Prayer is a critical part of the Christian life – the Bible is clear on this. So it becomes very important that we nail down what a life of prayer looks like. A key question might be, how should we pray? Christ’s disciples asked Him that directly (Luke 11:1), which He answered with a prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” (Luke 11:2-4) giving us a foundation for our own prayers. When should we pray? Well, if we follow the examples of Christ, the Apostles, the Prophets, and God’s priests and disciples throughout the Bible, we can conclude that we can pray at any time of the day or night, and that we need to be willing and ready to pray whenever we need to talk to Him. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 sums it all up when it says we should continually pray, maintaining a thankful spirit at all times.
I have been fortunate to have access to very thoughtful, wise, and mature Christians in my life, including several pastors and professors. I have noticed there is an element of the prayer life that leaves them more or less speechless. What is it about certain aspects of prayer that causes wise and thoughtful Christians to be hesitant to give advice on the subject? There are questions that linger in the back of the whole prayer discussion. And some of those questions are: If prayer is talking to God, how do I know if He is answering? What does God’s voice sound like? Discernment is the process of distinguishing God’s voice from the noise of the world.
Many mature Christians tremble when posed questions about hearing God’s voice because the answers are often so subjective. We know that God can answer us directly with words. We’ve read it happening many times in the Bible. We’ve read it happening many times in the Bible. And, we may have heard stories from Christians that he has done so in their lives or in the lives of other Christians they know. For those who are not followers of Christ this may sound crazy, arrogant, and bordering on insane, but this is the experience of many Christians around the world.
God can speak directly to us with a voice. But we also know that he seldom chooses to. Many very devout Christians never hear God’s voice directly. We must remember that it is God’s prerogative as to how and when he chooses to respond to us. It is not uncommon to hear a Christian friend say that God told them something, and then find that what he told them did not come to pass. If we know much about God at all, then we know that God keeps his Word, just as God promised Jacob in Genesis 28:15, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (NIV) Therefore, the problem is not that God did not speak, but that our friend was mistaken about what they heard, or thought they had heard God say. Even in the Bible, sometimes there was confusion when God spoke to someone, often leaving doubt about what was said or who said it. In Jeremiah 32:8 for example, Jeremiah realizes only after-the-fact (when a prophecy is fulfilled) that God had truly spoken to him; “So Hanamel my uncle’s son came to me in the court of the guard in accordance with the word of the Lord, and he said to me, I pray you, buy my field that is in Anathoth, which is in the land of Benjamin, for the right of inheritance is yours and the redemption is yours; buy it for yourself. Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.” (NIV)
There are questions that linger in the back of the whole prayer discussion. And some of those questions are: If prayer is talking to God, how do I know if He is answering? What does God’s voice sound like? Discernment is the process of distinguishing God’s voice from the noise of the world.
Likewise, Moses had all sorts of trouble figuring out who was speaking to him in the burning bush (Exodus 3). And in response to whether he could trust that God’s promises were true, the Lord said that it would be only later that he would find confirmation. “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.’” Exodus 3:11-12 (NIV)
Other times God’s voice is unmistakable and there is no doubt about what was said or what was meant. The problem, then, must be us. According to the pastors I spoke to, as well as in my own experience, we are inclined to make the jump from wishing for something to believing that God wants us to have it. A few years back I attempted to start my own business. I thought I had a perfect vision of how it would start and grow into a successful enterprise. It was a struggle, of course, as are all start-up businesses, and I prayed about it a lot. When it wasn’t going so well, I prayed harder. And when it looked like it might go under, I prayed all the time about it. I prayed with all my heart. I came to believe in those months that God wanted me to succeed and that it was going to succeed. Well, the day finally came when I had to face the hard fact that my business did not succeed and that I would have to look for something else to do right away. I was shocked and disappointed in God.
This is the part in the story where I say, “this is what God told me.” And, so, before I go on, I confess that I am putting myself in the place of all those Christians who claim to have heard God. I did not hear a particular voice with my ears. Rather, I could tell he was answering me with words and thoughts that I believe could not have come from anyone else. In an instant, in the middle of my tearful and frustrated prayer, He communicated to me that all this time I had been trying to twist his arm, trying to “force” him to do something because I wanted it so badly. In the Bible this is called “testing the Lord.” In Psalm 78:18 (NKJV) it says, “And they tested God in their heart by asking for the food of their fancy.” I had transferred my desire for this business into a false claim that he was going to make it successful.
How did I know that this was God speaking to me? It may be different for everyone, but in the twenty years that I have been a Christian (and it has taken most of those twenty years), I have come to recognize that the Lord’s voice tends to come with specific qualities. It may be different for you–but this has been my experience:
What He says to me is clear and addresses the real issue of my concern. Many times I am not concerned with the real issue; I am concerned with a selfish interest. In this case my selfish interest was the success of the business – that is not to say that God is not interested in the success of my business. But that business became a secondary issue next to my attempt to force God into doing what I wanted. God can fix any earthly issue, or can elect to have us go through tough times. The critical thing in life will always be a right relationship with him, because in the end it will not be my tax returns that make me part of his kingdom, but my relationship to him.
When I hear God speak to me it comes with an authority that, frankly, scares me. I hear an answer that both cuts through all the gobbledygook that I have brought to the issues and points to the real heart of the matter, and I hear that word with a force and clarity and firmness that sometimes terrifies me. Have you seen the first of the Lord of the Rings movies? Early on Bilbo shows his greed to the wizard Gandalf. Gandalf rises up, showing his power to Bilbo, in order to humble Bilbo’s selfish preoccupation. Similarly, as I was crying out to God, and accusing him, he spoke to me with a terrifying authority which immediately humbled me. This was actually a kind way for him to get me on the right track immediately. I needed to remember who was boss. It is not me. Now, his voice and work in my life is not always scary. At times when I’ve thought life itself was crashing in on me and that I couldn’t make it another day, his calm way has brought peace and hope to my weak spirit. This time, however, he shook me, and it set me right.
God’s true word always sets me right. It clears the air of all confusion, sin and fear. It confirms his love for me, his authority in my life and in the affairs of the world, and reminds me, as does the Lord’s Prayer, that the affairs of this world and my life and prayers are for him: “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Matthew 6:13b (NKJV)
Well, I lost that business. But I got to keep my marriage and my house, and I grew in humility. I know a lot more about myself and God and we’re off on another adventure. Plus, I’ve got this cool story to tell.
Because God knows each of us personally, better than anyone will ever know us, and because we each have our own personal relationship with him, it is very difficult, if not impossible for a third person, even a pastor, to say that we are not hearing from God. Baring a direct contradiction of his nature as clearly defined in Scripture, how can anyone say with confidence “you are not hearing from God?” Nevertheless, we need to be cautious because we often try to translate our desires into his will. I am guessing that every mature Christian would have to confess that at one time or another he or she has been very wrong about God’s will in his or her life.
However, just as I mentioned earlier about having thoughtful, wise, and mature Christians in my life, community is also an important aspect to keep in mind in the discussion of discernment. Your church community can often help keep you accountable, and even help us draw out flaws in our character so we can be changed by God. So if you feel like you hear something specific from God, it doesn’t hurt to run it by these qualified individuals or ask for prayer on the topic to hear if God might be saying the same thing to that person on your behalf. Simply, it’s helpful to get what Christians call “confirmation.” This confirmation can and may often come through community. But take heart, as time goes on, you will become better tuned in to listen to God, hearing the volume of His voice more loudly in the way you’re meant to, while turning your own voice down.