How Does God Speak?

How do I know God is speaking to me? It’s not easy to tell, and it’s hard to explain to others when it happens. I suppose that’s the question at the heart of spiritual direction and praying the Examen. I recently read something in a memoir that helped me understand something about hearing God.

The book is Lit by Mary Karr. The title has two meanings: “Lit” for literature (Karr is a poet and professor) and “Lit” for drunken stupor. Karr is an alcoholic, and the book is about her descent into misery and her recovery of sobriety. The heart of the story is her spiritual awakening. Karr was an atheist. To get sober she had to find God. (She eventually became a Catholic and made the Spiritual Exercises.)

A pivotal moment comes one night in a psych ward where Karr is confined after hatching a plan to kill herself. This is the bottom, and she decides to talk to the God whom she barely believes in. She goes into a stall in the bathroom, locks the door, and rages at God for all the terrible things that have happened to her and her family. Then something happens:

I feel something stir in me, a small wisp of something in my chest, frail as smoke. It is–strangely–the sweetness of my love for my daddy and my son. It blesses me an instant like incense.

My eyes sting, and I blurt out, Thanks for them.

I feel the stillness around me widen a notch.

Thanks that my son is sleeping safe at home without fever or coughing; and my husband, who may yet take me back.

The boundaries of my skin grow think and I kneel there squinting my eyes shut. For a nanosecond, I am lucent.

Inside it: an idea, the thread of a different perspective than any I’ve ever had. It’s a thought so counterintuitive, so unlike how I think, it feels as if it originates from outside me.

The thought has to do with how God has cared for her even as she drank.  It’s the quality of the thought that allows her to see that it’s from God.  It’s different.  Karr comments: “Vis-a-vis God speaking to me, I don’t mean the voice of Charlton Heston playing Moses booming from on high, but reversals of attitude so contrary to my typical thought–so solidly true–as to seem divinely external. And quiet those thoughts are, strong and quiet.”

Since I read this I’ve been on the lookout for strong quiet thoughts that are different from the way I usually think.  I’ve found a few.


  1. Sometimes I have a kind of sense of a higher hope, a clearer thought than any of my own confused thoughts and desires and that sense…, I can say, the touch of God puts me on the right way of thinking then, with a calmer and cleaned feeling of my own spirit.
    A couple of days ago I was sitting on a voluntary occasion, struggling with my own feelings of loss, loneliness and keeping questioning my values, without any real hope for things are getting better in the near future.
    And then, sitting on that chair, I discovered that the real emotion flowing through me was angriness. I was mad at people’s happiness around me, and at my own sufferings caused the lack of family and the lack of feeling really supported, loved by… anyone, without complications. And when I discovered my real feelings, somehow these feelings were gone though I could still recall them consciously and instead of the feelings of hopelessness I got the sense of God’s care, the touch of His presence in my life and in that moment I knew that He understands me, my inner pain but He wanted me to let go. In that moment I got to be calmed down suddenly, got a kind of peace in the middle of chaos and since then I cannot deny the way God wants me to think differently about my current life situation by choice – even if from my own humanly perspective, the perspective of my breakable heart I am still crying out for having people around me who love me as family.
    We are all just learning what does it mean ‘life, sense of life’ in reality, I mean, in the real reality, beyond everything.

  2. A few years ago, I was on my way to Church and was listening to some beautiful sacred music. In my heart and mind something was telling me to to a friend and say something to them. I questioned the thought since what I was supposed to say made no sence to me, although I had heard it before. So i went to them and said what had been pressed into my heart and mind, “The Lord Never gives us more than we can handle”. So I went to them and said those words and they burst into tears and said, “how did you know that I lost my job and my wife and I were wondering how we were going to make ends meet”. I was shocked, but realized that I had been used by God to reinforce someones faith. No, it does not always work that way…but it did that day and I was brought to my knees.

  3. Thank you H.S. for your confirmation of hope. I am in depair right now and it doesn’t seem possible that I could hope for anything. Because of your comments, I will hope.

  4. Your explanation of how you can decern God’s voice is so refreshing and the freedom you now feel! I too hear the Lord’s voice and find it hard to explain. Thank you!!

  5. I am quite moved by Mary Karr’s story and it resonates with the ways I’ve known God to move and heal and play in my own life. That “wisp of something in my chest, frail as smoke” is something I have known. Most recently it happened as I was agonizing over yet again ignoring my limits and taking on too much responsibility and I heard a still, small voice whisper, “Pssst, it doesn’t have to be like that.” And of course I’d never known that at such a deep level that I believed it to be true. Since then I’ve cultivated that voice–that message, that gift, that truth–and a new freedom has opened up inside me. I’m grateful, and of course that’s the surest sign that God’s been around. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

  6. One of the ways I discern God’s voice is when I find myself arguing back with a thought which seems to have come from out of the blue, and seems to be ‘too hopeful’ to my pessimistic mind.
    When I catch myself arguing back with that thought, telling myself to grow up and be reasonable, I realize that that voice for hope might be the one to listen to. So far — what the voice for hope says, has worked out, beyond all my expectations of what is ‘reasonable.”


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