Do You Hear God?

Vineyard Christians do. And T.M. Luhrmann, in her new book When God Talks Back, studies how Vineyard Christians know the voice of God

What are the distinguishing features of hearing God? What are the tests for hearing God? How do you know it is “God” and not just your brain talking to itself?

These are the sorts of questions that most interest Luhrmann. As an anthropologist, she explains this hearing-God phenomenon as a “new theory of mind” in which some thoughts are perceived as coming from outside the mind. (Technically, “thoughts” become “perceptions” for those who say they hear from God.)

It all leads to a problem: learning not only to hear things but also to interpret them in such a way that one can know some thoughts are God speaking.

She sketches how this develops: it begins with a yearning, a desire for “more” and this leads to the mental volleyball of going back and forth from “this is goofy” to “this is God.” Theologically, hearing from God requires that a person believe that God speaks and that God speaks to you personally if you will but pay attention and listen, and then develop the skill of knowing when it is God – often leading to a person claiming he or she has learned a divine pattern of communication.

The breakthrough for Vineyard folks often occurs when a coincidental experience is so powerfully “not me” or “from outside” that they know it had to be God, and this leads to a great sensitivity. Journaling one’s prayers is common for those who hear God.

How do such folks recognize God?

1.        In prayer.

2.        Through circumstances.

3.        Through Scripture: reading the Bible becomes a conversation.

4.        Through dreams.

But how do you know it is God? She has detected four essential “tests” for detecting a voice from God:

1.        Whether what you heard was the kind of thing you would say. If so, it is not from God or may not be from God; it is you

2.        Whether what you heard is the kind of thing God would say, and here she is speaking of the importance of the Scripture test.

3.        Whether what you heard is confirmed through circumstances or through the witness of other Christians who pray.

4.        A feeling of peace that confirms what one has heard.

Of course, there are some less general and more private experiences or tests: like goosebumps, feeling warm, images, etc, that many describe when they experience God speaking to them.

It all takes persistence and patience, and it is often accompanied by a lack of absolute certainty.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Diane

    Except for dreams, this is similar to the Quaker experience of listening for God and experiencing God’s leadings.

  • http://wwwi-wonder-as-i-wander.blogspot.com/ linda

    i started following God because i had a spiritual encounter where i heard his voice one day when i went back to visit my childhood church. i have a fairly brief old post on hearing from God. i do agree with the adage that “the holy spirit is more caught than taught” so if one wants to hear from God it is really helpful to hang around and pray with others who hear from God. :)

  • http://abcwesterville.org Mark Farmer

    This raises all kinds of interesting questions. Here are two:

    1. Is there a difference between this subjective experience of Vineyard folks and that of the spiritual descendants of John Calvin who see the Bible as the “self-authenticating” voice of God? I have been both, and I would say both fit the same pattern.

    2. How many thoughts or perceptions does anyone ever have that are not in some way “from outside”? Since what and how we think and perceive is shaped by interaction with others from very early on in life, such a distinction between “my thoughts” and “God’s voice” would seem to be illusory. We internalize many “voices” as we go through life. We do need to sort these out and decide how much value to attribute to each of them. But we need to “own” them all as we work to discover and choose our own voice as people formed in God’s image.

  • http://www.varsityfaith.com Trevor

    Dallas Willard wrote a book several years ago called “Hearing God.” It’s a basic introduction to this concept. I found it very helpful because Willard doesn’t overstate or understate his points; he just offers some wisdom from a life of listening to and discerning the voice of God.

  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    Bill Hybels wrote “THE POWER OF A WHISPER: HEARING GOD, HAVING THE GUTS TO RESPOND” on the same subject.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    There seems to be a whole host of people I have met who never acquired a skill to learning to listen to God much less even believed you were supposed to hear from God. I have met numerous Christians who told me when they started hearing from God that they must be going crazy, a friend of mine who recieved the gift of tongues told God “I don’t even believe in this stuff” and countless others who hear from God but don’t know why God would speak to them or how this hearing stuff even works. By Lurhman studying the Vineyard group, here is a group of people who are expected to hear the voice of God and seek it. All I am saying is there are a whole lot of people out there that are not seeking it but finding it nevertheless.

