There is so much that could, should, and has been said on the topic of recognizing God’s presence. For those who are interested in further learning on this topic, many people find Dallas Willard’s book Hearing God to be of help, I have also quite appreciated the video below by Dallas Willard (if you scroll to the bottom of the page you will find the video). There are also many other great teachers in this arena from King David to Jesus to Saint Francis and Saint Ignatius to modern people famous and ordinary, some of our best teachers may even be our next door neighbors, our church friends, or little children. For now, I would like to focus in on the following points regarding recognizing more of God’s presence and participation in our lives.
- In some ways, learning to recognize God’s presence and guidance is similar to recognizing people and ordinary earthly things.
- In other ways, learning to recognize God’s presence and activity in our lives is different than recognizing people and created things on Earth.
- When things like we’ve talked about in the Foundations for Connecting With God Series and this Greater Awareness of God series are in place, recognizing God’s presence is often much easier than when they are not present.
- We can get better at recognizing God’s presence and activity with deliberate practice.
- We will miss it sometimes, either miss things God would like to get through to us, or attribute things to God that are not actually coming from God.
- God is big enough and patient enough to help us sort out and move beyond our confusion, often with the help of loving people.
- It may help to live in a balance between humility and confidence regarding our ability to recognize God’s presence and activity in our lives.
- As we get better at recognizing God’s presence and guidance we often find ourselves more involved in our relationship with God and enjoying it more which can lead to a positive feedback loop.
Below I will explore each point in turn.
In some ways, learning to recognize God’s presence and guidance is similar to recognizing people and ordinary earthly things: Our ability to recognize the people who have become “personal” or significant to us is amazing. We can go to a busy market where we are supposed to meet a friend and when we see them we can pick their face out immediately from the hundreds of other stranger’s faces all around. A parent can look up from a conversation in a noisy crowded room because they heard their little child cry out among all the conversations of adults and playful shrieks of running children. Often no one else in the conversation will have even noticed the subtle cry amidst all the other noise, but the parent recognizes it immediately and goes to tend to the scraped knee or whatever problem the child is crying about. In some ways, recognizing God’s presence, voice, and guidance among all the noise around and inside of us is similar to the way we learn to recognize people by their voices, faces, and behavior patterns.
In other ways, learning to recognize God’s presence and activity in our lives is different than recognizing people and created things on Earth. I remember reading a quote by Carlo Caretto, a man who sought to live a simple life of prayer and love out in the desert for years. I’ve had trouble locating it but from memory the quote read essentially, “I am finally beginning to discern God’s quiet footsteps.” I remember learning in my graduate studies that crying babies who receive responsive parenting will actually begin to calm and soothe simply at the sound of their parent’s approaching footsteps. The babies learned to recognize their parents footsteps within weeks or months, while Carlo Caretto wrote this quote in his older years after a lifetime of pursuing God. God is in many ways quite different than people, and since Jesus ascension God rarely seems to appear in the same physical embodied way as Jesus did for those 33 years he walked on earth. When we do experience God physically it is more mediated through interactions with people who are members of Christ’s body the church on earth. Therefore, learning to recognize God’s presence comes largely through different senses than our physical eyes and ears. Pehaps through our spiritual eyes, ears, and other spiritual senses. Perhaps this is why Carlo Caretto needed a lifetime to feel he was finally getting a handle on his recognition of God’s “footsteps” moving in his life. Even so, it is amazing how we can learn to recognize our important people by something as ordinary as their footsteps.
When things like we’ve talked about in the Foundations for Connecting With God Series and this Deeper Awareness of God series are in place, recognizing God’s presence is often much easier than when they are not present. The themes we’ve been exploring in the last two series are my attempt at clarifying some of the important elements and actions that may help make it easier for us to become aware of God’s presence and activity. Both reading and interactive exercises for each theme are available on this website so for now I will simply point you to the following links to review the topics and readings at your leisure. Click for Foundations for Connecting With God Series overview, and click for A Greater Awareness of God Series overview.
We can get better at recognizing God’s presence and activity with deliberate practice: If you’ve had the opportunity to become really good friends with someone and spend a significant amount of time with them, you will be surprised how much you start to recognize about them. You will easily recognize their voice among a group having a conversation even without seeing them, you will recognize their laugh, you will recognize them from behind just by the way they walk, you will quickly recognize what mood they are in before they’ve even said a word, and you will recognize when they have been around based on their habits. For example, my wife always knows I have been in the cupboard when there is a bag with just two or three raisins or chips left as I always have trouble taking the last bite of something nice.
I think it is the same with God. The more time we deliberately spend together and the more we get to know one another through ongoing conversations, activities, etc., the more we begin to recognize when God is speaking to us, interacting with us, and even when God has been going before us and made preparations for the next thing in our lives. There is no way we will ever recognize all of the ways God is present or active in our lives and I don’t think we are supposed to. I think we are simply invited to be wherever we are in our relationship with God and ask for help to move closer and recognize more.
We will miss it sometimes, either miss things God would like to get through to us, or attribute things to God that are not actually coming from God: I would venture a guess that all of us have been hurt directly or indirectly by people who claimed to hear something from God and then used it as an excuse to do something unloving or unhelpful. For many this kind of experience is enough to discourage them from even trying to recognize God’s guidance in their lives or from taking seriously when others claim to be hearing from God. That is sad because it is a little bit like a scenario where Annie decides not to talk to James anymore because someone said James made a hurtful comment. Annie never heard the comment and can’t verify if James actually said it or not, but the risk of hearing something confusing or hurtful just feels too great. I realize it is a bit more complex with God, but perhaps you see where I am going. We all make mistakes and perhaps the person misheard what James actually said, in which case, a lot of damage could have been spared by just going and talking it through directly with James.
Sorting out our confusion. God is big enough and patient enough to help us sort out and move beyond our confusion, usually with the help of loving people: Since the beginning of time, people have been learning how to hear from God and a lot of helpful guidance is available both in the scriptures and in later teachings. Common questions for discernment include: 1) Does it line up with scripture? 2) Does it come with a sense of peace in our own spirit? 3) Is it affirmed by other mature believers? All of these can be helpful and I hope to explore the topic of discernment more in depth in a future training, but for now, I would like to leave you with one simple suggestion: listen for the tone. Listen for the tone of the thought’s, impressions, images that are coming. Dallas Willard makes a very nice explanation that when God speaks it is essentially relaxed and confident. In other words, God is plenty confident in what he is saying and does not need to try to convince or pressure us. God doesn’t need to argue his points, God doesn’t need to defend himself, God simply speaks what is true and needed and important in the moment, and that is that. If the thoughts that come feel pressured, pushy, defensive, any of that, they are more than likely not coming from God. Because of this non pressured, non defensive tone, God’s guidance can feel just like another thought flowing through our mind and we may overlook it at first unless we are learning to recognize the tone with which God tends to speak. Finally, I would encourage you to keep pressing in and asking God for help and connecting to the resources God provides, hopefully some of what we offer on this website can be of help.
Confidence and Humility
It may help to live in a balance between humility and confidence regarding our ability to recognize God’s presence and activity in our lives. We can have confidence because God has built us to be capable of recognizing God clearly enough to love God and people and to have a real relationship with God. We can pair this with humility because we realize that we will not always recognize God accurately or adequately. We can demonstrate confidence by seeking to open our attention to God and by taking seriously the thoughts, impressions, images, and experiences that come to us. We can be humble by holding the things that come relatively lightly and naming them out loud to trusted and mature believers to get their discernment. For thoughts and ideas that come which will only help and have a very low chance of hurting anyone, we may press in and act on the things that we think God is sharing. For things that have a higher likelihood of hurting others if we get them wrong, we probably ought to take more caution and run them through a more thorough discernment processes. We also ought to be humble because we all have pain and triggers that make noise in our head which we sometimes mistake for God such as self critical comments, judgmental thoughts, personal agendas for othr people, etc. Having the humility to steadily work away on our healing and growth journey to gradually clear out sources of internal and external noise will probably help make it easier to hear God more clearly.
Positive feedback loop
As we get better at recognizing God’s presence and guidance we often find ourselves looking more deliberately for God to speak or move, or act, or reveal his presence. This leads to recognizing new things about the way God is relating to us which in turns leads to increased motivation to pay more attention to God*. This brings us back to the first workshop in the series of noticing more and all the other things we’ve discussed such as naming more and allowing more which can help us to deepen our awareness of God. It is important also remember that giving God space to respond and waiting on God to initiate interactions versus us always initiating is also important as God is a person too and moves at his own pace and on his own initiative.
This also brings us to the conclusion of this series on Increasing Our Awareness of God and to the start of what I anticipate will be the next series. I hope in a coming series to move from simply being aware of God to interacting with God in an ongoing and deepening connection. Perhaps it will be called “A Deeper Connection With God”**. As we pay more attention to God and recognize more about God, we then begin to relate more with God and the relationship grows and deepens. I hope to explore some of the ways we relate to God and how the interaction flows back and forth. I imagine topics to be explored will include things such as giving and receiving gifts, sharing and responding, doing things together, and being together. However, you don’t need to wait for me to relate to God in these ways. Many of us have already been relating to God for a long time and I trust that the Lord will keep showing you ways to move deeper and give you people to journey deeper with. Others may be entering an awareness of their interactive relationship with God for the first time, or are on the fence and just exploring the possibility of an interactive relationship with God. Wherever you are, that is okay, God will be with you in just the way you need right where you are in this moment. And remember that you can always talk with God about anything and I believe God will always hear and respond, we just may need a little extra help sometimes to recognize God’s response.
If you want, here are a couple of simple prayers you could pray related to our topic. Feel free to adjust them according to what feels right in your own spirit.
God of heaven and earth, I want to get to know you better. Would you please help me to notice you more and to recognize more of your presence and activity in my life?
Lord, there are some blocks in the way that make it hard for me to notice and recognize you, or perhaps even to want to notice and recognize you. Would you give me a gentle way and all the help I need to resolve those blocks so that I can be closer to you?
(*Note that at times God may step back or intervene in different ways if this positive feedback loop gets too intense for us and we forget to give enough attention to loving the people God has put in our lives.)
(**Note this series will likely start January 2022)
What Hearing God is Not Video by Dallas Willard
(apologies for any commercials, I can’t control those.)