Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer – Lent 2024


God doesn’t often speak to us with a thunderous voice coming from the heavens, but He is always present and always speaking to our hearts. How can we hear His voice and respond to His call? In this talk, Spiritual Director Karen May gives practical tips for recognizing God’s voice and discerning His will for your life.

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Reflective Study Guide Questions

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

– 1 Samuel 3:9

1. Do you usually hear God’s voice in prayer? Can you point to moments in your life where you’ve heard His voice? What are you bringing to Him in prayer during this season?

2. In order to clearly recognize someone’s voice we need to have a good relationship with them. What are some ways you foster your relationship with God? How can you more intentionally seek to improve this relationship?

3. In Scripture and in the lives of the saints we often see that they had help to discern God’s voice and understand what He was calling them to do. Samuel, for instance, had Eli who recognized that God was the voice calling to Samuel in the middle of the night. Who in your life helps/can help you discern God’s word?

4.  What are the open doors in your life right now? Are you seeing good fruit from your work?

5. Karen says that when you bring something to God in prayer you also need to expect an answer in order to clearly discern the various ways He might be speaking to you. Do you often have this expectant attitude in prayer? If not, why? How can you trust God more deeply?

Text: Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer

Hello everyone, I’m Karen May and I am a Catholic author, speaker, and spiritual director. And today I want to talk to you about discerning God’s voice. Now, if you’re here, you’re probably wanting to discern God’s voice, learning to how to hear what He says. What in the world does He say? And it can be really hard to figure out what is God saying to me? And you’re not alone.

Samuel and Eli’s Story

Even in the Bible we have so many people who really had a hard time understanding and discerning God’s voice starting in the Old Testament, Well, there’s lots of people in the Old Testament who didn’t hear Him very well, but I’m going to start with Samuel who when he was young, heard God speaking his voice, calling his name in the middle of the night, but he didn’t know that that was God’s voice, he thought it was Eli’s voice. And so he went to Eli, who was a priest at the temple and said, “what” in the middle of the night? And Eli woke up and said nothing, I did not call you Several times, two or three times, Samuel went in and thought that it was Eli who was calling him, but he wasn’t right. He didn’t discern whose voice that was.

The Leaven of the Pharisees

We also have the apostles who literally walked with Jesus, who literally heard Jesus speaking to them and they still didn’t get it. I remember one time that Jesus was in the boat after feeding the 5, 000, and talked about the leaven of the Pharisees. And the apostles thought that He was talking about actually making bread. Leaven is maybe like yeast or the leavening agent that makes bread rise. And even Jesus said like, oh goodness, no. Do you not get it? They literally heard His words and still couldn’t quite discern what He was saying.

St. Francis and the Church

And then St. Francis, I love the story of St. Francis because he again wanted so much to do what God wanted him to do. And he heard in prayer, St. Francis, I want you to fix my church. And he was in a pretty rundown church. And so he thought, I got this. And he raised money and he fixed that church. That’s not what God wanted. So how do we have any hope? Well, we’re going to start with prayer,  and I’m going to hopefully help you to find out.

Opening Prayer

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Heavenly Father, I thank you so much for the longing that you have put into all of our hearts, our longing to reach out to you, our longing to hear your voice, our longing to know you. I know that you love  to answer those prayers, those longings. Please Lord bless everyone who is listening to this today, help us to hear your voice. Help us to know who you are and to know what you are saying to us so that we can follow your will. We ask all this in Jesus name, Amen.  In the name of the Father and to the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Second Half of the Stories

So the first half of all  of those stories didn’t go so well.  Everybody kind of messed up, but there’s a second half to each of those stories. Samuel didn’t understand who was calling him, but finally Eli did and said, Samuel, that’s not me calling It’s God. So when you hear your voice again, you answer, speak Lord. Your servant is listening and start the conversation. That’s who you need to be talking to, not me. I love that.

Don’t we have people in our lives who help us to understand that this is God speaking to you? I know as a spiritual director, that’s kind of my whole job is helping people say, did you hear that? That was God helping them to see this is who you’re supposed to be talking to.  I love that part of my job.

