What Does It Mean to Hear God’s Call?

Brian Sanders
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The key to hearing God is indifference. This idea comes from Ignatius of Loyola and has seen a recent revival by neo-Ignatian proponents like Ruth Haley Barton. She writes:

There are, in fact, two aspects of this prayer. There is the prayer for indifference in which we open to the gift by asking for something we do not yet have. And then there is the prayer of indifference which is the answer to that prayer – the ability to say, in truth, “I am indifferent to anything but the will of God.” The prayer of indifference carries us across the threshold between two worlds – from the world of human will and action to a world in which we are participants in the Divine will that has already been set in motion.

In one sense, all spiritual decisions are a journey “across the threshold between two worlds,” but especially those related to developmental transitions in our calling. The prayer of indifference, and the struggle to pray it, is most perfectly embodied by Jesus in the garden before His arrest. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

Not what I will. But what You will.

Indifference toward your own will, coupled with passionate commitment to His – this is the key to discerning the voice of God.

God Does Speak

We like the idea of hearing God and believe at some principled level that it is possible, but for many of us it never seems to happen. Christian people seem to fit into two extreme categories, those who think they hear God speak to them word for word about what detergent to buy and those who don’t know of a single clear word they have ever received. Most of us are in the middle and maybe leaning toward the wordless side.

Underneath this whole discussion of calling, lifelong development, transitions, and identity is the implicit assertion that God is speaking in a way that we can and should be able to hear. I am convinced that God does routinely speak to us in ways that we can both hear and understand. Behind all theology of revelation is the idea that God will only be known if He wants to be. And all evidence points to His desire for us to know Him, His self-revelation holds the world together. And yet, we struggle so much to discern His voice. If I am right and He is speaking, then the issue is either noise (we can’t hear Him over the din around us) or it is language (we do not understand the constructs of the language He is using). In both cases, the fault does not lie with God, who we imagine to be silent, but in the listener who is distracted by other things or confounded by the sound of His voice.

Sorting Through Competing Voices

The real issue is competing voices. We may sense/hear God say something to us, about say our future, but then we immediately hear several other voices in our head competing for prominence and confusing the first word. We hear the voice of the controlling people in our lives, immediately imagining what they would say about the decision, thought, or course of action. We hear the voice of our own selfish desires. We hear the voice of our bad theology denying the gentle word as too easy and the challenging word as too harsh. And perhaps more than anything, we hear the voice of our idols, whatever they may be. These false gods make counterdemands to undermine the claim that God has on our hearts, wills, and lives.

“The real work of hearing God then is not in straining to listen, but in surrender to the One who is speaking.”

As soon as God says go, the idol says stay. As soon as God says give, the idol says hold. As soon as God says lay it down, the idol says double down. And there, right at the epicenter of our prayer life and our decision-making, is the struggle of the Christian life, the struggle to make and keep Jesus Lord. He is asking for our allegiance and obedience, but so are our idols. Money, greed, fame, position, desirability, popularity, lust, control, self-determination…all of these want to be god instead.

Be a Discerning Listener

The real work of prayer then is to silence those voices. To take from our idols the right to own us, to lead us and to command our hearts. The real work of hearing God then is not in straining to listen, but in surrender to the One who is speaking. This is why the key to hearing God is indifference. And the key to indifference is worship. For me, hearing God is easy; it is laying down my life that is hard. Instead of closing our eyes, asking a question, and then listening for an answer, we ought to set aside time for worship. Lots of time. As much time as it takes to get to the place of indifference to the voices of idols, to the place of total surrender. That is worship after all.

If you need to hear God on something, read through the Psalms, shut the door, and put on music and sing until your heart and mind are captured completely by the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ. The longer you worship, the clearer your world will become. Worship until you can say with certainty: Nothing matters to me more than You. Bid me and I will go anywhere, do any service to the end of the earth. Lay to rest your idols by making Jesus utterly Lord. Then when you raise the one matter before you, there will be no barriers to hearing Him. A faithful heart can be trusted. What you hear in that moment, when you are truly indifferent to the answer, you can trust.

For Further Reading:

The 6 Seasons of Calling

by Brian Sanders

What if you don’t have a calling from God . . . but callings? Often we think of our calling as a singular moment of divine...

book cover for The 6 Seasons of Calling