Who’s in control?

I am delighted to welcome author Fiona Lloyd to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. Having also worn an ‘I’m in control’ mask, much of what she shares resonated deeply with me – and the lessons she has learned are full of wisdom pertinent for all of us seeking to walk with God each day…

I’ve spent my professional life wearing a mask. As a teacher, I discovered early on that letting my feelings show was likely to result in ridicule rather than sympathy, and I quickly learned how to disguise my nervousness and anxiety by projecting a calm exterior. Much as I’d like to blame my erstwhile pupils for my desire to be in control, however, they were only reinforcing a habit that had been honed over many years.

A LEARNED BEHAVIOUR

As the eldest of three children, I constantly felt under pressure to set an example. I was academically able, and drove myself to excel as far as I could. Underneath the studious façade, though, was a shy and reserved little girl who lacked the social confidence of her more gregarious siblings, and felt easily intimidated by the banter of her louder classmates. I developed a fear of unpredictable situations, preferring to put myself in settings where I could feel in control of things.

Often, I attempted to mask my insecurities by being overly competitive, but this in turn resulted in a fear of failure, so that I hated to play any game where I stood a good chance of losing. My driven nature and desire for control had not equipped me to cope with the notion of being proved second-best (or worse). And when I didn’t achieve at the level I’d set for myself, I became hugely self-critical.

BECOMING VULNERABLE

I was in my late twenties – and a new mum – when I became aware of God gently picking away at my mask. I’d gone from being a teacher with responsibility for 200 pupils each week to someone whose life was focused around the needs of one small (and very noisy) baby. Suddenly, I didn’t have all the answers anymore, and – without the requirement to keep myself together at work – I realised I needed to allow myself to be vulnerable. With the support of my husband, I spent time receiving prayer ministry from Christian friends, and started to tackle the pressures and beliefs that had contributed to my mask of control.

This was a difficult and painful experience: it’s something of a miracle in itself that I asked for help in the first place, and even more of a miracle that I agreed to return after the first session. Childhood hurts and disappointments had to be faced and dealt with: my natural inclination is to push things under the surface, so this required a complete change of tack. I also had to let go of my reluctance to be beholden to others and make an active choice to be dependent on God.

The change in me has been both dramatic and slow-burning. Those first few sessions led to me sensing God’s loving presence in such a deep and tangible way that I almost floated home afterwards. But I’ve also had to learn that walking with Jesus is about making good choices on an ongoing basis. It’s one thing to forgive X today, but part of that decision means doing my best not to revisit that particular offence tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that past hurts are always instantly healed – some scars are still tender – but being willing to be part of an ongoing process of forgiveness is immensely freeing.

LEARNING TO TRUST OTHERS

A major factor in letting go of my ‘in control’ mask was learning to trust both God and other people. This felt easy when I was on a spiritual high, but when God seemed more distant, or when fellow Christians let me down, I tended to panic and reach for my mask. Understanding that faith grows and matures in the lean times was a difficult lesson (and one I forget all too easily).

However, as I’ve spent less time hiding behind the safety of my mask, I’ve noticed that people are drawn to vulnerability. In my head, I’ve always wanted to be someone who could help others by being calm and in control as I doled out wise advice, and I’ve been slow to recognise that a toughened exterior tends to discourage others from sharing their needs. This feels super-scary – and goes against all my natural instincts – but it appears that God’s strength really is made perfect in my weakness.

Fiona Lloyd is vice-chair of the Association of Christian Writers, and is married with three grown-up children. Her first novel, The Diary of a (trying to be holy) Mum, was published by Instant Apostle on 18 January 2018.

Fiona has also had short stories published in Woman Alive and Writers’ News, and has written articles for Christian Writer and Together Magazine. Fiona works part time as a music teacher, and is a member of the worship team at her local church.

You can follow Fiona on Twitter: @FionaJLloyd & @FionaLloyd16

The importance of rest

 

This week started off with me being interviewed on the Premier Inspirational Breakfast show about the article I wrote in Premier Christianity’s January issue on new ways to connect with God.

We were discussing the fact that so many of us are praying on the run these days, rather than actually stopping in order to spend quality time with God – and whether that means we are squashing Him out of our lives.

