Can I Hear God’s Voice?

When I was first a believer in Jesus I had the tendency to think of the will of God in terms of location or vocation. Where would he want me to be? What did He want me to do with my life? To a certain extent, of course, these things were related. But a study of Scripture revealed very little connection between the will of God and those ideas. The will of God is for the repentance and conversion of the lost (1 Tim 2:4); my good works, as a testimony to Christ’s wisdom and truth before an unbelieving world (1 Pet 2:15); a holy lifestyle (1 Thess 4:3); and my thankfulness (1 Thess 5:18). Beyond these, the Scripture says very little about God’s will.

Recently, as I have revisited the question, I have considered not “What is God’s will?” but “How do I hear from Him?” There is MUCH in the Scripture related to that question. Ultimately the answer comes back to the Scripture for David wrote, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). 

In the Biblical record, however, I am struck by the number of times that people think they are hearing from God when they are not. Job’s friend Eliphaz had a vision in the night in which he thought he heard the advice that Job needed in his affliction. The text, however, reads eerily (Job 4:12f) and describes a shadowy form rather than a clear person. The advice given seems right, but is rejected by Job as “half-truth.”  Personally I believe that the vision was of a demonic spirit and not the Lord. Eliphaz’ counsel along with the advice of the rest of his friends was ultimately rejected by God (Job 42:7).

Even more confusing is the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. He follows what God tells him and then is rebuked for doing it. He speaks a blessing upon Israel three times, but in the end is killed along with Israel’s enemies because he counseled the Moabites to tempt Israel into sexual immorality (Num 31:8, 16). Did Balaam listen to God or to Satan? The best answer I can come to is that he heard from both but did not have the discernment to know which was which. The only time, it seems, that he clearly understood that it was God’s voice that he was hearing is when his donkey spoke to him!

Certainly we recognize that those who make no claim to worship the true and living God  will be deceived as was the representative of the Assyrian king before Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:25), but our dilemma is heightened when we realize that Satan tried to use Scripture to tempt Jesus (Matt 4:6) and can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14).

So, if one of Satan’s tactics is to confuse the voice of God with his own, we are back to the question, “How do we discern the voice of God in our world?” Godly men through the years have offered the advice that when Scripture, circumstances, and the advice of trusted counselors all are aligned, we can be confident in the Lord’s leading. 

The problem with this, however, is that waiting for that alignment often doesn’t fit my timetable. I get impatient waiting for the microwave to reheat my coffee. My time is too important. I get impatient with the driver who is going the speed limit on our town’s side streets (admittedly, those speed limits are often set way too low!). I am used to instant communication, instant information, instant service. I consider myself to be holy when I spend fifteen minutes of my morning in a “sweet hour of prayer.” 

I admit that I don’t really know what the Psalmist means when he tells us repeatedly to “wait for the Lord.” Why didn’t Moses feel angry or guilty over his wasted time when he went up to the mountain to get the Law and it was seven days later before God finally spoke to him (Ex 24:15-16)? I know that I would have.

The result of that “wasted time” was that he heard from the Lord; God had clearly spoken; in the end, that was all that mattered. Perhaps that’s the answer to our struggle as Christians to hear and discern the voice of God in our day — slow down, meditate on the Scripture, and just wait. He promises to “instruct [us] in the way [we] should go” (Ps 32:8).

Honest Confession and Repentance

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:7-10, ESV).

Despite the uninformed opinions of many who resist Christ in our day, the Christian roots of our society are undeniable. It was not uncommon in the early days of our Republic (and even prior to our independence) for our leaders to appeal to the God revealed in Jesus Christ for His aid when we faced a crisis. On a number of these occasions that appeal was accompanied with fasting.

Fasting has seen something of a revival in recent years. About 30 years ago I thought that I was far outside of the mainstream when I began a regular appeal to God through fasting over some personal issues, but in recent years many books and pamphlets have been written on the topic. Perhaps it was practiced more than I understood, but certainly there was less published about it. My study of this discipline has revealed that often in Scripture fasting is intended when the inspired writer uses the phrase “humble yourself” or “afflict yourself.” Most of these phrases are written to Jewish audiences in the Old Testament, but it is significant that in the handful of places where the phrase is used in the New Testament, the primary audience is also Jewish. When James wrote this in the passage quoted above, then, it is likely that he had the idea of fasting in mind.

Over the years I have counseled people to fast when they are facing impending doom — a personal diagnosis of cancer or the anguish of the decisions of a prodigal child. Weighty decisions are also proper occasions for fasting; it doesn’t have to be a matter of life or death as many matters were in colonial America or in the Biblical record. The Apostle Peter used the phrase, “humble yourself,” in the context of “casting all of your cares upon Him” (1 Pet 5:7).

Not all passages that refer to fasting include prayer, notably in the book of Esther. But virtually every reference is attended by a call to confession and repentance of sin, either overtly or implied. Before we can expect the Lord’s deliverance, it behooves us to have clean hearts through honest confession and the intentional decision to turn from what displeases Him.

Yet with the revival of interest in the discipline of fasting, there doesn’t appear to be a similar interest in confession and repentance. It is relatively easy to go a day without eating or to go many days without eating certain foods, but I confess (no pun intended) that I have a harder time with the self-examination that should accompany repentance. My personal fat reserves will not allow me to starve in a short period of fasting (despite what my stomach says), but the real struggle for me is setting aside the time for honest soul-searching. I suspect that I am not alone.

As I have read historical literature recently I have been struck by the importance that the people of previous eras have attached to genuine confession and repentance. Fasting might have accompanied their appeal to the God of Israel, but it was more incidental to it than it was central. The central issue was the humble confession (with subsequent forsaking) of their offending actions before the holy God that they worshiped. 

The Jewish calendar always includes a high holy day in the fall that is called the Day of Atonement. It is instituted and described in Leviticus 16 and the text includes the phrase “humble/afflict yourself” as a reference to fasting. But like most everything else instituted by God, we humans have a propensity to make it a legalistic work of righteousness. I confess that my practice of fasting has often resembled a legalistic “Yom Kippur.” May God grant me the grace to restore a proper spirit to my fasting.

The Rain Dance

I wrote this essay is about twenty years old, but I read something recently that reminded me of it.

THE RAIN DANCE

It’s raining outside as I write this. A nice, gentle rain. We have been dry, but in other parts of the country “drought” is the more appropriate word. Water rationing has become necessary there. Restaurants will serve water only on request, lawns and cars will have to wait.

The Native American rain dance didn’t help this time either, although it seemed the perfectly logical solution, given the current state of humanism. Our society has decided that all religions are really one religion and to call on any god is tantamount to calling on the only God. If the truth were known, though, the humanistic powers-that-be really don’t believe that any god or the only God exists, so it is a nice little superstition to pass the time while we wait for Mother Nature to do her self-correction and equalize the rainfall according to the statistical averages.

But how quickly we forget! It is said that if we ignore our history we are doomed to repeat its failures. In their fine book, The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel recall the events of the summer of 1623 when a severe drought threatened to destroy the corn crop and, with it, the Pilgrim’s colony. It continued for 12 weeks, a longer period of dryness than even the oldest Indian could ever recall. The Indian rain dances and incantations had no effect, but the Pilgrims set aside a day for fasting, self-examination and prayer to call upon God’s mercy and provision. Marshall and Manuel quote from the journal of Edward Winslow:
“But, O the mercy of our God, who was as ready to hear, as we were to ask! For though in the morning, when we assembled together, the heavens were as clear and the drought as like to continue as ever it was, yet (our exercise continuing some eight to nine hours) before our departure, the weather was overcast, the clouds gathered on all sides. On the next morning distilled such soft, sweet and moderate showers of rain, continuing some fourteen days and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it is hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived, such was the bounty of our God!”

Winslow went on to comment on the effects of this upon the Indians of this region:
“All of them admired the goodness of our God towards us, that wrought so great a change in so short a time, showing the difference between their conjuration and our invocation on the name of God for rain, theirs being mixed with such storms and tempests, as sometimes, instead of doing them good, it layeth the corn flat on the ground…but ours in so gentle and seasonable a manner, as they never observed the like.”

The devout confession of the Pilgrims is what God expected of ancient Israel when Amos the prophet declared that God “withheld the rain from (them)…then (He) would send rain on one city and on another city (He) would not send rain. One part would be rained on while the part not rained on would dry up” (4:7).

But instead of devout confession, we in America today turn to pagan gods to relieve our weather-related anxieties. Sometimes it is the Native American rain dance; sometimes it is the god of meteorology and weather forecasting with its cloud seeding technology. We have yet to learn what Job learned centuries ago when God asked him the rhetorical question, “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds so that an abundance of water may cover you?” (38:34).

