God in Conversation: Learning How to
Recognize His Voice
by Sam Williamson
is it that when we speak to God we
are said to be praying, but when
God speaks to us we are said to be
The First Time I Heard God’s Voice
I was ten years old the first time I heard God
speak. It was autumn, a new school year had
just begun, and a new fad was spreading among
my adolescent classmates.
I was raised in a
conservative Christian church where Sunday
school teachers taught us the Ten
Commandments. The teachers were vague about
the meaning of adultery, and I didn’t feel
concerned. They weren’t very clear about
coveting either, so I felt safe.
They made up for their
ambiguity when it came to cussing. Instead of
an elusive “Don’t take the name of the Lord in
vain,” they precisely taught, “Don’t swear.”
And when they said, “Don’t swear,” they meant,
“Don’t cuss.” For us, cussing was a sin on the
order of mass genocide.
One day while playing
schoolyard tag, I tagged my girlfriend, Diane,
and she shouted, “Shit!” I felt a horrible
shockwave race through my body, as though I’d
been hit in the gut with a sledgehammer.
Forty-five years later, I still feel that
visceral punch, and I can exactly picture the
playground gate where Diane cussed. I gasped
for air but nothing came.
Looking back, it seems
silly that a cuss word could cause such a
shock, but it did. I expected God to cast down
a lightning bolt and burn Diane to ash. The
thought almost paralyzed me.
But not quite. I leaped
back seven feet in case the bolt went wide.
And then.... nothing
happened. Not one thing. The game continued.
No lightning bolt. Not even a firefly. I felt
as shocked by the absence of righteous
retribution as I had been by the cuss. The
shock might have even been greater.
My juvenile understanding
of Christianity was simple: God blesses good
people and he punishes bad people. In my
unsophisticated ten-year-old mind, blessing
meant being cool and punishment meant
being un-cool. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, the foul-mouthed kids became cooler
while the clean-speaking kids grew un-cool.
The wicked flourished and
the righteous were trampled.
I decided that God could
not exist. Oh, it took a week or so of
watching the wicked prosper, but there was no
doubt in my mind. God didn’t exist. It was all
a cruel hoax.
The next day I unleashed
the filthiest mouth in the city of Detroit on
my classmates. I said things even the wicked
feared to say. (They still harbored some fear
of God, but I knew better.) The “shit” word
was cussing for kids; I dropped F-bombs like
hardwood forests drop autumn leaves—and I
didn’t even know what the F-word meant.
I was a poet in
Then, at the end of that
day, alone in my bedroom, God spoke to me with
a fierce, undeniable, and certain clarity. But
all he said was, “Sam, I am real, and you
Above all else, God wants us to know him
personally—he wants a personal relationship.
But we mostly want to know direction: “Should
I take this job or that job?” We want
information; God wants a conversation. We want
to know answers; God wants us to know him.
When God spoke to me, I
was deeply moved, but not by his answer to my
question, Why do the wicked flourish?
God never even hinted at an answer. I was
moved because I had actually heard his voice.
I had begun to know the person of God, not
just the facts of God; I had met him.
God always gives us what
we most need, but he doesn’t always give us
what we think we most need. Our
deepest need is to know God. More than
answers, inspiration, information, or
guidance, we simply need to know God. That’s
why Paul wrote, “I count everything as loss
because of the surpassing worth of knowing
Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8).
Before my first date with
my wife, I knew a lot about her: she was a
farmer’s daughter, she studied social work,
and she had attended Hope College. And she was
cute. But on our first date, over a glass of
wine, she told me of a secret longing. And I
fell in love. My informational knowledge had
just been trumped by a personal connection.
Knowing about God
isn’t enough. Paul prayed, “I keep asking that
the God of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . may
give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation,
so that you may know him better”
(Ephesians 1:16–17 par).
God Wants Us to Hear Him
God is always speaking to us, and he wants us
to hear him. The first time I heard him in my
bedroom—and I really did hear him—I wasn’t
looking to hear from God. I thought he was a
hoax. But he spoke anyway, because he
longs—God himself longs!—for conversations
with his family and friends.
I am amazed, dumbfounded
even, at modern Christian teaching. We hear
leaders claim that Christianity is about a
personal relationship with God, but their
teaching is limited to abstract doctrine,
principles for good behavior, or devotional
inspiration. In other words, most modern
Christian teaching addresses our intellect,
our will, or our emotions. Few are the
credible teachers who teach us about hearing
God—though they should—or about knowing him
personally. Yet that is what the Bible says he
Scripture is filled with
metaphors for the nature of God’s relationship
with us. We are his sheep, his friends, his
children, and—breathtakingly intimate—his
spouse. These are relational metaphors. And
the essence of relationship is communication.
