I’ve always wanted to hear the audible voice of God. I imagined it booming forth, sending tremors through my body and swallowing me up in a mystical cloud, leaving me with no doubt where it came from. In fact, when I first started learning to hear God’s voice, this is what I expected. But sadly the booming voice never came. Yes, I’ve heard the voice of God many times, but it has never come out loud.
Perhaps you’ve had the same expectation – and perhaps with the same outcome. Part of the reason we expect God to speak out loud is due to the assumptions we bring to the Biblical accounts. We read; “And God said…” and we liken it to a friend talking with us across the table. But a closer look at Scripture reveals this to be a misplaced understanding. Hearing God’s voice should be understood more as a spiritual experience than a physical one.
A Spiritual Voice
When Jesus preached his sermons, he often closed with the line; “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (eg. Mark 4:9,23, Luke 8:8). The reason Jesus spoke in parables was to differentiate between those who had open hearts and those who didn’t. This should indicate to us that hearing God’s message wasn’t primarily a physical experience – after all, his audiences heard his words, yet many still wandered away. As Jesus said; “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matthew 13:13, see also Ezekiel 12:2). Unlike these, we are exhorted to see with the “eyes of our hearts” (Ephesians 1:18) – the emphasis is on our spiritual eyes and ears, not our natural ones.
This was one of the more surprising discoveries in my early days of hearing God’s voice. One of the first times I heard him speak was while walking through a park near my home. In the middle of a worship song, the words: “Give all your money away” came into my head. Though it came as a thought just like any thought, I knew the thought wasn’t mine (largely because it wasn’t something I would say!) The voice was quiet and gentle yet firm; instinctively I knew it was God. It was also consistent with what God had been doing in my life and later when I heeded it, it brought about incredible miracles (read the full story here).
An ‘Out Loud’ Voice
While I’ve never heard the audible voice of God, a number of interviewees in my recent doctoral research say they have. For most of them, the audible voice came at an urgent moment (like when they were about to walk into the path of an oncoming car) or at some other pivotal time of their lives. Yet even on those occasions, God’s voice was not experienced through the ‘outer ear’. When asked if someone else would have heard it if they’d been standing next to them, the vast majority said no. While the voice had been strikingly loud to the person, it had still been heard from ‘inside’ of themselves.
Though it’s hard to know for sure, the Apostle Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus seems to have been similar (if only we could interview him!) Luke, the writer of Acts, reports the story of how Jesus appeared to Saul and spoke to him in a vision (Acts 9:1-7). While there were others with Paul, Luke says they didn’t share the experience, since; “they heard the sound”, but “they didn’t see anyone”(v.7). Later when Paul recounts the scene for himself, he says his companions “saw the light”, but didn’t “understand the voice” (Acts 22:9). Even a powerful experience such as Paul’s conversion seems to be a largely subjective one, only fully received by the audience for which it was intended.
The Mind as Spiritual Receiver
Theologian Gregory Boyd writes about the nature of God’s voice in his book, Seeing is Believing.1 He suggests that the experience of hearing God takes place primarily in the mind or the imagination, and that this is consistent with the Scriptural experience. For example, when Daniel recounts his visions, he describes them as “revelations that passed through” his mind (Daniel 7:1,15). They are subjective and internal experiences that no-one else can participate in. Hence those who were with Daniel didn’t see his visions (Daniel 10:7). It is also significant that the Hebrew words commonly used for “vision” indicate a unique kind of seeing; something that is distinct from ordinary physical seeing. (Loc. 1293)
It’s important to understand that the experience of hearing God’s voice internally in no way denies its authenticity. Boyd highlights the fact that while modern Western people identify the imagination with make-believe, ancient people and particularly those in biblical times did not (Loc. 1320). In fact, hearing God’s voice in our minds should not be surprising given that while the Holy Spirit cannot be seen in physical form, we know he abides with us wherever we go (Acts 2:16,17).
On a practical level, this understanding of God’s voice is essential. If we are waiting for an external objective voice, we may be missing out on the still small voice of Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 19:9-13). Instead of waiting for an audible voice, we need to be inviting the Spirit to enter our thinking and our imagination, to inspire our hearts and stir our thoughts, so that we can be like the people Jesus exhorted us to be; having ears to hear what the Spirit is saying.
1. Boyd, Gregory. Seeing is Believing. US: Baker Books, 2004.
Have you ever heard the audible voice of God? How would you describe your experience? Share below: