Early in 1956, during racial tensions in the US, Dr Martin Luther King Jr couldn’t sleep. He had received a threatening phone call that terrified him. So Dr King prayed, confessing that, despite the rightness of his cause, he was faltering, losing courage, and becoming weak. He was afraid that if he lost strength, then so would all those depending upon his leadership. Dr King prayed, “I am at the end of my powers … I can’t face it alone”.
Later, Dr King wrote: “At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine, as I never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and [I your] God will be at your side forever’. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” [source: “A Story is Told” from Our Daily Bread Ministries.]
Last week we looked at praying together in a united way. Praying like this builds our relationship with God, as well as committing us to a faithful partnership with God in embracing His purposes. So when we pray, “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be your name” – we are acknowledging and building our relationship with our Creator and Saviour. Then when we go on to pray, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it [already] is in heaven”, we are at the same time pledging our commitment to partner God in this cause.
We can easily, once we decide to pray, share words with God – words of praise, thanksgiving, reflection, confession, intercession and commitment. But what might God be saying back, and how can we hear this? How can God speak to us?
Sometimes we will hear something from another person, in the context of a prayer session, that really hits the mark. Time proves that this came from God to us through another human channel.
God speaks most assuredly through His Word – the Holy Scriptures, especially as we prayerfully approach them looking for guidance. Sometimes the answer will jump off the page; other times we will have to go searching. God can also speak as you hear the Word expounded by teachers and preachers, by evangelists, prophets and pastors. These are often important times to have your ears open, as much time and effort has likely gone into studying, understanding and applying these Holy Scriptures. God speaks most clearly, especially about Himself, about His own identity and character, through the life and ministry of Jesus. Do we want to hear what God is like … then we attend to the words and actions of Jesus … and through this God speaks.
Why do we need to listen to God?? To answer this I zeroed in on Proverbs chapter 2. The answer here … is that God desires us to grow. We don’t just receive Jesus as our Saviour, claiming his sacrifice, gladly grabbing his great gift of grace, then sit passively back … just staying as we are! Or we shouldn’t!! We can’t actually, because there is no sincerity attached to this. Clearly God desires us to grow in our lives, becoming more like Jesus! God wants us to grow in our relationship with Him, and also with those others we worship with, and live amongst.
Even those words of solace we might hear, have the ultimate purpose of us growing toward the potential born within us. We are being called forward into God’s mission to the world, and this involves our desire to grow. Why does God speak to us – because he wants us to grow! Why do we listen?? Because we want to grow!! And this growth is not just for our own benefit, but also for all those that God wants to bless through us.
We see here, in Proverbs 2, some of the most important aspects of growing in God. Here are words we should easily embrace – wisdom, understanding, insight, the knowledge of God, prudence (or discretion); and the good paths of justice, righteousness and equity. This is what we need to hear about. This is what we need to aspire to. We should be like the young Samuel who said to the Lord, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). But … where do we start?
Opening the Lines of Communication
AN INVITATION TO REPENTANCE
There are some “ifs” in this passage – “if” you accept, “if” you cry out, “if” you seek it. It seems to me that we have to really sincerely want to hear God and grow in God if it is going to happen. Growth doesn’t just happen … it has to be sought. And other things can get in the way – there are so many distractions that take our time and attention. And nothing takes our eyes off God quicker than a focus on self … one’s own needs and desires. This tunnel-visioned approach to life … cuts us off from the big picture … of what God wants to achieve … in the community and the world. We can’t possibly hear from God clearly … while having such a restricted outlook. The worship of self (and any other alternative ‘god’), diminishes the possibility of hearing from God.
So, what is required? Change – a comprehensive change! The biblical word is ‘repentance’. The text of Proverbs, with its use of “if” invites us to the place of ‘repentance’. The “if” words … ask us if we are truly willing to engage with God. What is it that is interrupting the possibility of wisdom, understanding and growth coming upon us?! That’s what we have to deal with … to properly open up the lines of communication from God to us. This is like having all the right apparatus, like two perfectly shaped and operating ears, but internally having them blocked with wax. Or, conversely, whenever anything overly-challenging gets mentioned, that you reckon maybe has the ring of truth, but you still don’t want to deal with it … the hands go up and fingers go in the ears.
