118: How to hear God for normal people with Pete Greig
“The sound of gentle silence.”
That’s how 1 Kings 19 describes the voice of God.
Which might explain why hearing him speak can be really hard.
But Pete Greig is out with a new book to help us do just that. It’s called “How to Hear God: A Simple Guide for Normal People.”
You may remember Pete from Episode 71 of this podcast, when we talked with him about a simple guide for how to pray.
Pete is a writer and pastor who co-founded and leads the 24-7 Prayer movement around the world.
In his latest book, he offers insight and tools to help turn your ordinary, everyday prayers into a real, conversational relationship with the God who is speaking, more than you know.
Show highlights include:
- Why hearing God’s voice is so natural and so hard.
- More about what story in Scripture Pete says is a master class for anyone seeking to learn to hear God’s voice.
- If Pete has always heard God.
- What it means to have “ears to hear.”
- Why Pete separated the book into two parts: God’s Word + God’s Whisper.
- The skills we need to develop to hear God through Scripture.
- How we move beyond studying Scripture objectively to receiving it personally.
- What it means that the Creator of the universe whispers.
- Some of the ways we can hear his whisper.
- The four words it all can be condensed into.
- What happens when we learn to live in this way.
Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
* * *
Christin Thieme: Pete. Welcome back to the Do Gooders Podcast. Thanks for being here.
Pete Greig: It’s so nice to be back with you. Thanks for having me. It’s like coming home.
Christin Thieme: Yeah, exactly. We’re following up our last episode with you where we talked about how to pray, with now how to hear God. So just a small question to start for you: Why is hearing God’s voice so natural and so hard?
Pete Greig: Well, that’s a great question, because it is. That’s right. It’s the most astonishing superpower any of us have, the ability to hear God. Just stop and think about the fact that, if you believe that he made the universe with a few words, what might happen if you hear him say something to you? So this is the key to guidance. This is the key to growing spiritually. Jesus says, “Man should not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father.”
And it’s the key to discipleship. Jesus says in John 10:27, he says, “My sheep know my voice. They listen to me. I know them and they follow me.” And so the key to Christianity is to listen to God. So it’s massively, this is probably the most important thing you’ll ever learn to do, to listen to God.
But you are absolutely right. It’s also blooming hard. It’s really difficult. All of us have been hurt. Probably, maybe times you’ve cried out to God and you needed him to speak and give you an answer. And he doesn’t seem to have answered. Or maybe a preacher abused God’s Word to try and manipulate a political election or force you to do something wrong. Or maybe, well, I had a woman come up to me after church one day. She looked me in the eyes and said, “God has commanded me to marry you.”
So what do you do with that? So at every level…
Christin Thieme: Are you married to her?
Pete Greig: No, no. I was already married to my wife. So it’s just confusing, isn’t it? And God doesn’t generally speak in an audible voice and so on. So it’s difficult, but it’s vitally important. So that’s really why I wrote the book.
Christin Thieme: Yep. And your new book, “How to Hear God: a Simple Guide for Normal People,” is brilliant. Thank you for giving this gift to all of us. And we’re going to talk more about how God does speak, because you said it’s not always audibly. But one interesting thing about the book that is kind of a thread throughout the whole thing is Jesus’ encounter with a couple on the road to Emmaus, which you said in the book is a masterclass for anyone seeking to learn to hear his voice. Can you share a little bit more about that encounter?
Pete Greig: Yeah, it’s a masterclass because most, not all, but most of the ways that God tends to speak are modeled in this story. Like Jesus turns up in disguise. That’s probably familiar for many of us. One writer says God comes to us disguised as our own lives. You know, he speaks through the Bible. Actually he’s risen from the dead and he doesn’t just go, “Duh, it’s me.” It says beginning with Moses and the prophets, he explained how the whole of the story of the Scriptures pointed to himself.
So he’s still pointing to the authority of Scripture, even though the greatest miracle ever has just taken place in his resurrection.
So there’s the Bible. And then they say, “Our hearts burned within us as he spoke to us on the road.” So there’s those times where you just sense God speaking. Maybe it’s a still small voice. And so there’s a whole bunch of ways God clearly speaks in this story.
And I’ll tell you the other reason I love it, Christin, is the couple on the road to Emmaus so consistently and reassuringly got it wrong. I mean, I reckon it was a three-hour walk with the resurrected Jesus and they didn’t realize. And then they come and have a meal with him and it’s not till he breaks bread that they go, “Oh, it’s Jesus.” And then he immediately disappears. He’s like, see you later.
So I find that reassuring because I don’t find listening to God particularly easy. And I just love the fact that they clearly struggled a bit too.
Christin Thieme: Yeah. They’re normal people like all of us.
Pete Greig: A simple guide for normal people.
Christin Thieme: That’s right. Have you personally always heard God?
Pete Greig: Yes. But I don’t think I’ve always recognized the voice of God. Right? This is less about theology than psychology. See, the theology is open and shut. God speaks. Like Genesis 1: He speaks, boom, creation happens. John 1: God comes as Jesus, the Living Word.
So we have a God who communicates. So that would be a very short book. If the book was the fact that God speaks, it’s just, he does. The issue is psychology. The issue is each of us is wired differently. So how do we receive what God is saying? And sometimes our problem is either that we are expecting to hear God the way someone else does and we’re just wired differently. Or we are expecting to hear God the way he spoke to us in the past, but he’s speaking to us in a new way in our new context.
And so I’ve had to learn how to recognize the voice of God. And the good news is you do get better at it. It’s a bit like when someone first calls your cell phone. Your phone doesn’t recognize the number. Right? And then you get to know them a bit and you program it in. And after a bit, you don’t even need to read their name on the screen. You just recognize their voice.
And it is exactly like that in our relationship with the Lord. We learn. You know, when I said John 10:27, “My sheep listen to my voice,” the Greek word, there is akouo, from which we get the word acoustic. So it’s like, as we get to know the acoustics of God’s voice, the nuance, the tone of God’s voice, we’re like sheep that follow him and then obey, and we grow in our relationship with him. It’s a beautiful thing.
Christin Thieme: As we do grow in that, what does it mean to have “ears to hear?”
Pete Greig: Yeah, it is one of the expressions Jesus uses more than any other. And so it was like his catchphrase. And it’s crazy when you think that in Jesus’ time he could be walking through your town, like being Jesus Christ, like speaking things that no one had ever heard, doing miracles. And some people were probably just too busy at work to bother to come out in the streets.
Others heard his words but didn’t understand them. So I think having ears to hear means that we don’t just, as it were, hear the sounds of what God is saying, but we receive them into our hearts by faith and they affect us. And so it’s like at church, some people just listen to the sermon. They listen to the talk, and it just kind of washes over them. They’re there because that’s what you do on a Sunday. But others it’s like their hearts are ripped open and they’re responding.
And as a preacher, I’ll say it’s much more to do with how we listen than how God speaks. When we’re hungry, when we’re desperate, when we’re attuned to God’s voice, we receive with faith. I think that’s what it means to have ears to hear. Jesus is saying, “Hey, don’t just listen with your physical ears, but listen with your spiritual ears.”
Christin Thieme: So you’ve divided the book into two parts, God’s Word and God’s Whisper. Why did you separate it in that way?
Pete Greig: Well, because in my experience there are these two. There’s the more kind of objective ways in which God speaks, like the Bible. I mean, it’s there literally in black and white. And then there’s the more subjective, the whisper of God, which if we’re honest, is very common. That’s God speaking our conscience in dreams, in visions, in impressions that we receive. And God’s speaking in culture and community and in creation. The Bible talks a lot about that. And so, yeah, vox externa, God’s voice, God’s word objective, is the Bible. It’s prophecy, controversially.
Some people, and I’ve been doing interviews like this, if they’re really, really into the Bible, they sometimes get really nervous that I talk about God speaking in prophecy. But the Bible says God speaks in prophecy. And then others are really into all the prophetic stuff, and they’re like a bit disappointed I’m saying, “No, the main way God speaks is through the Bible.” And both are true.
So you’ve got, as it were, the external, objective ways God speaks, and then the more internal subjective ways. I talk about that lovely story of Elijah on the mountain, and God is not in the fire. He’s not in the earthquake. And then God speaks in a still small voice. And so we learn to discern the whisper of God in our lives.
Christin Thieme: So in part one, God’s Word, you say that it can be hard to read the Bible. You acknowledge that, which I think we’ve all experienced to some degree or another. But you say we’re not often taught how to read it with both our heads and our hearts. So what skills do you think we need to develop to hear God through Scripture?
Pete Greig: Yeah. One of the tools that I give in the book is an ancient practice, an ancient approach to the Bible that has really, really helped me, which is called the Lectio Divina. Some of you listening to this will be familiar with that. Literally just Lectio means read, and Divina means sacred or holy. So it’s the holy reading, the sacred reading. And the Lectio Divina is a 3,000-year-old approach to not just reading the text of the Bible for information and education, but learning to pray the Word of Scripture for revelation and conversation with God. It’s very simple, but very powerful.
When I graduated from what you guys would call seminary with a degree in theology, and another one in sociology, what I discovered was I suddenly knew a lot about the Bible, but I’d lost my ability to really hear God personally in it. Because I was just always analyzing what does this mean? What’s the Greek here, and how does it all fit together?
And the Lectio Divina was the tool that helped me. I set my heart on fire again with praying the Bible. I see each page of the Bible like a conversation starter. And sometimes the conversation starts like this. “God, what on earth does this mean?” You know? But pray the Bible. Use your imagination. Pray slowly.
We launched an app about two years ago in 24-7 Prayer called Lectio 365. It’s L E C T I O, Lectio 365. It’s completely free. You can get it wherever you get your apps. And it leads you every day. It’s me and a few of my friends. We lead people every day in just praying a bit of the Bible together. And we actually deliberately read a few verses twice because it’s like we are trying to go deep. We’re trying to marinate in them. And that’s taken off. We have 165,000 daily users now of that devotional. It’s growing every single month because I think people are just hungry to not just study the Bible, but to really grow in their relationship with God through it.
So, yeah, it’s about reading slowly. It’s about reverence for the text. It’s about using your imagination. It’s about turning the Bible from being a picture frame to a window frame. Okay? So too often we look at the Bible like a picture that you study and analyze. It’s fixed. It’s there in the picture frame. But what if instead we treat the Bible like a window frame? So through the Bible, we kind of open the window and look out on the world.
And Lectio is much more that approach. It’s less about exegesis and more what is God whispering to me through this? And there are four steps to doing it that I outline in the book. The Latin phrase is Lectio Meditatio. That’s just meditate on what you’ve read.
By the way, that’s not new age. That’s nothing to worry about. Psalm 119. In fact, Psalm 1 talks about the importance of meditating on Scripture. So Lectio, read it. Meditatio, that’s meditate. Next is Oratio, as in oration. That means pray the verses back to God. And then finally contemplatio. That means you open the window and you look out and just focus on God.
You even forget that it’s about studying the Bible. The Bible has connected you directly with God. That’s contemplation. And that might sound scary, and big, and for super-spiritual people, but it’s actually really, really simple. And in the book, I explain how to do it.
Christin Thieme: Yeah. For normal people.
Pete Greig: Normal people. Busy, normal, confused people who sometimes wonder if God even exists. Yes.
Christin Thieme: Yeah. I love that analogy that you give of the window frame and the picture frame, moving beyond seeing Scripture just objectively, but how do you receive it personally and make it that conversation? So there’s lots of really practical tools in the book, and that is a great one to start with.
And then part two, you get into God’s Whisper. What does it mean that the Creator of the universe whispers? I mean, that’s not, I think, what most of us would expect to hear from God, a whisper.
Pete Greig: Yeah. And yet it’s one of the things I love most about God, and I think I probably had to unlearn and relearn most. Because you’re right, our assumption is if God speaks to me, it’s going to be a booming voice. It’s going to be unmistakable, angels, dramatic. And yet, mostly he speaks to us quietly and silently. I tell in the book, lots of examples of times that people just miss Jesus completely. They just miss him. There’s the couple on the road to Emmaus.
And so we have to reframe the way we see it. It’s like if the president of America turned up in your backyard, you would know about it. There’d be a limo. There’d be security. But if God turns up, you might well miss him. He might come disguised. And so the way I put it is how weird we get about God, when by definition he created everything we consider normal. And then we relegate him to weirdness. We say, “If God’s going to speak to me, it’s got to be un-normal. It’s got to be strange. It’s got to be like other.”
But what could be more amazing than us talking like this, Christin? What could be more amazing than waking up in this planet, on this rock spinning at thousands of miles an hour, conscious in a world where there are dung beetles and the Northern lights? I mean, the world is incredible, and that’s what he inhabits.
And do you know what? The real aim of this book isn’t just to teach people how to hear God in religious contexts, like prayer and Bible study, important as those things are. What happens when we start to hear God in all of creation? Like when we switch on the normal radio? When we go for a walk? When we talk to a non-Christian who doesn’t believe God exists, and yet we start to hear God in what they’re saying? That’s when one day the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. That’s what it says in Habakkuk (2:14).
And so when we learn to hear God in all of life, we begin to walk and talk through life like Adam and Eve with God in the garden of Eden. We have a living conversational relationship with him. And so I think the whisper of God is there at the movies, there at the shopping mall, there in the Netflix series, there in the conversation at the water cooler if we have ears to hear.
Christin Thieme: Yeah. I love the phrase you write that Jesus wears his charisma lightly. I think that’s a cool way to put it.
Pete Greig: Yeah. He’s not a showoff.
Christin Thieme: Yeah.
Pete Greig: I remember someone saying to me once, “God is humble.” And it freaked me out and I thought that can’t be right. And they went, “He is.” He’s not the guy at the party on the dance floor under the glitter ball with the white suit. He’s the guy kind of quietly unloading the dishwasher in the corner. It’s like blink and you’ll miss him.
Christin Thieme: Yeah.
Pete Greig: And yet that’s what we love about Jesus. Right? He was ordinary and yet extraordinary. He was humble. He didn’t force himself on people. So if we’re going to learn to hear him, we need to begin to think that his voice might sound a lot like our thoughts. It might sound like a Bible verse. It might be one of those pictures that comes into your head and you think, “Is that just me, or could it be God?”
I talk in the book about the ABC as a principle of how you know if it’s God or not. Is it Affirming? Is it Biblical? And is it Christlike? If it’s those three things, then it is probably God.
Christin Thieme: And you write that it can all be condensed into four words, listen and follow Jesus. So, finally, question for you, what happens when we learn to live in this way?
Pete Greig: We live our best lives, and not our easiest lives, but our most joyous, living lives. I’m more and more convinced that the most dangerous thing you can do in life is say no to the God who knows you best, loves you most, and only wants the best for your life. And the safest place you can be in life, even though it may sometimes feel scary, is to say to the God who knows you best, wants the best for you, and loves you the most, “Yes. Whatever you want me to say, wherever you want me to go, whatever you want me to do, I will say it. I will do it. I will go there.”
And so that’s where we started, Christin, my sheep, stupid sheep, like you and me. “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me.” Say yes to Jesus. Listen to Jesus and say yes to Jesus, and everything else will come into alignment. Because he says, “Seek first my kingdom and my righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).” So yeah, just listen and obey. There’s no other way.
Christin Thieme: I love it. Listen and follow Jesus. That’s the summary of the book. And definitely, we need to read the rest of it to hear more about how to hear God. Pete, thank you so much for sharing with us, and for giving us the gift of this book.
Pete Greig: Oh, thanks so much. And I must just say, if they want to get the app, Christin, anyone can get it. Lectio365, that will really help you to put the book into practice.
Christin Thieme: Perfect.
Pete Greig: And this fall, I’m going to be filming a video series, a free video series, discussion starters based around the book, so that’ll be available. If you like the book, that’ll be an opportunity to roll that out with all your friends.
Christin Thieme: Excellent. Well, thank you for that. And yes, we will link to both the book and the app in our show notes. So if you’re looking for those, search for them, or come find the link right in the show notes. Pete, thank you so much.
Pete Greig: Thanks for having me.
- Listen to the Do Gooders Podcast Episode 71 A simple guide for how to pray today with Pete Greig.
- Read Pete Greig’s latest book, “How to Hear God: A Simple Guide for Normal People.”
- Find the 24-7 Prayer Lectio 365 app, a free daily devotional resource that helps you pray the Bible every day.
- Get inside the Caring Magazine Scripture Study Collection and find a suite of free, downloadable Bible studies to guide you through topics from New Beginnings Through Forgiveness, to Understanding our Imago Dei or Life Hacks From David.
Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now.