PRAYER IS TWO-WAY
During the last two weeks, we’ve explored the important role prayer plays both in our relationship with God—and our partnership with God. But in order to grow in both of these dimensions of prayer—we need to experience two-way communication with God.
When we think about prayer, we often tend to think in terms of talking to God—which is natural. But true prayer requires that we learn not only how to talk to God—but also how to listen for His voice.
When you stop and think about it, this makes total sense; speaking and listening is the mark of any real conversation. If only one person does all the talking, the other person has no opportunity to weigh in, to add insight, and to deepen the relationship. It is one-sided. The same is true with prayer. While God does not always speak on our timetable or in the way we expect, it’s important that we are ready to listen when He does.
This may sound intimidating or make you question yourself if you feel like you’ve never “heard from God.” But the truth is, if you are seeking God with your whole heart, He is likely already speaking to you in some way. This week we will be learning how to recognize those key moments—when God speaks. Keep in mind that when we refer to “hearing God’s voice”, we are not necessarily talking about hearing a literal audible or internal voice. God can speak in a wide variety of ways—and we will explore many of these this week.
As we start this week’s study, it’s important to remember that learning to recognize God’s voice is one of the highest privileges we have as Christ-followers. We were created for a deep and personal relationship with Him.
Jesus tells us to expect this intimate communication and relationship with the Father. In fact, the last night He was with His men before He was arrested, He promised to send them “another Counselor” to take His place (John 14:16). He said this new Counselor would guide them, teach them, communicate Jesus’ presence to them, and lead them into all truth (John 14:15-26; 16:13). He even said it was to their advantage that He was leaving—so the Holy Spirit could come (John 16:7).
This gift of deep, two-way communication with God is our birthright as Christ-followers. We were created for relationship with God— and the Holy Spirit has come to restore the Presence of God in our lives. When we begin to recognize God communicating to us personally—through His Word and His Spirit—our relationship with Him goes to a whole new level.
And this is the promise of Scripture. As King David says,
The LORD confides in those who fear him;
he makes his covenant known to them. Psalm 25:14
The good news is that the same God who spoke to David is still speaking today. He has not lost His voice. He is pursuing us. This has tremendous implications for the way we pursue Him in prayer, because we can pray with expectation and a listening posture. In Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby writes,
Your personal prayer life may primarily be one-way communication—you talking to God—but prayer is more than that. Prayer involves listening. In fact, what God says in prayer is far more important than what you say. Henry Blackaby
This will be an exciting week as we learn how to listen, how God speaks, and what it requires to hear His voice. This is truly where the rubber meets the road—and is one of the keys to our renewal, transformation, and relationship with God. As Mark Batterson writes in his book Whisper,
Learning how to hear the voice of God is the solution to a thousand problems! It's also the key to discovering our destiny and fulfilling our potential. Mark Batterson
Carefully observe Psalm 25:1-15. What does David suggest we should expect in our relationship with God? What does he say it requires on our part to hear from God?
Does the thought that God talks to all of His children intimidate or excite you? Why?
Do you ever experience times when you sense God speaking to you through His Word or through His Spirit? If so, how would you explain what this experience is like to a close friend? How do you recognize the voice of God in your life? What difference does it make in your life?
Spend some time in prayer. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Himself in new and exciting ways this week.
HOW GOD SPEAKS
When we turn to the first page in the Bible, we are introduced to a God who speaks. Into the void, God spoke, and the entire universe leapt into existence. He could have stopped there, but He didn’t. Once His creation was complete, He kept on speaking to His people and entering into their lives. He spoke to our first parents in the Garden, walked with Enoch, and instructed Noah. He came to Abraham in a vision. He revealed Himself to Jacob through a dream. He appeared to Moses in the burning bush. He spoke to Gideon through an angel. He whispered to the prophet Elijah in a still, small voice. He spoke to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in visions.
God also spoke directly through Jesus to His people. In fact, in the book of John, Jesus is referred to as “the Word” (John 1:1). And after Jesus returned to heaven, God continued to speak to the early church through signs, wonders, and His Spirit. God is the Great Communicator—speaking to different people at different times in different ways—and He is still speaking today.
Today and tomorrow, we will briefly survey seven different ways God can speak to us. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. However, it is a good starting point to illustrate the wide variety of ways God can speak and to help us learn how to recognize His voice. Today we will look at the first three: God’s Word, God’s voice, and God’s peace.