Communication is so
important to the human soul that many
countries have outlawed solitary confinement
as cruel and unusual punishment. Yet we
Christians teach Christianity as though it’s a
philosophy class or a code of ethics. We treat
the Bible as though it’s an auto repair manual
instead of a personal letter from God.
Christians are great at
doing clinical, detached dissections of
biblical metaphors, exegeting the essence of
their meanings. But God wants us to wear those
metaphors like clothes—to put them on, live in
them, and make them real. He wants us to begin
to hear his voice.
Yes, it’s helpful to
understand the exegetical meanings of
scriptural metaphors. It’s better to meet
He Really Does Speak to Us
Our Father wants conversation. He wants us to
learn to recognize his voice. He literally
speaks so we can literally hear. He doesn’t
always say what we want him to say; he often
doesn’t speak in the manner we expect; and
hearing his voice requires us to learn to
listen. But he is always speaking.
Scripture is filled with
passages that teach us God speaks today. Here
are a few for the skeptical (emphases mine):
God’s Word overflows with his longing to converse
with us; he wants us to hear him, speak with him,
and have a discussion.
- The sheep hear his
voice, and he calls his own sheep by
name. (John 10:3)
- Call to me and I will answer you, and will
tell you great and hidden things that
you have not known. (Jeremiah 33:3)
- Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone
hears my voice and opens the door, I
will come in to him and eat with him, and he
with me. (Revelation 3:20)
- When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide
you into all the truth, for . . .
whatever he hears he.... will declare
to you.... (John 16:13)
- Your ears shall hear a word behind
you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,”
when you turn to the right or when you turn to
the left. (Isaiah 30:21)
- Whoever is of God hears the words of
God. (John 8:47)
- I will instruct
you and teach you in the way you
should go; I will counsel you with
my eye upon you. (Psalm 32:8)
God Isn’t Reserved for Spiritual Giants
Most of us are nurses, mechanics, office
workers, clerks, engineers, teachers, maybe
mid-level managers, or stay-at-home moms or
dads. We feel like spiritual Pygmies. Of
course God doesn’t speak with us, we tell
ourselves, we don’t have the spiritual stature
of Mother Teresa.
While that humble
self-opinion is a terrific place to start, it
is a terrible place to stop. God never speaks
to us (or others) because of our (or their)
greatness. He speaks because of his
greatness. He loves to speak with spiritual
adolescents. Paul writes, “We hold this
treasure in earthen vessels to show that
the surpassing power is of God and not from
us” (2 Corinthians 4:7 par).
It sounds spiritually
humble to be like the people of Israel who
said to Moses, “You speak with us, but do not
let God speak with us.” But such prayers only
reveal spiritual shallowness on our
part. It’s as though we prefer to listen to
God’s servants rather than hear God himself.
It is God’s glory to speak with us nurses,
mechanics, and clerks. That way it’s clear
that the greatness belongs to God and not us.
Humility is the key. Think of whom God spoke
with in the past:
- Abraham was a heathen
called out of idol worship when God invited
him on a journey.
- Moses was a murderer who fled justice.
- Gideon was a coward hiding in the back
recesses of a cave.
- Samuel was a child.
- Jonah was an intolerant, insensitive,
- The disciples often acted like buffoons, and
every one of them abandoned Jesus.
- Paul persecuted the disciples of Jesus.
- Balaam was a wicked man whom God spoke to
through a mere beast of burden, his ass.
- And I was a ten-year-old atheist.
Each story is different
except for one thing: God didn’t choose to
speak with any of these people on the basis of
their maturity, goodness, or spiritual
giftedness. Many of them were less mature,
more rebellious, and had fewer spiritual gifts
“Oh,” you might think,
“but God chose them (even the rebels) because
he saw their natural gifts. He knew he
could do great things through them.” That kind
of thinking—and we all think that way
occasionally—is contrary to the gospel. The
gospel is always about God working with people
who are completely unworthy of his attention.
(That’s why it’s called the gospel.) He
doesn’t use our greatness as much as he uses
his own greatness to bring about something
great in us.
God can make the littlest
among us great, but he can’t use the greatest
among us until we become little. God wants to
speak to you (O little men and women!) words
of comfort, love, conviction, and hope. Yes,
How Do We Recognize His
When I heard God as a ten-year-old, it wasn’t
through an audible voice. There was no
handwriting on the wall (except perhaps what I
had crayoned on it when my mom wasn’t
looking), nor was there a burning bush or a
levitating tablespoon. I wasn’t even reading
the Bible. (Remember, I was a recent convert
Yet something stirred in
my soul. It was as clear as an audible voice
and as powerful as a thunderclap. Somehow I
knew God had spoken real words to me
personally. There was an inner resonance, a
quickening in my heart. And I knew it was God.
