The below interview excerpts about hearing God’s voice is taken from Vol. 11 no. 4 of Cutting Edge magazine. Cutting Edge is the church planting magazine of Vineyard USA. I’ve loved the Vineyard church association / denomination for over 10 years. There are a few church associations / denominations that I admire like Newfrontiers and Sovereign Grace Ministries, but Vineyard has been the one that has influenced my theology the most because of their balance. And I think many people would rate John Wimber, one of the founders of Vineyard and now with Jesus, as one of the most, if not the most, respected and influential charismatic leaders of all time. Charismatic Christianity wouldn’t be what it is today without Wimber. Besides the Vineyard’s emphasis on supernatural Christianity and signs and wonders, I also love their passion for the poor and marginalized.
I like this interview (full interview found here) because it’s refreshingly honest about the issue of hearing God’s voice:
Cutting Edge: Could you define conversational prayer and talk about how it’s unique or different from other forms of prayer?
Caroline Park: When I talk to God, I actively wait and expect him to reply to my talk. It’s different from other forms of prayer in that I don’t have an active agenda. I might have a question or some issue that I want to talk to God about, but like a conversation with a friend, I don’t really know where the conversation is going to end. I respond to His response. And in that way, I am more open to His agenda and how and where He’s taking the conversation.
CE: How do you know that you’re really hearing God and you’re not just making it up in your head?
CP: I don’t know (laughs). There is always the possibility that we are making it up. It’s always a possibility, no matter how experienced somebody is, just because we’re human beings, and we’re fallible. Many of our emotions, experiences, hopes and wishes do come in during these conversations with God. Having said that, I think by doing it a lot and by responding and acting on what we think we’ve heard, we can get a feel of what it felt like to hear from God. Sometimes, we can confirm it later by the actual circumstances or what other people have heard.
As we keep going, we get to know His voice, His tone. You get to know this person. That’s why the term conversational is very descriptive and appropriate here. The whole point of conversation is getting to know somebody; in a lot of situations, it’s more so than getting the answers.
I try to have faith in what I hear from God; at the same time, I am open to the possibility of mis-hearing Him, or misunderstanding him, or misapplying whatever He has said to me.
CE: Would you say you’ve gotten better at understanding Him over the years?
CP: I think so. Prayer changes me and gives me a deeper understanding of God. This helps me to understand and realize where He’s coming from. It has become easier and more consistent for me to have conversations with God. But there are still times when I feel stuck or feel like God is silent.
CE: How would someone get started in praying more conversationally?
CP: It’s helpful to keep in mind that everyone connects differently. Just because I have this type of relationship with God doesn’t mean that my husband or somebody else will have the same kind of relationship with God. When I talk to other people about hearing from God, it’s helpful to introduce a lot of different ways of connecting with God. Some people start a conversation looking at an artwork. Some people like to listen to music. For some people, it helps if they’re moving their bodies, and they have a very good experience when they’re exercising or taking a long walk.
For me, and for many around me, the first place we connected with God in a significant conversational way is journaling. In journaling, I usually recommend that people write down everything, including their own questions. I might just write down, “God, how are you doing?” and then wait and expect God to say something, and write down everything that comes to my mind without judgment.
When I journal, I can try to shut down the critical faculties in my brain and write anything, whereas when I’m carrying a conversation in my head, that’s a lot more difficult. So we write down everything, and then we go back, and—after the conversation’s over—try to discern what might have been from God and what might not be. That whole conversation sometimes might not be from God, but parts of it can be. This is the tricky part, but trying it over and over again, and especially talking to people who are doing similar things, will lead to a deeper conversational life with God.
CE: So you’re not saying to shut off your critical faculties entirely, but rather, in some sense, you suspend them for the time being so you can have the conversation, and then you can look back and say, “Okay, now let’s turn them back on and try to think about how this would relate to whether God was speaking or not.”
CP: That’s right. When I’m not sure about whether I’m hearing from God in my mind, I drive myself crazy trying to have a conversation and at the same time trying to analyze what I’m hearing. I mean, I’m sure we’ve all had this kind of interaction with another person that we can see. We can find ourselves thinking, “Is this person telling me the truth?” or, “Am I really understanding what he’s saying?” And then we cannot be really present in that moment and engage in the conversation. When we first start this kind of listening practice, or when we are emotionally charged about something, those doubts and questions constantly come and interfere with the conversation.
CE: So the key thing, both for Christians and non-Christians, is not following some set of rules, but actually just relating personally to God?
CP: …There is a power, amazing power, that comes from the word of God when it comes to a person directly, as opposed to me saying to somebody, “God loves you.” It is a power that unlocks people’s hearts and that enables and empowers them to really, truly believe it.
At the same time, it is a wise thing to have safety guidelines when you teach about hearing God. Even when they’re playing at the playground, kids can get hurt. When we hear from God, we hold it lightly, especially when we hear from God for other people. It is up to that person to decide whether this is from God or not. We teach people that they should talk to people they trust spiritually before making any major decisions on the basis of hearing something from God. We have to have humility in this practice.
I was asking one of my daughters “What should I do with my hair? Should I keep it long or short?” She was just kind of chatting with me, and at one point she said, “Well, maybe you can ask God about it,” In our family we talk about talking to God and asking him questions a lot. So I said, “Oh, yeah, maybe I could do that,” and she responded, “Yeah, but then again, God might ask you, what do you want to do with your hair?” It really touched my heart because she understands that God cares about how we feel, our desires, who we are. It’s not just about doing the right thing but about having relationship with God and knowing ourselves who we are in God.
It’s helpful to think about our relationship and our life with God as being in a garden with clear boundaries. But there’s a lot of space as well, where we can explore and expand, like the Garden of Eden that God gave to the human race. There are boundaries. But there are also a lot more things that are not about right and wrong—instead they’re about adventures, exploration, and the process of having relationship with God.
This image of a garden is opposed to the image of a tightrope, where there is one answer, and I need to ask God and hear from him so that I will know that right answer and do the right thing…because otherwise I will somehow fall and it will not be good for my life. That’s a lot of pressure, and it induces a lot of guilt and fear in our relationship with God. There are things that have a “right” answer, but most of the things in life are of a different nature. It’s more about enjoying him and enjoying myself and enjoying our relationship than getting the right answer.