September 3, 2023
Last week, in the Sunday Spiritual “God As Father, God As King“, I explained how to speak to God as though He is a loving Father, and also the noblest royalty you could ever come before.
Maybe after reading that article, you started to pray more. I sure hope so. A consistent prayer practice will change your life.
As a natural consequence of you beginning to pray more, which you are hopefully trying to do every day, you're inevitably going to find yourself increasingly listening for the voice of God, not only during expected intervals such as your dedicated, active quiet time or prayer time, but also during other random times throughout the day. As you “pray without ceasing” before you make decisions both large and small, or when you're afraid or stressed, or when you're tempted, or when you're unsure what to do next, you might find yourself wondering if…
…you're talking to God or talking to yourself, or if you're hearing from God or hearing from yourself.
This phenomenon has certainly happened to me. Here's one example: I'm making lunch, and I reach for the Ranch dressing to put on my salad, but some quiet, Jiminy-Cricket-like voice inside my head says, “Grab the Caesar instead.”
Is God the God of salad dressing? He most certainly is. But does God care so much about my salad dressing selection that He's guiding me in my culinary deliberations? Unless some unknown assassin has sprinkled anthrax into the Ranch dressing and God is watching my back, it's pretty unlikely.
But here's another, potentially more complicated example: let's say I'm scanning my bookshelf for the next book to tackle during my bedtime reading. My eyes settle upon one book, but some strange, magnetic force seems to pull my hand towards a different book as I approach the shelf, and a voice inside my head seems to quietly nudge, “Read this book instead.”
Does God perhaps have something in store for me inside that other book? I'll admit that this is certainly a more likely proposition than God shifting me from Ranch to Caesar. Yet, how do I truly know?
Change jobs? Is that voice my lack of satisfaction, or God shifting me to a new adventure in life?
Move houses? Wait…was that just me getting fed up with the neighbor's messy lawn, or God actually calling me to a new land?
Don't go to the airport and get on that plane? Is that me begrudgingly avoiding or procrastinating travel because I dislike it, or God knowing that right now my family needs me at home more?
How do I know? How do you know? How do we discern?
I can think of a few ways you can discern the voice of God just a bit better, and know whether that still, small voice in the silence is indeed the wisdom of an all-knowing Creator or, as Ebenezer Scrooge surmised, just a bit of undigested beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, or a fragment of underdone potato.
First, as John Eldredge describes in his prayer book Moving Mountains: Praying with Passion, Confidence, and Authority (which I recommend you read), you can learn to listen to and discern the voice of God by making it a consistent habit to take all daily decisions before God, both large and small. No, I am not suggesting that – acting as a circus fortune-teller or in some OCD-like fashion – you actually ask God about ketchup vs. mustard, or salad dressing selections, but you do likely agree with me that you could do a better job asking God if your child needs that second hug (the answer is usually yes), if you should re-read that e-mail before you click send (also, usually yes), what you should say to your spouse when they seem to be moping about the kitchen, whether you should play pickleball with this friend or go to coffee with that friend, or the biggies such as whether you should list the home for sale, sell or give away the old car, or enroll your child in the same school for the upcoming year. But remember: if you haven't been taking the little things before God on a consistent basis, taking the big things before God can often result in a bit of murkiness and confusion about what God is truly wanting you to do. You get the idea: prayer is a bit like weightlifting. Dedication and consistency are key no matter what, and progressive resistance training with increases in intensity and volume allow you to become stronger over time.
Second, eliminate distractions when possible. Though it may seem that modern day distractions like multi-tasking, internet surfing and social-media scrolling are new phenomenons for humankind, it's helpful to remember that there really is nothing new under the sun. Thousands of years before ADD became a diagnosable disorder, French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote:
“I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”
He went on to write, in the work Pensées,
“The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion. And yet it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is that above all which prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads is imperceptibly to destruction. But for that we should be bored, and boredom would drive us to seek some more solid means of escape, but diversion passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to our death.”
As I write here, as C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters and as Napoleon Hill writes in Outwitting The Devil, one highly prized and preferred tool used by Satan to distract and divert us from God are all our tiny hobbies, habits, pastimes, pursuits and continual flow of entertainments. These diversions serve to distract us from the painful reminder that we are mortal, help us to forget our finitude and failures, and pull us away from depending on God, talking to God, and listening to God.
So carve out time to listen to God in the still, small silence, while making it a point to control and moderate your use of “weapons of mass distraction”. This is also important because sometimes, such as during your morning prayers, you might ask God about some kind of decision that is weighing heavy on your heart, but God may not give you the answer until later, and if you're out on that walk with serial audiobooks being played on 2x speed and no allowance for just a bit of strolling in the silence, you may miss God's whispers.
Third, ask God to help you hear His voice better. Being able to distinguish the voice of the world or the voice inside your head from the voice of God is called “discernment”. For example, I have a daily prayer that I recite, and part of that prayer says, “…teach me how to listen to your still, small voice in the silence…”. Online resources and prayers for discernment, like this, abound, and the book Moving Mountains also contains some fantastic teachings about discerning better, but the Bible also has many good verses about discernment's derivation coming from heartfelt requests to God for discernment, time spent reading and memorizing God's word, time spent loving and worshiping with fellow believers, and a general avoidance of an infatuation with the fleshly, carnal pursuits of this world. A few of those verses include:
Philippians 1:9-11: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.”
