Listening for God's Voice
Beginning the Journey (for new Christians).
1, 2, and 3 John
1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 & 2 Timothy
2 Peter, Jude
7 Last Words of Christ
Christ Powered Life (Rom 5-8)
David, Life of
Glorious Kingdom, The
Jesus and the Kingdom
Lamb of God
Names of God
Names of Jesus
Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
Sermon on the Mount
Herbert Boeckl, 'Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch,' (1952-60), Angel's Chapel, Seckau Abbey, Styria, Austria.
As we saw in Lesson 2 , God is fully capable of speaking words and sentences to us to convey concepts. In my experience -- and from our expectations based on the biblical record of how he relates to his people -- he still does this today.
Over the fifty plus years I've been listening for God's voice, I have heard him speak in words perhaps a few dozen times. But most of the time it is in impressions, nudges, promptings, noes -- many thousands of them, if I were to count them all up. Perhaps the best way to describe this is as inarticulate impressions in my mind to do this or that -- or not to do something. These are usually whispers that don't come articulated in the form of a complete sentence or even in words.
I believe you see this form of God's voice in Scripture too.
For example, let's examine God's guidance in the case of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip has been part of a revival in Samaria. Now he's ready for a new place of ministry.
"Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road -- the desert road -- that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.'" (Acts 8:26)
The angel points Philip in a clear direction, probably in words, but perhaps just an impression. It just so happens that he sees coming towards him a chariot in which is seated an Ethiopian eunuch, the Queen's treasurer. And it just so happens that the man is trying to read a scroll of Isaiah 53 while riding in the bouncing chariot. Now there is another directive.
"The Spirit told Philip, 'Go to that chariot and stay near it.'" (Acts 8:29)
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Larger map.
Philip obeys and starts jogging alongside the chariot. He engages the Ethiopian in conversation, is invited aboard the chariot, and begins to explain the Scripture to the man. Before long, the Ethiopian asks to be baptized at an oasis alongside the road and Philip complies. Then Philip disappears, only to find himself in Azotos (The Greek name for the coastal city of Ashdod), and travels north along the coast, preaching the gospel as he goes, until he reaches Caesarea.
What I see going on here are promptings, "nudges." Philip receives two nudges, the first from an angel:
- Go down to the road to Gaza.
Once he gets there, he sees a chariot coming. Now comes the second nudge, this time from "the Spirit":
- Catch up with that chariot.
I call these "nudges" because the messages don't contain much content to speak of, only a brief direction -- "Gaza." Okay, God. Then, "chariot," as he glimpses the chariot. Okay, God. The author of Acts phrases these as sentences in order to communicate clearly to the readers, but the essence of the messages can be expressed in just a word or two.
Philip obeys these promptings, and then sees how God has set up the circumstances so he can win the official to Christ. God nudges him into the situation, and Philip takes it from there.
I've found this kind of nudge extremely common. In the Bible we see complete sentences, as if there is a spoken command. But other passages of Scripture -- and my own experience -- suggests that this is often a non-verbal nudge or impression from God.
Let me give some further examples. Paul and Silas have begun their Second Missionary Journey and travel to encourage some of the churches established on Paul's First Journey. They get to Derbe and Lystra, where we pick up the narrative.
"6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." (Acts 16:6-10)
Paul's Second Missionary Journey (larger map)
(As you look at the map, you can see the boundaries of the Roman provinces. Contained within this provincial boundaries are ancient regions determined more by people groups than arbitrary borders. The region of Phrygia, for example, straddles both the Roman Province of Asia and the Province of Galatia, and Mysia is contained within the Province of Asia.)
Here's how I reconstruct what's going on.
Don't preach in Asia (Acts 16:6). Their original plan, I am guessing, was to head for Ephesus, a major city and capital of the Roman Province of Asia. Paul and his party had been traveling the Via Sebaste (Imperial Road, Roman Road) constructed by the Romans beginning in 6 BC.
Antioch of Pisidia is a kind of crossroads. The Via Sebaste continues westward and is the route that leads to Ephesus. South would take them to Pamphylia, on the southern coast of Asia Minor, where they had evangelized on Paul's First Missionary Journey. The road north would take them through the Province of Asia towards the Roman province of Bythinia and Pontus. But as they consider which way to go -- or perhaps have even started on the western road towards Ephesus -- God stops them.
