We learn to recognize God’s voice

Published: March 8, 2018

This is the second column in a 10-part series.

By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

In a beloved passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus uses all types of shepherding imagery to speak of his own role for his followers. As the good shepherd he says, “I know mine and mine know me,” and a little later, “My sheep hear my voice: I know them and they follow me” (10:14, 27). Are we the sheep who know him and recognize his voice?

It is undeniable that every part of our day is filled with voices, competing messages, and, quite frankly, noise. How are we to distinguish God’s voice in the mix that is daily living?

A folk tale of sorts from our time tells of two men walking the streets of New York, one a native of the city and the other a visitor from America’s farmland. In the midst of honking horns and squealing brakes and vendors peddling their wares, the farmer thought he heard a cricket.

And to the dismay of the business man, the farmer actually stopped and listened more carefully until he found it hiding under a leaf in a street planter. When his walking companion marveled at the man’s hearing, the farmer replied, “It depends on what you’re listening for.”

God’s word in the pages of our Bibles helps to train us or condition us to listen for God’s voice. In its stories, patterns emerge in the interactions of our ancestors in faith and we might start to notice some characteristics of God’s voice.

Now most of us have not had the experience of God speaking directly to us. We might find it hard to relate to someone like Moses who is reported to have heard God’s voice in the thunderous encounter on Mount Sinai. We might crave that kind of surety but most of the time hearing God’s voice is a matter of discernment. God speaks to our hearts through many avenues.

Maybe a few tips taken from biblical stories and passages will help train us in how to listen:

  • Pay attention to the world around us because that is where God dwells. Psalm 19:1 proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.” Psalm 148 describes how each element of nature gives praise to God. We can imagine the opening of blossoms as a response to God’s warmth, the emergence of fruit as a gift of God’s mercy and care, the flowing of clear water as a sign of refreshment. The earth itself tells us something about our God.
  • Place ourselves in service to the poor and we will hear God’s voice. In the pages of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, we find countless instructions about caring for the poor, the neglected, and those on the fringes. Israel’s prophets identified neglect of the poor as a violation of their covenant with God. In the Gospels, Jesus spends his time with those in need of his care (see Matthew 10:6-8; 11:4-6 and Luke 14:12-14). And most powerfully, Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 25:31-46 that when we care for the poor we care for him and when we neglect the poor we neglect him. God’s voice cries out to us from those who are in most need.
  • Choose life and we will find God. The dying and rising of Jesus tells us that death never has the final word. In fact, Jesus says in John 10:10 that he has come to give life, abundant life. In large and small ways, each time we choose what is life-giving rather than what is convenient or expedient, we place ourselves in a position to hear God more clearly.
  • Expect to be challenged, to be shaken out of what is comfortable. God’s kingdom is about mercy and justice. If the messages around us demand vengeance or look for an easy way out, then in all likelihood, those messages are not from God. Our God always wants to help us live up to that high calling that St. Paul speaks of (see Ephesians 4:1-6 and Colossians 1:9-14).

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but perhaps it piques our curiosity and rouses us to pay attention lest we miss God’s call. It depends on what we’re listening for.

Study Questions

  • In what circumstances do you find yourself most often wishing you could literally hear God speak to you?
  • When has a passage from Scripture (perhaps in your own reading or study or in the proclamation at Mass) spoken to you in a particular way? How did you respond?
  • The article describes four ways that we may open ourselves to recognizing God’s voice? Which of the four has been especially true in your experience?
  • In addition to the four tips described in the article, is there anything you would add? What else alerts you to an awareness that God may be speaking to you in some way?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic March 10, 2018. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.