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Category Archives: Learning to Listen

What it means to hear from God and thoughts on how we might better listen to him as he speaks through his Word and his Spirit.

Another dad and I were talking this morning about how we enter into the world of our kids. In order to connect with our children, we’ve discovered how important it is it find a way to get into what matters to them and not solely try to get them to care about what matters to us. That’s “incarnational” in approach . . . like the way Jesus entered into our world to reach us, to communicate with us.

That led us to think and talk a bit about how the Lord speaks to us, how Jesus communicates with his followers, how the Spirit’s voice is heard. And we looked at Acts 16:

They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.  (Acts 16:6-10)

What Luke describes here is at the start of Paul’s second “missionary journey.” He has already made one prolonged and effective missionary journey, sharing the message of Jesus wherever he went. Here Paul is simply seeking to follow through on what he knows Jesus wants for him. And, in the process, he “hears” from God . . . in a variety of ways.

First, we are told that they are “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” This sounds “content-ful.” That is, this appears to be more than a vague “sense” that they should or should not do something. They know with clarity that they are not to “speak the word” in Asia (what would be land on the north-east coast of the Mediterranean Sea).

Changing direction, we read “they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” How do we understand this? It is reported differently than what happened in the Phyrgian and Galatian region. This reads more as obstacle or hinderance, perhaps without specific content. They somehow know the Spirit is not allowing them access to Bithynia.

As they try to make sense of what the Lord wants for them, Paul receives a vision. He sees a man from Macedonia inviting and calling for them to come over to that region. This is visual, compelling, graphic, and contains some specifics. What is fascinating (as we read how the story unfolds) is that when they arrive in Macedonia, they don’t initially meet a “man of Macedonia” but a woman from Thyatira (see Acts 16: 11-15). So, although the vision provided insight into the way forward, it wasn’t a specific and clear indicator of exactly what was going to happen.

Luke closes out this recounting of the Lord’s leading writing they “concluded” God had called them to preach to the Macedonians. The word Luke uses speaks of “putting two and two together.” They ended up, in some sense, reasoning about what to do–although basing their reasoning in how the Lord had been speaking, communicating, and revealing what he wanted for them.

So as I am trying to grasp how the Lord “speaks” and what “hearing the Lord” looks like, I’m thinking . . .

The Lord is creative, he speaks and communicates in a variety of ways.

Although all of the Lord’s communication is consistent with his own Word and the call he has placed on our lives, there may be things we need to know or hear from him that we cannot get merely from reading texts.

There is no perfect, always exactly clear way for the Lord to communicate; we will have to think well about what we believe he is saying and draw reasonable conclusions about what he wants for us.

It might be helpful to listen for the leading of the Lord and the voice of the Spirit in the context of a community of brothers and sisters who will listen with us, pay attention with us, think through things with us.

Scripture. Words. Nudges. Impressions. Visions. Revelation. Reason. Messages. Content. Senses. Hearing from the Lord might look like all of this and more.

Changes come in life. Decisions are made–sometimes you are involved in the decision-making, sometimes the decisions made simply impact you. In those moments, those who are friends of Jesus often talk about “following Jesus” or “listening to the Spirit” or “wanting to hear from the Lord.” All those ideas are wonderful; I’d want all of that and more for my own journey in faith as well as for those with whom I am making this journey. But there are a couple of caveats.

First, we need to move beyond merely saying those words. We need to grow to intentionally and actively learn to listen. We can’t let “following Jesus,” “listening to the Spirit,” and “hearing from the Lord” merely be cool ideas. Such experiences must become part of our lived-out disciple-life. Seeing as Jesus is alive and present in our world, recognizing that the Spirit not only inhabits every believing follower of Jesus but intends to lead Jesus’ friends, and realizing that our great God is not mute nor does he intend to leave it up to us to simply figure out our lives, we must learn to cultivate a conversational experience with God. Just like the kind of conversational life with God that Peter and Paul and Ananias and Philip and Barnabas and others we meet in the New Testament had.