It was an interesting discussion, and I talked about the ways in which short, contemplative prayers have given me space to breathe and be revitalised before tackling the day ahead. I also mentioned the daily examen – the practise of looking back over our days and being aware of when we felt God’s presence – and when we didn’t, in order to learn lessons we can take into tomorrow.

Afterwards one of the presenters told me how much they had enjoyed the conversation – and commented on the fact that I was croaky-voiced. I said I was under the weather – probably partly because I’ve been so busy recently. We then joked about how I need to take my own advice (isn’t that so often the case though – we learn something, share it with others and then realise we need to take heed of it again ourselves!)

Then the following cropped up on my Facebook feed today, and it really made me stop and think. I can’t believe it was two years ago that God literally forced me to rest through an ailment that necessitated a minor op. After a month of recuperation, I reflected on what I had learned:

Having spoken to my family about the fact I haven’t felt well for the whole of January, and the impact that has had, I started thinking about what I’ve learned over the last month. Here’s what I’m thankful for:

  1. The reminder that I’m not superwoman, so I don’t have to try to be.

  2.  The enforced rest, which has taught me there are seasons to be gentle on myself rather than always pushing to do more.

  3.  A husband who, while also having his own unusual stints of being ill, has shared the load with me.

  4.  Friends who have shown they truly care – and who have reminded me that it’s okay to ask for help sometimes.

  5.  Breaking free from any preconceived notions of expectations. I’m certainly not indispensable – this time has shown me that – so who can I be encouraging to realise their potential while I cheer them on from the sidelines?

  6.  A deeper understanding and empathy for those who live with long-term conditions.

FEELING GOD’S NUDGE

Those were important lessons, and ones that I have come back to time and time again. But I can feel God’s nudge again and it has made me realise: I don’t want to be forced to rest again – in the deepest place of my heart I acknowledge that I still need to learn how to really live in those ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ every hour of every day:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Learning from Jesus is the wisest thing to do. After all, He had constant demands on His time, but always ensured He got away from the crowds in order to connect with His Father. Do we?

LEADERS CAN MAKE THE WORST LEARNERS

I think that our busy 21st-century lifestyle makes it hard for any of us to carve out time for rest – and God – each day – but it is so vital. And I have found over the years that leaders can be the worst at this! Looking after so many other people, with their needs pressing in constantly, means that it can be easy to forget about your own needs.

I have been researching an article on the benefits of retreats for the next issue of Premier Christianity magazine, and came across the wonderful work of Ellel Scotland. Their Operation Blairmore is specifically for leaders who are burned out and in need of healing themselves.

While the idea of a sabbatical is one I am familiar with, and have seen practised by the leaders in our circle of churches, Blairmore offers 10–14 day retreats specifically for those in ministry or business leadership.

The director, Peter Brokaar, has written an article on the blessing of rest, and has graciously allowed me to quote the bulk of it here. I think there is much we can learn from the wisdom within it.

BLESSED BY REST

There is an immense pressure in this world that keeps us busy, occupied, forever moving and squeezing out time for rest, space and healthy relaxation.

The Bible does tell us indeed to imitate the busy ants and most Christians agree that ‘Idle hands can be the devil’s tools.’ But what if this right need to avoid laziness gets pushed too far? It’s so easy for us to let inner pressures of fear and guilt push us into ongoing, relentless busyness. On top of that the technocentric world of today seems out to rob us of the last quiet moments we had left. We’re in real danger of losing out on one of God’s greatest blessings – genuine rest!

In between all the other voices clamouring for attention we hear Jesus’ eternal invitation call out to us: ‘Come to Me, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). But have we heeded that voice? Or has His call too been pushed out by other, more demanding voices? A person that has found true rest – is that how we would describe the average Christian, or even ourselves?

Jesus invited us to come to Him, to live from a place close to His heart. He wants us to ‘abide in Him’, in the language of John 15, and from that place of close relationship to bear fruit for God’s glory.

But it’s almost as if the Lord’s words got lost in translation, as if His words have gone through some kind of filter. So instead of coming, abiding and bearing fruit we, as a church, seem to have misheard the Lord: Work harder and make sure you keep very busy at all times!

