– Richard Rohr
Over the last couple of posts I have explored one of the amazing and mysterious promises from Jesus in John chapter 10: that as his followers, we can and should hear the voice of God. It is in this passage that Jesus identifies himself as the good Shepherd, and us as his beloved sheep:
“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (John 10.3-5)
I have been involved in a lot of conversations and interviews since my book 10:10 came out, and this is the question I have been asked more often. How does one hear and discern the voice of God?
In the next couple of posts I will introduce the grid that I most consistently use to discern the voice of God, but before doing so let me take a step back and refer to one of the theological giants of our day: Dallas Willard. He has written so many fantastic books, but the one that had the most practical impact on me was Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. One of the things Willard did in the book was to go through the whole canon of Scripture and he then summarized the six major ways that God spoke to people in the Bible. This is a helpful starting point for getting a macro-view of some of the different modes by which God can theoretically speak:
- A phenomena plus a voice (such as Moses and the burning bush)
- A supernatural messenger or an angel
- A dream or vision
- An audible voice
- A human voice (such as the prophet Nathan being used by God to reveal David’s sin)
- The inner witness, or what was called the “still small voice” in 1 Kings 19
Willard acknowledges in the book that God can and does speak through the first four modes, but he then goes on to make the case that God usually speaks through final two.
He actually makes the case that if we are too dependent or needy on hearing God through the first four modes, we may miss God entirely. We tend to have a different set of hopes than God does – we are drawn to the search for the spectacular and flamboyant; God, on the other hand, is drawn to a relationship that much more closely resembles a parent talking to their child than thunderclaps from a mountain.
This resonated with me both at a personal level and as a student of the Bible. There are clearly cases of miraculous and supernatural interventions in the Bible, and I would never dare say that God can’t or won’t still communicate that way. But there is nothing flamboyant or dramatic about the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray, and we should remember that when looking to develop our own inner capacities.
For instance, when the disciples asked for guidance on this topic, what did Jesus tell them? Listen for an audible voice? Ask God for a revelation in a dream? Go to a mountaintop and look for a sign? God could speak through any of those means, but that’s not how Jesus trained the disciples. He told them to pursue God as a child would pursue the guidance of a parent. He told them to simply pray, “Our Father.”
In a different passage Jesus critiques the Pharisees for the showy nature of their prayers, and then offers a corrective by saying, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” (Matthew 6.6). That is again the language of intimate, parental, inner witness type of communication.
Even his human experience seemed to reflect this style of prayer. In John 5.19 Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” Jesus himself was reliant on a still small voice from the Father, and it was from there that his power came.
This is helpful material those who want to grow in their capacity to hear and discern the voice of God. There will always be a mystery associated with this topic, but there is also a beautiful simplicity to it. God loves us, and embraces us as his children. God’s presence is all around us, and he invites us to embrace and affirm that. God’s love is deeper and wider than we could possibly imagine, and God wants us to be able to drink deeply of those living waters.
At the beginning of the blog is a great reminder from Richard Rohr about the pervasive presence of God. Let me close this post with one of Willard’s quotes from Hearing God that strikes a very similar chord:
“God’s presence is everywhere around us. God is able to intertwine himself within the fibers of the human self in such a way that those who are enveloped in His loving companionship will never be alone.”
― Dallas Willard, Hearing God