Parents will understand the concept of the “phantom cry”, when you think you heard your baby cry but it was just in your head. I thought it only happened to other people – until I became a parent myself.

On the second day after my baby was born, I went home to get some proper sleep after the delivery, but I kept waking up because I thought I heard my baby. And to this day, with her back at home, I’m sometimes still not sure the wails if the wails I hear are real or imagined, if they’re from another baby in a house nearby, or really from her.

It’s an inexact analogy, but sometimes hearing God feels exactly like that phantom cry. On one hand, you’re kinda sure you heard it, and the feeling is strong, compelling even – but you’re not 100% certain and you second guess yourself and wonder if you’re hallucinating because you’ve wanted something for so long.

How then? What’s a Christian to do?

This is by no means complete and “the authoritative guide to when the Lord speaks”, but instead an introduction for those who need some handles and clarity on the issue. As you will see, the more you commune with our Heavenly Father, the more you know when it’s Him speaking.

There is a person in the Bible who went through a similar experience – and though his experience isn’t the perfect analogy, there are still good learning points for us when we want to clarify if we are hearing the voice of our Lord.

Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down.” (1 Samuel 3:4)

Samuel’s response to the voice of God give us three handles to determine if we are really hearing the voice of God – or a phantom cry.


1) Godly counsel brings confirmation 

“And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” (1 Samuel 3:6)

One clear way for me to know if the baby is actually crying is to ask my wife, who spends more time with her and knows the sound of her voice. Of course, this isn’t a completely accurate method, but about 80% of the time we do hear correctly together (otherwise we’d be having the same hallucination).

The same thing happened for Samuel, when he sought the counsel of someone who was more experienced and knowledgeable than him – the High Priest he was serving under in the temple.

Eli wasn’t a perfect man, his sons were priests who did evil in the sight of God (1 Samuel 2). But he had been a priest for many years, and he could discern when it was the Lord calling.

In the same way, when you are in doubt, seek out someone in church whom you trust (and this is why being in church community is so important) and share with him/her about what you believe the Lord has said to you.

Personally, I recommend a leader with whom you have walked a journey with, who knows you well and will speak the truth in love to you.

2) If it’s real it’ll be repeated

“And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.” (1 Samuel 3:8)

We tend to forget that God is firm but He’s not pushy, and He is extremely gentle in the way He leads us. Part of that subset of gentleness is that He tends to repeat Himself, not because He is longwinded and naggy, but because sometimes we just don’t get it. 

I believe that if a word comes from the Lord, you won’t just hear it once and be left to wonder whether it was really Him. In the story of Samuel, the Lord called Samuel on four occasions over and over. Each time He was as gentle as the first.

When I’m not sure if I’ve heard my baby or a phantom cry, I wait for a couple of seconds. If it really is her, well, she’ll let me know quickly enough with another cry. I’ve learnt that if it’s just a sound in my head, it’s never repeated.

The Lord works on that same frequency of repetition as well – though a lot gentler than a hungry baby would!

3) Ask and you shall receive

“Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place. And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant hears.’ (1 Samuel 3:9-10)

The surefire way of knowing whether I heard the baby or not is to simply go and check in on her. Now this has its own risk – me going in to check on my baby is sometimes the very thing that wakes her up. Physicists call it the “Observer Effect“, where the observation of a phenomenon changes that very phenomenon.

Sometimes, we feel the same wariness about responding to what we think might be God’s call – we think that if we ask/approach Him, we are changing the very course of our own destinies.

Personally, I’ve been guilty of this, but we need to change our mindset towards God – as Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:11.

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11, ESV)

Once you know Him and His heart for you, you will learn to flow with Him and discern His voice (John 10:27).

How do we build this familiarity with the Lord such that we get better at hearing Him? It comes from spending time in His Word, His story written for us that we might know Him – His perspectives, His heartbeat, where He’s coming from.

It comes from spending time with His people – pastors, leaders, fellow brothers and sisters. And through our quiet time and honest conversations with Him through prayer, we’re able to increasingly trust that He truly loves us and wants the best for us.
When all seems doubtful, look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, our Lord and Saviour who went to the Cross for us. Knowing Him and His great grace is where it all begins.

This article was first published on Tris Xavier’s blog, and is republished with permission. Tris is a full-time Christian who happens to be a civil servant.