Of the Ten Commandments it is the fourth commandment, the one about a weekly rest day, that gets by far the most attention. Rest is important, says Exodus 20, because of Creation. God rested the seventh day and hallowed it. So we, too, should rest one day per week. But why, we naturally ask? Isn’t there a lot of good to do? Jesus answers why: “Sabbath was made for man…” (Mark 2:27).

God built a rest day into creation because of His love towards mankind. It’s amazing to think of this: after having been created, humankind’s first full day was a Sabbath day– a day spent in God’s rest. It wasn’t until AFTER that day of rest that work begun. First rest (in God), then work. That is the picture the Bible gives us.

The enemy of humankind wants to steal God-given (and even God-ordained!) rest from us and he uses the world system as well as our internal pressures to accomplish his wicked goal. He knows that as long as he keeps us running on the proverbial hamster wheel we cannot connect deeply with God in that place of rest.

Jesus, on the other hand, is still inviting us to regain that place of rest which was lost at the fall. Hebrews 4:11 admonishes us to ‘make every effort to enter into [God’s] rest’, which tells us that regaining rest somehow requires effort and goes against the grain of our sinful nature.

 

There’s a lot to think about there. Can I just leave you with a challenge – how are you actively seeking God’s rest?

How finding my authentic self transformed my writing – and my life

 

Today I welcome my good friend James Prescott to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. He is incredibly honest about his own journey, which also gives real insight into the struggle with authenticity that writers can have, especially when chasing after recognition. Thank you James for your honesty!

Authentic.

It’s a word which gets banded around a lot nowadays. Indeed, it’s been used so much that now it’s become a word associated with jargon, with anyone using it in relation to themselves, often being labelled as inauthentic.

But authenticity is needed more than ever.

LOSING INTEGRITY

As a writer, with the saturation of platform building, the urgent need for all authors to ‘brand’, and build a following, and marketing intruding into the writing world more and more, a writer I need to keep my eyes open to any lack of integrity and honesty in my work.

But there was a time when I lost my authenticity – as a writer, and as a result, as a person. And it came from this need to please, this desperation for success, for followers.

I had been writing for a while, and enjoyed blogging. I toyed with wanting more, but had never pushed for it. Then I did a writing course which challenged me to step up, be more professional, and to write an e-book, a manifesto, and make it public.

 

The promise, the guarantee which was dangled out in front of me, was lots of people subscribing to my blog, and ultimately a book contract. Given I had no followers at the time, it was beyond anything I could imagine.

And it triggered my then fragile ego, and gave it life. In time, I began to lose my soul. My writing lost focus, lost its truth. I was more focused on good graphics, comments and titles than great blog posts – and I didn’t even know what my voice really was.

I look back at that time disappointed in myself. I was more concerned with numbers, with stats, than creating great, honest work. And I’d lost myself in the process too. The whole image I was giving to the world, I knew wasn’t true. This impacted every single area of my life.

When I lost my authenticity, I almost didn’t know who I was anymore.

I was wearing a mask, not even knowing who I was underneath.

TAKING ACTION

And once good friends confirmed this to me, I had to take action. It couldn’t go on this way. So I made an ultimately life-changing decision.

I decided to stop writing publicly. For as long as it took for me to find my voice.

For as long as it took to find my integrity.

For as long as it took to find myself again.

So I wrote for myself on a private blog, every day for 15 minutes. Free-writing. No agenda, no plan, no structure, no editing. As time went on, it was something I began to look forward to. It saved me so much energy I’d used worrying about promoting work, or publishing blog posts.

Slowly, but surely, I began to notice many of these posts were all pointing to a particular direction. Similar themes were emerging. Themes around creativity, identity, calling, and being true to yourself. What it meant to be an authentic writer.

Suddenly, words were pouring out of me. I wrote about 10 ‘proper’ blog posts in a short space of time, all unpublished of course. It became the most creative, most enjoyable period I’ve had as a writer.

And I felt more alive, more myself than I’d ever felt in my life.

I felt like me again. In fact, I knew I’d connected with my true self.