  • CGC

    PS – I wonder what Luhrmann would do or how to interpret the many Muslims across the world who have had dreams or visions in the sky of Jesus and converted to Christianity from Islam?

  • http://charisshalom.fjministries.com Bryan Riley

    I went on a journey from being focusing almost entirely on God’s written revelation to learning to listen for His voice. Much of what I’ve written about that can be found through this post and links therein: http://charisshalom.fjministries.com/2009/07/living-by-the-word-of-the-lord/

    Others have mentioned helpful books. I would add to that list the following: Prayer by Richard Foster, Talking with God by Francois Fenelon, and The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen.

  • http://www.danwhitejr.blogspot.com Dan Jr.

    To be honest, I struggle with this whole motif of “hearing God.”

    First, I don’t see this type of “individualistic-going-into-yourself-to-hear-God” taught in Scripture as the normative way to be an authentic Jesus-follower. (I’m familiar with the proof texts)

    Second, I’ve been in many Contemporary/Vineyard type churches (pastored at one) where they taught people to decipher God’s voice by teaching them to interpret and sift their feelings/thoughts just like the above article, the majority of the time it exasperated spiritual narcissism and assembled a God that is more like a “therapeutic Deity”

    Third, I have a church full of young adults who wrung themselves out spiritually to hear directly from God (His will). This led to a bit of mental gymnastics for most of them (over-spiritualizing). Now they are in recovery from deep disillusionment.

    I did a little post on how “Over-Spiritualizing”> http://danwhitejr.blogspot.com/2011/12/over-spiritualizing.html

  • http://kalebnyquist.wordpress.com Kaleb

    Awesome post series. This reminds me of when I got to observe a Mormon ward for my sociology of religion course. During a “priesthood” meeting (≈ male Sunday school), where many shared their testimonies, the general story arc was that their childhood faith and the veracity of their scriptures were confirmed – somewhere in their teenage years – by feelings of warmth and peace. One person went as far to say as the Spirit is more important than the text.

    I’m not conflating the Vineyard Church with the LDS church theologically, but I think this experience of “feeling truth” showing up in both American-born churches reflects something of a response to our culture’s individualism – the gospel may be the same for all, but God has a special message just for me. (Which may or may not be a good thing.)

  • http://www.seekingfaithfulnessblog.blogspot.com Holly

    I’m United Methodist, no Vineyard background whatsoever – and yes, I hear God’s voice.

    How?

    Mostly, learning to walk closely with Him and speaking with Him throughout the day – that’s what that “pray without ceasing” thing means to me.

    When I perceive God’s thoughts toward me, they are unbidden. I’m not trying to find them, not attempting to “conjure” up anything – they usually come (and it’s certainly not all of the time, just occasionally) unbidden, out of the blue, where I’m left surprised yet warmed.

    They are usually specifically only for me, and concern His thoughts toward me – it’s not a “word” that I’m supposed to share with a crowd to influence their decisions.

    I’d like to share one brief, simple type of experience so you will know what I mean:

    I was driving somewhere, with my kids in the back of the van. They were involved in their kid chatter; I was thinking about women in ministry, women in leadership. I was confused, had been pondering and reading about this issue for quite some time. As I drove, I finally just said, “Well, what do YOU think about this? How do you feel about women?”

    And take this as bizarre if you will (I’m sure many will….) but unbidden and immediately, I was overwhelmed with a warmth and a huge intensity of light that I can only describe as feeling like a smile from God. I couldn’t help but smile and cry in response – it was an amazing experience for someone who does not seek charismatic experience. Of course no one should base theological interpretation on my experience – it was for me, and it was very confirming as to how God views His daughters, me included. (And that was something I needed to know, not for leadership nor ministry purposes, but just as a girl-child grown up – that God smiled over me.)

    I have many more stories like this thru the course of life – one involves the naming of one of our children. God gave a name *out of the blue* that my husband and I did not even like, really, never would have thought of – but we did what we felt God had said. Down the road, a huge and incredible connection was established with a Muslim woman and her family – all due to this child’s name – it was *her* name as well. To this day, just last week, in fact, it opened the door for a loving conversation on facebook with her and her friends regarding things like the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the Sonship of Christ. (And thanks to many conversations here, I felt prepared to have the conversation there – fascinating to think that God used ME, a homeschooling mom in Indiana, to share about Him and His love with people in the Arabic world, Saudi Arabia specifically.)

    So sorry to go on so long – just wanted to share these things here. It’s not something one “tries” to experience, that would ruin it and cheapen it. How do you force relationship? It simply flows out of loving and walking with God.

  • Luke Allison

    Dan Jr.,

    “Third, I have a church full of young adults who wrung themselves out spiritually to hear directly from God (His will). This led to a bit of mental gymnastics for most of them (over-spiritualizing). Now they are in recovery from deep disillusionment.”

    This is definitely a pattern I’ve discerned, having grown up in charismatic cultures where this type of thing was taught. Young adults come to believe that they should be following the voice of God in every major decision they make (usually equated primarily to dating and marriage), and so they often get frustrated or indecisive because they don’t feel “released” to date somebody or go to a college or whatever. Seriously…I hear the word “released” used more often than I hear anything about Jesus.

    On the flip side, I was sitting at a local chain restaurant with a group of friends some years ago, and I saw an older woman sitting at the bar. I instantly got the sense that I should talk to her. An overwhelming wave of compassion came over me. A picture of a wedding ring flashed through my mind several times like a jump cut. I’m not generally comfortable approaching a woman at a bar by myself, so I asked my wife-to-be at the time if she would go with me. So we caught the lady as she was leaving and I said “I think God wants you to know that no matter what’s going on with your marriage, he still loves you and hasn’t forgotten about you”
    She broke down weeping and said that she was going through a divorce, and that she’d been praying for two days that God would show her that he was real.

    I’ve had several more experiences like that. They don’t happen every day or anything (although I know people who see their “kingdom work” in this type of light, which maybe isn’t such a bad idea), but when they do, they are powerful and unmistakable.

  • T

    Dan Jr.,

    For the dangers you raise, and they are real, I would say that every way of hearing from God has its dangers. Or better, we can approach all of God’s vehicles of “speech” in an improper way that can become dangerous or harmful, especially in the context of individualism. As one who has experienced God speaking in a variety of helpful ways, I agree that “individualistic-going-into-yourself-to-hear-God” needs correction or at least several counterbalances. Does God speak “within”? Of course. Does he also speak “without” via scripture, community and a host of other means? Of course.

    Evangelicalism has been highly individualistic for some time. Seeking to “hear God” whether prophetically or even from scripture in this approach is fraught with dangers, as our ever-growing list of denoms demonstrates. I’m sure you’re aware that most of the NT guidance for prophetic gifts assumes a communal context, and still prioritizes love. There’s wisdom in that assumption and practice. And I’ve seen (and even been) the same young people who look for God’s will/command for everything. The problem isn’t that God doesn’t speak or even that we can’t hear. It’s that he doesn’t want to command us or relate to us in the way that many of us want on so many issues. At least in my case, there were lots of things I had wrong (including an individualistic approach to faith, but also much more, such as the kind of things I wanted God to command me to do) and these flaws were just brought out and made obvious by the mere possibility that God could speak directly, as he did do with me in many ways. I see the kind of disillusionment you’re talking about being as much or more about the larger issues of our faith, such as individualism, legalism, God’s character and intentions, and even how maturity happens and what it entails, as it is about how or whether God speaks. We often are so insecure about so many things that the mere possibility of God speaking to us directly (often caused by experiencing it or seeing others do so) can cause us to get obsessed with getting answers to questions God doesn’t want to answer.

    I liken this pattern to how Jesus dealt with people and how people dealt with him during his initial incarnation. Did he speak to many? Of course, and some in very, very personal ways. But when some began to believe in his access to God, they asked him all kinds of questions, and several of them revealed their own faults and issues. And Jesus often frustrated people with his “answers”, refusing to feed the faults that were driving the questions, but also often still pointing the way forward in the frustrating answer. So he answered many questions plainly, others he refused or was cryptically evasive, and others still he indicated that the answers weren’t theirs to know or that he wanted to say, things, but the people weren’t ready to hear them. In all of it he was pulling people toward the kind of trust and thinking and maturity and community that HE (not we) had in mind. I think we need to tell people this kind of thing when we talk about hearing from God today. He’s the same yesterday, today and forever.

  • http://www.chuckroberts.blogspot.com/ Chuck Roberts

    Just to tag along on the Dallas Willard book Trevor mentioned, there is actually a “Hearing God” iPhone app. It’s a slow, thoughtful way to take in what Willard is saying, which I think is a very good treatment of the subject. If I remember correctly, John Wimber first attended a Quaker church before he pastored a Vineyard Church. That Quaker church was pastored by Richard Foster. Willard also attended and taught there.

  • Judson Poling

    Uh, how does God’s telling Abraham to kill Isaac end up if filtered this way? Here is Abraham’s (hypothetical), answer:
    1. Yes, absolutely I would NOT have come up with this. (Must be God on THAT score.)
    2. No, I can’t imagine the God who created life and who disdains murder telling me to kill my child.
    3. What are “Christians” and how can I talk to one? (Other than Melchizedek, I can’t find very many “El Elyon” fans around here. I asked him, and he’s never heard of them either.)
    4. A feeling of peace!? Are you kidding?! I’m in agony over this!

  • Percival

    Peter Lord wrote a book also called “Hearing God”. It is a really good treatment of the subject (even if the subtitle from the publisher is not so good – Easy Steps … , HA!). Ya gotta love Peter Lord, though! ( http://www.amazon.com/Hearing-Easy—Follow-Step—Step/dp/0800794974/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334595944&sr=8-1 )

    Quick quote: “I often am inclined to spend a week and pay a thousand dollars to hear some national speaker and teacher tell me a truth that God would have used my wife to tell me for free and in five minutes.”

    For those who tend to diminish the importance of this very personal and subjective skill, we only need to read the gospels (John esp.) again noticing how much importance Jesus attached to his hearing the Father. Christ is the model for prayer. A good portion of prayer (half?) is about listening. Why should we be so skeptical when people claim to actually hear something from time to time? However, often those who actually hear the most are those who say the least about it.

    From the intro:
    “Love must express and communicate itself. That’s its nature. when people love one another, they start telling Everything that’s happened to them. Every detail of their daily life, they “Reveal” themselves to each other, unbosom themselves and exchange confidences. God hasn’t ceased being Revelation any more than He’s ceased being Love. He enjoys expressing Himself. Since He’s Love, He must give Himself, share His secrets, communicate with us, and reveal Himself to anyone who wants to Listen.” Louis Eberly

  • J @ North Park Sem

    There’s no getting around several truths… the NT portrays God speaking individually to people in quite powerful ways, Paul relays visions and words from God in the “thorn in the flesh” comments in 2 Cor. Another truth is that this gets very sticky and is very subjective, and I’m sure people looked at apostles like Paul with suspicion at the time for acting upon revelations from God. It gets even more difficult when these revelations are applied to other people, as in prophetic utterances and words of knowledge, both of which are practiced in Vineyard churches. I’m currently at a Vineyard church near Chicago, and I find this congregation is very careful about how these are practiced. If we go too far one way or the other, towards only scripture or too heavily on subjective inspiration, then we are not following the example of the saints depicted in the biblical stories.

  • http://leadme.org Cal

    Something to remember:

    While we may hear the Lord speak to us, it will always be in conformity with the Scriptures and for He is of order, not confusion.

  • TJJ

    I think this is something that comes through matrurity, personal, and in one’s walk with the Lord. And through growth and maturity in practicing/experiencing God’s presence and prayer.

