Does God speak to us? If so, how do we hear God’s voice? And if others have supernatural experiences but we do not, does this mean we are less holy than them?
These are questions that many people of faith grapple with and have different stances on. I grew up in a Christian subculture where hearing from God was as common as seeing a mailman. My peers (myself included) frequently divulged convictions like “God told me Michael is going to be my husband” over our school lunch breaks, and we squealed in delight about who the boy was (all of this being unbeknownst to the suitor, of course), which was infinitely more exciting than the notion that God actually spoke to us. On the opposite end, there were, and still are, Christian communities that are hesitant and skeptical of such direct supernatural experiences.
Not surprisingly, these are not just questions that everyday lay Christians have puzzled over but have also occupied the minds of scholars and saints throughout Christian history. If God did indeed speak to humans directly, these scholars and saints posited that there would be some sort of rhyme or reason, some standard by which we could test the validity of these ostensible revelations.
And, sure enough, consistent and uniform ways of differentiating genuine messages from God have been parsed out among the many experiences of those who have claimed to hear from God—the first being the way God’s communication with us makes us feel. While God’s communication with humans can take many forms--as obvious a lightning bolt or as subtle as a whisper,--the Jesuit priest and author George Aschenbrenner wrote, “Whenever he found interior consonance within himself (which registers as peace, joy, contentment) from the immediate interior movement and felt himself being his true congruent self, then he knew he had heard God’s word to him at that instant.” Similarly, St. Ignatius wrote that voices or thoughts not of God “cause gnawing anxiety, saddens, and set up obstacles.”
I have found this to be true in my own life. Among the small handful of direct encounters I’ve had with God (which doesn’t include my juvenile revelations about my future husband; I’ll discuss why later), all of them were subtle and gentle, causing an overwhelming sense of peace and joy within me, dissolving any anxiety I had about a predicament I was stewing over at the time.
The subtle nudge of God
All of these experiences were so subtle, in fact, that I could have easily overlooked them had I not been tuning into the Spirit through prayer, reflection, or an orientation of openness. For this reason, I’m always quick to assure those who are discouraged by a belief that “God doesn’t speak to me” that God’s voice isn’t usually grand and glamorous but quite the opposite—so soft that we easily miss it if we have preconceptions about what it’s “supposed” to be like.
So, why is it that I now discount my teenage self’s belief that God foretold me about my future husband? Well, apart from the fact that I didn’t end up marrying Michael, our human desire to know our future derives from an anxious need to control our lives rather than an abiding trust in a God who leads us day by day, breadcrumb by breadcrumb. And the primary way God relates to us is dynamic and reciprocal as opposed to unidirectional, like a commander giving direct orders from above.
For me, a type A control freak, this was the harshest realization about God’s ways—that God couldn’t give me a look into the crystal ball to see my future. But I slowly saw this as a gift in two ways. The first is that we humans have this extraordinary creative capacity to craft lives of our own making. The second is that God longs to support us and even co-create our envisioned lives with us. This partnership and reciprocal communication cultivates a much deeper and richer relationship than if God had a predetermined blueprint we had to follow lest we be punished for our missteps!
So how do we engage in co-creation? And how do we tune into God’s voice that we usually can’t hear with our ears?
This leads me to the second consistent observation that has been discovered about how God speaks to people. That is, by just showing up. Letting God know, “Hi God, I’m here, ready to share and ready to listen.” This showing up usually takes the form of regular spiritual practices.
Here’s the thing: God has always been speaking to us and wanting to be in a dynamic relationship with us. The onus now lies with us to respond.
The Rev. Lydia Sohn is an United Methodist ordained elder within the California Pacific Conference. She left her full-time church appointment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to blog, write a book, and be a stay-at-home mom for her two young kids. Follow along at www.revlydia.com.