January 15, 2006
God is speaking…are you listening?
Part 2: God is speaking in prayer
ILL: Five-year-old Barbara had disobeyed her mother and had been sent to her room. After a few minutes, Mom went in to talk with her about what she had done. Teary-eyed, she asked, “Why do we do wrong things, Mommy?”
Her mom thought a moment. “Sometimes the devil tells us to do something wrong, and we listen to him. But we need to listen to God instead.”
To which little Barbara sobbed, “But God doesn’t talk loud enough!”
How many of you have ever felt like Barbara—ever wished that God spoke louder? Me too. But maybe the problem isn’t that God needs to speak up; maybe we need to learn how to listen. Today, we’re going to talk about learning to hear God’s gentle whisper, the still small voice of God speaking to us. Our prayer for this series is “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Offering and announcements:
Alpha starts Friday. Today is the last day to sign up at the Information and Resource Center.
Christianity is a team sport. Spiritual growth happens in the context of community, in a small group with authentic friends. That’s what Life Groups are about. Our goal is that every person at Life Center would be in a Life Group for friendship and spiritual growth. A big church becomes small and personal when you get into a Life Group.
In February, we’re going to give you a chance to test drive a Life Group if you’ve never been in one. New groups will be starting up and running for our four week series on communication. These new groups need leaders—we need lots of new leaders. It’s fun and it’s easy. To see if you qualify, we’re all going to take the test on the inside of your program. Test! How many of you checked the first three boxes? You qualify! Now all you need is to show up at one of the orientation meetings today or next Sunday, listed in the program! Let’s rock the planet!
We’re going to give to God now. Do you believe that God is at work here? I do too. That’s why I give gladly every month—I love to give to God where I see Him working.
Prayer and Nooma Video:
Psalm 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God.
We live in a noisy world where it’s sometimes hard to hear God above the din. Do you know what most of us do with silence? Fill it! We fill it with noise. God can speak through the noise, or even over it, but usually, He waits for us to be quiet. “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Consider Elijah. Elijah was God’s prophet who had a showdown with 450 prophets of Baal, a fertility religion that had become more popular in Israel than the true faith…for obvious reasons. (It’s easier to worship with your hormones than your heart.) Elijah and the false prophets each built an altar, stacked the wood and sacrificed an animal. But neither lit a fire. Instead they both prayed. The prophets of Baal prayed all day for Baal to send fire; nothing happened. Finally, Elijah made fun of them, suggesting that maybe Baal was on vacation or using the toilet. Then Elijah soaked his altar and wood with water…and then, he prayed. God answered with fire from heaven! BOOM! The fire consumed the sacrifice, the wood, even the stones of the altar! God’s answer was loud and spectacular! God spoke and this time He shouted!
God won the showdown, and Elijah killed the 450 false prophets. Queen Jezebel was furious and promised to kill Elijah, who ran for his life. While hiding in the desert, he was deeply discouraged and asked God to let him die. Here’s what happened:
1 Kings 19:9-13 And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” He’s having a little pity party.
11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God had answered Elijah’s prayer at the showdown in a big way, a loud way. But this time, a powerful wind, an earthquake, a fire—God was not in any of them. Not in any of the big, powerful, noisy things Elijah might expect…but in a voice. And not a big booming Cecil B. DeMille voice: “This is the Lord!” But “a gentle whisper.” Or in the famous words of the King James translation, “a still small voice.” God demonstrated at the showdown that He can speak in a loud and spectacular way, but Elijah learned, as most of us have, that God usually speaks in a gentle whisper.
And to hear a gentle whisper you have to…be still.
I want to talk with you about how to hear God’s gentle whisper.
1. God speaks to us directly: the “still small voice”.
Let me start by admitting that this subject makes some people nervous. If you’re brave enough to tell people that God speaks to you, they may look at you like you’re crazy. In the words of that famous theologian, Lily Tomlin: “Why is it, that when we talk to God we are said to be praying. And when God talks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?” The answer of course is that people do all kinds of stupid things and blame it on God. So here’s the deal:
Does God speak? Yes. The Bible is clear.
Do people sometimes get it wrong? Yes. History is clear.
Can we get it right? Yes.
Will we get it right every time? No.
But that shouldn’t stop us from communicating with God anymore that it would if we were communicating with anyone else.
ILL: Husbands and wives: do you ever have trouble communicating? Does your spouse just not get it right sometimes? How often? Just about every day! So do you just stop trying? “It’s no use. He’ll never get it right.” That would be crazy.
Every relationship—marriages, friends, families, co-workers, neighbors—and between you and God—all of them struggle to communicate. Communication is a difficult process; it’s transferring thoughts and feelings from one person to another, and we all know that a lot can get lost in the transfer! But that doesn’t stop us from trying, and it shouldn’t stop us with God either.
