Reading the Bible, it’s easy to think of God only speaking to people in miraculous and stunning ways – from burning bushes, by a voice from the heavens and in great theophanies where the earth shakes. But it’s harder to see those events in perspective viewed from our own lives today.
Although the Scriptures do contain many examples of God speaking audibly to humans, we have to remember that those examples occurred over a relatively vast period of time – thousands of years. They were not “everyday” occurrences even in biblical times. We do not find God routinely talking audibly to his servants all the time. The instances that are recorded are almost all at pivotal times when God desired to confirm that he was moving his plan forward in some new or different manner. Often, God simply spoke to individuals in such a way that they somehow “heard,” but others did not (1 Samuel 3:1-11).
When we understand these things, we can see the error in thinking that God spoke audibly in biblical times but now only speaks to us in other ways (an understanding that many skeptics rightly claim is neither indicative of God’s existence or the historical veracity of the Bible). Rather, God usually speaks to us in ways that he has always used.
Primarily, God speaks to us through his written word (2 Timothy 3:16–17). This is something we should think about. There is no indication in the Bible that God audibly dictated the words to be recorded in the biblical writings, so we should not be surprised that he speaks to our minds through them just as he spoke to the minds of those who wrote under his inspiration.
God also often speaks to our minds directly through urgings that we may call an “inner voice” or our “conscience” (Acts 2:37). Once again, no audible voice is involved, but if you have ever felt the prodding of conscience, you know how real the experience can be. God can work through the Holy Spirit in our minds in just this way – we are convicted of what we do wrong and urged to do what we know is right by this “quiet inner voice.”
Sometimes, God may speak to us through others – especially those who have his Spirit (Acts 21:4-14, etc.). God may use a friend, a pastor or teacher or anyone else to convey a message to us in this way. Naturally, we must use wisdom in assessing input from others, and we should always be sure that the advice or suggestions they give are in harmony with what is revealed in God’s word; but we should never presume that God would not speak to us in this way.
Finally, God can also “speak” to us through events that he allows to happen or that he may even bring about. The Old Testament shows that at a national level the captivities of Israel and Judah were just such events through which God spoke in biblical times. In our own lives events that occur may sometimes be corrective (Hebrews 12:5–11) or perhaps encouraging, but it does become clear that God is teaching us – and thus “speaking” to us – in this way.
While none of these ways in which God speaks to us may seem as earth shaking as many instances in the biblical stories appear, even there we find the same quiet methods of communication. The story of God speaking to Elijah is a wonderful example of this:
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” 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… ” (1 Kings 19:11-13).
In the ancient world people believed the gods were speaking in lightning (fire), windstorms, and earthquakes – the very three things 1 Kings mentions – but Elijah found God was not speaking in such a dramatic way. It was in a quiet, barely perceptible manner that God’s communication began. Just as in biblical times, today God usually speaks to us not with great signs, but with the stillness of a quiet whisper. We just need to be listening for the whisper.