Intimacy and EternityThe Whispers of His Love
Part Three, Chapter Fourteen
I am the Lord your God
who teaches you what is best for you,
who directs you in the way you should go.
Part One: The River of Delights
The Pace of Life
Towards a Life of Reflection
The Trysting Place
Part Two: The Ascent of Toil
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Principle of Suffer-Reign
The Grace of Yielding
The Whispers of His Love
AS I LOOK ACROSS THE ROOM AT MY RADIO, I know that I can tune in any time I like to the world’s news and views. But when we seek the Lord in prayer, do we expect to be able to hear Him so clearly? The answer is surely ‘No!’ – but God would not have told the Israelites to listen carefully to the voice of the Lord (Exodus 15:26) had it not been possible for them to do so. On the Mount of Transfiguration, when the voice came from the majestic glory, the Lord commanded His disciples to listen to Him.
The most casual reading of Scripture reveals how dependent the great men of God were on being able to hear the voice of the Lord. The Lord spoke to Moses, for example, ‘face to face’, as a man speaks with his friend,1 and we wish we found it so simple. Yet since I have not hesitated to state throughout this book ‘the Lord said this or that’, it is important for us to explore the implications of this overused, often abused, but ultimately undervalued expression.
In ordinary life, we hear people in more ways than just through their words. ‘Hearing’ is the end process of knowing the person with whom we are communicating. We ‘hear’ the Lord because we know Him. A close friend of mine once attended a gathering of the underground church in a Russian barn. It would have been too dangerous to have given out a public notice, but the Lord brought everyone together on time and in place. My friend was even more humbled when they asked him to teach them how to hear the voice of the Lord!
For Christians who live under persecution, listening is an integral part of their everyday lives. Even without the stimulus of persecution, we should be careful not to forge ahead with our own plans without consulting Him first. Why should He rubber-stamp our actions?
Scripture tells us that we are to draw near to the house of God in order to listen.2
It does not define any specific mechanism or process: it speaks rather of the constant practice that is needed to be able to discern the right or the wrong way.3
Imagine a Resistance radio operator in the Second World War going into a hut in the Norwegian mountains to contact Allied Command. On some days the radio reception is crystal clear, and messages can be both transmitted and received. On other occasions, reception is weak, and little or nothing can be made out. It is not so different in the spiritual realm. Our ability to discern the Lord’s voice varies greatly from day to day. Not only can the ‘wavelengths’ of our mind get clogged with our own concerns, but we are easily distracted by the welter of signals a clamouring world sends our way. Moreover, demonic forces strive to ‘jam’ our communication. Far better than we, they know the damage that is done to their kingdom when people follow the Lord’s leading.
We should never underestimate the help that even the briefest word from the Lord can bring. One day, when the disciples were ministering to the Lord, the Holy Spirit said to them: ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ (Acts 13:2).4 This was the prophetic word that commissioned the apostle Paul for his great work of church planting. Many of the finest New Testament churches – and ultimately our own today – came into being because the disciples responded to that word.
How grateful we can be that Moses and the other prophets wrote down what the Lord had said to them!5 Understanding some of the ways in which God spoke to them can help to increase our confidence that the Lord will enable us too to discern His leading more clearly.
Dare to Listen
When some horrible surprise overtakes us, common sense may or may not lead us to do the right thing. The danger is that fear and tension can easily shut out the voice of the living God. It is those who have learnt to still their souls who are most likely to be able to find God’s way forward.
In corporate terms, we expect young recruits to a company to be taught to heed the word of the boss. Why are we so diffident then about teaching young Christians to listen to their Lord? Despite our manifest ability to get it wrong and mishear, the Lord honours our desire to learn more about listening.
Given the bewildering variety of alternatives we often face, we need to seek the Lord! Not only are there many calls on our time, but the different facets of our character all impose their own demands. Some of these should be honoured, and others ignored. Thus the part of us which would enjoy a quiet evening at home watching a good film may find itself in direct conflict with the awareness that we have not spent much time recently with the Lord. Meanwhile, another part of us may be chafing over a pile of unfinished business – or ironing – even while a social reminder is bleeping in our brain that we are long overdue to visit friends or family. Only the Lord can show us how to spend each day most effectively!
Paradoxically, it can be almost as hard to trust that we have heard the Lord saying the very thing we most wanted to hear, as it is to face something unpalatable. We are afraid we are imagining the words of blessing and promise, just as we tend to reject warnings or rebuke.
Children sometimes hear the Lord more easily than we do. The Lord found a wonderfully discreet way to alert our daughter, Ruth, when we were about to move from Chester. Running downstairs one day she called out, ‘Something really important has happened: I’ve seen an angel! He told me I’m going to need to make new friends for my birthday party.’ Sure enough, we did move – and in time to make new friends for her fifth birthday party.
Calls become weightier as the years go by. When she was nearly nine, the opportunity arose for Ruth to attend a Christian school in Worcester. Because of the distance, this meant living with another family from Monday to Friday.
The Lord arranged the details miraculously. We met a couple who were keen to host a child who wanted to attend the school but who could not manage the distance on a daily basis. Nevertheless, it was a costly decision for all of us to have her living away from home. The Lord reassured Ruth that it was His will, and promised that He would dry her eyes.
