“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” ~ John 10:27
Ten years into our marriage, Janis and I were on the rocks. And one warm spring day, I was on the rocks, literally – sitting on a big boulder at a park, overlooking a lake, half-praying, half-sulking, trying to figure out what to do to fix things. Our sexual relationship had become mechanical, even farcical. Jan had some hidden pain she wouldn’t talk about. I was simmering with anger that I wouldn’t talk about. And shame too.
Because a few months before, while flipping channels late one night, I discovered that some movie channels that were supposed to be blocked weren’t quite as blocked as I had thought. I could see a lot through those squiggly lines. Any revulsion I felt at first quickly morphed into dark delight, and I slid inch by inch into those cold, forbidden waters.
After a few days wallowing in remorse, there I was again with the remote in hand after Janis had gone to bed. This time, I wasted no time dancing with the midnight fairies. I plunged in, and they welcomed me like a forgotten friend. The sinful heart is notorious for its ability to justify its vanity. “The heart wants what it wants,” Woody Allen infamously asserted to excuse the sexual pursuit of his step-daughter. Before long, I had assembled what I believed was an open-and-shut case against Janis. She was the reason I had taken this sinful turn.
So there I was on the rocks. Hating my life. Doubly trapped, because I was a young pastor. Sitting there, I wrote a psalm in my heart called, “If Only…”. If only Janis were more attune to my needs. If only she’d show the slightest desire. If only she weren’t so beautiful. (Which she was, and still is – I married a babe from a family of babes.) If only she’d stopped thinking only about herself.”
As I looked down at the water, the dirtiest, dingiest duck I had ever seen in my life suddenly swam into view from behind a pile of rocks at the water’s edge. No joke, this was Frankenduck. And I said aloud, “See God. That’s Janis, right there. How did I end up with someone like her?”
Without skipping a beat, a Voice boomed in my heart. “No son, sorry. That’s you. Janis is coming up next.” And no sooner did I think that, than a beautiful, pure white swan came paddling into view from behind the rocks.
It wasn’t the first time either that this sort of thing had happened. It seemed that any time in our young marriage when I wanted to vent to God about my wife, he – for some reason – wanted to turn the conversation back around to me. This was just the clearest, most astonishing occurrence of it.
By now you’ve heard me share multiple instances when I heard in my heart what I believed was the voice of God. I am a firm believer that prayer, understood properly, is not just the act of talking to God, but also of listening.
God promises that we can know him in stillness (Psalm 46:10). That he is present not in the hurricane or earthquake or fire, but in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12). That he restores our souls beside still waters (Psalm 23:2). Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit within us would communicate – he would teach us, and bring timely reminders to our hearts of Jesus’ words, he would convict us of our sin, and guide us into truth, and speak of things to come (John 14:26; 16:8, 13).
For the follower of Jesus Christ (and this promise applies to no one else), in the act of prayer, there will be occasions when God will whisper to you through his Spirit if you can tune your heart to hear it. But there’s the rub – most of us lead such busy, noisy lives that God can’t get a word in edgewise.
I almost hesitate to teach this part of faith because there is so much chicanery in the Church today when it comes to these sorts of experiences. Many are being deceived and hurt by modern-day prophets and apostles who claim to be speaking for God. The Bible sternly warns us not to quench the Spirit, but test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:29-21).
I can only vouch for my own experience, but I have never heard an audible voice. I’ve never seen a miracle in a biblical sense. (A miracle is not a beautiful sunrise or a baby’s smile. It’s a dead man rising, a blind man seeing, a lame man walking.) I’m not saying it can’t happen, I’ve just never witnessed that.
I’ve never seen an angel as far as I know (though Janis was pretty close when I first set eyes on her.) My Mom swears that God speaks to her in her dreams, and I believe her. But my dreams are stupid. I’ve been chased by King Kong so many times, and fallen off so many buildings that I find dreaming a waste. I’ve never seen a vision. I am no prophet. I cannot tell you what the price of gas will be tomorrow or who will win the next election.
How I experience God’s closeness, and how I sometimes discern his voice is with a Bible on my lap, and a prayer on my heart. And I believe that you can have this experience as well. In fact, I believe that this is your birthright as a follower of Christ.
