The Power of Listening

Covid has slowed down the frenetic pace of so many of our lives. While it can be disorienting to have more time on our hands, it also is an incredible opportunity. During this season, I believe that God is inviting us into deeper intimacy with Him. Our lives are a lot quieter than they used to be and I think that the quiet place is the best place to hear God’s voice.

Learning to hear God’s voice is an exciting adventure. However, just like any valuable relationship, it also requires consistency and intentionality. I want to share with you several things that God has been teaching me about listening to Him. I hope that these principles encourage you if you want to hear Gods’ voice, but are not sure where to start.

Setting aside a time and place: I think that the biggest barrier to hearing God’s voice is that we just don’t take the time to do it. I’ve found it so important to establish some rhythms in my life that create space to hear God’s voice.

For example, each morning I try to spend 10 minutes just being quiet and listening. This isn’t a time to journal my thoughts, prayers, or feelings. Rather it’s a time to leave space for God to speak. Sometimes I’ll hear something very specific. For example, He might prompt me to call or reach out to someone that day. However, other times God simply reminds me of who He is and how much He loves me.

The last couple of months I’ve been experimenting again with taking a weekly Sabbath. This is such a powerful practice for me because it forces me to slow down for one whole day a week and just be. I find that it’s easier to hear God on these days because my soul is less hurried and frenetic. On my Sabbath, I try to take a more extended period of silence. During this time, I will look back on the previous week and notice the ways that God was at work. I will also seek God’s direction about the upcoming week.

This past year, I’ve also taken a couple of weekends away to seek God for a more extended period of time. Although sometimes I find myself avoiding this time alone, I need it so desperately. This is an important time to seek God with the big picture questions in my life. I always find that I feel so much more centered and clear about what He has for me in the upcoming season after these times away.

Letting go of expectations: Often times I come into solitude with specific questions that I want God to answer directly. However, nine times out of ten, God shares with me something completely different. I’ll have a surface level question about a decision I’m trying to make, but He wants to address something deeper in my heart. This is why it’s so important to let go of expectations. God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. He may share with us things that we don’t expect, but that’s part of the adventure of listening to Him.

Surrendering my will to His: This is a hard one for me. I am a deep feeler with strong emotions. Sometimes it’s very difficult to distinguish God’ voice from my personal feelings. In His book Walking With God, John Eldredge talks about the necessity of surrendering our will to God’s. He writes:

“Am I willing to hear whatever it is God wants to say? That is absolutely critical. If I can only hear an answer that agrees with what I want to hear, then I am not in a position of surrender to God’s will, and it will be hard for me to hear Him at all. Sometimes I will even say as I’m listening, ‘Lord I will accept whatever you say to me.’ It helps bring my soul to a posture of quiet surrender.”

-John Eldredge

I think that it’s best to initially practice listening to God about simple things that I’m not emotionally invested in like how to spend my day, who I should reach out to, or even silly things like what to have for dinner. Listening to God in these low stake decisions is helpful because it makes me more attentive to His voice without the confusion of my own personal feelings.

If I do realize that I have a strong will about something, I will simply be honest with God about that and ask Him to align my will with His. In times like these I need to focus on His goodness and His character. It’s easier to surrender my will to His when I remember that He has my best interest in mind

Writing down what I hear: About a year ago I started keeping a journal of God’s words to me. I usually record several things God has spoken to me each month. These might be pictures, Scriptures or even simple phrases from the Lord. It’s so encouraging to go back and re-read through this journal during times of discouragement or confusion. Each time, I feel re-aligned with God’s truth and secure in what He’s spoken. I also start to see the broader themes and patterns of what God is teaching me.

Looking for consolations: When I’m trying to discern God’s will in something, I look for a feeling of His peace and presence. In her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton describes this feeling of peace as a consolation. She writes:

“Consolation is the interior movement of the heart that gives us a deep sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our authentic self in God.”

-Ruth Haley Barton

When I think I’ve heard God’s voice, I ask the following question: Is this truth or action bringing me closer to Jesus, closer to others, and closer to my true self? In contrast, I know that it’s the voice of the enemy if I feel disconnected from God, isolated from others, and I’m tempted to live out of a false self.

Seeking wise counsel: Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned the value of having wise counsel confirm the things that God is speaking to me. I need people in my life who know me deeply and are familiar with my tendencies and struggles. When I’m trying to discern if I’ve heard God’s voice, these people can be a helpful sounding board.

Even more importantly, I need to check what I’m hearing with Scripture. The following questions are helpful to ask: Does this match the character of God? Does this align with the greater story He is telling in the Bible? It’s so important to spend regular time in the Scripture because this is the most powerful ways that God speaks.