And then with the apostles, it’s Jesus who does it? Like that’s the best if you can have Jesus telling you, no, this is what I meant. Like that’s pretty awesome. So he said to them as they were misunderstanding, like, are we not supposed to bake baked bread like the Pharisees do? Just, oh heavens, no, I meant what the Pharisees are doing. It’s a metaphor. And so He explains to them, so when we don’t get it right, sometimes God comes back to us and helps us to discern a little more.

And that’s what He did with St. Francis. St. Francis did a great job on this church building. And in prayer you heard God say, that’s not the church I wanted you to do. I want you to do the whole church, the universal church. My church is in disrepair and I need you to go out  and start to fix it. So sometimes God allows us to continue in our misinterpretation to continue in our  maybe wrong understanding. But in that continuance, we kind of learn what we need  and we get the tools and the preparation that we need  to do the bigger job.

Can you imagine the first time you really hear God, He says, go fix my entire church. . Where do you even start? But Francis just started, and God took that work . and he built on it.  And he allowed Francis to do this, to build his trust,  to build his reliance on God  and to build his ability to hear God and then to go out  and step into the next calling that he had that was  so much bigger. 

Keep Listening to God

And so everybody kept listening.  That’s the thing that we need.  We need to keep listening, keep the dialogue going.  God doesn’t come and give you a manual  and walk off for the rest of your life.  It would be a little bit nice,  but it wouldn’t be very personal anyway.  So, He is here every single moment  and we need to keep listening.  We need to keep discerning. They did that and so can we.  And that’s where our hope is. 

And I love how people will tell me all the time,  God doesn’t talk to me.  I have several friends who have done this  because they know that I have different answers to prayer  because I talk about it and they come  and they say, this is not fair.  God speaks to you and he doesn’t speak to me.  But the funny thing is, is every single time,  every single time they give me three examples of  how they really heard God’s voice,  voice and responded to it.  I wonder sometimes, is this a joke?  Like, are you, are you real here?  Because I just step back  and I just tell them like, that was God.  That’s what you just did.  You say He isn’t talking to you,  but you’re clearly being called to do something  and you’re clearly responding to that.  So we hear God’s voice all the time.  I want to tell you that you hear God’s voice all the time.  You don’t recognize it. And that’s what we need to do. 

Keep on Praying Regularly and Well

How do we learn to recognize God’s voice?  Well, the first step is just to pray.  We just need to be praying.  We need to ask God to help us to hear His voice, to discern  what He’s saying, what His voice sounds like,  to be able to recognize it.  So we need to be praying regularly  and well, if we’re praying regularly,  but not very well if we’re saying the words,  but we’re really not praying them if we’re doing the things  but really not attending to them.  If we’re just coming in with our to do list  and our Amazon cart  and then walking away, that’s not praying  well. Praying is a dialogue.  It’s a conversation between you and God.  And so it needs to have some space for God to respond.  You need to have some time for God to respond  to you, to speak to you. 

And I know that silence is hard.  Silence can be so hard, so uncomfortable,  but just even a little bit of space in that prayer,  just a little question with an expectation of an answer  can make the biggest difference.  Five minutes of prayer is enormous.  It doesn’t have to be an hour of silent prayer,  but five minutes of just sitting in the presence  of God creates a space that will resonate  through the rest of your day.  So we need to be praying regularly  and well, that’s step one.  We can’t hear God if we’re not speaking to Him. 

Read Your Scriptures

The other thing that we need is to be reading scriptures.  So I remember it was a while ago now,  probably twenty, twenty five years ago, that I had an amazing experience  where just God just opened my mind  and helped me to see that he wasn’t up there.  He never was up there.  He was right here with me all the time, every day,  everywhere closer to me than I am to myself.  And it was amazing. It was absolutely amazing.  It was this mountaintop experience.  And I couldn’t even imagine being able  to maintain something like this.

I was pretty young. And I remember praying like,  how in the world I’ve got I think a long time to live  and you can’t live like this intensity I  don’t think for that long.  And but I don’t want to lose it. I don’t want to stop this.  How do I stay connected to you? How do I do this?  And in my heart, I heard him answer me, get  to know me, read the Bible.  And it was one of those, oh my goodness moments.  Like of course. How else am I going to get  to know Him if I don’t read His word? 