When the Emmaus disciples
reminisced about their unexpected discussion
with Jesus, they said, “Were not our hearts
burning within us?” I too experienced a voice
burning in my heart. It thrilled and delighted
me. And changed my life.
Methods and Moments
We are imperfect creatures, so we miss the
diverse ways and multiple occasions through
which a perfect God speaks to us. The book of
Job declares, “God speaks in one way, and in
two, though man does not perceive it” (Job
33:14). God is infinite, and he speaks in
countless ways and settings.
Yet we finite creature
impose on God our limited expectations for how
he speaks, in manners we’re familiar and
comfortable with, or perhaps the only ways we
know. Certainly God speaks to us through those
means, through Scripture study and Sunday
sermons. He’s just not confined to them. He
is, after all, the most creative Being in the
universe, and he communicates with us through
an infinitely imaginative mixture of methods
Throughout this book,
I’ll reinforce those two principles of methods
and moments. It’s vital to keep them in mind
if we want to grow in our ability to hear
God’s voice clearly. Let’s look at them more
Part of the reason we fail to perceive God’s
personal word to us arises from false
expectations constructed when other people
recount their experiences. We too often hear
people share descriptions of God speaking as
though they happened like a scripted dialogue:
I asked God: What
should I do with my life?
God replied: Are you willing to take a
I said: Yes, but I don’t know what to
God said: Move to Timbuktu.
When friends tell stories
like this, we think, I never hear God
converse with me that clearly. Let me
tell you a secret: they don’t either.
At least not most of the time. Those reports
are shorthand summaries of hours spent
thinking, praying, hearing nudges, getting
senses, and recognizing God’s voice.
God employs multiple
methods to communicate with us; he is not a
paint-by-number God. If we limit his voice to
just, say, the scripted dialogue or biblical
studies, then we will miss his voice when he
speaks in other ways. Below are his more
A Responsive Resonance
God often speaks by nudging our hearts in
response to an external circumstance. The
nudge may be described as a burning in our
heart or a sense of the weightiness of a
particular moment. Perhaps a Scripture passage
jumps out at us in prayer, or we overhear a
chance comment by someone at the next table,
and our hearts know something significant is
For example, “While Paul
was waiting [in] Athens, his spirit was provoked
within him as he saw that the city was full of
idols” (Acts 17:16, emphasis added). Now think
with me: idols filled every city Paul
visited, but something in that moment stirred
A Spontaneous Nudging
Sometimes God unexpectedly nudges our heart to
pray for a friend or to act on an issue. It
comes not so much as a direct word as a
general perception, an inner detection of a
movement of God, unprompted by any event.
I once had a sense to pray for a friend. I
wasn’t sure what to pray, so I phoned him. He
had been just been let go from his job that
day. We prayed on the phone. He was touched by
my concern, only I hadn’t been concerned—I
hadn’t even known. It was God who was
concerned and who spontaneously nudged me.
Occasionally God speaks a direct word—usually
just a sentence or two, or perhaps just a
phrase. This chapter opens with the story of
God speaking to me in my childhood atheism: “I
am real, and you don’t understand.” God has
spoken directly to me at other times too, to
leave the mission field or repent to my
I would guess, though, that most direct words
don’t come to us out of the blue; at least not
as much as they come to us after sensing a
resonance in our heart. Only as we follow that
resonance in prayer and reflection do we hear
God will often bring past events to mind.
Sometimes he surfaces a memory so we can deal
with its grip on our lives, and sometimes he
recalls it so we can take appropriate action.
A few years ago, I remembered my
twelve-year-old self saying something harsh to
a neighborhood kid. A short while later I
bumped into that kid, now grown. I reminded
him of the story, and I repented. He too
remembered it, and he wept as I repented. That
occasion began an eighteen-month journey of
repenting to people from my past, and every
repentance, though embarrassing, brought new
life to both the repentee and the repenter.
The voice of God is not limited to nudges or
even words. Sometimes God plants pictures in
our mind. Around 1915, my grandfather received
a mental picture in which the letters KWANGSI
were spelled in red letters across the sky. He
visited the local library to discover that the
letters spelled a province of China (now
spelled GuangXi). He prayed and felt called to
be a missionary. He spent the next two decades
living in that very province, and he founded
four inland China churches with new believers.
God speaks in many and various ways. Sometimes
he even paints pictures.
Past generations encouraged Scripture
memorization. I was always a miserable student
of memorization, but I find that God
frequently brings passages to mind at just the
Once, talking with a man
in deep trouble, I found no wisdom or words to
offer. Then out of nowhere a verse came to
mind: “We comfort others with the comfort
we’ve been given” (a rough paraphrase of 2
Cor. 1:4). I sensed God telling me to comfort
my friend with the comfort God had given me.