The first and most important way that God speaks to us is through His written Word. This is the primary tool the Holy Spirit uses to reveal Himself and show us the path to life. When the Holy Spirit “opens our minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), they come alive and speak to us with new clarity and power. This can happen while we are studying on our own, in a small group, or in church. Our “eyes are opened” (Psalm 119:18) and we see the reality of the truths the Scripture is describing. Suddenly what may have seemed like dry words on the page begin to speak to us in a very personal and profound way as the Holy Spirit applies His Word to our lives.
There are also times when the Holy Spirit will “highlight” a specific passage in the Bible and give it to us as a personal word of promise, encouragement, direction, warning, or rebuke. When we sense the Spirit speaking to us in this way, it can have a profound impact on our lives and our relationship with God.
At other times the Holy Spirit will bring to mind a passage we’ve memorized—just when we need it—and apply it to our lives in a very personal and powerful way.
When God speaks to us through His Word in these various ways, sometimes we don’t recognize that He is speaking. It’s easy to miss both how significant and supernatural these experiences are—simply because they are not as flashy or obvious as the other ways God speaks (visions, voice, etc.).
What is happening in these times is the Holy Spirit is illuminating the Word He once inspired—and using it to teach, instruct, and lead us into all truth (John 16:13). God is speaking supernaturally to you in these moments; don’t miss them!
One of the most common ways God speaks in the Bible is with a literal voice. Sometimes this voice is audible and other times it’s an internal voice. For example, God spoke to Samuel when he was a young boy with an audible voice. The voice was so clear, he thought it was coming from the old priest Eli who was in the next room (I Samuel 3). However, in that moment, God was calling his name—and as a result, his life was changed forever.
In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit speaks to the Apostle Peter in a clear voice while he was pondering a perplexing vision he had in prayer. The Spirit said,
Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them. Acts 10:19–20
It’s hard to know whether the Spirit spoke to him with an audible or internal voice—but either way, the message came in a clear voice—and it led to the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert.
Another way God speaks to His followers is with His peace. This makes sense because one of the fruits of the Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22). Sometimes when we are praying over a decision, we can sense God’s peace resting on one of the options we are considering. When God’s peace comes, it is much deeper than a superficial emotion; it is a deep and intuitive sense of what is right and true. It is the peace that comes when we are discerning the right choice—even if it’s the last thing we want to do! It is the peace that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). As we learn to listen and follow the Holy Spirit, this peace can serve as a powerful indicator of the direction God is calling us to go.
God’s Word. God’s voice. God’s peace.
These are three powerful ways God communicates, but there are many more. Tomorrow we will explore four more ways that God speaks. In the meantime, ask Him to help you to discern His voice if He wants to speak to you in any new ways.
Can you think of a recent time when the Holy Spirit “opened your mind to understand the Scriptures”—whether you were studying on your own, in church, or in a small group?
Have you ever experienced the Holy Spirit “highlighting” a passage of Scripture and giving it to you as a personal word of encouragement, promise, direction, warning, or rebuke? If so, explain.
Have you ever experienced the Lord speaking to you with either an audible or internal voice? If so, when did this happen the first time? How often does it happen?
Have you ever experienced the Holy Spirit guiding you through a sense of supernatural peace as you prayed about a specific decision?
Spend some time praying and asking God to continue to teach you more about how to recognize and discern His voice in your life—however He speaks.
HOW GOD SPEAKS
Yesterday we learned that God speaks to His people in a wide variety of ways—both in the Bible and today. We examined three specific examples: God’s Word, God’s voice, and God’s peace. Today we will highlight four more: spiritual downloads, spiritual gifts, dreams and visions, and God-given desires. As you read these, keep in mind this list is not exhaustive. There are countless ways God can and does speak. It’s also important to remember that most people will not experience all of these ways—and that doesn’t mean we are “doing something wrong”. God speaks to each of us in the way we will hear Him best—and will grow the most.
As limited human beings, words are one of our best ways to communicate our thoughts to one another. While God certainly can and does speak to some people with words, He is also able to communicate His thoughts directly to our thoughts—without using words at all. This can show up as a flash of insight, an “aha” moment, an internal impression, a prompting, a check in our spirit, or a “still, small voice”. The moments of insight are like a computer file that the Holy Spirit “downloads” directly into our spirit. In Psalm 16, David shares an example from his life:
I will praise the LORD, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me. Psalm 16:7
In this passage, David realizes the Lord is counseling him—but not with words. God is communicating His thoughts directly to David’s heart.
We see another example in the New Testament in the life of Paul. He is trying to decide where to share the message of Christ next. His plan was to travel to the Roman province of Asia. But the Holy Spirit stopped him.