And it’s not that I hadn’t been reading the Bible, it’s not  that I hadn’t been really getting a lot out of the Bible.  I had, especially since this experience,  like all the scriptures were starting to open  and just blossom in front of me.  But it was more of, I don’t know, even a parlor trick maybe.  I don’t know. It was something  that I wasn’t really intentionally doing.  I was just sitting in awe going, oh, this is amazing.  Oh, that’s pretty neat. But  that intentionality like, do you want to get to know me?  I told you who I am. It’s in the Bible. I wrote it down.  God’s word tells us who He is.  And so if we don’t know Him, we won’t recognize Him.  If we don’t know what His voice sounds like,  if we don’t know who He is  and what kind of God he is, then we won’t be able  to discern which voice is His. 

Getting to Know Him

And it’s kind of like a loved one, a good friend  or your mother, or maybe even your grandmother,  you know them so well that if someone came  and told you that they said something absolutely out  of character with who they were, you’d know that  that person was making it up.  If someone came and told me  that my grandmother had cussed out the person at the  hospital who was trying to bring her breakfast,  I would not believe them.  because she would never ever do that.  She would never do that. She’s always appreciative of people  who bring her things  and always being complimentary and grateful.  And so if that person came  and said, well, your grandmother is a horrible human being,  I would know that they either had the wrong grandmother  or they were totally making it up because I know who she is. 

How do we know who God is? We read his word.  We do Bible studies, we talk with people to really learn  and understand who God is.  The Bible is God’s love letter to us.  And if we aren’t finding love, then we’re not finding God.  God is love. Go to the Bible, find out who He is so  that you can recognize his voice. 

Get Some Help

So we’re going to pray, we’re going to read the Bible  and then like Samuel  and the apostles, we’re going to get some help.  So Samuel had Eli who was helping him  to say, wait, that’s God.  We can have spiritual friendships, we can have pastors  and spiritual directors.  We can have people who help us discern God’s word.  If we have a faith community, they can help us discern  what God is asking of us, how God is calling us,  even when they don’t know what our prayer is.  Because that’s how God works.  He doesn’t just speak to us in one way.  He speaks to us in a whole bunch of ways.  We have something that’s on our hearts.  And then it keeps coming at us from all these different  things, all these different places.  In a Bible study, in a book, in a friend  who makes a comment in a priest  who says something during confession.  And that’s another way that we can really get a lot of help.  Hearing God’s voice is taking advantage  of the sacraments, going to mass.  That’s an amazing way to pray. 

We receive Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity within us.  That’s got to help. Going to confession, getting rid  of all the things that are getting in our way of connecting  with Jesus, of being close to Jesus, getting rid of that.  That’s got to help us to discern and hear God’s voice.  And then we need to ask, we just need to ask  what we want, what we need.  We need to ask God for it.  And I love this because sometimes we just,  we ask uh, the wrong thing.  A lot of times I’m asking the wrong thing. 

Ask God to Open His Door

And I know for me, when my children were heading to college,  that was a huge way that I started to understand  what I’m asking of God.  because my oldest was trying to go to college out of state  and she loved this college because of the cherry blossoms.  I told her that we probably should look at a school based on  the education and we could do vacation in another way.  Well, that didn’t go very well.  We were fighting and just, you know,  just really going at it, trying  to figure out this whole college thing. 

And it was really, really difficult.  And so one time I had some friends over  and I asked them to pray for my daughter.  Really? I was asking them to pray for her  to stop being so ridiculous.  And her confirmation sponsor was there  and asked me, so are you praying together?  No, I’m not praying with her. I’m praying about her.  And at that moment I realized my prayer was so wrong.  I shouldn’t, I was not trying to discern, I was trying  to tell God what to do.  That’s not the right prayer. 

And so I went right up to my daughter’s bedroom  and I said, we have got this all wrong.  Just completely wrong. I  don’t know where you’re supposed to go.  You don’t know where you’re supposed to go.  God knows where you’re supposed to go.  So we’re going to change our prayer  and we are going to start praying together.  And here’s what we’re going to say, “Lord, you know  what we’re supposed to do.  You know where she’s supposed to go, open that door  and shut all the rest.”  And all of our conflict stopped  because we were on the same side  and we really were asking God to show us what his will was.  And if his will is perfect, I know that  that’s going to be the best thing for her.  And so does she.

