We were talking about meeting a potential spouse and how we decide if they’re the right person. How did I decide? he asked me. Well, it was easy, I said, I just asked God and he said yes.That’s when the question came up: how do I hear God?
The short answer is: it varies. God isn’t like some kind of machine – punch the right buttons, turn the knob to the correct position, and you will get what you want. There isn’t some sort of magic word, there isn’t a particular position you have to be in (kneel/clasp your hands/stand up/sit down/wave your arms in the air/etc etc) – but oh, how we humans would love it if there was, wouldn’t we! How much more comfortable we would feel if we could know that if only we did XYZ and did them correctly, God would do what we ask.
But I digress…
I’ve been learning to hear God over the past nearly 20 years, learning to recognise his voice, his ways of speaking. Part of the learning curve involves experimentation: I think I heard God tell me to do X, I do X and see what happens. If the result is a disaster, then I probably didn’t hear right. If the result is one of those “fantastic coincidences” (I don’t know who it was that said: coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous) then it very probably was God telling me to do this.
For example I remember years ago when I lived in London, walking home from somewhere or other and suddenly having this very loud thought in my head: knock on Juliet’s door. Juliet was someone I knew from church, we’d had plenty of friendly chats at coffee time after the service but we hadn’t progressed to visiting each other at home. And it was around 10 in the evening, which is not a time that is very normal in England for knocking on someone’s door uninvited – in fact, knocking on someone’s door uninvited at any time of day is pretty unusual here! But still, that loud thought in my head was loud and persistent, and I didn’t feel I could just carry on walking and ignore it. Juliet’s reaction was wonderful – it was her birthday, she told me (I had no idea), her husband was away (he was part of a rock band and was away on tour), she’d had one friend come to see her but she had felt she would have really liked another person to come.
So God heard her prayer, spoke to me, and Juliet had another visitor to cheer her up on her birthday.
And for me this was another little lesson in hearing God: yes, I did hear right, yes, that voice in my head was his voice.
Another very precious moment along the way was on one of my retreats in North Wales.
There was a lovely little place I used to go to regularly, run by two lovely ladies who became my friends over the years. They would feed their guests very well, but on this one occasion – well, the thing was I was in the habit at that time of giving things up for Lent, and I’d given up anything sweet, so I’d only eaten the main course and not the pudding, and I’d left the table still feeling not quite satisfied. The next day I was sitting in their Quiet Room in the afternoon and praying, when my mind started to wander, and probably because I was getting hungry, my thoughts turned to food. I thought about the previous evening’s supper, which had consisted of chicken, rice and sweetcorn, which I hadn’t found filling enough. And I thought something like: wouldn’t it be nice if there’d be potatoes for supper tonight, potatoes are so much more filling than white rice. And suddenly there was this voice saying: yes, you’ll have potatoes tonight.
I looked up, rather surprised – I’d kind of forgotten God was there… I whispered a thank you and then, emboldened, I said: And fish? The answer came: And fish. Yes, you’ll have fish and potatoes tonight.
And that’s what was on the table when I went in for supper later. I’ve never been able to look at fish and potatoes since then without thinking about God, and about how much he loves me.
There have been many many occasions along the way. Yes, I hear a voice speaking to me – sometimes it feels like it’s inside my head, like a thought; sometimes it feels like an external voice, as happened that time with the fish and potatoes, or as happened once when I was working in the office in London, I was alone in the room and I don’t remember what it was that I’d done but it was something I wasn’t supposed to be doing and I thought to myself: it’s a good job nobody saw me; and a booming voice said: I saw you. (So no, it’s not always nice…)
Last night I heard him, which is what brought all this to my mind now. I asked for wisdom about a decision that I have to make, and the answers came – this time in the form of thoughts in my head, but very clear. I think it’s become clearer over time, a bit like when you’re getting to know someone and the more you get to know them, the better you recognise their voice on the phone when they ring. But it’s not just the voice – it’s the way they talk, the sort of things they say. The more you get to know a person, the better you will recognise a fake, someone who was pretending to be them. When we know someone well, we can say things like, “you don’t sound like your usual self.” The more I’ve been getting to know God – through reading the Bible and through spending time with him – the better I’m able to recognise not just his voice but his way of speaking and what sorts of things he’s likely to say. The Bible tells me a lot about God, about what he’s like and what sorts of things he approves of or disapproves of, so to take a really drastic example, if I heard a voice telling me to kill my next-door neighbour, it should be quite easy for me to tell that that is not God’s voice. The better I get to know him, the more I’m going to be able to say: no, this isn’t the sort of thing God would say!
But this is also part of why God put other Believers around me to help me work these things out, so if I’m not sure I can go to them and say: look, I think I heard God say X, but what do you think? And if they think I’m going off the rails they will hopefully prod me and say: no, you can’t have heard God telling you to start a new career as a bank robber.
And this brings me to another important point: it’s not always a matter of hearing God’s voice directly, sometimes he uses people to speak – just as he used the prophets in Bible times. Sometimes someone has said something to me and I just felt in my guts that this was a message from God. Like when back in 1999 I felt he was prodding me to go back to using my Hebrew name…
I was on holiday with a friend, staying in a little cottage in Devon and doing all sorts of touristy things. One day we were sitting there in the cottage and chatting and suddenly, out of the blue, Karen says to me: have you ever thought of going back to using your Hebrew name? That feeling in my guts was there, but I chased it away with “sensible” talk: it would be so complicated after all these years, I’d been using a British name for about a decade, everyone was used to it, etc etc etc.
But God often speaks in more than one way when he’s got a message to get across. This time he used a monk at the till at the Buckfast Abbey gift shop, who – in a friendly manner – questioned the name on my credit card when I wanted to pay. That was when the penny dropped and I stopped struggling and accepted that it really was time I stopped using a British-sounding name and went back to my real identity. Since then I have a name that is quite a conversation-starter…
So how do I hear God? There are all sorts of ways he uses – there is his voice which I sometimes hear directly; there are the times he speaks through other people and I have this feeling in my guts which is a kind of recognition; there are times when it’s something I read that leaps at me. The more I get to know him, the better I recognise when it is him speaking to me. From the Bible I learn what sorts of things God is or isn’t likely to say. And when in doubt I can turn to fellow Believers and ask their advice. But I think the bottom line is this: if you love him and seek to live his way, he will speak to you. It’s up to us to have our radio tuned in to the right station, it’s up to God to do the broadcasting.
Oh, and by the way, that stuff about “the still small voice” – well, you know, in my experience, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t so still and small! And in any case I really think it’s a bad translation of the Hebrew. Kol dmama daka is the sound of sheer silence. And in my experience, that is also sometimes the sound of God’s presence. Just tune in.
p.s. A discussion elsewhere has reminded me to add this: I have also managed at times to mis-hear God. There was one particular time in 1999 when I felt God was calling me to a particular role, and looking back I can now see that I was simply not able to hear what he was really saying. This wasn’t a conscious process. It was simply my own very human prejudices come in and disrupting the broadcast. I’m very grateful he has given me a second chance, and spoke to me about it again at a time when I was able to hear.