RECONNECTED

When the time came to publish publicly again, I was reluctant. But I now knew I had something worthwhile to share. And I was going to share it, not for anyone else, but for me. Because it was who I was.

This material poured out into an e-book. I launched and promoted it, not expecting anything back and not even needing any major response anymore. I didn’t care. And strangely, it ended up being my most successful piece of work.

But the point of it all was – I was myself again. I’d connected with my true self. I’d taken off the mask and found who I really was.

And that’s what being authentic is all about. It’s about connecting with your truest self. Having integrity in how you live your life.

When you find that, it impacts every area of your life. Work. Faith. Relationships. Health.

So today, have the courage to take off your masks and be who you truly are. Tell the truth of your story.

From my experience, you’ll never have any cause to regret it.

James Prescott is a writer, podcaster and writing coach from Sutton, near London. He is the author of numerous books including Dance Of The Writer – The Beginners Guide To Authentic Writing, and Mosaic Of Grace. He has written for the Huffington Post and is a ‘Top Writer’ on creativity and writing on Medium, as well as hosting the weekly Poema Podcast. You can access all his work at jamesprescott.co.uk and follow him on Twitter at @JamesPrescott77

You are not your social media

At the end of last week, a new report from England’s children’s commissioner called for schools to better support tweens with the emotional impact of social media. I was asked to write my thoughts in response on Premier Christianity’s blog, as it ties in with a subject I cover in Taking Off the Mask. Here’s an extract:

Is our desire for ‘Likes’ causing us harm?

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube and other social media websites and apps have minimum age limits (often 13) in order to protect children. But a new report from England’s children’s commissioner says that three-quarters of 10–12 year olds already have accounts. The commissioner, Anne Longfield, this week called for schools not only to provide e-safety education, but work more closely with children as they move from primary to secondary school in order to prepare them for the emotional impact engaging more heavily with social media will have on them.

Our children are growing up in the culture of the selfie. This reinforces the notion that we are judged by what we look like. In that vital, yet delicate, period of learning more about who they are as people the digital world can often pile on extra, unhelpful pressure.

The commissioner’s report found that children were far too dependent on ‘likes’, looking to social media for much of their validation as people. Here are some of the children’s comments:

  • “If I got 150 likes, I’d be like, ‘that’s pretty cool, it means they like you'” – Aaron, 11
  • “I just edit my photos to make sure I look nice” – Annie, 11
  • “I saw a pretty girl and everything she has I want, my aim is to be like her” – Bridie, 11

The report may have looked solely at the impact on children, but in my own work I’ve found that the emotional impact of social media can be felt just as keenly by us adults.

If you would like to read the rest of this article, please click here.

Cultivating thankfulness

My daughter took this picture to help me celebrate!

In honour of Thanksgiving, I have decided to blog about thankfulness. For those of you who have followed my blog for a while, you will know that I did a series on thankfulness a while ago so I was going to choose my favourite post from that. However, I have just been writing about new ways to connect with God for a piece in January’s Premier Christianity magazine, and I have talked about cultivating thankfulness in that – so have decided to take my own advice! In that article,  one of my suggestions is to list things to be thankful to God for each day, so here are mine (actually for the month of November, as Thanksgiving falls towards the end of it). I am thankful for:

The ongoing health and wellbeing of my beautiful family – they are such fun to be around.

The chance to do a job I love but still be around most of the time for my children.

Completing my first month in a new role at Premier Christianity – the first that has lured me back into an office for over 18 years!

Not just one but two books published this month! I know I’ve spoken rather a lot about Taking Off the Mask, but the new one, Cover to Cover: 1, 2 & 3 John: Walking in the truth can be purchased here.

An incredible set of friends, many of whom celebrated with me at my first official book launch.

A wonderful, supportive church family, who responded so well to Steve and I sharing from the heart this month.

An amazing first musical evening at my daughter’s new secondary school – the talent was incredible.

 

Publication day!

I was quiet during the whole #MeToo viral campaign – mainly because I had just started a new job and life was incredibly busy. But I was really struck by something that Reese Witherspoon said about things needing to come out into the open in order to be healed.

