Years ago, some time after my adult conversion, I was talking to a friend who was in the habit of saying things like “The Lord told me . . . ” One day I decided to ask him exactly what he meant about God speaking to him.
He explained that he didn’t actually hear a voice; he just had a strong sense of something he was supposed to do, and he followed that sense.
To put this in context, one time my friend said he heard God’s prompting and wrote a check for $1,000.00 to a complete stranger he heard talking to a co-worker in a convenience store about some life problems. He was visiting a friend out of town; he‘d never been in that store before and, so far as I know, was never there again. There was no likelihood of personal gain or enhanced reputation—it was just obedience.
The conclusion I drew from this was that he was willing to attribute such promptings as coming from God. Days or weeks later I saw a bit deeper and realized that attribution had to follow trust. I began to realize that faith is not merely belief, it is belief married to trust.
Faith Requires Trust
This realization was put into perspective by one of my mentors who led me to understand that faith isn’t merely belief, but also trust. We can believe in God, and believe that everything we’ve been told about His love and mercy and providence is true, and still struggle with trust. Consider for a moment the famous Grand Canyon Skywalk. You may believe that the nearly invisible glass walkway 2,000 feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon is strong enough to hold you, but you are not likely to walk out on it if you do not trust that belief.
St. James wrote that faith without works is dead [James 2:26]; belief without trust can be arid and infertile, a thing we will not put our weight on when it looks perilous. That conversation with my mentor set me on a long and sometimes arduous path to grow a more active trust in what I believe.
The more fully infused with trust our faith is, the more likely we are to hear God clearly. This is not to say that people must be advanced in their faith to hear God. Listening for God and trusting in Him is one way people grow in faith.
Be Careful What You Ask For
God can speak to someone early in their life in the faith, or even to someone who is struggling with belief and trust to the point of finding it difficult to attend church or pray regularly. God moves according to His own plan. Any attempt to second guess Him is doomed to failure at best.
I have heard more than a few people over the years say that they wished God would just tell them clearly and directly what He wanted from them. What I always say in response is “Thank God he hasn’t! Every time God talks directly, clearly, and with specifics to someone, it seems like it is always to tell them to do something really hard. Like “Go to a country, where you are wanted for murder and tell the absolute ruler to let his slaves go free.” Or “Uproot your life and take your family to a completely unknown new land filled with strangers and I’ll give you uncountable descendants and extraordinary wealth.”
So specific directions do come, but they seem to be reserved for really momentous occasions and needs.
What may be more common is not hearing a voice, but the clear reception of words. I was once struggling with some complicated feelings concerning something I felt I ought to do that I didn’t really want to do, and I was feeling miserable and conflicted. I was not actually praying consciously, but I did blurt out loud something like “I just don’t know what the right thing to do is!” Immediately following that I found words in my mind “What would you tell your son to do?”
I’d never had that kind of thought in my life; I had no children at that time and was not sure I ever would have that blessing. It took my breath away . . . but I stopped my fretting and began to imagine what I would do if I had a son with the problem I faced. And somehow the tangle of confusion and conflict melted away and I came to a resolution that made sense to my intellect and felt right in my heart and gut.
The Words May Not Be What We Hoped to Hear
Several years later I had a similar experience. My wife had become pregnant and we were both delighted and terrified.
A couple of weeks after we confirmed the pregnancy I rode my bike to a Lenten supper and lesson at our parish. On my way home in the still, desert night I came to a housing development that had been started but halted because of a downturn in the local economy. Turning in, I and rode up and down the empty streets.
I rode toward a streetlamp at an intersection and slowly circled inside the crossroads. I was worried about how I would meet the responsibilities of fatherhood. As a freelance writer supplementing my irregular income with odd jobs, I had no idea what I could do to provide stability and security for a child.
Circling in the pool of light, I blurted out “What am I good for?” And once again I found words in my mind, clear and convincing: “I have made you ready for what I want you to do.”
I nearly fell off my bike.
There is one thing about both of these moments that took a while to sink in—in neither case did I get a direct answer to what I was asking. I got a prompting in both cases calling me to trust. In both cases, the trust was rewarded abundantly.
