Most of us who are serious about our relationship with God are trying to figure out what He wants from us. We want our decisions resting on His directives. We want our lives led by Him. We want to draw near to His presence. So, we read the Bible, listen to sermons, go to seminars and cry out for answers, rarely sure if what we “hear” is from God or some contrivance of our own heart. We want to be able to know God’s voice, to discern its meaning for our lives.
How about a quick text, Lord? Or at least a call?
We may be hungry for answers and leading from God but are we listening? What if God has been speaking all along? How will we be able to “know” his voice from other strange voices? How will I even distinguish Jesus’ voice from my own?
In John 10, Jesus talks about his “sheep” hearing his voice. It is a metaphor with big implications. He is speaking. The “hear” is to give attention to, understand, or give ear to the teacher. Do we? Just like when I have said to my children, “Do you hear me?” by implication, I mean did they pay attention, understand it and ultimately do it. I usually ask it because I am not getting the desired response.
Are we like that? We really have had God’s words spoken to us and yet He gets no response. How many times has someone said about God’s written word, “I know but…” Or what I heard in class recently, “It’s so hard.”
At first I want to ask, “What do you desire most to hear from God?” but I must remember the end of John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice and I know them.” It is an intimacy marker – “I know them intimately,” “I know what they need.” This causes me to reframe the question: “Do you trust God to give you what you need and are you listening for that?” Do you desire what God desires for you? Can you hear and trust any direction or answer He may give? This is what makes discernment an uninvited discipline. We wanted our answers our way. That is what we are listening for.
It is then a spiritual discipline to call discernment “obedient” listening. Samuel’s famous line, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” was only made when he mistook the voice of God for someone else and, thankfully, that someone else was his mentor, who knew to direct him back to God. To do the same, be deliberate in your listening. A deep and deliberate reflection of the times God has “spoken” to you in the past – through His written Word, a sermon or teaching, through godly counsel or prayer – can reveal the pattern by which God has operated in your life. If you stay familiar with this pattern, then other voices are easily distinguished from God’s. I have often recommended a journaling exercise of significant God-voiced and God-led events in a person’s life. To see the pattern is revealing and can prove to be a signpost for when God is speaking next.
These answers and experiences with God should include not just obvious directives, comfort and guidance but answers that include NO, which I often take to mean “better than this.” Many a person knows, in retrospect, the value of not getting something they thought they once wanted.
It is also important to note times of silence from God. Waiting in silence has great purpose in giving us a chance to grow strong and to be willing for God’s answer. Silence can draw us in and causes us to grapple with the truth God has spoken and then to enact obedience, to step into and follow His leading. It also behooves us in such reflections of our history with God to note how we have responded to God when He has spoken. Have we obeyed? Have we desired to gain the full benefit of responding to His directives and insight? Do we trust God enough to listen for what He desires for us?
At the core of the spiritual discipline of discernment is the desire to be near to God. It is the “knowing,” in its intimacy-building intent, that should drive our listening. The sheep who hear his voice then follow into the field. Those who are attracted to his voice follow closely, not running ahead or lagging behind, going no further than grace allows and keeping Jesus Christ, that familiar shepherd, at the center of life.