Discerning the Voice of God: A Journey of Discovering that He Speaks
Photos by Pam Scott, @pjscott6
It’s a Thursday morning in August, 2006. I finish vacuuming, because when you’re selling a house, you vacuum yourself out the door. I turn out lights and lock doors while my husband loads up one child and one fluffy dog into the rented minivan. Our house just went on the market that morning, and now, as we are saying farewell to our beloved New England home, a car pulls into our driveway.
The car doors open and out steps a realtor with a lovely couple, arriving for an unscheduled showing. We meet and shake their hands a bit too enthusiastically. I talk with the wife, who is still wearing her scrubs from her night shift at our local hospital. We watch them step into our front door and onto the freshly vacuumed carpet, and then we back the van out of the driveway. Goodbye, Boston. Here we come, Cincinnati.
As we’re driving, we sit stunned at our surprise sendoff. For weeks our sole mission was getting the “For Sale” sign in the yard. Real estate prices in Boston—and everywhere—had been plummeting and our asking price was significantly lower than we’d hoped. But my husband, looking surprisingly calm and at peace as we drive, repeats what he had heard in prayer weeks ago. “The Lord promised He would sell our home as long as we placed it on the market at a fair asking price. We just need to trust.”
I so badly want to believe that. My anxiety needs the comfort of this promise. But I just don’t understand how he heard God say something so specific. I’ve been a Christian my whole life and I’ve never heard God speak that way. How had he heard that?
While we are still on the Massachusetts Turnpike, before we’ve even crossed the state line, we get the phone call from our realtor. Less than two hours after our home went on the market, we receive an offer for full asking price. From an unscheduled showing. In a failing real estate market.
That day changed everything.
This moment, this miracle, became a marker for us. A promise fulfilled. God said He would sell it if we priced it fairly, and sell it He did, with extra points for flair and style. But this promise meant more than simply meeting the need to sell our home. Also wrapped up in this promise was a revelation—an opening of my eyes to a new understanding of God.
I now knew that God could speak to us in a way that I hadn’t experienced.
A POSTURE: BE STILL AND KNOW
If you’d asked for my testimony back then, I would have launched into a recitation of my religious resume, outlining all I had done for God. But to be fair, I grew up a pastor’s kid, which inherently comes with a lot of ‘doing.’ This continued into our newly married years, when my husband and I made church a priority, joined small groups, and mentored teens in the youth group.
My approach to my faith was simple: I did things for God.
As one-sided as this was, God was real to me. I loved Him, I wholeheartedly believed the good news that Jesus saved me, I knew His blessings and faithfulness, saw how He orchestrated events in His perfect timing, and I’d even felt His presence. But, my check-the-boxes, do-the-right-thing faith was rooted in head knowledge.
One of my favorite verses is “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), which I always assumed was about slowing down and granting permission to pause some of my doing. But my heart was pricked when I read it in the NASB translation: “Cease striving and know that I am God.” This was exactly what I’d been doing. In my desire to be a perfect Jesus girl, I’d made striving, performing, and checkboxing an idol and had missed the most important part: knowing God.
I didn’t know Him.
I confess this to you to help you understand my confusion when my dear husband had heard God speak. How? This was a thing? Why didn’t I know?
One afternoon soon after we moved, I opened my Bible during my son’s nap. For the first time, I started to notice many places in Scripture that refer to hearing God, or how God speaks to us. Where had these been? I made a list of these precious verses, turning pages back and forth between the Old and New Testaments, seeing time after time where those who loved God heard His voice. I’m sure I’d read some of these verses before, but now, they were lining up for my attention, waiting for me to unpack and savor each one.
Jesus’ words, pronounced from the page with red-lettered prominence, hit me deepest: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:3-4). Here was an assurance that Jesus will call me by name and lead me, and I’ll hear Him. If sheep can learn their shepherd’s voice, then certainly so could I. After all, sheep are dumb. And, since I have the Holy Spirit, I must surely be a few notches above sheep, right?
I started to see the relationship between spending time with God and hearing Him. In his book ‘Experiencing God,’ Henry Blackaby says, “As you walk in an intimate love relationship with God, you will come to recognize His voice. You will grow to know when God is communicating with you.”
God was showing me I didn’t have to strive anymore. Instead, I needed to make the shift from head to heart—from what I do to who He is. It was a beautiful invitation to simply be still and know that He is God, and listen for my name.
A PROMISE: SEEK AND FIND
Several years later, when our three boys were 6, 3, and three-months-old, I settled our youngest one for a late-day nap. My naptime study sessions had become a bridge to intimacy with God, so whenever I could, I had adopted a rhythm of seeking God in the daytime after closing my boys’ bedroom doors. I’d come to know that if I was faithful to seek Him, I would find Him (Deuteronomy 4:29, Proverbs 8:17, Jeremiah 29:13, Matthew 7:7, and Acts 17:27). On this particular day, my husband had the older two children with him, so with the gift of a quiet home, I grabbed my Bible and slipped outside onto my back deck to pray.
This day was about more than reading verses. I was grieving. Confused and aching about something that had happened in our family, I desperately needed to hear from God. I settled into my chair and flipped my Bible open, letting the pages fall where they wanted. Through tears, my eyes landed on: “Trust the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your path straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
I knew God was speaking to me through these verses. Yet, mere moments after I sat down, the baby monitor lit up an angry red.
I abandoned my chair to go inside, whining to God that I needed more than those meager minutes with Him. I cleared two, maybe three, steps heading up to my little man’s room when I heard Him. Four words formed in my mind, covering over my self-focused thoughts. Four words that I didn’t think.