1 Kings 3:9: “So give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people, to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of yours?”
Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Psalms 119:66: “Teach me good discernment and knowledge for I believe in your commandments.”
Proverbs 14:8: “The wisdom of the sensible is to understand his way, but the foolishness of fools is deceit.”
Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”
1 Kings 4:29: “Now God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment and breadth of mind, like the sand that is on the seashore.”
Proverbs 19:8: “He who gets wisdom loves his own soul; He who keeps understanding will find good.”
1 Kings 3:9-12: “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.”
1 Kings 4:29: “Now God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment and breadth of mind, like the sand that is on the seashore.”
Proverbs 3:21-24: “My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight, preserve sound judgment and discretion; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck. Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble. When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.”
Colossians 2:2-3: “That their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
Hosea 14:9: “Who is wise? Let them realize these things. Who is discerning? Let them understand. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.”
1 John 4:1: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Proverbs 2:3-5: “For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD and discover the knowledge of God.”
Colossians 1:9: “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”
Finally, try to pay more attention to what's going on inside your heart instead of what's going on inside your head. As I wrote about in my article Heart Yes:
“Perhaps you’re familiar with a book by Derek Sivers entitled Hell Yeah Or No: What's Worth Doing. If you haven’t read it or heard of it, you’ve no doubt been introduced at some point in your life to a saying that was directly influenced by that book, namely, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.” For the most part, I think that this is a pretty good bit of advice to live by, especially when making important decisions or weighing the prioritization of the many opportunities that inevitably come the way of most humans these days. However, the part that Derek and this saying largely leaves out is the consideration of seeking God’s wisdom and discernment in any decisions – large or small – that we make.
Lately, I’ve been making it a point to ask God to guide my decision-making. So what does that process look like? First, it requires constant daily dialogue and union with God. Don’t wait to come to God when you have a decision to make. Instead, worship God daily, praise God daily, talk to God daily, pray without ceasing, and perhaps most importantly, make space in your busy life to slow down and listen to God daily. After all, in the Bible, God meets with Elijah, but 1 Kings 19:11-13 describes that it required silence: “…there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”.
So I shut down my headphones. My music. My audiobooks. My podcasts. My phone calls. My text messages. My notifications. I make space, usually in the morning, and then I lay my decisions before God. What should I choose, God? Who should I talk to, God? What should I eat, God? Is this right for me, God? Does this honor you, God?
If God says, yes, and if it is truly a “heaven yes” (trust me, that’s much better than a “hell yes”), then, if your experience is anything like mine, it is not a shout or a thundering voice that you will hear, but rather a sensation that your heart feels clean and light about the decision you made or will make, and a feeling as though a weight has been lifted from your chest and a burden removed from your back. You will feel a restful, satisfied peace and a subtle knowing that you have made the right decision. That is what a heart yes and a heaven yes from God feels like.
So go to God for every decision you make, whether large or small, and you will, with practice and dedication, learn to discern His voice.”
Lately, I've been tackling this idea of listening to the heart instead of listening to the head by thinking of the concept of logic versus spirit. If you find yourself deliberating with logical reasoning inside your head about a matter, and not pausing to “listen to your gut” or “pay attention to your heart” or “follow your spirit”, you might be very much focused on what your own brain is telling you, and not what God is telling you. After all, we humans possess a brain that is hard-wired for survival, constantly scanning for danger, threats to health and happiness or potential extinction triggers.
This means that if you're praying to God about, for example, whether you should move to a new neighborhood, even though deep down inside your spirit and your heart seem to be tugging you with all their power towards that move, your head says, “That's going to be very expensive.” or “Just imagine packing up all those boxes.” or “Do you know how bad the market is right now for selling a home?”
Or perhaps you are praying to be free from an addiction to a substance, such as alcohol. You once again know deep down inside that God desires you to be free of an idol that stands between you and Him, but your reasoning begins to say, “But I'll be such a bore at parties.” or “How am I going to relax at the end of the day?” or “I heard little bits of alcohol here and there are good for you, so really, I'm caring for myself.”
Do you understand the difference now between head and heart, between logic and spirit? If I hear voices inside my head desperately reasoning for me to make one choice, but I sense a resounding yes in my heart about the opposite choice, it is usually the yes in my heart that is the actual direction from God. Furthermore, if I find myself afraid to even ask a question to God, such as “Should I move?” or “Should I quit drinking?”, the mere hesitation to ask the question is typically a sign that I'm avoiding the answer I know God has in store for me, which is often also what I know in my heart is good for me, but which that fearful, change-avoiding lizard brain inside my head would rather not need to tackle. In other words, logic, avoidance, reasoning, and other highly cranial activity is a good sign that you're doing way too much thinking with your selfish, fearful human brain, and not enough listening deep down inside to what God really has to say to you.
So now, a summary.
Pray often, about all decisions both large and small.
Eliminate distractions and carve out silent periods of time during the day.
Pray to God for wisdom and discernment in being able to identify His voice, versus your own voice or that of the world.
When deliberating about a decision or listening for the voice of God, ask yourself “Is this logic or is this spirit – is this head or is this heart?
Now it's your turn. Do you ever have difficulty discerning your own voice versus the voice of God? How do you handle it? What else do you have to share? Leave your comments here. I read them all.