Listening and Discernment

We are often most motivated to pay attention to what God has to say when we have a decision looming, and God delights in hearts that are seeking to hear and obey His leading. However, He also desires to be communing with us in the day to day, and the more we practice that, the more likely we are to be aligned with His heart when it comes time to make those bigger decisions.

We hope that this resource will aid you in discerning God’s presence and voice in daily life as well as His leading in your decisions, big and small. We have put together some practical suggestions for how to do that, but first let’s remind ourselves of a few foundational truths.

The One We're Listening To...

“…whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6

If we desire to devote ourselves more to listening and discernment, it is important to begin by remembering that we are not listening for something (an answer, a sign, a direction) we are listening to Someone.

Who is this Someone we are listening to? He is the great “I AM” (Ex 3:14) who exists independently from us and who cannot be manipulated or controlled by us or by our actions. He interacts with us in His own time and in His own way. And yet He desires to make Himself known to us. John 1 describes Him as ‘the Word’, a name that implies that communicating is a part of His nature.

Acts 17:26-27 says He determines the timing and placement of each person’s life, “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” He is present, near, wanting to be found.

What makes His nearness, His knowableness, good news? That He is love. Not just loving but love itself. “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:11).

And it is that which we find most difficult to believe. Not just to acknowledge mentally, but to embrace at the very core of our being. That God is love, and that He loves me. That if I listen to God, I will hear a voice of love. Not of anger, condemnation, aloofness, or indifference, but love. Not always saying what I want to hear, or even speaking in a way I always notice or comprehend, but always there, and always there in love.

What We're listening For

“So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend...” (Ex 33:11)

“I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:14)

Throughout Scripture, God communicates with His people as between friends. From Adam and Eve, Enoch and Moses to the prophets and disciples, we see God interacting relationally, especially with those to whom He commits in covenantal love. This communication can come in many forms—through dreams/visions, other people, a still small voice, nature, conscience...  

The Scriptures are the means that God uses to transform our minds and hearts to help us discern what is from Him and what is not. As we read, His Spirit brings the Word to life, penetrating our hearts and teaching us what we need to know at the proper time (1 John 2:26-27; John 14:26). With the Scripture as our foundation for understanding God’s character and truth we begin to recognize when He speaks through that “still small voice.”  (1 Kings 19:11-13).

How We listen

“.... but the LORD was not in the wind...but the LORD was not in the earthquake...but the LORD was not in the fire...there was the sound of a gentle whisper... Elijah heard it.” 1 Kings 19:11-13

So, how do we practice listening to God?

Being open. The first step is simply to be open and ask God if there’s anything He wants to say. We can do this as we meditate on Scripture as well as through listening prayer.

Another aspect of being open is being impartial to the outcome so that when God speaks, we don’t dismiss it, overlook it or filter it through our own expectations and desires. In spiritual formation terms, this kind of openness is called ‘indifference’ or ‘detachment’. A working definition of detachment is (Paraphrased from Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook)

Recognizing.  God is a creative God and He can speak to us in a variety of ways. Through a thought, impression, image, or a deep sense/feeling. As we read, worship, talk to someone on the street, take a nature walk, or play sports. We don’t always recognize it as God in the moment, which is why taking time for reflection both on our own and with others can be helpful.

It's also good to be patient. Learning to recognize that still small voice doesn’t happen overnight. Jesus says that we will hear His voice and distinguish it from other voices (John 10) but as with other abilities and in other relationships, we grow through experience and practice under Christ's gentle tutelage (Matt 11:28-30).

In practicing paying attention for God’s voice we take time to look at our life circumstances, God’s word, our own hearts and the words of others.

 

 

 

Practices For the Day to Day
  • Consider Mark 8:34-35; Luke 12:15; Galatians 2:20
  • Try listening prayer

Basic approach:

-       Practice focusing on God. Focusing (breath) prayers are helpful.