There were people panning for gold down at the river in the past week, their eyes fixed looking for that little flicker of gold. Are we really focussed on gaining wisdom and understanding (and those other capacities) from God … as if it is the greatest treasure in the universe?
‘Repentance’ is to turn away from a false god (which could be ourselves or ambition or money or worldly obsessions) and turn towards the One True Creator Saviour God. ‘Repentance’ is to empty one’s life of the negative and destructive, and fill it with the fruit of the Holy Spirit. ‘Repentance’ is to acknowledge that the only dynamic that can fill the God-shaped void in our lives … is God. ‘Repentance’ is to let go of incorrect views of God, that make us think in terms of revenge, control and domination, and replace these with appropriate characteristics of mercy, kindness and love. Leave behind what means nothing – and take Jesus on board as your friend.
This has all become possible, because Jesus, on the cross, has given us grace, forgiven us, and opened the way for a new future. This word ‘repent’ is the first thing God will say to us, so that, as we do, we will be able to hear more! I will quickly concede though, that there is something else that God has said to all of us before this!?!? “My child” (Prov.2:1). God has first, in so many ways, spoken to us of his love for us … from the womb to the present, and is assured into the future. So this desire for relationship, growth and repentance is firmly founded on the basis of God’s love.
From “Saturate” by Jeff Vanderstelt, page 107:
Repentance is turning away from a wrong view or definition of God, or from a person or thing that you have looked to as God, and turning to the true God and the truth about God as revealed in Jesus. Repentance happens when we are ignorant about an aspect of God’s character or being, and the Spirit brings illumination to our hearts, leading us to know him in a new way. It also takes place when the Spirit reveals our unbelief about God and leads us to believe a particular truth about God. Lastly, [repentance] takes place when the Spirit convicts us that we have wilfully rebelled against God, leading us to desire obedience to God in a particular area of our lives.
Once we have heard God’s voice in terms of ‘repentance’ and responded in the way we need to, then the lines of communication have become much more open. The Holy Spirit is now able to bring things to our attention. We are much more ready for the Holy Spirit to point us to Jesus (as revealed in God’s Word).
AN OFFER OF GUIDANCE
We can pray for guidance over so many issues and challenges. And we can sense God speaking to us. As we said earlier, this can come through other people. Our surest guide, of course, is the Bible, which we have free access to ... to just open and read and appreciate. The best use of the Bible is a consistent study, often with some notes or commentary to help us along. Plucking individual verses out of context, especially just to proof-text something we reckoned anyway, is not a good approach. We need to appreciate that the Bible was written in different times to ours and within different cultures; so much care should be given to proper interpretation. At the same time, some of the Bible’s teaching, especially Jesus’ teaching, is already clearer than the nose on your face, and is just waiting to be obeyed.
Hearing the Bible explained at church is good – hopefully engaging with the discussion and sometimes being ready to add a contribution. Bible study within small/home groups, where people learn together, brings various different aspects of understanding. Writing down our thoughts and learnings, often called journaling, is a great tool for many. As we read God’s Word, we continually pray for understanding, and look for how this passage may specifically guide us. The wisdom in the Bible, especially around the person of Jesus, offers everyday direction for how to live the best life possible (Vanderstelt).
All our goals and plans need to be guided by God. So we need to be continually prayerful about these, seeking God’s best. Sometimes this is tricky. We read in another Proverb, “Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death” (16:25). This emphasises even more our need of God’s wisdom. And we have to be alert, on the ball, quick on our feet … to adjust to all the changing circumstances around us … to still be in the right (physical and spiritual) space. This also means being open and ready for something different than you imagined (or maybe preferred). Only God has a complete knowledge of all events, therefore only God ultimately knows what is best (for each and every person … and creation itself)!
Acts chapter 10 records a particular incident where the leading of God's Spirit was paramount. A God-seeking and generous Gentile named Cornelius had a vision concerning making contact with a certain Peter. Clearly Cornelius was looking for more in his spiritual life, and thus was open to receiving this sort of guidance. At the same time, Peter was having a dream which challenged him to put old ideas aside, and wholeheartedly embrace mission beyond the Jews to the Gentiles.
