We’re talking about what it means to know God, and what it means to be known by God. We are told there are things we can, and things we cannot, know about God. The things we cannot know include, according to Isaiah 55, God’s ways and thoughts. But we are told we can know his voice. Is that really possible?
As it happens, I saw a patient in my clinic recently who is very religious and speaks often of God and her faith. A few years ago she had an unusual tumor of the anal canal, especially rare in a 40 year old. It was treated with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery. She had an excellent response and was completely cured of the tumor, but it left her anal canal narrowed with a stricture so that it became more and more difficult for her to move her bowels. After a long struggle, she agreed to have a colostomy, which she had hitherto steadfastly refused.
I had not seen her for about three years because of COVID but she came about a month ago for tests, which showed that her rectum had completely closed—there was no opening whatsoever. I told her I believed her colostomy, which she had hoped was temporary, would have to become permanent. She blurted out: “God told me my rectum will open up again. God told me that this is not a permanent colostomy.” She said she was told this directly and clearly, then she jumped up and put her arms around me and began to pray—for me and for her anus.
Is this dramatic event evidence that God was speaking to her? It was a little unnerving to me because, in my professional opinion, her anatomy is such that she will never have anything but a permanent colostomy. Is God in the business of weighing in on our anal canal? Does God really talk to people about things like that, audibly or even by impression? What would you have said to her if she had said that to you? Is God really speaking to her?
John tells us that the sheep hear his voice and that the shepherd knows his sheep by their names. When Jesus’ sheep hear the voice of the shepherd (that is, God’s voice) what does it sound like? If we tell people God told us to do something, or that God was going to do something because we have received a message from him, they are usually quite skeptical. But we all tend to think that if we do hear directly from God, somehow our lives will be richer and better and easier.
Your ears will hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” whenever you turn to the right or to the left. (Isaiah 30:21)
In Scripture, God often seeks to talk to man, therefore Scripture has many allusions to the sounds God makes. For example:
Now they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8)
But Genesis does not say what that sound was. Was it the crackling of leaves? The snapping of twigs? Was it ponderous, thunderous footfalls? Was God whistling while he walked? Was he singing a happy song? Several passages in Scripture tell of the sounds God makes. One refers to the sound of many waters, maybe like Niagara Falls or a fast-flowing mountain stream, or perhaps the sound of waves crashing on the seashore. The sound of many waters is mentioned in Ezekiel 43, Revelation 1, Revelation 14, and Revelation 19:6.
Other passages tell us that the sound of God is the sound of thunder: Job 40, Psalms 29, Psalm 77, Psalm 104, and Revelation 14:2. Still others make allusion to the sound of God as being the sound of trumpets: Exodus 19:16, Hebrews 12:19, Revelation 1:10, and Revelation 4:1.
In Scripture and throughout history, there have been stories of people who claim to have heard the voice of God directly. He spoke to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:9), to Cain (Genesis 4:6) to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), and to Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15. He spoke to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:4), and on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:19), and to Elijah in a still small voice (1 Kings 9:19). (Interestingly, with one exception, all utterances of God were in the form of questions.)
We also hear the voice of God at the baptism of Jesus, when he announced: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” and at the Transfiguration, where he said: “This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him.” Peter called the Transfiguration voice: “the voice of supreme glory” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
In most of these cases, the voices were clear and unmistakable. But sometimes the voice of God is not heard with complete clarity and understanding. In 1 Samuel 3, Samuel mistakes the voice of God for that of his mentor Eli. The voice is sometimes less direct and less confrontational than the examples just given, but not always. Recall that on the road to Damascus, Saul (soon to be Paul) was struck by lightning before hearing God’s voice, loud and clear. Perhaps the most unusual case of God’s voice is the story of Baalem’s donkey, where God speaks through an angel, who then speaks through the donkey’s mouth.
What can we conclude from such strange stories about the voice of God? Sometimes it is associated with natural sounds, such as wind and water and thunder and lightning; sometimes manmade sounds such as trumpets and harps. It comes out of remarkable sources—a burning bush, a donkey’s mouth. It is often loud, but sometimes it is still and small. And sometimes it’s not even heard at all—for example, in the Book of Psalms, David writes repeatedly about the silence of God:
God, do not remain quiet;
Do not be silent and, God, do not be still. (Psalms 83:1)
The entire 44th Psalm is a plea for God to say something. David took God’s silence as an apparent rejection of himself and of God’s people. But if the sheep of the Good Shepherd, both inside and outside the fold, can hear his voice calling to them individually by name, why couldn’t David hear him?