Well I can tell you in that conversation,  we also had a certain dollar amount that she had to hit.  We’d been saving for college since all  of our children were babies, but we had four children.  And so that’s a lot of money.  So you can’t just go anywhere you want.  So she had a dollar amount she had to hit,  but she really wanted to go out of state.  So we kept praying.  And every time she got a no,  every time she didn’t get a scholarship,  every time she’d had something that didn’t make sense.  It wasn’t a rejection, it was protection.  It was God saying, not this one. Keep waiting.  Nope, not that one. Hold on, keep looking. Not not that one. 

And when she went to the University of Illinois  and she stayed overnight in the Catholic dorm,  she came out the next morning and said, this is my home.  I want to stay. Well, she had to go home.  It was only spring break and she couldn’t go yet.  And she didn’t have enough money, she couldn’t go yet  because the scholarship hadn’t come through.  So I said, well this seems like an open door,  but we’re going to wait for the  scholarship to come through or not.  Sure enough, a couple weeks later,  the financial aid package came out  and she got a scholarship that got her to that dollar amount,  door open. 

And I can tell you that afterwards  because this is part of discerning God’s voice  and what His will is for you that we watched, right?  This is what I think I heard.  I’m pretty sure that I heard it right  because that door opened and really everything else shut.  There was not another door open.  Made my husband really nervous.  Do you realize how close she got  to not going to any college?  Like no, I realized that God answered  that prayer really, really well. 

But you watch, you check it, you test it. Like, was that me?  Was that God? Was that coincidence?  Well, I can tell you that for her four years in that school,  it was exactly where she was supposed to be.  She grew in faith. She grew in love.  She had a great education.  It was exactly where she was supposed to be.  So you know, I use that prayer for a ton of things.  I’ve told people all the time,  you are making a major decision and you don’t know what it is,  you ask for that one open door and you shut the rest  and you watch and you wait and you listen.  It’s pretty amazing.

Expect An Answer From God

The other thing with  that is you expect an answer.  Like if I’m asking God to lead me, I expect Him to do that.  If you don’t expect Him to do that,  you’re not going to be looking and watching for His answer.  You’re not going to be listening for his voice.  When you ask, expect God is there again.  You hear Him every single day.  You just don’t recognize His voice.  So if you expect Him to speak to you, you start to hear Him.  You start to see those little hints of God in your life,  those little God moments, those little whispers,  those little kisses expect Him to answer. 

Test What You Hear

And it is really important, again, to test what you hear.  So I’ve been praying, I’ve been reading scriptures,  I think I know who God is, what kind of God He is,  and what he would sound like.  He’s never going to ask me to go murder somebody.  Like that’s probably not going to be God’s voice.  So what does that look like? And we test, we see,  does this lead to good fruits?  And the scriptures, Jesus tells us, test it.  I mean, I’m summarizing, but test it  because by their fruits they will be known.  You have to watch. And if the fruits are good,  that’s probably God.  If they’re bad, it’s probably not.  If the fruits help you to grow in faith, hope  and love, it’s probably God.  If the fruits lead to hatred or anger  or confusion, secrecy,  fear, probably not of God. 

Now that doesn’t mean that God’s not going to ask  you to do the hard things.  It does mean that he’s going to be with you  and you’re going to have this peace  that really doesn’t make sense.  Like that’s another way  to discern God’s voice is there is this peace, this  resonance that really is hard to dis to explain,  especially in a big decision. 

And I liken it to a wine glass.  When you tap a wine glass,  it makes a certain sound like a certain pitch.  And when you sing that pitch into the wine glass,  it continues to resonate in that pitch  for a little while after you stop.  But if you sing a different pitch,  it stops as soon as you stop.  That’s because you’ve hit the resonant frequency of  that glass where all the atoms are vibrating at just the  same rate.  And so they continue when you’re done  until they finally die down.  But if you’re not in that resonant frequency,  they get in the way of each other and then they stop  because they’re crashing into each other.  That’s my physics version.  And if you’re a physics person, I’m very sorry if I,  if I didn’t do that very well,  but that’s the lay person person’s view of that resonance.  That same resonance happens in our soul when we connect  with God, even if it’s the hard things.  There’s this deep knowing that that’s God’s voice. 

