A friend of mine and I were recently observing Christians who claimed to have heard a message directly from Father. Not audibly so much as spiritually delivered to their heart in response to their question to Him. My friend admitted his first reaction was one of skepticism: Did they really “hear” that from Him, or are they just acting, trying to persuade us? It was difficult for him to believe the experience was genuine because it was foreign to him. I don’t believe he’s in the minority.
So what is really going on here? Can we hear from Father directly, personally? Is it limited only to some, not all? If so, why the variable experience? Must the majority of us be satisfied with God only speaking to our minds through His word, or is real dialogue possible?
When questions like this arise, it’s easy to answer quickly based on our individual lives. For those who have received personal wisdom and encouragement from God the issue is settled, and it may even feel a bit offensive to ask the question. For those who’ve never experienced it outside of a biblical insight or counsel from other Christians, they too may have settled the issue in their minds and decided it just doesn’t happen. Instead of following either of those roads, let’s allow God’s word to lead us to the truth.
Investigating the character of God seems like a good place to start. Is He interested in loving individuals, or only the Body of Christ as a collective, or only mankind as a whole? An easy and oft-used reference here is John 3:16, but let’s look a little more closely. In fact, what is the context of that verse? The setting is at night, some time after the Passover in Jerusalem when Jesus literally whipped the temple into a frenzy by forcing the animals and money exchangers out. This evening, He’s speaking to the Pharisee and ruler Nicodemus, helping him to grasp the answer to the question in his heart (not the one in his mouth). And where does Jesus start? He begins with rebirth, starting life again as a child of the Holy Spirit, not just the flesh, just as Jesus Himself was born. (John 3:5-6) Without it, no further understanding or restoration is attainable. This rebirth is accomplished by looking to Jesus just like the Israelites looked to the serpent which Moses raised and were saved from death. (vv. 14-15; Num. 21:6-9) And then Jesus explains: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (v. 16) Why did God do it? Because He loved the world. How did He do it? He gave His son away to die instead of me. What’s the benefit to God? Whoever believes (the Greek language here has the distinct sense of “relies upon” vs. “agrees is real”) in Him is rescued from the horror of an agonizing eternal death and given eternal life instead! Wait a minute… doesn’t that seem like a benefit to us? What’s the benefit to God? Look again at the first part of v. 16. God’s whole motivation for giving Jesus away to suffer and die was love. But unpack it a little more. What’s the implication of that love? Think about how you feel toward your son or daughter. Even if you have no children, you can likely imagine what you’d feel, the desire that love translates into. It’s deceptively simple: He wants me. He wants you.
God’s character is that of a father who misses and longs for His lost children. If you’re willing, you can see His heart throughout the entire Bible, the glue filling each story, each account. God over and over approaches individuals, calls them to Himself and leads them into, honors them with a role in His restoration work. But does it go beyond knowledge and work? Is there even more than an awareness of God’s desire and His call to participate? Again, we’ll look in His word to see. In John 14, Jesus is encouraging His disciples after revealing to them the hard times coming. He said, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see him or know him… I will not leave you as orphans….” (v. 16-18 ) And notice the promise in v. 26 (The Message): “The Holy Spirit… will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you.” There is more to this faith than just knowledge and labor for God! He sent us a helper, someone to listen to our hearts, our grief, our anger, our own desire, and help us find Father again when we’ve wandered. 2 Corinthians 13:14 describes us as enjoying “fellowship” with the Holy Spirit. What does that sound like to you? To me, it sounds like friendship, like there’s someone with me every minute of my life, ready to help, ready to speak the truth certainly, but in a way that serves Father’s purpose: Restoring me as His son; rebuilding the intimacy with me He desires; holding me up, gripping my hand when I fall. (Ps. 37:23-24) So what is the requisite relationship between Him and me in order for all of this effort, this initiative by the Holy Spirit to really be happening and to have any value? He must be able to speak to me. He must be actively guiding, counseling, comforting me beyond just a feeling, otherwise my prayer would be a one-way conversation.
Honestly, I have struggled over the years with the idea that Father would speak to me, that He would actually respond to my question with an answer. Even though there were several instances I seemed to sense Him helping me work through things, it just felt a little weird to talk about. After all, who did I think I was? I even recall a conversation early in my faith where I told a family member God tells me what to do in tough situations. I received “that look” (you know, the “I’m getting worried” look) and a reply with the tone to match: ”You mean you hear Him talking to you?” In my fear and youth, I adjusted my story and said I meant He tells me through the Bible, much to their relief.
Why is it so uncomfortable to many to consider that the Holy Spirit wants to engage us like this, to actually have an open dialogue with our hearts and give us pointed, real help just like a trusted friend? The only answer I can find is that it just feels too close. The idea of that kind of intimacy chafes the sin still simmering in my flesh and revives that desire to hide from Him which overcame my father Adam so long ago. But the Helper reminds, we can’t really hide from Father; after all, He is the God who made every part of us. And when we try, we’re listening to the serpent again, choosing doubt over trust, fear over love, lies over truth, flesh over spirit. I’ve made that choice innumerable times, and it never led me to anything good.
Even as Christians, sin lures us in, twisting every thing including the lens through which we understand ourselves, sucking us into the hopeless belief that God is still removed, that our destiny rests solely on us getting it right. The lie is, if we don’t chase after Him, if we don’t measure up, we’ll be left behind, stranded, orphaned. But Father gave every human being something no other creation received: His image. He gave us part of Himself. The truth is, God’s after us. He is determined to rescue us, and when we look to the promise of Jesus, the redemption is complete, but His work to restore us is just starting.
Does Father speak to us? Of course He does! But we may be asking the wrong question; maybe we ought to ask, can we hear Him? If not, our flesh might be in the way, muffling His voice. You see, He is never satisfied with us having knowledge or performing good works or even being forgiven. That’s just the beginning! He wants all of you and yearns for the trust, the intimate conversation between Father and child. He adores who you truly are, without the mud of sin, because He made you that way. You’re His most wonderful creation; better than waterfalls and glaciers, more amazing than planets and galaxies, cooler than whales and zebras and ospreys, more beautiful than autumn leaves and sunsets. We’re made especially to be the only ones who can live that close to His heart. He’s joyful over your confession and your praise, is pleased and works through your obedience and your love for others. But He longs for you.