There was a story in New Covenant magazine in 1981 that I read as a young Christian and which has stayed with me. It describes a time at the end of a conference on a hot day in Rome in 1975 when God spoke through a prophecy:
‘Because I love you, I want to show you what I am doing in the world today. I want to prepare you for what is to come. Days of darkness are coming on the world, days of tribulation….’
The writer of the article describes the different reactions of the people around her when this word was given:
People to my left didn’t even seem to hear the word. They chattered through the prophecy, wondering what time it was, where they would eat, how they would ever get out of the crowd. I sympathized and understood. Then to my right I noticed an elderly French man. His face was wet with tears and he was struggling in the tight crowd to kneel down. There he stayed with his head bowed to the end of the service. I saw clearly in a matter of moments how all the trivial understandable things can distract us from hearing God’s word…(quote from Sr. Ann Therese Shields, New Covenant, May 1981)
The response of that elderly French man has stayed in my heart for years and continues to speak to me about not missing God’s word when it comes, but heeding and revering it.
My sheep hear my voice
Today God continues to speak his word powerfully to all who will listen to his call – to be his friend, his disciple, a follower of Jesus, the good Shepherd who said:
‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life…’John 10: 27
This is Jesus’ promise to his disciples and if we are to have a relationship with God that is in any sense personal, we are open to the possibility that God sometimes will speak to us directly.
Listening to God’s voice is not reserved for the elite, for leaders or missionaries, for people more holy or spiritual than you. John Ortberg in a book about the spiritual disciplines called ‘The Life You’ve Always Wanted,’, remembers a line in a play called The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the universe when one of the characters says: ‘Why is it that when we speak to God we are said to be praying, but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?’ John Ortberg then asks: why does God’s end of the line only have a receiver and no mouth-piece?
Christians throughout the centuries have given different names to how we hear from God. In his journal, George Fox describes how the Lord ‘opened’ a truth to his mind. John Calvin witnessed to the ‘inner testimony’ of the Holy Spirit. And Ignatius of Loyola recognized ‘movements’ of the soul, thoughts and inspirations given by God to move us closer to him.
These promptings may take different forms: convictions of sin, assurance of God’s love, a call to a service or to mission, but they are part of a Spirit-led life. God is always speaking, but we’re not always listening. When the disciples had their glory moment on a mountain when they saw Jesus transfigured, what did the voice from heaven say?
“This is my Son, whom I love… Listen to him.”Matthew 17: 5
We must learn to listen to God’s voice.
Take a minute or two and reflect… think back over the last week, month, even year. When was the last time when you heard God’s voice? How did it come to you? Have a think…
How do we hear God’s voice?
I’m sure God has spoken to us in various ways… for some of us it was very clear, perhaps a word of direction; for others it was a peace about a way forward, a word through Scripture or through another Christian, a word through God’s creation, a door opening (or closing) or something more unusual like a dream. If we are open to him and eager for his word, God will sometimes surprise us and speak to us at unlikely times as well as during a personal prayer time.
A personal example of God speaking to me
I want to share one way in which he has spoken to me. When I was around 21, I did a GAP year traveling around different communities with a rucksack on my back and little money, and traveling by bus. When I came back to the UK, I was planning to go to Liverpool to do a post graduate teacher’s degree. I decided to spend the weekend in London with the Antioch community (which was just beginning at that time).
During that weekend God spoke very clearly to me about giving up my plans for Liverpool. His word to me was very clear and direct. God spoke to my heart and he spoke through other people as well. When I went to church on Sunday God spoke to me through the Gospel reading about not looking back when Jesus calls. I heard that word as a direct confirmation that I should not delay my response to the Lord’s call for me. So in place of Liverpool God opened up for me a place to live in community with Antioch in London. And that is where I have remained to this day.
That decision was a very strong experience and took place over the space of a weekend when I was young and flexible with my plans. But I find now-a-days, that I’m not easily open to making drastic changes like that. But the Lord is still teaching me, often through discipline, to listen to his word and to trust him when he speaks to me. As we journey with the Lord, we can be confident that the Good Shepherd will help us grow in listening to his word for us.
Learning to listen to God
Jesus says: He who has ears to hear, let him hear. And if we want to speak God’s word; we have to learn to listen to it. When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert and offered bread, his response was to quote the words of Moses: Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Matthew 4: 4. In a book called ‘the Rest of God’, the author Mark Buchanon writes: We have to be people who listen day and night to God. Our utterances ought to be as Jesus’ were: an echoing of the Father, an imitation of him… a holy ventriloquism.
Making space to hear God
But he goes on to note that there are so many voices and so little time to truly listen. A biographer of Abraham Lincoln wrote this about his childhood: In wilderness loneliness he companioned with trees, with the faces of open sky…. Silence found him for her own. In the making of him, the element of silence was immense…
What makes and shapes us? Most of us have little silence in our lives and live connected to noise. This can make it harder to hear God’s voice. We need to make space in our lives to make sure that the Voice that speaks truth in love, that wounds in order to heal, that gives sound guidance amidst life’s temptations, can be truly heard and heeded.