So, the first caveat is that we will have to embrace the idea that the living God still speaks and intends to communicate with and to us. Yes, all his communication will be consistent with his revealed word found in the Scriptures–after all, he will not contradict himself. Yes, everything that we hear from the Lord will line up with his character and purposes as revealed in the Scriptures–after all, he has not changed in purpose or nature. But there are things we will need to know in order to walk out our individual lives with Jesus that we will not be able to simply exegete from texts in the Bible. There will be times we will need to hear from the Lord.

But then there is something else we need to realize. Although our good God is an infallible communicator, because I am not an infallible hearer I just might misappropriate what he is saying. This is not to say that he communicates in such a way that he is either ambiguous or easily misunderstood. In the days of his incarnation, Jesus spoke in plain and understandable ways, but still people managed to misconstrue what he said and misappropriate his teachings.

There’s a little snapshot in Acts that helps me see this. It’s found in Acts 21:10-12:

As we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem.

Agabus is a prophet. He is a prophet with a “proven track record.” (He prophesied of a famine that ultimately happened as mentioned in Acts 11:28.) He has heard something from the infallible Spirit. And he shares this with Paul and his companions

But notice what those who heard the prophecy did. They begged Paul not to go to Jerusalem. They heard the words the Spirit spoke through the prophet and then they applied or interpreted those words in such a way that they concluded that what the Spirit was saying was that Paul was not to go to Jerusalem. And that was wrong. In that sense, they didn’t hear the Spirit very well. They got the message from the Spirit but they misinterpreted what the Spirit intended.

But Paul didn’t. If you read the rest of the account you will see that Paul affirmed the word spoken through Agabus and agreed that the Spirit was revealing some future trouble in Jerusalem. But Paul had also heard from the Lord that he was to go to Jerusalem, regardless of the trouble that would await him there. So, Paul continued on his journey to that city.

Where does this leave me? Affirming that the infallible Spirit of God can and does communicate with the friends and followers of Jesus. But also affirming that having heard from the Spirit I am neither an infallible hearer nor an infallible “apply-er” of what the Spirit says. That will require a humble admission of my short-sightedness, a willingness to invite others into the conversation to help discern just what it is that the Spirit wants of me (or us) when he does communicate, and a growing awareness of God’s great grace that keeps him communicating with us even when we misconstrue what he might be saying.

If given the choice, I will typically take the most direct route, the shortest journey from point A to point B. Whether it is a road trip, growth in a relationship, or a task to be done, I like to move forward in a clean, simple, direct way. And I tend to think that is the way life should be. (And it would seem that the frustrated drivers stuck behind a traffic jam or that angry shopper stalled behind a line at the register with a checker who appears to be too new to know what to do, that I am not the only one who thinks that life should flow smoothly and quickly to the appropriate destinations.)

And I also tend to think that if the Lord has somehow directed or guided or informed my decision to move in a certain direction or take a particular step, that we will be journeying forward in a smooth and quick way. At least I have thought that way in the past. But life doesn’t seem to be playing out that way . . . and I am forced to rethink how I think life should go.

Here’s the picture from the book of Acts that is helping me make sense of this slow and circuitous and up-hill journey of daily life.

It begins with Paul’s affirmation, recorded in Acts 20:22, that he is going to Jerusalem because the Spirit was leading him to go there. While in Jerusalem, Paul encounters more than a bit of trouble; opposition, riots, death threats and more. He’s put into protective custody by the Roman authorities. And then Jesus speaks to him.

The Lord stood at [Paul’s] side and said, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to my cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.” (Acts 23:11)

So, it is clear–Paul is going to go to Rome. But the path is anything but smooth and quick. Paul is taken from Jerusalem to the city of Philippi. There he is left in prison for at least two years; ignored or benignly tolerated by various Roman rulers until, under Agrippa, he is sent to Rome. On the way to Rome, the ship he is on is storm-tossed and driven off course, ultimately running aground on the island of Malta where Paul remains for three months. And finally, Paul finds himself on the coast of Italy on his way to Rome.

