Hearing God: Learning to Recognize His Voice in Meditation

God speaks time and again—in various ways—but nobody notices” (Job 33:14).

Core to the nature of the human race is a desire to hear God. Well, more than mere desire. We crave a connection with the divine, somehow to see the face of God, to touch and be touched. It’s an inborn, inherent ingredient of our humanity.

The cacophony of voices

Scripture says God is always speaking, but we miss it. It’s not that he doesn’t speak to us, it’s just that we don’t recognize it when he does. Oh, sometimes he breaks in through writing on the wall or thorough a speaking donkey, but mostly he speaks in a still, small voice.

We miss his voice because it is drowned out in the sea of other voices. The cacophony of sounds, like an orchestra tuning, obscures that still small voice. Stomachs growl their hunger, bosses bark their orders, and that insult from twenty years ago still shouts its condemnation.

How do we begin to recognize God’s voice? In meditation. Christian meditation trains our ears to distinguish God’s voice—that one instrument—amidst the orchestra of others. And once we learn to recognize God’s voice, we begin to hear it “time and again, in various ways.”

To hear God’s voice, we need to learn to meditate. Unless, like Balaam, you have a talking ass.

Hearing God: Conversation Is the Point

When I was growing up, my dad taught me to sail our small Sunfish sailboat. We took month-long summer vacations, and we always camped on lakes, so we could challenge the wind every day.

Father son sailing

I probably sailed with my dad for a hundred hours before I took the boat out on my own. My dad would have me handle either the sail or the rudder. Of our many hours sailing together, I’ll bet his actual instruction time totaled an hour, two at the most.

He might say, “Pull in the sail a bit,” or, “Turn a little more to the left.” (My dad didn’t care much about proper nautical terminology.) Those short comments took mere moments to say, and Dad didn’t make them often. Mostly we just sailed together for hours and hours. And bit by bit, gust by gust, wave by wave, I learned to sail.

Instead of instructing, Dad mostly just chatted.

He would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d say, “A pirate!” (of course) and he’d heartily agree (“Yo, ho, ho!”). He’d ask why I had yelled at my sister, and I’d ask why he got angry at my mom. We’d talk about books we were reading, sermons he was preparing, which girls I found interesting, and what it would be like to sail across the ocean.

Our relationship with God can be like that. Conversational.

Courage and Cowardice

The worst riot in Detroit’s history broke out the summer of 1967: forty-three people were killed and over eleven hundred injured. As the violence escalated, my father packed us kids into the station wagon and drove us in to the center of the action (every other car was headed out). Police tried to wave us away while we witnessed looting, fights, arrests, and arson.

Courage and Cowardice

My father was fearless and he passed that recklessness on to us kids.

We grew up with a daredevil streak. By the time I graduated from high school, I had broken my left leg twice (and my nose once), cracked multiple ribs, had the tip of a finger chopped off in a lawnmower (don’t ask), fractured my kneecap, and my many stitches give me a Frankenstein look. We knew all the names of the ER nurses, their kids, second cousins, and pet goldfish.

My father could have driven us to our doctor blindfolded. Though he never tried.

When Success Turns Sour

Fifteen years ago, a client of mine became president of his company. It all came about through a fluke (he was a mid-level manager), good luck, and a couple coincidences. He was very humble about his promotion, “It was just God’s grace. I hadn’t wanted it, I didn’t deserve it, and I never tried for it. God just dropped it on my lap.”

When Success Turns Sour

Within a couple years he began to attribute his advancement to his own hard work and brilliant insights. He said that his promotion had been delayed too long by people who didn’t appreciate him. He fired people who disagreed with his opinions.

He felt his genius was needed everywhere, and he was glad to offer it:

  • He convinced the high school athletic committee to change coaches because he knew a better way—though he had never played an organized sport in his life.
  • He became head elder at his church and bullied them into adopting a “better” Bible translation—though he had never studied Greek or Hebrew (not even Pig-Latin).

He once scowled in anger when a friend told him his zipper was unzipped (true story), and he sent his dental hygienist home in tears when she suggested he begin flossing (another true story). The slightest correction was met by him with red-faced fury.

Success turned a wonderful human being into an uncorrectable, insufferable know-it-all.

When Obedience Doesn’t Make Sense

When my family moved to Detroit, the summer between my first and second grade, Tommy was the first friend I made. He too was the son of a pastor—so we had that in common—but his mother hated the idea of punishment.

Cigarette butts

Tommy’s mother caught us smoking cigarette butts behind their church which was right next door to their house. (How could we have been so stupid?) She explained that the butts have other people’s germs. When that insight failed to motivate him, she offered a pack of gum for every day he didn’t smoke.

Instead of obedience, Tommy’s mom favored explanation, “Do you really want someone’s butt in your mouth?”, and bribery. (My own mother’s response was more pointed and painful.)

Reasoning and bribery didn’t stick. The pleasure of sex and drugs made more sense (and paid better) than his mother’s urgings and graft. By the time he was twenty, Tommy had been arrested for drugs that he sold to support his pregnant girlfriend.

[This article is about obedience not about parenting—though there are implications for parenting as well.]

Tommy’s father favored stricter discipline but his mom’s philosophy was, “I don’t want to crush his spirit.” She let him crush his own.

As Long as We Both Shall Live

Last weekend my wife and I attended two weddings. Both couples used traditional vows:

To have and to hold, from this day forward,
For better and for worse, for richer and for poorer,
In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,
Forsaking all others, as long as we both shall live.

Beauty-and-the-Beast

My wife and I got married thirty-three years ago, but our church met in the YMCA, so we asked another local church to rent their building. They required, however, that we receive premarital counseling from one of their staff.

The pastor they provided encouraged us to write our own vows, but he disliked our traditional ending. He suggested we change the last clause to read,

“As long as we both shall love.”

Wait For It

Eight years ago, my niece Amy married Nathan, a great guy. They moved into a starter home in the country. Over time, and with the addition of a son and daughter, the small house felt smaller. With a third child on the way, they decided to sell their house and find a larger home, a place closer to town with neighbors for the kids and a garage for the cars.

Wait for it

They put their house on the market late last October, and within four days they had signed agreement. Which meant they’d better start looking for their replacement home.

Two weeks later they fell in love with a house in their preferred neighborhood, at the right price in the perfect size, and with an attached garage. (It usually takes only one Michigan winter to make the most frugal-minded puritan lust for a garage. They endured seven winters.)

Their bid was accepted. But the inspection uncovered rotted roofing, siding, and windows, and substandard plumbing. All of which was going to cost them more than $40,000. The owners wouldn’t budge on the pricing, so Amy and Nathan reluctantly released the house. They moved in with Nathan’s family a few weeks before Christmas.

Imagine an extended time of suitcase-life with two kids, living in someone else’s home, and pregnancy. (I can imagine all but the pregnancy myself.) Their family-host was gracious, but weeks of this lifestyle took its toll, as though they were imposing on friends. They searched, and searched desperately, for their next home.

They soon found another house that thrilled neither of them (except for the hope of living on their own again); they made a bid that was accepted; the inspection turned up arsenic in the water; the owners refused to re-negotiate; and Amy and Nathan decided again to wait.

And they waited and waited, and weeks turned into months.