Most believers I know long for—and long desperately for—God’s voice, but we don’t hear his voice because we are unaware of the lavishness of his methods and moments.
Scripture says, “God speaks in many and diverse ways, but nobody notices (Job 33:14). We miss his voice because he’s not a paint-by-number God. He speaks in ways we can’t imagine.
Far too often well-meaning people describe conversations with God with unhelpful, misleading examples. Their exchanges with God sound like dialogues written by master playwrights:
I asked God: What should I do with my life?
God answered: Are you willing to take a risk?
I replied: Yes, but I don’t know what to do.
God said: Move to Timbuktu.
When people tell these stories, we think, I never hear God so clearly. Let me tell you a secret: neither do they. At least not most of the time. Those stories are usually shorthand summaries of hours spent reading Scripture, reflecting on his words, praying, getting Godly nudges, and recognizing God’s voice in circumstances and through friends.
Because God speaks through his infinitely imaginative, artistic mix of methods and moments.
God speaks through multiple methods: let’s not put him in a box. If we limit his voice to a few methods—the scripted dialogue or heavenly visions—we will miss his voice when he paints his words with different brushstrokes. Below are eight common methods in which God speaks.
Responsive Resonance: God’s Spirit often resonates in our spirits as a response to external events. Perhaps it’s a burning in our heart or a sense that God has something significant for us in this moment: a Scripture passage leaps out at us in prayer, or we overhear a “chance” comment in the coffee shop. God moves speaks to our hearts to pay attention.
For example, “While waiting in Athens, Paul’s spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was full of idols” (Act 17:16). Now, think with me: every city Paul visited was filled with idols , but something stirred in him in Athens.
Spontaneous Nudging: Sometimes God nudges our heart out of the blue: to pray for a friend or to act on an issue. It comes more as a sense on the heart than as a direct word.
I once got a sense to pray for a friend, so I phoned him. He had been let go from his job just hours before. We prayed on the phone and he thanked me for my concern. Only I hadn’t been concerned—I hadn’t even known—it was a concerned God who spontaneously nudged me.
Direct words: Sometimes God speaks direct words—usually just a sentence or two, or perhaps just a phrase. The first time I heard God speak, I had just become a ten year-old atheist. He simply said, “Sam, I am real and you don’t understand.”
I must say though that for me, most direct words—if any—only come after I pursue God in prayer and reflection following a resonance or nudging.
Unbidden Memories: Sometimes God bring to mind a past event. I once remembered my twelve-year old self saying something harsh to a neighborhood kid. Weeks after remembering, I bumped into that kid, now a grown man. I reminded him of the story and repented. He too remembered and wept when I repented.
I admit to a tear or two myself. Just don’t tell anyone.
Planted Images: God isn’t limited to nudges and words. Sometimes he even paints pictures.
Around 1915, my grandfather received a mental picture in which the letters KWANGSI were spelled in red letters across the sky. In the local library he discovered that the letters spelled a province of China (now spelled GuangXi). He spent the next two decades living in that very province, founding four churches. Do we really want to limit a God like this?
Recalled Passages: God often brings unbidden passages to mind at just the right moment.
Once while talking with a man—and when I had zero wise words to say—a verse popped to mind: We comfort others with the comfort we’ve been given (a paraphrase of 2 Cor. 1:4). I told him of a comforting word God had recently given me. Nothing wise, just comfort. It answered an unspoken question of his.
Since my Bible memorization is abysmal, it simply had to be God.
Visions and Dreams: I’ve never had one, but I know people I respect who get them. Unlike still pictures, visions are more akin to short video sketches, like when Paul was sleeping: “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Who’s to say God can’t do this today?
God Shaped Thoughts: Perhaps these are the hardest to recognize because our thoughts feel like our own. Yet how many times have you felt utterly empty, no words to pray, and then a brilliant (and obvious) thought streaks through your mind? C. S. Lewis expressed it like this:
Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The listener’s role and through
My dumb lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.
God speaks in many and various ways. We are just learning to hear him.
God speaks with more methods than we expect, but he also speaks in more moments. He’s not limited to Sunday sermons or personal prayer times. His moments include: Scriptural meditation, watching a movie, conversations with friends, in brainstorming, while driving to work, at the coffee shop, in moments of curiosity, and even in his silence.
God mixes his many methods of speaking with the extensive variety of moments in our lives; he creates an infinite assortment of opportunities for us to recognize his voice. Take the “moment” of reading the verse, “God is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
- He may remind you of another verse, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves;”
- He may give you a responsive resonance of his great care for you;
- He may speak a direct word, “You are trying to get your deepest need filled elsewhere;”
- Or he may give you an image of a satisfied child.
Our lives are filled with multiple moments—from waking at 2:00 am, to an afternoon walk, to an unpleasant meeting with your boss—and into each of those many moments God can speak thorough his many methods.
Let’s not put God’s voice in a box.
This article includes material from my upcoming book Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere. It will be released in mid-July.
- Learning to recognize the sound of God’s voice
- Hearing God in his silence
- How to Brainstorm with God
- Hearing God in Scripture
- Hearing God for guidance
Gary Wilkerson (pastor, author, and son of David Wilkerson) said this:
A key longing in every human heart is to connect with God, to actually hear his voice. Sam Williamson has written a remarkable book that teaches both how to hear God’s voice in Scripture, and then to hear his voice in every avenue of life. It’s filled with humor, insight, practical tips, and sound theology. I can’t recommend a better guide than Hearing God in Conversation.