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Learning to Listen to the Holy Spirit

I’ve been asking people more often what the Holy Spirit sounds like to them, because although we as Christians often say, “Listen to the Holy Spirit,” it seems a lot of us are pretty unfamiliar with how to actually do this. Many times during this series about tough communication moments in friendship, we have referenced the idea of listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. That’s easy to say, but if you are newer to this practice in your life, you might be asking, but how do I actually do that?

I want to take some time today to help you learn how to start listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance in your tough friendship moments, and in every area of your life. I think many of us feel a bit lost in the sauce in this area because learning how to listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance seems to be one of the most vague and unclear things we learn about in the church and from Scripture. And, to be fair, how do you teach something that can look different for everyone?

It does seem that learning to listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice in your life is one of those things that you kind of just have to learn through trial and error, practice, and your own discovery. Maybe it’s from a nudge in your gut, or a thought in your head, or even an audible voice. Although I can’t tell you what the Holy Spirit will sound like to you uniquely, we can pin down some practices that will put us in a posture ready to learn to listen. No matter how he gets your attention, you can learn to listen to his guidance more consistently.

Because here’s the thing… Like anyone’s voice, you get to know it better over time. When I first met my husband, I wouldn’t have been able to pick his voice out from a crowd, but now, I certainly could, because I hear it all the time. Similarly, I know my baby’s cry from another’s, and I know if my dog is barking or someone else’s. I hear these all the time, so my brain can easily identify these voices in my life. The same is true of the Holy Spirit’s voice. Through paying attention, intentionally listening, testing what you hear, practicing obedience, and noticing patterns over time, you can become more and more familiar with the sound of the Holy Spirit’s voice in your heart.

No matter how he gets your attention, you can learn to listen to his guidance more consistently.

Here are five practices that have helped me begin to learn to distinguish the Holy Spirit’s voice in my own life.

1. Paying Attention

1 Samuel 3 tells the story of Samuel’s call to be the Lord’s prophet. When Samuel first hears the Lord’s voice, he thinks it’s someone else speaking to him. It takes him a bit to figure out that it’s the Lord, but what he didn’t do was just ignore the voice and go back to sleep! He hears the sound, and, although he doesn’t know what it means yet, he does pay attention to it. We should do the same.

How many times have you felt a tug on your heart or an idea in your head, but you’ve just ignored it or dismissed it as probably nothing? Instead, let’s start paying attention to those moments when we think the Lord may be speaking to us, even if we’re not sure, leaning into them instead of trying to ignore them. Maybe we don’t realize what it is at first, and it takes a few times. Maybe we’re unsure, so we talk to wise counsel about it like Samuel did. But to learn his voice, we must start by giving it our attention when we think we hear it.

For me, it’s sometimes a jittery feeling of nervous energy if I’m supposed to do something, or a phrase or idea that pops into my head that I can’t shake, or sometimes a person I feel inexplicably drawn to in that moment. Those are some of the ways the Spirit gets my attention, and maybe he gets yours in similar or totally different ways. But no matter how the Spirit is getting your attention, like Samuel, we can choose to grant our attention to that call, which is when we can then begin to listen.

2. Intentionally Listening

A lot of times, we think of listening as just hearing. But there’s a difference. I can hear something, but that doesn’t mean I’m listening to it. When we intentionally listen to the Holy Spirit, no matter how he got our attention, we are asking for guidance or direction, ready to obey.

This is really just the practice of praying and then actually listening for a response. This could be in focused prayer time in a quiet room alone, or it could be in the middle of a conversation that you know is important and you really need some guidance for. Maybe you feel the nudge to do something, so you pause to ask for guidance.

Once Samuel was paying attention and knew it was the Lord calling him, he began intentionally listening when he replied, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (v. 10). In learning to listen to the Holy Spirit, we can give the Lord our attention and invite him to guide us like Samuel does: Spirit speak. I’m listening.

3. Testing What We Hear

One thing that made me a bit nervous in this learning process, though, was, what if I get it wrong? What if that isn’t the Holy Spirit speaking to me after all? Was that my own selfish thought? Is what I’m feeling trustworthy? I had a hard time learning to trust his voice.

