Learning to Hear God

Jan 8 / Kimberley Mulder
The Holy Spirit doesn't say much—not in spoken language, anyway. For us who now live in a culture that simultaneously yearns for and is ignorant of the spiritual life, how it is lived in our bodies, and whose minds are trained to guard and critique, learning the language of the Holy Spirit is challenging. However, we have a willing teacher, and as we persevere in learning to "hear God's voice," our lives become rich with possibility and connection.

Birthed in me as I embraced life with Jesus decades ago was a deep desire to hear God's voice. As a young Christian, I wanted to hear God's voice directly, clarifying particulars of my daily life in conversation as my parents would. But I was flummoxed because I didn't. So, I vacillated between anxious guilt, scrutinizing myself for what I was doing wrong, and outright anger at God's withholding. Most of the time, I carried on perplexed but hoping this would be the day I'd hear something.
When I hesitantly broached others with my questions about this, the reactions I got were usually either minimizing—"Just search Scripture, everything there is God-breathed"—or evading. Few had the spiritual resources to face my desire and wonder with me. One unique prayer group had others at least asking the same questions, although I can't say we really found answers. I remained confused and frustrated but persistent for years.

My discernment during these years was an arduous, anxious process. I didn't hear any directive words; I sought anything in Scripture to guide me (which often ended up confusing me more because of contradictions or misapplied verses); and I prayed in worry circles for a long time, finally making decisions with my best educated and instinctive guess. I constantly second-guessed my decisions, looking for affirmation in every happenstance that would flow from it. I know now that this was a time necessary for me to absorb God's word in Scripture and become familiar with the myriad ways of God recounted there to form a foundation from which I could begin to discern God's "voice" in my own life.

Occasionally, a circumstance would be so far outside the norm that I understood it to be a directive from God. A string of such situations cleared the way for me to teach English in Ukraine after I graduated from college. This was a sweet time of God's guidance in which I developed my "language" for hearing God. I still didn't "hear a voice saying, 'This is the way, walk in it.'" (Isaiah 30:21). Instead, it was a process of naming my desires with God, asking for God's will to be done, watching what possibilities emerged, and then actively trusting the timeliness of several provisions. Trust and wonder were necessary receptors in me to understand these circumstances as God's "voice." But I had yet to learn that it was trust and wonder that were essential, not the circumstantial evidence. That lesson came as I tried looking at every circumstance as a message from God, which only led to superstition and anxiety.

I will be eternally grateful for the church that took my questions about hearing God seriously. When I joined them, one of their key questions was, "How do you hear God's voice?" This is where I learned, through teaching and experience, that the Holy Spirit communicates in many, varied ways. Presupposing familiarity with Scripture and the desire to follow God, the primary means of "hearing God" is through our bodies via instincts, sensations, and images. We were encouraged to pay attention to how the Holy Spirit communicates individually, be it through images in mind as one waited on God, a warmth spreading in your arms, or an impetus to ask someone if they wanted prayer. I learned to wait in trust and be open to possibility, to get curious and brave. The expectation and permissiveness in the church to experiment with hearing God greatly expanded both my ways of listening and my confidence in God and myself. Up until this point, learning how to hear God was somewhat like fumbling through the mandatory foreign language classes in high school. This church was like moving to a country where only that foreign language was spoken, where you take your archaic phrases and make mistakes every day, but eventually, you not only increase your vocabulary, but you develop a physical feel for communication in that culture. It moves from mental exercise into full communication.

As with all good communication, not only was God speaking, but simultaneously communicating worth, love, and unique personhood. I came to not only trust God to be communicating but also to trust myself, my embodied self that carries the love of God. The language of the Spirit is a body language encompassing our whole selves, and the foundation is trust.

"Hearing" God evolved, and probably will continue to evolve, for me. This yearning is still a driving force in my life, but now it's accompanied and grounded in trust and possibility rather than being an elusive, narrow process to master. As I've grown and stretched my spiritual hearing muscles, I've come to understand that it's more a matter of tuning deeper than my surface projections and activating anxieties, of dropping into an expectant waiting trust and gazing patiently for the appearance of God, open to ordinary and extraordinary instincts, sensations, observations, and situations. The potential now is of "hearing" God everywhere!

What are ways that you "hear" God?

Who wonders and listens with you?
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Kimberley Mulder
Kimberley Mulder is a spiritual director and writer with an MDiv and Spiritual Direction Certificate from Portland Seminary. Companioning people as they wrestle and explore the particularities of their lives within God's is an honor and joy.  
A Canadian transplant to west Michigan, she works with the team at the Dominican Center in Grand Rapids hosting spiritual formation programs, retreats, and spiritual direction. The outdoors is always calling her name, you can find her hiking, skiing, gardening, and taking pictures anywhere outside of four walls (some of which make their way on to Instagram @writerkimberleymulder and Facebook @kimberleymulderwriter).
Online, her presence and practice is hosted at www.kimberleymulder.com.