Moses heard God speak to him from a burning bush. Catherine of Siena had ecstatic visions of Jesus. Anne Catherine Emmerich experienced the stigmata. Margaret Mary Alacoque was shown the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The list of people—some saints, some not—who have seen, heard, or experienced God first-hand while still on earth can go on and on. These were dramatic encounters that left no doubt in the person’s mind that God was speaking directly to them.
My name is not on that list. Nor, I suspect, is yours.
I have, as Frederich Buechner wrote, “caught glimpses of what the saints were blinded by,” but I’ve never stood in the full illumination of that vision. My encounters with God have been far more subtle… and that much more difficult to understand. God said to my patron saint, “Organize an army. Speak to the Dauphin.” His messages to me are a great deal less direct. That may be true for you as well.
Yet we know God speaks to us. How do we discern his voice? Jesus said that his sheep know his voice, but there’s often an awful lot of noise around it!
God often uses our circumstances to speak to us. That’s much more subtle than a burning bush, and that’s part of the problem: we expect God to speak in the grandiose “voice of God.” We expect the burning bush, and what we get is… life.
The difficulty is, of course, distinguishing which of our lives’ circumstances are God’s voice, and which are… just circumstances. God cares about everything that happens to us; he’s counted the hairs on our heads. But sometimes life is just life. Bad things happen to good people. Some doors open to us and others we may have passionately wanted… close. We lose the jobs that support our families. Our health changes drastically and in the twinkling of an eye, with a car crash or a stroke or a diagnosis. Our child misses out on the scholarship she wanted. We struggle with a difficult marriage. Life happens.
And it sidetracks us. The noise of our lives can overwhelm our emotions and senses so that we often don’t hear God when he’s speaking to us personally. The tricky part of it all is finding a way to feel God’s presence in whatever is occurring.
When life is happening all around you, there are some things you can do to help hear God’s voice in the noise:
- Meditate with the Word
One way is to mirror your circumstances with the truth of God’s word. God will never oppose himself. He will never contradict his written word, even when he is speaking through our circumstances. He will never ask you to do something that’s in violation of what he’s already said. So read scripture; look for places where it addresses the kind of situation you’re finding yourself in, and pray about it. Is there a message for you, or are you simply being asked to endure?
Psalm 23, for example, talks about life having good times and bad times—but God is always there as our shepherd. He is with us no matter what is happening, no matter how perplexed or troubled we might be, and his voice is always present and available through his Word.
- Speak with others
Another way to hear God’s voice in the circumstances of daily life is to listen to the wise voices around us. God uses people to confirm his voice. If you believe you hear God asking you for something, share that with your priest or spiritual director. Use the wisdom of God’s Church to reflect on what you are understanding in your heart. People who follow God can help us hear from him and illuminate what he is telling us.
If what you’re feeling is contrary to either scripture or the Church’s teachings, there’s a good chance it’s not God you’re hearing from, but rather your own thoughts and distortions.
- Claim your gift
A third way of discernment is by using the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These seven gifts— wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord—were given us to use in navigating our life in the world and our life in Christ. Don’t let them just sit there; put them to use! Seek counsel. Pray for understanding. Develop fortitude. Do it all in love of God and a desire to please him. Exploring the gifts of the Holy Spirit will often help clarify what you are hearing.
- Wait on God’s timing
Don’t try to force God to tell you something. You may want an answer to a request now, or you may want him to tell you what you’re to do next; but we only hear from God when he chooses, not when we do. Focus on developing a loving, respectful, and constant relationship with God—and wait for his timing to speak to you.
And, finally, pray, pray, pray. We all want to hear from God, directly and personally, and we probably do hear from him more often than we think—we just don’t slow down long enough to listen!
by Jeannette de Beauvoir