A Spiritual Check-Up “How’s Your Hearing?”
“Every Christian should be able to answer two questions,” says Gordon Smith, a Seminary President and Professor of Theology up in Calgary, Alberta. First, he says, we should all be able to answer the question – “What is God saying to you right now, at this point in your life, in the context of the different challenges and opportunities that you are facing?” And second, he says, but just as important, we should all be able to answer the question – “How do you know that it’s God who’s saying it rather than something or someone else?” These are the two questions that the boy Samuel had to sort through in the story that’s told in I Samuel 3:1-11).
I can’t tell you the number of times, through the years, in sermons and Bible Studies, that I have taken people to this story in I Samuel 3 and encouraged them to say the words that Eli told the boy Samuel to say to that mysterious voice that spoke to him in the night – “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And only once has anyone ever come up to me afterwards and asked, “So, just exactly how is this supposed to work? How God going to speak to us? Like Samuel in the story, should I be listening for an audible voice?” It’s exactly the right question.
The late Urban Holmes used to tell a story about a minister he said he knew who was always telling people in his church to listen for God’s voice. And then, one Sunday morning when a woman from his church came up to him after worship to tell him that she had actually heard from God, he gave her the name of a good psychiatrist! Is it crazy to think that God is going to speak to us? I know that the most hurtful things that I’ve seen happen in the church have occurred because people claiming to have heard directly from God about something have made demands that they thought should go unchallenged because of their sense of private inspiration. “The assertion, ‘The Lord told me’ is regularly employed as a sanctified shield for all sorts of [nonsense]” (Buetell).
The biggest fight I ever had in any church I served in my more than 40 years of ministry was with an elder who told me one Sunday morning during a Bible Study, with his wife sitting right at his side, that if the Lord told him to commit adultery that he would have to go out and commit adultery! I laughed, until I realized he wasn’t joking. Quickly I told him that God would never tell him to commit adultery, and when he demanded to know how I could possibly know that, I simply opened my Bible to the book of Exodus and showed him the seventh commandment – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). He was unimpressed. He had greater confidence in his own private sense of the Lord’s leading, than he did in a clear Word from God that has been preserved for us in the Bible, and that’s the problem when it comes to hearing from God.
Christianity is premised on the big idea that the God who is there is not silent. The God of the Bible is a speaking God, in fact, it’s one of God’s primary characteristics. And so, the plot of most of the stories that the Bible tells is exactly the same. Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Esther, Mary, Peter and Paul, it’s always the same story – God speaks to someone in such a way that he or she can understand what it is that God wants, and then they respond to what God told them appropriately, or not. And it’s no different for us.
“God is still speaking” – that’s the slogan of our sister denomination, the United Church of Christ. “I am verily persuaded,” wrote John Robinson, the Pilgrim Pastor on the Mayflower, that “the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.” Because God is God, God is free to address us in any way that God sees fit. God can, and sometimes does, use voices and visions, signs and wonders, trances and dreams – “mystic sweet communion” – to speak to us. But in my experience, and by my observation, these special spiritual experiences are far and few between.
The much more common way to hear from God is by just opening up our Bibles and reading. As John Robinson told the Pilgrims, ordinarily it is going to be “out of His Holy Word” that God is going to “break out… more truth.” This is why Nancy Guthrie, a well-known Christian Conference Speaker, says, “When somebody begins a sentence with ‘God told me…’ I have to admit that a silent alarm goes off somewhere inside me – unless that phrase is followed quickly by a verse of Scripture.” This is how it ordinarily works, and we have an example of it in Hebrews chapter 4.
Right before telling us that the Word of God is living and active, like a sharp two-edged sword that penetrates our hearts and exposes our deepest thoughts and desires, the author of Hebrews quoted Psalm 95. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,” the author of Hebrews explained, “Today when you hear God’s voice do not harden your hearts” – in chapter 3. Now understand, these words from Psalm 95 were written a thousand years before the book of Hebrews was written, and yet the author of Hebrews introduced them with the statement – “as the Holy Spirit says.” That’s a present tense “says” and not a past tense “said.” The author of Hebrews was describing the way that the Holy Spirit was using ancient words written to other people in another time and place to speak directly to the people of his own place and time, how the written Word becomes the living Word.
Another description of how this works is the familiar story of the two forlorn disciples on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday that we’re told in Luke 24. When the Risen Christ showed up beside them, Luke tells us that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures… how it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and then enter into His glory” (24:26-27). A Bible study! Jesus led them in a Bible Study on Easter. And when Jesus was finished, those two disciples turned to each other and said – “Did not our hearts burn within us as He opened the Scriptures to us?” (24:32).