The sword of God’s word
In Hebrews 4: 12-13, God’s word is described as a sword that can cut finely and uncover and reveal the secret emotions and thoughts of our hearts: it can wound to heal. A few years ago I took a time of sabbatical from my normal life and service and there was space and silence for God to speak in this way, to uncover my heart and prune me of unhelpful attitudes. It was very freeing. Lent or the 40 days before Easter is a great time to try and make space to listen to God, to perhaps take some retreat time, even part of a day, or to carve some space and silence in our daily routine.
This all the more important to do when our lives are full and busy, even if they are busy in Christian service. I want to reflect on the story of the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament and the story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s gospel to illustrate this.
In the Old Testament a thousand years before Jesus there was a man called Samuel who became very famous for his leadership and prophetic gifting, but first he had to learn to hear from the Lord and there is an important incident where he did this as a young man. He was the son of Hannah, who had been barren and had promised to dedicate her firstborn to priestly service if God answered her prayer to conceive. God honored Hannah’s request and Hannah honored her promise and as soon as Samuel was weaned, he was presented to the priest Eli to be brought up for priestly duties. So he grew up studying all that was required, very busy in God’s service, growing in stature and favor with God and men,.. but he didn’t yet know God. Eli hadn’t tutored him in hearing God’s voice.
But God intended to remedy this and Samuel hears God’s voice for the first time in a story that many of us grow up hearing in Sunday school (brief recounting). Finally, Eli figures out what’s happening… It is the Lord coming to the house of the Lord (surprise!) and Eli teaches Samuel how to respond when he next hears the voice:
‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening’1 Samuel 3: 9
And God speaks and speaks and speaks… Samuel has had all that training in priestly duties, but now has knowledge of God and his word, which continues. We read at the end of 1 Samuel 3 (v 19):
The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground… and Samuel’s word came to all Israel.1 Samuel 4:1
God guards, guides, and empowers Samuel’s words because Samuel hears, heeds and obeys God’s word. It is the same for us too: we can be very busy in the service of God, but like Samuel need to always be saying: ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening’ and to hear and heed the God that we are serving.
Mary and Martha
In the Gospel of Luke there is a story about listening too:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’Luke 10: 38 – 40
Poor Martha gets a bad press in this story and many of us would sympathize with her. There she is doing all the work to welcome Jesus, while Mary just gets to sit there with Jesus… and then gets all the brownie points. It seems hardly fair!!
Notice where Mary sat: she sat at Jesus’ feet, the ancient postures of a disciple. To sit at the feet of your teacher is to sit in a humble place. In Acts we read that Paul sits at the feet of the rabbi Gamaliel to be trained in the Jewish Torah and here Mary sits at Jesus’ feet as his disciple, signifying her readiness to hear his word and submission to its guidance. The Message translation describes Mary hanging on every word he said.
Martha distracted by the preparations…
Now Martha was driven by wanting to be a good hostess to Jesus, distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. The Greek word translated as distracted, penispato, literally means “to draw from around.” Martha’s attention, instead of being centered on Jesus, was drawn from around him in many different directions. She was anxious to give Jesus a hospitable reception, and was upset by her sister’s contemplative humility which looked to her like laziness. She came to Jesus not to join Mary in listening to him, but to complain about her and to demand that Jesus make her do her bit to help out. In the end it was Mary rather than Martha who truly hosted Christ in her home.
I’m Martha a lot of the time. In theory I should be like Mary as my main work is Christian work and my children aren’t little, so I really could be sitting at Jesus’ feet. Instead I am often distracted by the preparations, by the busyness of my work. I come to Jesus not to linger and listen but to beg Him to help me with my agenda and to deal with someone who I might find trying.
Martha, Martha…one things is needed…
Look at what the Lord says to Martha after her frustrated outburst:
Martha, Martha… you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.Luke 10 v.41–42
Notice the way Jesus repeats Martha’s name here, adding tenderness to the rebuke. The only other time this happens is with Peter and Saul on the way to Damascus. Jesus knew Martha’s heart to do the right thing and loved her.
I know that when I get weary and burdened, it is because I have my focus and pre-occupation on the many things, rather than the one thing needed, listening to Jesus, which will sustain me for all the other things.
Mary chose what is better, to sit at his feet as a disciple and listen to Jesus. To choose to stay close to Jesus and listen is a choice that we make: it is up to us. It is not to do with how much time we have available but what we choose to do with the time we have. We will make time for the things that we want to do.
In our busy lives we are too often balancing many things, but for us who love Jesus, one thing is needed, to come to him, to sit at his feet as his disciples and to listen to what he says.
One thing I ask of the Lord, says David, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and to seek him in his temple.Psalm 27:4
Even in the midst of being engaged with the demands of life, we can remain open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. If we face a significant decision, we can stop and pray for wisdom; if we have some unexpected free time, we can pause and check with God if there is anything he would have us do with it; as we interact and listen to people, we can listen also to anything the Holy Spirit might say to them through us.
Some questions to ponder…
- ‘My sheep listen to my voice… When did you last hear the voice of the Shepherd? What is he saying to you today?
- What is making and shaping you at this time? How can you make space to hear God’s voice?
- In the midst of your busyness, what will help you choose the better portion and sit at the feet of Jesus to listen to him?
Let’s be like that old French man and not miss God’s word, but revere it and heed it in our lives. Speak Lord, your servant is listening!
Top photo credit: image of a shepherd with his flock of sheep on a mountain landscape, photo from Bigstock.com, © by trofalena., stock photo ID: 205010944. Used with permission.