Most believers long to—desperately — hear God’s voice, but most of us experience silence. Scripture says, “God speaks in many and diverse ways, but nobody notices” (Job 33:14). We miss his voice because he’s not a paint-by-number God. He speaks in ways we don’t expect.
Well-meaning people often mislead us when they describe their conversations with God. Their exchanges with God sound like dialogues written by master playwrights:
I asked God: What should I do with my life?
God answered: Are you willing to take a risk?
I replied: Yes, but I don’t know what to do.
God said: Move to Timbuktu.
When people tell us these stories, we think, I never hear God so clearly. Let me tell you a secret: neither do they. At least not most of the time. Their stories are usually shorthand summaries of hours spent reading Scripture, reflecting on his words, praying, getting Godly nudges, and recognizing God’s voice in circumstances or through friends.
Because God speaks through his infinitely imaginative, artistic mix of methods.
Let’s not put God in a box. If we limit his voice to a few methods—the scripted dialogue or heavenly visions—we will miss his voice when he paints his words with different brushstrokes. Below are seven common methods in which God speaks.
Responsive Resonance: God’s Spirit often resonates in our spirits as a response to external events. Perhaps it’s a burning in our heart or a sense that God has something significant for us in this moment: a Scripture passage leaps out at us in prayer, or we overhear a “chance” comment in the coffee shop. God moves speaks to our hearts to pay attention.
For example, “While waiting in Athens, Paul’s spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was full of idols” (Act 17:16). Now, think with me: there were idols every city Paul visited, but God stirred something in him in that moment in Athens.
Spontaneous Nudging: Sometimes God nudges our heart out of the blue: to pray for a friend or to act on an issue. It comes more as a sense on the heart than as a direct word.
I once got a sense to pray for a friend, so I phoned him. He had been let go from his job just hours before. We prayed on the phone and he thanked me for my concern. Only I hadn’t been concerned—I hadn’t even known—it was a concerned God who spontaneously nudged me.
Direct words: Sometimes God speaks direct words—usually just a sentence or two, or perhaps just a phrase. The first time I heard God speak, I had just become a ten year-old atheist. He simply said, “Sam, I am realy and you don’t understand.” For me, most direct words—if any—usually only come after I pursue God in prayer and reflection following a resonance or nudging.
Unbidden Memories: Sometimes God brings to mind a past event. I once remembered my twelve-year old self saying something harsh to a neighborhood kid. Weeks after remembering, I bumped into that kid, now a grown man. I reminded him of the story and repented. He too remembered and wept when I repented. (My eyes teared up as well. Just don’t tell anyone.)
Planted Images: God isn’t limited to nudges and words. Sometimes he even paints pictures.
Around 1915, my grandfather received a mental picture in which the letters KWANGSI were spelled in red letters across the sky. In the local library he discovered that the letters spelled a province of China (now spelled GuangXi). He spent the next two decades living in that very province, founding four churches. Should we tell God we won’t accept a vision?
Recalled Passages: God often brings unbidden passages to mind at just the right moment.
Once while talking with a man—and when I had zero wise words to say—a verse popped to mind: We comfort others with the comfort we’ve been given (a paraphrase of 2 Cor. 1:4). I told him of a comforting word God had recently given me. Nothing wise, just comfort. It answered an unspoken question of his. Since my Bible memorization is abysmal, it simply had to be God.
God Shaped Thoughts: Perhaps these are the hardest to recognize because our thoughts feel like our own. Yet how many times have you felt utterly empty, no words to pray, and then a brilliant (and obvious) thought streaks through your mind? C. S. Lewis expressed it like this:
Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The listener’s role and through
My dumb lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.
God speaks in many and various ways. Let’s not box him in.
P. S. This article is an excerpt from my book Hearing God in Conversation. Its topics include:
Learning to recognize the sound of God’s voice
Hearing God in his silence
Hearing God for another person (and how to respond when someone gives us “a word”)
Hearing God in the ordinary
Hearing God for guidance
God is the good Father who wants to enter into a divine dialogue with each one of his kids. To grow in that divine dialogue, please watch the video bel0w (Is hearing God normal?), and buy a copy of Hearing God in Conversation.