Are You Hearing Voices From God?

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Mark 1:9-11
Acts 13:1-5

Scripture from The Message: Acts 13: 1-5

13 1-2 The congregation in Antioch was blessed with a number of prophet-preachers and teachers: 

Simon, nicknamed Niger,
Lucius the Cyrenian,
Manaen, an advisor to the ruler Herod,

One day as they were worshiping God—they were also fasting as they waited for guidance—the Holy Spirit spoke: “Take Barnabas and Saul and commission them for the work I have called them to do.” 

3 So they commissioned them. In that circle of intensity and obedience, of fasting and praying, they laid hands on their heads and sent them off. 

4-5 Sent off on their new assignment by the Holy Spirit, Barnabas and Saul went down to Seleucia and caught a ship for Cyprus. The first thing they did when they put in at Salamis was preach God’s Word in the Jewish meeting places. They had John along to help out as needed

Those who have been reading our Lenten study book by John Ortberg will remember this story. In George Bernard Shaw’s play, St. Joan, one of the characters asks Joan of Arc why the voice of God never speaks to him as she claims it speaks constantly to her. “The voice speaks to you all the time,” she says. “you just fail to listen.”

Ortberg comments, “I believe that one reason why we fail to hear God speak to us is that we are not attentive. We suffer from what might be called “spiritual mindlessness.”

I have another name for this, I’m calling it ADSD- Attention Deficit Spiritual disorder. I have a nephew with ADHD. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a condition characterized by either significant difficulties of inattention, or hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Or a combination of the three. 

So I am thinking that many people (including myself) may suffer from a spiritual form of this…ADSD from time to time–  where we have trouble paying attention to God or even listening for God… because we are so active and impulsive. Maybe you have a hard time sitting still…Maybe you have children who are like that. Maybe you were a child like that. I was…

Sometimes I have heard voices telling me it is sinful not to stay busy all the time working for the Lord…DOING God’s will. My Baptist grandmother used to say that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”… better stay busy…

And we stay so busy that we are not attentive. We are so busy, we may not be able to hear God speak to us. And it results in spiritual mindlessness. We contract ADSD.

The early Christian leaders did not seem to suffer from ADSD or spiritual mindlessness, if anything they were very mindful spiritually speaking. Before they acted, they listened.

When we were talking about this passage in officer training, a light bulb went off for me…I noticed that before they started just planning their next mission or ministry- before they started putting together their long range plan so they could tell the Lord what they were planning to do (they don’t do that)… I noticed before they did anything,  we find them fasting, praying, worshipping… and it was while they were actively waiting we find them spiritually listening as they wait for guidance. It is while they are being spiritually mindful, that they are able to hear the Holy Spirit give them direction…

It was then they knew where to go and what to do…

The Spirit told them to set Barnabas and Saul apart for the work God has called them to do… and commission them… and they commissioned them and were given a new assignment by the Holy Spirit.

But before they got their new assignment, they listened…. Using the spiritual practices that made sense to them of prayer, fasting and worshipping.

And it was because they listened, they knew what the Lord wanted them to do.

So as I read their story, I am reminded once again, that if I want to hear God speak, I must begin by using one of the least used parts of the body: my ears.

If I want to find the guidance we say we seek from God, the first thing we have to do is to listen… Maybe then we will hear God speak even to us.

How God speaks to us is a mystery in many ways.

For me the challenge is distinguishing  my own inner voice from the voice of God. On my own, I’d be sunk. I know, to paraphrase Isaiah , that my thoughts are not always God’s thoughts nor are my ways always God’s way. On my own, it can be so hard to know the difference.

Good news…we are not alone.

God has given us each other… God has given me other Christians like you in my life…  to help me discern whether the thoughts, feelings or voices I am hearing are coming from God or someone or something else (like my ego and pride)

God speaks in community – notice the Christians in Acts were not alone when they received the direction of the Holy Spirit. If you are not connected in a community of other spiritual seekers, it may be hard to discern whether a thought, feeling or voice is from God…or simply your own voice… or the voices of those on talk radio or cable TV.

When Christians in the early church wanted to hear God speak, they would gather together and ask God to guide them in their choices… some churches still practice that today.

John Ortberg talks about how members of the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC speak of “sounding the call” – calling a group of believers together to pray together for guidance when someone is facing an important decision.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have others praying for you and wouldn’t it be nice to be praying with others as you or they are making major life decisions? I thank God for many of you and many others in my life who are there when we are trying to discern God’s voice.

God has also has given us the scriptures to help us discern whether those thoughts, feelings or voices are from God.

Meditating on Scriptures may lead one to hear a new word from God as we listen to what God may be saying in God’s word. However, before you open your Bible, may I suggest you do what we do every Sunday here. Pray. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you in your reading as you seek to hear God’s voice.  We call it the prayer for illumination. First, pray that prayer–then open the Scriptures and listen… you may just meet God there.

St. Augustine did. In the best known passage of his Confessions, he tells of sitting under a fig tree and hearing a voice repeat, “Take it and read, take it and read.”

