Let’s admit the plain fact that most of us want to hear God’s voice for one simple reason: Guidance. We’re looking for an answer or some formula that will provide us with a clear choice between competing options.
But God rarely limits his guiding voice to a formula. Rather, like a master painter, he uses an artful mix of brushstrokes and palette, sometimes speaking, other times orchestrating, oftentimes through counsel, and frequently even in his silence.
God’s primary purpose is to deepen his relationship with us. He doesn’t give us a paint-by-number scheme for guidance. Each of our lives is his masterpiece, and each masterpiece is painted with different colors and varying brushstrokes. Let’s not limit God’s guidance to dime-store paint kits.
Let me walk you through a bit of God’s guidance in my journey. As you see God’s painting of my life, I hope you will recognize his brushstrokes in yours as well.
In 1982, after serving overseas in missions, I thought I heard God say, “Not now,” to missions. Until that moment, I had always imagined a life of mission work; no other idea had ever been considered. I felt clueless. (This was not my only clueless moment in life; just ask my family.)
My university studies did little to prepare me for a career. My degree in seventeenth century European intellectual history attracted few employers, and studies of philosophy and Hebrew opened even fewer doors. My bank account had enough cash for about six weeks, so I found odd jobs to keep me afloat as I looked for a professional occupation.
Sometimes God guides us with words (“Not now” to missions) but not always. Not even mostly.
As I began my career search, I read this proverb: “Trust in the Lord, not your own ideas; acknowledge him in all your plans, and he will direct your paths” (Prov. 3:5–6 par). Meditating on this proverb produced my paraphrase above and these steps for getting God’s guidance:
- After prayer, counsel, and wisdom: make a plan.
- Then: commit that plan to God.
- Finally: Let God direct your path.
But committing plans to God also means recognizing that he might guide us down paths our original maps never envisioned. Trusting God to direct us means we simply trust who he is, not anything else; especially not our own plans.
Plans are just nice starting points to get us moving.
God’s silent guidance
Alas! When God gives me direct words of guidance, I often just march down his given path alone, like: I’ve got this covered, God, thanks for the tip.
So instead, God’s most common guidance is done through nonobvious means. The hiddenness of his guidance means we will take risks, learn through trial and error, and continue to be alert to God’s gentle nudges. This is perfectly fine. It means we must remain in conversational contact with God; he invites us to walk with him.
After leaving missions, I put my three-step breakdown of the proverb into motion. I talked with a career counselor, enrolled in a job search program, took aptitude tests, networked with scores of contacts, and read books on resume writing and managing the interview.
I even read Dress for Success. (Don’t laugh. It helped me more than my history degree.)
In other words, I exercised wisdom, in order to create a plan, so I could commit it to God. I found God’s guidance through wise reasoning, advice from friends and counselors, examination of my skills and personality, extended prayer, and trial and error.
He took me places my plans never imagined
My [limited] wisdom made my first professional job seem like an excellent fit. But after starting it, I hated it. Eight months later, I was hired by a rapidly growing video company that needed internal organization. It was a great job, and in it I learned to program computers for a variety of business operations.
Sadly for me, a year later the company moved to Hollywood, and I lacked the looks to be a star.
But a local software company soon hired me because of the computer skills I had inadvertently gained organizing that video company. I remained with that software company for the next two-and-a-half decades. It was a terrific fit for my skillset.
God directed my path to an industry—software!—that I had never imagined, my schooling didn’t prepare me for, and that my plans failed to envision. He orchestrated my life through the silent word of his command.
In other words, God guided me through a mixture of methods: a direct word (telling me to leave missions), meditating on a couple of proverbs, counsel, reasonably wise plans that I committed to him, and risk and trial and error.
Don’t imagine I was peaceful!
Trusting God is scary. When I re-read my story above, I realize I left out my dark nights of the soul, my fears of an impractical degree, being laid off from a job I loved (unless I moved to Hollywood), and harsh bosses and difficult clients. All I can say is: God’s plans are better than ours.
If sin is us substituting ourselves for God, and the gospel is God substituting himself for us, then the silence Jesus got on the cross must mean that God wants to speak into and orchestrate our lives.
Even if you are as clueless as this seventeenth century intellectual historian.
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.