That, I think, is so true – and can be related to our spiritual walk too. It wasn’t until I had been completely exposed and the big issues in my marriage and in my own walk with God had been dealt with, that I could begin to take those first steps of walking as a leader with real integrity and honesty.

I really feel God redeemed my worst mistakes and has actually turned the fruit into my main ministry – being vulnerable and open in order to encourage others to be too.

My book, Taking Off the Mask, is out today. In it, I am incredibly honest about my somewhat shameful past – although it holds no shame for me today. He allowed me to be exposed, brought everything out into the light, in order to bring His healing. I know God has forgiven me and has also called me to share my own journey and what I have learned along the way in order to encourage and challenge others.

I do hope that that is what my book does for those of you who read it. It is a straightforward, honest book. It does contain questions in order for you to dig deeper, to look at how you respond to some of the issues I’ve faced and raise in the book.

If you would like to buy it from me, those of you in the UK can do so here at the reduced price of £8.99 (with free postage).

Thanks for your continued support – and if you are on Facebook do come to my Facebook live event at 7.30pm GMT.

A malignant motivator

I am delighted to welcome Lucy Mills onto my blog today. Her book, Undivided Heart, was published last week and I received my copy today – I’m so looking forward to reading it! As part of her blog tour, she has provided a guest post that really resonates with me, because it covers a subject I include in my own book, Taking Off the Mask, which is out on Friday!

Our culture is obsessed with looking a certain way – whether this is physical appearance, or appearing to be successful. But this obsession also strays into the spiritual. We can get enamoured with ideas of not just being but looking like a ‘good Christian’ (whatever that is), or coming across ‘right’ in the way we live. When life throws up inconvenient challenges, as it inevitably does, we hiccup. Sometimes we go on the defence, entrenching ourselves. Other times we go on the attack, criticising others for the ‘specks’ in their eyes while ignoring the planks in our own. Neither reaction helps us. We end up missing out on a deeper encounter with the divine because we’re so busy with trying to look good.

This need for approval – this desire to be liked – can become a malignant motivator in our lives. Our sense of worth becomes so contingent upon it that we work to live in a way that gets us liked. We bury how we really feel in the attempt to put on a show of ‘likeableness’.

She waits to see
if you will like her
She needs to know
that you will like her
She cannot bear it
if you don’t like her

We may not even be conscious of it; the motive has become so pervasive in us that we act on almost automatically. And isn’t it easy, in an age where ‘likes’ can be counted?

But something inside us worries, because we know that this façade is not who we are. We may ignore this niggle. As well as hiding from others, we can hide from ourselves. But we can’t hide from God.

All our strutting, all our dabbing on of Christian-coloured concealer, all that sucking in of our spiritual tummies – it doesn’t fool God one jot.

And it doesn’t address the issue that what we think of as being a ‘good Christian’ or saying/doing the ‘right things’ may not be in tune with God’s priorities anyway. Have we made small things into huge issues and then dismissed the important stuff amid nit-picking at the unimportant? Instead of gracious, we come across as judgemental. Instead of loving, we come across as arrogant and proud.

God uses the weak. The messy. The people not wearing make-up.

God uses you – and God uses me – in our weakness and our frailty, in our foolishness and vulnerability.

God sees us and God loves us. That is our great motivator, as we blossom in the assurance of what has been done for us, realising how much value is given to us as children of God.

Undivided Heart: Finding Meaning and Motivation in Christ explores the things that shape us, drive us and define us, asking where our true identity lies and how this is reflected in our lives.  Find out more (including where to buy) at www.lucy-mills.com/undivided-heart

 

Thanking God for ALL experiences

gratefulpic

A reflection and response…

As we looked at previously, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 talks about the fact that we need to learn to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’. Certainly the apostle Paul was a great example of this, praising God even while in chains. However, when we think about thanksgiving we don’t often turn to those situations that we find difficult or painful. And yet that is precisely the place God wants us to get to – being able to love and thank Him whatever is going on around (and to) us.

I find the hymn I’ve put below interesting because it does just that. Rather than only focusing on thanking God for the good times the writer has juxtaposed the positive with the negative: pleasant weather – and life experiences – with stormy, comfort with pain, roses with thorns.