Words Are Not the Only Way God Speaks to Us
That last moment was over 31 years ago; I’ve had no such clear expressed-in-words experiences since. But I have had plenty of experiences along the spectrum of ways God speaks to us, from hearing a radio homily that answered a question I was wrestling with to, like my old friend, having a sudden conviction that I should do some particular thing. These feelings are like hunches or a sense of being impelled or somehow prompted.
I have once or twice gotten a visual image which was meaningful in the context of the moment. Additionally, I have known others who receive words more regularly, sometimes just one or two, often to be passed along to another person. I am told some people perceive odors.
I think God teaches us according to our needs and reaches us in ways we are capable of responding to. Being a stubborn person of a somewhat skeptical bent, I may have needed a firm push at the beginning to start me traveling to the point where I was willing and able both to perceive and then trust in the kind of movements of the Holy Spirit that seemed to come so naturally to my friend.
I don’t pretend to know much about God’s ways, but I do know they are not our ways. As we grow in trust we learn to cease trying to understand his ways and become more content–well, a little more content—to just be open to them and obey Him.
Learning to Hear Better
So, stories are fine but how do we learn to hear God more clearly and frequently?
As is often the case, the answer is to ask Him for help.
The first thing is to remember that one size does not fit all; everybody has their own style, their own pace, their own individual relationship. God wants to be close to us; our biggest challenge is not to get in the way of that closeness. When we pray to hear God more frequently and clearly, we need to try to do that openly without preconceptions shaped by our own desires.
I have prayed for God to reveal his will at times when a careful examination would tell me that what I was praying for was for God to somehow send me a “to-do” list that would lead me to something I desired. But as I pointed out earlier, those times in which God provides a clear “to do” list are often the beginning of a really difficult task, one unlikely to be aimed at a goal we would desire on our own.
We all have desires and—within reason—there is nothing wrong with asking God to help us satisfy them. But as Huckleberry Finn famously said, “You cain’t pray a lie.”
When I am having difficulty receiving God’s promptings, the first thing I do is look more closely at my prayers and ask myself whether I am asking for help or lobbying for my desires. Am I praying the truth or hiding what I really am asking because I think I do not deserve it, or it is not a worthy thing to be prayed for? Am I aware on some level that it is not really the right thing to be asking for?
Do We Want God’s Will or Just His Endorsement?
In short, do I want God’s will, or merely ratification of my own desire or preference?
There is nothing wrong with praying for our desires, so long as we recognize that is what we are doing–not deluding ourselves that we are being completely open to whatever God may send when we are not actually willing to accept any answer other than the one we really want.
There is one common feature to the prayers I got clear, word-based answers to: both were moments of total prayer. I was praying with all my heart, mind, and soul united in a complete surrender to God, knowing I was beyond self-help and self-will. And I was reduced to complete honesty out of the desperate realization that I had no hope of satisfying the need I felt through my own effort. I was past posturing and pretending and illusions about my own abilities. And so I prayed the truth because there was nothing left in me but the reality of that need.
I cannot say I am eager to hear God that directly and clearly again. I know how weak and vulnerable I had to be to hear that clearly. Happily I have gotten better at avoiding desperation as my faith has grown. I am more likely to perceive and respond to less obvious promptings and cues from God as my trust and willingness to be open to those promptings have grown.
Practice and Time
Over the years, I have learned that God’s answers rarely come during or immediately after prayer. They unfold over time. I may think I am ready to respond to God’s promptings when I ask but God knows when I need more preparation, more growth, more experience, and a greater willingness. It is not just God’s ways that are not our ways, His timetable is also His own, not shaped by our own perceptions of readiness or need. Where we may feel strongly, He knows.
As with anything else, practicing obedience strengthens the faculties we exercise; the more we understand and follow God’s silent promptings, the more often we perceive them and are confident in our response. Sudden, unmistakable clarity may be a special grace . . . or it may be because nothing less will get through to us! (Of course, those two things are not mutually exclusive.)
Hearing what God wants from us regularly requires practice—in praying truthfully, in recognizing promptings that come through the Holy Spirit and responding to them in trust. It requires surrendering our unworthy desires and opening ourselves to God’s will. And it requires understanding that God’s response to our prayers may come in opportunities and realizations spread out over the days and weeks following our prayers. They may seem small when they come, but small kindnesses add up to great impact over time.
May the Lord prosper your practice.
For he is our God,
We are the people he shepherds,
the sheep in his hands.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice