Sunday, May 15, 2016
Pastor Joe Wittwer
The Listening Life
#2—Listening to God
ILL: A good friend told me that he heard God speak in an audible voice and told him to marry his wife. He did and they’re still married 40 years later, so it worked. But when he told me that, I thought, “Really? Come on!” I’ve never heard God speak in an audible voice…but I’d love to! Wouldn’t that be awesome! It would take all the guesswork out of it. “Marry Laina!” Boom!
Have you ever wished you could hear God’s voice? I think you can.
Welcome to week 2 of The Listening Life. This series is inspired and informed by Adam McHugh’s excellent book, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction. It’s an excellent book on what God has to say about whole life listening.
In this series, we are learning to listen: to listen to God, listen to Scripture, listen to creation, listen to others and even listen to our own lives. In a sense, all of these are about learning to listen to God, because God speaks in many ways, and whenever we listen to anyone or anything, we are potentially listening to God. God may speak to you through the Bible, through creation, through another person, even through your own thoughts and emotions. The Listening Life is whole-life listening to God who is speaking all around us. Since we are talking about listening to God, I’m going to give the talk first, then we’ll worship, take communion and take time to listen to God.
I said last week that God listens to you. Before you ever listen, you are already heard. God is inclining His ear to hear you.
I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
2 Because he turned (inclined) his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.
I love the Lord because He listens to me—He leans in to hear what I have to say! God is a listener, so we speak to Him. God is a Speaker, so we listen to Him. But in the immortal words of that great theologian, Lily Tomlin, “If you tell people you talk to God, they’ll think you’re spiritual. If you tell people that God talks to you, they’ll think you’re crazy.” Granted, many crazy things have been done by people who said, “God told me to do it.” But that must not stop us from listening to God. We are invited into a love relationship with God, and it is a conversational relationship.
The Big Idea: “The universe crackles with the sound of God’s voice. A listening, conversational relationship with God should be the most natural thing in the world.” Adam McHugh
We’re going to answer three questions.
- How does God speak?
- Why don’t we hear Him?
- How can we be sure it’s God?
Then we’ll finish with some practical suggestions for listening to God.
Before we dive in, I’ll invite the ushers to come. I’ve got to share a huge THANK YOU to everyone who gave in our special offering last Sunday. As of Thursday, you gave $81,673; add $75,000 matching from two generous Life Center owners and the total is $156,673!!! Wow! That is going to feed a lot of hungry kids in our schools, send a lot of foster kids to camp, and dig wells for clean water in Kenya! We’ll let you know what happens! Thank you! First question:
- How does God speak?
The short answer: any way He wants to! God speaks in many ways—the universe crackles with the sound of God’s voice. Let’s start with a story from 1 Kings 18-19.
Elijah was a prophet from the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah goes to Mount Carmel for a showdown with 450 priests of Baal. He proposes that they each build an altar and sacrifice a bull, and then call on their god to send fire to consume the offering. The 450 priests of Baal go first. They pray, they cry out, they dance around and even cut themselves, but there was no answer—no response. Elijah made fun of them. “Shout louder! Maybe he is asleep or on vacation or on the toilet!” They did shout louder. But there was no response, no one answered.
It was Elijah’s turn. He rebuilt God’s altar that the people had torn down. He laid out the wood and the sacrifice, and then he soaked the whole thing with water, until there was water running everywhere. Then he prayed:
1 Kings 18:37–38 “Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
Everyone bowed down and cried, “The Lord, He is God!” Then they killed the 450 prophets of Baal.
When Ahab got home, he told Jezebel what had happened and she sent a message to Elijah, “By this time tomorrow, you’ll be joining the 450 prophets of Baal. You’re a dead man.” And Elijah crashed. He had just won a faceoff with 450 prophets of Baal, but he ran like a scared baby from Jezebel.
He ends up in the wilderness, where an angel shows up twice with food and tells him to eat for his journey. He walks 40 days to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. There, he hides in a cave on the mountain.
The word of the Lord comes to him, “Elijah what are you doing here?” He whines, “I’ve been Your man, You know that. But the Israelites have killed all your prophets and I’m the only one left and they want to kill me too.”
1 Kings 19:11–13 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Elijah no doubt knew the story of Moses asking to see God on this very mountain. God covered Moses with His hand as He passed by so Moses couldn’t see God directly because it would have killed him. Now God is telling Elijah to go stand outside because the Lord is about to pass by. Elijah is thinking, “I’m toast.”
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?”