"...Having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia." (Acts 16:6, NIV)
The verb "kept" can denote "to forbid" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) or to "prevent." This could have been a prophecy they received while at the church in Lystra or Iconium. Or a personal word to Paul or Silas. Notice that it doesn't come with much content or explanation, except, "No." Much later in their Second Missionary Journey, they have a long and fruitful ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19), but now isn't the time. God has other plans for them -- and they are sensitive to the Holy Spirit's nudges.
Don't preach in Bithynia (Acts 16:7-8). So they travel the road north from Antioch of Pisidia that will eventually lead to the Roman Province of Bithynia/Pontus, and the great cities of Nicea, Nicomedia, and Chalcedon along the Black Sea. The apostles' road winds through the Province of Asia -- so instead of evangelizing along the way, they continue without stopping to preach, since they've been forbidden to preach in Asia. Finally, they reach Mysia, a region in the north of the Province of Asia. They haven't been forbidden to preach in the Province of Bithynia/Pontus, so they make ready to cross the border -- and again the Holy Spirit stops them.
"7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas." (Acts 16:7-8)
The Greek verb has the force of "prevent, not permit, not allow." Paul and his party receive a clear "No." They can't evangelize in the Roman Provinces of Asia and Bithynia/Pontus. So they turn west towards Troas -- a port city on the Aegean Sea. (Troas itself still in the Province of Asia). They're probably very frustrated -- maybe grumbling -- yet still obedient. God, what are we supposed to do?
The Macedonian Vision (Acts 16:9-10). They spend the night in Troas. Finally, their direction comes.
"9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.' 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." (Acts 16:9-10)
Paul has a dream -- or vision -- or whatever. In it, a Macedonian begs him to come to Macedonia and help them. Paul, who has had years of experience following the Lord's direction, draws the conclusion that this is indeed a call from God. They sail for Macedonia and have powerful ministries in the Macedonian cities of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea.
We learn several things from this string of incidents.
- God doesn't always tell us where we are going. We are expected to follow Jesus, rather than head for the "objective." So their missionary objective is revealed progressively, partly through "noes."
- We are to keep going with the guidance we seem to have, even though our objective isn't clear. God doesn't give us examples of his servants sitting down in the middle of the road, refusing to move until God speaks to them. They keep going.
- God's guidance is sometimes a "no," rather than a clear positive
word. I think of this as prompting, a nudge -- go this way, or don't
go that way. As we begin to listen for God's guidance, these nudges
Province of Asia: "No."
Province of Bythinia/Pontus: "No."
Macedonia: "Come over and help us!"
Q1. (Acts 8:26-40; 16:6-10) Are promptings from the Holy
Spirit clear enough when we're seeking God for direction? Why is "no" just as
important an answer as "yes"? Have you ever felt God's promptings to take some
action? If you followed through, what happened?
We can see this idea of short, inarticulate directions in David's inquiring of the Lord. After Saul openly seeks to kill him, David lives with a band of men, always on the run. When Saul slaughters the priests because he believes them sympathetic to David, one escapes and comes to David, one hunted man taking refuge with another.
"When Abiathar the son of Ahimelech had fled to David to Keilah, he had come down with an ephod in his hand." (1 Samuel 23:6)
This ephod was presumably part of the high priest's garments, to which was attached a breastplate pouch containing the Urim and the Thummim (Exodus 28, especially vs. 30; cf. Leviticus 8:8). These were apparently sacred lots used by the priests to determine the will of God. They could give a positive answer, a negative answer, and occasionally, no answer at all. If Urim and Thummim were two marked stones that were cast, an answer of "yes" might be both up, a "no" both down, and "no answer" one up and one down. But this is speculation on my part; we're not actually told.
David would pose a question and wait for an answer.
"David inquired of the LORD, 'Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you hand them over to me?' The LORD answered him, 'Go, for I will surely hand the Philistines over to you.'" (2 Samuel 5:19)
Though this sounds almost like a prophetic word, it is explained adequately as a "yes" answer given by the Urim and Thummim. You see this sort of yes-no answer several times:
- Whether to rescue the town of Keilah from the Philistines (1 Samuel 23:2-4).
- Whether the residents of Keilah will betray David to Saul (1 Samuel 23:9-12).
- Which town to take refuge in (2 Samuel 2:1). The answer is "Hebron," but this can be explained as an answer by lot, just as the determination by lot that wrong lay with Achan (Joshua 7:16-18) or Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:41-42).