It seemed clear to him that this was the voice of God calling him to pick up the Bible. And when he had read a brief section from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Augustine wrote:

“I had no wish to read further; there was no need to… it was as though my heart was filled with a light of confidence and all the shadows of my doubt were swept away.” [1]

God broke through to him as he was led to the Scriptures. It changed his life.

I bet that has happened to some of you too.

So if you want to know if the voice you hear is coming from God… listen to your brothers and sisters in the community of faith, listen to God speak in Scripture… but most of all, listen to God speak in Christ: the word made flesh.

Perhaps the most accurate and concrete way to discern whether those thoughts, feelings and voices in your head are from God is to learn about, to learn from and to listen to Jesus Christ.

The Gospel writers and Paul are clear that God speaks most clearly and audibly in the life, teachings, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ. That’s why they wrote them!

So if I want help in discerning where God may be leading me or leading the church, I need to know Jesus Christ.Christ will help me discern God’s voice from others.

If I hear a message telling me to kill someone… or to look out for number one… or to hate my enemies… (a voice saying, ‘I don’t get mad, I get even’) it is not likely coming from our Lord… and I’m not listening very well.

It is not God– It is my ego, my pride, my sinfulness, my arrogance speaking, not the Lord.

If I hear voices telling me to forgive, to heal, to care for the poor, to work for justice, to serve, to reconcile,   to reach out to those others call sinners… If I hear a voice that sounds like loving God and loving neighbor… then it may just be the voice of the Lord. If the voice, thought or feeling is telling you to live as Jesus would live- there is a good chance that this comes from God.

In one of her sermons Barbara Brown Taylor asked the rhetorical question, “Does anyone really want to hear the voice of the living God? I wonder – said Taylor – which is worse: to hear God’s voice or not to hear it; to face fainting at the power of it or to live oblivious to it…But whether we really want to hear the voice of God or not – the truth is, God’s voice is speaking to us always…

I think I heard that voice speak again last week when I attended a worship service at the NEXT conference in Charlotte. NEXT was a gathering of pastors and lay leaders who love the church and care about the future of the church and are looking for the new ways the Lord might be leading us in the church in our time.

Another way of saying it is this: It was a gathering of Christians who were listening…trying to discern where God is at work, where God is moving in individual people and places and what God is calling us to be and do in the world. Sort of like those Christians in Antioch.

On Monday night, my friend Steve Eason was preaching at Myers Park Presbyterian Church—a large and vital church in our denomination. Steve was preaching on the voice that Jesus heard at his baptism. The voice of God, speaking through the Holy Spirit. Steve pointed out that the voice of God can easily be ignored or resisted (as he did in his youth)…He shared how the voice of God can be drowned out by other voices… voices of cynicism, negativity, hatred, despair…  voices telling us that the church is dying out… voices filled with arguments over should the church be inward focused or outward focused… arguing voices…He said there are small minded and petty voices… voices that sort of nibble at preachers like ducks that make it hard to hear the Lord speak.

He tells the story of why he no longer processes with the choir… one day he was in the back of the sanctuary ready to process… he had just prepared a sermon on the raising of Lazarus that was great… and just as he is spiritually and mentally prepared to lead worship and preach when a woman comes up to him and says, “Preacher, do you know that the women’s restroom doesn’t have any toilet paper! You are the head pastor, you should do something about it”.  He said it was a voice that just took it all out of him… And from that moment on, he no longer processes… he doesn’t want to hear those voices. So, he just goes to the front before the service, makes announcements and sits down.

Steve reminded us that the sadness or tragedy is when we let those other voices drown out the voice of the one who not only says to Jesus, but says to each one of us a message we long to hear: “This is my beloved… with you I am well pleased…”

The sadness is that those other voices can drown out the voice that would lead us to Jesus… a voice that would tell us why we were born and the reason for which we were born… a voice telling us about how to live in the way of Jesus and a way that proclaims the kingdom… and would make Jesus proud…So He encouraged us to listen and to remember the voice that spoke to us in our baptisms…

Today, I believe that same voice of God is still speaking to you and me… today, I believe there is a voice speaking… Do you hear God speaking to you? Can you not hear the Lord say to you right now, “You are my beloved… you have nothing to prove to anyone… you are my child…no matter what you have done, no matter what your past, I forgive you…you are mine?”

Do you hear God speaking?  Maybe you hear the voice of Christ inviting you to leave your nets behind… leave stuff behind… something important to you behind… for he has a great adventure in store for you… “follow me…” Maybe you hear God speaking to you in the voices of the poor or the spiritually lost… or the sick or the grieving… a voice calling you to respond, to reach out to care…

Today I invite you to listen… and if you don’t hear a voice yet… to pray… as those Christians in Antioch prayed…As you pray, listen for the one who knows you by name…Listen, for the one who knows you better than you know yourself… Listen… for amid the cacophony of voices out there, there is another voice speaking…reminding me who I am… reminding me who I said I would follow… reminding me that I vowed on the day when I professed faith that I would be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love…

Listen, for as St. Joan says… “the voice of God speaks to you all the time…”  just waiting for us to hear God speak.



[1] The Life You’ve always wanted by John Ortberg, p 182-183