I remember the first time I heard my son cry in the supermarket. His mother and he were in another aisle of the store – I was off hunting down another product. All of a sudden, from beyond the cereal boxes in front of me, I heard a cry. Although I couldn’t see him I knew instinctively it was my son. The mere four weeks of relationship we had built up had versed me well in the cadence of his voice. That’s my boy. I thought. I knew it was him.
In John 10, Jesus makes one of the most encouraging statements about his relationship with his followers. Instead of taking up an image of father and son, Jesus uses the image of shepherd and sheep:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. – John 10:27
Just stop and think of the awesomeness of this proclamation. Jesus, the incarnation of the Trinity, Lord of all heaven and earth, speaks to you. The intricate moments of your life, as subtle or as humble as you may view them, do not escape the loving gaze of our Lord. More to the point: Jesus has something to say about it!
His voice can be heard, his directions can be known.
Jesus is firm in his resolve that his followers can be intimately familiar with his voice. They can hear, recognize, and follow his divine cadence, just as sheep follow the voice of the shepherd.
Why then do many people have such a hard time discerning the voice of God?
Many people in churches today voice frustration over an inability to recognize the Lord’s voice. Sadly, some may even believe that the time of God speaking to God’s people has ended; we can read his words but not listen to his voice. Yet if we take Jesus at his word then we can be sure that Jesus does, in fact, speak to us.
The voice of our good shepherd can be recognized.
How then do we cultivate this ability? How do we go about recognizing the timber and tenor of God’s voice, spoken deep within in?
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Practicing the Prayer of Examen
Historically, Christians have tackled these questions through what is known as the Prayer of Examen. The Prayer of Examen, articulated most popularly in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, is a structured review of one’s life.
One looks over the day with the sole purpose of recognizing the presence of God. We can think of it as built upon the principle of “hindsight is 20/20.” Reviewing the events of the day allows us to re-visit conversations, actions, and decisions—paying particular attention to the when and where of God’s activity.
The value here is the potential to identify the presence of God working in ways that we didn’t recognize in the moment. In fact, this practice was considered so helpful that it was one of the monastic rules that Ignatius instructed his order to do twice each day.
Of course, notice that this is called the Prayer of Examen. Discerning God’s will, listening to, and for, God’s voice, is not merely a mental exercise. We enter this discipline prayerfully.
Discerning God’s Voice Requires Trust and Honesty
Ultimately, we are asking the Lord to show us his presence and actions. In doing this, we embody a radical sense of trust; we trust that the Lord will highlight those places that are instructive for us. Along with this sense of intimate trust, we also need honesty. We easily get stuck if we believe this discipline needs to be appropriately solemn or pious. Ignatius encouraged people to speak to Jesus as they were speaking to a close friend, humbly, yet honestly. God is not interested in a relationship based on pretension or the saving-of-face.
Looking for God’s activity in our lives helps us discern God’s direction for us. We simply can’t discern God’s will for our lives, unless we’re able to recognize how God speaks to us. After all, the Shepherd’s voice guides the sheep. Christ doesn’t simply talk at us, he talks to us so that his will and direction for us can be discerned.
So, how do we engage in the Prayer of Examen today? Below are three easy ways to discern God’s will for your life:
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1. Reflect on Where and When You Felt Near to, or Far from, God Today
The most popular form of the Examen is a simple reflection at the day’s end. As you retire for the evening, simply run through the events of the day, as if it were a movie playing in your mind. Observe each “scene,” asking the Lord to reveal his presence. Importantly, you are attempting to review the day from the Lord’s perspective. Do not simply re-play moments or re-hash struggles...but seek to find where God’s spirit was interacting with you throughout the day. Where did you sense a nearness with God? When did you feel most distant?
Key to the Ignatian way of the Examen is an understanding of consolations and desolations. Simply put, consolations and desolations are one’s feelings of being drawn closer to God. Consolations are areas of life where we feel we walked with Jesus.
Alternatively, a desolation is an action, conversation, or decision that moved us away from Christ’s presence and will. Importantly, desolations do not have to be something intrinsically negative. One can choose something that, on the surface appears positive and pleasant, but underneath served to distance us from our Lord.
Thus, when seeking God’s voice, try to uncover places where you felt most in sync with the will of God. Consolations are met with thanksgiving and rejoicing; desolations are met with confession and repentance.
Whatever the outcome of our reflections, we ultimately end our examen in praise—for it is a time of fellowship with the Lord. Like a compass that always points north, reviewing the day’s consolations and desolations is a way to look at where the Lord is directing us. It helps us learn those places in our lives where Christ’s voice can be most easily heard, and his presence most powerfully felt.
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2. Opt to Ask Three Consistent Questions
Seeking God’s direction does not have to be as formal as engaging in the Ignatian examen. This may be great for more visual learners, or the more liturgically-minded, but may be a stumbling block for others.
Another option for discerning God’s voice is to end each day by asking a set of unchanging questions. I first came across this in doctoral class, where my professor began each lesson by inviting the students to reflect on three questions:
Where did I receive the most love today?
Where did I give the most love today?
Where could I have loved more today?
Asking ourselves such questions has certain benefits in our quest to discern the Lord’s voice. One benefit is that these questions are not simply about my own actions/responses but includes what we receive from others.
By asking “Where did I receive the most love,” we understand that we’re not solely the agents of God’s grace in the world, but also recipients. Perhaps it was God’s intention that we receive an expression of love or grace? Did we notice it? Were there places where Jesus was calling us to express agape love, but we refused, or were too distracted?
Another reason why this is a good framework upon which to build discernment is that it allows us to tailor the root of each question upon any biblical concept.
For example, one could use this form to move systematically through each Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. One week can be reflections regarding love, the next would be joy, followed by peace and then patience. Doing so would lead you though nine weeks of focused reflection upon the Spirit’s movement in your life. After nine weeks of such prayerful ruminations, your life may look remarkably different than when you began.
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3. Consider Discernment a ‘God Hunt’
For the more whimsical in nature, “The God Hunt” is a playful way to look for God’s presence and voice. It is similar to the Ignatian understanding of the examen, however, in The God Hunt, one ends the day by simply asking “Where did I meet Jesus?”
This pays less attention to one’s personal feelings of consolation and desolation and is more intuitive in nature. The playful sense of The God Hunt means that one need not be overly rigid. Simply ask Jesus to reveal where he came to you in the events of the day.
You may find that you met Jesus during a silent walk through a park, or in the peaceful light of the sunset. You may come to feel you met Jesus in the face of the poor, or in the person that you helped in the grocery store. Wherever the heart draws you during this process, simply notice it and give thanks.
Anyone Can Listen and Learn
We must remember that the dynamics of hearing God’s voice is not left to the lofty elite of mystics and monastics. God speaks to us all, and each and every one of us can recognize his voice. The more we labor to learn the nuances of God’s voice, the easier it will become.
Listening to God, and rightly identifying his voice is built on the solid basis of familiarity, established through constant and sustained interaction. I was able to pick out my child’s cry amid a crowded supermarket due to the intimate bond between us.
In the same way, living in intimate relationship with our Lord provides the necessary groundwork to recognize his voice...and listen to discern His will.
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