Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hearing the Voice of the Lord

This coming Sunday, Pentecost, is when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit--the tongues of fire in the upper room and the disciples speaking in languages that were understood by those from different countries. The season of Pentecost is a time when we focus on the Holy Spirit's role and open ourselves to His work in our lives.

But the first and obvious question, I think, is: How do we know it's the Holy Spirit?

How do I know it's not just my own desire that I've spiritualized? How do I know if it's a word from the Lord to me for a specific situation, or just another Bible verse? What if I think it's the Holy Spirit, and I'm wrong? What if I never "hear" anything?

Let me share my own experience with coming to know the voice of the Lord. As a young Christian, I had a lot of intellectual knowledge about God, about the Bible, about doctrine and even some theology. But I would make a decision by first praying for God's help; then I would list pros and cons, make a rational decision, and ask for God to bless it. As I matured, and through circumstances, I learned that God wanted not just my mind, but my heart--my emotions and my desires--to be involved in listening to Him too.

For me, getting in touch with my emotion and desires was a huge thing--a healing, in fact. And through that healing, I began to learn that my imagination could be blessed and submitted to God too--that in fact, the Holy Spirit could speak to me through my imagination. I met Christians to whom God often seemed to speak in pictures or images, even dreams. They emphasized that these visions needed to be tested against Scripture and confirmed by other believers, but that God could and did use the imagination to speak.

I remember one simple exercise that Leanne Payne, in her conferences, used to take us through. "Ask God to show you the garden of your heart," she would say. "Take His hand and enter it and see what is there." In the silence, prayerfully, I asked God to show me the garden of my heart and without striving, just opening my interior eyes, I saw it. The first time, it looked nothing like a garden--more like a cave, and there were cobwebs over the entrance. The ground was cracked and dry, parched for water, and the Lord showed me that He was sending rain--a gentle, softening rain--on this barren earth.

That was the perfect metaphor for what He was doing in my life at that time, with the opening up of my heart--my emotions, desires, and imagination. I had become a parent too, and that experience unlocked a greater capacity to nurture, to love, to sacrifice and to imagine. That rain took the form of Scripture, of books I read, of conversations, sermons and prayers prayed, by me and for me by others.

I wrote regularly in a journal for years beginning at that time, to practice God's presence and to practice listening to the Lord. I also began to listen to my own heart and sort out my anxious thoughts and fears from my true and God-given desires. As C.S. Lewis wrote, "The prayer preceding all prayers is 'May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.' " Journaling helped me sort out the real I and the real Thou, for the first time.

(And I am forever grateful to my husband who practically pushed me out the door, a couple afternoons a week, while the little ones were napping--he worked from home at that time--to go to the Acorn Coffee Bar and Folk Lore Center, with nothing but a Bible, a devotional book and a journal. I would never have spent the time that way if I had stayed home, and without his urging!)

The most important books I read during that time were Restoring the Christian Soul and Listening Prayer, both by Leanne Payne. She directly addressed this question of: What if it's "just me" that I "hear"? She said, among other things, that it's okay to listen to "just me," that we need to hear what "just me" knows. Especially if it's the "real I" that is speaking, the real I is in touch with passions and desires that God himself planted there when He created me. And if it is just my fleshly desires that are speaking, it's okay--that will soon become apparent.

This was a news flash for me, and it gave me permission to trust my heart--to listen to my intuition and even my feelings--as I never had before! Over time, I learned from experience what it felt like when my heart seemed to be united with God's desires--which I would call a prompting from the Holy Spirit--and when my heart was prompted more by selfishness or sinful fears. It takes great honesty with oneself and with God, but I think any believer can learn the difference.

So, how do we hear and recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit?

In my experience:

It is usually a still, small voice. We have to quiet ourselves to hear Him.

He often speaks through the Word--rarely in a random way, but usually by calling to our minds a verse or a concept from Scripture.

He often speaks through our imagination--with a metaphor, a detailed picture, a half-seen image, a dream, or a single word or phrase planted in our minds. Usually the significance is immediately apparent.

He often fans the flames of the desires He has planted in our hearts.

His voice will never contradict Scripture.

If it's a true message from the Holy Spirit, there will be some kind of confirmation from other believers.

