Many people never listen to God’s voice because they do not know He speaks to them. God however, does speak to us today. But can we hear His voice above everything else that may try to grab our attention? Do we recognize his voice? How do we know if it is truly God speaking to us?
So much of the spiritual life focuses on doing God’s will – and rightly so. But we certainly cannot do His will if we don’t know what His will is for us.
Discernment and growing in the spiritual life depends upon learning to know God’s voice. It is coming to recognize God’s voice present in our daily life. As Jesus tells the disciples, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) We ought to have the habit of recognizing God’s voice when He speaks. By recognizing His voice, we can know the graces and promptings He is placing in our lives and follow them with the boldness of St. Paul, who was willing to be a fool for Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:10)
Am I Listening for God’s Voice?
The prerequisite here is that one is actively seeking to hear God’s voice, of course. That means making the time for silence in a world that is bombarding us with sounds and images. We mindlessly scroll through websites or social media accounts or listen to music blaring as we go grocery shopping or in the background as we cook dinner. It takes effort to find time for silence and prayer. In silence, we listen to God and God listens to us.
Assuming that one is working to hear God’s voice, then the question is: which voice is God’s? Am I simply confusing what I want with what God’s voice? Or, even worse, am I being misled by the devil?
The Phone Call
When I was young, my grandmother lived far away from me. I only saw her once every few years. Since these were the days before Facetime and Skype, we had to settle for phone calls, the old-fashioned kind with a phone that was attached to the wall. I remember my mom or dad handing me the telephone receiver and saying, “That’s grandma on the phone; talk to her.”
As little kids, we have to learn to recognize the disembodied voice coming through the plastic receiver. At first, we rely on a parent or older sibling to tell us with whom we’re talking. Over time, however, we learn to recognize the voice on the line so that we no longer need the prompt to tell us who is there and that it is safe to talk to them.
It is the same way with God. At first, the child relies on a parent to identify the relative for the child. The parent tells the child who is on the other end of the phone line, telling them about the relative. So too, in our early catechesis, we are taught who God is, why we should talk to Him, and how we can talk to Him.
Likewise, the parent assures the child that the voice over the phone is indeed someone to be trusted. In our spiritual life, we rely upon the Church to help us know which voice is to be trusted. The Church offers guides through Scripture and her Magisterial teachings. The voice of God must be harmonious with Scripture and the Catechism. Through the guidance of the Church, the saints, such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, offer tools for discerning God’s voice. A spiritual director or confessor also offers more particular help in knowing God’s voice.
As the child slowly comes to recognize the voice of their relative, so too, we begin to develop a stronger sense of when we are hearing God’s voice. In our relationship with God, however, it is a little more complicated than the analogy of the child on the phone for we must train our interior ear to recognize God’s voice. And this type of training takes time.
Consider it this way: God loves us and wants us to love Him. What do two people who love each other do? They communicate. They know the voice of the one whom they love. They recognize the inflection used or their particular syntax choice. Spouses who have been married for twenty-five years have no need to even look to know that their spouse is speaking. They have a way of speaking to each other that is like a secret code that says, “Here I am. You know me.” Even the way that the spouse speaks the other’s name is unique and cannot be imitated.
But this intimate recognition doesn’t happen overnight. When the couple first began dating, there was no doubt uncertainties over what the other meant. There were likely disagreements due to miscommunication. They did not automatically understand the other perfectly. Rather, it took time and thousands of conversations to develop the automatic recognition of the other.
Coming to Recognize God’s Voice
God speaks to us, not as a collection of persons, but rather on a personal level. While obviously Scripture was meant for all people for all times, He speaks to us personally through it as well. This is not to mean that any personal interpretation of Scripture is as good as the next. However, Scripture can touch each of our hearts and minds in a very personal, individual way. For example, in reading the story of the woman at the well (John 4:4), one person may be touched by how Christ dealt personally with the Samaritan woman while another person may be convicted by Christ’s knowledge of the woman’s past. While still fully within the Church’s divine interpretation of the Bible, God speaks through the same Scripture differently to lead each person to a more intimate love and union with Him.
God also speaks to us by inspiring our minds and hearts. In the Acts of Apostles we read: “One of them, a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, from the city of Thyatira, a worshiper of God, listened, and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying.” (Acts 16:14) God inspires our will to persevere against temptations. He enlightens our minds to know Him better.
The important thing is that the more we truly seek to listen to God and to recall that He is truly with us at every moment of the day, the more we will become attuned to His voice. In the book, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” Brother Lawrence writes:
“A little lifting up of the heart suffices; a little remembrance of God, an interior act of adoration, even though made on the march and with sword in hand, are prayers which, short though they may be, are nevertheless very pleasing to God, and far from making a soldier lose his courage on the most dangerous occasions, bolster it. Let him then think of God as much as possible so that he will gradually become accustomed to this little but holy exercise; no one will notice it and nothing is easier than to repeat often during the day these little acts of interior adoration.”
If we want to know the voice of God, we must spend time with the Lord and more regularly listen for His voice. The more often we lift our hearts and minds to God, to seek His voice in our daily activities, the more easily we will grow to recognize his voice. As S. Catherine Labouré pointed out: “If you listen to [God], He will speak to you also, because with the good God, it is necessary to speak and to listen. He will always speak to you if you go to Him simply and sincerely.”