Many of us struggle to hear God because we have been taught to listen in ways that can be impossible for us to process, says Pete Greig. The bewildered founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement shares what he has learned through years of trying – and sometimes failing – to listen to the still, small voice
So, you survived the apocalypse? My friend was joking, but I knew just what he meant. Emerging like zombies from two years of lockdown, race riots and the unconscionable suffering caused by a global pandemic, we are confronted by an endless stream of appalling scandals (not least in the Church), dark predictions of environmental armageddon and now the terror and tragedy of a full-scale war in Europe. What on earth is going on?
How do we make sense of it? Where was God when we cried out for loved ones dying in overcrowded ICUs? And where is he now for the people of Ukraine? Is our faith relevant when things get tough? Does God have anything to say?
Rarely in any of our lifetimes have we so acutely needed to hear the Lord’s voice: both his word, so that we as his Church might navigate such dangerous days with clarity and courage, but also his whisper, so that we as individuals might know the particular guidance and comfort of his presence day by day. We live in noisy and bewildering times, full of distractions. Things are moving fast all around us. And I believe that now, more than ever, we need to learn how to be still, how to slow down, how to plug ourselves in to hear the voice of God more clearly amid the clatter and clamour of the world.
Learning to recognise the voice of God is one of the most astounding yet confusing things a human being can learn to do
Each one of us has been born with an extraordinary superpower: an innate ability to hear the voice of God. Discerning God’s voice is one of the most astounding yet confusing things a human being can ever learn to do. Astounding because, well, what could be more amazing? With four words – “Let there be light” – (just two in Hebrew) God created more than 100 billion galaxies (Genesis 1:3). “The Lord merely spoke, and the heavens were created. He breathed the word, and all the stars were born” (Psalm 33:6, NLT). What on earth might happen if he were to speak a few words to me?
But it’s confusing, too, because God does not, for the most part, speak audibly – the way we speak to one another – and this means that we can easily misunderstand, misinterpret or miss out altogether on what he is saying. The problem is generally not that God isn’t communicating, and neither is it that we lack the capacity to hear. Rather, it’s that we are easily disconnected, distracted and distanced from the intimate and immediate connection we were created to enjoy. It’s a disconnection that comes, as the Anglican Service of Communion puts it, “through negligence, through weakness, and through our own deliberate fault”.
But if this is starting to sound a bit onerous, please don’t worry. As usual, Jesus keeps the whole thing refreshingly earthy, relational and simple: “My sheep listen to my voice”, he says. “I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
THE GOOD SHEPHERD’S VOICE
The primary mark of true discipleship (especially perhaps in a bewildering time such as this) is a posture of attentiveness towards his word. The word translated as “listen” in the passage from John about sheep and shepherds comes from the Greek akouó, from which we get words like ‘acoustic’ today. We may feel as dumb and defenceless as mere sheep, but our Good Shepherd has promised to lead us through this dangerous terrain if we will listen carefully for the acoustics; the nuance and tone of his voice.
And this is why, if you’ve been around Christians for any length of time, you’ll have heard someone say, quite matter-of-factly: “Oh, God told me this,” or “The Lord said that,” as if it’s the most normal thing in the world (which, in a way, it is). But just try using that line with your GP: “Doctor, I’m hearing the voice of Jesus”; or in a court of law: “God told me to do it, your Honour.” They’ll medicate or detain you before you can shout: “Hallelujah!”
And yet, many of the most eminent people who have ever lived have freely admitted to hearing the voice of God, from George Washington Carver, sometimes called the African-American father of modern agriculture, to Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, who wrote in her diary shortly before her 17th birthday: “God spoke to me and called me to His service. What form this service was to take, the voice did not make clear.”
Survey after survey confirms that most people in our supposedly secular Western societies still interact with God. We don’t approach chemotherapy thinking: “I suppose I ought to pray about this, but I just can’t be bothered.” We tend not to welcome newborn babies into the world with the words: “Behold, a biological fluke born into a meaningless universe.” No one ever stared up at a murmuration of starlings at dusk, or out to sea under a stormy sunset, and whispered: “Wow, I’m awestruck by my own magnificence.” Human beings are hardwired to worship. You have been meticulously made with an extraordinary ability to walk and talk with God. In fact, the Bible says that your primary purpose – the reason for which you were born – is to enjoy a real, conversational relationship with an infinitely loving divinity – which is why you almost certainly hear him already, more than you realise.
BARRIERS AND BLOCKAGES
Growing up in simpler times, in a nice, Bible-believing parish church in the Home Counties, I never really learned how to hear God’s word in this kind of intimate way. I was certainly taught to listen to sermons. I also learned how to scan the Bible for verses that seemed relevant enough to be appropriated as God’s word for my situation. I suppose I did expect God to speak when I needed his particular guidance for Really Big Decisions, and I never really doubted that he could speak supernaturally to missionaries and people who seemed more special and deserving than me. But I never really learned to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd for myself, not as a natural part of a loving relationship. Looking back now, I think this is because I had unwittingly developed three fundamental problems with the very notion of God speaking to me, either supernaturally or in any consistently conversational way. These problems could be characterised in three ways: psychological, theological and experiential.
