How do we know when God is speaking with us? How do we discern his voice?
As with any dialogue, there is someone who speaks and someone who listens, and we must consider both aspects to understand what is happening. The same applies to our dialogue with God. Therefore, I will briefly consider some obstacles to our listening to God, some ways in which God speaks to us, and, finally, note a few rules to help us discern if it is truly God that we hear.
Obstacles to Listening
How open are we to listening to God? Some dispositions may hinder our hearing God. Some of them include:
Intentional Resistance to God – Does a person want to find God? This is perhaps the most decisive question in the matter of ‘hearing’ God. Jesus said, ‘Seek and you shall find’ [Mt 7:7]. However, if there is no desire to encounter God, or worse, if there is a desire to avoid God, then a person will be less likely to find him while such an attitude remains. Think of the Pharisees; having seen all of Christ’s miracles, they still refused to believe. It was not a question of information but a question of the will. They were obstinate in their disbelief.
Resentments and Attachments - Two broad categories cover many of the reasons why a person may not want to encounter God – resentments and attachments. People may resent God for various reasons: the loss of a loved one, abuse at the hands of others, a scandal in the Church, or even guilt for their own sins. Whereas, attachments are things to which people give greater importance than to God. That may be money, comfort, control, or even family. The thing may not be bad in and of itself, just that people put it above God. Consequently, they may keep a distance from God for fear he might take their attachment away.
Intellectual Prejudices Against God - If a person holds certain criteria that make them think encountering God either impossible or at least improbable, it is less likely to happen. Someone who is an atheistic materialist will immediately rule out the possibility of encountering God. All experiences that might open a window to the supernatural – such as a fortuitous and unplanned occurrence – will be dismissed as a mere coincidence. However, if this person is open to seeking truth and willing to converse, arguments in favor of the existence of God and similar themes may prove fruitful.
Lack of Interior Silence - If someone is so occupied with phone calls, texting, videos, music, games and media, is there space for God to get a word in edgewise? This is not the same as intentionally rejecting God, but it can have a similar result. A person can easily become too busy, too distracted for God.
Naturally, if these attitudes prevent us from hearing God, then we should cultivate the opposite virtues. A sincere desire to find God through cultivating silence, study of the faith and prayer will help us open our hearts and minds to hear him and to place him above all things.
God does communicate with us through the liturgy, through Scripture, and through Church teaching. However, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has said that there are as many ways to salvation as there are people, which simply means that each relationship with God is unique. Therefore, God communicates with each person in a unique way. Nevertheless, God employs some common techniques in speaking to us. Some of those would be:
An unexpected and constructive idea enters our head. It is usually not simply a conclusion to a previous train of thought. It arrives. It is concrete. It frequently entails a charitable act. It usually surprises. ‘Drop what you are doing and go play with your son.’ ‘Pray for Thomas right now.’ ‘Call Susan.’
The grace of a firm conviction. Faced with a decision, and having asked God for clarity there are times when people simply know what God wants of them. ‘Yes, she is the one you should marry.’ ‘That should be the child’s name.’ ‘Don’t take that job.’
A needed message arrives through Scripture or a conversation. Perhaps you were discouraged or had a question, and in that moment either something you read or hear seems to provide the right answer. ‘Don’t worry, I am here.’ ‘I forgive you.’
Repeat messages arrive. It seems almost humorous, but at times God wants to make something quite clear – so he repeats messages. There was one young man who had various people in a short time span ask him if he had ever thought about being a priest. One person apparently mistook him for one already. He got the message.
While God can and does communicate with us, that does not mean we always hear his voice or know precisely what he wants. We may experience radio silence on his part. That does not mean God is indifferent, rather that he wants us to trust in his grace and make the best decision we can.
Now, not every thought or feeling that enters my mind is necessarily from God. How then do we discern if experiences similar to the ones described above truly are from God?
God will never invite us to sin. Therefore, if what I am thinking is contrary to the Ten Commandments, I can rest assured that it is not from God.
God will not contradict Church doctrine. The truths of our faith will not change. ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach [to you] a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed!’ [Gal 1:8]. Here the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ is your best guide.
God will encourage the fulfillment of the duties in your state in life. Love of God consists primarily in obedience to his will. We do not have to look for strange or extraordinary ways to love God. Obey God by fulfilling your duty. Are you a husband and a father? Dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to those responsibilities. Are you a college student? Be a good one – for love of God.
Finally, it is extremely helpful to have either a spiritual director or a regular confessor with whom you can clarify any questions you may have as to God’s messages to you. Was that thought a temptation? Was it simply my imagination? Was it from God?
God speaks to us. If we have open minds and hearts, and we discern with care and assistance, we can learn to catch his messages to us. We need simply to listen for God.
Fr. John Bullock, LC