A few years ago a friend raised a question about hearing God’s voice: “Does God really speak to anyone who seeks to hear His voice? Are there some who long to hear but don’t? Does God promise that anyone who listens for Him will hear Him?”
I have found John 10 to be a passage that speaks to this question. The simplest statement of Jesus along these lines is verse 27:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
One of my mentors, Wayne Anderson, taught from John 10 often to prepare retreat groups for a few hours of solitude, silence and listening prayer. He saw this passage as an invitation to anyone who wanted to enter more deeply into a conversational, interactive relationship with God through Christ. In John 10:2-5, Jesus makes His invitation even plainer:
2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
Jesus’ sheep (His people) listen to the voice of the shepherd (Jesus Himself). They know His voice. They follow Him because they recognize His voice. I don’t see this as a guilt trip for those who have sought to hear God but haven’t sensed Him speaking, but rather an invitation to never give up listening.
In my experience of leading silent retreat times over nearly twenty years, there have been some along the way who had a hard time sensing God’s presence or hearing His voice. I don’t have an easy answer for that experience. Perhaps God was stretching some to listen with less personal agenda and more openness to His agenda. If we listen with our own focused agenda, we can miss when God is speaking “off topic,” so to speak.
Perhaps others expect God to speak in a specific way, and they didn’t recognize how He had been speaking to them all along in another. For others, it’s possible that they are expecting God’s voice to always be dramatic, but He may be speaking in the stillest, smallest whisper.
From my perspective as a spiritual director, I often listen together with another, asking a few questions to see how I might help them notice how God is present, working and speaking in their lives.
For years, my wife, Gem, had a worship song in her mind when she woke up each morning. Over time, she began to wonder if the songs she woke up to might actually be God’s gift to her. As she began to pay attention them, they became a meaningful encounter place with God.
Sometimes learning to discern God’s voice is a matter of realizing God is always present and always pursuing us. We may need to learn how to notice how that is true in our own journey.
[One of the best books on the theme of listening to God is Dallas Willard’s Hearing God. Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God. Click the link to get yourself a copy.]