The Art of Spiritual Listening

God wants us to know His voice. He desires to spend the time it takes to establish a clear recognition between Him and us. by Dr. Karen Hurula

My grown children know all too well how singularly focused my attention is, so when they talk with me face-to-face, they start with, “Mom, please put down your phone, or you won’t hear me.” They are right.

I turn down the radio in my car if I pull up to an ATM—there is nothing I need to hear at an ATM, but I still struggle to focus. My day is full of distractions, making it hard for me to listen well. I have learned how to create an environment where I can hear because I listen for a living. But just because I now know how to listen well in my work as a psychologist does not mean I automatically listen well spiritually. That is a skill I am still developing.

Spiritual listening allows us to hear God’s voice through the movement of the Holy Spirit, usually without a single audible sound. Spiritual listening attests to the “still, small voice” of the Spirit. We often hear that language of a still, small voice talked about in church, but I have not always listened to a good explanation of what that is and how I can hear it!

A few years ago, God brought me through an experience that helped me attune better to His voice. My family and I moved across the country three times in three years. It was a time of constant change and upheaval: three new jobs for my husband and me, new schools for our three kids, new friends and new churches. It was a lot. It was exhausting, challenging and necessary. My prayer life had never been more prosperous. I had a million concerns and things to pray about. As we were settling into city number two, my heart broke for my kids, who had to attend new schools again, and for my husband, whose job was not the best fit for his gifts. But soon into that move, as I was pouring out my laundry list of prayer requests, I perceived God inviting me to be silent. God didn’t reprimand me for being so needy. God was not telling me I was being “too much” for Him. He was inviting me to pray without words. God was asking me to be silent. I am a talker. I have many words in me, and I feel comfortable sharing them. But He invited me to an entirely new experience, and I wouldn’t say I liked it. 

I tried to fill my discomfort and rising anxiety by reading Christian books that I thought would speak to me. Again, God very clearly told me to put them down. Fears about what my kids were facing and how these moves affected our family antagonized me. I didn’t know how God could know my prayer list if I was not praying it! But again and again, God encouraged me to be silent before Him. Days turned into weeks, which turned into months, and one day, I finally heard God ask me, “Do you trust me?” I wanted to quickly respond, “Yes, but … (insert all the worries I tried to voice!).” But again, God would ask, “Do you trust me?”

At the same time, God was also answering the deepest concerns of my heart. We were adjusting well. My husband was learning how to thrive in his job, I was receiving the exact professional training I always wanted, and my kids had one of their best years ever. We found a home in the church we started attending. God heard my silent prayers, but I was beginning to listen well to His words to me.

I learned so much from that experience. First and foremost, I gained a deeper trust in God’s ability to know what I need, even better than my many words could ever express. I also learned that God still hears me in silence, which has been particularly helpful during the times of deep grief and confusion that came later when I couldn’t form words at all. With those wordless prayers, I can now experience God’s peace instead of the anxiety that gripped me before.

If we go back to the descriptors “still and small,” we must acknowledge a disconnect from those words and how most of us probably think about God. We are more likely to think of God as mighty, moving and large. We also live in a society that regards these values as better. We are constantly up against the pressure to grow our influence with more exposure. It can be so challenging to ignore the pressing demands of the world and instead pursue stillness and smallness, but I think of it as getting on God’s wavelength. I can’t pretend to fully understand radio waves. Still, I can appreciate that, without attuning to the radio waves, they will pass over without perception or maybe just as noisy static. Throughout Scripture, God invites us to be still, and Jesus modeled stillness in His relationship with His Father. Yet, in our pursuit of God, we have often stayed busy, gotten bigger, gotten louder and borrowed the world’s values. 

There is an excellent illustration in the Bible of how accurately sheep recognize their own shepherd’s voice. John 10:4 (NIV) says, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Sheep know the sound of their shepherd’s voice and will not follow if a different voice calls them. How long does it take for a sheep to recognize its shepherd’s voice? However long it is, sheep also hear other voices during that time, and they must learn how to distinguish which voice they are to follow. They are a picture of believers who recognize God’s voice from among the many other voices of the world. God wants us to know His voice. He desires to spend the time it takes to establish a clear recognition between Him and us. Unfortunately, unlike sheep, we can sometimes follow the wrong voice. 

Given this reality, we must seek any means possible to recognize God’s voice. One of the ways we can listen to God’s voice is through the reading of Scripture, which the church trusts as a reliable source for hearing from God. We can also hear God’s voice by listening to sermons and podcasts and reading Christian books. Spending time in Christian fellowship allows us to see how God moves and speaks in others and ourselves. But practicing silence is so much more difficult. We often need to be alone to practice silence in our distraction-filled lives. Most of us don’t practice silence because being alone can be challenging or easy to avoid. But I encourage you with this: God wants to speak directly to us, His Spirit moving our Spirit, His voice speaking directly on the wavelength of our hearts.

Illustration by Janie Hao

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