Acting in obedience: In her book Radical Gratitude, author Ellen Vaughn recounts the story of Corrie Ten Boom, a woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Many years later, Corrie Ten Boom was speaking at an event when a concentration camp soldier who had helped kill her younger sister approached her and wanted to shake her hand. In the simple act of shaking this man’s hand, God healed Corrie Ten Boom’s bitterness and released deep forgiveness in her heart. In her book, Ellen Vaughn writes:

“When we show even a shred of faith, the smallest action of obedience, He’ll bring us the rest of the way. For Corrie Ten Boom, He didn’t demand that she manufacture an emotion that she could not. He nudged her to do what she could: just lift that arm. He did the rest. Willingness is expressed in obedient action, however small.”

-Ellen Vaughn

This is a challenge for me, but something God’s been really stretching me in the past year. When I’m clear He’s spoken, I try to act as quickly as possible. I call the person He’s laid on my heart, send the text He’s asked me to send, or do the thing He’s asked me to do. If it’s really not possible to act in that moment, I will set an alarm for later in the day or put it on my calendar so that I don’t forget to act. God works so powerfully through our practical action. Additionally I’ve noticed that when I’m struggling to hear God’s voice it’s often simply because I haven’t obeyed the last thing He told me to do.

Receiving God’s grace: Something that used to really trouble me was the fear that I would hear God wrong. And the truth is that I have heard Him wrong many times. But that’s ok.

God is so gracious to us, even when we hear wrong. Just like a baby learning to take his first steps, we will sometimes totter and fall as we seek to discern God’s voice. However, as our perfect and loving parent, God picks us up when we get it wrong and encourages us to keep seeking Him. Our human struggle to discern God’s voice is actually a gift. It deepens our intimacy with Him because we have to lean in even closer to hear His voice.

And I think that’s the best place we can be.

Embracing Reality

“The point of solitude is to be with God with what is true about me right now—whatever it is… We meet God in our present delight or our present sadness… Silence, then allows me to simply give God access to the reality of myself. With the same trust and lack of inhibition that a child demonstrates with her mother, I can rest against God and allow Him to care for my soul as only He can.” 

Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. In Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton writes about the importance of spending time in God’s presence, just being with Him. I love how she encourages embracing the reality of who we actually are and what we’re actually feeling. She suggests that God’s presence is the safest place to do this. However, I know from personal experience, that facing reality is hard.

I’ve recently been struck by how our culture makes it so easy to get lost in fantasy when reality feels too overwhelming. We get lost in TV shows and movies, absorbing ourselves in the problems of fictional characters, while ignoring our own problems. We use social media to curate idealized versions of our own lives in an effort to escape the mundane and ordinary realities of day to day life. We spend time and money improving and changing our appearances rather than accepting ourselves as we actually are. Our desire for fantasy is particularly evident in the explosion of virtual reality games that allow us to completely shut out the real world and play in an idealized fantasy world where anything seems possible.

The truth is that reality can be so hard to face.

But God invites us to embrace the reality of our lives as they actually are. We never need to pretend or conceal who we are before the Lord. After all, He knows everything about us and accepts us unconditionally.

He already knows every sinful thought and impure motive.

He understands the feelings we can’t even begin to articulate.

He isn’t shocked by our anxieties or fears about the future.

He isn’t scared of our questions or doubts.

He is big enough to hold our disappointments and frustrations.

He grieves over our losses with us.

And His unconditional love gives us the courage to embrace life as it actually is, a mixed cup of blessing and sorrow.

Silence and Solitude

We come to  a place of freedom. Our failures slowly lose their power over us. As do our successes. We get out from under the tyranny of people’s opinions- their disapproval or approval of us. Free to be us, the mixed bag that we are. Nothing more than children with our Father. Adopted into love… In silence and solitude, our souls finally come home.”

-John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

I just love this quote. In The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, (highly recommend!) pastor John Mark Comer writes about the danger of hurry. He shares several spiritual disciplines that are an antidote to our culture’s pervasive disease of hurry. The one that stood out to me the most was that of silence and solitude.

I am becoming convinced that silence and solitude is an essential practice for all believers. However, as someone who struggles with anxiety, silence and solitude is absolutely vital for my emotional and spiritual health.

Now the honest truth is that sometimes silence and solitude is just plain hard. I think that people usually picture silence and solitude as peaceful time with Jesus, resting in His presence. While this sometimes is my experience, at times silence and solitude can be downright painful.

When I engage in silence and solitude, I am forced to face what is truly going on inside of me.

And I don’t always like what I find.

I recognize distorted desires that have taken precedence in my life. I realize how much the fear of man has been ruling my decisions. I am forced to sit with disappointments in my life where my plans haven’t worked out. And I face the reality of life as it actually is, a mixed cup of blessing and sorrow.

However, beautiful things start to happen when I sit with these emotions and realizations before God.

I experience deep forgiveness as my sins and unholy desires are laid bare before Him. I focus my heart on the only One who’s approval actually matters. I let go of the need to manipulate and control my life. And fully secure in the love of my Father, I have courage to embrace the full reality of my life.

I’m learning that anxiety is actually a helpful signal that something is off-kilter in my heart.

It is a simple reminder to return to my true home.

And engage with God in the quiet place.