I actually found myself with about 45 minutes of extra free time this afternoon, so I thought I’d quickly touch on this great question I just got in response to my last post. Reader Marissa, a former atheist, writes:
You said you “heard” an answer during prayer. What is that like? Is it like a thought in your head that didn’t come from you? (as weird as that sounds) Do you hear another voice in your head that isn’t the sound of your own thinking? Is it different for everyone and you just have to figure it out for yourself? I’m a bit flummoxed by all this, after years of atheism.
I love questions like this. In fact, this was something I used to wonder about a lot. When I would read blogs where Christians would talk about how they were “guided” to do this or that in prayer, or hear people announce that they were taking a certain course of action because it was God’s will for them, I could not imagine how they were getting this information. Was God sending them text messages or telegrams or something? Because when I prayed all I ever heard was either silence or my own racing thoughts.
Though I still have much to learn, I think I’m beginning to understand it a bit more.
When I talk about “hearing” God tell me to do something, I almost never mean that I literally heard a specific, identifiable voice addressing me in the third person (that did happen once, but it’s not something I regularly experience). Rather, it’s more of a sense of my thoughts being gently, almost imperceptibly guided down a specific path. Ideas might come to mind that I had not considered before and may even be foreign to my usual way of thinking; or I might suddenly feel overwhelmed with perfect certainty that a certain option is the right one; or I might gain a completely fresh perspective on the situation that I’d never seen before; etc. The more I am able to clear my mind (which has taken a LOT of practice since I tend toward ADD and always have a racing mind), the more I am able to “hear” these inspirations.
Now, this begs the question, “How do you know that’s God and not just some stuff you came up with on your own?”
The truth is, there’s no 100% guarantee that I’m not influencing the process and hearing what I want to hear. There’s also the possibility that it’s an inspiration from a more malevolent force (not to sound like a crazy church lady, but it’s important to remember that the devil is real and works actively to keep us away from God). This is why it’s important to be informed about the proper discernment process for accurately “detecting” God’s communications with you*, as well as enlisting the counsel of a quality spiritual director if possible.
However, with practice, you will probably develop a natural sense of what it feels like when God is leading you somewhere and won’t need to analyze it extensively each time. For example, when I’ve heard what I believe to be clear answers to prayers lately I could provide a checklist of logical reasons that I think they’re from God and not from my own mind: e.g. the idea was something that had never once occurred to me before, it came to me suddenly during prayer without any thoughts of my own leading up to it, it ended up bringing me closer to God, etc. But while those factors are important, the main reason I believe that those ideas were God’s answers to my prayers is because they brought with them a certain unmistakable peace. It’s a peace that only God can give, something I never experienced through my own efforts when I was an atheist, that I’ve slowly come to know and recognize these past few years. It’s a distinct mixture of love and trust and calm, and when you feel it it’s like smelling God’s cologne as he passes by.
A big lesson for me was that developing a relationship with God is much like developing a relationship with anyone: it takes time, and the more effort you put into it, the more you will understand the other person involved, and the more the relationship will grow. Keep praying — even if it feels like you’re talking to yourself, even if you have doubts and feel like you’re getting nowhere. Pray and ask for help getting to know God. You will receive it.
That’s the answer based on my experience. How would you answer Marissa’s question? In as much specific detail as possible, how would you describe what it’s like to “hear” God’s voice in your life?
* Anyone have any good links with more information about that process? For example, an authentic call from God would never involve sin, would never leave you feeling angry or unsettled, would never contradict the Bible, etc. but I couldn’t find a link to offer that summarizes that. The books Finding God’s Will for You, Introduction to the Devout Life and The Fire Within do a great job of covering this topic. Anyone else have suggestions?
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