[If you’re reading along with the “How God Guides” paper, this is, not counting the Introduction, the 4th chapter…]
The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. John 3:29
As I started my arduous climb out of a time that I call my “hell of mercy,” I began feeling compassion in my heart for a certain needy neighborhood in San Francisco. I wasn’t nearly well enough to make a move into such a depressed inner-city neighborhood; nevertheless I was sensing some sort of inkling toward it. The fact that I had any impetus at all at that particular season of my life gave me hope that God was still talking to me at all. I found myself driving the half hour to the community doing what I call, “reconnaissance.” I wasn’t convinced yet that God was indeed asking me to relocate there in order to find some simple ways to serve him and help people. But it makes sense to me when I’m looking for the will of God I should pray “onsite” with as much “insight” as possible. I went to the Mission District located the pockets of various cultures there, found prospective places to hang out with people (mostly coffee shops with a good tea selection), and researched the apartment rental scene (an abysmal scene to be sure). As I did so, my compassion for people there began to grow (sometimes an extraordinary compassion is an indicator of some possible leading from him). Over time my compassion became an inclination (to do something about it), which eventually turned to an increasing conviction to move to the City. When I began telling others about my thoughts I realized it had graduated to a door that I was knocking on. I was beginning to ask God to send me there. My desire was giving way to a sense of direction that it was indeed God’s will for me to move there as soon as he opened a door for a place for me to live. This progression from compassion to desire to direction has been a frequent cue to me that God might be “speaking” to me.
Speaking of him “speaking” to me, I want you to know that I’m pretty selective about the times I come to that conclusion and am willing to use that sort of terminology. “God said such and such… The Lord told me…” is not a common thing for me to say. I reserve these bold (almost arrogant) descriptions for unusually certain moments. And even then, I usually say something like, “I think the Lord is speaking to me thus and so…” I’ve been wrong enough times to be sure to walk and talk humbly about such things. I try to keep my words soft and tender so they’ll go down easily if I have to eat them!
More of an impression…
When I say, “God speaks to me,” I’m not claiming to have ever heard his audible voice with my physical ears. It’s my observation that he seldom converses with people in that way, but communicates more often by what I’d call impression to the born-again heart. Nehemiah, a man to whom God gave many specific marching orders explained it this way, “So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles…” Nehemiah 7:5. I can’t claim to be able to describe how he does it or how it “sounds” to me when he puts something in my heart, but I usually know it when I “hear” it, and recognize it when I find it there inside me somewhere.
The watchmen opens the gate for the shepherd, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow them because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger, in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice… I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me. John 10:3-5, 16
Each shepherd has his unique call to his own flock, so that the right sheep go with the right shepherd. So it is with our Shepherd’s voice. I’ve found that the better I know him the better I recognize his voice.
Just as you know your best friend’s voice over the phone without them having to identify themselves, as you cultivate an intimate friendship with God you’ll know his voice. You’ll learn to hear and speak his language (so to speak).
“Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine.” John 12:28-30
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Acts 9:7
I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; those who were with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. Daniel 10:7
It seems that in order to hear his voice clearly, one has to be listening for it. I guess otherwise you might hear just a rumble. You might see a “light,” but miss the words that he speaks out of the light. Maybe you’re content to have an exciting spiritual experience (lightning, thunder, or an angel visitation), but along with it, I want to know what he says to me, what he wants me to know or to do.
He spoke to Elijah in a “still small voice,” and not in the cataclysmic wind, earthquake, or fire (I Kings 19:11-12). The mode in which he spoke to young Samuel was so “human-sounding” that he thought it was his mentor Eli (I Samuel 3:2-10). We might miss what God is saying to us because we expect him to sound like God, but instead his voice might be more like that of our closest human friend!
At his beck and call…
If you know me, you know that I like acrostics and acronyms (I’ve never quite understood the difference between the two). For example, I’ve used ABC for years to summarize how a person might come to a saving relationship with Jesus (Admit, Believe, Commit). But I have devised another ABC for the one who has already come to believe in Jesus. It’s a second ABC for someone who wants to know how to proceed in his/her friendship with him – At his Beck and Call.
I like to think that I’m at God’s beck and call. If I am, I’ll be willing to do what he calls me to do, and it shouldn’t take more than his “beck” to get my attention. (“Beck” is an old English word – the shortened form of beckon – that means a subtle gesture or mute signal like a nod or a slight motion of the hand.) I want to know him so well that he should only need to nod or glance my way in order to get my attention and direct me to do whatever he has in mind.
“Consider carefully how you listen…” Luke 8:18
I had an interesting experience when I was a young Jesus follower. I was working in Southern California at UPS while going to college and doing my level best to learn how to hear his voice and do what he says. I was living in the school dorm at the time, and because of my work schedule I missed the dinner they served in the college cafeteria (which, if you know dorm food, you know what kind of blessing that was!). Starving from unloading trucks all afternoon, I ate at some fast food place every night after work. When you’re young your metabolism can burn out just about anything – even Big Macs and Fries! Anyway, I was at Mickey D’s just about to devour my fast “food” when I distinctly sensed a whisper (not in my ear, but inside somewhere): “Fast tonight.” Before I could talk myself out of it, I put my burger, fries and chocolate shake back in the bag, went to the dorm lobby, and said out loud, “Who wants McDonalds?” I didn’t have to ask a second time; within about 5 seconds I was standing there empty-handed, with dorm-mates beginning their post-burger burping.
Then I went to the prayer room on the first floor (about the size of a walk-in closet) and said, “OK, what was that about? Did I hear you right? Is there something on your mind?” I can’t say that I got any sort of revelation that night, except that it occurred to me that he might just have wanted to test my ability to hear and willingness to obey what I heard. (It’s certainly possible that I was mistaken all along, and that it was only my own thoughts I was hearing. I can’t say for certain. But I did what I thought he wanted me to do at the time.) It was like a “sound check” like one does with a microphone – “Testing… One, two, three… Uno, dos, tres… This is only a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System…” I think the Lord does these sound checks from time to time, not for his sake, but for ours; so we’ll be sure we’re hearing right.
During that same season of my life, one day I was conversing with the Lord in our southern California apartment. As I recall, I wasn’t even praying about direction for the next season of my life. I had another year and half until graduation, was really enjoying my time there in school, and was planning on finishing the degree I’d set out to accomplish. It was out of the blue that I “heard” God say to me, “You’re going back to Chico (my hometown).” I didn’t hear a voice with my ears, but the words ricocheted in my insides as clearly as if I had. This was not at all what I was planning to do next, so I think I returned with something like, “In order to do what exactly?” The impression, served back into my court, was something along the lines of, “You’ll see. Just go.” It seemed clear that I was to cut short my four-year course, not finish the degree, and take my new family back to northern California for reasons yet unknown. And we were to go as soon as possible. Seriously, I didn’t know the Lord very well yet, but I just didn’t doubt from that point on that this was what he wanted. So we packed up and went.