Learning to Hear the Shepherd’s Voice
Listening Prayer is a Bible-based method of hearing God’s precious voice, so relationships can be healed and personal struggles overcome. The simple technique presented is so appealing that after the first few pages readers are eager to begin their own journal. Often people are afraid to ask, “Father, what do You want me to know?” Even more daunting is the question, “Lord, what do You see when You look at me?” Over and over, His answers bring tears to eyes and healing to hearts
LEARNING TO LISTEN
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
~ John 10:27
“Father, what do You want me to know?” I wrote in my journal. Did I really want to know what God had to say to me? My life was far from perfect, my Christian walk often wayward, and I was more than a little afraid of direct conversation with Him. I tried to quiet my mind, almost an impossible task. After a few moments, I picked up my pen and began to write: I love you. I have been with you through all the hard times of your life, loving and upholding you. You cannot imagine how much I care for you.
Amazed, I stared at the paper. The words were in my handwriting, but these were not my thoughts. I would never have expressed myself in this way. Those words remain some of the most precious, the most healing ones ever spoken to me. Even now, tears spring to my eyes when I read them again.
How often had God wanted to convey this message of love to me? What is He even now waiting to tell you?
WHAT, EXACTLY, IS LISTENING PRAYER?
“Listening prayer” is a way to bring His guidance into our everyday walk by expanding our prayers into two-way conversations. This may seem almost an oxymoron if we have always understood prayer to mean going to God with a list of our requests. As we look back, however, most of us can remember times when we received strong impressions that could only have come from Him, and those experiences have changed our lives.
Too often, our prayers amount to a monologue, much like the story Nicky Gumbel tells in his delightful video and book, Questions of Life.1 A man went to his physician with an entire list of complaints. “My shoulder hurts, and I have this cough that won’t go away, and I often have blinding headaches, and sometimes my left knee locks, and my back hurts a lot.” Then, without waiting for a response, he says, “Thank you very much, doctor,” and leaves. How can the physician help you unless you wait and listen to his response? It’s ludicrous to waste your time and his without waiting to hear his recommendations. You’d consider your office visit terribly incomplete.
Our prayers are too often the same as this man’s doctor visit—only half-finished—unless we wait for God’s response.
Listening prayer is a simple tool to help us hear God’s voice by using a daily journal, recording not only our own prayers, but also the answers He lays upon our hearts.
HOW I BEGAN LISTENING
Several years ago I lived and worked at Hidden Manna Christian Retreat Center in New Waverly, Texas, under the direction of Dr. Paul Looney, one of the finest Christians I’ve ever known. As a staff member, I attended many excellent conferences held at the center. At one of these, Dr. Looney invited Dave Olson of El Cajon, California, to teach the basics of the prayer journaling technique he and his wife Linda developed.2
Skeptical at first, I was astonished to realize that God would speak to the likes ofme. Even more amazing was how my untrained, wayward spirit could recognize His voice so clearly that I could write His words on paper. Since then, my prayer journals have become treasures, second only to my Bible.
My relationship with God has changed as a result. Now I know, and I know that I know, I am His beloved child. He delights in my coming to Him with anything, anytime I wish.
During John F. Kennedy’s presidency, a touching incident happened at the White House that illustrates this new relationship. While President Kennedy met with several other heads of state, into this important conference ran his small daughter, Caroline, calling, “Daddy, Daddy.”
He turned away from his guests and held welcoming arms toward her. Before she reached him, she tripped and fell, crying in pain. President Kennedy picked her up, held her in his arms, and kissed her tears away.
I, too, can run to my Father, the Creator and King of the Universe, whenever I wish. I don’t need an intermediary, nor do I need to come hanging my head in fear. Whatever special business He is about, He always has time for me. I can bring all my questions to Him and receive wisdom. He guides me through conflict and teaches me how to mend fractured relationships. He takes the veil away from my eyes and helps me understand His Word. His love shines through the pages of my journal, so that even His correction is sweet. He cares enough for me not to let me remain in my wrong thinking and judgmental attitudes.
I’m sure there is much more transformation ahead. More hard times and struggles will have to be overcome. But I know He will lead me, guide me, encourage me, and comfort me as I meet with Him daily for our wonderful dialogue.
DOES GOD WANT TO TALK WITH US?
Relationship is the most important reason for hearing the voice of the Lord. God is not only infinite, but also personal. If we don’t have communication, we don’t have a personal relationship with Him. True guidance is getting close to the Guide. We grow to know the Lord better as He speaks to us. As we listen to Him and obey Him, we make His heart glad.3
Our first need is to recognize Jesus as the Son of the Living God, crucified for our sins, resurrected and living forever as Lord of Lord and King of Kings. This is the gate to a relationship with God (John 14:6). Any other entrance is that of a thief and a robber (John 10:1). If you have not yet made the decision to submit to His lordship, the prayer of commitment at the end of this book will guide you in this step. This is the most important and life-transforming decision you will ever make. You can be sure He will meet you with open arms.
