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How I Started Listening

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For the last couple weeks, I’ve been writing about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Not only has this produced our most popular post yet, Jeff Manion recently hit the topic head-on in his sermon series, “When God Moves.” The response has been mixed. Some are excited, some are curious, and some are less interested.

I think part of what’s going on here is that we all come to this topic with preconceptions. Last time, I mentioned some of the reasons we resist taking the Spirit seriously, all of which have been true for me at one time or another.

I don’t come to “Spirit talk” easily or naively.

However, I am convinced that if we take God and his Word seriously, we must take its teaching about the Spirit seriously as well. Jesus followers simply cannot ignore this, explain it away, or accept it merely at the idea level.

We must live into the reality of the Spirit. The immediate question, though, is how do we do this?

The question is an awkward one. “How” implies steps and formulas, but we’re talking about our relationships with God. No one relationship is exactly the same because no two people are the same. Plus, God isn’t a vending machine. We can’t put in a quarter and expect to get the same result every time. We can only come to him authentically and humbly and let him take the lead.

So, instead of giving you steps to take, let me just describe how I started taking the Spirit seriously and learned to listen. (And, of course, I am still learning.) Your journey will look different, but maybe this will stir your imagination on how you might learn to listen as well.

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I have always recognized the reality of the Spirit (as a fact I believed), but my daily habits and decisions seldom enlisted the Spirit’s wisdom and power. It was only a number of years ago that I started to realize how much I was ignoring him.

You see, I was trained in seminary that God uses our minds, our skills, the Bible, and our community to guide us (which is all true), but I went overboard. I basically stopped praying. I figured God is sovereignly guiding me anyway, so if I just tried to follow Scripture and the wise counsel of others I wouldn’t go wrong. (I’m not exaggerating. I was a ministry leader, and I stopped praying.)

Here’s the problem: It was a smoke screen. Deep down, I was afraid to listen. I was afraid of what others would think. I was afraid of what it would mean about me if I tried to listen and failed. Deep down, I felt unworthy.

The idea of getting alone with God—and the few times I tried it—was frightening.

Eventually, God used some painful experiences to get my attention, and I discovered a reality of God’s Spirit that has been truly amazing. It started with humbly opening my heart and mind to the Spirit’s voice. I finally decided to take him seriously and listen.

I got alone with God more. I turned my car radio off more often and asked God why I was so afraid of silence (seriously, I hated it and didn’t know why). I tried some new spiritual practices people called “disciplines” (Hint: I’m alluding to many of them here).

During this time, I read the Bible not just with my physical brain but with my spiritual ears—listening for what God wanted to say to me in that moment. I started reading with a simple prayer: “Lord, speak to me.” And I expected him to.

I started actually talking to God about what I was feeling and the questions I had. (Sometimes I even shouted and said words I shouldn’t repeat here.) I never got an audible response. Sometimes I got no response at all. But sometimes God spoke by either reminding me of passages in the Bible or by simply giving me an awareness of his loving presence. (That’s a hard one to explain.)

In those moments, my questions suddenly seemed small and irrelevant. I began to know God in way that went beyond information. It was more like getting to know a real person, and I experienced a level of grace and healing that changed me deeply.

This kind of journey doesn’t start with a 10-step formula. It starts with acknowledging and letting go of our fears so that we can humbly (even clumsily) begin to listen to the Spirit.

We need to talk about this: How do we learn to listen to Jesus’ voice through the Spirit?

I dare you to start a conversation with your friends, your small group, or a pastor about how to listen to the Spirit. Start with these passages: 1 Samuel 3; Jeremiah 29.13; John 10.27; and 15.1-10. How do you do that?

Let’s have a conversation right here. What is your experience with listening to the Spirit? What questions are you wrestling with?

Whatever we do, let’s not settle for the bland, safe Christianity so popular—and empty—today. God has more for us, and it has everything to do with learning to listen.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeff #

    Every time I want to do something and get the feeling that its not right, I feel the spirit tug on me saying “thats not for you”

    May 8, 2012
  2. jan credo #

    Thanks you for your honesty! Our small group just started studying, If You Want To Walk On Water,You Have To Get Out of the Boat, by John Ortberg, it goes along perfect with what you have written! Growth meant listening to the Spirit and stretching youself out of your comfort zone!

    May 8, 2012
    • Darrell Yoder #

      Thanks Jan! That’s great. We need more of this. I hope God makes you all uncomfortable. ;)

      May 8, 2012
  3. Nathaniel #

    Darrell, thank you for sharing. I have recently discovered the importance of silence. I am someone who has always needed to talk out my thoughts and even had many a dialog in my head. Recently I have come to realize that this inner conversation was really my talking it out with God. The more I think about it that way, though, the less I find I have to say! In fact I am learning that this silence, like for you, is crucial.