Let me give you a few safety tips to keep in mind about listening to God’s voice. This first one is the most important one. Underline it. Place five stars beside it.
Safety Tip #1: You will never know God’s voice in your spirit until you have first trained yourself to know God’s voice in His Word.
Unless you’re filled with the Bible, you cannot be filled with the Spirit. In fact, unless you are filled with the Bible I wouldn’t give a plug nickel for any spiritual thoughts going on in your head.
Why? Because the Bible is the measuring stick I use to evaluate my thoughts and feelings. Let’s face it: the voices in my head bounce all over the place. If nobody likes what I post on Facebook, I’m going to have sorts of dark voices in my head. And they’ll be strong voices. But if I follow Christ, and I remember what he says of me in the Bible – that I am created in his image, that I am wonderfully made, deeply loved, that he valued me so much that he died for me – then I won’t look to social media find my value. I won’t need to post a nude picture of myself online to show people how beautiful I am. Or I won’t have to give my body away to someone recklessly or drown myself in porn fantasies. And so knowing what the Bible says puts those dark voices in their right place.
Safety Tip #2: If what you are hearing is from God, then it will be not only be scriptural, but it will be accurate and truthful.
God may sometimes ask you to stretch your faith. Or to do something that doesn’t seem to make sense. Build a boat on dry land. Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go – oh and shake this stick at him. Line up at the shore of the Red Sea and it will open for you. Feed this multitude of thousands with these twelve fish and loaves. How do you know if that outlandish thing is from God? Well, God will catch you. He’ll do what he said. The sea will open. The flood will come. The crowd will get fed. If none of that occurs, well, then you weren’t hearing from God.
Safety Tip #3: If what you are hearing is from God, then trusted, mature Christians will be able to sign off on it.
This was a rule in the early church as the gift of prophecy was being exercised. “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh what is said.” (1 Corinthians 14:29). The book of Proverbs tells us that there is safety in a multitude of counselors (11:14).
There’s a call here for great humility when it comes to this whole business of hearing from God. When I am standing as a pastor preaching God’s Word, I will say, ‘Thus says the Lord’. But if I’m talking about a voice in my head, I won’t talk that way. What I will say instead (and what I wish more Christians would say) is, “What I think God is speaking to me is this…” And then share it. With humility. And with a willingness to allow others to weigh in. To say to me if need be, “Buddy, you’re three pecans shy of a nut salad.”
Safety Tip #4: If the voice you hear is from God, it will sound like Jesus.
Revelation 19:10 tells us, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” It’s the Christian smell-test. In other words, does the voice sound like or act like Jesus?
It’s yet another reason to know your Bibles. Sit at Jesus’ feet with Mary. Climb the tree with Zacchaeus. Lay your head on Jesus’ chest with John. Cast the net with Peter. Zero in on Revelation chapters 1, 2 and 3 where Jesus prophecies over seven churches, and pay attention to how he speaks. Hebrews 13:8 says “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” He’s not changing his tune today from how he sounded then.
In particular I want you to know this: That Jesus is committed to the project of burning sin out of you and making you like himself. So one of the things you will hear Jesus speak about more than anything else is the moral condition of your heart. If the Voice spends all its time rehearsing what’s rotten with everyone else, that’s not Jesus you’re hearing.
Or if the Voice says to you, “It’s OK that you sin, you’ve got the green light, cheat on that test, look at the porn, post that nasty comment, swear your head off, lie to your boss, move in with your girlfriend or boyfriend…” that’s not Jesus, I promise you.
I left the lake that day with the thought: What in me needs to change? That profound adjustment in my thinking didn’t fix what was wrong in my marriage that day. This wasn’t a faith-based film where everything is wonderful by the time the credits roll. Jan and I still had a two-year journey of healing to make. Porn was still an occupying army in my mind. But that was the day that hope returned to my heart. And it was all because God had spoken.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
How much time for quietness and listening do I give in my day to day life?
What are the 4 safety tips for listening to God? For each tip, write out something you ought to do in response to it.
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “Everlasting God” (Brenton Brown, Ken Riley)
This Week’s Memory Verses
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” ~ Psalm 51:10-11
“Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” ~ 2 Timothy 2:22