Through church history and even among our varied denominations, people often use words like, “The Lord spoke to me,” or “I heard the Spirit say,” and still yet, “I have this feeling that the Lord…” I am struck by these comments. They presuppose one thing: God still speaks.
Speaking and hearing are two communication means. To speak is to say words. To hear is to listen or receive that which is spoken by the mouth.
I have been pondering for some time the way in which God speaks and the way in which his servants should hear. To answer some of my questions, I am drawn to 1 Samuel 3.
Hearing the Lord’s Voice
In 1 Samuel 3, Samuel is called to serve the Lord. At this time in history, hearing from the Lord was a rarity, and he was giving no visible signs of his presence (v. 1). This time in Israel’s history is one of despondency, hopelessness, and despair. God is not speaking. God is silent. God’s voice is quieted because of Israel’s sin.
But, something different is observed in 1 Samuel 3. God rushes in with his tender-grace to speak.
Such tenderness of his grace comes one evening while Samuel is sleeping—and God speaks (v. 4, 6). Samuel is awakened by the voice of the Lord. He thinks Eli is calling him. Three times in the narrative, Samuel appears before Eli saying, “Here I am!” because he mistakes God’s voice for his teacher’s voice (vv. 4, 6, 8).
It takes three times before Eli realizes the Lord is speaking. Then, Eli teaches Samuel to listen to the Lord (v. 8). He “perceives” the Lord is calling young Samuel, and he provides a valuable lesson on the way each of us should respond. Eli says to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears'” (v. 9).
Samuel’s response should be ours: “Speak, for you servant hears.” And so, God continues his visitation and communication with Samuel. He reveals to Samuel his future work in the nation and also how God’s mighty discipline will end Eli’s life. These are sobering words for an available servant to hear, but Samuel continues to be obedient to the Lord’s voice (v. 19).
God Still Speaks
This narrative elicits for me some questions about hearing the Lord and responding to his voice. I do believe that God still speaks. He uses multiple means to speak, and every believer should be careful to listen to his voice.
There are two main ways that God speaks throughout Scripture: through general and special revelation.
First, general revelation explains the way God speaks through natural means (e.g. stars, nature, sky, and created things; Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20). The natural world declares the Lord, and it speaks forth his glory. The trees of the field and the rocks proclaim the handiwork of the Lord.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “God seems to talk to me in every primrose and daisy and smile at me from every star, and whisper to me in every breath of morning air, and call aloud to me in every storm.” Nature profoundly speaks of God and draws our hearts to the amazing truths revealed through the gospel.
Second, special revelation explains the way God speaks experientially and exactly. I say experiential because there are some unique means through which God speaks in Scripture that are not necessarily common occurrences today. We now have the Scriptures complete, and God speaks through his Word (Hebrews 1:1-2).
I’d like to offer few biblical perspectives on the experiential ways that God speaks throughout Scripture, many of which are not common today. This is not an exhaustive list.
Angels play an important mouthpiece for God. They deliver messages of hope and warning (Genesis 19:1-13). Prophets were teachers called to communicate God’s warning and teaching people to repent. They pointed the audience to see their sin and their need of the Lord’s deliverance (Amos 3:7; 1 Samuel 2:35). God used dreams and visions to communicate a special calling, like when God spoke to Joseph of the coming famine and his brothers bowing to him (Genesis 37-50).
Visions interpreted by Daniel to King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4; 7-12) also revealed the coming destruction on the nation. Fire and unusual images were also frequent visitors in the Scriptures. Moses’ encounter with the Lord shows the reader God’s desire to be known (Exodus 3). And of course, there are other fire scenes in Scripture. Mount Carmel is another picture of God coming near to his people (1 Kings 18:37-39).
Later, in the New Testament, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about being born again (John 3:3) when he calls Nicodemus to the gospel. Special revelation made available to this religious man is also available to all (John 1:1-2; Hebrews 1:1-2). In Acts, people are invited to respond to the gospel call (Romans 10:17). The outpouring of God’s Spirit so that the gospel might be heard in multiple languages is another beautiful way that God speaks in the New Testament (Acts 1:5; 2:2).
Using Spiritual Disciplines to “Listen to the Lord”
But, you may be asking, what about today? How does God speak to me, and how should I hear him? Let me suggest some practical helps for hearing from the Lord and responding to his Word:
1. Scripture reading. The devotional practice of reading and absorbing the Scriptures, resulting in memorization; reading, reciting, and responding with the intention for the mind to remember and be renewed in spiritual growth (Psalm 19; Matthew 4:4; James 1:25).
2. Meditation. The practice of hearing God’s voice through Scripture, training the mind to apprehend, and the willingness to respond in obedience to the revelation given to the person through active memorization of the Word (Psalm 1:1-3; Joshua 1:8).
3. Prayer. The practice of coming before God, speaking, and having a conversation so that we, and others, may benefit from God’s divine provision and receive a measure of grace, in order that needs will be met and hearts awakened to God’s presence (2 Samuel 7:27; 1 Kings 8:29; Nehemiah 1:11; Ephesians 1:15-23).
4. Journaling. The practice of writing personal thoughts, remembrances, reflections, experiences, concerns, and meditative responses to God’s Word in the Spirit (Ps. 143:5).
5. Fasting. The practice of temporarily abstaining from certain appetites, such as food, entertainment, sexual intercourse, and medicines, for the purpose of sacrifice in order to concentrate fully on spiritual truths (2 Chronicles 20; 1 Samuel 7:6; Matthew 6:16).
6. Sabbath Rest. A period of resting from one’s labor or work as commanded in Scripture (Exodus 31:15) and using that time for worship, sleep, and reflection on God’s sovereign work in creation (Leviticus 23:32; Deuteronomy 5:14; John 7:23; Hebrews 4:3).
7. Practicing his presence. The practice of experiencing and recognizing God through his invisible presence and provision in all of life, and acknowledging his control over its every facet, as one endeavors to live and work on earth (Exodus 33:15-16; John 1:14; Romans 8:15-16; Ephesians 6:18).
And so then, what is our response to these things? I say two things.
First, we must never miss God’s voice when he does speak. In fact, many people do miss his tender voice altogether. They are in rebellion. Their ears are dull, and they do not perceive the glorious gospel of grace (Isaiah 6:9-10; Matthew 13:14-15).
I can miss hearing from the Lord because of my rebellious heart. However, I am compelled to listen to the Lord because of his divine work in my life through the gospel. Part of hearing the Lord speak is a matter of fruit-bearing (John 15) in my life. The Spirit’s power grants me to understand spiritual truths (1 Corinthians 3:13-14). The natural, resistant unbeliever rejects the Spirit and his voice. But the resistant Christian can only rebel for a time before becoming enthralled by God’s effectual grace (Isaiah 61:10).
Second, be a teacher who perceives the hand of God speaking to the people around you. Like Eli, let us encourage other believers to also say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9).
Third, embrace the gospel. So, today, if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts (Hebrews 3:15). Be like an Eli who perceives and a Samuel who says, “Speak” (1 Samuel 3:19). You will be greatly blessed by God’s grace as you hear his voice and respond to him.