In most of the scriptural examples where God speaks, it is usually in the context of steering an individual away from a wrong path. The notion that we can and should and indeed must communicate with God is an idea held by most believers. That we would petition God for certain things and he would respond in some authentic way is a deeply valued product of our faith.
Jesus said that he knows each sheep of his flock by name:
So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All those who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came so that they would have life, and have it abundantly.
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters the flock. He flees because he is a hired hand and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own, and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice; and they will become one flock, with one shepherd. (John 10:7-16)
The implication of this passage is is clear: Communication with God is clear, unambiguous, verbal, auditory, and personal. Most believers want to follow and are committed to following the Shepherd’s voice.
Deep down each of us believes that God has a plan for our individual self and that if we can figure out what it is then we will not only have the satisfaction of knowing the plan but also of knowing that it will make our life better, smoother, less painful, easier. Intuitively, we feel that knowing his plan for us and hearing his voice will reduce the uncertainty and confusion in our life and help us to rise and walk above the troubled waters below our feet.
But is this true? Is it even possible to know God’s plan? Whether or not it is possible, do we really need to know God’s plan? Will my decisions (about whom I should marry, what I should become, where I should work, how many children I should have, should I come or go, should I advance or retreat, resist or surrender, etc.) be discerned and made easier if I know God’s plan for me? If I feel a sense of revelation about God’s will for me, how can I tell if it is authentic and valid? And what if God’s will is against my will?
The desire to be on the right path, to hear God’s voice, and to do his will is closely linked to the idea of being saved, or maybe even better, of being savable. But what does grace have to do with my hearing God’s voice? Does the desire to be on the right path and to do the right thing and to hear and respond to God’s voice repudiate God’s grace in some way? Doesn’t it sound like putting my own works into judgment, rather than relying on God’s grace?
Have you ever heard God’s voice? Do you know of anyone who talks to God on a regular basis? Would you recognize God’s voice if you heard it? Wouldn’t an Instagram be better? Maybe a TV advertisement spot, or a large billboard announcement?
I’ve never heard God’s voice. John says the sheep will hear his voice. Does that mean that I’m not a sheep? What are your thoughts about God’s voice? The message, the method, the moment? And how would you validate God’s voice if you heard it? Is it important to validate God’s voice? As a believer, should you expect to hear from God? Do you think that God is speaking to you? What are your thoughts today about hearing the voice of God?
David: To me, one’s conscience is the inner voice, the inner light, the Holy Spirit within. So if you have heard your conscience, then you have heard the voice of God.
Donald: Apparently Don’s patient felt that her conscience or something told her that this was the way it was going to play out. How did you respond?
Don: I was completely taken aback, partly because I had been studying this very subject. I have known her for a long time and I knew she was religious, but the last thing I expected would be that God would have told her that her anus was going to open back up. I was flummoxed, I think I said something like, “With God, all things are possible,” but without a shred of belief on my part that it would ever happen.
Donald: For 10 years when I was advising students, I would try to understand how they were going to be able to navigate their way forward. Listening to them tell me their dreams and hopes was a somewhat similar situation to Don’s: I’m looking at the facts as I know them, but I don’t want to take their dream away, even though I may think that their dream could not be realized. Was that my conscience talking to me? When somebody says to me: “God told me to do this,” who am I to say that it isn’t real? Who am I to suggest otherwise? Of course, if someone says God told them to do harm, then it would be “Now, wait a minute….”
Sharon: Maybe God speaks to us in an individual way. There’s not necessarily a corporate way that he speaks to us. I was listening to Dwight’s sermon this morning. The Lord spoke to me through that sermon, with its powerful, simple point. I felt like the Lord was speaking directly to me, in a practical,, experiential way that will help increase my walk with Him.