    But I do not take this as revelation or as infallible. One can be mistaken. I take it more as a sense of direction or guidance or insight, to be tested and further examined step by step, and the reliability of which grows with time and experience in praying, meditating on scripture, and listening.

    I have known many through the years whose statements about hearing God say something to them was not trustworthy or cedible or compelling.

    John Eldridge wrote a book a few years ago, “Walking with God” which examined this topic.

  • Kenny Johnson

    No, unfortunately. But at the same time I remain skeptical of those who say they do. I find stories like Luke’s to be inspiring and like to hear them. But on the flip side, I was approached in the grocery store by a woman who said that God told her to talk to me and invite me to church. I explained to her that I’m already a committed follower of Jesus and belong to a church community. She was from the ICoC, which isn’t a church community I would want to be part of. I dunno.. I doubt God told her to talk to me.

  • John Cope

    I grew up in the Church of. Christ which taught God only speaks through scripture. I heard Peter Lord speak at a conference in 1985 on hearing God and started writing down what I perceived God was speaking. I am convinced based on what we see in scripture and a personal history of journaling for twenty seven years that God speaks today.

    Do people imagine God is speaking when it is their own imagination? Absolutely. Because there is counterfeit does meant there isn’t the real. God voice is consistent with His word.He also speaks in many ways such as Godly counsel and the prophetic and circumstances. I look for confirmation.

    About thirteen years into the journey of hearing His voice ,I felt He told me to quit my job and give away my business. I was in Canada. I returned home to US and on our voicemail was a message for my wife from a lady in another state we had not seen or taked to in years.She said “is your husband quitting his job” My wife called her back to inquire and she said God had told her I was quitting my job” That was in 1998.I did what He told me because He gave me the grace to do it. Fourteen years later I am so happy Someone told me God still speaks to his children with specificity. Noah got some pretty specific instructions.What about Abraham and so many more in the OT.The disciples were told some very specific things to do. if you are a sheep you can hear His voice.Try asking Him what He thinks about you.That was my first question.

  • http://www.danwhitejr.blogspot.com Dan Jr.

    First, because we have snapshots of God speaking to people (Abraham, Paul etc), does that mean they are normative? Are they descriptive instead of prescriptive?

    Second, recently someone told me God spoke to them while listening to a song on the radio and they felt so warm and comforted. I struggle with that approach to hearing God because I’ve spent time in Kenya with hundreds of mothers holding their starving/dying child begging God to hear them, talk to them and He doesn’t. My practical question is: why is God so consistently giving personal words of comfort and direction to a financially comfortable soccer mom while a third of the world is lonely, begging to hear from God, and suffering without relief?

    I fully embrace Jesus as Lord. I’m just questioning the motif of how personal we think God interacts?

  • T

    Dan Jr.,

    I get that. I’ve asked the same reason of why he would talk or do anything for me at all–especially after he’s spoken to me in powerful ways. Why pursue me at all? Why give me anything? But again, I think your question regarding the Kenyan mothers has more to do with larger issues than just communication. Why keep my child alive and let someone else’s die? Why heal this person and not that one? Why save him and not her? Why make sure I get enough to pay down my suburban bills when others need food and water to live? Why choose Andrew as one of the 12 and not someone else? Why lead Peter to crucifixion and John to something else? Why give this person one thing and something else to another?

    But all these questions don’t change the reality that God has spoken repeatedly to me and through me for my sake and the sake of others, and in ways that it was obviously him. The same is true of my wife, and most of my friends. But most of all, I think if we look at the gospels, Acts and the epistles, God speaking to and through people is not only regular among his people, but also encouraged by the apostles and Paul in particular, false teachers and false prophets and “super-apostles” notwithstanding. It is something to be desired. It’s a question of who we want to set the norms for us. If we allow the NT teachers, especially Jesus and Paul in this instance, to set our idea of what is “normal” we may still have many questions, but hearing God speak (in all kinds of ways) is going to be something we all seek.