Think back: how often have you thanked God for the difficulties in your life, as well as the easy times?

Read through this hymn, really reflecting on the individual images it contains. Try and place yourself in the hymn, and make yourself the protagonist. For example, what memories do you want to bring up and remember? What tears that you thought were now forgotten have brimmed up again? What storms have you weathered? When did you feel His comfort amongst the despair? What requests are you glad He denied? In what ways have you felt His hope?

Thanks to God for my Redeemer,

Thanks for all Thou dost provide!

Thanks for times now but a memory,

Thanks for Jesus by my side!

Thanks for pleasant, balmy springtime,

Thanks for dark and stormy fall!

Thanks for tears by now forgotten,

Thanks for peace within my soul!

Thanks for prayers that Thou hast answered,

Thanks for what Thou dost deny!

Thanks for storms that I have weathered,

Thanks for all Thou dost supply!

Thanks for pain, and thanks for pleasure,

Thanks for comfort in despair!

Thanks for grace that none can measure,

Thanks for love beyond compare!

Thanks for roses by the wayside,

Thanks for thorns their stems contain!

Thanks for home and thanks for fireside,

Thanks for hope, that sweet refrain!

Thanks for joy and thanks for sorrow,

Thanks for heav’nly peace with Thee!

Thanks for hope in the tomorrow,

Thanks through all eternity!

(Written in 1891 by August Ludvig Storm, of the Swedish Salvation Army. Translated in 1931 by Carl E. Backstrom and set to music by Swedish composer Johannes Alfred Hultman.)

Take some time to ask God to reveal to you experiences that are still locked away that you’ve never thanked Him for precisely because they were difficult. Ask for His revelation about them, so that you can see them through His eyes. Wait, seek His wisdom and then speak out a prayer of thanks, acknowledging the part they have played in shaping you. If there is pain or hurt that needs dealing with sit before your Father and ask Him to pour His healing balm on you, opening yourself up to His love and care.

You might like to try writing or drawing a juxtaposing poem or image yourself, picking up on both the good and not so easy things you want to thank God for. Keep whatever you create near you for the rest of the week so that you can use it as a starting point for reflective prayer.

Taking a thankfulness walk

womanwalking

As we get back to our series on thankfulness, I encourage you to get outside into the fresh air…

I once wrote about one of the first walks my oldest child did as a toddler. I was incredibly frustrated because she was so slow – and so easily distracted. Every little thing held huge interest: a crack in the pavement, a spider crawling along a wall, a lamppost. As I tried to chivvy her along I felt God tell me to get down to her level and simply enjoy the walk through her eyes. The experience taught me a great deal…

So might I suggest you take some time out today (or some time this week) to go for a walk. You may have a park or open space nearby – if not, you can do this activity in your local streets or you may prefer to go for a drive into the country so that you can then walk in the midst of the countryside.

Start by breathing in the air around you, thanking God for the air that sustains not only you but also all the living things nearby.

Ask God to help you see things afresh, from a new, and grateful, perspective.

Begin walking, paying careful attention to all the little details around you. It may be a ladybird on a leaf (or pavement slab) or a bird that flies past… Each time you notice something stop walking, pause for a moment and then thank God for that particular thing. (It could even be a house you particularly like or an ambulance whizzing past – you could thank God for human creativity or the ability to help one another…)

Walk for as long as you are able and then, as you are bringing your walk to an end, thank God for the experience and the joy of being surrounded by His creation.

Hearing God

Tania Harris - cream - author preferred - large jpgI am delighted that Tania Harris has agreed to guest blog on my site. A pastor, speaker and author she is also the founder of God Conversations, a global ministry that equips people to recognise and respond to God’s voice. She has recently released a book that is also called God ConversationsTania is an ordained minister with the Australian Christian Churches and Hillsong is her church home in Sydney, Australia.

 

 

Waiting for God to speak out loud? Think again…

I’ve always wanted to hear the audible voice of God. I imagined it booming forth, sending tremors through my body and swallowing me up in a mystical cloud, leaving me with no doubt where it came from. In fact, when I first started learning to hear God’s voice, this is what I expected. But sadly the booming voice never came. Yes, I’ve heard the voice of God many times, but it has never come out loud.

