Listening to God’s voice

There is a lot of superstition doing the round as to what it means to listen to God’s voice. It is not at all unusual to find people talking about ‘listening to God’ and generally meaning something akin to sitting in silence waiting for something utterly unclear to happen. It is like some sort of synergistic meditation-cum-prayer that owes more to Buddhist philosophy than anything we might read in the Bible.

Tim Keller, in his book on prayer, makes the whole issue incredibly simple for us:

Prayer… is a response to the knowledge of God, but it works itself out at two levels. At one level, prayer is a human instinct to reach out for help based on a very general and unfocused sense of God. It is an effort to communicate, but it cannot be a real conversation because the knowledge of God is too vague. At another level, prayer can be a spiritual gift. Christians believe that through the scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit, our understanding of God can become unclouded. The moment we were born again by the Spirit through faith in Christ (John 1:12-13; 3:5), the Spirit shows us that we are not simply God’s subjects but also his children, and we can converse with him as our Father (Gal 4:5-6).

The knowledge of God for instinctive prayer comes intuitively and generally through nature (Rom 1:20). What Christians know about God comes with verbal specificity through the words of scripture and its main message – the gospel. In the Bible, God’s living Word, we can hear God speaking to us and we respond in prayer, though we should not call this simply a “response”. Through the Word and Spirit, prayer becomes answering God – a full conversation.

There it is in a nutshell. God speaks to us generally, through nature, and specifically, through his Word of which he grants understanding by the Spirit. We speak to God in prayer. This is a response to what we read in his Word and also an instinctive calling out to God through which we are driven back to his Word again to hear him speak to us afresh.

The mystical concept of ‘listening to God in prayer’ is, therefore, something of a category mistake. Prayer is our speaking to God. We don’t listen to God in prayer, we speak to him. Likewise, God doesn’t speak to us in prayer – that is the means by which he hears us speaking to him – he speaks to us through the Word.

There really is no need to sit in mystical silence and wait for some audible voice or random thought to pop into your mind. Nor, if you are doing such things, do you need to wrestle with questions of whether that was, indeed, the Lord speaking to you or if the burrito you had for lunch is playing havoc with your digestive system.

If you want to hear the voice of God, open up your Bible. If you want to respond to God’s voice, get down on your knees and pray. That is the means of conversation with God.



  1. Hi Stephen! I believe God talks to us in many ways, but he certainly talks to me directly during times of prayer. So I feel it’s important to point that out, as I know others experience this as well. Here’s how I described this experience in a recent article on my blog:

    God is capable of producing in human beings a mode of mind that is like a veil – it prevents us being aware of Him. He is also able to reveal Himself to the human mind, by speaking directly to it in a mode similar to but distinct from contemplative thought. It is God who makes thoughts arise in our minds, both contemplative thoughts, and those thoughts that are His speech to us. We can experience thoughts that are ours, and others that are God’s. They are similar, but distinct, and all are from God.

    As well as speaking to us directly, God also reveals Himself in visions, dreams, and Scriptures. For those to whom God has granted insight, the wonder and harmony of creation is further evidence of His existence and His nature.

    I hope that makes some kind of sense. God bless you and thanks for writing on a subject that confuses may!


  2. Clearly God is capable of speaking to us however he wants. It is also true that God is sovereign over all things, including our thoughts. This is true even to the point that we only pray because God has moved us to pray in the first instance.

    I guess my questions would be as follows:
    1. How do you distinguish between the thoughts of your own minds and those you have determined as from God?
    2. Where, in scripture, do you see examples of people praying and God responding in the way you describe in the middle of their praying (which is distinct from visions/dreams, etc)?
    3. How do you view this in respect to Heb 1:1-2? Jesus is the Word – the very expression of God – and we call the Bible God’s Word as it is the very Word of the Word himself. Scripture itself (cf. 2 Tim 3:16).

    Even if we want to suggest God speaks to us in ways beyond scripture (such as creation more generally) I still don’t see that he does so through prayer. Prayer is specifically us speaking, not the Lord.

  3. God wants to speak to us, and yes, you can ‘know’ that you hear His voice.

    God wants to fellowship and communicate with us. That’s two-way communication. Why? Because you can’t really have a relationship unless there is true dialogue. How do we get to know a person? By communicating with them. By talking and listening.
    It’s the same with our relationship with God. He talks, we listen. We talk, He listens.
    We see in Genesis 3:8a, “…they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” This is how God wants to relate to us today as well. It is God’s desire to walk with and to communicate with His children.

    we can hear His voice. The Bible, God’s love letter to mankind, makes it clear that we were created to have two-way communication with Him. Jesus tells us in John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”
    We can have confidence that we will hear His voice. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:14, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Conversely, this scripture implies that if we are God’s children, if we are born-again, we will be led by His Spirit.

    The most difficult part of hearing God is the fact that it takes time to learn to discern God’s voice — and it takes a humble heart. Jeremiah 29:12-13 says, “Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”

    We can’t make demands on Almighty God. We can’t shake our fist at the sky and say, ‘all right God, let me hear you.’ But we can ask, seek, and knock, and the Bible promises that God will open the door. God will reveal Himself to those who humbly seek Him.Proverbs 16:3 /Proverbs 3:5-6.

    Now that we know we can hear God’s voice, we need to be alerted to the fact that there are other voices whispering into our ears as well. In fact, there are three voices that we can hear — the voice of God, the voice of our own fleshly desires, and the voice of the Devil. But Jesus tells us in John 10:4b and 5, “…and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

    The writer of Hebrews tells us that we can train our ear to recognize the voice of God above all the noise. “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). It is by practicing, by reason of use, that we are able to discern whether what we hear is of God, our flesh, or the Devil.

    Isaiah 30:21 says, “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” Whenever you turn to the right hand or whenever you turn to the left.”

    So God will speak, and you can hear His voice, but you must be careful — especially when you are a young Christian — that you objectively confirm that you are following the Holy Spirit and not another voice. Our own flesh can scream pretty loud (especially when we are under pressure, or we want something very badly). And the Devil is the father of lies — he is the great deceiver.

    So how can we know whether we’re hearing the voice of God? The Bible gives us seven basic keys or filters through which every possible leading should be judged. We are to carefully examine the thoughts and intentions of our hearts — and the words of godly people who may have influence on us by their words and actions — through the use of these seven keys:
    Scripture: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17).

    The Holy Spirit speaking to our heart: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, and everyone his brother, saying, ‘know the Lord,’ for all will know Me, from the least to the greatest of them” (Hebrews 8:10-11).

    The Prophetic (word of knowledge, word of wisdom, personal prophecy): “Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (I Thessalonians 5:19-21).

    Godly counsel: “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).
    Confirmation: “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (Matthew 18:16).
    The peace of God: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful” (Colossians 3:15).

    Circumstances/Timing: “After these things he (Paul) left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working; for by trade they were tent-makers” (Acts 18:1-3 — this relationship between Paul, Aquila and Priscilla — which happened as a result of circumstances — became one of the most important strategic partnerships in the book of Acts).

    Many times the Lord will confirm His direction to us through three, four or more of these keys — especially when we are in the process of making an important, life-changing decision.The New Testament talks of the early disciples — people like Paul, Aquila and Priscilla — as people who heard the voice of God


    God speaks through His Word
    God speaks through our thoughts
    God speaks through conversations with others
    God speaks through circumstances

    So we have the Bible,the Holy Spirit , prayer, and our own hearts to help us in hearing God’s voice. Do you want to hear God’s voice? That is the final question?.

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