I’ve heard it so many times: “You can have a relationship with God. Beautiful love and understanding will flow between you.” But what does that mean, exactly?
If I wanted to, how should I go about communicating with Christ? What do other people do? Why is it that I hear silence when I try praying, but a lot of people seem to be hearing from God all the time?
Usually when I ask this question to a well-meaning adult, their answer is that I don’t read my Bible enough, or that I don’t spend a full hour in prayer every day. I’m not “tuned in” to the “radio station” of God’s voice, and it’s basically because I’m not a good enough Christian.
As Dwight Schrute would say, “False.” First, how can another person possibly know the intricate details of your faith, and how can they justifiably judge you for them? Second, Jesus was all about dismantling the “I’m not good enough” religious trend. The whole point of his teachings—of his entire LIFE—is that you are adored and accepted no matter what.
Third, the Bible is full of examples of God talking with people who were not Christian, or who had made a ton of mistakes. Usually these people aren’t even looking for any kind of spiritual encounter; they’re just going about their normal, daily lives when God steps in.
Take Mary, for example. She was an ordinary girl when God sent an angel to tell her she would carry, deliver, and raise the son of God.
Or Moses. God sent an angel to him too, telling him to rescue the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Moses was a clumsy speaker who had actually just fled from Egypt, and he definitely wasn’t considering/praying about returning.
Pilate’s wife was sent a vivid dream about how to deal with Jesus’s court case. We know nothing else except that she received the dream and acted on it, but it’s a powerful snippet of the Bible.
Paul actually enjoyed murdering Christians when God knocked him down with the force of his voice and told him what to do next.
Jonah, Gideon, etc. etc. God shows up to normal people doing normal things all the time. These are just a few examples. Doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual, doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian, doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, doesn’t matter if you’re a powerful leader or a high-status citizen.
You do not need to be “holy” or “important” to hear from God.
Also a crucial piece:
God wants to speak with everyone.
He is always seeking to shower us with love and approval, direction and correction. We know this from reading about his relationships with people in the Bible, and we know this from the countless verses that say God wants to speak to us.
So if God is talking, and there’s nothing we can do to separate us from him, what’s happening? To use the radio analogy once more: God is broadcasting, but instead of making ourselves good enough to hear his voice over the waves, we are already hearing him. The radio station is playing, and we’re listening; it’s just whether we realize it’s him we’re listening to, or not.
To clarify: do you ever notice meaningful things around you? Don’t you see things that encourage or direct, and sometimes you wonder if those things are adding up to say something bigger?
Of course you don’t want to read into every single thing and turn it into a superstitious sign or huge symbol of what God has in store for your life. But at the same time, I think we miss a lot of opportunities by discounting the smaller things from God as trivial, or coincidence. We need to be more mindful.
Maybe it’s a conversation you have with a friend, or a song you hear, or thoughts about who you’ll be when you grow up, or hints about how to better support a family member. Or maybe it’s a Bible verse you read, or a thought you have while praying, but the point is: God can use anything—IS using anything—to show you things. Not just Bible verses. Have you ever heard of people doing the old “I’m going to randomly open the Bible and whatever I see first is a message from God.” I think that might have worked a couple times for people in the past, but seriously? Let’s pay attention to real things from God, not forced, man-made things that sound kind of crazy because they are. God’s ways are a lot more creative and they work a lot better.
Here are two concrete examples from my life.
Example #1: Moving to Gulu
My husband (Chris) and I thought this year would be a good time to volunteer with a non-profit that does ethical, sustainable, empowering work. But as we Googled different options and submitted our applications, we didn’t hear a thing from God; that is, we didn’t hear anything in the conventional sense. No voices spoke to us, no Holy Spirit moment had us shaking with conviction. It was just a “I feel like this is right for us, so let’s go ahead and do it” thing (which I’m convinced is the kind of decision God wants us to make: “Use your brain, I’ll make your decision good.” Free will and all that, but anyway). Friends and family encouraged us, too, also believing that this was the right step for us.
Chris and I moved to Gulu, Uganda, in January to work for a year with International Justice Mission (IJM). They’re an awesome organization that strengthens justice systems in poor countries. Since moving here, we haven’t had a divine sense of “Well done, my good and faithful servant!” from God, at least not in the conventional sense, again. Nobody has had visions from God that we’re doing the right thing, nobody has passed on quotes from God demonstrating his approval.
But at the same time, Chris and I feel a profound sense that we are in the right place at the right time. Everything from our sweaty walks to and from work (Gulu is hot) to the community we’ve found here has been so extremely affirming. It hasn’t been only smooth sailing since our arrival, but we’ve had so much positive input that we feel absolute peace about the year. There’ve been no big, obvious spiritual interferences telling us that God’s on board with us being here, but we know that he is through his other communication methods.
The scary thing is: what if we’re wrong?
What if we’ve misread everything, and God hates that we’re here, and the supposedly “meaningful” things we’re noticing don’t have anything to do with God’s plan for us at all?
That is entirely possible. Many, many people have done misguided and evil things because they think God wanted them to. Joseph Kony is a good example of someone who thought they were doing God’s work when they definitely weren’t. In Kony’s case, he horrifically terrorized Uganda for years. Any sane person can look at what he’s done and conclusively say that God would not want any of that to happen. While you and I are probably not on the same level of confusion that Kony is, we can still mix up what is from God and what is from our own thoughts and emotions.
