across the Christian traditions.

Towards the end of his year, Mark was reading Habbakuk 2:1&2, “I will stand at my watch-post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what He will say to me, and what He will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” It struck Mark that Habbakuk did four things. He went away to an out-ofthe- way place. He looked to see. He expected God to speak. He wrote down what came to him.

Habbakuk followed the four keys, and so can we. “Whenever I need or want to hear from God, I can, as long as I use all four of these keys. I have travelled all over the world teaching what I have learned, and the four keys worked in every culture and every circumstance and every age group. God’s people are able to recognize His voice, just as He promised.”

??Listening across the pond.

English people are not excepted from hearing God’s voice. Anne Hibbert, Director of the Well Christian Healing Centre, Leamington Spa, came across Mark Virkler’s teaching a few years ago when she was working for the Bible Reading Fellowship. In leading retreats she encouraged people to listen to God using the pattern of the four keys. “Very often people who had thought they could never hear God, began to hear His voice,” Anne says. Mark Virkler’s teaching is similar to that of others about listening to God, although others may not stress all four elements or may put things in a different order. Bill Hamon of the Network of Prophetic Ministries in America emphasises the need to believe in your heart and confess, i.e. speak out, with your mouth, not only when being saved but also in exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Sharon Stone, who has learnt from Bill Hamon, and now lives and works in this country, teaches people to be calm, to invite the Holy Spirit to flow, to look for pictures and speak out to others what has come. Steve Thompson, who works with Rick Joyner in the USA, writes that we usually begin to hear God through “mental or spiritual impressions or perceptions, gentle internal visions, and the still small voice of God that we hear in our spirit”.

Bruce Collins, who teaches Prophecy in the New Wine movement, writes that it is very common for God to speak through thoughts, impressions, pictures and visions. Graham Cooke, author of ‘Developing your Prophetic Gifting’, writes ‘Prophecy can come by impressions. An inner conviction – strong or faint – about something. That’s why we need to be still before God. It’s very important.’

??Reservations about ‘imagination’ model.

Not everyone agrees with either Mark Virkler’s four keys or the insights of other teachers. Some consider all talk of prophecy today goes against the sufficiency of Scripture. Others find it hard to see Mark’s model in the Bible. Simon Ponsonby, Pastor of Theology at St Aldate’s Church, Oxford, has reservations. He has not studied Mark Virkler’s teaching, but has come across a similar approach which he refers to as ‘the prophetic imagination model’. ‘It seems to lack biblical control. It allows too much to the subjective,’ he writes. ‘Is this really Jesus they are communicating with or a projection of their imagination? Is Jesus not sitting at the right hand of the Father? Is it not the Spirit who speaks now? Should we expect to meet and see and speak to Jesus on demand? The questions of what is the control, how is this tested, discerned, etc become hugely important.’ ??Ponsonby prefers to meditate on the Bible and then be silent ‘inviting and allowing God, if he so chooses, to speak in a way he so chooses’. This has been a more common practice for many Evangelicals. But many, like Mark Virkler, find that this does not work for them. Focusing on a picture of Jesus with them, as always (although He is also at the right hand of the Father) enables the Holy Spirit to speak within them more clearly. Numbers 12:6 indicates that God’s normal way is for us to see first then hear: “When there are prophets among you, I the LORD make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams” (Numbers 12:6). Being available for the Spirit to speak is good, but we are usually thinking, “Maybe He will speak, maybe He won’t.”

A stronger faith that Jesus is close and wants to speak to His sheep, expressed in using the four keys, enables us to hear more.

Put it to the test

In whatever way we hear the voice of God, testing and discernment are always important. We always need humbly to check out with others what has come to us. Mark Virkler writes that it is ‘absolutely essential to have two or three spiritual advisors in your life, and that you go to them on a regular basis to confirm that what you felt you heard from God actually came from God.’

People who have not done this have fallen into serious errors. Listening to God using the four keys is like riding a motorbike. Learning to ride on two wheels means practicing a few very simple movements, but doing them all together, while keeping alert. Motorbikes can be dangerous if ridden without care. The four keys are each simple, but it takes practice to learn to do them all together. Most of us need tutoring. All of us need someone in authority to assess our competence before we are safe to ‘ride’ or prophecy among other people.

Without Mark Virkler’s four keys I would never have heard Jesus speak about Annie staying in London. I believe all of us can do the same, fulfilling the promise of Joel and the day of Pentecost, the promise of both seeing and hearing. Our listening, however, is never to replace our following what the Bible says. Nowhere does Jesus tell us in so many words, to listen to Him like this, whereas He does tell us to obey all that He has commanded.

Reading the commands of Jesus and following what He says in the Gospels is more fundamental to our discipleship. Listening to Him today comforts us, encourages us and strengthens us in this discipleship. And prompts us constantly to wonder at His nearness to us and our dearness to Him.