A Message From God

And I’ve had that when my husband  and I were trying to decide how to have more children, we had two children and then took a little bit of a break  because my pregnancies are really hard.  And I had something going on in my abdomen  that would cause excruciating pain at random times.  And for years, I’ve been trying to figure out  what was going on and how to handle it.  And to the thought of adding the pressure of a pregnancy  to my abdomen, I didn’t think I could do it.  We needed to get this taken care of, but I couldn’t do it. 

And so we were looking at adoption and we were praying.  And it was honestly the first time we were praying  together, which was beautiful.  I had a peace with adopting internationally.  And my husband had peace with adopting locally.  And we would pray, come together, not agree, pray,  come together, still not agree.  I don’t know what God wants for us.  I don’t, I can’t discern his voice until finally my husband  said, what if we’re praying for the wrong thing?  What if God wants us to have our own children?  And immediately there was a peace  that descended on both of us.  There was a knowing that was undeniable.  Both of us had this resounding yes,  not just in our minds, in our souls,  that resonant frequency was completely filling our bodies  and our minds and our souls.  And I took all the paperwork that I had ready  to go and I threw it away.  My prayer changed again. I always have the wrong prayer.  My prayer changed again.  And I said, Lord, I can’t fix this stomach thing,  this abdominal thing, you’re going to have to do it  because I can’t get pregnant until it’s done. 

Three months later, my non-functional gallbladder had been  diagnosed, removed, and I was pregnant.  I expected an answer to that.  I knew with that resonance that that’s what God wanted.  And so then I just watched it happen.  And the more that you do this, the more  that you hear God’s voice, test it, watch it, keep it.  Keep all these things in your heart.  The more you start to recognize His voice, you never get to  where you don’t test and you don’t watch.  Because it’s so easy for us to put our voice  in as God’s voice.  And we always have to be on guard for that.  But if we do these things, if we pray, if we read the Bible,  if we get help, if we ask, we expect, we test  and we watch, we just repeat and repeat and repeat.  And more and more and more, we will start to hear,  understand, and discern God’s voice. 

Big and Small Stories

Now I tell you all of these big stories  to really show the point,  but most of the time we don’t have these big decisions  that we’re trying to make.  Like I’m not trying to decide whether  or not we can get pregnant or adopt.  I’m not trying to decide what job or career  or college that I’m going to go to.  Most of the time we just need a little  clarity, a little guidance. 

And all of the time we need  to hear Jesus saying, I love you.  And he says that all the time.  And if you can’t hear His voice,  if you can’t hear Jesus saying that to you, I invite you  to go to the cross and see how much He loves you.  Because he died for you.  He does love you. 

And I don’t want to create an Amazon God  who just answers whatever we order  or gives us whatever we ask for.  Like that’s not what I’m, what I’m getting at with all  of these examples, either.  All of this is to bring you closer to Him, all of  what he does, how He answers us, how He leads us, is  to help us to become the person that He has made us to be.  All of this is to help us to be holy.  And again, if that’s what God’s voice is leading you to,  then that’s probably God’s voice. 

And if you are still here with me,  something in you is longing to hear His voice.  That longing was put there by God. That longing is a response to that place in your heart  that is only filled with God.  That is your resonant frequency.  And I pray that God helps you to hear  what He’s been saying all along.

About Karen May

Karen May is a dynamic and inspirational author, speaker, and spiritual director who believes that powerful, transformational faith doesn’t have to be complicated. Helping people to discover the profound truths of God in a way that is simple, inviting, and filled with joy is a gift that she shares in her writing and speaking.

Karen has been featured in two Pray More Healing retreats, the Jen Fulwiler Show, Formed, EWTN, Relevant Radio, and more. She is the author of Be Not Afraid: Living with Faith in the Midst of a Fearful WorldWalking Through Holy Week, and Draw Near. Karen and her husband Mike enjoy cooking, traveling, hiking, and spending time with their daughters and son-in-law. You can find her at www.AmayzingGraces.com.