    May 8, 2012
    • Darrell Yoder #

      So true, Nathaniel. Getting alone and silent before God was huge for me to discover how much I doubted God’s love for me. Solitude/silence was incredibly threatening. I had been a Christian for years, but I felt condemned and I couldn’t deny it. I had to reconcile my feelings of guilt with what God says in Scripture about his love and our unity with Christ. Once I came to accept–really believe at the heart level–that God loved me and wanted to use me for his Kingdom, listening to the Spirit was much more natural and authentic. My relationship with God was in a whole different place.

      I wonder if for other people, like me, hidden doubts or fears are the barrier to discovering and listening to the voice of Christ.

      May 8, 2012
  4. Tricia Nelson #

    For me, listening to the Spirit involves quiet time and seclusion and emptying my head and heart of things first. I first empty out all my concerns and worries verbally so my mind can’t wander to other thoughts. Then, when I’m all emptied out of self and can’t think of another thing to say, I begin verbally (to keep out competing thoughts) praising Him for who He is and recalling scripture that puts Him as bigger and stronger than my problems and worries. Then I ask with expectation what he wants to tell me about my worries, family, priorities or whatever and without fail, He brings thoughts in my head that are not from me. That’s how I know it’s the Spirit: when it’s a thought contrary to my natural instincts and perspectives and it is consistent with God’s Word. Also, when I find myself arguing against a compelling thought to do something consistent with the Word of God, I now stop because I now recognize that I’m arguing against the will of God. The more I listen, the more I adore him and want to listen because His solutions are so much better than mine.

    May 8, 2012
    • Darrell Yoder #

      Tricia, what a great description of how to come to God humbly and authentically, expecting to hear God’s voice, and eager to follow his will. I love that you unload on God first (in a good way), then move into praise. I too have found that praising God for who he is puts everything else in perspective and opens my heart to listen (plus, it’s modeled all over the place in Scripture!). I also love your focus on God’s Word–THE primary way God speaks to us. (Keep commenting around here…we’ll all benefit.)

      May 9, 2012
  5. Nathaniel #

    I read this post last night, then after a good sleep awoke to find it still on my mind. I was thinking about some of the films of Ingmar Bergman, who deals a lot with this topic. In general, for him, silence is heavy, very much unlike what Tricia describes. For him, as many might have experienced in their lives, when there is silence it usually means there is an emotional distance. In “The Silence” we see that with two sisters, for instance, or in “Winter Light” a Minister and God. Many have that with their parents or in a marriage.

    Two people, when they first fall in love, might converse for hours. A great amount of that time is listening to the other with anticipation and fascination. Why might that relationship turn one day into a heavy silence? I feel like maybe that happens with us and God. But why?

    I think Darrell you described that you reached a point where you felt like you just already knew him. I think that is one way or one part of what happens. I also think it has a lot to do with what you said about feeling worthy.

    At any rate, the more I reflect, the deeper this becomes. Something so simple, like being silent with God… yet how few times I’ve really done it and how profound and powerful it can be.

    May 9, 2012
    • Darrell Yoder #

      That’s really insightful. Sometimes silence does indicate distance, and if we struggle to hear from God we need to pay attention to that. But sometimes silence can mean comfort and security. Two people sitting in a room with nothing that needs to be said, just joy in being together.

      The silence I’m thinking of though in this post has more to do with making room in our lives and quieting our hearts so that we can hear God’s voice. This reminds me of a really great video by Mindy Caliguire about the “Two Chairs” of spiritual growth. She talks about how we tend to go through life so active, busy, and loud that we never sit down with God (think of trying to have a relationship with your spouse without ever sitting down and talking). Here’s a link to her video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xf5kDVCuHII. This is a great way to think about learning to listen and being available for God to transform us.

      May 9, 2012
  6. In these last few years, God speaks very loudly to me through my dreams. While I sleep most nights, He has given me powerful images and stories which speak to the realities of my life. Up unitl recently, I don’t think I have dreamt as much as I have now and then actually remembered the dreams when I wake up. I think because I get in the rut of being so busy, perhaps this is the best time for him to speak to me – when my mind is shut off he can finally speak to me in ways that I will hear!

    May 9, 2012
    • Darrell Yoder #

      That’s fascinating, Kelly. I’d love to hear an example of what God said or showed you, if you’re able to share. Either here, or if too long, put it on your blog and post a link here.

      May 9, 2012
    • Nathaniel #

      That’s pretty amazing – when God picks you and communicates with you in a special way. It would be amazing if you want to share, but it’s great just to know you have had this experience.

      May 10, 2012

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