We know that prophets throughout the ages have heard God’s voice and proclaimed his messages with confidence. And we believe our God still speaks to us today. But how do we hear God’s voice? Our lives are noisy, and our heads are filled with so many voices vying for attention and influence. So how do we receive clear guidance from God for our everyday lives?
To intentionally hear how God is speaking to us, my family and I practice an expression of prayer called “listening prayer.” This has been an important part of my prayer life ever since the day a friend introduced my family to Mary Geegh’s little book, God Guides. Mary Geegh served as a missionary in India through the Reformed Church in America from 1924 to 1962. God Guides describes how God spoke into the lives of many as she prayed with them for God’s guidance using listening prayer.
How listening prayer helps us hear God
Most of us picture prayer sort of like a monologue: We talk to God, sharing our heartfelt thanks and offering up our petitions and requests. But prayer is really more like a dialogue, where we speak with God and the Lord speaks to us.
Listening prayer centers around a clear request for God’s guidance. In making our request, we give God’s guidance authority over the other voices we hear throughout our daily lives. Then we hit the pause button. We wait on God in a time of silence, giving the Lord opportunity to speak to us. We focus our time of prayer on intentional, purposeful listening and let God do the talking.
This is really important because as followers of Jesus, we all desire to do the right thing and make the wisest choices. Yet we are constantly being bombarded with the noise of the world all around us. There are lots of voices telling us very different messages, and too often we find ourselves challenged and confused about what we should do in a given situation or what is really the best way ahead. These are times when we can seek God’s guidance through listening prayer.
What the Bible says about listening to God in prayer
God is the source of all wisdom
The Book of James invites us to make a request to God for the wisdom we need. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5, NIV). God wants us to ask for his wisdom and will generously give it to us.
In Psalm 100, the psalmist reminds us that the Lord himself is our shepherd and that we are his people, the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3). In the New Testament, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
God’s sheep recognize God’s voice
According to Jesus, we are his sheep, the flock of his pasture. John 10 expands on this wonderful theme. As Jesus’s sheep, we should be able to listen to his voice and follow him because we clearly recognize his voice. Jesus is able to lead us precisely because we hear his voice and follow after him. “The gatekeeper opens the gate for [Jesus], and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:3-4, emphasis mine).
In the next verse, Jesus makes the point that we should not follow any other voice. “But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice” (John 10:5). Later Jesus alludes to the gentiles who will also hear his voice and follow him. “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16, emphasis mine).
Our Lord Jesus is very happy to lead us as his disciples and those who follow him should be able to hear his voice and receive the guidance we need. It is part of our birthright when we are born again by the Holy Spirit and become followers of Jesus. But what about those other voices? How can we be sure we are hearing only from our Lord?
Tuning out the other voices around us
In the book Daring to Live on the Edge, Youth With a Mission (YWAM) founder Loren Cunningham points out that impressions on our spirit will come from one of four sources: (1) your own mind; (2) the mind of others (e.g., the world); (3) the mind of Satan (e.g., demons); and (4) the mind of God.
God has given us authority in Christ to silence the other sources and clear the way to hear God’s voice and be confident that it is God speaking.
Just before ascending into heaven, the Risen Lord Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:18-19). Earlier, when Jesus commissioned his disciples, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, sending them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick (Luke 9:1-2).
After this Jesus sent out 72 others to do the same (Luke 10:1). They returned with joy and said to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17-20). We know that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth. And Jesus gives us his authority to silence the enemy.
Submitting our own thoughts to God
But what about our voices? How can we be sure we are not hearing our own thoughts? In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul suggests that we can also take authority over our own thoughts to make them obedient to Christ.
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, emphasis mine).
How to practice listening prayer
I have personally found that the best way to do listening prayer is with a small group of people, as opposed to trying it alone. This is especially so if we are new to it. Later, as we gain confidence in the process and become more sensitive to hearing God’s voice, we can also do listening prayer on our own.
Here’s an outline you can follow as you join together with your prayer partners in a listening prayer.
1. Come to God with your request for guidance
Share with God your specific request for guidance in prayer. And by the power of Christ, give God’s voice authority over the voices of others and our own voices.
Listening prayer template
“Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus Christ, your son, and according to James 1:5. I am seeking wisdom for _____________(your request).
In the name of Jesus, according to Matthew 28:18 and Luke 10:19-20, I take authority over Satan and his fallen angels and command that they be rendered deaf, mute, and blind to my prayers, and removed from my presence.
I submit my own voice to the shed blood of Jesus and command that my own thoughts be taken captive to the obedience of Christ, according to 2 Corinthians 10:5.
I ask, Father, that only your Holy Spirit will speak to me now as I wait on you for wisdom, insight, and direction. And whatever you show me or direct me to do, I pray that I will quickly obey.
In Jesus’s mighty name, amen.”
2. Wait in silence for God to speak for 10-12 minutes
Listen to what God is saying to you. What themes emerge? What becomes clear about God’s plan for you as you listen?
3. Jot down any Scripture, songs, impressions, or pictures God gives you
My wife and I have done listening prayer with our children, and it’s wonderful to see how the Lord chooses to speak. One may receive a verse from Scripture, another a song. Sometimes a member of our family gets one word, or a particular phrase. Another sees a picture. Often the Lord gives us one piece of the message, and it only seems to make sense after everyone has had the chance to share what they received.
4. Share how God spoke to you with your prayer partners and follow God’s will
Whatever the Lord speaks to us, the most important thing is that we obey his voice. If you are unsure or need more confirmation, then ask the Lord for this. But if you hear and receive clear direction from God, strive to respond with full obedience, being confident that God is the one guiding you by the Holy Spirit. There is great comfort and security when we hear and obey.
Jim Harrison served as a pastor in Hopkins, Michigan, for five years before beginning work in the global mission field. He served with RCA Global Mission for 25 years as a missionary in Estonia and in Bahrain, then served the Reformed Church in America as the coordinator for prayer mobilization.