Some years back, I did a survey of our church’s congregation with the simple question: “If you could ask God one thing, what would it be?” I was not surprised that the most frequent response had to do with the problem of evil in the world, but I was struck by the next most common question: “How can I hear the voice of God?” The various wording people used indicated some were facing important decisions, others wanted to know if their lives were “on track” with God, some were in crisis, and still others expressed feelings of spiritual isolation and just wanted to “hear” from God.
There is a long history and many debates about how God “speaks” to us. Our concern in this chapter is how God speaks in and through Holy Scripture. This must be the believer’s major conviction, that we find the voice of God in Scripture, and that the authority of the Bible trumps all other claims about hearing God. Throughout Scripture, God is talking. Creation took place at the verbal command of God. The Hebrews became a nation when they met their God at Mount Sinai and he spoke to them through Moses. The prophets’ oracles often began with: “This is what the Lord says.”
And the Gospels proclaim a whole new form of the voice of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Or, as the opening words of the book of Hebrews puts it: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2).
Whenever we find ourselves longing to hear the voice of God—wanting to know if we’re doing the right thing, or yearning to know that we are not alone—we must remember this: We have in Scripture thousands and thousands of expressions of the will and the ways of God. We have an analysis of life that is complex and refined, giving us concrete moral instruction and wisdom-based ethics. We have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). We have the “wisdom from above” (James 3:17 ESV). We have “Spirit-taught words” (1 Cor. 2:13). Do you want to hear God’s voice? Then take in what he says in his Word. Drink deeply. Study well. Meditate slowly. Keep starting over.
It may be that the most relevant question for us is not “Where can we find the voice of God?” but “What prevents us from taking in the voice of God?” Many biblical passages speak to that.
Listening to the voice of God is risky. At Mount Sinai the people said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). Moses replied that the fear of God would be good for them; it would keep them from sinning, although it will sting at times.
There are many passages that say we resist listening to God because we know obedience is the next step. In the parable of the soils, Jesus analyzes why the word of God (the seed) does not take root. Shallow acceptance (the rocky ground), and the competition of worries and money (the thorny soil) get in the way. But simple lack of understanding (the path) thwarts a person’s spiritual life.
How can we hear God’s voice in Scripture? It isn’t really complicated. We need to read it. We need to do the work to understand it (which is the point of this whole book). And we need to have the right heart attitude, which is more challenging than anything else. We have to honestly admit that we will resist being obedient to God, and that we will be tempted to make the Bible mean what we want it to mean. That prospect should terrify us. Putting our words into the mouth of God is the height of arrogance.
Here is a caution. For years I sat in Bible studies where the leader read a passage and then asked the group: “What does this mean to you?” Only much later did I learn (and it made perfect sense when I did) that the meaning of Scripture does not flow from the subjective experience of the believer. The question is not “What does this mean to me?” but rather “What does this mean?”
When the apostle Paul said, “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25), he meant something specific. It is our obligation to dig and dig until we learn what he meant, and then talk about how it applies to us.
There is only one way to receive the pure and powerful truth of God—and that is to seek to understand what the Bible meant so we can apply what it means to our lives today.
[Excerpt from How to Understand the Bible]