Often times, when I go through our unit on Spiritual Disciplines, I tell my students to "listen for God." Recently, however, after a quiz we took, it became obvious to me that I never really described to my students what it looks like to actually hear God. If He's speaking, what does it "sound" like? What does it mean to "hear God?" Although the short answer is "God speaks through the church, scripture, prayer, circumstances, and the Holy Spirit," this is not always a clear enough answer.
There are a few stories I think of from scripture that deal with this question. The first one that comes to mind is the calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3), in which God calls Samuel three times in an audible voice. Great, but this doesn't happen very often.
The second story I think of is the baptism of Jesus described in John 1:29-34. This passage is John's actual testimony of Jesus's baptism. What is interesting here is that John witnesses the Spirit descend on Jesus "like a dove." This is a case where John "hears" God, but it is visual rather than audible. Based on the other Gospels, I have come to the conclusion that it was a literal dove landing or hovering around Jesus, and this was interpreted by John as a sign of the Holy Spirit anointing Jesus.
How might this passage help us today in understanding how to "hear God?" Well, for one, God does seem to use signs. A sign is a miracle or unusual action not seen in nature (think of how strange it would be to see a wild dove perched on the shoulder of a man who just got dunked in water). In this case, there were two parts to "hearing God." First, it was God speaking through a bizarre event. Two, it was John wanting to pay close attention to any possible word from God. The words came, just not in an audible voice, rather through a sign.
This leads me to my third and final story: that of Elijah in Horeb in 1 kings 19. In this event, God sends wind, an earthquake, and fire- all events associated with power. But that is not where Elijah hears God. Instead, it's in the "gentle whisper" that Elijah hears Him. Although it does say God spoke, it appears as though the talking comes after the whisper. The whisper, as far as I can tell, is more of a feeling or urge of some kind, as Elijah responds by going to the "mouth of the cave."
This is probably the most applicable understanding for us today when we want to hear God's voice. God may speak in an audible voice (through mentors or in a literal sense). He may speak through signs (such as the dove or miracles). But most often, in my experience, he speaks through whispers. I see this as feelings of peace, a desire to act, a feeling of anxiety, or an emotion of empathy. Usually, these feelings should be understood in the context of the situation. For example, if I am praying, and I've been worrying a lot about a big test I have coming up, and suddenly I feel a sense of peace around this test, I think God is very clearly speaking to me. Another example that happened to me recently during a time of reading scripture was when I read the Beatitudes. I was sitting with my 8th grade students, and as I read the first Beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," I thought, "Could I honestly pray to God- Lord, make me poor so that I can be blessed"? The answer was no. Even now I still struggle with that thought. The point being, as I read, the Spirit drove my thoughts directly to the actions based on Jesus's words: you should pray to become the poor in spirit!
One final note on hearing God's voice; a good way to tell if it is God speaking to you versus your own thoughts and feelings (or even something from Satan!), is to ask "does the action that comes from this feeling or emotion line up with Scripture? Does it lead me closer to or away from God?" If the answer is yes, then it could very well be God speaking! So next time you practice a spiritual discipline, pay close attention to your thoughts, feelings and emotions.