I have not surveyed any of my congregations. What I wish I had done was begun writing down all the “spiritual” type questions I have gotten asked through the years. I am going on 20 years of full-time ministry and I know there are plenty other clergy with longer track records than mine. I bet we would not be all that far off if we compare notes.
At the top of the list of questions I get asked has to do with the theme:, how do you know God’s will?/ Is God in this?/ What does God want me to do? Or something else similar. I also have heard the wish list of many who wish they could “hear God the way I do.” I have been a little surprised on the additional interest on these topics from people when they learn of my Certification in Spiritual Formation.
What I think needs to be established is one simple truth: we all have the same access to God available to us through Jesus Christ in prayer. What we do with this access is where the issues seem to develop. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, kept an extensive journal chronicling his own prayer life (which was full of dry, questioning times I might add) and concluded in the end that prayer is “the grand means of drawing near to God.”
Steve Harper makes an extensive presentation for our attentiveness and faithfulness to prayer (and other devotional practices) if we are to further our relationship with God. To be true to our traditions (especially United Methodists), he writes, “...we will find our place among those who have determined to ‘read and pray daily.’ Like them, we will realize it is for the sake of our life (pg 64, Prayer and Devotional Life of United Methodists).”
But does that really get to question of hearing from God? In one part, yes. We have to practice prayer, expressing a desire to know more of God. You will have trouble finding anyone who is revered as a spiritual teacher who does not make time to pray. From my own readings, I see this is true across religious traditions as well.
Then how do we hear and discern God’s voice? I think Fr. Ronald Rolheiser gives some great insight on this. In one of his lectures he refers to the story of 1 Kings 19 and Elijah in the cave. Elijah hears thunder, experiences an earthquake, and then, fire. These are “traditional” ways God had spoken in Scripture but this time God wasn’t there. Then came the sound of a gentle breeze and this is when God shows up.
Since the 19th century, Christian spirituality has identified two streams, the kataphatic stream and the apophatic stream. The kataphatic recognizes the need for images, art, music, means of grace, to help us know God. On the other side is the apophatic which acknowledges we can know God by these forms but God is more than these forms. We also must surrender “ourselves” and turn from idols which images can easily become.
Usually, kataphatic and apophatic are seen as opposites. But Rolheiser notes that on the point of discerning God, in their own way, the kataphatic and apophatic are in agreement. In the writings of Ignatius of Loyola, Fr.Rolheiser observes, we find imagery which speaks of the two tones of God’s voice, “When we are in sin, when we need to be disturbed, then God’s voice will sound like a splash on a stone, its gonna be loud. When we are in grace, God’s voice will sound like a drop of water going into a sponge. It’ll be nice and gentle.” Conversely, in St. John of the Cross, one of the predominate apophatic Christian voices, he “...simply says God’s voice will speak to you deeply. in the deeper silent places in your life. God will also speak in the big events of your life. God will speak in the tragedies, the earthquakes of your life.”
There is certainly much more to consider. However, the evidence in these writings seem to convey a record consistent with Scripture and tradition. My own experiences have echoed the tones, as have the experience of others. What cannot be dismissed is our willingness to be present before God with our prayers and with the Scriptures. In a world saturated by sound, we are growing tone deaf to the voice of God. There is no microwave solution for a cold heart but God is patient and the Scriptures affirm God's attentiveness to each person.
In the incarnation, we find Jesus’ conversations to be unique. He does not treat everyone the same. The gospels describe a Messiah who cares deeply for each person’s need and responds uniquely. To the rich young ruler, Jesus is described as “loving him,” which seems to indicate a certain amount of care and compassion for how he must have spoken to the man (Mark 10:21). When he questions those in the synagogue whether it is right to good or evil on the sabbath, Jesus is described as being both angry and grieved by their silence (Mark 3:4-5).
However, it is the Scriptures which we say contain all the knowledge sufficient for salvation and which contain what we need to know regarding God. Listening for the tone of God’s voice must also be informed by these Scriptures. Both streams of Christian spirituality are valid and scriptural but they must also be tempered and toned by the Bible. God is speaking even now to each of us, maybe it is loud or soft. Coming to know God’s voice is not only possible, it ought to be desired. But like the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46), we must be willing to go all in. The place to begin starts by making God a priority each week as part of a worshiping community and it grows as we make time each day for God too. (more on this to come.)