God speaks in many different ways. Primarily through the Bible. The Bible was partially composed by the writing Prophets, who seem to have heard from God directly. The words the authors of each book wrote were inspired by God, so scripture is a vital norm: the voice that contradicts the scripture’s teaching is not God.
We also can learn to hear from God for ourselves. The rationale for this is from the Bible, where we learn that God would use indirect means to speak to his people, such as through a prophet, an angel or a dream. We also have the Holy Spirit living within us; our own divine private teacher and councillor to instruct and to guide (John 14:26). Hearing from God is both a spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:9) that can be honed, and one that we can learn (1 Cor 14:1).
Chiefly God speaks to us by illuminating voices that he has placed in our lives; the Bible, the local church elders, the collective wisdom of the church. When he does, it’s like a light bulb switches on in your head, or something hits you between the eyes. You may have seen the verse hundred times before, but this time it’s like you’ve read it for the first time. You may have heard the preacher say it a million times, but this time the significance is fresh, spoken specifically for you. It causes eyebrows to rise, sit up a little straighter. You’re in danger of looking like a curious mere-cat.
God speaks to us through dreams. Not all dreams, however are from God. Sometimes you just ate too much cheese or watched an impressional TV show the night before. When God does speak through a dream, sometimes interpretation is required. When interpretation is required knowing your own dream language is important. Usually you can figure out the meaning by being attentive to (a) the things that have happened in your life recently—perhaps a conversation from earlier that day, (b) what that symbol, colour, or person represents in your own history, and (c) how you felt when you were in the dream and waking up. If you need help interpreting the dream, share it with a wise Christian with experience with these things. Remember, sometimes a dream from God will have more significance to another than you.
Sometimes God speaks audibly. The Bible says that a voice from heaven spoke when Christ was baptised. People there heard the words “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased,” spoken (Mat 3:17). Like angelic visitations, God’s use of this method appears uncommon. Still, it’s not unheard of today. When he does, it’s unmistakable. Not unable to be suppressed or ignored, but clear enough to get you moving when you need a push.
God speaks to us by inspiration. From experience, this is the most common way God speaks to us. This is strikingly like the voice of intuition creatives know well. The difference is it comes not from within, but from a source that is not you. It can vary in intensity, from almost-audible sound waves in the ear that echo around your skull, to a small whisper. Sometimes its a flash-image in the brain, a single word. Learning how to listen requires sensitivity to the Spirit. Experience and practice are important teachers in how to discern what he says.
One great book in this area is by James Ryle, Hippo in the Garden. It’s full of relatable stories and great advice. Here’s some of mine.
God’s voice brings conviction. This can be like a punch to the stomach, or a weight on the heart. God points his finger on an area of your life he wants to adjust, or a course of action which he wants change in. It’s important not to quell the voice of the Holy Spirit, because ignoring it can harden your heart to hearing his voice. To distinguish between God’s voice and the voice of the enemy, consider if there are feelings of guilt. God does not bring condemnation, which is completely dealt with in Christ. Conviction is the positive push in the right direction. Condemnation makes you want to hide from God. Conviction makes you want to embrace Him.
So what do you do when it seems like God is silent? When you can’t hear anything? Read this advice…