Have you ever struggled to hear God’s voice? Have you ever been sure you have heard Him, only to find out later that you heard Him wrong? This happens to me all the time. If you, like me, find yourself constantly wondering, “Why can’t I hear God?” this post is for you.
Case in Point
Over a year ago, I made a major decision. I wanted to have this decision settled well in advance of the time I would need to act on it – next spring – because I get stressed out by pressure. Before making this decision, I diligently sought the Lord because I wanted to make sure I was in the center of His will for my life. (After all, that’s when life’s most satisfying.) I believed that He answered me. I believed that He confirmed it over and over and over again. I believed that right up until two weeks ago, when my pastor told me, “Pray again. I don’t know that your decision is God’s will.”
This threw me for a major loop. Not so much the decision – I already know God’s will is good, so I don’t mind changing my plans to make sure that I’m doing what God wants. What really turned my whole world inside out was that I had been absolutely sure I had heard God.
As I’ve already mentioned, I have authority issues. In the past, if a pastor had said something like that to me, I probably wouldn’t have listened. I would have thought, “He means well, but he doesn’t have to live with the consequences of this decision. I have something at stake so I’m sure I’ve prayed about it more than him!” But I’ve attended this church for several years now, and I have a lot of respect for my pastor. I know he takes his responsibility before God very, very seriously. He knows he has to answer for it if he leads anyone astray, and he is one of the most humble men I’ve ever met. He’s also given me words from God before that didn’t make sense to me at the time (and were therefore difficult for me to accept) but turned out to be spot on later.
I read somewhere that God often speaks to us about His will through other people when we’re not hearing Him correctly and He needs to do a course correction. So I thought, “Okay, I can be thankful for this, because if I was really going to do something huge but it was not God’s will I definitely want to know that now instead of afterwards.”
But what really started eating at me was my relationship with God. I thought I had heard Him. I thought He had confirmed it. I had felt so sure. This left me asking, over and over again:
Why Can’t I Hear God?
In John 10:27 Jesus says, “My sheep hear My voice.” I believe that means that if we belong to Jesus, it is possible for us to hear what He’s saying.
God also says in Amos 3:7:
Indeed, the Sovereign Lord never does anything
until he reveals his plans to his servants the prophets.
Those prophets include us. In Joel 2:28, God promises:
I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions.
You’re someone’s son or daughter. That means you’re included in the promise that sons and daughters will prophesy.
(If you want to split hairs on whether lineage counts or not, you can just skip to what John says here and here and what Paul says here to find out Who your Daddy is. And if you believe this promise in Joel 2 has not already been fulfilled, read what Peter says about it in Acts 2.)
I also know that God is sovereign. He can do anything, so I know He’s capable of speaking in ways that I can hear (rather than in ways too obscure for me to figure out).
So I had a really hard time reconciling the fact that I had heard wrong (not the first time, either) with the fact that God was capable of speaking in a way that I could hear or understand. I felt like I had really been trying to hear His voice and do His will, so this really threw a wrench in my relationship with God.
I wanted to trust Him, but found I couldn’t. I felt deeply hurt that He would let me know now, only a few months before I had to act on this decision I made over a year ago, instead of earlier. I felt deeply hurt that He was capable of speaking to me plainly but apparently didn’t want to since I hadn’t understood Him. I felt deeply hurt by the fact that every time I asked Him what I should do I could never be sure if any of the answers I might get were Him or not. I just felt really hurt.
I’ve always had a hard time having relationships with other people. But God…He was the One Person Who had earned my trust. I trusted Him. And I felt like He had stabbed me in the back.
Let me tell you, these were some of the most miserable weeks I have ever faced, because when you can’t turn to God, you really do have absolutely nothing.
But today I dragged myself to church, even though I was a mess, and God definitely spoke to me there.
And since I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles with feeling like I can’t hear God even when I want to most, I thought I’d share what He showed me in case it helps any of you.
I thought I trusted God, but God knew my trust wasn’t complete.
Today my pastor preached on 1 Kings 17. The second part of the chapter is about the story of Elijah and the widow. God sends Elijah to a widow He has assigned to give Elijah food. I think it’s interesting that God tells Elijah, “I have instructed a widow there to feed you,” but when Elijah arrives the widow tells him, “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal, and then my son and I will die.” So God has evidently spoken to her somehow and given her instructions to feed Elijah, but she is instead preparing to die. Her lack of faith reminds me of my own.
But Elijah tells her that God will keep her flour and oil coming if she feeds him first. So she does, and no one starves. The oil and flour miraculously don’t run out.
But then, after many days of miraculous survival in this way, her son gets sick and dies.
I’d like to point out here that I think it’s very possible that the reason her son died in the first place was because she said he would.
God created by speaking, and the words we choose to release into the world around us can have creative or destructive consequences because of their prophetic power. (Remember, you’re a prophet!)
But what really got me was verse 18, which the Holy Spirit immediately highlighted to me as I read it before the service started:
Then she said to Elijah, “O man of God, what have you done to me? Have you come here to point out my sins and kill my son?”
Despite living among miracles and the presence and glory of God for some time now, the widow’s reaction to her son’s death was to immediately forget the goodness of God (that He had already saved her at all!) and despair that she was being judged.
It was just how I’d been feeling. I felt defective for not hearing God correctly. I felt like my misery was well-deserved. I felt wretched and despised myself. I blamed God for not speaking in a way that I could hear Him but instead speaking in riddles.
