The Importance of Hearing (an excerpt from Unveiled)

The following is an excerpt from my book Unveiled: The Transforming Power of God’s Presence and Voice. Hope you enjoy it!


“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

Led By the Spirit

The phone rang, jarring me out of my Excel spreadsheet-induced trance.

“Alan Smith, Financial Controls. How can I help you?”

“Alan, how in the world did you see our post so quickly?”

I was working as a contractor for a large telecom company; managing statements of work in the financial controls division of their data services section. Sounds exciting, I know. I’d been there for a while and was genuinely grateful for the job and the paycheck, but I can’t say I was really enjoying it.

What I wanted to do with my time and energy was vocational ministry. I’d spent most of my twenties in ministry, but a failed church plant attempt ejected me rather harshly from that field and all efforts toward reentry had been futile. God seems very comfortable with allowing life circumstances to squeeze us uncomfortably. I was being squeezed. Big time.

One year prior, I had decided that since ministry wasn’t presently a realistic option, what I really wanted to try was sales. I wasn’t interested in just any sales position. My friend Tom owned a mid-sized company, and I really wanted to work for him. For me, it was more about an opportunity to be mentored by him than anything else. There was an opening for a regional sales manager, and I applied. I was completely unqualified for the position, as my résumé demonstrated in great detail. I had no relevant education, no relevant sales experience, and no relevant industry experience. All I had was a personal connection to Tom; that at least got me an interview with the national sales manager, who didn’t know me at all.

I wasn’t scared, though; I was quite confident, because while praying about the opportunity, I felt I had heard God tell me I was going to get the job.

Now I must pause at this point and offer some description of what it’s like for me when I hear God’s voice. Some of you may have little to no frame of reference for such things and, therefore, no way to even begin recognizing such experiences if they were ever to happen to you. I’ve been there; the point of this book is to help with exactly this sort of thing.

I experience God’s voice primarily as thoughts that enter my mind. At times they come as short words and phrases, other times as images or mental pictures, and sometimes just impressions, sort of like inward nudges.

Occasionally these experiences are unlooked for, but usually, for me, they come in response to questions I ask God. It seems like there’s something about asking God questions that positions me to hear and receive. Asking puts me in a position of humility, dependence, and expectation.

The words, phrases, images, and impressions don’t seem to come linearly or in any sort of progression. When you’re listening to a friend speak, their words come to your head through your ears one word at a time. Your brain is then able to translate this linear progression of symbols into a single thought or idea. That’s not how it seems to work between God and me; it’s actually quite the opposite. God’s words, phrases, images, and impressions sort of emerge into my consciousness fully formed. Then my brain has to unpack them into a linear sequence of words if I have any intention of writing them down or speaking them out loud to someone else. The receiving is intuitive, not analytical.

This is not without parallel in my relational experience. I’ve been married to Nancy for seventeen years and we can communicate this way. She can elbow me under the table at a dinner party when needed and through this communication, this impression comes to me fully formed; my brain has learned to immediately unpack this revelation into a linear sequence of words I can clearly understand. Quit talking, Alan. You are nearing the ‘inappropriate border’ in this story. I know it’s funny, but you need to quit while you’re ahead. She didn’t say these things, but she did communicate them with great clarity.

So, when I say I felt like God told me I was going to get the job, that’s what I mean. I asked God for the job, and I immediately got the impression He said Yes. I’m not really sure if this was just a sense my brain translated into words, or if the words themselves came along with the impression. But this is the way I’ve experienced God’s voice, and it has happened enough times that I’ve grown comfortable with the process.

Thus, I was quite confident during the interview process—a very long and tedious interview process dragging out for several months. There were one-on-one meetings. There were panel interviews. There were several other candidates. There were weeks where I heard nothing. I hate being in limbo, so I found this to be very frustrating at times.

Finally, it came down to me and one other candidate, a man with vast sales experience within this particular industry. But was I worried? Absolutely not. I had heard God. Faith comes by hearing (see Romans 10:17). It was a lock.

The call informing me they were offering the position to the other candidate came as quite a shock. I was disappointed because of the rejection, because I wouldn’t be changing jobs, wouldn’t receive an increase in compensation, wouldn’t get a chance to be mentored by Tom; but most of all, I was devastated because I had missed it. I just knew I had heard God, and clearly, I hadn’t. Of course I had missed it before (remember the failed church plant), but this one hit me especially hard.

I hunkered down and kept going to work every day wrestling spreadsheets at the telecom company.