It’s also true that we will probably never hear something from God in a crystal clear way.
Even the most practiced Christians’ words from God are a little blurry. What should we do then? Two things.
First, and I know this is going to sound oxymoronic, but hear me out: take risks carefully. You’re never going to know if what you’re feeling is from God unless you try it out. But at the same time, you want to avoid blundering around with so-called words from God. The way to be careful about it would be instead of saying things like, “God says this,” sticking to honest blurriness, like, “I got this sense of something for you, I’m not sure what it means, and maybe it was just my own thoughts, but I thought I’d tell you just in case.” It’s true and it will do less damage if it it’s off track.
The other obvious way to be careful is to read the Bible: not because it will qualify you to be on God’s talk-to list, but because you’ll learn more about God’s character. Through the stories in the Bible we see when, how and why God communicated with people. When in doubt about whether something is from God or not, check if it aligns with God’s character in the Bible.
So take risks, be careful, you’ll figure it out along the way.
Last thing before we look at the failure example: you’ll get better at recognizing God’s voice with time. Just like with anything, you get better at something the more you try it. Soon it’ll be much easier for you to tell if it’s God you’re noticing, or yourself, especially as you continue reading the Bible. As you read it’ll be impossible for you to avoid learning about God’s character, so of course you’ll grow better at recognizing his voice. So practicing is worth it; don’t stop after mishearing God once or a few times.
Example #2: Baby Prophecy
A few months ago, I was convinced I was pregnant. I was attending a doula-training conference (how ironic) and my period was several days late. Because my cycle is usually like clockwork—I can tell the day, sometimes the hour, when my period will start—the delay was bothering me. I would’ve been over the moon if it turned out I was pregnant, but my husband and I were moving to Uganda in a few weeks, and we wanted our year there to be uninterrupted work with IJM.
The last day of the conference, a woman came up to me. During the week we had become good friends, sharing our lunches and talking about babies and birth (the best conversation topics). On the last morning, she whispered in my ear, “Congratulations.” I asked her what she meant, and she explained that she felt like God told her I was pregnant. “I might be mishearing him,” she said, “but I’ve never been wrong about this before. In the past I’ve told complete strangers that they’re pregnant, and I’m always right.” I know it sounds kind of hokey, but you have to understand that I’ve grown up seeing real prophecies like this be true. Not many, mind you—most of them are a load of crap—but a few.
Of course I called my husband and told him everything. Her prophecy, on top of my period’s lateness, had me fully convinced. “Yes, she could be wrong,” I said to Chris, “but she says she never is!” I felt like I was hearing from God: he had spoken to me through my friend, and he was preparing me for motherhood right before I moved to Uganda. I was ready. While praying I felt like God’s love was comforting and empowering, not a gentle let-down. When I took a few tests, even when they were all negative, I was still convinced. Looking back, it’s easy for me to recall that sense of certainty, and see that I was misinterpreting excitement for God’s voice. I was blinded by my emotions because it felt like they aligned with circumstances, plus I was really joyful and at peace, which I translated as God’s joy and peace.
How embarrassing. I was really disappointed when my period showed up. I wrote to the friend and told her, and haven’t heard back yet. I think she’s embarrassed too, as she should be. We both goofed.
The main point of this story is that she and I should’ve been more careful. I shouldn’t have been so quick to trust my friend’s words, especially because they were definitive (“this is what will happen” instead of “I think I heard something like this from God, not sure what it means”), and they relied on her reputation (“I’ve never been wrong”). When a word from God gets wound up in a person’s prophetic abilities, something’s usually off.
The other point of this story is that hearing from God is different for everyone. For my friend, it was normal for her to get messages for other people (I guess in the past they had been true) in the form of pretty clear sentences, in this case, “Keelia is pregnant.” That’s never happened for me; I only get an idea which presses itself on my mind, usually for a few days at a time. I also feel close to tears when God is reaching out to me. One of my brothers says he shivers when God is telling him something. It really is different with every person, and there’s nothing wrong with any of the methods. You need to be careful with all of them.
Probably if I had taken half an hour and spent some quiet time with God, it would help confirm the truth, one way or another. Sometimes concentration is helpful to clarify. It’s just not as necessary as most think.
Although I’ve been talking a lot about the bad stuff that happens when people misunderstand God’s voice, the original intention of this post was to encourage you. It’s totally normal to feel like God is being silent, it’s totally normal to be skeptical about other people’s messages from God, and it’s totally normal to misinterpret what God is saying to you. Know that he is always telling you something, and that message always includes how much he loves you, plus other great things.
To wrap up:
You do hear from God, you do notice him.
He’s always trying to talk with you.
The way you notice him is not by becoming holier. Be on the lookout for him, be ready when he taps you on the shoulder.
Know that he can use literally anything to communicate with you.
Act on what you hear, carefully, and you’ll learn how to recognize God’s voice.
You’ll also learn to recognize God’s voice by reading about him in the Bible.
The way God communicates with people is different for everyone.
Take heart! Your questions about hearing from God are normal.