Does God speak directly to people? The whole Bible says “yes”. From cover to cover, God speaks to people, starting with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and ending in the book of Revelation when God speaks to John. You can open your Bible almost anywhere, and you’ll find God speaking to people. I have listed a few references that are prime examples. Here’s one.
1 Samuel 16:1-13 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” How does this story start? “The Lord said…” God speaks to Samuel, and gives him specific instructions.
2 But Samuel said, “How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me.”
The LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.” God speaks, and Samuel responds—he asks a practical question and God gives a practical answer. They had a conversational relationship. Notice that God doesn’t tell him everything—God doesn’t tell Samuel which son He has chosen. Samuel has to keep listening.
4 Samuel did what the LORD said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”
5 Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD.”
7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” Samuel was impressed by Eliab’s good looks and thought he must be the one. God responded to Samuel’s thought! The conversation is still on!
8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The LORD has not chosen this one either.” 9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the LORD chosen this one.” 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The LORD has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” As each son passed, the conversation is still going. Perhaps God said “no” to each of the others as He had Eliab. Or maybe God said nothing, and Samuel was waiting for an affirmative, “he is the one.” Either way, Samuel knew from his conversation with God that these weren’t the ones.
“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered, “but he is tending the sheep.”
Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”
12 So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; he is the one.” God chose David. It was not an obvious choice. Obviously, his father didn’t think he was the one! He didn’t even bother bringing him in from the fields! David was the youngest son, the baby, ruddy, red-cheeked, still not shaving. It’s a good thing Samuel was listening because Jesse wouldn’t have chosen him, and Samuel wouldn’t have chosen him either. But God chose him, and let Samuel know by speaking to him.
13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. Samuel then went to Ramah.
How did God speak to Samuel? In the Bible, God speaks in many ways. He spoke to people in dreams and visions, by angels, with miraculous signs like Elijah’s fire from heaven. But most often God simply spoke directly to people, like He did here with Samuel. “The Lord said…” In fact, I did a quick scan on my computer Bible and found over 1300 times where the Bible says “The Lord said,” or some variation of that. God speaks! And He speaks directly to people.
John 10:27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are His sheep. The metaphor had several meanings, but one that Jesus explicitly drew out was that sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice and follow Him.
God speaks directly to us. But how? Most of us don’t hear an audible voice from God, so how does He speak to us? He speaks to us by giving us thoughts and perceptions that bear the mark of their divine source. He speaks to us in our minds. Some people call this a prompting, a leading, an impression, a word from God. All that we will hear from God will ultimately pass through the form of our own thoughts and perceptions. God puts thoughts in our minds—this is the gentle whisper.
To “speak” to someone is simply to direct their thoughts toward something. Right now, I’m speaking words out loud and using images on the screens and paper in front of you to direct your thoughts. But God can directly guide your thoughts without the aid of external words or images.
ILL: C. S. Lewis put it this way in The Problem of Pain.
If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine?…You may reply, as a Christian, that God (and Satan) do, in fact, affect my consciousness in this direct way without signs of “externality.” Yes: and the result is that most people remain ignorant of the existence of both.
God can put a thought in my mind. This direct transmission means I get the thought. It also means I may miss the source. I may think it’s merely my own thought. And herein lies the difficulty of hearing God’s gentle whisper: we often mistake it for ourselves. Which leads to the next question:
2. How do we recognize God’s voice? Experience.
How do we recognize God’s voice? The answer is, by experience.
Isaiah 1:2-3 Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”
An ox or donkey knows its master. How? By experience. All domesticated animals recognize their master’s voice by experience.
ILL: We got our dog, Lucy, from a shelter in Lewiston when she was a year old. We named her in the car on the way home, Lucy since she was from Lewiston. At first, she didn’t recognize my voice or her name, but it didn’t take long. Now, she responds instantly to my voice and her name. She learned by experience.
In Isaiah 1, God not only compares us to domesticated animals but to children. How do children learn to recognize mom and dad’s voice? By experience.
ILL: You bring that little bundle of joy home and you start talking to him immediately. Even though he doesn’t understand a single word you say, he’s becoming familiar with your voice. He hears mom’s voice and thinks “food”. First he recognizes your voice, then slowly he begins to understand words. And finally, when he’s 24 or 25, he understands whole sentences.
It’s no different with God. We learn to hear and recognize His voice by experience. But since God uses our thoughts and perceptions to speak to us, how can we distinguish them from our own? Dallas Willard in his book, In Search of Guidance, discusses three characteristics of God’s voice that we learn to recognize by experience. (By the way, this is an excellent book, scholarly yet accessible, on this subject.)