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:6–10
Notice the Holy Spirit stopped Paul and his team twice—before giving them clear direction via a vision as to where to go next. They were “kept by the Holy Spirit” from sharing Christ in Asia and then when they headed towards Bythinia, “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to”. Luke (the author of Acts) doesn’t explain how the Holy Spirit stopped them. But it seems likely that he is describing some sort of internal prompting or a check in their spirit, since he doesn’t mention the Spirit speaking to them through His voice or a prophetic word.
In Hearing God, Dallas Willard writes that this kind of “thought to thought” communication is often the most common way God speaks to us.
The final means through which God addresses us is our own spirits — our own thoughts and feelings toward ourselves as well as toward events and people around us. This, I believe, is the primary subjective way in which God addresses us. . . for those who are living in harmony with God it most commonly comes in the form of their own thoughts and attendant feelings. Dallas Willard
Another way God speaks to us is through spiritual gifts, such as: teaching, prophecy, words of knowledge and wisdom, the discerning of spirits, tongues with interpretation, etc. (I Corinthians 12:4-11) In Acts 13, the Holy Spirit delivers this clear message to the leaders of the church at Antioch:
Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. Acts 13:2
In light of the context (Luke describes these leaders as “prophets and teachers”), it seems likely that the Holy Spirit spoke to them through a prophetic word.
The Apostle Paul encourages us to be both open and discerning when it comes to hearing the Lord’s voice through spiritual gifts:
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.
1 Thessalonians 5:19–22
DREAMS & VISIONS
Another way God speaks is through dreams and visions. We see this throughout the Bible. In fact, we just saw a great example when the Holy Spirit directed Paul and his team where to go next through a vision of the man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9). If we receive a dream or vision, we need to “weigh it” and ask the Lord to help us discern whether it’s from God, and if so, what it means. This is exactly what Paul and his team did:
After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:10
God can also communicate to us through “mini-visions” or mental pictures. When God first called the prophet Jeremiah, He showed him two pictures of an almond branch and a boiling pot (Jeremiah 1:11-16). Both pictures communicated powerful spiritual truths to Jeremiah about his message and his ministry. A picture can be worth a thousand words—especially when the picture is from the Holy Spirit.
Another way the Spirit leads us is through God-given desires. One good example of this is Nehemiah. When Nehemiah was serving in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes, he received a devastating report about the state of affairs back in Jerusalem. He began to fast and pray, and God began to move him to rebuild the walls of the city:
I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. Nehemiah 2:11–12
Notice what he says. He realizes God moved him to take on this project by putting His desires into Nehemiah’s heart. This is one of the ways God leads us—by putting His desires into our hearts. These Spirit-inspired desires can provide powerful direction in any area of our lives—including our spiritual growth, relationships, priorities, ministries, careers, finances, etc.
Another way God directs us is through wise counsel. In Proverbs, King Solomon writes,
Plans fail for lack of counsel,
but with many advisers they succeed.
There’s a great example of this in the life of King David. One of his most trusted advisors was Ahithophel. David often sensed God speaking to him through this man’s counsel:
Every word Ahithophel spoke seemed as wise as though it had come directly from the mouth of God. 2 Samuel 16:23, NLT
God’s Word. God’s voice. God’s peace. Spiritual downloads. Spiritual gifts. Dreams and visions. God-given desires. These are seven ways God speaks—but again, it’s important to remember, they are not the only ways. God is able to communicate with us in many other creative ways including through creation, signs, circumstances and worship songs—to name a few. What’s important is not how God speaks, but that when He does—we are ready to listen and follow.
Have you ever experienced times when you believe God has spoken to you through some type of “spiritual download”—whether it’s a flash of insight, an “aha” moment, an inner impression, a prompting, a check in your spirit, or His “still, small voice”? If so, explain.
Has God ever spoken to you through a dream, a vision, or a mental picture?
Can you think of a time when the Spirit led you through a God-given desire—like Nehemiah?
Has God ever spoken to you or through you with a prophetic message or some other spiritual gift? If so, how did this impact you or benefit the listeners?
Do you ever experience God speaking to you in other ways—such as in creation, worship songs, signs or circumstances? Write down your experiences and the impact they’ve had on your spiritual journey.
Write a prayer, asking God to help you recognize when He is speaking to you—in whatever way He chooses.
LEARNING TO LISTEN
This week we’ve been learning how important it is to listen for God’s voice in our lives—and we’ve explored many different ways that God can speak to us. But it’s important to understand that—like any other skill—learning to listen doesn’t happen automatically; we have to work at it.
In Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby writes,
If you want to know the will and voice of God, you must devote time and effort to develop a love relationship with Him. Henry Blackaby
Today we will explore three key ingredients we need to discern God’s voice in our lives: surrender, patience, and practice.
The first key ingredient is surrender. If we want God to speak, we need to be willing to listen and follow when He does. Of all the three ingredients, this one is the most important.
In Psalm 25, King David poses an important question:
Who, then, is the man that fears the LORD?
He will instruct him in the way chosen for him. . .
The LORD confides in those who fear him;
he makes his covenant known to them.
Psalm 25:12,14, NIV84
Here David says that if we want God to speak to us, we need to “fear the Lord”. To fear the Lord means to love, respect, and obey Him. God will confide in us—but only if we are willing to listen and follow.
George Mueller, a legendary Christian leader in nineteenth-century England, was once asked how he discerned God’s voice in his life. This is what he said:
I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter. Nine-tenths of the trouble with people generally is just here. Nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome when our hearts are ready to do the Lord's will, whatever it may be. When one is truly in this state, it is usually but a little way to the knowledge of what his will is. George Mueller
Did you catch that? He says that nine-tenths—ninety percent—of discerning God’s will is dependent on our willingness to do it. Getting to a place of surrender often takes time and energy, but when we get to this point—total surrender to God—it becomes much easier to discern God’s voice and God’s direction in our lives.
So, the first ingredient for hearing God’s voice is surrender.
The second key ingredient for hearing God’s voice is patience. When we say that God is still speaking today, we are not suggesting He always speaks whenever we want. This is not at all the picture the Bible paints. In fact, there are many times in the Bible when God’s people long to hear His voice—but God is silent. As David cries in Psalm 22,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day,
but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest. Psalm 22:1–2
We will all likely experience times like this in our lives. This is not because God doesn’t want to speak to us, or because He doesn’t love us or care. It is because He often accomplishes some of His most important work in our lives through silence. It’s often during seasons of deep darkness, pain, and confusion—when God is silent—that we grow the most. During these times our faith is tested, our character is strengthened, and our relationship with God is deepened. So, when it comes to hearing God’s voice, there will be times when we have to practice patience. He will speak—when the time is right, when we are ready, and when it’s in our best interests.
The final ingredient is practice. Learning to discern God’s voice takes time, attention, and practice—just like learning any new language. The more we practice, the better we get. In A Work of Heart, author Reggie McNeal gives some great advice on this. Although he is writing to spiritual leaders, his advice applies equally to everyone:
Distinguishing God's voice from the others involves a learning curve . . . Learning to listen to God is a developmental discipline. The beginner will make some mistakes. . . However, with perseverance, the leader will begin to recognize a voice that is distinguishable from the chatter on the other self-talk channels. Reggie McNeal
In other words, the more we listen for God’s voice, the better we get at distinguishing it from our own thoughts. We will also learn over time how to distinguish God’s voice from the voice of the Enemy.
In His book Hearing God, Dallas Willard suggests that to discern God’s voice, we need to pay attention to three of its most important distinguishing marks: it’s quality, spirit, and content. We will break down each of these below.
The voice of God has certain qualities, just like any human voice. One of the most important qualities is its power and authority. As David writes,
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is majestic.
Dallas Willard describes it like this in Hearing God:
The quality of God’s voice is more a matter of weight or impact an impression makes on our consciousness. A certain steady calm force with which communications from God impact our soul, our innermost being . . . We sense the immediate power of God’s voice. Dallas Willard
In A Song of Ascents, E. Stanley Jones underscores this distinction between the quality of God’s voice and the quality of our own thoughts—conscious or unconscious.
Perhaps the rough distinction is this. The voice of the sub-conscious argues with you, tries to convince you; but the inner voice of God does not argue, does not try to convince you. It just speaks, and it is self-authenticating. It has the feel of the voice of God within it.
E. Stanley Jones
In other words, the voice of God communicates with an inherent authority. The voice of God also has tremendous staying power. When God speaks, we remember it. It endures. It doesn’t change. We can return to it again and again.
As King David writes,
The decrees of the LORD are firm. Psalm 19:9
The second distinguishing mark of God’s voice is its spirit or tone. We all know how important someone’s tone of voice is in communication. It’s not always what is said—but how it is said, that communicates the true message. The same is true with God’s voice. In Psalm 19, David writes,
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul. . .
