Does God speak to people? For millennia, people have searched for a direct line to a higher power. In ancient societies, they believed that the gods revealed their secrets through signs. Natural events such as earthquakes or eclipses were interpreted as messages from the divine world. Lack of rain was seen as a punishment from the gods, a healthy crop the sign of favour. Today, we would dismiss these so-called signs as mere superstition.
Many Christians, however, believe that God still intervenes in human affairs, particularly through dramatic life events: escaping unhurt from a car accident, a financial windfall, the sudden loss of a job, unexplained healing. Are these signs? Perhaps. But if so, what is the message? How do we figure out what God is really saying? Does he only speak through near misses, bizarre events or life-changing scenarios?
While God sometimes uses dramatic events to get our attention, more often than not he chooses to speak in subtler ways―through a conviction, a feeling, a seeming coincidence or by giving us a sense of peace. If we want to “hear” God on a regular basis, we’d do well to cultivate the following disciplines:
1. Natural Revelation. If you’ve ever been wilderness camping or on a nature walk, you’ll know that God can speak through the beauty of the natural world. The Psalmist writes: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth” (Psalm 19:1-4). The poet is not referring to astrological messages in the night skies, but rather arguing that God’s presence and power are self-evident to those who stop and consider the wonders of creation.
2. Scripture. God reveals himself to people through his Word, the Bible. This written witness has been verified by the community of believers and is intended for guidance in holy living. In the Bible, we read how Abraham, Moses and the Apostle Paul heard God speak to them in an audible voice, but most of us do not experience God in this way. That is why checking our assumptions against Scripture is so important. If what we think God is saying doesn’t line up with his character and purposes as revealed in Scripture, we need to listen more carefully.
3. Christ’s Example. God speaks through Jesus’ actions and attitudes as well as the lessons he taught his followers. We should take time to consider the gospel portraits of Jesus. They can help us to become familiar with the ways of God. When God assumed human flesh to teach us how to live, how did he deal with life? What values and priorities did he teach? How does our own sense of calling match with Jesus’ mission?
4. Prayer. Many Christians feel God speaking to them when they pray. This happens more effectively when we combine prayer with the reading of Scripture. The Holy Spirit uses our desire to communicate with God (and God’s longing to communicate with us) to help us understand and respond to challenging situations. Sometimes the words of our prayers or Scripture verses we have been reading will answer our questions. At other times, they encourage us to think through our problems and give us assurance about what action we should take.
5. Other Christians. Spiritual direction can be found in the fabric of daily activity, in conversations with people and in a wide spectrum of events. Seeking the input of mature Christians can help us discern whether the feeling we have is truly a message from God. Some Christians meet regularly with a “soul friend” or “spiritual director,” a trained counsellor who can help them discover God’s will through discussion, prayer and contemplation.
God wants to be in a relationship with each of us. As we spend more time with him, we become familiar with his voice and learn to hear it on a regular basis, whether in the din of life or the silence of solitude. All of this doesn’t mean that God will never speak to us in a spectacular manner, but it’s in the realities of everyday life that we learn to walk and talk with him. And in the final analysis, that may prove to be enough.