The really awesome thing, though, is that we have a literal proof text against which we can test the things we think the Holy Spirit is telling us. If I feel a prompting of the Holy Spirit, I can go to Scripture and make sure what I’m hearing is Biblical. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in perfect unity, so the Holy Spirit is never going to ask me to do something that the Word of God wouldn’t affirm. As I’m learning to listen and discern what his voice sounds like, I can test what I think he’s saying against the Bible to either confirm that tug on my heart or help me learn to distinguish what isn’t the prompting of the Spirit.

Long ago, when I was first exploring the Holy Spirit’s role in my faith walk, I had a friend talk to me about how our mind interacts with the Lord. The notions of “feelings” and imagination have certainly been abused in the Church before, so I understand people’s hesitancy to trust them. As someone who grew up in a less than Charasimatic church culture, I asked her, is this from the Lord, or is it just my imagination? And I’ll never forget what she said: Well who made your imagination? Surely, the One who made my imagination can and will use it to teach, grow, and direct me.

Now, can my mind be untrustworthy? Absolutely. I have thoughts all the time that are not Godly. I have the power to choose what to do with them, but they pop up in there nonetheless. However, I think that sometimes we overemphasize the untrustworthiness of our minds and fail to remember that our imaginations were created by the Lord. He is just as capable of using them to speak to us as we are capable of allowing them to lead us astray. We can hold room for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through our imaginations and also treat these ideas, visions, pictures, whatever it is, with care.

1 John 4:1 says that we should “test the spirits.” As you’re intentionally listening for the Spirit’s guidance and you feel he’s telling or showing you something, rather than just chalking the nudge, feeling, whatever, up to your foolish imagination, take the idea to Scripture and test it! Does Scripture back this idea up? Does it confirm what you think he’s telling you? The more times Scripture confirms what we think the Holy Spirit is telling us, the more we will gain confidence in discerning his voice from our own selfish desires.

4. Practicing Obedience

Once we’re listening and we know how to test to discern what the Spirit sounds like, we will also have many opportunities to practice obedience. Often, the things the Spirit asks me to do feel scary or intimidating, and obeying takes a lot of courage. It’s that counter-intuitive moment of shifting your weight off steady ground into a trust fall, or taking a step out onto something you’re not sure will hold you. I once read that all a person needs in this life is twenty seconds of insane courage. You don’t have to be brave and obey the difficult ask every second of your life to practice obedience. You’ve just got to have a few seconds of insane courage, when you know what you’re supposed to do or say, and you just do it.

In Hebrew, the word for “Listen,” Shema, combines the ideas of hearing, listening and obeying, all into one word. In Hebrew, these ideas aren’t distinct; it is assumed that, when you hear something, you’ll listen to it and obey. I don’t think this is always true for us today, though. You can probably think of a time when you listened to wise counsel, but you didn’t obey it. When we practice obedience to the Spirit, though, we seek the more Hebrew definition of listening, one where obedience is the natural follow-on.

But I call this step of obedience a practice for a reason. Like practicing yoga or practicing medicine, there’s no arrival point where you’re going to “achieve” obedience. It’s something you practice each day, in many moments, over and over again. You’ll get it wrong sometimes, and sometimes, you’ll do the brave thing and get it right. And those moments where you do the brave, obedient thing, those moments are truly underrated.

5. Noticing Patterns

Step 5 is where the magic happens. Once we’ve started paying attention, intentionally listening, testing, and practicing obedience, we can begin learning to discern when and what the Holy Spirit is speaking to us by noticing patterns over the years. The first few times I felt nervously jittery with an urge to do or say something that felt scary, I didn’t recognize it as the Holy Spirit’s prompting. But once I started to watch for patterns of his leading, I began to notice, Oh, that happens when the Holy Spirit is trying to get my attention. And now, when I experience that, I know to listen more quickly than I did the first time. Will it still be difficult to obey? Of course! But the more we practice listening to the Spirit’s guidance in our lives and learning to trust his voice, the more we can begin to notice and experience the incredible ways he wants to use us in this world for God’s glory and others’ good.

May we be people who are quick to say, “Speak Lord; I’m listening.

At the end of the day, friends, I want us to remember why I’ve walked you through this today. When it comes to communicating with our friends well, especially in the tough moments we’ve talked about over the past few months, we need to know how to listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. He’s the One who knows our unique situation, our friends, and us the best. Like Samuel, may we be people who are quick to say, Speak Lord; I’m listening.

Love ya, friend.

Your Sister, Kimber


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