How to Hear God

Pastor Craig Carter

In his book, How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People, Pete Greig suggests the Lord’s Prayer is structured around four basic steps captured by the acrostic, P.R.A.Y. So far in our current sermon series, we have investigated the first three steps of pause, rejoice, and ask. Beginning today, we will turn our attention to the final step, yield, or more simply put, saying “yes” to God. 

When we ask for something in prayer and don’t receive it exactly how and when we’d like it, we have to trust God and surrender to His will (i.e. yield).

The primary reason for wanting to learn how to pray is because prayer is the language of God. It’s the way we communicate with Him. 

We know that a conversation requires both speaking and listening. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to talk to God, but on the surface it says nothing about how to hear from the Lord. But remember, Jesus taught us to say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11 KJV) Clearly, that involves provision for our physical and emotional needs. But it also includes spiritual nourishment as well.  

When Jesus was tested in the wilderness, He answered one of Satan’s temptations by quoting from the Old Testament: “People do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3b NLT)

Just as we cannot physically exist without food, we cannot spiritually live without the Word of the Lord. That means we have to learn how to hear God so we can surrender to His will and follow His guidance for our lives.  

Today we’re going to investigate how to hear and respond to God’s voice from an unlikely source, a little boy named Samuel. His story is told in two Old Testament books attributed to him as the chief author. Samuel, the last judge of Israel, was the son of Elkanah and Hannah. 

Unable to become pregnant, Hannah sought the Lord and asked for a child. God answered her prayer and she gave birth to a son whom she named Samuel. As an act of thanksgiving, Hannah presented the boy to the high priest, Eli, and offered to let him live in the tabernacle as a minister to the Lord. 

From a very young age, Samuel served as Eli’s “right hand man” and assisted the priest in his religious duties. One night, while sleeping, Samuel heard a voice call his name. He immediately ran to Eli’s bedside and awakened the old man. 

Eli responded that he hadn’t called and told the boy to go lie down. When this process was repeated a second and third time, Eli realized that something was really going on. Not to mention he was probably tired of having his sleep interrupted. ☺.  So, he told the young lad that if he heard the voice a fourth time, he should say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9b NLT)

Sure enough, it happened again, and Samuel was able to hear and receive a message from the Lord Himself. 

From Samuel’s experience, we learn several important truths about how to hear God:

1) Anyone can hear God, in any place, at any time. 

The opening verse of 1 Samuel 3 foreshadows that God was about to speak: “In those days the word of the LORD was rare…” (1 Samuel 3:1b NIV)

So anticipation builds that God’s silence is coming to end. Who would we expect to receive God’s word? Well, likely the high priest of Israel, Eli. And when would it most likely occur? Surely during some act of worship, right? 

Much to the reader’s surprise, God’s voice is heard not by any of the established priests or leaders of Israel, but by a small boy who, according to verse 7, “did not yet know the Lord.”

In such a way, God reminds us that He is not restrictive in His communication. He can speak to anyone, anywhere, at any time. All of Scripture confirms this. 

God spoke to Moses, a lonely 80-year-old shepherd, to deliver His people. 

The word of the Lord came to a reluctant prophet named Jonah and instructed him to preach to the wicked Ninevites. 

Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of Christians, heard God on the road to Damascus. 

No matter who we are, no matter our age or station in life, no matter our prior relationship with God, He can and will speak to us. We simply need to listen.

How do we go about doing that? Where and how can we expect to hear from God? What are some ways in which the Lord speaks to us? Well, we need to learn our ABC’s (and D) for hearing God, as follows: 

A) The Advice of others can be a way in which God’s voice is heard. To Samuel, God’s voice sounded like an old man, the priest Eli. We expect God to speak with a booming voice from heaven, but it’s more common that He speaks through a fellow believer. Maybe that’s why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us our daily bread.” It is collectively that we hear from God so we need to learn to listen to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

B) The Bible is the primary way in which God reveals Himself and His will. So if you want to hear from God, the starting point is opening the pages of Scripture. It is “living and active,” therefore it speaks to us. How many times do we read a passage of Scripture that seems to be exactly what we need to hear? And remember, we ask for “daily bread,” so we need a regular supply of it.

C) Circumstances oftentimes reveal the word of the Lord. This is what we call the opening and closing of doors, or divine coincidences. I’m talking about “it just so happened” kind of moments. Hall of Fame golfer Gary Player once observed: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Have you ever thought to yourself, “The more I pray, the more coincidences I see”? In every situation, ask, “God, what are you trying to show me or teach me?” And if all else fails, just use common sense!

D) In some cases, God is heard through Direct Communication from the Holy Spirit. It may be in an audible voice as Samuel heard. Or it may be a feeling or “an inward impression of the soul” as John Wesley described. God’s “gentle whisper” oftentimes comes to me through an idea or seemingly random thought (that may not be all that random). Sometimes this happens during a quiet time but more often in daily routine. For example, someone’s name comes to mind and you call to check on them at just the right moment. 