- Whether to pursue the Amalekites after their attack on Ziklag (1 Samuel 30:7-8).
- Whether to attack the Philistines at the Valley of Rephaim on the first occasion (2 Samuel 5:19).
But when the Philistines attack a second time and gather at the Valley of Rephaim, the answer David receives goes much beyond a "yes" or "no" that could be obtained from the Urim and Thummim. Rather it is full battle plan, a clear word -- either prophecy through Abiathar the priest or a clear word to David himself, who had prophetic gifts abundantly displayed in the Psalms.
"And the Philistines came up yet again and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim. And when David inquired of the LORD, he said, 'You shall not go up; go around to their rear, and come against them opposite the balsam trees. And when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, then rouse yourself, for then the LORD has gone out before you to strike down the army of the Philistines.' And David did as the LORD commanded him, and struck down the Philistines from Geba to Gezer." (2 Samuel 5:22-25)
This is a great example of "yes" and "no" nudges combined occasionally with clear sentences of revelation from God.
Q2. (2 Samuel 5:19, 22-25) What's the similarity between
God's brief, inarticulate nudges or promptings, and David's use of the Urim and
Thummim to receive direction? What happens when David needs more than a "yes" or
Here's another incident of a Holy Spirit nudge.
"8 In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, 'Stand up on your feet!' At that, the man jumped up and began to walk." (Acts 14:8-10)
While preaching, Paul has an insight from the Holy Spirit -- that man has faith to be healed. I doubt that the message came in words. Probably it was just a thought that came with great assurance, but it was clearly a Holy Spirit nudge. Paul acted on it and the man was instantly healed.
Some people call this a "word of knowledge" (1 Corinthians 12:8), an insight from God that a person wouldn't normally have unless God revealed it. Jesus certainly models the use of supernatural knowledge in ministry when he reveals to the Samaritan woman her five former husbands (John 4:17-18). As a result of her testimony about the man who "told me everything I ever did," many in her city were converted.
Peter experienced this too, knowing the secret sin of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and when he rebuked Simon the Sorcerer: "for I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin" (Acts 8:23).
This is actually quite common in ministry. John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard churches, used to encourage teams of people praying for the sick to inquire from an individual why he or she came for prayer, and then ask God quietly to show team members how to pray for the person. Often God would show them something as an image or a single word or two -- a nudge rather than a full blown sentence. But often that's enough. Then these insights would guide what was often direct and powerful ministry to the individual.
At one point in my ministry I could "see" from the pulpit the people who were coming under conviction. Maybe I was getting good at "reading my audience," but I believe it was more than that. Many pastors I know seek God diligently for what they should preach on -- and find God's clear direction for their congregation. Often the guidance comes in nudges and noes as we seek to find God's word for the hour.
I pray daily for the people in my life to whom I am close, or have responsibility for -- family members and relatives, church leaders, men in my discipleship groups, government leaders, etc. Sometimes when I am praying, God will use the opportunity to nudge me towards a particular person's need.
For example, when I was praying for the spiritual life of an older relative, God guided me to subscribe her to a monthly devotional guide, which she continues to ask me to renew.
As I was praying for a sister-in-law, God prompted me to talk to her about her devotional life when we met at a family gathering. When I brought it up, she seemed quite open, so I suggested regular Bible reading. "Do you have a Bible," I asked. "Somewhere," she said, but it turned out it wasn't in an easy-to-read translation. God brought to my mind a New Testament I had purchased for a couple I was counseling, but hadn't given them. God nudged me to give it to my sister-in-law. "Oh, good," she said. "Large print." God knew she would need large print, I didn't. When I talked with her later, she was still reading the Bible regularly. God is good.
My pastor makes Starbucks coffee shops his functional office. In the course of a day he will meet people there for appointments, but also see many people whom he knows. He prays constantly, "God, how can I engage this person in a conversation about you?" Then he is alert for the openings God provides. Last week he saw a lady he knew while shopping in the grocery store. God prompted him to wait outside until she had finished her shopping, then speak with her. It turned out to be a significant ten-minute conversation!
Q3. (Acts 5:1-11; 8:23; 14:8-10) Sometimes God nudges you
by giving you insight into the spiritual state of people around you. What should
you be asking God about once you receive this insight about them? Have you ever
had a nudge from God that resulted in a person receiving help? What did you
learn from this?
