Q&R: Why can’t I hear God’s voice?

Question:

Why can’t I hear God’s voice or feel God’s presence, even after asking him? I only recently turned to Jesus despite growing up in a Christian household, and so far I’m only relying on other people to keep me from turning away from Jesus. I hear stories and watch videos exploring Christianity, but even though I always pray to Jesus to talk to me, to show me something, I always come back empty-handed.
Is there something I can do to hear Jesus’s voice? Do I just have to be patient and hope that one day Jesus decides to talk to me?

Response:

I work with this issue a lot in my book, Can You Hear Me? Tuning in to the God who speaks. 

On God’s Voice

In chapter 1 of that book (and in more details in the following chapters), I suggest that you probably are already hearing God, all the time and in many ways, but are somehow discounting it because he doesn’t speak to you in a way that you’d expect … e.g. you may be waiting to hear a voice that is obviously different/other or weirder than just your own thoughts. It kind of doesn’t work that way. God speaks to us in ways that we can hear but learn to recognize as him by the content: i.e., thoughts and messages, internal and external, that convey the truth-in-love.
For example, if you are reading the Bible and you end up highlighting something because ‘it speaks to you,’ that counts. If you are listening to some sort of song and it penetrates your heart as inspiration, that counts. If you are listening to a message (e.g. one of my youtube talks) and it resonates with you, that counts. If you are thinking about someone and feel compelled to pray for them, that counts. If a friend offers you a word of encouragement, strength, or comfort, and it ‘gets into your heart,’ that counts. If you are examining your day and identify some things to be grateful for, that counts. If you are feeling a pang of guilt for something and you decide to confess it, that counts.
None of that is strange. It is just how God speaks all the time and every day. And the question is not, “Was that God or was it me?” … the question is, “What is the truth-in-love?” Because when anyone turns to the Lord, your spirit and God’s Spirit are One, so you will hear God-in-you. Internally, what does that look like? It looks like all the ways you normally think: in words, in pictures, in impressions. And we have MANY competing thoughts running through our minds throughout the day. Not every thought is from God. But if it is the truth-in-love, ultimately, God is the source, even if he mediates it through memories or aha moments or the gentle whisper that invites you to be kind.
All of this becomes more dynamic when you begin to engage those thoughts on purpose in conversational prayer. For example, when I pray, I ask God to show me what to be grateful for, then I notice what thoughts come first. I ask God what burdens I need to hand to him, and I notice what thoughts come. I ask God who I should pray for, and I notice what thoughts come. And so on. If the thoughts that come are in alignment with the truth-in-love, then I’m in a conversation. If they’re not, I dismiss them as unhelpful suggestions from my too-eager flesh. So I test whatever thoughts come. But all of this is very ‘ordinary’ rather than spooky or grandiose.
I’ve noticed that some people who have these conversations are not very discerning. They stumble over self-loathing, self-pity, or self-importance. They may stumble through old voices of condemnation or into the pitfalls of their culture (e.g. social ideologies, political opinions, inherited theologies) … so I’ve learned to test all things using a particularly simple but highly effective furnace of discernment. I simply pray the Beatitudes once a day and pass whatever I’m ‘hearing’ through that grid. The cruciform (cross-shaped) life of Christ passes through that furnace easily and anything that is unChristlike does not.
For more details, you can order Can You Hear Me? wherever you buy books, but for a quickstart, have a go at the Meeting Place prayer which you can find HERE. Remember to pay attention to whatever thoughts come naturally and allow whatever is the truth-in-love to count.

On God’s Presence

As for “feeling God’s presence,” there’s a similar issue at work. We may expect the ‘presence of God’ to feel a particular way… like some otherly presence, maybe like if you knew an invisible third party was in the room (like a home invasion). I know that was what I imagined for years.
Then my friend Brian West corrected this notion in a very fruitful way. He reminded me that the Scriptures promise that when we “invite God to come,” we are simply opening ourselves to the God who is always with us. As we consciously welcome the One who never leaves, we then pay attention to what that feels like. Most of the time, he said, the Holy Spirit’s favourite way to come is with peace, which if you’ll notice, is the hottest commodity in the world. Nothing sensational, nothing invasive, but if you ask for peace and surrender yourself to his loving care, the Prince of Peace (who is always near) ‘draws near.’
Then what happens? Often, the inner skeptic (the birds that steal the seed in the parable of the sower) dismisses that as, “Whatever…you just calmed yourself down. That doesn’t count.” And we unplug from that attentive sense of presence, thus fulfilling our own prophetic doubts. OR, what Brian taught me to do was to notice the slightest whiff of peace, and to say, “Thank you, Lord. I’d love some more,” then deliberately step deeper into that presence of peace. As we do, sometimes other feelings will come, perhaps comfort or gratitude or joy, to which I say, “Thank you, Lord, I want everything you have for me.” I especially tune into this presence when I activate the Meeting Place exercise described above, or do a visual walkthrough of some one-on-one encounter with God from the Psalms (23) or Gospels (e.g., Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden on Easter morning).
We can pray this naturally and spontaneously, or when words fail, use the ancient “Trisagion prayer”:
O heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of truth who is in all places and fills all things,
Treasury of good gifts and Giver of life, come dwell with us.
And the One(s) [Father, Son, and Spirit] who are already forever with and in us “come,” whether we sense it or not. But perhaps as we continue praying it regularly, whatever barriers to our awareness will begin to crumble. Blessings on you as you pursue God’s voice and a conscious awareness of your union with him.
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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More