A. Quality. Matthew 7:29.
The quality of God’s voice has to do with His authority. Matthew 7:29 says that when Jesus spoke, people were amazed at His teaching because He taught with authority. His words had a different ring to them, the ring of authority.
E. Stanley Jones said, “The voice of the subconscious argues with you, tries to convince you, but the inner voice of God does not argue, does not try to convince you. It just speaks and it is self-authenticating. It has the feel of the voice of God within it.”
It’s a matter of weight and impact. When God speaks, there is a calm, steady force that impacts our souls, and affects us deeply. By experience, you’ll recognize the quality of God’s voice and its effects on you and others.
B. Spirit. James 3:17.
God’s voice has a characteristic spirit, or tone. It is the spirit of Jesus: peaceful, confident, joyful, reasonable and calm. If you know Jesus well from the gospels, and cannot imagine Jesus saying what you are hearing, it is probably not the voice of God.
James 3:17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
If what you are hearing doesn’t sound like this, you can be sure it’s not from God.
C. Content. Acts 20:22-23, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Matthew 26:36-46
There is a content that marks the voice of God. It always conforms to the truths, the great principles revealed in the Bible. Anything that does not conform to the principles of Scripture, that violates a clear teaching of the Bible, is not the voice of God.
ILL: A few weeks after I moved here, two of the leaders of our church ran off together. He left his wife and kids, she left her husband and kids, because God had told them that they were right for each other. Their current spouses were not as “spiritual”, and they knew they could do great things for God together. So they left and moved to Clarkston. I tracked them down and knocked on their door—they weren’t happy to see me. I told them they were in sin, committing adultery, and that God doesn’t speak with a forked tongue. God says clearly and repeatedly in the Bible that adultery is wrong, and He would not tell them it was ok for them. I told them they were deceived; they were wrong. They didn’t like me.
I’ll tell you the same thing. If what you hear violates the clear teachings and principles of Scripture, it’s not from God. God won’t tell you it’s ok to have sex outside marriage, or cheat on your spouse, or lie, or steal, or root for the Yankees (ok, maybe I’m stretching it a little).
One other thing about content: what God says may surprise you. It may trouble you. It may not be what you want to hear.
ILL: Pat Robertson recently said that Ariel Sharon’s stroke may be God’s judgment on Sharon for giving away land to the Palestinians. There was an uproar of protest. “God would never do something like that,” people said. Oh really? Now please hear me: I am not saying that Pat Robertson is right. In fact, I doubt that he is. What I am saying is that all those people who assume God would not judge someone are wrong. God does judge us. The popular image of God today is sanitized: he’s more of a Santa Claus figure, a jolly old grandpa type who would never hurt a flea. When this god speaks, it’s always nice, never hard. That’s not Biblical.
I included three references on your outline where God spoke and directed people and it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. It wasn’t easy and nice; it was hard.
In Acts 20, God told Paul to go to Jerusalem, where “prison and hardships” awaited him. Not what he wanted to hear.
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul asked God three times to remove a painful thorn in the flesh, and God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Not what he wanted to hear.
And in Matthew 26, Jesus prayed in the garden, “if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me.” Three times He asks, and each time the answer is no. It was God’s will that His own Son die on the cross. Not what He wanted to hear.
When God speaks, He often asks us to sacrifice, to be unselfish, to lay down our lives, to give and to serve. But again, this matches the Scripture.
How do you come to recognize God’s voice? By experience. I want to finish with some practical advice on how to hear God’s voice.
3. How to hear God’s voice.
A. Meditate on God’s word.
The best way to become familiar with God’s voice is to become very familiar with the Bible. This is God’s Word. The more you know it, the easier it will be for you to hear and recognize God’s gentle whisper.
ILL: A few years ago, Oldies 101 was broadcasting my talks early Sunday mornings. I was at a restaurant one day talking with a friend when the lady in the next booth stood up and said, “Aren’t you the Oldies preacher?” Say what? She had never been to Life Center, never laid eyes on me, but she recognized my voice from the radio. She listened every Sunday morning on her way to work. She recognized my voice because she heard it regularly.
Want to hear God’s voice? God is speaking every day right here—in His word. Read it regularly. The more familiar you are with His Word, the easier you’ll recognize His voice.
B. Pray specifically and ask God to speak.
Prayer isn’t just talking to God, it’s talking with God. It’s a conversation. So when you pray for someone or about something, don’t just tell God what’s on your mind and go on to the next thing. Give Him a chance to respond. Ask Him, “What do you think about this? What do you want to say to me?” Let Him talk back.
