Hearing From God — Update: LC cancelled.

by Dr. Phillip Cary

Among evangelical Christians today, a great many people are anxious about how to hear God speak. Christians of an earlier era would have found this odd.

They assumed that when you wanted to hear God speak, you listened to his Word. You studied Scripture, heard the Gospel preached, and joined in Bible-based worship, singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” as the apostle says (Col. 3:16).

That is what happens when the word of Christ dwells among us richly, which is the same thing as saying that a congregation is “filled with the Spirit” (compare Eph. 5:18-19). When the biblical word is spoken and sung and taught among us, then we are hearing what God has to say to us.

Different Ideas

And yet many Christians have recently been taught quite different ideas about hearing God speak—and a quite different practice of the Christian life. It is presented, in fact, as a set of practical ideas we are supposed to apply to our lives. We’re supposed to listen for the voice of God in our hearts, rather than in an external word like the Bible or Christian preaching and teaching.

We’re told that this is how we find God’s will for our life. Again, Christians of an earlier era would have found this very puzzling, back when children memorized the ten commandments and a great deal of preaching was devoted to the sermon on the Mount, all in order to know what is God’s will for how we should live.


The new way of hearing God’s voice and learning God’s will has severe drawbacks. Above all, it’s new. Christians have only been trying to apply these ideas for a few decades, going back at most to the 19th century, which is not very far back in the Christian tradition as a whole. These are not practices you can find in the Bible, where no prophet is described as listening for God’s voice in his heart.

Overlooks the God Who Speaks

And these supposedly “practical” ideas are, frankly, bad for us. First of all, they get us used to thinking of an imaginary God, not the God who speaks to us in Holy Scripture, in the witness of prophets and apostles and Christ himself, all of whom address us in external words.

I can learn the words of Scripture by heart, take them in and make them part of myself, but they originate outside my heart, like the words of every real person who is other than me. To try to hear God’s voice as if it came from within me is thus to treat him as if he were not real. Think of the real people you love: if you want to know them, you have to listen to their words, which you don’t find by looking inside yourself.

Undermines Moral Responsibility

Secondly, these ideas are bad for us because they undermine moral responsibility. The new way of “finding God’s will for your life” assumes that God is supposed to make your decisions for you. It’s as if important decisions about career, marriage, and family were not really your responsibility but God’s. If this were so, then Jesus would have told a story about servants who wisely buried their talents in the ground until they received instructions for each investment decision they had to make. The Bible would have warned us against seeking wisdom and learning good judgment, as if that were a form of disobedience.

The truth is that the decisions really are our own, which is why we are responsible for them, and why learning wisdom and good judgment are important moral responsibilities (see Prov. 4:5-9).

Psychologically Unhealthy

Thirdly, these ideas are bad for us because they are psychologically unhealthy. In order to listen for an imaginary God we have to practice self-deception and get good at it. We are forbidden to recognize our own voices for what they are. Whereas the truth is that the voices in our hearts are our own, and that’s okay.

We should get to know our own voices, not because they are God speaking, but because self-knowledge is an important aim of the moral life and an important component of psychological health. It’s okay that the voices in our hearts are merely human; they don’t have to be God to be worth listening to.

We experience this every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: it is God’s Word we’re praying, but with our own voice. This happens also when we learn God’s Word by heart and pray it silently. The Word is God’s, but the inner voice is our own.

A Young Woman at Risk

Think of what happens when young people, who often don’t know themselves very well, try putting these ideas into practice. Imagine a young woman coming back to her dorm room after a long night, saying to herself in a loud, excited voice: “Oh, I love my boyfriend so much! He always takes care of me. He never wants to leave me alone. He never lets me out of his sight. I can’t ever get away from him. He’s always in control. He controls me so much sometimes I feel like I can never escape.”

And then her enthusiastic monologue trails off and a very different voice comes out of her, a quiet little voice that says, “I really don’t feel good about this.” No doubt that’s the voice of wisdom and responsibility, and probably chastity as well. The loud, excited voice was trying to convince her that she’s got a great thing going. But the quiet little voice comes from deeper in her heart, where she feels there’s something wrong before she knows what it is.

The sad thing is not that she listens to the quiet little voice, but that she can’t admit it’s her own. She has to label it God’s voice in order to take it seriously. Apparently she’s never thought of her own voice as something worth listening to.

Maybe she’s used to thinking her own feelings and thoughts don’t matter because no one has ever seriously listened to her. At any rate, in order to heed the wisest and most perceptive voice in her own heart, she feels it has to to come direct from God. She can’t admit it’s her own voice because that would make it unimportant. And that’s a shame.