Perhaps you’ve had the same expectation – and perhaps the same outcome. Part of the reason we expect God to speak out loud is due to the assumptions we make when reading the Bible. We read; ‘And God said…’ and we liken it to a friend talking with us across the table. But a closer look at Scripture reveals this to be a misplaced understanding. Hearing God’s voice should be understood more as a spiritual experience than a physical one.

 A spiritual voice

When Jesus preached his sermons, he often closed with the line; ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear’ (eg. Mark 4:9,23, Luke 8:8). The reason Jesus spoke in parables was to differentiate between those who had open hearts and those who didn’t. This shows us that hearing God’s message wasn’t primarily a physical experience – after all, His audiences heard His words, yet many still wandered away. As Jesus said, ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’ (Matthew 13:13, see also Ezekiel 12:2). Unlike these, we are exhorted to see with the ‘eyes of our hearts’ (Ephesians 1:18) – the emphasis is on our spiritual eyes and ears, not our natural ones.

This was probably one of the more surprising discoveries for me in my early days of hearing God’s voice. One of the first times I heard Him speak was while walking through a park near my home. In the middle of a song, the words: ‘Give all your money away’ came into my head. Though it came as a thought just like any thought, I knew the thought wasn’t mine (largely because it wasn’t something I would say!) The voice was quiet and gentle yet firm; instinctively I knew it was God. It was also consistent with what God had been doing in my life and later when I heeded it, brought about incredible miracles.

The audible voice

While I’ve never heard the audible voice of God, a number of those I interviewed recently for my doctoral research say they have. For most of them, the audible voice came at an urgent moment (like when they were about to walk into the path of an oncoming car) or at some other pivotal time of their lives. Yet even on those occasions, God’s voice was not experienced through the ‘outer ear’. When asked if someone else would have heard it if they’d been with them, the vast majority said no. While the voice had been strikingly loud to the person, it had still been heard from ‘inside’ of themselves.

Though it’s hard to know for sure, the Apostle Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus seems to have been similar (if only we could interview him!) Luke, the writer of Acts, reports the story of how Jesus appeared to Saul and speaks to him in a vision (Acts 9:1–7). While there were others with Paul, Luke says they didn’t share the experience, since, ‘they heard the sound’, but ‘they did not see anyone’. Later when Paul recounts the scene for himself, he says his companions ‘saw the light’, but didn’t ‘understand the voice’ (Acts 22:9). Even a powerful experience such as Paul’s conversion seems to be a largely subjective one, only fully received by the audience it was intended.

 The mind as spiritual receiver

Theologian Gregory Boyd writes about the nature of God’s voice in his book, Seeing is Believing. He suggests that the experience of hearing God takes place primarily in the mind or the imagination, and that this is consistent with what Scriptures describes. For example, when Daniel recounts his visions, he notes them as ‘visions that passed through’ his mind (Daniel 7:1,15). They are subjective and internal experiences that no one else can participate in. Hence those who were with Daniel didn’t see his visions (Daniel 10:7). It is also significant that the Hebrew words commonly used for ‘vision’ indicate a unique kind of seeing, something that is distinct from ordinary physical seeing.

It’s important to understand that the experience of hearing God’s voice internally in no way denies its authenticity. Boyd highlights the fact that while modern Western people identify the imagination with make-believe, ancient people and particularly those in biblical times did not. In fact, hearing God’s voice in our minds should not be surprising given that while the Holy Spirit cannot be seen in physical form, we know He abides with us wherever we go (Acts 2:16,17).

On a practical level, this understanding of God’s voice is essential. If we are waiting for an external objective voice, we may be missing out on the still small voice of Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 19:9–13). Instead of waiting for an audible voice, we need to be inviting the Spirit to enter our thinking and our imagination, to inspire our hearts and stir our thoughts, so that we can be like the people Jesus exhorted us to be; having ears to hear what the Spirit is saying.

9781780781884To read more of Tania’s journey with hearing God’s voice and the impact it has had on her own life, I would heartily recommend her book God Conversations. Do also check out her website