I don’t think that the journey from point A (Jerusalem) to point B (Rome) was the kind of trip that Paul had in mind . . . it wasn’t the journey he would likely have booked for himself. I doubt if we would have asked Paul when he heard from Jesus that he was going to Rome “How are you going to get there?” that he would have described the kind of journey it did take to get him there.

But, in reading the account (as found in Acts 23-28) it is apparent that the Lord was “in” the journey all along the way. It wasn’t accidental, Paul wasn’t off course, Paul hadn’t missed it . . . it just wasn’t a direct and quick and smooth and trouble-free route.

In all of our lives, we hear from the Lord about different facets of life. Sometimes it comes in a clear word of Scripture. Sometimes in the Bible-saturated insight of a friend. Sometimes a prompting of the Spirit moves our hearts and fills our minds. And we get some sense of where the Lord wants to take us.

How are you going to get there?

The Lord tells you, husband, “love your wife.” And you have a particular picture in mind of what that journey will be like. The Lord says to you, wife, “Respect your husband.” And you can conceive of what that journey to respect ought to look like. Perhaps Jesus is saying something about living holy, or serving well, or giving your life away, or studying hard, or laboring faithfully in work . . . and in hearing him describe the point B, you naturally think of what the journey toward that looks like from the way you see things where you are at point A.

 You see a quick and straightforward, clear and simple way to that destination. But it might not be that way at all.

Not because Jesus is mean. Not because he doesn’t know what he is doing. Not even because you might have gotten off the path, heading in the wrong direction. In fact, you might never fully know why the journey to Rome took a two-year journey through prison in Philip or why once the ship sailed the trip had to include storms and shipwreck and delay on Malta. But Jesus still made sure that Paul got to Jerusalem. And Jesus will make sure that we get to the destination he intends for us.

I think that I have thought wrongly, for much of my Christian journey, about Paul, the apostle. I have this kind of “super-spiritual” image of him. After all, he had that amazing ministry, planted churches all over the known world, healed multitudes, wrote the letters I read for encouragement in the faith. Clearly, Paul must have had it together, spiritually speaking.

He must not have needed the crutches and helps, the assistance that the rest of us not-so-super-spiritual followers of Jesus need. At least that is what I have thought before.

I was thinking about what I do know about his personal journey with Jesus. And three moments come to mind.

The first is his conversion. In Acts 9, we are told about how he was on a journey to persecute followers of Jesus when Jesus met with him and spoke with him. Jesus changed Paul (who had been named Saul) and brought him into new life. That was Paul’s defining moment with Jesus. And I guess that for a long time I kind of thought that from that moment on, Paul was good to go! But, no. There are two other moments that catch my attention.

Why these two moments? Because there are two other moments in Paul’s life (as recorded for us by Luke in the book of Acts) where Jesus is said to speak directly and personally to Paul. There might well have been many others, but Luke recounts only two others. And what we are told is significant.

In Acts 18, Paul is on his way to Corinth. He has enjoyed amazing and grace-blessed ministry on an earlier missionary journey. Things have gone wonderfully well. But this trip, not so well. Opposition has followed him; the ministry appears to not be going as well as before. And then we read:

And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent ; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” (Acts 18:9-10)

The other moment happens some time later in Paul’s life and journey. He is in Jerusalem. Riots have broken out in the city because he is there. He is on the receiving end of serious opposition. He has been put in “protective custody” by the Romans. And then we read:

But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to my cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.” (Acts 23:11)

I noticed a couple of things about this two latter moments.

Paul is still having “speaking encounters” with Jesus. In spite of his massive understanding of Scripture, despite his grasp of Gospel truth, in addition to his command of the message that he has effectively shared with others for years, Jesus and Paul still speak to one another. That’s good.