As you develop a conversational relationship with God, you'll find that his nudges don't have to be about "spiritual" things only, but about the needs of everyday life.
Recently, my daughter and son-in-law had purchased their first house, and were getting it ready to move into it. But there was much to do, and they had to move out of their apartment in less than a week. God woke me up about 4 am with the conviction that they needed to get professional help for the flooring installation. When they came to drop off the kids, they agreed and asked me to find an installer. In California, we're in the midst of a building boom, with few tradesmen quickly available. The first installer I called, told me he could begin the following Tuesday. Other installers I phoned said they were backed up with work for three weeks. When I called back, the first installer found he could begin earlier. He and his helper worked Monday and Tuesday and did a great job. Wednesday through Friday, relatives helped with painting, and my daughter and her family were able to move in on Saturday. This may not sound like much, but it is clear to me that God intervened to help my daughter's family get moved in time. God is good.
Part of the problem we have is that most of us are not sensitized to recognizing what God is doing around us. In order to bring about this sensitivity, our pastor regularly instructs people during the Sunday morning "greeting" time to ask their neighbor, "Where have you seen God lately?" It can be an awkward question if you haven't seen God at work lately. But gradually you begin to look for places where God showed up. Jesus told the Pharisees, who wanted to stop Sabbath healings.
"My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." (John 5:17)
Assuming that God is constantly working all around us, we should expect to see God often, once we know what to look for.
When you are looking to buy a house, you see rooms and views and possibilities. But if you bring in a professional home inspector, he sees problems -- water stains, weaknesses, circuit malfunctions, plumbing problems, potential roof leaks, etc. He has trained eyes. In the same way, the average citizen walking through a neighborhood will see a lot less than a police officer who knows the community from constant observation.
My brother, my sister, you and I need our eyes trained to see how God is working and our ears tuned to hear his whispers and nudges. Remember Jesus' words:
"I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these." (John 5:19-20)
A helpful analogy to hearing God's voice is tuning in to a radio station. We don't hear because we're not tuned in.
The problem with this analogy, if you push it, is that many radio stations broadcast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. God is always at work, but we have no indication in Scripture that he is always talking. We saw earlier in this lesson that as Paul crosses the Province of Asia on his Second Missionary Journey, God isn't saying much -- except for an occasional, "No." Paul had to plead three times for God to remove the "thorn in the flesh" before God speaks to him.
The implications are:
- Don't be discouraged if you don't hear from God. He may not be talking to you right now.
- We wait on God for his direction; he is not to wait on us or cater to our convenience. We have no right to demand the Sovereign of the Universe to speak to us. We're encouraged to "wait on the Lord" (Psalm 27:14, which we'll examine in Lesson 5 ). He is not our servant to order around; we are his humble servants.
Having said this, don't use this as an excuse or cop-out not to listen for his voice. God's voice in words and sentences might be less frequent, but his nudges and promptings can be quite frequent at times.
A housekeeper checks in with her employer frequently to see if there's anything special going on today, but then she continues her regular duties that keep the household running.
We seek God every day and listen for his voice and guidance. Sometimes we hear something and act on it. Other times we don't, but continue in the patterns in which he has led us previously until he indicates that a change is in order. Keep listening. Today may be a special day in his Kingdom for you!
Q4. (Acts 16:6-10; Psalm 27:14) Why does God sometimes
talk to us? Is it always because we aren't receptive? What should we do when we
don't hear anything from God?
It's important that we get this in perspective. God's promptings don't usually result in earth-shattering, life-altering consequences as we obey them. God has been working incrementally in your life over years and years.
"For it is precept upon precept, precept upon
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little." (Isaiah 28:10)
It's the same way when you obey God's prompting to say a word to a person or do a kind act. You are God's gentle, incremental encouragement to them. There may not be much dramatic change at any one time, but over time tremendous changes occur.
When I was in Africa, I saw a simple game played by children that involved rolling a tire or hoop. The idea is to keep the hoop upright and rolling by an occasional touch or nudge to alter its direction slightly. I've rolled tires as an adult. You don't have to continually push, since the tire has its own momentum. All you have to do is give an occasional small push or directional nudge.
If you are humble and obedient to God's promptings, you'll find yourself providing this kind of occasional encouragement to the people whom God loves. Listening, obedient servants are what makes God's love real in our world.
We've considered a number of things as we've explored God's promptings.