Teach Maturity

The new practice of “hearing God” prevents her from developing moral and spiritual maturity, and it puts her in harm’s way. Trying to apply it to her life makes it harder for her to know herself, to recognize the wisdom that has already been given to her. It makes it hard to stand up to manipulative people like her boyfriend, who will no doubt assure her that it was God who wanted them to get together. (There are boys who actually do this at my university.)

Dr. Phillip Cary

Instead of this, the Church should be teaching her moral responsibility and the pursuit of wisdom, which includes self-knowledge. And it should direct her to find the truth of who God really is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not in the thoughts of her own heart.

Dr. Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University in St. David’s, near Philadelphia, PA. He also works as the Scholar-in-Residence at the Templeton Honors College where he focuses on the history of Christian thought, particularly on Augustine and Luther. He is the speaker at SBC’s Leadership Conference on March 16-17. Early bird pricing: $60 (ends March 2). For information, contact SBC.



10 thoughts on “Hearing From God — Update: LC cancelled.”

  1. Would have been great to hear this man teach. Too bad the EMC is not actually open to this teaching and worked to have this event cancelled. Heaven forbid we have an open and honest dialogue about opposing ideas. That seems to much for the close-minded EM Conference.

    1. Brandon and others,

      While the decision about SBC’s Leadership Conference has been made, with input from three conferences, only some EMCers were pleased with the decision. Other EMCers were disappointed.

      The EMC Board of Church Ministries, which publishes The Messenger, has engaged in a lengthy discussion about the decision to cancel the event and Dr. Cary’s position.

      The BCM recognizes the importance of carrying forward the discussion. It will continue the discussion on Hearing From God/Prayer, with additional involvement of Dr. Cary, in the next issue of Theodidaktos, Journal for EMC theology and education, which it also produces. The journal is free and will be available online and in print formats.

      People have written in disagreement and agreement with Cary, and Cary is looking at these and will respond. Others will present their thoughts on Hearing From God, not necessarily in direct response to Dr. Cary’s views.

      You are welcome to review this issue of Theodidaktos when it is available.

      Terry M. Smith (Rev.)
      Executive Secretary, BCM

  2. Hey y’all
    I’m from yant zeed (EMMC and pardon the spelling). Wouldn’t a leadership conference in a College be a perfect place to discuss something a tad controversial!? Are we comfy living in echo chambers… just hearing our own ideas and voices? Personally I felt the author belittles the role of the Holy Spirit when he says He is a “new idea.” I would like to hear him expound on this and then practice Biblical discernment. I actually enjoy listening to others outside of my culture (and we do have a culture!) No testing… no discernment.

  3. I, too, will join in the voices expressing disappointment in this cancellation. Are we so afraid of different ideas that even a hint of variation requires such reaction? Surely the leadership conference (and even The Messenger) are the places where we can hear ideas and respond to them.

  4. As a scholar focused on Augustine, I am a bit surprised that Dr. Cary would claim that this idea is only as new as the late nineteenth century; Augustine himself claimed to have heard God say “Take up and read” (Confessions of Saint Augustine). He died in 430 AD.

  5. Thank you to the discerning voice of Dr. Cary. Southeast Manitoba is swamped with a certain occultic , unbiblical teaching regarding ‘hearing god’ that is included in some popular seminars that are infesting many Canadian churches. The ‘great apostasy’ is here folks. There is no place in the true Christian church of Jesus Christ for a form of new age/occult channeling to be taught under the guise of ‘listening prayer’ or a variety of other names used to deter the ‘innocent/undiscerning’ from the reality of what this carefully devised and taught practice really is. It sounds innocent enough, but I encourage those truly seeking to hear God, to find His true heart, plan and purpose for your lives in the pure words of scripture. If you are immersed in His Holy Word, you may in fact hear His actual voice. To actively listen to your own thoughts (and perhaps the infiltrating thoughts of the demon world) and assume that it is God Almighty speaking is a grave error. Would that not make you god? The demons are laughing.

    2 Timothy 3:16-17
    All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

  6. 2 Timothy 4:3,4

    For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

  7. Jeremiah 14:14

    Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds…”

  8. The print issue of Theodidaktos with more interaction between Dr. Cary and readers should be available by June 1. An electronic version is available on May 29 if you contact our office. Two churches co-hosted a discussion this past Saturday, May 26, which was attended by reps of churches from south-central and south-eastern Manitoba. A news article summarizing the positions presented and some comments is available upon request.

    The Leadership Conference was cancelled, but the discussion continues–as was said at MacGregor a few days ago.

    Terry M. Smith
    Director of Communications and Education

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