Hearing God’s voice always starts with the Bible. If you want to know the will of God, it always starts with knowing the word of God. If you ever “hear God” say something that contradicts Scripture, you have not actually heard God. The voice of God can be heard every time you submit to the Holy Spirit illuminating the Scriptures to your heart and mind.
While in one sense, knowing the will of God is equivalent to knowing the word of God, I believe there is another avenue of hearing God that is available. There are sometimes morally neutral choices that get set before us. Often times either choice is biblical but the decision is still weighty and important, deserving of much prayer and contemplation.
It’s in these situations where I believe you especially need the Holy Spirit to give you specific directions through speaking to your heart.
If God Wants You to Pray About It, He Has Something to Say About It
I believe “hearing the voice,” seeking to “know God’s will” and “listening to the Holy Spirit moment by moment” are topics that are easy to error on in two ways.
The first error would be total dismissal of hearing God’s voice personally and replacing it with sole reliance on biblical principles. Of course relying on biblical wisdom is always right, but to replace the Holy Spirit with the Bible is a huge mistake. If you never slow down to listen to God’s personal words to you, you are missing out.
The second error is to ignore the Bible and wisdom and equate faith with no planning, no wisdom, and total moment to moment reliance on the Holy Spirit’s voice for every decision, from when to brush your teeth to who you should marry.
Personal counsel from God has zero authority compared to Scripture. To give what you feel equal value with what the Bible says is foolishness. Sometimes an over dependence on needing to hear God’s voice about every little decision that you will ever make is actually rooted in a lack of faith rather than an abundance of faith (read the article, “Can You Pray Too Much?” for more about this). When you know God is sovereign and in control, this gives you peace to live your normal life without stressing about insignificant choices.
All that to say, it can be difficult to know what topics God wants to personally lead you on. Certainly he has given us a brain and as we go through the day we will literally make thousands of morally neutral decisions we don’t need Bible verses to support and that we don’t need “words from God” to accomplish.
As humans, sin occurs when we use a good thing in a bad way. I believe we can even use “prayer” incorrectly by trying to turn God into a rubrics cube type of God where we need to follow a perfect combination of decisions to unlock his blessings. This is not what I’m talking about when referring to hearing the voice of God and trying to know what God’s will is for you. So while I don’t believe you need to “hear God” about what socks to wear in the morning or how much creamer you should put in your coffee, I do believe the Holy Spirit wants to guide you through life in intimate, specific ways.
The general rule of thumb I use on hearing God’s voice is that if God wants you to pray about it, then God has something to say about it. If a decision is significant enough to specifically pray about, then I believe it is also significant enough to slow down and ask God to speak to you about. You probably don’t need to pray about which direction you want to mow your lawn, thus you will not need to listen for God’s voice to make this decision. You should pray about your week long vacation with the in-laws, thus it is wise to slow down and listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading in that situation.
Faith can be expressed through trusting in God and not stressing the small stuff. But faith can also be expressed by slowing down enough to pray and ask God for directions on what to do. You will need to read your Bible and walk with God on which expression of faith each situation calls for; but again, if God is leading you to pray about it, he is also leading you to listen to what his voice has to say about it.
God’s Word Is Perfect, But Humans Will Make Mistakes When Hearing God’s Voice
I’m not sure what word to use here, but the Holy Spirit places “impressions” or “directions” or “discernment” on our hearts. He “gives us a word” or “leads us.” When the Holy Spirit personally directs us, people describe this process differently. It usually depends on what theological background you are coming from.
I prefer to stay away from language like “God told me” or “God said to me” because this feels too close to the language of the false prophets God had rebuked because they were claiming to hear from God when in actuality they had not (Jeremiah 23:16). The personal “words” or “leading” of the Holy Spirit are not authoritative like the Bible.
So while I do believe Scripture supports the general principle of the Holy Spirit personally leading us in our lives, I believe it is wise to always remember we can certainly mistake what God is actually saying to us. We are not infallible and therefore I believe it is wiser to say things like “I feel like God is saying to me” or “I felt like in that moment God had told me” or “I know I could be wrong, but I really feel led by the Lord to” as these phrases give room for God to move and for you as a human to make mistakes on hearing God.
Hear the Voice of God By “Trying On” Each Option
With semantics behind us, I do believe the Holy Spirit gives us intuition and direction on which way we should go in life.
One of the most helpful and practical pieces of advice I’ve learned on “how to hear the voice of God” was from John Eldredge in his book, Walking with God. I would not recommend going to John Eldredge for baseline theology, but I believe there is much to learn from his relationship with Jesus and his understanding of human identity.