Yes, we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are listening to the Holy Spirit when really, we are justifying what we want. But with experience and a commitment to honesty with God and ourselves, we can learn to sort out God's voice from our fleshly desires; in fact, the Holy Spirit can help us do that.

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. ~Psalm 51:6

(It's not too late to submit your post for the Pentecost Blog Carnival! The deadline has been extended through Friday.)


Sherry said...

Mama Hen and friends,

I'm doing a Hymn Project this summer ---just because I want to. You can read more about it at this address on my blog:

But basically, I'm asking you to send me a list of your ten favorite hymns. List these hymns in your order of preference. So your #1 hymn would be the one you feel is the best, and so on. I will be giving your first choice 10 points, your second choice 9 points, and so on. Submit your list to me at sherryDOTearlyATgmailDOTcom. Write “Hymn Survey” in the subject line.

If you like, you can submit a justification for each hymn. Or you can send me a link to an audio or video version online. Include the name of the hymn’s author or lyricist and the composer of the melody you prefer if at all possible, especially if you think I might be unfamiliar with your particular hymn. At the beginning of June I will tally up the totals, and I will pull from the submitted pieces why one reader or another liked a particular hymn (naming the reader, of course). That way we’ll be able to hear from a whole bunch of people why they love one hymn or another. I will then count down from 100 to 1 on my blog over the course of the summer the top choices of what folks feel the best hymns of all time are.


Jennifer Merck said...

Are you familiar with Mother Theresa's comments in her autobiography in which she talks about so much of her life living in a "dark night of the soul?" This strikes me as the "not hearing anything" that you mention. And the thing that struck me about it, when I heard this last year some time, was that most of us probably live our lives in that "dark night" of hearing nothing from God. I may be mistaken, but I wonder if Mother Theresa experienced some very intimate and direct communication and closeness with God at one point in her life . . . and then not for 50 years.

The amazing thing that also struck me about Mother Theresa's comments was that, even in the perceived absence of a word from the Holy Spirit, she remained obedient. And isn't that what we are called to -- obedience, even in the midst of silence?

Are you familiar with the Jesus Storybook Bible? If not, you must get familiar with it!! I'll send you a copy if you don't have one. The Pentecost story is entitled, "God sends help." I love that. The still, small voice inside each one of us whom God has honored with His presence was sent as our helper. May we continue to listen to the Helper.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful articulation of your journey with hearing God's voice. I've experienced similar breakthroughs with God (thank God for Mario and Leanne and Rez!). It's so good to see your journey written out. I'm excited to hear how God continues to speak to you as you grow and evolve.

At A Hen's Pace said...


Yes, I am familiar with the dark night of the soul and Mother Theresa's writings about it. I haven't read them myself but my impression is that she saw it as a particular type of suffering, that did indeed call into life more faith and more obedience, though it was so painful! What a remarkable woman.

I have read one other recommendation of the Jesus Storybook Bible, and now with YOU chiming in, I must get myself a copy! Yes, may we have ears to hear the One who was sent to help us.


It's an exciting journey, isn't it? We have been so blessed with great teachers and models. I always feel that "to whom much has been given much will be required"--that's one reason I like to pass on things I've learned here on this blog. All glory to God!


Amy said...

Insightful post Jeanne! I do love these carnivals and learn so much!!

Jessica said...

Jeanne, thanks for writing this and for sending me the link. I love hearing other Christians talk about hearing the Lord, because with every story I hear, I feel like I get to know Him better. It's like when you meet an old friend of your husband's, say, and he tells you a story about him from their old times together, and you fall just a bit more in love with your husband because you get to know him just that much better.

Maybe it's a weird analogy, but that's what it seems like to me! Anyway, thank you again!

At A Hen's Pace said...

Jessica--I think it's a great analogy. So true!!

martha said...

What a great post! Good food for thought, much of which I immediately resonate with. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Amy said...

Thanks for sharing some of your heart journey. I found your blog when looking for Leann Payne's prayer through the heart's garden. Don't know if you have anything more expanded than what you included. I'm interested, for sure. This heart journey is one that I am on...that is alternately exhilarating and terrifying. Leaving the head-allegiance of my evangelical upbringing and learning that I need two wings to fly (head and heart) not just one.

Shalom on your journey--