Please take heart.
Some spiritual leaders can make it sound like hearing God is either a piece of cake or impossible. I believe through my teaching I have done both.
Ignore us. Hearing God is neither impossible nor easy. It’s just messy.
For a background and context to this idea, let me show you an example of this from the days of the early church. In the book of Acts 16:6-10 we read:
6 They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; 7 and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; 8 and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. 9 A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Here is some basic background context so you can see the importance of this journey. The Apostle Paul and his team are heading out on what historically is called his “Second Missionary Journey”. Paul and Barnabas had conducted their first journey several years previous. On that trip, they had established several churches–we’re not clear on how many–and had now decided to return to those churches to see how they were doing.
Asia is a province of the Roman Empire encompassing southern and western Turkey. It is also the location of about half the churches Paul established on his first trip. Mysia, Bithynia and its surrounding region contain all the rest of the churches that Paul founded. Therefore, in Acts 16, they were being prevented from going to do any of the work they had planned on doing!
We all face situations like this in life, even if we are faithful followers of God. You can hear God, be faithful to what you’ve heard, follow every step of his Leading, and still run into insurmountable obstacles. Look back at the passage and note several things:
- In verse 6 it says they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” from speaking in Asia. Scripture can be pesky and unhelpful in this respect: We aren’t given any details about how Holy Spirit did this “forbidding”. Did he use circumstances beyond their control? Did Holy Spirit give them dreams and visions about the dangers of Asia ministry, or cautions about what may happen? Did several of the team members throw a fit because they lacked peace about the trip? We have no way of knowing.
- In verse 7, it says that they tried to enter Bithynia, but Holy Spirit did not permit them. This is a different Greek verb (permit) than the one used in verse 6 (forbid). It is a much more passive verb, meaning that however Holy Spirit did the non-permitting, it was more subtle than verse 6. What form did this take? We have no way of knowing.
- Troas is the port connected to an historical city which had been called “Troy” many years before this first century journey. The road to Troas was the only way you could exit the interior of Turkey and make your way down to the coast.
- On the road from Bithynia to Troas, you had to pass by the ancient gate for the road to Troy. At the head of that gate was a 35 foot statue. The statue was a final gift of the Greek cities to Troy at the end of the war. The statue was of a Macedonian man with an outstretched arm, inviting the Trojans over to Greece to fulfill trade promises. William Barclay says it was the antithesis, so to speak, to the Trojan horse, a symbol of treachery and bad faith.
- Paul’s vision in verse 9 probably featured that Macedonian Man from the road they had passed during the day. Do all visions work this way? Are all visions simply compilations of things we have seen in real life? I doubt it, but we cannot rule out God using things we have already seen as an opportunistic way of getting truth across to us.
There is so much we do not know about this story. At the core, we cannot figure out how Holy Spirit communicated to them. Wouldn’t that have been ideal for Luke to explain to us as he wrote this account? Isn’t this what we need as we seek to emulate how the early followers of Jesus lived out their lives under the influence of the Voice of God?
Perhaps that is the point of not explaining it. We have to live out our lives according to how we experience God. Perhaps there is no normative way of hearing God. Perhaps the patterns that evolved with other people in other times do not work the same today.
Nicholas Carr, in his book, “The Shallows” explains how modern computers and the multitude of screens with their quick and visual information, have reshaped how our brains work. Since the mind is a crucial part of the process of hearing God, isn’t it possible that the way we pick up on God’s voice has changed?
Yet no matter what era a person lives, the experience of God’s voice is messy. Many times in the Bible, people assumed they were hearing God when the evidence suggests they were not. And there were times that people heard God and thought they heard someone other than God. The young boy Samuel, who heard God during the night and assumed it was his mentor, is an example of this.
If you thought hearing God could be done neatly, tidily and always accurately, then you do not understand how complicated the interface between the ever-existing Spirit of God and the finite, flawed and fallible mind of humans really is. As Steve Thompson, the well-known prophetic voice says “this is as much an art form as a spiritual discipline“. Indeed.
Several years ago, I had a disturbing dream featuring a person I have known for years. I had not seen that person in at least five years, but the dream suggested they were in deep trouble. So I thought about it after waking, and decided it was God telling me that they needed to change some of their relationships to be safe. I contacted my friend and relayed this information. I even let them know who I thought was the most dangerous person to them.
After praying about it for several weeks, my friend contacted me. They concluded I was completely wrong. They told me to ask God about it and see what I could make of this error. So I did. I spent several days pondering the dream and out of that came several deeper insights. But, in the end, I realized that the dream had nothing to do with my friend in danger. It had to do with our friendship and how poorly I had kept up my end of it.
God used my friend, a dream, a book I was reading, the inaction of another friend of mine, pneumonia, a recent teaching I had done on hearing God and another dream much later to get the full message across to me. Since that time, I have been a better friend to this person. And I am even more careful about interpreting dreams.
Hearing God is messy. Take heart: it has always been that way.