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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.