I’m wondering if I’m so comfortable being with the Lord that I don’t need him to be audible. Couples who have been married for a long time don’t have to speak in order to speak! There’s just a kind of presence. In my devotional time with God, or when sitting out in my hammock in my backyard in the beauty of the afternoon, he speaks to me through so many different nuances. Every morning I consecrate the day to him. Do I have to hear from him all day? Or is he intervening on my behalf and quietly making the miracles happen?
A week ago, I became completely deaf, with an attack of Ménière’s disease. I got down on my hands and knees and pleaded: “Lord, I can’t continue my ministry if I’m deaf!” It was a very frightening 12 hours for me because I could hear nothing out of either ear. But I just knew that he wouldn’t allow that to happen to me unless he had a bigger plan. I did not hear (in my head) the words “You’re going to hear again,” but in less than a week I felt like the Lord has just super blessed me because yesterday my audiologist said my hearing is a little better hearing than it was before this latest attack.
So all of these things are experiential. I don’t want to say that walking with Jesus is like a comfortable relationship, but it is! He’s gotten me out of, or carried me through, so many bad and frightening situations. Sometimes, it’s like a wind, sometimes it is more like a quiet voice—like my conscience speaking to me. But often it’s through my worship time, through my Bible study, through my pastors, through my church fellowship, through words that my co workers say to me.
So I think he speaks to us in very diverse ways. It certainly isn’t “one size fits all”.
Joyce: I don’t think he’s ever spoken to me. I wish he would, because sometimes I’m confused about whether things should be the way they are, and about which side my beliefs are really on. Being somewhat of a liberal in the traditional Adventist church can make things difficult. I pray a lot about where I belong. In the secular world, I tend to be a little more reserved than many of my friends.
I would like some answers. I would like to hear the voice. People have told me it’s my conscience, but I think conscience is instilled in us by our parents. If you’re raised by parents who look for fault, your conscience, your mind, is always trying to do the “good” thing so you never get in that situation. Is that God, or is that a protective thing?
David: You seem to be arguing with your intellect, not with your conscience.
Michael: I don’t know. I think I would agree that conscience is a human social construct rather than the voice of God. This is what I was taught in church and I think it’s what most churches teach, but it sounds more of a human construct that tells you that stealing, killing, lying and so on is wrong. But in the Bible we see God telling Moses to kill someone (or Moses killed someone and got away with it—I forget), and God tells Hosea to go marry a prostitute. That doesn’t fit with any of our consciences. So how is that the voice of God?
David: You can define conscience as an intellectual exercise. I don’t. I define it as the voice of God. To me, conscience is not presented in argumentative or rational or intellectual terms. It’s simply a sense, a spiritual feeling. It is not emotional or intellectual; it’s purely spiritual. It tells you that something is either right or wrong. There is no dissection of the issue. At that point, God is speaking to you, not in English, but in a spiritual form. That has been my personal experience.
C-J: I think that whenever we look at it in the Bible, and in the testimonies of people who experience what would be interpreted as the voice of God, it is always transformational. It goes beyond an impression or a conversation with God, or God’s voice being always around us. But when we are stopped in our tracks, and it just hovers, I believe that God is doing something exceptional, because it’s going to require a lot from us. There’s a reason that it’s a profound experience.
Michael: Maybe we should call it something else. Psychologists have studied conscience, but I don’t think the psychologists’ concept expresses what we are talking about, though I’m not sure. It seems like the more people hear the voice of God telling them do this and that, the more they end up doing bad rather than good—religious extremists, for example.
C-J: But even in that instance, I think that we are all instruments in God’s hands, some good, some not so good. Even out of someone (going large here) such as a Hitler, some good came as the global community decided this can never happen again. So even though it was horrible, with great loss, and often no accountability for individuals, it was used in a mighty way. I just see that many times, where you go: “What is happening here?” when the dust clears, the changes are within the individuals who observed it, and who carried it out. So we can’t understand the height and depth or the intentions of God, we can only be humbled before it, which is difficult to do.
Jay: The bigger question for me is: What does God talk about? Does God talk about conscience in the sense of an impression of what is goodness and what isn’t? Does God give specific instructions—”You should marry this person; you should take up this profession”? Does God talk about whether or not you’re going to be healed? What does God talk about? There’s no doubt we can hear his voice—that seems to be pretty clear—but I think we often mistake things for his voice, because that’s not what God talks about.