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
As we see here, when God speaks, it is refreshing. It brings joy to our heart and light to our eyes. It strengthens, encourages, empowers, and affirms. It challenges without shame. It rebukes without condescension. It enlightens without embarrassment. As Dallas Willard writes in Hearing God,
The voice of God speaking in our souls also bears within itself a characteristic spirit. It is a spirit of exalted peacefulness and confidence, of joy, of sweet reasonableness and of goodwill. It is, in short, the Spirit of Jesus, and by that phrase I refer to the overall tone and internal dynamics of his personal life as a whole. Dallas Willard
The third distinguishing mark of God’s voice is the content of its message. As David writes,
The precepts of the LORD are right . . .
all of them are righteous.
When the Spirit speaks, His message is always good, right and true (Ephesians 5:9). It always aligns with God’s character and His written Word. The more we practice listening to the Spirit, the better we become at distinguishing God’s voice from all the other voices in our lives. So the question is: Are you ready to listen?
Today we highlighted three key ingredients for hearing God’s voice: surrender, practice, and patience. Which of these three is the hardest for you, and why?
Have you ever cried out to God and experienced His silence? Write down your experience and anything you learned from it.
Have you every struggled to discern God’s direction on an important issue—until you finally surrendered your will—and then God’s will suddenly became clear? If so, explain.
In your own life, how do you distinguish God’s voice from your own thoughts or from the voice of the Enemy?
Spend some time processing what you learned today with God in prayer.
A FRESH APPROACH
This week we’ve been learning how important it is to listen and follow God’s voice in our lives. Learning to discern God’s voice plays a vital role in every area of our lives—but it also directly impacts the way we approach our one-on-one times with God.
In Week Three of this study, we designed our own “spiritual training” plans together. We selected the best time and place to meet, decided what to do, and began meeting with God on a regular basis. This was a great first step in building a “rhythm of relationship” into our lives. But it was meant to be our starting point, not our final destination.
If we want to experience more of God’s presence, we need to not only show up, but also come with a sense of expectation—asking the Holy Spirit to guide us every step of the way. When we approach our one-on-one times in this way, it changes everything. We give the Holy Spirit permission to operate—within or outside our plans and structure. If we simply approach our time with God with a rigid checklist of things to do, our one-on-one times will rapidly deteriorate into a boring religious ritual or routine. We need to remember what Paul says in Ephesians 6:
Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Ephesians 6:18
Paul doesn’t give us specifics on how to “pray in the Spirit”. However, he seems to be encouraging us to listen and follow the Spirit’s direction when we pray rather than just deciding on our own how to pray. This is so important, because when our prayers are inspired by the Holy Spirit, they become much more powerful. As Graham Cooke writes in Developing Your Prophetic Gifting,
Prayer is finding out what God wants to do, then asking him to do it. Graham Cooke
What’s true of prayer is also true of studying the Word, journaling, worshipping, and every other spiritual discipline. When our one-on-one times are led by the Spirit—they go to a whole new level.
As you listen and follow the Holy Spirit, He may in fact lead you to use a very planned approach to your times with Him. For example, He may call you to read through the Bible in a year, use the ACTS approach to prayer, and journal at least one page every day. Or He may lead you to use a more spontaneous and free-flowing approach where every day is a little different. But what’s most important is that you learn to listen and follow His direction whatever your overall approach.
When we first start meeting with God, it may be hard to discern the Spirit’s direction. This is normal. Don’t be intimidated. It takes surrender, patience, and practice (as we learned yesterday) to recognize these gentle whispers of the Spirit. In the meantime, it’s enough simply to show up, ask the Holy Spirit to lead you—and then to follow a simple plan of reading the Word, praying, and journaling. But as time goes on, don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit begins to prompt you to experiment with some new approaches. When He does, see what works. The more we learn to listen and follow the Spirit’s leadership during our one-on-one times, the more they will lead to a deep and authentic relationship with God.
Before going to your daily response questions, take five minutes—right now—to come before God and practice listening for the leading of the Holy Spirit. Come humbly. Be present. Remind yourself that now, right now, you are entering the presence of God like Moses entering the “Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 33:7-11). Ask God to lead and guide this time—and to teach you how to approach your one-on-one times with God whenever you “enter the Presence”.
Did God show you anything during your five minutes of stillness with Him? If so, write it down.
Do you ever find yourself approaching your times with God like something to be checked off a “to-do” list? How does approaching God with expectation change this mentality?
Has the Holy Spirit ever led you to use any particular structures, plans, or routines in your time with Him that have been particularly helpful?
Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will guide, teach, and lead us into all truth (John 14:15-26;16:13). When you spend time alone with God, do you ever sense the Holy Spirit leading these times in any specific ways? If so, how?
Spend some time praying about today’s topic. Ask the Lord to help you recognize and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading when you meet with Him.