Does God speak to individuals today? If so, how does he speak?
It’s part of the promise of the New Covenant that ordinary believers can hear the voice of God. Jeremiah prophesied that a time was coming when every Israelite would have an intimate knowledge of God (Jer. 31:33-34). The New Testament states clearly that this promise was fulfilled in Jesus and applies to all who put their trust in Him (Heb. 10:16-17). Jesus himself affirmed that his sheep – that is, his followers – can know and hear his voice (John 10:27).
Some keys to hearing God’s voice
It’s not complicated to hear God’s voice for yourself, but the idea that God can speak to you personally may take some getting used to.
The starting place is to surrender to Jesus Christ and ask Him to forgive your sins, take control of your life, and fill you with the Holy Spirit. Until our hearts have been renewed by God’s grace and kindness we cannot have an intimate relationship with God. It is the Holy Spirit living inside of believers that makes it possible for us to walk in intimacy with God. For children of God, this intimacy is part our our inheritance and is meant to be a normal experience (Romans 8:14-16).
Another key is to get to know God in his written word, the Bible. This is the most important single way that God speaks to us. The Bible is like a plumbline that helps us evaluate what we think we have heard from God in other ways. If what we think we have heard from God doesn’t line up with Scripture, we need to listen again. On the other hand, the better we know the Bible, the more we’ll find that the Holy Spirit will use it to speak spontaneous messages to our spirits – if we are tuned in to his promptings.
A third key is desire. To hear from God regularly you have to want to hear from him – you have to desire intimacy with Him. If you are content to live your own life by your own will, wits and wisdom, you will never develop intimacy with God even though you may call yourself a Christian. The Holy Spirit responds to desire – if we want to hear his voice, we need to listen.
Another key is getting to know yourself. This of course is a lifelong process. Although hearing from God requires that we focus on Jesus and not on ourselves, a healthy self-knowledge is valuable in hearing the voice of God because it is a key to distinguishing God’s thoughts from our thoughts. When I first realized that God was speaking to me, one of the ways I realized it was God is that it was different from the way my mind usually worked.
Recognizing the voice of the Spirit
Once we have these basics in place, we need to get used to recognizing the inner voice of the Spirit. For me this required a major shift in thinking at first, but after many years of practice it has become second nature. Listening to the inner voice of the Spirit is not difficult, and it’s not hard work, but it is totally different from the process of rational thought and analysis. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is like a spring of living water bubbling up within us (John 7:37-39). What he speaks to us often comes as spontaneous thoughts, impressions, feelings or promptings.
God speaks to us in a surprising variety of ways. Some people hear His audible voice, although this is rare. Many people hear God speak by spontaneous thoughts that he places in their minds – thoughts that they know did not originate with them. Some people “hear” God speaking to them in words, others in pictures or images. God also speaks through dreams and visions. Besides all these, he often speaks in ways that are not as obviously supernatural – like the advice of a friend, or a powerful emotion that doesn’t have any obvious cause, or even something you see on a billboard or hear on the radio or TV. Of course not everything you hear around you is a message from God. There is a lot of interference – a lot of background noise out there. But as we stay attentive to God we can learn to sift the wheat from the chaff and recognize when God is getting our attention – sometimes in surprising ways.
In my next few posts on this theme I’ll focus on some of the ways God speaks, and why developing intimacy with God is so important, especially in the last days before Jesus returns.