“Hear, O my people, while I admonish you! O Israel, if you would but listen to me!” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Do you listen to God? I don’t know about you, but I can pretty easily find myself in a rut of talking to God a lot, but not stopping to listen very often. I can get into a pattern of reading God’s word every day because I’m supposed to (especially as a pastor!), but not paying very close attention to what He might want to say to me through it. Let’s just call it what it is: Listening to God is tough.
Think about why: When was the last time you audibly heard God’s voice? We live in a world awash in sound. There are things to listen to everywhere. If you pay much attention, you see people walking around with headphones on or in their ears all the time. I saw a kid who couldn’t have been older than eleven the other day with an earbud sticking out of one ear. He had just gotten out of school.
But with God, He rarely speaks with sound. For a people accustomed to noise, that makes the task of hearing all the more difficult. And yet, the Scriptures make clear that He does speak to His people. He speaks to them all the time. He speaks to us in all kinds of ways. What’s more, He wants to be heard. He wants desperately for us to listen because He speaks words intended to bring us life.
So, how do we do it? The same way we grow in any discipline: We work on it. We start by spending time in the Scriptures. Those are God’s words of self-revelation and life. They were inspired by His Spirit when their authors first wrote them down and they are still empowered by His Spirit. A fair bit of research bears out the fact that regular, consistent Scripture-reading is one of the chief indicators of spiritual faithfulness and maturity.
But, simply reading them as a kind of spiritual checklist item isn’t enough. We must approach them with a sense of expectancy. We should expect that He will speak to our hearts by His Spirit as we read. For me, it often feels like a fresh understanding of a passage I have read many times before. Anytime you have that “Aha,” moment while reading, pay close attention because that is probably God speaking to you. Make sure you listen and obey.
Be warned, though, while God can speak to us any time we are in His word, if we are just starting in the discipline of reading and studying the Scriptures, God may use an initial period of silence to draw us in deeper and to get us studying harder. He may use a bit of apparent distance to train us to listen more closely. Reading and studying the Scriptures is indeed a discipline and like any discipline, when we are at a novice level, we should expect the fruits of a novice, not those of an expert. Too often we are taught today to expect expert rewards for novice work. It’s foolish and even delusional. All of this is to say: Stick with it. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t experience lightning-strike moments every time you open your Bible at first. Savor the crumbs as you gradually build up to full meals.
The other key way to listen to God is through prayer. Like reading the Scriptures to hear His voice, though, we may not be able to do this the way we’ve always done it and expect to hear much. Isn’t this about the way we often pray: “Dear Lord, thanks for today, heal this person and that person, forgive me for my sins, amen”? That’s not necessarily wrong at all, but if we want our prayer times to become listening to God’s voice times, this isn’t going to cut it.
As with reading and studying the Scriptures, we need to come to the discipline of prayer with the expectation of hearing God’s voice. And, like with the discipline of Scripture reading, we shouldn’t expect expert results when we enter the game as novices.
God often speaks when we pray in the quiet. If we are accustomed to noise, it may take some time to clear the noise from our heads and our hearts to be able to hear His still, small voice. And, I don’t just mean time in one prayer session. It will take time over many prayer sessions to learn to more and more quickly shut out our ambient noise (both externally and internally) and just listen for God’s voice. It will take training over time to learn to let less and less of that noise inside in the first place. This can come from a regular practice of the disciplines of silence and solitude, but that’s a note for another time.
Here’s the bigger idea to all of this: Once we have heard God’s voice (and we can give ourselves confidence in that by comparing it to the Scriptures to see if it lines up–and not just with a single verse–and by talking over what we’ve heard with a trusted fellow follower of Jesus or even our small group), we’ve got to do something about it. You see, our heavenly Father doesn’t just want us to hear His voice, He wants us to listen to Him. Listening implies action. Specifically, it implies doing what He says. To simply hear God’s voice is meaningless unless we put what we hear into action in our lives.
Once you have heard from the Lord, make plans for doing it. Do it with love as your guide, but do it without fail. To do otherwise is disobedience which is sin. Besides and again, the words of God are the words of life. He speaks to us that we might live abundantly. You want to live well and so do I. Let’s learn to listen well and obey quickly so that we can.