There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings. – THOMAS KELLY

It is one thing to speak to God. It is another thing to listen. When we listen to God, we receive guidance from the Holy Spirit.

Sometime ago I woke up in the middle of the night. Dawn was hours away, but I could see quite clearly in our bedroom because moonlight was streaming through the window.

I looked at my wife, Nancy, sleeping beside me, and suddenly, instead of feeling groggy as one might expect, I was overwhelmed by the most intense sense of love. It was as if I saw our entire married life in one kaleidoscopic viewing. One scene after another replayed in my mind: the afternoon we met, our first private joke, the first time we ever laughed really hard together, secret nicknames and hidden traditions, the way she smiled at me when she walked down the aisle at our wedding. I saw all those kinds of events—some momentous, some trivial but for some reason unforgettable—that anyone who has ever loved will carry to the grave.

I thought what my life would be like without Nancy. I thought not just how empty it would be, but how that who I am now is somehow wrapped up in this one sleeping beside me.

For the longest time I just watched my wife in wonder as she slept. I studied her face. It was one of the most tender moments I have ever known.

Then something else happened that I did not expect. Propped up on one elbow and watching Nancy sleep, I thought, While I lie in bed sleeping, God is watching me. As the psalmist expressed it, “He who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”

And the thought came to me that God was saying something like this:

I love you like that. While you lay sleeping, no one can see you, but I watch you. My heart is full of love for you. What your heart is feeling right now as you watch your wife, what a parent feels watching a child, is a little picture for you, a gift, so you can know—every night when you go to sleep—that this is my heart for you. I want you to reflect on this at night before you close your eyes. I’m watching you, and I’m full of love.

It was an overwhelming moment. I had the sense that God himself was somehow speaking to me. These were not just thoughts about God, but thoughts from God. I felt that God wanted to speak of his love to me—personally.

Learning to Listen to God

Was it the Holy Spirit speaking that night, or just a thought produced by my own mind? I do not know for sure. I certainly have no way to prove it was God speaking to me. A few friends have told me that early in life they were given a clear sense of when God was speaking to them. They learned to recognize certain movements of heart and mind as being the voice of God the way children learn to recognize the voice of their mother. This was such a natural part of life that my friends did not reflect much about it.

But that is not my experience. I have never heard an audible voice from God, and I did not grow up with an intuitive discernment as to when God was communicating with me. In fact, I have always tended to be suspicious of people who speak easily of such things.

I have come to believe that this suspicion is not altogether a good thing. I realize now that if I am to have a relationship with God that is in any sense personal, I must be open to the possibility that sometimes God does speak directly to me.

Therefore, in this chapter I look at the way we receive what might be called “leadings” or “promptings” from the Holy Spirit.

Through the centuries, Christians have given different names to this phenomenon. In his journal, George Fox wrote about the Lord’s “opening” a truth to him—by which he meant that God had spoken directly, though not necessarily audibly, to his mind. John Calvin spoke of the “inner testimony” of the Holy Spirit. St. Ignatius talked of “movements” of the soul—thoughts, feelings, or desires that could in fact be gifts given directly to us by God to move us closer to him.

These promptings may come as conviction of sin, an assurance of God’s love, or a call to action. But they are crucial to the Spirit-guided life. We must learn to listen for the still, small voice.

(I was so overwhelmed by my experience that I woke up Nancy from a deep sleep to tell her about it. This may not have been a leading.)

Ortberg, John. 2009. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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