Hearing God’s Voice

March 5, 2013

Yesterday, in my review of The Bible: Episode One, I mentioned the voice of God as quiet and young-sounding. Noah, Abraham and Moses unmistakably heard God’s voice and distinguished it from their own inner voices. Consequently, they gave great weight to the message they heard. Sarah needed a little convincing—I mean, if your spouse came home and said, “God spoke to me today, and we’re moving to a place he will show us when we get there,” what are you going to say? “Are you feeling all right? Are you having delusions?” It’s just not the sort of thing one expects or one claims with a sound mind. And in all these cases, God had been silent a long time, and yet the hearers were convinced of the Voice’s origin.

All three followed a similar path under different circumstances: they were confronted with a word from the Lord “out of the blue”; reception of that word required faith in the One who uttered it; and dramatic, responsive action followed. Noah built an ark and gathered animals in pairs to reside in it. Abraham uprooted his entire family and followed God’s leading to Canaan. Moses overcame his own objections to go to Egypt’s Pharaoh and plead for the release of the Hebrews. It’s rather staggering to think what “listening to the voice of God” entailed for these three and makes me wonder if God might be saying to the church anything half as dramatic and life-changing.

The word “discernment” is not used in these Bible stories, but that process well known to Presbyterians is certainly in play. God’s word came to these men, they believed that God spoke it, they trusted God’s wisdom and promise, and they acted according to the instructions given to them. They did not have the benefit of sacred Scripture with which to “test the spirits,” as we do (1 John 4:1), but the power of God was evident to them.

God spoke, and these men acted accordingly. It seems a reasonable conclusion that if one has really heard the voice of God, then doing what God says becomes a compelling interest.

We certainly have plenty of examples of fully committed Presbyterians who believe God has spoken to them about, say, the homosexuality question, even though their conclusions have landed in mutually exclusive arenas. So we must ask: how do we know it was God speaking?

This is the question addressed by Gordon T. Smith in a wonderful book The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit (IVP, 2003). The book identifies two very basic questions, “What is Jesus saying to you?” and “How do you know it is Jesus speaking to you?” The ability to tell the difference between our own hopes and desires from God’s Word is extremely important for our spiritual growth and active discipleship, not to mention the direction of the church. Humility is the basic posture of the godly listener in reverence for the Word of God written, which is the word of Christ (Col 3:16). We also appreciate that “the voice of Jesus is present to the Christian community through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit” (14).  Smith goes on to show that this inner witness is always grounded in the written witness of the Spirit—holy Scripture—and it is recognized by those who live in mutual submission within the community of faith. These two anchors enable not only the individual but also the discerning body to determine if what is heard is in fact the voice of Jesus. Smith draws from the writings of Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards to demonstrate how this works. The Church would do well to reactivate the discipline of spiritual discernment with their wise guidance at hand.

It will be interesting to observe whether History Channel’s The Bible continues to portray God’s voice as quiet and direct to individuals, when the story warrants. In the meantime, during this Lenten season we are invited to tune in to God’s voice through Scripture reading, quiet time, and spiritual alertness. To recognize the inner witness of the Spirit is to practice the presence of God, so that we become familiar with his voice. And then, when God needs to get our attention on a busy day, we can turn to him without delay!


3 Responses to “Hearing God’s Voice”

  1. Good morning, revmary, from the snowy east,

    Thank you for this posting. Must admit I only watched the first hour of The Bible. Having grown up with books and radio I prefer my own pictures when reading holy Scripture.

    I appreciate so much your discerning words as I find discernment elusive, requiring sober attention to the Spirit when there’s so much to distract us.

    Is it likely that many of us of the Reformed faith tend to attach our beliefs to what the pastor proclaims/preaches, believing that his/her knowledge, training and experience bring the right take on God’s Word? How is one to respond should a preacher proclaim that opposition to same-sex marriage constitutes oppression? Or that we don’t throw Bible verses at one another but rather study the Bible in community [interpretation: so we’re all of one mind]?

    I worship and serve with progressives and universalists [and some orthodox like myself] but also am in my 16th year of Community Bible Study. It’s important, I believe, to be open and thinking but also prayerful so as to grab hold of truth.

    Peace and joy,

  2. Linda Lee, mukilteo Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful blog. The burning question for me is
    “What hinders the work and witness of the Holy Spirit
    in our lives individually and corporately?” The evidence of the Spirit’s work should be evident, as spelled out in Scripture especially in John’s gospel and Corinthians: unity, desiring and understanding Scripture, awareness and conviction of sin, repentance, Gifts of the Spirit, and evangelism that bears fruit of more disciples centered on Jesus Christ.
    Answering that question should help the church to get back on track in doing God’s will, though some will cling to a way
    and thinking that will continue to block the gifts, wisdom,
    and power of God’s given Holy Spirit. I believe God is separating out a group of people who will abide by
    Disciplines and Scriptural teachings and who will long to
    hear, discern and obey for the Glory of God. Perhaps the Fellowship and ECO may be used by God that way.

    I so appreciate the work of God in your life and pray for your
    Sharing ministry for our good.

  3. […] Read the rest of the blog at Bringing the Word to Life … Download this page in PDF format […]

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