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3 problems we encounter when learning to listen to God

Are You Trying to Hear God's Voice?

Growing up, I never really learned to hear God’s voice. I learned to listen for God’s voice in sermons and in Bible verses that seemed relevant enough to my situation to be appropriated as such. I suppose I also expected God to speak when I needed particular guidance for big decisions and never really doubted that He could speak supernaturally to missionaries and people who seemed more deserving than I am.

But I never really learned to hear the Lord for myself, not as a natural part of a loving relationship. Looking back now, I think I had unwittingly developed three fundamental problems with the very notion of God speaking to me either supernaturally or in any consistently conversational way: psychological, theological, and experiential.

1. Psychologically

I felt unworthy of any kind of special attention from God, and my experiences backed this up. When I prayed for a miracle, it never seemed to work. When I read my Bible, it often seemed irrelevant. When I needed God to speak dramatically, there was never an audible voice or an angelic visitation, or a supernatural dream. I didn’t feel spiritual or special enough to hear God in the ways people do in the Bible, or in far-flung places around the world.

2. Theologically

I had absorbed some of the prejudices of dispensationalism, although I would never have known what that term meant. This is the idea that we should no longer expect God to speak and act miraculously today in the ways he once did in the Bible because that sort of thing died the day the ink dried on the New Testament. These days, the argument goes, we have God’s Word in the Bible, which is far more reliable than all that other whacko stuff.

One of the many problems with this view is that it disregards the fact that people can, and do, misunderstand and misapply the Bible just as much as any other means of divine communication. It also ignores that the Bible itself teaches that God speaks outside the Bible!

Dispensationalism only really makes sense in the absence of miracles, which leads me to the third problem I had with hearing from God . . .

3. Experientially

I was unfamiliar with the voice of God. Apart from the Bible, I only really expected Him to communicate through my conscience (which seemed basically to be God saying no a lot) and through something we referred to as “having peace.”  The idea here was that when you made a good decision, you would be flooded with a sense of well-being, but when you made a bad one, you would lose that peace altogether.

For me, this was never a good test. In fact, most of the best decisions I’ve ever made have been accompanied by feelings of blind terror. The night I proposed to my now wife, Sammy, for example, I had no peace at all. I was absolutely petrified. The night before we married, I was worse. The day I started the internship that revolutionized my relationship with the Lord, I walked down the driveway literally doubled over with anxiety. My lack of peace was epic. I could go on, but you get the point. Peace is a pretty subjective means of making important decisions, especially if you’re as uptight as I am.

This matters because we often confuse theology with psychology. The fact that God speaks is a matter of theology. It’s about God’s nature. But how we hear God speak is a matter not of theology but of psychology. It’s about how our neural pathways have learned to receive and process data, which varies from person to person.

One individual may indeed be flooded with feelings of peace when they propose to their girlfriend, while another may be utterly terrified. This probably says more about the way that person is wired than it does about the will of God for their lives.

Many people struggle to hear God because they have been taught to listen for His voice in ways that are difficult or even impossible for them to process. An academic study in the United States discovered a correlation between certain psychological attributes and the way spiritual phenomena are experienced. Certain personality types, it seems, simply find it harder to hear God’s voice than others. This is not helped by the fact that a disproportionate amount of the material on listening to God has been written by introverts (representing approximately 35 percent of the population), who understandably advocate their own preference for quietness, stillness, and solitude.

Countless extroverts struggle to hear God in such introverted ways and conclude that they are simply inherently bad at prayer. How desperately they need to know that it’s equally possible, and no less spiritual, to discern the voice of God in public spaces, with other people, and through processes of external interaction. Yes, the Bible says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), but it also says, “Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation’ (Psalm 95:1)!

Pete is a best-selling author, pastor and bewildered instigator of the 24-7 Prayer movement which has reached more than half the nations on earth. He is also the Senior Pastor of Emmaus Rd, Guildford, England, an Ambassador for the NGO Tearfund, and teaches at St Mellitus Theological College in London. For 7 years Pete served with the senior leadership team at HTB and Alpha International. Pete’s publications include ‘Red Moon Rising‘, ‘God on Mute‘, ‘The Prayer Course’, and ‘Dirty Glory’.  He loves art galleries, live music and knocking down walls.

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