Can I Hear God?

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Do you want to hear God? Or specifically, since he is the one Jesus sent when he left (John 14:16) and since he is God in us (John 14:17), do you want to hear the Holy Spirit?

It is good and right to answer yes. We should want to hear from our God and be close with our God. We are meant to have a personal and experiential relationship with Christ by the Spirit.

But what does this look like? How do I hear the Holy Spirit?

In the Bible, the Christian life is Spirit-filled, but as hopefully you'll see in this post, this idea isn't as subjective as that word and idea have become in our individualistic, self-focused culture. We are supposed to have a personal relationship with Jesus by the Spirit who dwells in us, but in this relationship by the Spirit we are to emphasize his word—the gospel message delivered once and for all in the Bible—day in and day out. This is evident as we read the New Testament.

Jesus, the Apostles, and the Spirit

This day in and out, Bible-focused life seems to be what Jesus wanted for us, and what his apostles taught.

Jesus had an extremely high view of the Bible. He over and over called it the “word of God” and he made it clear that this is where people were to look for truth and godliness. And he connected this with his Holy Spirit. According to Jesus, the Holy Spirit led the writers in the Old Testament to write the Scriptures (Mark 12:36). And concerning the New Testament, when talking about the Spirit he would give after he died and rose, Jesus made it evident that it would be by this Holy Spirit that he was going to continue to speak. But how would he do it? Mainly through the apostles and what they wrote (see, for example, John 17:20; 14:25-26; 1 John 1:1-4; Hebrews 2:1-4).

Therefore, it isn't through subjective hearings that his people would hear the Spirit. Rather, it would be through the word of the apostles. (More on this later, in case you're not convinced yet.)

This is evident as Jesus says clearly that people in the future were to believe in him through the word of the apostles. Praying to his father right before his death, Jesus said, “I do not ask for these [apostles, in context] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20, see 6-20). The apostles by the Spirit were to be given words to write down so that others would believe in Jesus (John 14:25-26; 1 John 1:1-4).

The apostles saw this as well. They knew that their writings were authoritative (for example, 2 Peter 3:15-16; 1 Corinthians 14:37-38). They were the sent ones (apostolos) of Jesus, which is why they had such authority in his name. And they saw their writings as the word of God by the Spirit of God. This is the whole point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians chapter 2 (see especially 1 Corinthians 2:6-16). The Spirit gave the apostles words to say.

The Spirit and the Word

This is why, when we look at the New Testament instructions from the apostles to the churches, we see them saying that the main way the Spirit speaks is in this word of God, which they were delivering. It isn't a subjective 'voice' we hear. It is the word of God by the Spirit, as a revelation from Jesus himself, through the apostles. This is how the Spirit speaks. This is evident over and over.

For a quick example, see my post here where it is fascinating how Paul, in two very parallel passages (Ephesians 5:18-20 and Colossians 3:16-17), says in one to “be filled with the Spirit,” and in the other to “let the word dwell in you richly.” These are extremely similar in contexts and content, except for these phrases. And this means that in Paul’s mind, to be filled with the Spirit is the same thing as letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Think about how incredible that is. Being a Bible person is being a Spirit person, according to Paul. More could be said, but I encourage you to read my post there.

A second quick example is from when Paul says that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God. So, do you want to have the Spirit in you day to day battles with the flesh and the enemy? Do you want him to be close and powerful? Go to the word of God. That’s your weapon, not some individualistic hearing. (As a side note, see the post linked above to see that nowhere in the entire New Testament do the apostles call subjective hearing [or even prophesy] the 'word of God').

God Speaking God's Voice

But besides these, a great place to see clearly that in the New Testament the Spirit speaks in the Bible is in Hebrews 3. There the author is urging his readers to stay in the faith and to hold fast to Christ. And as he urges them like this, he doesn't encourage them to hear individually from God, or to seek unique, spiritual encounters. And he especially doesn’t tell them to leave the word in some sort of second place. Instead, for the main part of his appeal he quotes Scripture, as expected from New Testament authors. And notice what he says,

“Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion...’” (Hebrews 3:6-7).

The Spirit Speaks

This is fascinating for two main reasons. First, notice how the author introduces the text that he quotes from the Psalms. He writes, “As the Holy Spirit says.” Says! It is a present tense verb. It also can be translated, "as the Holy Spirit is saying." So the Holy Spirit is speaking. What then does the author say the Spirit is saying? The answer: a biblical psalm that David wrote and had been around for hundreds of years, namely, Psalm 95:7-11.