When she reached up to brush away the tears that came as He gave her this word, she found that her eyes were already dry! Ruth benefited greatly from attending a school that was, in many ways, more like a Bible college.
Two years later He implanted a deep desire in her to go to Africa. Out of the blue, she was approached by a missionary organization who invited her to join their team on a mission to southern Tanzania. She had the time of her life, gained invaluable ministry experience and fell in love with the African people and the Swahili language. Who knows where He will lead any of us next?
Confirming a Word from the Lord
Which of us has not struggled to discern whether some word or vision truly is of God? Bob Mumford counsels that when God is about to lead us on to some major new path, He will normally confirm His word to us in a number of different ways.6 When it comes to making life-changing decisions, we should be wary of proceeding on the basis of only one or two strands of guidance.
In other words, we need not only an initial inner witness but also an ongoing sense of rightness about some course of action. Confirmation will come from God’s Word, through the wisdom of those who are over us in the Lord and by the opening or shutting of the particular door in question. Only when at least three of these strands of guidance are in place – the witness of the Spirit, confirmation from the Word, and through other Christians, as well as the specific opening or shutting of doors – is it safe to conclude that some impulse or thought represents the authentic leading of the Lord.
Since most of us rely heavily on circumstances to be the final arbiter in matters of guidance I have deliberately left it to last. When Paul arrived in Troas he found a wide open door for his ministry.7 A lesser man might have concluded that this was meant to be his life’s work, but Paul knew that he had received a prior calling to work with Titus. Because his friend was not there, he walked away from this open door and moved on to Macedonia.
A simple guideline for helping us to tell the difference between flesh and Spirit (and between God and Satan) is that the Lord speaks to our spirit, not just to our mind. When the Lord has spoken, we are left with a deep assurance, even though we may not understand all the implications of what He has said. When we listen to our own feelings and inclinations we are usually left with uncertainty and confusion.
By trial and error we learn to discern between the many conflicting impulses that come our way. Most commonly, the ‘voices’ that echo in our minds are nothing but the distorted projections of our own unresolved emotional conflicts. This counterfeit of true listening may be no more than hearing what our old nature wants to hear.
The ‘child’ voice within us clamours for attention and approval. This immature voice promises all manner of great things, but it has no substance behind it, and no willingness to embrace the Cross. It wants all sorts of good things – and preferably right now! It is so deceptive that, in the privacy of our hearts, it may try to reassure us that the sins of the flesh are perfectly acceptable in the sight of a loving God. Since it welcomes neither inspection nor testing, its delusory promises lead at best to disillusionment, at worst to serious trouble.
Still more of us are driven by a ‘parent’ voice, which imposes stern demands. Often posing as the voice of God (and speaking through our distorted conscience) it owes more to our misguided idea of what religion ought to be than to the true freedom of the Holy Spirit. Some still labour under the misguided impression that the hard way must always be the right way.8
Rigid legalism is the result of following this voice. Its baleful influence has spread much bondage throughout the Church. It is the spirit that lies behind the cults: it kills joy, and concentrates power in the hands of people with controlling tendencies. This spirit quickly degenerates into a particularly horrible form of abuse, made none the better by appearing to be so determinedly ‘righteous’. It is most likely to afflict people who are not truly humble, and who are trying to compensate for inner inadequacies. It is often to be found in those who were used by the Lord in the past, but who are now unable to perceive when He is doing something new, and who have effectively become opponents of the Holy Spirit.
This matter of control is a serious one. The secret formula that satanists are taught at the highest level of their initiation is, ‘Let my will be done in everything.’ This is the direct opposite of all that true Christianity stands for. The voice of control is ultimately the way of self and Satan.
Intimacy with God sets us free from making unfair demands on each other. The Lord sometimes has to go to considerable lengths to rescue those who have been cruelly dominated. However unwittingly, many church leaders have often been guilty of crushing others by their strong personalities, harsh words and rigid ways of doing things. Our constant prayer must be to be able to steer people closer to their Lord, rather than making them dependent on ourselves.
As you have sought to listen to the Lord recently, what themes has He been stressing? To what extent are you obeying and acting on what He has shown you?
Lord, the words You speak to me make all the difference!
Help me to be quick to recognize when You are speaking, and prompt to obey.
Open my ears to the whispers of Your love, and help me to believe and act on what You show me, no matter how unlikely it may sound.
Keep me from chasing shadows and illusions, but help me to face the hard things that You show me, so that I may inherit all that You have promised.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. Exodus 33:11.
2. Ecclesiastes 5:1.
3. Hebrews 5:14.
4. This word was given to the disciples at Antioch, where the Lord had brought together a multi-national team of prophets, pastors and evangelists. The church in Antioch became a major resource for the whole of the region. When the different parts of the Body are functioning in harmony, it is much easier for the Lord to build his Church.
5. Exodus 24:4; Jeremiah 30:2; 36:2-4; Habakkuk 2:2; Revelation 1:11.
6. Bob Mumford, Take Another Look at Guidance (Logos). Bob has also written an excellent book on Temptation.
7. 2 Corinthians 2:12-13.
8. Alissa in Andre Gide’s La Porte Etroite is a good example of this.