It was my very first class in a PhD program. The professor opened the session with a lecture on epistemology, which I quickly learned was the theory of knowledge. My head spinning, I took copious notes on the various views regarding how we know what we know, until these words stopped me short: “Divine Revelation? They believed that in the Middle Ages.”
With one sentence, my professor had dismissed a premise on which I’ve built my entire spiritual life, which is that God speaks personally to his children today. In fact, that was why I was even in that program. It had begun one morning a couple of years earlier in a conversation with God, when I sensed him asking me: “If you could do anything you wanted for the rest of your life, what would it be?” I knew the answer immediately—I would teach college students how to grow in their spiritual journeys. This became the impetus for my PhD quest.
Does God Speak Today?
One of the first hurdles we must get beyond in conversational prayer is doubt that God really speaks to human beings. Our enlightenment culture teaches us to value only what we can see and touch, or that which can be tangibly investigated and proven. We have no idea how we have been subtly influenced to go along with a world view that dismisses spiritual experiences out of hand.
Conversational prayer relies on communion between our spirit and the Spirit of God; the God who spoke the world into being, who calls himself the Word. We must embrace these things in faith if we hope to hear him speaking into our lives. For some of us, this begins by recognizing and acknowledging any hidden bias about supernatural realities.
How Can I Know It Is God?
The second area of struggle is whether we are hearing God or our own imaginations in conversational prayer. Discernment here is important, but like every other spiritual discipline, we only learn by doing. We don’t expect teachers to be profound the first time they share, nor do we think we should pray perfectly from the start. We must be trained in anything that promises to help us grow in our spiritual journeys. Thus, as we spend time with God, listening and relating, testing what we hear over time, we will mature in our ability to discern his voice as it becomes more and more familiar to us.
Some basic guidelines here are helpful. For example, we know that God will never speak something that contradicts his character or ways, nor will he violate his written Word. Hearing God in conversational prayer is also not some strange thus saith the Lord experience, but more like a heart-to-heart talk with a good friend. God is a person who knows us intimately, and to that end, his words will be uniquely personal, reflecting our relationship. This means that the wisdom he imparts or the encouragement he offers usually comes to us in ways that fit with our personality. We don’t have to become something other than who we are to engage in conversational prayer.
Personally, I am not greatly concerned with whether I am imagining God’s voice. His Spirit joins my spirit, crying “Abba, Father,” and I doubt that I’ll ever be able to separate these out perfectly. If I sense God is speaking, I usually jot it down, and watch to see how it will pan out over time. Do I miss him or make mistakes? Yes. But even in this, God is training me, so I do not have to fear getting it wrong. Still, most of the time the things I sense that I hear him saying in conversational prayer bring depth, direction, and meaning to the details of my day.
Practicing Prayer: On Your Own
Let’s get practical here!
One of the most meaningful ways to converse with God is over Scripture. Today you can do this in three simple steps: Stop, Look, and Listen. First, choose a passage you would like to pray through (around 10-15 verses—the Gospels are a good place to begin).
Prepare your heart to hear God’s voice by seeking to:
- Tune out distractions
- Ask the Holy Spirit to guide and enlighten
- Remind yourself that it is God who wants to have a conversation with you
- Expect to hear from him
- Take the time to listen
- Respond as he leads
Hold your Bible open as you become still in God’s presence once again. Begin to read slowly, not for knowledge or understanding, but to hear God speaking. Do not try to analyze or interpret the verses. When you feel an urge to stop reading, pause. (If this doesn’t happen, choose a portion which seems meaningful to you.)
Read the last few words, phrase or sentence again. Set your mind on Jesus within you. Turn all your focus toward him as you ask: Lord, what are you saying to me today?
Wait quietly in his presence. If you do not get any impression from him, slowly read the passage again and ask: Lord, what are you saying to me today?
Wait quietly, continuing to keep your focus completely on him. If distracting thoughts come, let them go and return to the presence of Christ.
When you sense that he may have spoken, either write it down or repeat it to yourself a few times. Share any questions or concerns you have. Wait and listen for God to respond.
Ask: Lord, what difference should this make in my life? What do you want me to do in response? Write your thoughts in your prayer journal. Finish with a few minutes of thanksgiving.
You’ve been reading from Tricia McCary Rhodes’ book The Soul at Rest: A 40 Day Journey into a Life of Prayer. Learn to hear God speak and grow a deeper and more intimate relationship with him. Get the book or read chapter one here for free.