When He sees us turn to Him, like the father of the prodigal son, He runs to us, rejoicing (Luke 20:21). And all heaven rejoices! (Luke 15:10).
Resist the enemy if he tries to tell you that your commitment is not real. The very name of Jesus is powerful. James 4:7 says we need only resist Satan, and he will flee like the coward he is.
We must search our hearts as we come before God (Psalm 19:14) and confess any sin we find there. His Word says He will not hear us unless our hearts are pure (Psalm 66:18).
HOW WILL I HEAR HIM?
Usually, God speaks to us through His living, breathing Word, ever revealing His will and His nature. He may speak through a particular verse as we follow our daily Bible study. The Bible tells of His speaking to Moses in an audible voice (Exodus 3:4). He gave dreams and visions to the Wise Men and to Joseph (Matthew 2). Isaiah and the Apostle John were given visions (Isaiah 6:1; Revelation 1:12-17). But the most common way is through His still, small voice speaking to our hearts (Isaiah 30:21) as the Bible resonates with our yielded hearts.
As we continue coming to Him as little children, presenting our questions and problems, recognizing God’s voice will become easier. But we must remember that our obedience is essential. Like strong-willed lambs, if we wander away from the sound of our Shepherd’s voice, danger awaits us. If we cannot hear Him, perhaps we have failed to obey (Luke 11:28; John 14:15).
Listening prayer is no substitute for deep, consistent Bible study. We must never isolate a few Scripture verses from the remainder of God’s message, or we can easily be deceived.
Neither must we rely on others to get the word of the Lord for us. The Old Testament, 1 Kings 13, tells a sad story of a man of God who allowed another prophet to “amend” God’s clear direction to him, and he was killed by a lion on his way home.
WHEN WE CANNOT HEAR HIM
God can and will speak to us, but we must not automatically expect a response from God every time we bow our heads. God is not a push-button deity. Sometimes the heavens are like brass, and we cannot understand why. But Jesus taught to ask and keep on asking, to seek and keep on seeking, to knock and keep on knocking (Matthew 7:7). My own times of searching have drawn me out of my self-centeredness into new comprehensions of God.
On one fourteen-hour automobile trip to Oklahoma, I spent the time in earnest prayer, first for one of my children, then for myself, and finally, that He would simply reveal Himself to me. When I truly sought His presence, I began to receive the answers I needed. This kind of prayer stretches and matures our faith.
Never underestimate God. He is a wise, all-loving Father, Healer, Comforter, Judge, capable of fierce anger, yet quick to forgive repentant hearts. I love to call Him the Great Untangler, for He knows what I need, and He alone can unravel the snarls of my damaged emotions, my pride, and my confusion. His is the perfect love—tough, challenging love. He wants me to reach above and beyond my own limits, upward to a childlike faith in Him, and outward to a hurting world.
The following benefits of a prayer journal are gleaned from my own experience and numerous other Christians’:
- Writing our prayers down clarifies them. Writing slows our mind and helps us identify our own deepest desires.
- While we are to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), and can pray no matter what we are doing—driving, cooking, cleaning, ironing, etc.—writing our prayers helps us focus.
- Previously unrecognized fears, concerns, and sinful attitudes will often surface so that we can bring them to God.
- God can tell us exactly what He wants us to know. When we go back and read His words again, we feel great awe. The insight and wisdom He gives us is far above our own.
- We have a written document to share with Christian friends as a means of testing every spirit (1 John 4:1).
- We have a written record that helps us trace problems in hearing God. If we have failed to obey Him at some point, His voice may fade. Sheep move away from the Shepherd through lack of obedience.
- The journal is a priceless source of comfort as we see how God has answered prayer.
A PARADIGM SHIFT
Over time, as we practice this simple daily discipline, our outlook will change. He gently changes our perspectives. He opens our eyes to see past dirty windows to the beauty that surrounds us. The aggravations of everyday life fade as He teaches us to be more sensitive to the needs of others.
One Christmas when our two children were small and our finances were slim, we managed to buy them their dream gifts—shiny new bicycles. A few toys were displayed under our tiny tree, but the bikes had to be propped against another wall. Their first reaction on Christmas morning was one of disappointment. “Santa didn’t bring us very much.” Gently cupping their faces, we turned them around so they could to see the real presents. Gasping with delight, they joyously raced to claim their gifts.
