One of the really frustrating things about living and working in the country is that cell phone reception is completely unreliable. While I was working one job where I had to travel county to county, there was one stretch of highway where my cell phone didn’t work at all. I can remember once calling my wife to discuss a few things and almost like clockwork, when I turned on to this country road, her beautiful voice began to sound like Darth Vader in a wind tunnel. “What did you say?” I kept repeating (it was at one of those moments when a dropped call is really inconvenient). And then the beep and “dropped call” message hit.
I also can remember some times when my relationship with God felt like that out-of-range phone call I had with Kat. “Are you there? What did you say? Has my call been dropped?” For many of us, learning to hear from God can be very frustrating and difficult.
In our last Bible study we discussed the fact God promised to send us the person of the Holy Spirit to be with us as a constant guide, offering the guidance we need to get us to the destination God has for us in life. Sometimes though we might feel “out of area” and not know how to begin to listen to God.
So today I want to talk about both how God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit and how to listen for the Holy Spirit speaking to you in your life.
Scripture outlines what is involved with hearing from God in Romans 12:1-2:
Brothers and sisters, God has shown you his mercy. So I am asking you to offer up your bodies to him while you are still alive. Your bodies are a holy sacrifice that is pleasing to God. When you offer your bodies to God, you are worshiping him. Don’t live any longer the way this world lives. Let your way of thinking be completely changed. Then you will be able to test what God wants for you. And you will agree that what he wants is right. His plan is good and pleasing and perfect.
The end result of a relationship with God is being able to know what God’s will is and to do it.
How do we get to that place?
First the Bible tells us we need to offer ourselves to God. Jesus elsewhere says we have not because we ask not. Though God is always willing to speak with us, unless we have invited God into our lives and truly desire to give our lives over to God’s purposes for us, we can’t expect God to force God’s way. The Holy Spirit is like a gentlemen or a lady, waiting until our hearts are ready to speak to us, to take our hand and guide us.
Next we see that a key is not continuing to think in the same way, after the pattern of society around us. Let’s face it, our world around us is noisy and cluttered, constantly in motion. Though at times the Holy Spirit will speak to us in a loud way that interrupts our world and its noise to get our attention, the Spirit prefers to be like a gentlemen or lady, waiting until we are ready and willing to listen. As Elijah saw on the mount, some of the deepest things God has to say to us are not in the fire and earthquake but in a still small voice. Just as with romance, marriage, dating, or friendship, so with our relationship with God — you will hear the Spirit speaking to you more effectively if you take time to step out of the noise and hustle and bustle of your life, put aside distractions, and just focus on God, letting God know you are open. Even if you can’t stop the hustle and bustle completely, you can take a few minutes to put aside all the cares and concerns, to calm yourself down, to be quiet and still, and look and listen for God around you.
When God speaks to you what will it be like?
In my experience, God speaks to us each uniquely so I can’t completely tell you what it will be like. I can however point some examples to you from Scripture and share what my own experience of the Holy Spirit has shown me.
A few years ago I did a study on the book of Acts, which focused on how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of Christians, and I found at least 5 ways people experience the Holy Spirit:
1. During Worship, the Holy Spirit reveals God’s will. A number of times in the book of Acts, we see the phrase “the Spirit spoke,” “the Spirit told,” or examples of people responding to or given a message from the Holy Spirit that they received through times they were worshipping God through song, prayer, and the sacraments. In my own life I have found many times when I came to a time of worship uncertain and confused and left with a clear sense of certainty and peace. I may not have heard words but through the experience of interacting intimately with God through worship, God the Holy Spirit touched me and pointed me in the right direction.
2. The Spirit speaks through the words of Scripture. Again, if you read the book of Acts, you will see where again and again, we are told how the early Christians would say “the Spirit spoke through” a particular Biblical author and they would walk away from Scripture with a clear message for our lives. When the Spirit speaks to you from Scripture, though, it isn’t just you intellectually understanding words on a page. No, instead, the Spirit takes those words and applies them to your heart and mind, giving you applications for your own life you never could have come up with on your own. When you read through Acts, some of the applications of Scripture that the early Christians filled with the Spirit gained from Scripture were very specific to their lives. Not all of them were a direct literal interpretation of the books in front of them. No, the Spirit showed them how those words applied in a deeply personal way to their situation.