This was the first time I’d heard God’s words interrupt what I’d been thinking with such a clear contrast—after all, I’d been complaining. The kindness of His tone and gentle slowness of His words balanced His truth-giving so that I felt simultaneously corrected and encouraged. They pierced, then softened my heart.
Immediately after hearing Him, as I reached the top of the stairs and opened my sweet boy’s bedroom door, I was flooded with a new understanding of the very thing I’d planned to pray about on the deck. While He didn’t answer my why, what He said was enough for me to lay it down and let it be.
As I picked up my baby boy, I realized that even though he woke up too soon, interrupting my planned time with God, God still spoke to me. Again, I’d been limiting Him, and again, He was showing me that He can not be contained. If He can speak through a burning bush (Exodus 3) or a donkey (Numbers 22), then of course He can speak while the baby monitor is blaring.
That’s part of the beauty and the mystery of our creative God. I can’t predict how He will speak, but I can expect that He will. He is faithful to keep His promise that if we seek Him, we will find Him.
A PRACTICE: LISTEN AND HEAR
Sometimes I forget that to hear Him, I have to listen. Even though I know that the posture of being still and the promise of seeking and finding are pathways to a closer relationship with Him, I still have to choose to listen. It’s easy to get caught up in all my doing and realize, somehow, it’s been weeks since I’ve made space to listen to God. Sometimes, my to-do list wins. Sometimes, my margin is eaten by my kids’ activities and dreaded household chores. Sometimes, I’m too distracted or overwhelmed or just plain tired.
I am a sheep. Until the day I die, I will still need to be called and led and rescued, and that means I have to listen. When God seems quiet, I know it’s not Him—it’s me. I have found that learning to listen and recognizing His voice both hinge on my desire to know and hear Him—a desire that’s rooted in an entirely different place than my agenda.
From my journey exploring the practice of listening, here are five things I’ve discovered that I hope will help as you seek to discern the voice of God in your own life:
1 | Listening takes work.
Listening requires intent, focus, and time. Sometimes—okay, maybe a lot of times—I’m not the best listener to the people in my everyday life, and they’re right in front of me! So I know that I need to be even more intentional to make space to listen to God, who is not going to pull on my shirt and say, “Mom, mom, mom, mom.” I’ve learned to write down what I hear, without stopping to analyze it, so that I can keep listening in the moment. If I stop to think, I start to miss hearing God. By writing it down, I can go back to review and study it with Scripture.
2 | What God speaks will always line up with His Word.
What I hear in prayer will always align with Scripture. Always. In “A Guide for Listening and Inner-Healing Prayer,” Rusty Rustenbach says, “When God speaks in personal ways, it will never contradict what He’s already said in His written word.” Likewise, Henry and Richard Blackaby say, “When God speaks, He does not give a new revelation about Himself that contradicts what He has already revealed in Scripture. Rather, God speaks to give application of His word to specific circumstances in your life. When God speaks to you… He is applying to your life what He has already said in His Word.” This is comforting! I am able to test my fallible ears with the infallibility of His Word.
3 | The more I seek God, the more I will find Him.
In “The Only Necessary Thing,” Henri Nouwen writes, “The more we train ourselves to spend time with God and God alone, the more we will discover that God is with us at all times and in all places. Then we will be able to recognize God even in the midst of a busy and active life.” This fits with my experience of hearing God on the stairs: As I seek Him more, I will see and hear Him more throughout my day. What I didn’t understand for years was that God doesn’t make it hard to meet Him. It’s not a scavenger hunt. There are no tricky clues or difficult riddles. I simply need to seek Him, and the more I do, the more of Him I will find.
4 | God will speak in a variety of ways.
I will never dare to guess how or when I’ll hear from God, but I can expect to hear. He may answer me when I’m praying or when I’m doing the dishes. He may speak truth through the Word, or He may use the Word to confirm something He said in prayer. He may also confirm what I’ve heard through a mentor or through a situation. It’s all up to Him.
5 | I may not always get it right.
There are times when I haven’t completely understood what I think I’ve heard, or when I question whether I’ve heard correctly. In those times, I’ve learned to slow down and keep praying. God tells us “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD” (Isaiah 55:8). He knows my limitations, but He still wants me to continue seeking Him. My questions or insecurities shouldn’t block or hault intimacy with Him. He knows my heart and He covers my inevitable shortcomings with much-needed grace. I may not always get it right, but I still always get to be with Him.
This story is about discovering God—a telling of how He met me in a place of not knowing Him, even as a Christian, and showed me that there is more. He has brought me through a journey of being still, seeking and finding, and listening, all while shaping my faith to rest on His Word and amplifying it with His voice. Hearing Him has brought more joy, fullness, and peace to my faith, deepening how I love Him and others. I’ve come to know that the ongoing practice of discerning His voice is a gift, and at the heart of discerning His voice lies a very simple truth: “He loves those who love Him, and those who seek Him diligently will find Him” (Proverbs 8:17).
10 SCRIPTURAL PROMISES THAT GOD SPEAKS:
Psalm 17:6: “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.”
Psalm 40:6: “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.”
Isaiah 30:21: “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.”
Isaiah 55:3a: “Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.”
Jeremiah 33:3: “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”
John 8:47: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
John 10:3-4: “To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
John 16:13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
[This article appeared in the Spring 2020 "Awaken" issue of The Joyful Life Magazine, 41-45. All rights reserved. Click to purchase a copy. Photos by Pam Scott, @pjscott6.]