One year later, I was at my desk in my little cubicle. My keyboard was steaming from all the great spreadsheet work I was doing. My desk was stacked with folders and documents in various stages of approval and confirmation. Emails were coming in as if from a rapid-fire machine gun. The phone was ringing. Good times, man. Good times.

All of a sudden, I had one of those moments where God’s voice bursts in unexpectedly. Without warning, the phrase Send Tom your résumé right now jumped out from around the corner and stood there inside my head with vivid clarity.

So I did. What did I have to lose, right? I already didn’t have the job. I pulled up the file from my computer, dusted it off a bit, and attached it to an email addressed to Tom and his VP of Human Resources, Linda.

Five minutes later …

The phone rang, jarring me out of my Excel spreadsheet-induced trance.

“Alan Smith, Financial Controls. How can I help you?”

“Alan, how in the world did you see our post so quickly?” It was Linda.

“What post?”

“Five minutes ago, I clicked submit on Monster, reposting the very same position you applied for last year. Not five seconds later, I received an email with your résumé. This is kind of freaking me out.”

“Me too, Linda.” Me too.

I got the job.

Is This Weird?

Is this weird? That’s a terrific question. I’m sure it seems quite weird to some of you. And by weird, I mean outside the norm. Does God still operate that way? Is it realistic for me to expect God to work in my life this way? Who gets to define the norm?

For most of us church folks, the norm has been defined by what we have or haven’t experienced up to this point. Another way of saying this is we’ve allowed our experience to define normal. What we experience determines what is normal; what we consider to be normal is authoritative, and thus our experience becomes our authority. What we have or haven’t experienced sets the bar for what we do and don’t expect from God.

Wait. I thought scripture was supposed to be the authority in my life? But for many, it isn’t. Our experiences authoritatively shape our expectations and become obstacles obstructing our ability to allow the Bible to define what is the norm. Experience defines our theology. This is a dangerous path indeed, and one well travelled in our time.

Sons of God

I began this chapter with a power-packed little verse of scripture from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

This sounds very nice. It’s short, but full of lots of great Bible words like Spirit and God and even sons of God. Romans is Paul’s doctrinal tour de force. This verse is inspired, and therefore authoritative. What if we were to dig deeper, specifically to allow this verse to define our norm?

The important category Paul is defining is sons of God. It includes everyone who believes in Jesus and is therefore quite comprehensive.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

In Romans 8:14, Paul is giving us a key characteristic, marking those who are sons of God. Namely, that they are led by the Spirit. The following verses give us some insight into this concept. The Spirit bears witness with our spirit; this means the Spirit speaks to us. What He speaks to us about is our identity as God’s children and the inheritance that goes along with that: who we are, whose we are, and what belongs to us as a result. I believe all of this is packed up within Paul’s meaning when he uses the phrase led by the Spirit.

The word led directly speaks to the idea of influence and guidance. So, what is the biblical norm for God’s children? We should expect God, by His Spirit, to influence, guide, and direct our lives in a manner that includes Him speaking to us.

However, it’s always dangerous to build a doctrine, or establish a norm, based on a single verse. So the next question for us ought to be: are there any scriptural instances of this understanding of Romans 8:14 being lived out by those in relationship with God? Does God, in the Bible, influence, guide, and direct the lives of His followers by speaking to them through His Spirit?

I would challenge you to find very many places in the Bible where this doesn’t happen. Read the Old Testament stories. Read about the life of Jesus Himself in the gospels. Read the book of Acts! This expectation, this norm, is not some marginal idea shoved into a corner—it’s a major biblical theme. God wants to talk to us. He wants to guide and direct our lives, and invites us into this kind of living day by day.

“To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:3–5)

How Important is This?

Saying yes to one thing means saying no, or at least not yet, to others. Prioritization is a fact of life. The Bible challenges us in many ways, and it is difficult to consider responding to all of them at once. Loving your neighbor, for instance, might take precedence over women praying with their heads covered in church. Both are in the Bible, and at some point both need to be taken seriously; but if you have to say yes to one of these, don’t be rude to your neighbor because you’re locked in trying to interpret Paul’s thoughts on head coverings.

Likewise, we need to consider the issue of priority when exploring what the Bible presents as a norm regarding hearing God’s voice and being led by the Spirit. How important is this? Take a look at the following verse:

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

How important is hearing God in the life of a believer? Let’s answer that with another question: how important is faith in the life of a believer? Let’s follow that with another question: is it even possible to become a believer without faith? Faith is what produces believers. Hearing God speak is what produces faith. So hearing God and being led by the Spirit is of the utmost priority, and its importance cannot be overstated.

