Over the years I've made some observations that have led me to believe followers of Christ often face what seems to be an on-going challenge: hearing God's voice. Sometimes people struggle with how God speaks to them. Other times the question is, "What does His voice sound like?" Or, "How can one know he or she is really receiving God's direction?"
Believe it or not, this is a natural, human struggle--and I don't believe it was ever in God's original design. In fact, everything I read in the Bible points me to the same conclusion: God wants a relationship with people, and relationships are only developed when there is bilateral communication.
In the Old Testament there was a prophet by the name of Samuel. He was born from a woman, Hannah, who for many years was considered barren (unable to conceive a child). Hannah made a promise to God that if He would give her a child she would dedicate him to Him. God granted Hannah her desire and Hannah fulfilled her part of the vow.
Samuel's first encounter with God can be found in 1 Samuel 3:
The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.
One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.
Samuel answered, "Here I am." And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he went and lay down.
Again the Lord called, "Samuel!" And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
"My son," Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down."
Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
A third time the Lord called, "Samuel!" And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!"
Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (NIV)
Notice the first three times Samuel heard the voice of God he ran to Eli, the priest. That's the key: God's voice is always a familiar voice. I have no doubt that Samuel may well have even felt foolish the fourth time saying, "Speak, for your servant is listening," (notice how he conveniently omitted, "Lord," in his response, despite Eli's direction) but he took a step of faith anyway.
The voice of God is always recognizable because it is one that sounds familiar. Often God's voice sounds like your own (which, of course, opens another door of potential confusion that will be explored in a future post).
Another interesting element from this passage is that while Samuel recognized the voice, he needed guidance from someone more mature. This certainly isn't a requirement, but it does show us that God works through people as much as He works with them.