-       Practice dismissing what’s from you – dismiss mental work.

-       Pay attention to what God brings up.

-       Ask God if that’s from Him and listen again.

-       Engage in conversation with Him.

What might you hear?

-       Answers                      

-       Invitation/challenge (never criticism!)

-       What God thinks of you        How God feels about you

-       Who He is                  

-       Who you are

 

  • Notice what attachments take priority over God. What values can be seen in how you spend your time or money? What fears are consistent in your life? What do you feel the need to protect? Name and confess your attachments to God and a close friend.
  • Examen?
Practices For a Time of Decision Making
  • Have a letting go session. Sit with God and name and then let go of things like image management, the notion that things belong to you, confidence in your own abilities, the desire for the path of least resistance, or the need to be admired or respected.
  • Consider your ‘default’ perspective and try to think with a differing perspective. For example – Instinct, Logic, Emotion – If you’re typically someone who brings your default ‘sense’ of instinct to a discernment situation, consider trying to sit with God in your logic or emotion instead.
  • Recognize WHO God is concerning this decision. Is he provider, keeper, protector, leader...? When you recognize WHO He is concerning this decision, take some time to worship Him and rejoice in His identity.  Don’t stop there, if this is who God is, who does that make YOU? Include this in your worship time as you listen and decide.
  • Recognize the situation in which you first felt the need for discernment. Pause and think around how it came up and ask the Lord if there’s anything He’d like to point out or anything else that needs to be clear.
  • Identify competing values and ask God to help you name one (maybe two) that you will prioritize in the decision process. If you want, order the values in descending importance. A lighthearted example—it used to be very difficult for my wife and I to decide where to go on vacation because we wanted all our values to lead or win – cheap, nice weather, great food, convenient to get to...but when we tried to prioritize all these values we could never decide.  So, choosing a lead value (fancy—because it's our anniversary!) made it ok to put other values, like ‘cheap,’ further down the list. Taking time with the Lord to identify competing values and ask which ones are important to Him may help streamline the discerning process.
  • Are there any small decisions that contribute to the larger discernment? Again, with the vacation analogy – a small decision may be WHERE to go and then we see what good dates are to go there. Or it may be HOW to get there (say, airline vouchers) so, we then see where that airline serves. What smaller decisions can be made with the Lord as you work towards a larger decision?
A Listening Process For Groups

 

*who might you invite...

*how to listen for God in the words of others…

Openness and Indifference

  • Transition to being present: Prayer and meditative Scripture reading
    1. How are they coming to the group? Prayer needs
    2. Scripture to focus and meditate on
  • State: Clearly state what is to be discerned
  • Share 1: One by one everyone states briefly their initial posture without comments from others. We just hold what they share before God in our hearts, uncritically, being present to them and God.
  • Pray: Ask God for the ability to lay down our personal preferences and to be open/willing to hear and accept what He wants to share.
  • Listening silence: Set a period of time and in silence ask God what He thinks.
    1. Make sure the period of silence is long enough so that our heart can become still and attentive to God bringing to mind ideas, images, impressions, verses, etc...
    2. Close the time of silence with a brief prayer
  • Share 2: Everyone shares, one-by-one, what they sensed from God. Again, we listen to them uncritically and without comment, being present to them and God.
  • Brief silence
  • Discussion: What do you sense now? What are the themes that came up?  How do they inform the question or issue at hand?  How is that leading us in one direction or another?
  • Conclusion: Summarize and give back to God what was heard. Make a decision or decide when we will come back to continue the discernment process
Recommended Resources
  • The Voice of Jesus by Gordon T. Smith
  • The Discerning Life by Steve Macchia (or the related Podcast)
  • Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton (or the related Podcast)

 

GEM’s spiritual life team is always available to talk one on one or to facilitate a discernment group. Our “Desiring the Will of God” retreat is specifically set up to go deeper on what it looks like to discern God’s presence and voice with us. Contact us at slt@gemission.org