In the book he talks about how to hear God and get direction when you have real choices to make, “Should you go this way or that way?” He suggests you sit before the Lord in prayer and “try on” each option. To “try on” the options in a given situation means to sit before the Lord with one option and then do that again with the other option, listening to his leading as you do so. Usually you can sense which way God is leading you when you try out each option in prayerful contemplation.
So let’s say you are trying to hear if God is giving you a “No” or a “Yes” on a certain decision you need to make. You have already tested both options against the Scriptures and you know neither choice would violate God’s written word. So in prayer you try both options out as you sit before the Lord, listening for his leading and being sensitive to what direction he’s leading your tender, responsive, new heart (Ezekiel 36:26, NLT).
First you sit before the Lord with the “no” and you try to get a sense for what God might be saying. And then you sit before the Lord with the “yes” and again you quiet your heart so you can hear God’s leading. When I have practiced this tactic, I can usually get a sense which option God is leading me to take.
How to Be More Confident You Are Actually Hearing God’s Voice and Not Your Own
It is crucial you are genuinely ready to obey any answer God gives you. If you know you are not willing to accept a “No,” you will not be able to fully trust that God is giving you a “Yes.” You will constantly worry you are simply making his voice up to get the answer you want because you know you want that answer so bad. But if you are ready to do what he says even if you don’t like it, this adds to the confidence you are actually hearing God rather than your own preferences.
Again, of course there is huge room for mistakes when talking about “how to hear God.” Of course we must continue to rely on the clarity of the Scripture. Hearing God through the impressions the Holy Spirit is putting on your heart is highly subjective and has great room for error. It is very easy to trick yourself into hearing what you want from God. So again, never make a decision without first prayerfully considering what God has already communicated in his written word.
But let’s be honest, millions of morally neutral choices will come at us throughout life. Do we really think God has nothing to say about these choices? Why would God tell us in his word to pray about everything if God doesn’t care about the things we are praying about? Surely God speaks to us personally through the intimate presence of his Holy Spirit.
I am a reformed, evangelical, theologically minded person. So I know this section can make my Calvinist, fundamental brothers and sisters nervous. If you are not biblically convinced God speaks this way, don’t do it since anything not done by faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
So it is crucial to first go to the word of God to confirm that this category of hearing God is biblical to begin with. While we don’t have the time here to do that right now, I encourage you to study this for yourself. I truly believe Jesus’ sheep hear his voice in deeply personal ways not only because the Bible points to this but also because I have experienced it firsthand far too often for it to be coincidental nonsense. As Paul experienced in Acts 20:22-23:
And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.
This Bible passage gives us great balance. We will not always be able to know the answer to every decision we make. Most of the time we will not know the specifics of our future. But we do know that the Holy Spirit is speaking words of warning and counsel to us. And even though we will not always hear God’s word perfectly because we are flawed, we can still be compelled by his Spirit to follow the directions he has given us.
Paul didn’t know what would happen; he just knew what he had to do. Likewise, we should focus more on what God has shown us rather than worrying about what he has not yet revealed.
How to Hear God Part 2 Summary
In closing on point 2 of hearing God, perhaps the most biblical language for this section would fall under “discernment.” Hebrews 5:13-14 explains:
. . . for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
When we know God’s word deeply, the Holy Spirit will give us more and more insight on how to apply God’s word to the varying circumstances and decisions we will have in life. Discernment is needed to choose between good and evil. Most often God will make our decisions clear by making the path of righteousness obvious compared to the path of wickedness. When holiness and sin are the two options, it is easy to hear the Holy Spirit’s leading and discernment.
However, when there is a morally neutral choice before you, I still believe God often is leading us to choose one way versus the other. Perhaps sometimes he will say something like, “It doesn’t matter. Either choice is fine. Do what you want. Just do it for my glory.” And perhaps other times he will say, “Don’t do that. Do this instead for my glory.” The most important thing is that we take the time to ask God the questions we have. More often than not I believe God simply wants us to make choices that glorify him.
If you can’t decipher what God is saying, don’t waste your day by stressing over small choices. The bigness of each choice should dictate the level of effort you put into hearing God’s voice about it. If you don’t feel led by God one way or the other, do what you feel will most glorify him. Do what is most biblical. Do what is wisest. And do what brings you the most enjoyment.
But don’t miss out on the intimate leading of the Holy Spirit by assuming he has nothing to say to you personally. Prayer is meant to be a conversation and a conversation includes talking and listening.
Those who hear God are those who consistently still their hearts to listen.