The fireworks that Elijah expected happened: hurricane, earthquake, firestorm—but God wasn’t in any of it. Then came a gentle whisper—or “the sound of sheer silence.” Elijah heard the silence; then the voice again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
How does God speak? Let’s count the ways in this story. God speaks by fire from heaven—consuming the offering and the altar—pretty spectacular. God speaks by an angel who brings food and gives direction—pretty cool. God speaks “by the word of the Lord”—prophetic inspiration. And God speaks by “the gentle whisper”—or “the still small voice.” God speaks in many ways. Let me quote from The Listening Life:
Throughout the Old and New Testaments God employs an impressive arsenal of communication tools: words spoken from heaven, words written on tablets, preaching and prophetic words, answered prayer, visual demonstrations, counsels and consensus, thoughts, dreams, visions, symbols, words from others, signs in creation, angels, music and song, spiritual gifts, the breaking of bread and immersion in river water, common sense, conviction of sin, impressions on the conscience, and of course, a chatty donkey.
The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction, by Adam McHugh (Kindle Locations 749-753).
God can use anything or anyone to speak to us. He used Balaam’s donkey—that chatty donkey—to speak to Balaam. If God can speak through an ass, then He can speak through me! Or you! Or that person next to you! So we should always listen—you never know when you might hear God!
God speaks through creation, through Scripture, through people, through circumstances. But of all the ways God has spoken, the most important and clearest is Jesus. In the gospel of John, chapter 1, John calls Him “the Word”—He is the full expression of all that God is.
Hebrews 1:1–3 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
Jesus is the Word. Jesus is the full expression of God, the exact representation of His being. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Listen to Jesus.
So God has spoken and is speaking in many ways, which leads to the next question. If God is speaking in all these ways, why don’t I hear Him?
- Why don’t we hear God?
Here are my top 4 reasons why we don’t hear God.
- We don’t expect Him to speak.
There are many Christians—whole denominations—who don’t believe that God is speaking today.
ILL: When I was a youth pastor, I was reprimanded by the elders of my church for teaching our students to listen to God in prayer. “God has spoken in the past and it’s recorded in Scripture. But He doesn’t speak directly to anyone today. Those days are over.”
If you believe that, you won’t hear God.
Maybe that’s not your problem. Maybe you think it’s possible that God could speak to us, but you still really don’t expect Him to. Of course, if you don’t expect God to speak, you probably won’t bother to listen. And that’s next.
- We aren’t listening.
This is easily the biggest problem. It certainly was in the Bible. The word “listen” shows up over 400 times in the NIV translation of the Bible, and in many of those, God is pleading with His people to listen, or reprimanding them for not listening. The passages on your outline are just a sample of the 400; here’s a couple examples.
Isaiah 42:20 You have seen many things, but you pay no attention; your ears are open, but you do not listen.”
You see it, but don’t pay attention; you hear it, but don’t listen.
Jeremiah 7:13 While you were doing all these things, declares the Lord, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer.
I spoke to you again and again, but you didn’t listen. If you don’t hear God, the first question is, “Are you listening?” But maybe you’re trying and there’s another problem.
- We don’t know what to listen for.
God speaks in many ways; the universe crackles with the sound of God’s voice. But we often don’t know what to listen for. Let me give you two simple ideas.
First, listen for impact. The Scripture is clear that when God speaks, His word is powerful. It has an effect, an impact. At creation, God simply spoke and the world came into existence. His word is powerful, impactful. When God speaks, things happen.
Isaiah 55:10–11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
God speaks and His word accomplishes His purpose. So God may speak to you through a friend, a song, a movie, a sunset, a gentle whisper. But that word will leave a mark. It will impact you and change you.
ILL: My son Jeff had Asperger’s Syndrome, high functioning autism. He could push all my buttons, and I’m a major over-reactor anyway, so it was a bad combination! One time I was talking with my friend Rick and describing a recent experience with Jeff. He was rock climbing with Stan; Jeff got half way up a steep face and stopped and shouted up to Stan, “I can’t do it.” Stan looked down at him, but said nothing, and after a few minutes, Jeff climbed on up. Rick said, “You need to do what Stan did: under-react.” It was so simple, but it hit me like a train. Under-react. That became my mantra with Jeff, and it changed our relationship. God spoke through my friend: under-react. I felt the impact in my soul and in my relationship with my son.
Look for the impact. Most stuff you hear just rolls off and is forgotten, but when God speaks, it sticks and impacts you. Listen for the impact.
