(Part Three of “Hearing God’s Voice”)

When do I get my burning bush?

Most of us have seen the fantastic moment portrayed on the big screen one way or another – the most classic one starring Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Out of the burning bush emanates the audible, reverberating masculine voice of God as He calls out to Moses for the first time and gives him purpose.

My personal favorite rendition is the animated Prince of Egypt, beautifully illustrated with swirling colors of light and underscored by a majestic soundtrack as God’s booming voice alternates between commanding force and gentle whispers. I shiver in awe every time I see it, especially toward the end as the music crescendos and God promises that with his staff “you shall do My wonders!”

DeMille’s epic piece steps up the spectacle near the end as Moses stands upon Mount Sinai while God, in clear-diction English from above, authoritatively pronounces each of the ten commandments and simultaneously sends fire from the sky to inscribe them onto the tablets.

These are amazing scenes, illuminating the power of God’s voice. 

Films with more modern takes like to portray God as a person that looks and sounds a lot like Morgan Freeman or George Burns communicating face to face with someone in an office space or bathroom.

While few would argue the latter are biblical portrayals of God, I suspect many connect with them because they make God’s voice and presence a little more personal and tangible.

I imagine most of us, after seeing any of the films above, look forward to the possibility of someday having our own tangible “burning bush” or “mountaintop” experience.

In Part One of this series, I shared how God speaks to each of us continuously and that listening to that voice can have a significant impact on the 35,000 decisions we make each day. In Part Two, I recounted my own “miracle” story of learning how we can truly know His voice.

But many reading this are likely asking the questions (ones I often ask myself):

 “If it’s so easy to hear God’s voice, then why do I still struggle?”

“I’ve never heard an audible voice booming from above or had Morgan Freeman magically appear in my living room. When do I get my burning bush moment?”

These are completely understandable questions, considering the ways God’s voice has been portrayed on film or even the ways we talk about it.

But one of the first things we need to understand about the burning bush, the giving of the ten commandments, and other similar incidents recorded in scripture is this: the Bible covers spans of thousands of years – with only the most extraordinary of events chosen to be recorded. These “miraculous” occurrences in comparison to the number of years covered are extremely small.

In other words, such incidents were exceedingly unusual and not at all the normal way that God communicates.

Moses himself was 80 years old when God spoke to him from the bush. That means that this “friend of God,” specially chosen since birth, spent at least 29,200 days on this earth before he ever had his own burning bush moment.

But it’s also worth noting that there are indicators in the text that this was not the first time God had spoken to Moses. I believe God had actually been speaking to Moses for a long time before. What made the incident extraordinary is that God used the burning bush as an attention-getter to speak some very unusual and profound things. 

I would argue that all the signs and wonders portrayed throughout the Bible were not moments of God communicating to individuals for the first time but rather attention-getters to compel them to actually listen.

If God speaks to you in the forest…

But if God regularly speaks to people outside of such extraordinary, attention-getting devices, what is that voice even like?

The Oxford Dictionary first defines “voice” as, “The sound produced in a person’s larynx and uttered through the mouth.”

But does God have a larynx or a real, physical mouth?

Sound itself, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “Vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear.” 

Does that mean God emits vibrations through the air to reach your ears?

And if God’s voice does actually make a vibrational noise, what does it actually sound like? Is it masculine or feminine? Quiet or thunderous?

And in what language? Hebrew, Greek, King James English with all the “thees” and “thous?” Or does God adapt every time to the language of the specific recipient?

We know from further definitions of “voice,” that it can refer to something beyond a physical sound, such as having a place of influence – e.g. having a voice in the matter.

Scripture makes clear that God’s voice has a commanding place of influence:

“The voice of the LORD is powerful…

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars…

The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth

and strips the forests bare” (Psalm 29:4, 5, 9).

We also know that “speaking” itself doesn’t always have to mean audible use of language. For example, one might find that a certain piece of art somehow just “speaks” to you.

Thus, when God’s voice speaks to you, does it necessarily mean something audible? Or could it mean something much deeper than that? In other words…

If God speaks to you in the forest and no one else is around to hear it, does He make a sound?

Closer to a painting or piece of art

In my passionate quest over the years to try to understand God’s voice more, I have discovered a few notable things. 

I cover this in far more detail in the book Rethinking God, but in my research of the scriptures, I could find only two definitive instances in the entire Bible (covering thousands of years) where God spoke audibly in the language of all the recipients. 

In the very few other instances that God definitively made an audible sound, only a single recipient was able to understand what the voice said, while others around them heard it as something indiscernible – often like the sound of thunder. 

In one of these instances, Jesus made it clear after God spoke to him that the audible sound wasn’t even necessary for his own sake, as he tells the crowd, ““This voice was for your benefit, not mine” (John 12:30).

If there are any examples in the Bible of a person who constantly heard from God all day long, it would be Jesus. Yet here he was telling everyone that he didn’t need the audible; and there are no records in the New Testament of Jesus walking around with a constant soundtrack narration of God speaking to him out loud.

But what about the examples of God speaking to people like Abraham, Noah, Moses at the burning bush, and all the prophets?

An analysis of the Hebrew used to describe all these instances never specifically indicates that God spoke to them with an audible sound. For example, in chronicling God speaking to Moses at the bush, the word for “said,” וַיֹּ֖אמֶר (way·yō·mer) – as in “God said” – is the same word translated earlier in the passage as “said to himself” or “thought” when describing Moses’s decision to look at the bush – as in “So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight’” (Exo 3:3).