Just like you might look at the widow who had lived on miraculous oil and flour and wonder why she had no faith in God, you could have looked at me and wondered how I could have seen God’s goodness and God’s glory up close for so long and still be unable to trust Him.
When my pastor preached, he pointed out that the presence of God also reveals our sin and convicts us, and that can be an uncomfortable time. He noted that there was a connection between the widow realizing her sin and the death of her son. My pastor said that when that happens we have a choice. We can stay there, in the despair and lack of trust, blaming ourselves and God and accepting the loss (like the widow), or we can do what Elijah did. We can run to God and ask Him to take care of the problems, which ends in healing and restoration.
Elijah did just that, and God revived the boy (verses 19-23).
After God brought her son back to life, the widow said:
“Now I know for sure that you are a man of God, and that the Lord truly speaks through you.”
The title of my pastor’s sermon was “Until Faith Is Complete.”
I bet that widow thought she trusted God while she was living on His overflowing oil and flour. I bet she thought her heart was healed of all its holes and she was doing fine with Him. I bet she didn’t know her faith was incomplete.
Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
I’d like to point out that Jesus says our joy will be complete when we ask God for something in His name and receive it. In other words, when disappointment is finally defeated. But disappointment can only be overcome by asking God.
To go back to what my pastor said, if Elijah hadn’t asked God to revive the boy, the widow’s son would have stayed dead and she would have been disappointed her whole life.
If you’re facing a deep disappointment right now, ask God to replace it with His joy. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
You might be wondering what all these tangents have to do with hearing God.
I couldn’t hear God because I couldn’t look Him in the eye.
I’d been stuck in the same place as the widow. I’d felt like I was too inadequate for God to help and I was too disappointed to believe Him anymore.
But when I saw the title of the sermon and understood what God was doing, I realized – before God called me out and corrected me, I thought that things were fine. They weren’t. There was a big, gaping hole in my faith, but I never would have realized it if my future hadn’t died, so to speak. Now I can see that God wanted the best for me – faith without holes and an unwavering trust – and He was willing to do whatever it took to get it.
It doesn’t end there, though. I didn’t – and still don’t – have an unwavering trust in God yet. I’m just as shakeable as the next person. But I kept asking God, over and over again, “Why can’t I hear You?”
And today God answered me.
Remember those authority issues I mentioned at the beginning of the post?
I couldn’t hear God because I was afraid of Him.
If you’ve never heard of attachment theory, it’s fascinating stuff. When I was younger I used to be clingy and anxious. When I was older I avoided authority figures because I had decided that they either couldn’t help or wouldn’t help – or, at worst, would become the source of further problems. But, I realized, when it comes to God I seem to have a more disorganized attachment style. I start to come to Him…then back off. I want His comfort…but I worry that He’ll punish me. Like Felix, sometimes I struggle intensely with the lie that I will never be good enough. I want to approach God but feel inadequate. I feel like I have to earn His love.
So why can’t I hear God’s voice?
One of the things that hurt the most when I realized I was wrong was that it was just one more time when other people could hear God and I couldn’t. I asked God over and over again why I could never hear Him for myself, why I always had to go through other people and have them tell me what God wanted.
And today God told me, “Because you wanted it that way.”
And He showed me that I was being just like the Israelites in Exodus 20:19:
And they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!”
Because I’m constantly believing lies (that I’m inadequate, that God’s not good, that I have to earn His love somehow), I’ve been afraid of approaching God directly. I didn’t realize it, but this is why I’ve had trouble hearing Him for years.
In the past I’d sometimes realized that when I’m trying to hear God on something usually I can’t because what I really need to do is just spend time with Him (instead of trying to pry an answer out of Him). But only now am I realizing just how important it is to make sure I have a right view of God so I can hear Him properly.
But God is love and God is good, so even when my views aren’t right He’s faithful to give course corrections.
Eyes Wide Open
A woman at my church who is a very encouraging friend to me told me, “You need to have your eyes wide open.” Because of my fear and my shame, I couldn’t stare at truth directly. “You can’t see because your emotions are clouding your vision,” she told me. “But it’s like shooting an arrow. When you stop avoiding things and open your eyes wide, you will see accurately.”
And I think she’s right. In Matthew 6:22-23, Jesus says:
Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!
All those times I thought that I was listening for God I was only half approaching Him. All those times I thought that I was asking Him His will I was really just throwing my own will on the table with a pen – “Sign Here, God” – and running out the door before He talked to me.
So now I’m clearing the table. No more proposals. No more clutter. I’m letting go of all my expectations and asking God, “Lord, what is Your will? What do You want?”
In the past, I always asked God, “Is it okay if I do X? Will You bless me if I do Y? Which one is Your will, A or B?” And every time I tried to think of a solution it was ultimately me trying to decide how to accomplish God’s will on my own. It was me thinking things like, “Well, I’ll need money to do that. And I’ll need to do this to get money.” It was me trying to earn what God wanted to give me. It was me trying to serve both God and money.
But immediately after telling us about the importance of having healthy eyes, Jesus says:
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
So now I’m trying to be as honest as possible. To come to God with eyes wide open. To know that God is good and God is love and that no matter how scary the truth may seem the truth is best for me and God will work things out.
After all, Jesus said:
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
I expect you might be wondering: do I know now what God’s will is for that big decision that I thought was made?
The answer is no. I’m not sure at all.
But this time around I’ll trust Him to take care of it.
Join the Discussion
Did you ever hear God wrong? What has God been teaching you about hearing His voice? Share your answers in the comments!