What then does this mean? Well, the teaching of the Bible is 100% clear: the Spirit speaks and is speaking in the Bible. It isn’t a past tense “spoke.” He speaks in the Bible. David wrote it. But the Holy Spirit speaks it now. Present tense. This isn't just a religious idea. It is true. The third Person of the Trinity literally speaks in the pages of your Bible.

Hearing God's Voice

The second thing to notice from the passage above is how the author talks about hearing God’s voice. This is an exciting topic, right? What does it mean to hear God's voice? The author of Hebrews quotes the psalm, “Today, if you hear his [God’s] voice...”, and so he is saying that God's voice can be heard.

So what is this voice? Many would say it is some subjective, small whisper, often in which needs to be determined if it is my thoughts or God's voice. It is clear from point one that the Spirit speaks in the Bible, but you may be wondering if the author is saying here that along with that, we can individually hear his voice today in some subjective, extra-biblical way.

But this type of subjective 'voice' is not in the authors mind at all. Rather, he is saying something almost opposite. What is God's voice? The author over and over in the letter thus far is teaching about how we have heard God’s voice in the gospel message. This is clear in the context (see Hebrews 2:1-3; 4:2; 4:12). This message is God’s voice we have heard. We've heard this new, final message from Jesus (Hebrews 1:1-4) and his apostles (Hebrews 2:1-4).

This means that according the the writer, God's voice is not some personal, subjective word. It is this gospel message, delivered from Jesus and the apostles. We have heard from God, and we can hear from God. It is absolutely true and real. But God's voice is not a subjective thing, but rather this historical, objective gospel message of redemption. It is that which the apostles called "the word of God." The urge from the author is to not draft away and neglect this. 

So the second point we see from the passage above is that when we hear the word, the gospel message, we literally hear God’s voice. This occurs in this passage, but the author is also making that point over and over throughout his letter. This message about Jesus by the apostles is God's voice.

God Loves Us and Gave Us Something Better

Much more could be said, and some might say I opened up a can of worms here. But I think this is so important, especially for my generation. The word of God—the Bible and the gospel message—is not only enough, it is more biblical and better than any personal, experiential ‘word’ you’re looking for. It really is.

God loves us and he didn’t command us to look for these sort of subjective encounters. But he did over and over command us to be personally filled with Spirit by reading the word, by fighting with the Spirit with the word, and by hearing the Spirit speak today in the word—the old, classic word that Jesus endorsed, the apostles wrote, and the church has always clung to. It is old, sure, but it certainly is not dull or boring.

And since God Almighty, the Holy Spirit, is literally speaking in the Bible, we all would be way more blessed if we listened there rather in our subjective thoughts. Our culture and human nature is pressing us to go to some subjective feeling and thought, that we think might be God. But God has given us something more sure and better.

The truth is that when we seek for a unique, subjective, personal experience and 'word,' we’re only hurting ourselves:

  • We make our faith shallow, as we’re denying the deepness of the word Jesus so loved.
  • We make our trust in Christ more unsure, as we can’t really know if it’s our thoughts or God’s voice.
  • We hurt our view of God and what he's like, as we're relying on subjective thoughts about him rather than on what he's definitively told us about himself.
  • We danger ourselves with spiritual pride, as we can start to think we're those who hear from God personally while others do not.
  • And we leave behind the beautiful, robust history of the church that hasn’t been as obsessed with self and individualism as we are today, but has instead loved, evangelized, and persevered because of God's objective, written word.

God was and is wise enough to give us a solid, certain, joy-producing, Spirit-filled word (see 2 Peter 1:16-21). It is not only enough, it is better that he speaks to us in this way.

Seek to Listen to the Spirit

Let us all then actually hear God. Let us listen to the Spirit who speaks. How? Don’t listen to your thoughts and think they sentimentally could be God speaking to you. Not to offend, but that is sort of silly when we think about who God is and what he's like in the Bible. It is true that God spoke to people personally and audibly sometimes in the Bible, and sometimes even in the New Testament (though very rarely). But when he did this, it was extremely obvious what he was doing. This type of common hearing-God-in-my-thoughts subjectivism is not promoted anywhere in the New Testament by Jesus or the apostles—it isn't found in word-focused, biblical Christianity. We should avoid it not just because it is unbiblical, but as written above, it is hurtful to a robust, Bible-focused faith.

Rather than this subjectivism, God gave us a solid, forever-unchangeable word (Matthew 5:18). The Christian life is clinging dearly to this word. As Jesus said in his famous parable of the sower, the true Christ-follower is someone who hears the word, doesn't let go of it, and keeps on keeping on with the gospel in the Bible: "As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience" (Luke 8:15).

Therefore, let’s each seek to listen to God. Let's hear him through the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. And let’s do it the way he has ordered: by spending hours pouring over each of his words he is now speaking in our Bibles.