And then there is the substance of the conversation. In both these instances, Jesus is comforting, encouraging, supporting Paul. In spite of his overwhelmingly effective ministry, despite the years of faithful service and evidences of grace, in addition to God’s rich hand of blessing on his life and ministry, Jesus still has to talk to Paul and encourage him to not be afraid, to take courage, to keep on keeping on. That’s good.

Paul was not too mature in the faith to not need Jesus’ personal ministry. Paul was not too mature in the faith to not need a personal word of encouragement. And Jesus didn’t think that Paul was so far along that he would be fine just figuring things out on his own.

That’s good to see. Not a one of us is “too mature” that we couldn’t benefit from hearing from the Lord. Not a one of us is “too mature” that we might not need a personal word of encouragement. I am glad that Jesus is not reluctant to speak . . . even to those of us who might see ourselves as “mature in the faith.”

And that causes me to wonder what Jesus might want to say to me today.

I think I understand what it means when a follower of Jesus, one who is seeking to experience life with God, says something like:

“The Lord said to me . . . but, not in an audible voice or anything . . . but I heard . . .”

Upon reflection, such a statement is pretty nonsensical. For something truly to be “not audible” would mean that it could not be heard at all. Think about a dog whistle. To humans, a dog whistle is inaudible–we can’t hear the noise of the whistle although dogs can. To say that the Lord spoke “inaudibly” would mean, somehow, that he spoke in a way that you couldn’t hear–and if you couldn’t hear him speak (in any way), than you could not say that “the Lord said to me.”

What I think most people who say such things really mean is something more like:

“The Lord said to me . . . but I’m not saying I necessarily heard a voice with my physical ears or that if someone else had been there they would have heard . . . in fact, I am not really sure how I heard what I think I heard . . . it’s just that . . .”

Well, you get the picture! We are so unaccustomed to having a speaking relationship with the living God that we just get “weird” when we try to talk about “hearing” the Lord–even though it happens throughout the Scriptures with those who are in relationship with God.

Just reflect, for a moment, on the book of Acts where we get a narrative account of life in the early days of the church. For nearly every named person in the book of Acts there is a record of some kind of “hearing” from the Lord–there are accounts of communication between followers of Jesus and the living God.

Stephen sees visions. Peter hears voices and sees pictures. Paul is told things. Philip is given specific directions. Ananias has a two-way conversation with Jesus. The leaders in the church in Antioch are given instructions by the Spirit of God. All these moments are communication from God to people, in tangible, clear, “audible” ways–they “got” something from God.

And thinking about that caused me to reflect on the whole idea of “where” the voice we hear is. Let me illustrate.

In the book of Numbers we are given some descriptions of Moses’ encounters with God in the Tabernacle. There we find:

When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with [the Lord], he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim, so [God] spoke to him. (Numbers 7:89; see also Exodus 25:22)

What this mean is that the eternal and omnipresent God chose to communicate with Moses by “voicing” words from a particular point in space–between the angels whose wings arched over the “mercy seat” that formed the upper surface of the ark of the covenant. God was (and is) not constrained or confined to that particular point in space, but in order to communicate to Moses he “spoke” from that point in space.

Can you imagine the first time that happen for Moses? He might have said something like:

“The Lord spoke to me from . . . well, from right over there . . . that empty space . . . or at least it sounded like it came from there . . . although there is nothing really there . . . except I did hear something . . . I think.”

God was speaking. Moses heard his voice. And it matters little whether Moses could determine just how he “heard” the voice of the Lord or how the Lord’s voice was made audible to him. The thing that mattered most was that the Lord was communicating, Moses was listening, and he “got” something.

So, do we have to be able to explain where the voice comes from, how we see what we see when the Lord shows us something, or with what “spiritual faculty” we heard what we heard the Lord say? I think not.

What seems to matter more is that the Lord we meet in the pages of the Scriptures does still communicate–at times and when we need him to. He “speaks” to us.

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