A few years ago my university put on a weekend-long conference titled When God Seems Silent. With a title like that, the conference promised to answer one of the questions nagging me at that time: is God talking to me even when I don’t hear him? I attended only one session of the conference because in my hectic college schedule I couldn’t make room for more. Secretly I hoped all my problems could be solved in this one session. God honors good intentions, right? God did open my eyes during that session, but far from solving all of my problems, he showed me just how little I knew about God’s voice, starting me on a journey of seeking the Holy Spirit amidst the clutter of my plans.
At any given church on any given Sunday, one may hear someone start a conversation with, “I think God is telling me…” or “God spoke to me and said…” For many years this troubled me because I never ever had a moment where God audibly, clearly spoke to me about some pressing decision. Hearing that other people had these moments made me incredibly doubtful about my salvation, and so for a few years I had a constant fear that I was not really saved or that I was somehow ignoring God, though I begged him to speak. I would pray for the Spirit to guide me, and then I would wait, expecting God to answer in my time, in the half an hour that I gave him before bed. In hindsight, I would call myself arrogant, but then, I could probably say that about myself now. I then began to notice a disconcerting trend. Those people who would say with such certainty, “God told me to do this,” suddenly were either not doing those things anymore, or those endeavors had failed miserably and left them embarrassed and sulky. It was easy for me to cynically write off anyone who claimed to hear God’s voice because so often, it seemed like perhaps they were only listening to the promise of wealth and comfort. Yet I knew that Scripture promised that God would answer his people when they called on him, and I also knew that God sent his Spirit to guide us into truth and righteousness, so I began to despair. If the Holy Spirit is supposedly speaking to God’s people, why can no one hear him? Why is it that my prayers meet stale, stifling silence? The speaker at the conference pointed out that often, when we can’t hear God’s voice, the problem might be us and not him.
“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Life demands a lot of us. Our relationships, our jobs, our ministries, etc. all depend on us to give up our time and energy to make those things flourish. God isn’t calling us every Monday morning, nagging us to come visit; he isn’t throwing us a deadline. Instead he says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). He asks us to come to him; we have a choice. We aren’t robots programmed to love God unconditionally.
We are faced with a challenge: to make God the center and purpose of our lives in a world of demands. God asks us to listen for his voice, and it’s no wonder why he chose to speak to Elijah in a “still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19:12-13. He doesn’t always shout at us because he wants us to choose to listen, to put other things aside so that all of our focus is towards discerning his will in the specifics of our lives. We have his will for us in general, as communicated in the Bible, which is to make disciples of all nations, to glorify the one true God, to serve no other gods, to love our neighbors as ourselves, etc., but sometimes we need to figure out how those general plans fit the specifics of our lives. Hearing God’s voice is part of how we relate to him, but in those moments of uncertainty, quieting ourselves becomes even more important.
When God seems silent, the problem often lies in the fact that I’m just not listening.
When God seems silent, the problem often lies in the fact that I’m just not listening. I do not have the time, or the patience, or the emotional energy left to “be still” and wait for him to speak. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. Sometimes it seems like God is making things more difficult than they should be. If he would just be clear to me, I would do what he wants! But God desires steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6). Certainly there are sacrifices we must make when we give our lives to God, but the point is, God desires those sacrifices to come from our love and devotion for him, not out of a desire to manipulate his favor or save ourselves by righteous behavior. God doesn’t want the outward signs of obedience if the inward signs of love are not there. Love comes in the moments when we must patiently work out God’s designs, when we must wait on the Holy Spirit like a groom waits for his bride at the altar. By setting aside time for God, dwelling with him, seeking his voice, we learn more about him, and just as we can love people more as we learn more about them, we can learn to love God more when we listen, which gives a whole new energy to discerning the Spirit’s voice versus our own.