    I think one of the best ways for people to begin thinking about this is to reflect on the process of their conversion. We all acknowledge that it’s the Spirit who draws us. So, it is helpful to remember how that felt and worked as we initially came to faith. God “said” things to us through a variety of vehicles. We often tried in vain to ignore or rationalize away what we heard or were hearing and feeling, but we could not, in the end, deny that God was calling us and should be followed in a particular way. The reality is that God does the same kind of speaking (voices within and without, often working in conjunction) on issues beyond (initial) conversion. Thankfully, not all conversations with God have the urgency and sense of crisis as the initial call, but the process is still very similar.

  • Glenn J

    Dan Jr. great points. Hearing from God can also allow one to disobey direct commands from scripture. I’m thinking of the book of James and feeding or meeting the needs of those in our midst versus saying we will prayer for them and sending them on their way. I’ve heard many people say – God told me not to give. I think a better course of action would be to develop and use wisdom in cases like this. Saying God told me also allows me to not be responsible for my decisions. God told me to break up with you. Really? Maybe I should own my decision and take responsibility even if it involves emotional pain versus put it off on God. I’m not sure God wants to be responsible for your break-up. How about growing up, being an adult and saying I have choices to make that involve pain and consequence and pleasure and rewards. Hopefully my community and I have been shaped enough by scripture, prayer and virtue to be wise and yet be human enough to make mistakes and live in a messy world.

  • http://www.danwhitejr.blogspot.com Dan Jr.

    Thanks T for your thoughts.

  • Wyatt

    You know, I am convinced those of us who do listen to God are usually the last to say anything about it. If you are telling me too much too often about what God is telling you, chances are God isn’t saying much and you are trying to fill in the blanks.

    Then those of us who are so convinced that God does not speak to His children, heart to heart, probably don’t know too much about listening.

  • John Cope

    Because so many people are casual about saying God said this or that and are often wrong there is large barrier that has to be overcome by people such as myself who never thought of that possibility. I overcame the barrier by honestly trying to find out where people even got the idea He spoke except through the bible. I saw a pattern of personal communication in the bible and found a lot in church history.

    I understand those that question the whole idea because of of past teaching or interaction with people who apparently think God will tell them to do something that He says not to do in the bible. However if He wants to speak to us personally then we need to be willing to learn to listen regardless of how He chooses to communicate. If He has said all He is going to say then we who believe He still speaks need to repent for listening to our own imaginations or something worse.

  • http://lukeandstephdubbs@blogspot.com Luke Dubbelman

    I love that you are talking about this scott, I am involved with YWAM (youth with a mission) and we have a long tradition of teaching and practicing “hearing the voice of God”. Every member of YWAM must go through a 6 month discipleship training course, and without fail every one of those schools teaches for a whole week (and it is a massive theme through the whole 6 months) on “hearing the voice of God.” Students are instructed to just go out and ask God a question and wait for an answer….sometimes the question is “what do you think about me” or “what do you think about this memory in my past” and the result is almost always life-changing. It is amazing how God is so ready to speak so loudly and prove he speaks to those who just go out and “try it”.

    I write this comment to “boast” in a way about YWAM and the amazing introduction to the practice of hearing God’s voice I have received in the organization, but also to say that because of being a part of this unashamedly bold push to simply hear God on everything from “who am I….to what should I do with my life or money”, I have a perspective on the whole Idea which both appreciates its beauties and knows its frustrations. Any great thing can easily become an excuse to a bad in the midst of bad (or misguided people). And though I know first hand of the beauty of hearing someone say they heard from the God of the universe and he knew exactly what they needed to hear…I also know of the frustrating times when a student wonders why God is not talking or a student does think he has said something but it is looked by wiser counsel is wrong. Both beautiful and yet when relied on instead of the already revealed word/voice of God it can be messy.

    but life is messy! And with so many voices in the world, might as well try to listen to the one who created the world!

    books that come to my mind are:
    Pete Greg: Red Moon Rising and god on mute

    and Loren Cunningham: Is that really you God


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