Take extremism, for example. Is that what God talks about? Is that what he’s in the business of discussing with us? We shouldn’t miss Don’s point that typically, when talking to us God is asking, not telling, he’s asking. That is a really interesting viewpoint. He’s asking us to think, not to do.
Donald: I find it interesting that many of us have been involved with our spiritual or faith journeys for years and this is a subject that is very important, yet we really don’t have a good conclusion. We’re all sharing what we might consider, but it’s certainly not concise.
I start my day in prayer by asking for a sense as to what should be included in my day. And sometimes I’m really quite pleased when I reach out and do something I wouldn’t normally have done but I had a sense that I should do it. Maybe it’s my conscience. I don’t know the difference between conscience and “a sense of”. Did I just make something up and want to believe it, like the woman wants to believe God will fix her rectum?
Don: Do you think that a believer should expect to hear from God?
Jay: That’s super open ended. I’m happy to say Yes, but what “I hear God” means is really super broad. As Sharon said, God speaks to all of us in very different ways. There isn’t a universal message, like a TV commercial. Other than the examples from the baptism and the Transfiguration of Jesus, there is no audible, public, voice that everybody hears in exactly same way.
So I would answer the question quickly by saying yes, we should expect to hear but we should not all expect to hear the same thing, in the same way.
David: If you can’t hear the Holy Spirit, what’s the point of the Holy Spirit?
C-J: I am going to answer that with a question. Maybe it’s about the covenant relationship? This is really simplifying it but like a child with a parent, it takes a while before that child has a command of language and understanding of place and time in their home and community. It takes a long time to understand what is required of the individual in a relationship. And so I agree, it’s very personal, our relationship with God and how we grow and the people that are in our sphere. God brings them, I believe, and he teaches us the voice in the wind, if you will.
Kiran: When God was trying to talk to Elijah, why does the Bible specifically mention that Elijah heard three different voices? Were they competing voices and we need to learn which one to listen to? Maybe some voices tell us to do bad things, but the ones that ask you to examine yourself and ask you to do difficult things are the voices of God and we have to learn to discriminate.
I do believe there is no point in being a Christian if God doesn’t talk to you and doesn’t lead you.
Donald: We see and hear things from different vantage points. Why would we expect a voice to come from one direction when we know that two people will rarely interpret that voice in the exact same way? It’s different for different people. Sharon has introduced the important issue of the role that others play in hearing the voice of God. It may not be God talking to me directly; it may be God talking to me through what somebody else has said or done or shared. To me, that’s profound in many ways. I need somebody else to help me along. I need to hear it from somebody else’s perspective.
Don: Do you think God talked to my patient?
Donald: She wanted to believe God spoke to her.
Jay: I say yes.
C-J: For her, yes, he did. And it was to be honored. There was a reason that faith was given to her. Maybe to help you, I don’t know, or the other people in the room.
Don: If I come back in in a year and tell you that she’s the same as she was before, would you think she heard that from God?
C-J: Yes. She needed that portion at that time.
Don: So is the content of the communication important? Is it really informational what God has to say to us?
Michael: In my opinion, she’s just deluding herself.
David: Don has spoken before of another patient, Elizabeth, whose church prayed for her and she appeared to be cured of cancer but she later went into remission and died. I don’t think Don suggested that she said God spoke to her, but wouldn’t she have thought he spoke to her, in a way, through the church and its prayers?
Don: For sure.
David: But look at her outcome.,
Reinhard: We’ll eventually know this patient’s outcome. We can only wait and see. That’s life. I think the Holy Spirit speaks through our mind to direct us in our daily activities. I think the audiovisual senses are important in hearing from God, as Revelation suggests.
Believers are different. God gave us Revelation for our daily life. According to studies I have seen, 50-60% of Muslim conversions to Christianity are based on hearing God’s voice or seeing God. I think the Holy Spirit works through our minds, but at the same time the Bible is the voice of God, presenting the fundamental basis and principles of Christian life.
The Psalms talk about the universe, the sun, and the moon, and God speaks to us everyday through nature, in silent voice; but in the Bible his voice is very clear. All this, combined with our conscience, keeps our relationship with God strong, as long as we follow God’s voice and do what God wants us to do.
Kiran: I believe God impressed her, through the inner voice, that she would be fine no matter what, because God would be with her throughout. I suspect she interpreted that as: “God is going to heal me”. I’ve had similar experiences and, like her, sometimes maybe I misinterpreted God. But over time, after groping in the darkness and finding closed doors, we may find another door that God wants us to walk through. I wouldn’t think that God would not talk to people, just maybe not always audibly.
Jay: I find it really curious how we want to attach an outcome to whether or not God talked to her or not. To me that that’s irrelevant. We think she misunderstood, because the outcome could be bad, and if so then God must not have talked to her. But its our judgment of what is a bad outcome, and we don’t know God’s ways. it’s not for us to interpret whether the results are good or bad; we have to have faith and believe in grace. That’s all. But we so desperately want to tie “hearing God” to “positive outcomes”. It’s hardwired in us for some reason, but I’m not sure that you can link the two things together.
Donald: I think a better way to describe it would be “God leads me to have a sense of….” That doesn’t mean that my sense of what I am led toward is specific. Lots of times people say something is a miracle. They didn’t understand how it all happened and they give God the credit, thinking that it probably would have played out a different way otherwise.
Robin: I heard God speaking to me once. It wasn’t pleasant. It was conviction, because I had willingly engaged in sin. I knew I should not have. I did it because I wanted to. I cannot tell other people how it felt. I can say it was not an audible voice but it definitely was a very strong impression—I don’t know what other word to use.
A voice of encouragement would be nice, but sometimes God knows you are engaging in something that is dangerous to your Christian walk, and his voice is not pleasant. But we are who we are and sometimes we need a slap in the face to make us listen.
Why would we want to limit God and say that he couldn’t open up that woman’s anal canal? It’s not up to us to try to figure it out. It’s up to us to to pray and to watch. If it does open, and that is physiologically impossible, then…
Don: …then it’s a miracle. That’s for sure.
Reinhard: The patient’s response may have been partly a human psychological defense mechanism, as sometimes happens with patients when told they have a terminal disease, for example. But part may have been a spiritual response, believing that unceasing prayer asking God wholeheartedly to heal her would work. That might be the best weapon a human can use, but whether prayer is going to sway God’s will remains to be seen.
Joyce: We like things to be measurable. She said God talked to her, but her physician says it can only happen through a miracle. At least a handful of people have straight up told me that God talks to them, daily even, and tells them this and that. I am skeptical. I’d like to measure it. I don’t really know that I’ve ever heard the voice of God. I’d like to!
Don: I’m not saying God can’t work a miracle. And I’m not saying God didn’t speak to her. I’m just asking what you think. I’m of Jason’s mindset, which is that the message that comes from God may not always be one that has content we find favorable.
Joyce: It would be a miracle in her life. How awesome that would be, if it really happens, because then we would know. When I hear someone say: “God talks to me” I think: “Last week, he told you this; this week, he told you that.” I feel I understand it from the patient’s viewpoint. She wants this fixed. When we want something so badly, do we grasp at straws? A person I love dearly, who is very close to me, is like that, believing that God reveals things to her, but her life is also in a state of chaos all the time. I think she needs the comfort of the voice but I don’t really any evidence of it affecting her life.
David: You’re a Christian. So you must believe that the Holy Spirit is within you. What is it doing there?
Joyce: I think the conscience tells us to do a kind deed, to help people who are hurting, to help people in need. But I know atheists who do that. I think God would talk to atheists as well as he talks to anyone, because I’m of the open mind that you don’t have to call yourself Christian to have Christian behaviors and to accept in your heart what the Holy Spirit tells you.
I do think the Holy Spirit dwells within us. I think we’d be in a bad situation if it didn’t. Even nonbelievers, I still believe, have the Holy Spirit within them. But an actual “God told me my colostomy was temporary”… I wonder, is that possible? I don’t know. I think the Holy Spirit certainly plays a part in our lives, in the good things that we do and in pointing out the bad things we know not to do.
David: Our biggest single error is mistaking human intellectual thought for the voice of God. I think that’s what this patient has done.
Don: Next week: More on the voice of God.
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