Now don’t misread this verse. Romans 10:17 is not saying faith comes from reading the Bible. Reading the Bible is great, but plenty of people do that and don’t experience faith as a result. This verse is overtly stating faith comes from hearing Jesus speak to me. Of course, one of the primary ways Jesus speaks to me is through scripture, but John 5:37-40, which we looked at earlier, makes it clear it is very possible to search scripture and never hear God speak. The Bible is loaded with stories of God speaking directly to His people, by His Spirit. This is what produces faith!

Faith, rather than being something I initiate, is ultimately my response to God’s grace. He speaks and I respond with trust. He calls and I answer. In trusting Him, I draw near, and this is what pleases Him.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

How important is hearing God? It is clearly a biblical norm of the highest priority in the life of every believer. Any discipleship that excludes teaching people how to hear and respond to the voice of God is no discipleship at all, for without hearing God there is no faith. Without faith, there is no Christian life.

Notice in Hebrews 11:6, the very definition of faith involves drawing near to God with the expectation of His response. Faith that is pleasing to God results in spiritual experience, divine encounter.

Is Hearing God only for the Mature in Christ?

At this point, some will agree that hearing God is certainly very important, but perhaps something we should expect only from the mature believer. But what if this kind of experience is something we can realistically expect from every believer, regardless of maturity? Let’s take a look at some familiar verses from earlier in Romans 10.

Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:9–10)

As we saw in Romans 10:17, faith comes from hearing Jesus speak; this passage is about brand new believers! Faith resulting from hearing Christ speak is not merely for the mature; it is the very entry point of our life in Christ. This becomes clear when we add verse eight:

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:8–10)

What precedes the faith and confession that appropriate salvation in a person’s life? The word comes near. We hear the voice of God speaking to us even in the presentation of the gospel; faith can come no other way. No one can experience the salvation Jesus has provided apart from hearing the voice of God. Think of your own conversion experience. What, in addition to the mere transmission of data, was going on inside you? What were you sensing? How was the Holy Spirit tugging on your heart? If you can put into words what that was like, then you already have a point of reference for what it’s like for you to hear God’s voice.

Hearing God is for every believer, new and mature. There’s no other way to become one. Hearing God in the presentation of the gospel is distinct from merely hearing the gospel, for many hear the gospel and don’t believe.

Once someone has heard Christ in this way and responded with faith and confession, they are saved. It is at this point the two primary discipleship models we have discussed previously are usually brought into view.

It tends to go something like this:

Now that you are a believer, we have a class we want you to attend (the educational model). In this class, we want you to understand there are some behaviors you should, as a believer, not be involved in (prohibitive legal model). Additionally, as a believer, you should pray, read your Bible, attend church, etc. (This is the prescriptive legal model.) Those who began their walk with Christ by responding to the living voice of His Spirit are now continuing their walk by the methods of doctrinal instruction and rule keeping.

Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians to address this exact issue. Believers converted through spiritual experience and divine encounter had been tricked into attempting spiritual growth by another means.

“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1–3)

Paul is not simply contrasting faith with law; he’s being much more pointed and specific than that. He is contrasting the hearing of faith and receiving the Spirit with the works of the law and the flesh. It is not just faith; it is the hearing of faith. Paul’s entire argument is that the way you begin is the way you should continue. The way you enter is the way you are perfected. Hearing Jesus speak to you, being led by the Spirit, is what makes you a son of God. It is also what brings you into maturity. There are no mature believers who don’t know how to hear God’s voice, and there are no immature believers who can’t hear God; it is impossible to be a believer any other way.

What I Really Learned

When I finally got the job working for Tom, what did I really receive? A job? A paycheck? A great opportunity to grow and develop under the influence of a wonderful mentor? Yes, but I received more. I learned more. I’m not talking about the kind of learning that informs; I’m talking about the kind of learning that brings understanding, shapes the lenses through which we perceive reality, and forms our core beliefs about God, ourselves, and the nature of reality.

I learned God speaks to me, and I can hear Him. I learned God is near, and intimately involved in the affairs of my life. I learned God is good, and works in my life to do good in and through me. I learned God is powerful and able to arrange and orchestrate very complex details and events in order to accomplish His purpose. I learned He must think I am quite valuable in order to go to this kind of trouble. I learned that sometimes, when circumstances tell me I can’t hear God or I’ve somehow blown it, I shouldn’t be too quick to judge.

I learned lots of things, some of them important beyond quantifying, simply because God told me what job to apply for, that I would get the job, and when to send my résumé and to whom. I heard. I responded. This is the life of faith, and it is available to you. You can’t learn these kinds of things by reading this paragraph; unless, of course, you are listening not just to me, but to Him.


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