Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
What does God’s voice sound like? As a young Christian, I asked this question many times, and I seldom received a workable answer. In the Bible, God’s voice travelled a range of volumes and intensities, depending on the situation.
(This devotional contains extracts from the book His Gentle Voice: Listening for God in Everyday Moments, by Judith Couchman)
He thundered when defending his people (Psalm 18:13). After a windstorm, earthquake, and fire, he whispered to Elijah at the mouth of an isolated cave (1 Kings 19:11-13). But what would be the nature of his voice if he spoke to me personally, in the recesses of my heart?
I’ve had to answer that question myself, being willing to wait, listen, and, more often than not, learn from my blunders. In one sense, we all have to identify God’s voice by ourselves. He speaks uniquely to each of us, and from experience we learn whether we’re hearing our own imagination or even the devil’s deceptive voice.
Learning to Identify God’s Voice
At the same time, it helps to learn how other believers discern his voice and what prompts them to act on what they’ve heard. So in the past few months I’ve conducted an experiment. When people have said, God told me, I’ve asked, How do you know he told you? The answers have varied. Some people sputtered vague explanations and couldn’t offer concrete descriptions. Others described specific signposts and feelings that identified God’s voice to them.
Heart and mind
Collectively, though, from my experience and theirs, a two-pronged pattern seems common. Sometimes the Holy Spirit impresses a thought upon our minds; sometimes he stirs our hearts. If he speaks to the mind, it’s usually a thought that intrudes upon the brain and is markedly different from what we’ve been thinking about. It possesses a distinct quality that causes us to say, “I wouldn’t have considered that myself!” and suddenly gives us enlightenment into people or situations. If the Spirit speaks to the heart, it’s often through a nudge that compels us to action, or a sense of restraint that warns us not to move forward. The mind and heart can also sync, with a thought that agrees with an inner impression.
Discerning His Voice
God speaks to our souls—in our quiet times of reading and prayer, in the hum of a scheduled day. There are some guiding characteristics by which we can discern whether an inner message is from him. Keep in mind, though, that we can’t fit God into a formula and always predict how he will communicate with us. Consequently, these guidelines are not etched-in-stone rules.
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God speaks with clarity
“His sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). Over time we learn to recognise the quality of God’s voice and how he sounds to us. We can be assured, though, that he doesn’t speak in fuzzy generalities. If the message is muddled, we probably need to wait until the communication clarifies. God’s voice and messages are clear. Though we may need to wait for the Lord’s confirmation, often when he speaks, we know he has spoken to us.
God’s voice is specific
“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21). The specificity of God’s message relates closely to the clarity of his voice, and often the two characteristics are so intertwined they can’t be separated. We may receive only one-step-at-a-time direction. But the guidance is still specific.
God is not in a hurry
“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). A bit of spiritual wisdom claims that God never runs, he walks. And like Enoch who ‘walked with God’ (Genesis 5:22), he invites us to plod along with him.
God also has been described as a ‘slow and certain light’. If we’re in a hurry to do what we think he’s telling us, we need to check our sources. God may quietly urge us along, but he doesn’t cause compulsion. This behaviour emerges from fleshly desires or devilish influences. If we’re intent on doing something this minute, and I’m not willing to wait, unless it’s a true emergency, the voice we’re listening to probably isn’t God’s. A general rule of thumb is this: God prompts, but the devil pushes.
On the other hand, there are times God asks us to operate quickly. But these are still acts of obedience, not obsessiveness.
God confirms his message
“For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs” (Romans 15:8). If the Lord is leading us to move toward action, he usually speaks through several mouthpieces.
God never contradicts his Word.
“The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are steadfast for ever and ever, done in faithfulness and uprightness” (Psalm 111:7-8). Whatever God speaks to us, he will never contradict the truth of his precepts found in the Bible. So the guideline is simple: If the message runs contrary to the Scriptures, it’s not God’s voice. He will confirm with his Word, but never will he contradict it.
God’s voice corrects instead of accusing
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). If we’re walking with God, when the Holy Spirit speaks, he may reveal our sin, but he doesn’t accuse us. If the voice we hear is accusatory, it either belongs to the devil (Revelation 12:10), ourselves, or someone other than God.
God doesn’t change his mind
“I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6). Ever meet someone who says he’s sure of God’s will for him, but in a month he changes his mind? Then in a few more months he’s certain it’s something else? He probably hasn’t heard from the Lord. When God calls us to a purpose or directs our steps, he doesn’t careen us down one path and then to another. He accompanies us on a steady journey, even though at the moment the surrounding circumstances don’t make sense.
If we’re running back and forth, we need to stop and wait on the Lord. The problem is, it’s human tendency to jump ahead of God, not being willing to wait until we’re sure of his voice. And to be truthful, we can feel pressure from our spiritual community to hear from God. When people ask, “What is God saying to you about this situation?”, it’s hard to gulp and reply, “I don’t know.” But be comforted: when we’re uncertain, it’s not unspiritual to admit we’re clueless about God’s direction for now. Actually, we exhibit maturity by admitting we don’t know and have decided to wait until we find out. God asks us to follow, not lead, and we can’t follow until we’re certain he’s said, “Let’s go.”
All of these indicators of God’s voice can be applied to the other ways we hear from him: through the Scriptures, messengers, circumstances, and the supernatural. But few if any of these factors will aid our discernment if we don’t nurture a tender heart.
Keeping a Tender Heart
To discern God’s inner impression in the bustle of each day, we need to hide away with him periodically, filling up on his presence and emptying out our sin, stress, and cluttered-up souls. Sitting at his feet, even if only for moments at a time, we learn to recognise his voice.
Consequently it’s easier to pinpoint the sound of his utterances amidst our routines, transitions, and emergencies. Most of all, time with God softens the heart, making it sensitive to his guidance.