God does this for us, exchanging our negative mindsets for joy as we see the wonder of His love.
RECOGNIZING GOD’S VOICE
Several different voices run through our thoughts all the time, and we must distinguish between God’s words, our own self-talk, and that of Satan. (An entire chapter is devoted to this subject later in this book.) We must guard against the enemy’s subtle deceptions that gradually pull us off track.
We hear what’s important to us. I have been blessed with the gift of sound sleep and am seldom wakened by even violent thunderstorms. After a night of crashing thunder and lightning, my family is often amused at my surprise. “Oh, did it rain last night?” But when my children were infants, their slightest whimper brought me instantly awake. Because I cared so much, my ears were attuned to their voices.
On the other hand, it’s a mystery to most men why women don’t hear little mechanical noises. My husband could diagnose my automobile’s engine by listening to it run a few moments. I didn’t even know there was a problem.
In a similar way, learning to hear the Master’s voice is a matter of, first of all, our heart’s priorities. Our ears will be opened to what is important. Then we need to discipline ourselves to make time daily to meet with Him.
He promises good gifts to those who love Him. All we need do is ask. Jesus said, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”(Matthew 7:11, NIV)
What better gift than to have His voice guiding, comforting, instructing, and expressing His love to us every day?
Still, we can be deceived. Our own desires scream at us and pull us away from His leading. From small decisions to life-changing ones, we can make very bad choices to satisfy our own wants. Chocolate chip cookies “call our name.” A job across country entices us with visions of money and success. We want marriage and blind ourselves to the other person’s obvious faults.
When we find the beds we’ve made ourselves uncomfortable, we cry out, “God, why did You let me make this mistake?” Filled with regret, we see our own clay feet and realize that, in ourselves, we are nothing. Only in Jesus are our lives worthwhile.
Satan’s voice is destructive, denying God. It also denies human worth, ours or others’. He is a liar, a deceiver, and an accuser. He tricks us into sin and then mocks our distress. He crouches at the door of our hearts, wanting to have us. But God says we can and must master this voice (Genesis 4:7).
Our defense against both self-talk and Satan’s voice is this: seek God with all our hearts (Jeremiah 29:13). He promises that we will find Him. He will walk beside us, and He will talk with us. Whether we turn to the right or to the left, our ears will hear a voice behind us, saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).
IS LISTENING PRAYER SCRIPTURAL?
In the Bible, the words “obey” and “listen” are synonymous.4 In both Hebrew and Greek, “obey me,” and “listen to me” are the same.
The Bible is full of Scriptures indicating that God’s greatest pleasure is in walking and talking with His children. “My sheep listen to my voice,”Jesus said (John 10:27).
Those who have watched sheep tell us that a good shepherd leads them. He never drives them. They are the only animal which cannot be herded. Several flocks may be intermingled, but when it comes time to separate, the sheep follow their own shepherd as he leads them out, talking, singing, or whistling. They know his voice.
Every evening, he builds a small enclosure and calls the sheep—one by one—by name to come to him. As they enter, he examines them carefully for ticks or cuts, pulls the burrs from their fleece, and pours healing oil over any injuries, all the while talking to them. To him, each one is unique, and he knows them by name. He cares for them and provides everything they need. But their greatest need is to hear his voice.
In turn, the Lord wants our company. He traveled several miles across the Sea of Galilee just for the companionship of the ordinary fishermen He called friends. Think of it—the God of Creation wanted to join them in their smelly boat (John 6:16-21). He lived and died to break the barrier separating us from the personal relationship that God intended for His children.
Dialogue with God is the natural order, as evidenced by the stories of Adam, Eve, Cain, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, David, and others. Both Job and Habakkuk dared to question God, and they were overcome with awe by the power and love in His reply. Elijah was a man just like us, not super-spiritual. Yet He listened to God, obeyed, and marvelous things happened (James 5:17-18).
Jesus said, “I only do what I see the Father doing” (John 5:19). Likewise, I believe He only spoke what He heard the Father speaking. His great invitation—the very purpose of His life and death—is for us to also come into the presence of God, to have that same intimate, personal relationship with the Almighty.
Over the centuries, much of our spiritual inheritance became lost in the Dark Ages, obscured by superstition and paganism. The Reformation restored the power of the Scriptures but left out personal communication with God. This is like a bird trying to fly with one wing. He intends us to have two wings:
- His Word, illuminated in our hearts and minds; and
- A close personal relationship—an ongoing dialogue—with Him.
Our Heavenly Father wants us to soar like eagles, spreading wide both wings to rise far above the mundane cares of our world.