God was preparing both for an upcoming encounter: Peter to think differently, and Cornelius to not give in to fear as to how he might be received. When they eventually met up, Peter enthusiastically shared the good news about Jesus, and Cornelius and his whole household believed and were baptised (with both the Spirit and water). For this great outcome to occur, both Peter and Cornelius had to be open to God's guidance, even when it came unexpectedly. Cornelius and his household had come to know Jesus, and Peter had seen results out of his obedient ministry.
Being well tuned into God, allows us to be reliably directed to call on someone. Many of us would have received that undeniable and compelling message to make a phone call or knock on a door. And when we obey, we sense at least two things: that God has prepared the way for us, and that we were quite an appropriate person to make the contact … given the particular need. A natural extension of this … is to actively ask God for specific opportunities to bless others, and then being attuned to how such opportunities might open.
God’s guidance is most helpful … when considering such life-shaping areas as life-partners and careers and geographical moves. Also, for me and many others, when confronted with so many areas of injustice at home and abroad … with the strong possibility of being overwhelmed – God’s Spirit can guide us into those areas of advocacy and service that are most natural for us.
GIVING SKILLS IN DISCERNMENT
There is a particular spiritual gift of discernment. However, like many of the ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ spoken of in the New Testament, discernment is something we all need to have a fair slice of. This is to be able to say the right thing at the right time. More to the point possibly, this is so that we won’t say the wrong thing at the wrong time. So we have a building discretion about the sort of language, words and stories we use in different contexts. What are the commendable and helpful things to post on Facebook or social media, and what are not (Philippians 4:8)?!
So the small voice of God can often be heard saying … ‘maybe you might have not said that, or found a more appropriate phrase’. This is not so much to chastise us, as to help us get it right the next time. Growing in discernment … allows us to much more clearly and quickly determine … what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, what is truth and what is error, where motives are pure or motives are agenda-ridden (and compromised).
Because we are guided in God’s ways, Jesus’ disciples (i.e. us) can look around and see where things are not as they ought to be. Does this look like God’s Kingdom? What is the Spirit of God saying? Are the hungry being fed? Are the naked being clothed? Are the broken being brought back to health? Are the disconnected being shown hospitality? Are the captives being set free? Are the lost being found? Through this discernment, and our follow-up activity, we can embrace the vision of Isaiah – where he says, “you shall be called the repairer of the breach – the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12b).
"We should always be ready to be the means through which God blesses others" (Jeff Vanderstelt). We can also, at very significant times, be given a very special word for someone … that must have come from God, as it had never before occurred to us. Sometimes we would be wise to sit with this for a little while, to prayerfully test whether it is indeed from God … completely free of our particular agenda. Speaking into other people’s lives is a very serious matter, that we should be rightly cautious about. So, if we sense that God had spoken to us, for the benefit of another, we would also be wise to share it with another trusted person first (to be held accountable that it is truly agenda-free and also consistent with a fair understanding of God’s Word).
Sometimes we pray for someone, and a word DOESN’T come to US. But if we sincerely pray that someone else receives encouragement from God, then that person may receive this directly. Discernment can also help within community decision-making. While different points of view are being broadly discussed in a group, some that have an ear to hear God in that moment, can help clarify the discussion towards where God is leading.
Hearing God on Mission
Hearing from God is not just a personal and intellectual enterprise. We best hear from God as we engage with the everyday stuff of life, looking for signposts of God’s presence, and utilising all the guidance and discernment that we’ve collected so far. And it is out on the edge, out of our comfort zone (like Peter), where we both need to hear more from God, but also grow because we have heard more from God. Our mission trip into the world of our everyday stuff continues, until Jesus comes to finish the job. God is active in the world, wanting to draw us into His plans. When God seems absent or hidden to us, or darkness seems to be prevailing, we will likely need to look harder and listen better. When the lines of communication seem blocked, we know that it is very possible that ‘repentance’ is required.
"The whole essence of the spiritual life consists in recognising the designs of God for us [right] at the present moment" (Jean-Pierre de Caussade as quoted in BST Commentary on Proverbs). Dear God … what are you saying to us right now?!