ILL: Last week, I was praying for a friend of mine who is struggling right now, and he’s being really petty—letting little things bother him. I prayed that God would help him see the big picture and stop being petty. I gave God a chance to respond, and didn’t hear anything, so I moved on.
A few minutes later I was praying for my bosses. I was complaining to God about an email they sent that irritated me, and I was thinking of writing back and telling them that. Now God responded. “When they pray for you, what will they pray?” I knew instantly. They would pray that God would help me stop being so petty. In that instant I saw that I was being just as petty as my friend. Isn’t it funny how we can see the speck in our brother’s eye, and fail to see the log in our own?
I have questions I often ask God. What is the next step in…
My relationship with You?
With my kids?
My personal development?
Pray specifically and ask God to speak. Then…
C. Take time to listen.
Busyness is the archenemy of spiritual authenticity. We live in a fast and noisy world, full of “wind, earthquakes and fire”, and many of us rarely slow down and are still. We rush through life, and we rush through our prayers, and wonder why we can’t hear God. “Be still and know that I am God.” Make a habit of being still and listening for God’s gentle whisper.
Pastor Bill Hybels takes 30-60 minutes each morning to journal, write out his prayers, and then listen. He reflects on the previous day and writes in his journal what he learned. Then he writes out his prayers. These two things, journaling and writing his prayers, slow down his RPM’s so he can be still and listen. He writes a big L at the top of the page for “Listen” and then he is still. He listens.
I read my Bible first, and write down what God says to me. Then I pray conversationally. I tell God what I want, and ask Him what He thinks, what He wants to say. It’s a conversation. And when God speaks, I’ve found it helpful to write it down. At the end of my prayer time, I finish with stillness. “Is there anything else You want to say?” I wait in silence.
The next time you pray, don’t rush through your prayers. Pray slowly. Give God time to answer. And at the end, be still. “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
D. Be aware of what’s happening in you and around you.
God can speak to you anywhere, anytime. The conversation doesn’t end when your prayer time is over, and you get up to go to work. God goes with you, and the conversation goes on all day. So learn to pay attention. That’s what listening is: paying attention. Pay attention to what’s happening in you and around you.
James Dobson says, “I get down on my knees and say, ‘Lord, I need to know what you want me to do, and I am listening. Please speak to me through my friends, books, magazines I pick up and read, and through circumstances.’” Then he pays attention because He expects God to speak to Him along the way.
ILL: Thursday night about 9 PM I was praying for a friend, and asked God to speak to me, and He gave me something for this person. But I knew it wasn’t the end of the conversation. An hour later, I was answering some emails and received one that jumped out at me. I felt like God said this was for my friend, so I forwarded it to him. I told him that I thought God wanted him to have it. I also told him that if he read it and it didn’t seem that way to him, fine. Ignore it, and chalk it up to bad pizza. I don’t always get it right. I don’t always get it right with Laina either, but I keep trying.
I ask God to speak and know that He can anytime anywhere so I try to pay attention to what’s happening in me and around me. Which leads to the next thing.
E. Test your leading.
I recognize the highly subjective nature of this experience of hearing God’s voice. I can never prove that it was God speaking to me and not my own imagination. I could be wrong. So I have to be humble about it. Instead of saying, “God told me,” I try to say, “I believe God said…” And because I’m not infallible and I get it wrong sometimes, I test my leadings; I subject them to other checks. Here are a few simple tests I use.
The Scripture test. Is it consistent with Scripture?
The friends test. I submit it to some trusted mature Christian friends. What do they think?
The Jesus test. Does it seem like Jesus? Is it selfless and serving?
F. What if you don’t hear anything?
We’re going to talk more about this in the final message in this series, “Trusting God’s Silences.” God isn’t an answering machine. He doesn’t have to speak every time. Sometimes Laina asks me about something and I don’t have an answer, I don’t have anything I want to say about that right then. Maybe I’ve used up all my words for the day! We have a conversational relationship with God, and conversations have pauses, silences.
So what do you do?
Wait. If I don’t get an answer, I leave the matter with the Lord, and figure we’ll talk about it again later, and maybe He’ll say something then. Or maybe the answer will come to me at an unexpected time.
But what if it’s something that you have to decide on now?
Make your best decision. Have you ever faced a decision and wanted desperately for God to tell you what to do? I believe that God wants to give us wisdom more than answers. He is our Father and wants us to grow up and become mature. If God always told us what to do, we’d never grow up. Children cannot develop into responsible, competent human beings if they are always told what to do.
In general, it is the will of God that we should have a great part in determining our path through life. “My will for you in this case is for you to decide.” So if you don’t hear a clear word from God, keep listening, but make your best decision.
Pray: Conversational relationship.