Second, God sounds like you. I know this is counter-intuitive, but hear me out. We have watched too many movies, and we’d all like God to sound like this, “Joe, this is Your Heavenly Father.” (Booming Cecil B. DeMille effect) When it comes to hearing the gentle whisper of God, it will usually sound like you. God will use your thoughts, your language, your syntax and vocabulary to speak to you. He may say something you’ve never thought of, but He will still use your language and thought forms to say it. This is the incarnation principle. God wanted to communicate with us, so He incarnated; He became one of us. He spoke our language. Some of us are waiting for something that sounds like GOD, and missing the still small voice that sounds like us. More about that in a minute.
One more: sometimes we don’t hear God because…
- We are afraid of what He will say.
ILL: My friend Charlie went through our mentoring program. At the year-end retreat, we all take two hours to be silent and listen to God. We write a “letter from God”—it’s a simple format that helps us hear from God and write down what He says. So Charlie asked God to speak to him and waited in silence. God said, “You have a drinking problem.”
Charlie didn’t want to hear this, so he dismissed it as a passing thought, and said, “Let’s talk about my marriage. What do you You want to say about my marriage?” No response—nothing—then, “You have a drinking problem.”
Charlie dismissed this again. “How about the kids—what do You want to say about my kids?” No response—nothing—then, “You have a drinking problem.”
Charlie blew it off again. “What about my work?” No response—nothing—then, “You have a drinking problem.”
This went on six or seven times, each time Charlie brought up a new topic, and each time no response until God said, “You have a drinking problem.”
Finally Charlie said, “Ok, You think I have a drinking problem? Talk to me.” And for the next two hours, God spoke to Charlie and he wrote a couple pages of God’s words to him. Charlie was an alcoholic—had been for years. But Charlie was delivered and set free by the word of the Lord—a word that he didn’t want to hear at first.
Here’s the deal: when God speaks, He can say whatever He wants. We have no control over it. God speaking can be very comforting or very uncomfortable. It can be dangerous! It can rattle your cage and change your life. Honestly, sometimes, like Charlie, we don’t hear God speaking simply because we are afraid of what He might say.
God speaks in many ways, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll hear Him. But…next question:
- How can we be sure it’s God?
How do I know it’s God and not just me, just my imagination, or last night’s pizza? Let’s be honest: lots of people have gotten it wrong. People blame all kinds of bad behavior on “God told me to do it.” So how can we be sure it’s God speaking to us?
Adam McHugh suggests three classic filters or tests: Scripture, community and reflection.
Scripture: If what you’re hearing doesn’t match what the Bible says, you’re not listening to God.
ILL: When I became pastor at Life Center 38 years ago, our church was only about 40 people. Two of them, a man and woman, each married to other people, heard God tell them that they were meant for each other. So they ran off together, leaving their spouses and kids devastated and heartbroken. I discovered they had moved to Clarkston, so I drove down and found them. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“God told us that we are soul mates, meant for each other, and that we will have a great evangelistic ministry together.”
I told them that was a load of crap. The Bible says that what they were doing is adultery, and God doesn’t speak with a forked tongue, so it wasn’t God they were listening to.
Honestly, that one was easy. God doesn’t contradict Himself, and that one was obvious. They aren’t all that obvious, which is why it really helps to know the Bible. Does what you’re hearing match the Bible—that’s the Scripture test.
Let me add another dimension to that. Jesus is the Word incarnate. John 5:39-40 says that all the Scriptures point us to Jesus so that we can come to Him and have life. We not only listen to the whole of the Bible, but we specifically listen to Jesus. If what you are hearing doesn’t sound like Jesus, act like Jesus and smell like Jesus, it’s not from God. If you can’t imagine Jesus saying that, it’s probably not from God. It’s the Jesus test.
Community. The Quakers have a wonderful tradition. When you hear something and aren’t sure it’s from God, you submit it to a “clearness committee.” This group of friends listens to you, and then sits in silence and prays with you, and then gives you careful feedback. If you’re not sure what you’re hearing is from God, submit it to others whom you trust. We simply listen better together. There is safety in community.
ILL: My friends, Steve and Vicki Orsillo, have a tremendous ministry in Oroville, California. Here’s how they got there. Steve was a very successful contractor in Sacramento, but they wanted to move. Vicki pointed out that Steve had a built a spec home in the hills outside of Oroville that hadn’t sold; maybe they should move there? Steve said, “Vicki, you don’t want to raise our kids in Oroville—it’s terrible.”
The next day, Steve drove up to check on that house. When he walked on to the property, God spoke to him, “You’re home.” He immediately told the Lord, “Oh no, Lord, we’ve got a problem. I just told Vicki we can’t raise our kids here. She’s never going to agree to come here. You’ll have to speak to her.” Steve finished his business and on the way home, called Vicki and asked her, “Did the Lord say anything to you while I was gone?”