Their hearts were “strangely warmed” as the Scriptures were explained, and “it is the Spirit who makes the heart burn as the Word is heard,” explained Bernard Ramm, an important 20th century American theologian. “God speaks into the heart while the ear listens to the outward Word… upon the objective truth of revelation must fall the subjective light of the Holy Spirit’s illumination.” He called this “double structure” – “the hearing ear and the burning heart” – the way that God speaks to us from the Bible. As an “external minister” of the Word like me reads and explains a text of Scripture, Bernard Ramm said that the Holy Spirit, the “internal minister” of the Word, comes and “speaks to the heart.”
In I Corinthians 14:3, Paul used three words – “edification, exhortation, and consolation” – to describe how the Holy Spirit, as the internal minister of the Word, takes the things that the Bible tells us are eternally true and “speaks them (individually) to our hearts.” “Edification means ‘to build up,’ exhortation means ‘to call near,’ and consolation means ‘to cheer up’” (Vallotton).
What’s in the Bible edifies me – “builds me up” – when, as I’m reading it, the Holy Spirit alerts me to an example to follow, or to a truth about God for which I can be thankful. During an “Inspiration Week” at the first seminary I attended, one of my professors was asked about his devotional life, and he told us that his best times with God came late at night when, after everybody else in his family had gone to bed, he could sit quietly in his study reading theology “loving God with all his mind.” Most of my fellow students in the class groaned, but I nodded my head in complete agreement.
I find that theology, the discipline of trying to think God’s thoughts after Him, more so than almost anything else I do, is what brings me to the heart of God. A few years ago I kept coming across the idea of the “apatheia” of God in my readings. I was immediately offended by the idea that God is apathetic – without feelings. As I have said any number of times from this pulpit, I am powerfully drawn to the idea of “Emmanuel” – that “God is with us,” that God’s heart “is touch by our grief.” So, when I started reading about how many theologians insist that apathy is an important characteristic of the God of the Bible, I immediately went to my Bible to try to wrestle this idea to the ground.
It was a wild ride, and when it was over, I found myself on my knees actually thanking God for His apatheia. I was grateful that God is not like a fickle middle school kid whose affections are constantly shifting because of their surging hormones. As an evangelist friend of mine likes to say, “God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing we can do to make God love us more than He already does, and there’s nothing we can do to that will make God love us any less. God just loves us. It’s already decided. It’s already settled.” That’s what the theologians mean when they talk about the apatheia of God, and it’s a Biblical idea that the Holy Spirit has used to edify me, to build up my faith.
What’s in the Bible also exhorts me – “comes in close” – when, as I’m reading it, the Holy Spirit alerts me to a command that I need to obey, or points out a sin in my life that I need to confess and avoid. Do you remember Dana Carvey’s “church lady” character on Saturday Night Live doing her “superiority dance”? Well, she lives inside me, and when I feel her getting up to dance over somebody else’s mistaken idea or misguided action, the Holy Spirit routinely sits me down and shuts me up with Romans 14:4 –
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
When I start feeling theologically smug and superior to someone else, I find that the Holy Spirit consistently “comes in close” with a Scripture to adjust my attitude and to change what I’m about to do or say. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” says I Corinthians 8:1. The Holy Spirit uses what’s in the Bible to exhort us.
Finally, what’s in the Bible consoles me – “cheers my heart” – when, as I’m reading it, the Holy Spirit alerts me to a promise that I can claim, or to an idea that helps me make sense of what’s happening in my life, or in the lives of the people I know and love. Just a year after she became a Christian, Pastor Ben Haden’s sister got sick and was undergoing medical tests to determine whether or not she had Multiple Sclerosis. Ben said, “She phoned me, almost frantic, and asked, ‘Do you think it’s possible that I have MS?” And Ben explained, “In most cases, I answer that kind of question, “Yes.” Then the person cries and says, “Do you really think so?” And I say, “Let’s assume you do. If you don’t, there’s no problem – but let’s face the possibility and take it from there.”
But when his own sister called and asked him this question, Ben told her, “You know I love you, and you know I hope you don’t have MS. But if you do, then nothing has changed because nothing has changed about Jesus Christ.” How did Ben know this? How could Ben say this? Well, it was because long before that day of trouble arrived, the Holy Spirit had already taken the Biblical truth of Romans 8, how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, not tribulation, not distress, not suffering, not pain, not even death (8:31-39), and personally and powerfully applied it’s truth to Ben’s heart so that he could then make its comfort available to others as their pastor and their friend in their hour of need. The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to console us.
I’ve often thought that if we took out an ad in the paper, and bought air time to run commercials on TV, and put up some billboards around town announcing that God was going to speak at FCC on an upcoming Sunday morning, there wouldn’t be enough room in here for all the people who would show up wanting to hear from God. But this, in fact, is what happens here every Sunday morning. As an elderly Chinese woman told theologian J.I. Packer – “Reading my Bible is like having God talk to me.” And, so it is. It’s when we open our Bibles and read that God speaks – building us up, coming in close, cheering our hearts, and changing us forever. So — “Speak Lord… your servants are listening.”