Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

Why Do We Struggle to Hear God's Voice?

  • Adam McHugh Patheos.com Contributor
  • Updated Dec 17, 2015
Why Do We Struggle to Hear God's Voice?

Hearing God’s Voice

If God is in the business of communicating with his people, and his voice has certain distinguishable properties, why do we still struggle to hear it? In some cases it is simply a lack of training. Dallas Willard believes that many people regularly hear from God but don’t actually know it. His voice enters as a thought or an impression on their consciousness, and they respond to it yet do not ascribe the inner voice to its proper source. As incredible as that sounds, as I reflect on the voices I have listened to in times of critical decision, I think I agree with him. There have been many occasions in which I wrestled and listed the pros and cons and sought counsel, yet attained no clarity whatsoever until a moment in which I suddenly knew what to do. The inspiration would often flash when I was in a detached state of mind, not even thinking about the issue at hand. It was as though the thought did not originate with my mind, as if the decision just happened to me.

There are other causes of our inability to hear and identify God’s voice. One paradox that emerges in this discussion is this: we may not hear from God because our lives are too loud. Or, we may not hear from God because our lives are too quiet.

Too loud. You can only hear it in the quietest hour of the night. During the day, as you move and talk and eat, it is constant but imperceptible. But when you put the side of your head on your pillow and let your breathing slow as you fall into unconsciousness, you may hear it: the tiny, rhythmic pulsation of your heart beating blood into your body, a pounding whisper that keeps you alive even when you’re asleep.

When God’s voice creeps upon us like a heartbeat in the dark, it is often referred to in our tradition as “the still, small voice.” God speaks in myriad ways, and even occasionally shouts, but the testimony of countless believers throughout the ages has emphasized the still, small voice as one the most important ways God speaks to us. The Quakers call this voice “the inner teacher.” Others have called it the inner word or the inner voice, received by the inner ear. John Calvin called it “the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Dallas Willard describes it as a direct impression on a person’s consciousness, usually expressed as a thought, with a certain force and weight, occurring in a person’s mind.

The phrase “still, small voice” comes from the King James Version’s rendering of “the sheer silence” in the Elijah story, an interpretation that isn’t the best translation of the Hebrew but that does represent well the nature of God’s communications with us. The sovereign King of the universe, to our surprise, does not often trumpet his message to his subjects. God’s volume knob is rarely turned all the way to the right; his voice in our ears is subtle, restrained, even easy to miss.

Why would God speak so softly in a world that so often needs a blaring wake-up call? I have to conclude that God’s speech patterns indicate how important he considers our listening. If God shouted, listening would not be required, but a whisper forces us to pay attention and to strain to hear his voice. A whispered message assumes that the listener is in proximity to the speaker. The closeness required by a whisper requires that we are in close relationship with the Lord, aware of his presence and walking with him, poised to do what he says. God’s hushed tones also necessitate that we are quiet and still enough to recognize him. T. S. Eliot said it well: “Where shall the word be found, where will the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.”

One of the questions I have wrestled with is, why does it seem like the figures in biblical stories hear from God so much more than we do? Is it a matter of worldview? Did the ancients attribute everything in the natural world to the influence of the heavens because of a pre-scientific worldview? The heavens seemed to speak so fluently then. Thunder expressed the anger of the gods. A good harvest revealed God’s pleasure. I expect that differing worldviews do play a part. I wonder, though, if God’s relative silence in our day can be traced to another source. Perhaps our ancestors didn’t have the same luxury of distraction. Their inability to escape into television or the Internet, their relatively few choices for entertainment, the lack of electrifying stimuli, their agrarian labors that stopped at sundown, their slow pace of life, and the quiet of a pre-industrial night might have helped draw their attention to the heavens. The stars are much brighter when you’re not looking at them through lights and smog.

A loud, overcrowded, hyperactive life is the antithesis of the listening life. The hyperactive life is so often trying to prove its worth, make its mark and justify its existence. The listening life waits, quietly and humbly, for God to make his mark on us.