“Yes,” she said. “He told me we’re moving to Oroville.”
Steve said, “Call U-Haul and rent a truck.” And that night, they were unpacking in Oroville!
Do you think they were pretty sure they had heard from the Lord? That’s the power of community. We’re better together.
Reflection. If you’re not sure, give it some time and thought. On big decisions, I often take time to let what I’ve heard settle in my soul. When you’re clear, go! When you’re not, slow.
One last thing: when I ask God to speak to me, I’m confident He will. Here’s why. Jesus said:
Matthew 7:9–11 Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
So if you ask God to speak to you, is He going to turn to the devil and say, “Go get him!” Or is He going to sit back and let your imagination run wild, and laugh to Himself, “What an idiot!” Of course not! God wants to speak to you more than you want to hear! So ask and listen with confidence. When I ask, I trust that God will speak and take the impressions and thoughts that come and sift them through these filters. I listen because God speaks.
Which leads me to the last point…
- Learning to listen to God.
How many of you would like to be better at listening to God? I sure would! I believe that we learn to hear God better with practice.
ILL: It’s like a baby learning to listen to its parents. At first, it’s just noise. Then slowly, baby begins to recognize sounds, then words, then when it’s about 25, it understands whole sentences.
In the same way, we learn to listen to God over time with practice.
Here are a couple practice ideas.
First, practice whole life listening. Expect God to speak to you in many ways through the day: through a friend, an experience, the Bible, your own thoughts and emotions, a song, your dog…just about anything. Sometimes you’ll experience the impact immediately and think, “God may be speaking to me.” Other times, you’ll recognize it later. It may keep coming to mind (God reminding you). Or you may recognize it while you’re reflecting on your day. There is an ancient spiritual practice called “the Examen”—in its simplest form, it is simply taking time to reflect on your day, and look for God’s fingerprints, God’s voice. Where did God work? What did God say?
Here’s a challenge for this week. At least once, end your day by taking 15 minutes to review your day and ask, “Where did God work in my life today? What did God say to me?” You’ll be surprised.
Second, practice listening prayer. I believe that God desires a conversational relationship with us. Prayer is a conversation. Prayer is as much about listening as it is talking. To pray without listening is not truly prayer—it’s a monologue, not a conversation.
I told you about the exercise we do at the mentor retreat: the two-hour “letter from God” exercise. I encourage the guys I mentor to translate that experience into daily life. We usually don’t have 2 hours, but what if we took 15 minutes and asked God to speak to us, then listened and wrote down what He said? I believe that this kind of listening prayer tunes our ear to hear God during the day. Listening prayer is practice for whole life listening.
What if I don’t hear anything? Loser! No, that happens to me too; it happens to everyone. Why? Because God is a person, not an answering machine, and this is a relationship, not an Amazon Prime order! Sometimes Laina doesn’t want to talk. Sometimes I don’t. That’s ok. You don’t have to force it; you just need to make space and listen.
There is a wonderful story in 1 Samuel 3:1-10. Samuel is a young boy, living in the sanctuary and serving the priest, Eli. One night as he’s falling asleep, young Samuel here’s a voice calling his name: “Samuel. Samuel.” He assumes it’s Eli and runs and asks, “Did you call me?” Eli says no and sends him back to bed. This happens a second time and a third, but by the third time, Eli has figured it out. “Go lie down Samuel, and if you hear the voice again, say:”
1 Samuel 3:9 “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Samuel heard the voice, and said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And God spoke.
Let’s make this our prayer this week. Start your day with this prayer. Pray it during the day and the last thing at night. Pray this prayer and simply make space for God to speak. And see what happens.
- Have you ever heard, or wished you could hear, God’s voice? What are some different ways you believe God uses to speak to you?
- Why do you think we can have so much trouble hearing God? Remember, God can speak through many things!
- Do you think it’s possible that God can speak to us, but you still really don’t expect Him to? Are you listening?? Share a time when you thought God was telling you something and you either ignored Him or followed through on His promptings. What was the outcome?
- Do you have trouble differentiating between your own thoughts and what God might be trying to tell you? Do you think that sometimes you avoid asking God to speak to you because you’re afraid of what He’ll say? Remember to use scripture, community and reflection when you’re attempting to distinguish God’s voice.
Here’s a challenge for this week: At least once, end your day by taking 15 minutes to review your day and ask, “Where did God work in my life today? What did God say to me?” You’ll probably be surprised!