I spent years arguing with myself over my voice versus the Spirit’s voice. At the conference, I learned another mind-blowing, but slightly unnerving, concept about the Holy Spirit’s voice: if it doesn’t contradict Scripture, it doesn’t always matter if it’s your voice or his. This might be a bit difficult to grasp (I know it was, and still, is for me), but basically it comes down to the fact that the word of God is our ultimate authority. If we ask for guidance, and we aren’t sure that the feelings or thoughts we have are of God or of our own desires, our first line of defense is Scripture. Does it contradict anything in God’s word as communicated through the Bible? Further, does it distort anything in God’s word? Certainly, the enemy encourages our doubts sometimes, and those thoughts can sometimes seem like they are from the Holy Spirit, but we must trust that anything false will be revealed when we go to our refuge of the Bible. After all, God sent his Spirit to lead us into all truth (Jn. 16:13), and God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths (Ps. 119:105). The Holy Spirit is God, something explained in the doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one, and that they are of the same essence while performing different functions. Thus, the Holy Spirit is not something we can use, manipulate, or ignore. He breathes life into believers, guiding us into truth, reminding us of our promised salvation, and dwelling within us, interceding for us in our prayers. He is with us, and we can trust him completely, but because he lives in us, it may be difficult to separate his influence from our own thought.
Ultimately, we may never know with absolute certainty that we have heard the voice of the Spirit versus our own, but we can know that God will guide our steps if we remain fixed in his word, and he will not let us stray. Like the shepherd who sought the sheep who wandered, God will seek us and return us to the flock if we have truly believed in him. If you don’t know where to look, and it doesn’t seem like flipping the pages in your Bible is giving you answers, do not despair! Many churches have great resources for answering people’s questions, and pastors are usually very willing to meet with people who want to look further into God’s word. Seeking help from others is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about because God gave us community so that we could encourage one another to grow! Another great way of navigating through the Bible is to look in a concordance at the back of most bibles, which groups scriptures by themes. This can be helpful if you have questions about what God says about anything from love to behavior.
Even if we can test the thoughts that come to us through Scripture, it still leaves us with those moments when we aren’t sure what to look for. God created each person uniquely. He knows each of us, the way we think, feel, and react. The speaker at the conference proposed that God’s intimate knowledge of each of his people allowed him to communicate with each person in the way that was best suited for them. My dad calls himself “a numbers guy.” His brain processes numbers the way most people process words. He sees patterns in numbers, and he likes to play numbers games with birth dates, which I cannot explain because I don’t understand it myself. After my first semester of college, I remember my dad telling me that he felt confirmation from God about sending me to school because of some numbers. He had a lot of misgivings about sending me to college, specifically financial misgivings because he wasn’t sure how to afford paying for my schooling while supporting the rest of the family. He was flipping a house at the time (buying a house, fixing it up, and reselling it), and he had decided that whatever he made on the house, he would use to pay for my first semester. The amount he made on that house was the exact amount I needed for that first semester. To him, that was God’s way of reminding him, “Hey, I’m the provider here, remember?” God doesn’t always speak this way to my dad, and he certainly doesn’t always communicate so blatantly, but the point is, God knows that my dad looks at numbers closely, and so for my dad, finding a pattern in those numbers was extremely meaningful in reminding him of something God said in his word, that we need not be anxious about what we will eat or drink because God provides (Matt. 6:25-34). God knows us, and he knows how we think. We don’t have to be afraid of messages from unlikely sources, because those things belong to God, and he will certainly use them! We cannot expect him to always use those things, but it may be helpful, as we seek his voice, to look at the things that most connect with us. Even the mundane, everyday routine of our lives can be filled with God’s voice.
Even in moments that feel certain, we need to have an attitude of humility and recognition of our fallibility.
Sometimes God will be clear with us, and sometimes he will not. Even in moments that feel certain, we need to have an attitude of humility and recognition of our fallibility. This means that even if we feel like God knocked us over the head with his message, we may be wrong. We may have distorted his message or misunderstood his meaning. We can move forward in the direction we think he is pointing, but we must be ready for surprises. Rarely has anything turned out exactly as I thought it would in my life, and most of the time, if not always, that is a very good thing. When we seek to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit, when we listen for him, when we tell others about what we hear, we need to remember that God is beyond our full understanding. No one can completely know his ways. Better to say, “I think God is telling me this,” than to say, “God said this,” unless of course, you are quoting Scripture.
May the Spirit bless you and lead you into all truth. May his words be heard. May you listen with all your heart. May you love him more through the process. Amen.