John Coltrane, legendary jazz saxophonist, made his mark on the jazz world by improvising at breakneck speed. No one had ever seen a musician who could play and move his fingers so feverishly. Soon he was playing gigs with the superstars of his day and changing the way people understood the genre. Unfortunately, much of the frenzy that marked Coltrane’s style was the result of the substances in his system. In 1957, his system ravaged by drugs and alcohol, and his career and life on the brink of collapse, Coltrane went to his mother’s house and sought God in the quiet of his room. According to pastor and jazz aficionado Robert Gelinas, “Four days later, he emerged a changed man, for—according to him—God had met him in a most unusual way. It was a sound, a droning resonance, a reverberation, unlike anything he had ever heard.” God’s presence had come to John Coltrane as a sound.

Not only did this divine groove change his life, it changed the way he played. The frantic improvisation was replaced by a slow, soulful style, in which Coltrane listened for the God sound to come again and tried to replicate it on his sax. Gelinas explains that “he came to believe that if he could play that sound for others, then they, too, could experience what he had experienced during those four days in his bedroom.” For the rest of his life Coltrane sought to find that music that had healed him, and while he was never able to rediscover it, he recorded one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, A Love Supreme, during this musical pilgrimage. The four parts of A Love Supreme follow a pilgrim on his journey toward God:

1. “Acknowledgement”—The recognition of God

2. “Resolution”—Commitment to seek God

3. “Pursuance”—The journey toward God

4. “Psalm”—Celebration of the discovery of God

John Coltrane discovered that listening to God required a slow movement and a quiet search. In our pursuit of God, we may discover that a hectic pace of life, while having all the marks of success and productivity, is too loud with the sound of our own voice. Like Coltrane, we may have to retreat into the quiet of our rooms and into slower rhythms in order to truly listen.

Too quiet. The claim that God’s voice cannot be heard among the clamor of modern life is a common one. But I have also come to realize that there is a life that is too quiet to hear God’s voice. This is because God’s communications are not haphazard. The Holy Spirit, it turns out, is not a hapless talk show host nattering about everything under the sun, hoping that a few people will tune into the right frequency. Instead, God’s word comes most often to a certain kind of person seeking to lead a certain kind of life. Dallas Willard puts it this way: “Our union with God . . . consists chiefly in a conversational relationship with God while we are each consistently and deeply engaged as his friend and colaborer in the affairs of the kingdom of the heavens.”

As much as I enjoy the idea of sitting with God on a porch swing, sipping lemonade and chatting about the weather, the better image may be a soldier in the heat of battle, in constant communication with his commanding officer. The soldier doesn’t just want to hear from his superior, he needs to. He is in over his head, seeking to complete the mission he has been given, in urgent need of guidance and support. As Eric Metaxas put it: “When God speaks to you, you know you’re going to need it.”

God does not speak in an arbitrary language to whomever happens to be listening at the time. God’s language is faith, hope and love. If we are seeking to lead a life marked by believing, hoping and loving, moving with the Lord in his mission and work, then we can have the expectation that the Lord will speak to us and give us what we need. On the other hand, if we sit still and refuse to act until we are explicitly told to act, we may be waiting for a very long time. Sometimes our cell phones have no signal in the shelter of our homes, and we need to get out and move in order to get reception.

I’m also convinced that listening to God is not unlike writing: if I were to wait to write until inspiration struck, I would write practically nothing. But if I chain myself to my desk every morning at 8:00 a.m. and start typing something—anything—inspiration has a way of unexpectedly pulling up a chair. If we act on what we know, maintaining a posture of listening, the One who is with us until the end of the age will come. And when he does speak with us, we must be prepared to act on it. Karl Barth said that the best way to test the authenticity of a communication from God is to act on it and see what happens.

[Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from The Listening Life by Adam S. McHugh. Copyright (c) 2015 by Adam S. McHugh. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com]

Adam S. McHugh (ThM, Princeton Theological Seminary) is an ordained Presbyterian minister and spiritual director. He has served at two Presbyterian churches, as a hospice chaplain and as campus staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is the author of Introverts in the Church and lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Publication date: December 17, 2015

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 7.4
Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, expanded ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday,” in The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 2004).
Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 44.This Coltrane story largely comes out of Gelinas’s outstanding book.
Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), p, 232.
Willard, Hearing God, p. 56; italic added. At this point you really have to be wondering why you are reading this book instead of his.
Raging Waters Conference, Fuller Seminary, April 2011.

From Chapter 3, “Listening to God”