Nothing wise, just comfort.
Since my Bible verse
memorization is abysmal, it simply had to be
Visions and Dreams
I’ve never had a divinely inspired dream or a
vision, but people whom I know and respect get
them, and in them God can speak. Visions are
different from images; they are more akin to
short video stories, such as when Paul was
directed in his sleep: “A vision appeared to
Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was
standing there, urging him and saying, "Come
over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9).
There’s no reason to believe God cannot give
us such visions today.
This is perhaps the hardest to recognize,
because these thoughts feel so much a part of
us. Yet God-shaped thoughts influence the
thinking life of every believer on earth. Not
only can God’s Spirit in us speak a direct
word to us, but he can also shape our very
thoughts. How many times have you felt utterly
empty, no words to pray with and no ideas to
act on? Then, unexpectedly, a brilliant and
obvious thought streaks through your mind. C.
S. Lewis believed this to be one of the most
common ways God speaks to us:
Then, seeing me
empty, you forsake
God speaks in many and
various ways. Who are we to limit him?
The listener's role and
My dumb lips breathe and
into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.
God speaks with more methods than we normally
attribute to him, but he also speaks in more moments
that we imagine. I believe he wants to speak in
every moment. He doesn’t limit himself to Sunday
sermons or personal prayer times.
Many chapters in this book describe how to
recognize God’s voice in various situations, but
it’s worth remembering that his many moments
include times of scriptural meditation, watching
a movie, counseling with friends, brainstorming,
driving your car, sitting at the coffee shop,
moments of curiosity, and even times when God
God mixes his many methods of speaking with the
limitless variety of moments in our lives; he
creates an infinite assortment of opportunities
to recognize his voice. For example, take the
one “moment” of reading the verse “God is my
shepherd, I shall not want.” God may remind you
of another verse, “I am sending you out like
sheep among wolves”; or he may stir within you,
in response, a resonance of his great care for
you; or he may speak a direct word, “You are not
coming to me to get your wants fulfilled”; or he
may give you an image of a contented child.
Our lives are filled with multiple moments—from
waking at 2:00 a.m., to an afternoon walk, to an
unpleasant meeting with your boss—and into each
of those many moments, God can speak through his
God Is Always Speaking
God invites us to walk with him even in—maybe especially
in—our ordinary moments. When we learn to
recognize that inner quickening, that burning in
the heart, we begin to hear God speaking all the
Flying to New
York to speak at a conference, a stranger said
something about public speaking. I heard God
convict me of the purposeless life I was
And forty-five years ago, my
girlfriend cussed, God spoke in the absence of
lightning, and it changed the life of this
I attended a weekend
retreat with fifteen men to discuss the
possibility of working together. I heard God
flesh out details about his dream for my life.
While watching the movie
The Fisher King, a pretty grim film, I
heard God say that he sees me to the bottom
and loves me to the top.
On a long walk last week,
God interrupted my thoughts about finances to
think about the creep of modern culture into
modern Christians’ beliefs.
article is excerpted from the book, Hearing
God in Conversation - How to Recognize His
Voice Everywhere, chapter one (c) 2016
by Samuel C. Williamson. Used with
Praise for Hearing God in
“In this book, Sam
Williamson shares his deep spiritual
wisdom with a kind of disarming humility
that will help readers hear God’s
extraordinary voice as an ordinary life
experience.” – Jean Barbara, president of
Sword of the Spirit
“I’ve just finished reading Sam
Williamson’s compelling book on hearing
God. Sam treats this crucial subject
with wisdom, humor, and deep
conviction. His highly readable
personal stories and spiritual insights
will surely inspire many to pursue with
greater confidence the life-changing
experience of daily conversation with
God. Hearing God in Conversation is
a helpful and well-balanced spiritual
guide which I would not hesitate to
recommend to men and women from all the
Christian traditions who hunger to walk
more closely with God.” – John Keating,
Servants of the Word elder
It is a tragedy that so many Christians
believe that God does not speak to
them. This book is one of the best
I’ve seen at equipping ordinary people to
listen to God in everyday life. I
especially loved the description of how to
“brainstorm with God” – what a wonderful
way to demystify the process of seeking
guidance. Most importantly, the
author puts the emphasis where it should
be: on a biblically grounded,
conversational relationship with God in
which we let God take the lead. If
you’ve ever secretly longed for your
friendship with God to be much more
interactive than it is and you are finally
ready to do something about it, read this
book. – Thomas E. Bergler, Professor
of Ministry and Missions
God in Conversation: How to Recognize His
Voice Everywhere, by Samuel C.
Williamson, published by Kregel Publications,
2016, available from Amazon