I felt unworthy of any kind of special attention from God, and my experiences backed this up. When I prayed for a miracle, it never seemed to work. When I read my Bible, it often seemed irrelevant. When I needed God to speak dramatically, there was never an audible voice, an angelic visitation or a supernatural dream. I didn’t feel spiritual or special enough to hear God in the ways people did in the Bible or in far-flung places around the world. Perhaps you feel the same as you try to hear his voice for pressing problems or for massive crises like Ukraine? “Who am I,” you may well wonder, “to hear God in that kind of way?”
How we hear God speak is about how our neural pathways have learned to receive and process data, and this varies from person to person
I think I had also absorbed some of the prejudices of dispensationalism, although I would never have known what that term meant. This is the idea that we should no longer expect God to speak and act miraculously today in the ways he once did in the Bible, because that sort of thing died the day the ink dried on the New Testament. These days, the argument goes: we have God’s word in the Bible, which is far more reliable than all of that other whacko stuff.
One of the many problems with this view is that it disregards the fact that people can, and do, misunderstand and misapply the Bible just as much as any other means of divine communication. It also ignores the fact that the Bible itself teaches us to expect God to speak in ways outside of the Bible! Dispensationalism only really makes sense in the absence of miracles, which leads me to the third problem I had with hearing from God…
I was unfamiliar with the intimate acoustics of God’s voice. Apart from the Bible, I only really expected him to communicate through my conscience (which seemed basically to be God saying no to a lot of things) and through something we referred to as “having peace”. The idea here was that when you made a good decision, you would be flooded with a sense of wellbeing, but when you made a bad one, you would lose that peace altogether.
For me, this was never a good test. In fact, most of the best decisions I’ve ever made have been accompanied by feelings of blind terror. The night I proposed to my wife, Sammy, for example, I had no peace at all. I was absolutely petrified. The night before we married, I was worse. The day I started the internship that revolutionised my relationship with the Lord, I walked down the driveway literally doubled over with anxiety. My lack of peace was epic. I could go on, but you get the point. Peace is a pretty subjective means of making important decisions, especially if you’re as uptight as I am.
GOD SPEAKS TODAY
This matters because we often confuse theology with psychology. The fact that God speaks is a matter of theology. It’s about God’s nature. In Genesis 1, he creates the universe by his word, and in John 1 we are introduced to Jesus as the Word of God. Our God is the great communicator. But the way in which we hear him speak is a matter not of theology but of psychology. It’s about how our neural pathways have learned to receive and process data, and this varies from person to person.
One individual may indeed be flooded with feelings of peace when they propose to their girlfriend, while another may be utterly terrified. This probably says more about the way that person is wired than it does about the will of God for their lives.
Many people struggle to hear God because they have been taught to listen for his voice in ways that are difficult or even impossible for them to process. An academic study in the United States discovered a correlation between certain psychological attributes and the way spiritual phenomena are experienced. Certain personality types, it seems, simply find it harder to hear God’s voice than others. This is not helped by the fact that a disproportionate amount of the material on listening to God has been written by introverts (representing approximately 35 per cent of the population), who understandably advocate their own preference for quietness, stillness and solitude.
Countless extroverts struggle to hear God in such introverted ways and conclude that they are simply inherently bad at prayer. How desperately they need to know that it’s equally possible, and no less spiritual, to discern the voice of God in public spaces, with other people, and through processes of external interaction. Yes, the Bible says: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), but it also says: “Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation” (Psalm 95:1)!
5 ways to hear God
1. The Bible
When it comes to hearing God, the Bible is the language of his heart. Nothing he says in any other way, or in any other context will ever override, undermine or contradict what he has said in the scriptures.
How do we move from studying scripture objectively and hearing its message generally to receiving God’s word personally in our own lives? The most powerful tool I have ever discovered, one that has revolutionised my own personal relationship with the Bible and has become the model for the devotional I help to write, record and release each day, is the ancient tradition of lectio divina – the slow, prayerful reading of scripture which harnesses the power of imagination and meditation (see 24-7prayer.com/resource/lectio-365).
I meet so many people – especially young people – who are sick and tired of the way that prophecy has been used and abused in recent years. God’s voice has undoubtedly been claimed falsely in scandalous ways. I understand that you may be deeply wary of so-called prophets and their ‘prophecies’. But please do not give up on this important and wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit, which is perhaps needed now more than ever. Instead, let’s return to the biblical guidelines and common-sense protocols underpinning the appropriate use of this gift.
In Bible times, dreams were one of the most consistent and powerful ways in which God communicated. This is particularly worth noting because it’s perhaps one of the least respected and least practised ways of listening to God in the West today. The fact is that almost every major character in the Bible received highly significant dreams or visions from God. Some were symbolic, others were warnings, and many were a means of specific guidance. The primary mark of the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh in these last days, according to Joel and cited by Peter, is not speaking in tongues, shaking or falling to the ground but an increase in dreams and visions. If you are filled with the Spirit, you should therefore expect God to speak to you in this way.
5. Community, creation and culture
There is no aspect of God’s creation through which he cannot and does not speak. We must learn to discern the voice of God in the whole of life, not just in religious contexts. We must learn to listen more carefully to those people our culture ignores, because God speaks most consistently from the margins – through children, through the poor, through those who suffer.
These ways of hearing God’s voice are explored in greater depth in Pete’s new book How to Hear God (Hodder & Stoughton).