3. People experience an Inner Prompting, a sense of ought-ness, that the Spirit inspires. In the book of Acts, again and again we are told how the Holy Spirit would speak to someone’s heart, telling them to go here or there. Or how the Spirit would send them, or stop them from going to a particular place or person. My understanding of these experiences is not that everyone described in the book of Acts heard some booming voice from the sky but instead that most of those involved felt deep within themselves a strong feeling that they ought to do this or that, that they ought not to this or that. This strong sense of prompting that isn’t coming from yourself can often be the Holy Spirit speaking to your heart and mind, giving you direction.
I remember when I was learning to listen to the Holy Spirit and I was just walking the neighborhood and praying. As I did so I felt the strongest urge to knock on the door of one house I didn’t know. I tried to ignore it, thinking I was just imagining things. The feeling only got stronger. Since I was studying hearing from the Holy Spirit, I thought “Well, why not? Maybe it is God.” I knocked on the door and asked “Is there anything you need?” I found out there was a lady there who had just had septuplets and who was having trouble finding what she needed for her children. I prayed with her — and she was very encouraged — and spread the word to help the lady out. That strong urge to meet the people at that house was the voice of the Holy Spirit.
4. The Spirit often speaks in the voice of others who have been and are being led by the Spirit. I am sure you have had the experience of being in a situation that you didn’t know the way to get through on your own and encountering someone you didn’t expect who shared with you information that day that helped you get through it. In Scripture, we are shown many examples of the Holy Spirit often can speak to us through the voice of others who are listening to the Spirit. This can be because the Spirit will reveal to them God’s answer. It can also be that they aren’t conscious of God speaking to them but God had already given them the experiences needed to help with your problem and the Spirit leads you along their path.
5. The Spirit’s will is often revealed through Miraculous Signs. I leave this type last on my list because it is the one that gets people in the most trouble. Some people have trouble believing in miraculous works of God and because of this have trouble believing God the Spirit could ever talk to them. Other people get so caught up in looking for a miraculous sign that they forget that God is always with us, able to speak with us, and that most of the times God is speaking is without much fan fair and fireworks. However in the book of Acts (and the rest of Scripture), we see the Spirit does speak to people through healings and miracles, through angels and visions, through dreams and charismatic experiences. This shows that we need an openess to the supernatural in our life, so that we do not miss a potential message from God in ways we are not familiar with, but we do not need to become obsessed with it, lest we miss the messages God is giving in everyday ways.
The Bible also tells us if we have an experience where we feel that God might be speaking to us, to take time to pray and reflect on it before responding. God tell us in 1 John 4:1-3:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit. Put the spirits to the test to see if they belong to God. Many false prophets have gone out into the world. How can you recognize the Spirit of God? Every spirit that agrees that Jesus Christ came in a human body belongs to God. But every spirit that doesn’t agree with this does not belong to God. It is the spirit of the great enemy of Christ. You have heard that the enemy is coming. Even now he is already in the world.
So it is important to pause before you act on it, to pray about it, and ask “is this a message from God?” because other spiritual forces (such as our own unconscious and Satan) can masquerade as God. How do we know it is really God’s word? God’s word always points us to Jesus, always makes us more like Jesus in how we live and treat others, leading us to do justly, love mercy, and walk closer to our God.
And remember, God’s voice is not the voice speaking death and destruction in your life, but the one calling you to life and life with more abundance. Take God’s hand, hear God’s voice, and walk with him into a future beyond your imagination.
Rev. Micah Royal serves as Pastor of Life’s Journey UCC in Burlington, N.C. Having earned his Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Campbell Divinity School, he has served in ordained ministry in various contexts throughout the Carolinas and southern California, including on the board of the Eastern NC Association of the United Church of Christ.