Does this mean that none of it was audible? Not necessarily, but it’s purely an assumption on our part that any of it was.

What it does mean is that if we were to somehow magically look in on that moment of Moses before the burning bush, instead of some masculine, commanding voice audibly emanating from the fire, what we might witness is a shepherd standing barefooted before a wondrous sight in deep, quiet introspection – as though he were contemplating his past, his purpose, and the nature of being itself.

As I wrote in Rethinking God:

“Could it be…that the I Am’s speaking to Abraham and Moses was something closer to an inner conviction than an audible sound? Could it be that God’s speaking to Moses from a burning bush was closer to the way a painting or piece of art might ‘speak’ to someone as opposed to how your neighbor might shout out, ‘Hello!’ as you step out the front door?” 

It’s also an assumption on our part that God spoke to Moses and these other individuals in their own language. 

In his seminal book on neuroscience titled The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist points out that the left half of the brain is the side for systemization and language. The right side, however, connects with that which is “other” and consequently the divine. It is also the side for artistic appreciation and intuition – things that cannot easily be expressed in words. 

It is the job of the left-half of the brain to translate what happens on the right into language – something that is not always easily done. I would contend that most likely Moses and the others actually heard God in this “other” and then translated that into language as they shared with people what God “spoke.”

Unfortunately, as McGilchrist stresses, we have become left-brain dominant, particularly in the modern Western World. Consequently, we have a hard time seeing God as being able to speak to us through anything but language, and we end up missing out on the most common way that God actually does communicate.

In all the wrong places

But the struggle to hear and recognize God’s voice is not just a modern problem.

Take the story of Elijah the prophet as recorded in 1 Kings 19, for instance. After being part of a miraculous event in which Elijah clearly heard from God, he fled for his life when Queen Jezebel threatened to kill him.

Then after a brief stop at a bush with miraculous food provision, Elijah traveled another 40 days and 40 nights until he made his way into a cave on Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai – the very same mountain where Moses received the commandments, or as the text states “the mountain of God.” 

There God asked him an important question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and soon after instructed him to ““Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” From there the text tells us:

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave (1 Kings 19:8-12, NIV)

The Hebrew phrase “qol dmamah daqah,” here translated as “a gentle whisper” is sometimes translated as “a still small voice” or “a gentle blowing.” The word “dmamah” itself can be translated as “silence.” Thus, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates it as “a sound of sheer silence.”

After Elijah hears this “sound of sheer silence” and responds, God asks him again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and soon after alleviates Elijah’s fear, instructing him to go back the way he came.

Many teachings have used this story to say it illustrates Elijah learning how to hear God’s voice. However, this misses the full context of the passage – for Elijah clearly already knew how to hear God. If he did not, how would he have initially heard God asking him the question and telling him to go stand on the mountain? 

To better understand the context of what occurred, it is important to look at the question that God asked Elijah: 

“What are you doing HERE?” 

It is no coincidence the passage tells us Elijah stopped at a bush, where he received a miracle, and then traveled 40 days and 40 nights, paralleling the Israelites’ 40 years of travel through the desert. Nor is it a coincidence Elijah ended up at the very mountain where Moses heard from God and received the commandments. 

Remember the grand scene from The Ten Commandments in which fire came from the sky as God spoke to Moses?

The actual Bible passage is even more impressive than the movie scene, stating:

Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently (Exo 19:18)

God’s question to Elijah, followed by his illustration with the noisy elements, was very pointed. 

Elijah, who had become full of fear and hopelessness, was desperately hoping to recreate the same extraordinary circumstances under which Moses heard God. And God was making it very clear that not only did Elijah not need to hear that way, but God was not even going to speak to him in that way either.

Fire and earthquakes and loud audible sounds might have been great attention-getters, but they were not God’s normal way of speaking.

In other words (to borrow lyrics from the Johnny Lee song), Elijah was lookin’ for God’s voice in all the wrong places.

Loud and clear

Many of us today spend much of our time trying to find God in the miraculous – we look for signs and wonders, hoping it will give us direction and purpose. We struggle to hear God, hoping that someday we might have our own burning bush or mountain top experience like in the movies – something more tangible.

Caught up in our fears, we often fail to slow down or even trust in that gentle whisper or the sound of sheer silence.

Disheartened, many even give up.

After working in Christian media for decades and personally hearing the testimonies of well over a thousand individuals, I can think of less than a handful who claimed they heard God in an audible voice. And even in those cases, there was not anyone else around to hear it. 

Most, while often sharing experiences God used to get their attention, expressed something closer to that still small voice – always registering as some type of deep conviction – sometimes beyond what words could adequately describe.

I am convinced that the normal way that God most regularly speaks is a lot more proximate to what we think of as intuition, moral reasoning and aesthetic appreciation than to any type of audible language. It appears much more in the “knowing” than the “hearing.”

We’ve seen from this series that God speaks frequently and continually to every one of us. And if you are a follower of Christ, you already know his voice – it’s promised.

Yes, God might use some attention-getting devices in your life to get you to finally listen. But you don’t have to wait for that. You can hear God now in this very moment. God wants to speak to you. 

All you need to do is slow down, be still, trust the voice, and listen in the silence.

You’ll then hear God loud and clear.

This is Part Three in my series on “Hearing God’s Voice.” For those who still struggle with being able to recognize God’s voice, even after reading this, in the next part I’ll share how a guaranteed way to hear the voice is to simply step outside your front door.

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