- In addition to messages articulated in clear words and sentences, God often speaks to us in nudges, promptings, inarticulate impressions in the mind to do this or that -- or not to do something.
- An example of a nudge is Philip the Evangelist as he encounters the Ethiopian eunuch with two promptings: (a) Gaza road, and (b) chariot (Acts 8:26-40).
- On his second missionary journey God tells Paul "no" to preaching in the Province of Asia, and "no" to preaching in Bythinia. Only in Troas does he receive a vision of the Macedonian who invites him to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10).
- David inquires of God by means of the Urim and Thummim (1 Samuel 23:6; Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8), which gave yes and no answers (e.g., 2 Samuel 5:19), but he also received complex revelations from God when necessary (2 Samuel 5:22-25).
- Peter and Paul receive insights about the spiritual state of people they were dealing with (Acts 5:1-11; 8:23; 14:8-10). This might be similar to a word of knowledge.
- God can give nudges about spiritual matters as well as everyday needs of our lives and the lives of others.
- The question, "Where have you seen God lately?" is helpful to train us to discern what God is doing around us.
- The Bible doesn't indicate that God talks to us non-stop, if we were only tuned in. So we shouldn't be discouraged if we don't hear from God immediately. Rather we should "wait on the Lord" (Psalm 27:14) as his humble servants.
- God uses us to provide incremental encouragements to people under God's direction, not usually life-changing words from God.
As I mentioned above, at Rock Harbor Covenant Church where I attend, a common question we're encouraged to ask one another is, "Where have you seen God lately?"
It's sometimes an embarrassing question. Long silences ensue. But the purpose of the question is to train us to recognize God at work around us -- in the little things as well as the occasional big things.
God is constantly at work. He doesn't stop for rest days (John 5:17). Our problem is that our eyes aren't trained to see him at work. What we see, we attribute exclusively to human causation. If we're to discern God's voice, this has to change. We have to become sensitive to him working all around us. Jesus said,
"I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does." (John 5:19)
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Learning to discern God at work is foundational to training yourself to hear his voice and pick up on his whispers, promptings, and nudges. Your assignment this week is to talk with your spiritual partner every day, and ask the question, "Where have you seen God working today?" Then explain where you have seen God at work that day.
Lord, thank you for your patience to lead us with whispers, promptings, and nudges. And sometimes, "No." Help us to be listening continually, and quickly responsive so you can trust us with more assignments in your Kingdom. Thank you for caring enough to include us in your work. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
"Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road -- the desert road -- that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.'" (Acts 8:26, NIV)
"The Spirit told Philip, 'Go to that chariot and stay near it.'" (Acts 8:29, NIV)
"Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." (Acts 16:6-10, NIV)
"When Abiathar the son of Ahimelech had fled to David to Keilah, he had come down with an ephod in his hand." (1 Samuel 23:6, NIV)
"David inquired of the LORD, 'Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you hand them over to me?' The LORD answered him, 'Go, for I will surely hand the Philistines over to you.'" (2 Samuel 5:19, NIV)
"In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, 'Stand up on your feet!' At that, the man jumped up and began to walk." (Acts 14:8-10, NIV)
"My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." (John 5:17, NIV)
 The eastern end of the Via Sebaste began in Derbe, then it passed through Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, and continued west, almost to the Meander River valley, along which they would then travel to pass through Colossae and Laodicea, and finally cross over to Ephesus.
 "Kept" (NIV), "forbidden" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is the Aorist tense of kōlyō followed by an infinitive, "forbid or prevent someone to do or from doing something" (BDAG 580, 1).
 The words "not allow" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "suffered them not" (KJV) are the negative particle ou plus the Aorist tense of the verb eaō, "to allow someone to do something, let, permit," with the negative, "prevent, not permit" (BDAG 269, 1).
 "Concluding" (NIV, ESV), "being convinced" (NRSV), "assuredly gathering" (KJV) is symbibazō, from "to cause to coalesce, to join together, put together," then by extension, "to put together in one's mind, to compare; by comparison, to gather, conclude, consider"(Thayer, Greek Lexicon, 595, 2), here, "to draw a conclusion in the face of evidence, conclude, infer" (BDAG 956, 2).
You can see the research behind this in my article, "Inquiring of the
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- Listening for God's Voice
- 1, 2, and 3 John
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- 2 Peter & Jude
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- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
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- Rebuild and Renew: Post Exilic Books
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