Twenty-plus years ago, in YWAM, I started practicing “listening prayers”. We’d pray for each other in small groups, and then pay attention to what came into our mind while praying for this person. We were told it could be a picture, a word, or a scripture in our mind for the other person. When I started to practice it, I often got images in my mind that developed into small stories, almost like a short play. I did not see these things in real life; my eyes were closed, and it was like watching my imagination at work. But when I would share the brief vision with the person I was praying for, it often meant something significant to them! I was blown away when I realized that the Holy Spirit wanted to talk to me. I just needed to pray and trust what I saw or heard. I still remember some of the things that others saw for me in that setting, too.
I learned that faith was a huge key to hearing God’s voice. It required faith to believe that the thoughts that would come into my head during prayer were from God, and not just from me. I had to be willing to risk being wrong or coming up with a picture or word that didn’t mean anything to the person. But the more I practiced taking risks, the more I realized I had thoughts that were coming from Him. Believing that God had given me the “mind of Christ”, and that His thoughts could meld with my own, was a key to breakthrough for me in hearing the Holy Spirit.
…these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ. (emphasis added)1 Corinthians 2:10-16
I began to enjoy practicing listening for the voice of God. I found I could hear Him best if I was in worship, in prayer, or had been reading my Bible. Sometimes a Scripture reference would come to mind while I was praying for a person or situation. I would look it up, and sometimes it was applicable in the moment. Not always, but often. Sometimes during group times of prayer, I would open my Bible, and it would simply fall open to a passage that seemed to really fit the moment. Again, not always – but sometimes. Reading the Word regularly for myself meant that sometimes I would find myself in a situation where a snippet of Scripture would come to my mind. I’m not always great about remembering references, but a quick search of my concordance would help me find it. I found Hebrews 4:12 to be so true:
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.Hebrews 4:12
God’s Word really DID still speak today, not just in an academic sense, but in a living, real, and applicable way in the moment.
I would occasionally take walks during lecture breaks and turn my thoughts towards God. As I meditated on him and prayed, I began to get thoughts in my mind seemingly out of nowhere. These thoughts were usually original – I would not have thought them up myself. They were affirming – far more kind to me than I would have been. They were always true – in other words, they did not contradict God’s character or words as seen in the Bible. That’s when I knew they were thoughts from God. A beautiful trust began to develop in my heart towards His voice. Hearing the Holy Spirit became a partnership between my faith and His faithfulness.
I had grown up learning that prayer consisted entirely of what I had to say to God. Religion dictated that to be “good” at prayer involved someone using a lot of eloquent words to present a list of requests. My time in YWAM taught me that God wanted prayer to be more of a conversation. He wanted to hear what was on my heart, but He also wanted me to hear what was on His. Practicing listening to His voice became an essential focus of our times of worship, intercession, and outreaches.
Listening to Feelings
I was beginning to learn that sometimes God spoke to me through my feelings. I’d first experienced that when I was a teenager and couldn’t sleep the night my friend ran away from home (read about it here). It happened again when I was on outreach in Kazakhstan.
Our discipleship training school had originally planned to send an outreach team to Albania, but war broke out in Kosovo in 1999, and it was determined it would be safer to send the team elsewhere. I was placed on a team that went to Kazakhstan for three months. While I was there, the internet connection was unreliable at best, so we were effectively cut off from most news of the outside world. But while in Kazakhstan, I began to feel deeply burdened for the nation of Albania and the suffering and trauma they were experiencing due to war. I couldn’t shake this weighty feeling and the sense of urgency I was experiencing for the war to be over. I finally shared my feelings with my outreach team. A few of them mentioned they had been feeling the same way! Which is another beautiful way the Holy Spirit often speaks to us – by telling more than one person the same message. We all agreed that we needed to fast and pray for the war to end. That day, eight young women from the United States and Western Europe spent a few concentrated hours in an upper room in Central Asia, praying for war to end in Kosovo.
Twenty-four hours later, there was a cease-fire in Kosovo, and the war was over.
We were stunned when we heard the news. I still cannot explain it. Was God looking for just a few more believers to pray? Was He really honoring the prayers of eight girls who were thousands of miles away? Did our prayers tip the balance of the battle happening simultaneously in the spirit realm? It felt presumptuous to assume our little day of prayer and fasting had made the difference, but the fact remained: several of us felt burdened to pray that the war would end. We obeyed the prompting to pray and fast, and the war ended the next day.
I believe that the Holy Spirit was giving us an invitation to partner with Him in prayer for something that was close to His heart. He filled us with a sense of urgency that we could have chosen to ignore. But we would have missed out on the blessing of seeing our prayers get answered, and we would have missed out on a powerful lesson: our prayers matter. Particularly when they align with the heart of God. Innocent people were being hurt and killed. Families were being ripped apart. God loves people passionately, and He hates injustice. When we pay attention to his promptings to pray, and our prayers align with His heart, miracles happen.
I believe many of us hear God far more than we think we do. But we are missing the faith element. It takes an element of faith to believe that the thoughts we have in prayer could actually be from God. Too often we are asking, “But what if it’s not from God?” I think we should be asking instead: “What if it IS God?”
The good news is that faith is a gift from God. If you’re feeling a bit short on faith lately, just ask Him for an increase.
He’s a good Father who gives generously to all who ask.
*This is the third post in a blog series I’m calling, “Hearing God’s Voice”. Each child of God has a unique history with God, and unique ways to relate to him. I thought it might be fun to share with you some of my journey of learning to hear God’s voice, and the ways that’s impacted my life and that of others, too. Join me each week as I share stories from my life that will hopefully encourage and inspire you to listen to him more – because he wants to speak to yo
To read previous posts in the series: