Discerning God’s Voice
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
“Ephphatha! Be opened!” Those are the words of command Jesus speaks to restore hearing to the deaf man in this Sunday’s gospel (Mk 7:31-37). And like all of Jesus’ miraculous healings, there is a deeper meaning than what we see on the surface.
Jesus opens this man’s ears so that he may hear. In other instances, Jesus heals people’s eyes so they can see. But the healing Jesus offers is about more than just physical sight and physical hearing. Jesus restores sight and hearing to these particular people in the gospels to show us how he is able to heal our spiritual blindness and deafness. This is the real healing Jesus wants to effect in each of us; not necessarily to restore our physical hearing so we can hear the sounds of the world around us, but to enable our souls to hear and be attentive to the voice of God.
Often it is the very noise of the world that can prevent us from hearing God’s voice. Sometimes it is the noise of our own scattered thoughts and preoccupations. Sometimes it is the noise of our worry and doubts. It is important for us to learn to quiet ourselves and really listen for God’s voice. We need to be intentional about creating quiet times and spaces in our lives where we can turn down the volume not just on the world around us, but in our own minds, as well.
Even then, it can be tricky for us to discern God’s voice. Sometimes when I’m speaking with someone new to prayer, they express frustration because they cannot “hear” God. It’s not necessarily that they are expecting to hear God’s audible voice whispering in their ears. But they are expecting… something.
While some mystics have had experiences of audibly hearing God’s words in prayer, this type of physical manifestation of God’s voice is an exceedingly rare gift.
Remember that sound is a physical thing. When we human beings speak to each other, we do so by passing air through our vocal chords, resulting in sound waves that are picked up by the other’s ears. Pure spirits, such as angels (and demons), as well as God, don’t have lungs and lips and vocal chords. When spirits communicate, they do so in non-physical ways. This means we don’t hear their words in our ears. We perceive them directly in our minds — and not necessarily as words. We may perceive these spiritual communications as images or impulses. Often they may be hard to distinguish from our own thoughts.
This is significant. This means that the thoughts in our mind are not always our own. God, or his angels, may be communicating with us. It may also be one of the fallen angels, for demonic spirits are a real force in the world, and they are actively trying to separate us from God.
Have you ever had the experience of a thought popping into your head, seemingly from nowhere? And you wonder, whoa, where did that come from? Well, it may not have come from you. It may be a spirit, or God himself, communicating with you.
(We should note that for all intents and purposes, it makes no difference whether it is God or one of his angels communicating. The function of the angels is to carry God’s word to us. The name angel literally means “messenger.” Most often in the scriptures when God speaks to human beings it is done through an angel).
I’ll give a couple of examples. Maybe when you are at prayer, you will suddenly think of an old friend or family member that you haven’t spoken with in years. You were not thinking of that person before, but their name or their face suddenly pops into your mind. This could be God’s angel letting you know that this person needs prayer. Pray for them. Reach out to them and see how they are doing.
Alternately, perhaps you are at prayer and an image comes into your mind of something sinful; an illicit temptation, or an evil thought. Again, you were not previously thinking of these things, but the image arises seemingly out of nowhere. This could be a demon attempting to distract you from prayer and draw you away from God. Ignore it. Do not entertain such thoughts.
The fact that spiritual beings communicate with us requires us to be discerning. When certain thoughts or images come into our minds, how are we to know if they come from God and his angels, Satan and his devils, or from within our own psyche?
The spiritual giants of the Church, such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Sienna and others have written much about the discernment of spirits. I’ll only touch on one element here, and that is this: God wants to build you up. Satan wants to tear you down.
Look at what God says through Isaiah in this Sunday’s first reading: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!” “Be not afraid” is a phrase uttered over and over again in the scriptures. They are the first words spoken by angels almost any time they appear. It is what Jesus tells St. Peter when he first calls him to leave his fishing boats and follow him. Do not be afraid.
If a spirit is causing you fear, if it is making you feel worthless, if it is causing despair or doubt, then that spirit is not of God. It is demonic. Don’t listen to it! Satan wants you to feel worthless and unworthy of God’s love. He wants you to think you are beyond help. He lies. He is the Father of Lies. These words are not true.
God says, You are worthy of my love, because I made you and I cherish you. I take delight in you.
Satan looks at your sins and your brokenness and says, See, you are nothing. God can never love someone like you.
God looks at your sins and your brokenness and says, Do not be afraid. I love you. I can heal you. Your Father is here. In the words of Isaiah, God comes with vindication. He comes with divine recompense. He comes to save you. He opens the eyes of the blind. He restores hearing to the deaf. He causes the lame to leap like a stag. He causes the tongue of the mute to sing. He causes streams to burst forth in the desert (Is. 35:4-7).
This doesn’t mean God will never cause you discomfort. It doesn’t mean that you won’t find God’s words challenging, or even a bit scary at times. Sometimes healing hurts. Sometimes growth is difficult. But the discomfort caused by God will always be for the greater purpose of helping us to heal and grow, and become the saints he created us to be.
It is like a doctor who has to break your arm in order to reset it so that it can heal properly, compared to a thug breaking your arm in a back ally. Both might cause pain, but one is to hurt while the other is to heal. One operates from hatred, the other from love.
When discerning spiritual voices, it is important to ask not simply whether this is causing me pain or discomfort, but if I follow this voice, will it lead me to harm or to healing? Because while God may at times cause pain — letting go of our sins can be painful, admitting our own weakness can be painful — God will never cause you harm. He works only to heal and restore.
Ask God in prayer to open your ears to his Word. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you discern his voice. Invoke the intercession of your guardian angel and the saints. They can help you pray. And if you need further help, talk to your pastor, your confessor, or a spiritual director. Seek out those who can help you discern the voice of God in your life. And then have the courage to follow it!
For God opens our ears with his Ephphatha not so that we may hear him only, but so that we may hear and have the grace to follow his call.