Like fingerprints, human voices are unique. Each has distinct acoustic features that allow you to recognise it from a myriad of other voices. Say you walk into a busy cafe to meet a friend. As you open the door, a cacophony of sounds welcomes you: background music, people chatting and the clattering of cups and saucers. Yet, as soon as someone behind you yells, “Hey, I’m over here!” you immediately know that it’s your friend. You recognise his voice, even without seeing his face, because you are familiar with his voice.
Christians believe that God speaks to people. But what does God sound like? Learning to recognise the difference between God’s voice and the myriad of other voices in your head takes much patience and practice. But it is possible!
Just like human voices, God’s has distinct features. I want to share with you three guidelines that I am using to familiarise myself with His voice.
1. Silence the inner critic
Sadly, many of us have a critical inner voice. The inner critic says horrible things to us like, “You are a failure” or “It’s too late to change now.” Because part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of our brokenness and wrongdoing, sometimes we believe this harsh inner voice is God speaking. Yet nothing could be further from the truth! In her book, Discerning the Voice of God, motivational speaker Priscilla Shirer makes an insightful remark: “If the message you are hearing as you seek to discern His personal will and plan for your life is condeming or rooted in fear or intimidation . . . then it is not the voice of God who loves you. It is the voice of the Enemy, seeking to use your vulnerability to deceive you.”
If the voice you are hearing makes you feel a sense of utter despair and desolation, then you can be sure it is the voice of dark spiritual forces (John 10:10). God does not use guilt and fear to coerce us. He draws us to Himself with loving kindness (Jeremiah 31:3). When the Holy Spirit brings our brokenness to our attention, He does it in the light of the eternal love of the Father. As a result, while we may regret, we do not despair. The love of God awakens hope and a fresh desire for goodness and purity in us. Consider this: one disciple, Judas, betrayed Jesus, while on the same night another disciple, Peter, denied Him. Both disciples sinned. But Peter listened to the voice of Holy Spirit, and repented. Judas listened to the voice of the Enemy and gave up. (Read the story in John 13,18 and 21; Matthew 27:1–10).
2. Train your ears
Author and speaker, Carrie O’Toole, says she can attend a concert and clearly distinguish the sound of her daughter playing the French horn above every other instrument. “I can hear every note she plays,” she told me. There are two reasons why Carrie can do that. Firstly, she used to be a music teacher. Carrie taught ear training, helping students to hear intervals and notice the different “colours” of a note. Secondly, Carrie knows the sound of her daughter by heart. She has listened to her daughter practising for so long that she is intimately familiar with the unique acoustic features of her sound.
God’s voice has unique features too. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). But it takes some ear training to recognise Him! When the young prophet Samuel heard the voice of God for the first time, he did not know who was talking to him (1 Samuel 3). Yet, in time, Samuel became proficient in recognising God’s voice. Carrie told me that to train herself to listen to God she kept journals and wrote down whatever she felt God was saying, not with an audible voice, but with impressions and thoughts that would pop into her mind. She would then pray and seek confirmation from the Bible and mature believers. She kept doing this until she became deeply attuned to God’s voice, “Now I have years-worth of journals with everything God said to me.”
You can tune your ears too. Write down what comes to your mind when you are praying or having a quiet, contemplative moment with God. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Simply write what comes to mind. Don’t become overly critical or censor yourself either. Allow yourself to make mistakes; this is normal when you are picking up a new skill. At first, it may be difficult to remain focused; worries and anxieties may pop into your mind. Be persistent. Ask God to confirm any message that comes from Him, through the Bible and a mature community of believers. God is faithful and will make His will clear for you.
3. Do the next thing
As author and missionary Elisabeth Elliot wisely pointed out, sometimes you just need to “do the next thing”. Instead of getting stuck, forever waiting for some grand plan to unfold, just do what you have to hand. Obey God in what you already know. There seems to be a “crescendo” when it comes to hearing God’s voice. As we faithfully obey the small promptings, it becomes easier and easier to hear and obey the big ones too (Luke 16:10).
In his book, Hearing God’s Voice, US evangelist Henry Blackaby plainly states, “The willingness to obey every word from God is critical to hearing God speak.”
It’s also important to remember that God only shares with us the information that we can handle; what we need to know now. As Priscilla Shirer highlights, often we “want God to paint the whole picture right away, but He wisely withholds certain truths and information from us until we need it, when we can actually do something with it besides just mess it up.” So, stay tuned and be faithful in the daily, mundane tasks. God will make His plans for your life clear, right on time. In the meantime, just do the next thing.
Hearing the Shepherd
Jesus said to His disciples that it was better if He left, so they could receive the Holy Spirit to guide them to all truth (John 16:7–15). But as Blackaby points out, “There is a world of difference between knowing something to be true in your head and experiencing the reality in your life.” Your life will only be changed if you actually hear His voice.
If you are willing to listen, God will use any opportunity to speak, like when my friend Belinda gave me a beautiful scarf. I wrapped it around my neck and got that boost of confidence that comes with wearing new clothing. But when I got back home, I looked at it again and thought, This scarf is clearly my sister’s style. I immediately folded it and put it away, to give it to my sister later. As I did this, God spoke to me, unmistakeably, “See how you love your sister, and there is nothing you would not give her? Well, that’s exactly how I feel about you.” Tears filled my eyes as God reminded me of His love for me.
On another occasion, I was begging God for help, saying, “You need to help me with this. . . . Please, You really need to help me.” God impressed me with two powerful words, “I Am.” A short answer to my prayer, and a reminder of who He is.
God is ready and eager to talk to you. He wants to share a fresh revelation of Himself. Tune in, don’t miss the sweet voice of the Shepherd.
Vanesa Pizzuto is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in London, United Kingdom.