God’s call to Samuel demonstrates His desire to speak to all persons, in all places, at all times. It’s worth noting that while God can speak in any place, at any time, He’s more likely to be heard in certain places and at certain times. Notice that “Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was.” (1 Samuel 3:3 NIV)

He positioned himself near to God and was quiet before Him. For us, prayer is the posture that gets us close to God. And we just need to quit talking long enough to hear His voice through others, Scripture, circumstances, and the Holy Spirit. 

2) What God says is not always what we want to hear.

When Samuel made himself available to listen to God, he could never have anticipated what he would hear. God’s word was not a message of hope or encouragement, but one of judgment:

Then the Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do a shocking thing in Israel. I am going to carry out all my threats against Eli and his family, from beginning to end. I have warned him that judgment is coming upon his family forever, because his sons are blaspheming God and he hasn’t disciplined them.” (1 Samuel 3:11-13 NLT)

That was not exactly pleasant news for the young boy to bear or to have to repeat to his boss. 

When we open our ears to hear from God, we need to be ready to receive His Word. And it may not be exactly what we want to hear. 

Moses wasn’t thrilled to go to Pharaoh. Nathan didn’t want to confront King David about his sin. Jonah had no desire to preach to the Ninevites. And I seriously doubt that Mary wanted to bear a child out of wedlock. Why should we be surprised when God asks us to give sacrificially, teach a group of rambunctious teenagers, or forgive our hurtful brother?

So, how are we to know it’s God’s voice since it may not necessarily be what we want to hear? Besides, there are so many voices competing for our attention, including our own, those around us, and possibly even Satan. 

In his book, Listening to God, Charles Stanley identifies several ways in which we can distinguish between God’s voice and someone else’s. God’s voice will always: 

Be consistent with His Word. God will never tell us to do something that contradicts Holy Scripture. Here’s a way to test this: “Does this sound like Jesus? Is this the sort of thing Christ would do?”

Conflict with human wisdom. God’s plan is usually not what you would consider to be the reasonable, safe course of action. In other words, it doesn’t always make sense from a human point of view. Remember: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8 NIV)

Challenge our faith. God wants us to grow in our trust and dependency upon Him. When Abraham was told to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, it was not what he wanted. “It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac…” (Hebrews 11:17a NLT)

Require courage. God normally pushes us to accomplish difficult tasks (so we’ll know who is responsible for our success). Remember what he said to Joshua as he became the leader of the Israelites, “Be strong and courageous…” (Joshua 1:6 NLT)

Like Samuel, we need to make ourselves available to hear God and recognize His voice. 

“The sheep recognize his voice and come to him.” (John 10:3a NLT)

And when we hear His voice calling, we shouldn’t be surprised if His message isn’t quite what we want to hear. But remember: while it might challenge our commitment and stretch our faith, it will always be in our best interest. 

3) When we hear God, the proper response is obedience.

Although it took a little prompting from his mentor Eli, Samuel responded to God’s word by obediently declaring all that he had been told to say. “So Samuel told Eli everything; he didn’t hold anything back.” (1 Samuel 3:18a NLT)

Once we hear from God, we have a choice to make: to answer the call or to ignore it. What do we do when the phone rings or we feel a vibration from a text notification? Sadly, many of us respond better to this device than we do to the voice of God. 

And not only must we answer the call, we need to obey it. This is where hearing God becomes listening to God. 

Our English word, obey, comes from the Latin, obedire, which literally means, “pay attention to, give ear, or listen to.” So listening to God means yielding willingly to whatever God tells us to do. 

Ultimately, that’s why God speaks to us and what He wants us from us – obedience. It’s the conclusion reached by Samuel and communicated later in a conversation with a rebellious Saul: 

Samuel replied, “What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice…” (1 Samuel 15:22 NLT)

Or, as Jesus put it, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46 NIV)

Make no mistake about it, God is looking for obedient hearers. 

Once we carry out what the Lord tells us to do (whatever it may be), we can expect the same result achieved by Samuel: “The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there He revealed Himself to Samuel by the word of the Lord.” (1 Samuel 3:21 NIV)

When we hear God’s word and act upon it, He continues to reveal more and more of Himself and His will. God usually speaks in bite-size pieces and leads us step-by-step rather than giving us the master plan up front. 

“To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge.” (Matthew 13:12 NLT)

Wouldn’t we all like for that to be true? It can be but for that to happen we must hear God and then heed what He says.  

In the closing book of the Bible, we read these words: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says…” (Revelation 3:22 NIV)

I believe with all my heart the Spirit has much to say. God is speaking constantly. The question is, “Do we have ears to hear?”

I’m convinced that if we will tune in and listen closely, we’ll hear God. But to hear Him, we need ears to hear and hearts that say, like Samuel did long ago, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10b NLT)