But whichever we turn to, as we do, we turn our backs upon the God who created us and redeemed us in His own Son. The Bible declares that His patience will not last forever.
Now, it should be noted that it is not wrong to study meteorological science, or any other science, for that matter. What is wrong is that we tend in our society to attribute to it the status of deity by denying that any outside force can suspend its laws. This tendency is a subtle declaration on our part that some day we humans will figure out how to manipulate the laws, create, and be completely independent of “God.” But for all the insights science has given us in the realm of meteorology, it has yet to create a cloud on such a scale that it can water our crops. It has yet to stop a thunderstorm, or even predict accurately where a tornado will travel. All it can do is warn us to get out of its way, yet often we lift our voices to praise it rather than turning to the God of heaven who rides “upon the wings of the wind” and “twists the oaks” (see Psalms 18, 29) or to His Son Whom the winds and waves obey.

Let us be very clear that the turning to pagan gods for rain dances is not merely a quaint and harmless superstition. It is our declaration that we are unwilling to humble ourselves before the God who created us and will ultimately judge us. The fact that the axe has not yet fallen must not lull us into believing that it never will or that God “tolerates” our sin. He is merciful and patient toward us, giving us every opportunity to repent and to be restored. But just like a good parent, He will allow rebellion to continue only until it is clear that we will not repent on our own.

The imminent danger of famine and hardship led the Pilgrims of 1623 to confess and repent of their sins. This was their only hope in Christ. Our deepest problem here around the turn of the millennium is that we don’t perceive that our danger is imminent. May God awaken us from our slumber.

Watching For Signs of Life


They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19, ESV).

Slowly over the past several months (now into a couple of years) I have been cleaning out a brushy overgrown area between my house and my neighbor’s. I have tried to preserve a few shoots that have started there such as a couple of small redbud trees and some small Rose of Sharon shoots that have grown up off of a common root. Amazingly, despite my very brown thumb, they have shown signs of life! Last summer, however, I noticed that one of the Rose of Sharon shoots was not upright. Apparently a deer had broken it.

I couldn’t tell if there was still some life to the shoot or not, so I took some string and tied it to the remaining upright shoots, hoping that any life still within it would help to heal the break, but I have my doubts. The real test will be this spring (if spring ever comes) when the leaves and blossoms appear.

In several places in Scripture the Bible describes the life of the believer with an illustration from horticulture (see Psalm 1; Jer. 17; John 15, et. al.). The life of the believer is nourished from a root system that draws vitality from the soil (usually). In some plants the inter-connectedness of the roots stabilizes the plant just as the believer feeds off of the common faith of other believers in the church. In other words, we need the other believers in the church to be strong in the faith. But what happens when a tender shoot is broken off, when someone leaves the fellowship because of a nuance in doctrine, a sin, or a conflict over something trivial?

The Apostle John describes such a scenario in which an apparent believer leaves a congregation in the passage quoted above. We are tempted to ask if they were really believers in Christ to begin with, but that is not John’s point and we are not privy to their inner thoughts. John’s point is that they appeared to be alive and connected to the same Root (Jesus), but they left. He says, “Let them go; they were really not of us.”

As fallen people, it is natural for us to proudly tug on our lapels and congratulate ourselves on our steadfastness, usually imagining that it is because of our righteousness. May the Lord guard us from this sin and humble us with a truly repentant spirit, helping us to recognize our own areas of doctrinal or interpersonal error. The righteous don’t always win a church conflict.

The enemy of our souls also recognizes that this same fallenness makes us susceptible to a false guilt where we condemn ourselves for communicating an attitude of condemnation toward the person who left our fellowship. Maybe we did; maybe we didn’t. Happily it is the same genuinely repentant spirit of self-examination that can deliver us from Satan’s condemnation (see Rom 8:1).

As believers in Jesus, it is our purpose to seek to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted. Hopefully, if there is genuine life in the wounded friend, they will return to the Shepherd and Guardian of their souls, even if they don’t return to our fellowship. The real test, however, will be seen in the blossoms appearing in the spring as a demonstration of the life of Christ that produces genuine fruitfulness.

The Music of Christmas

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14, ESV).

While my previous blog highlighted some of the things I don’t like about the American Christmas holidays in this era, there are some really wonderful parts to it as well, especially the music that often accompanies the season.

There is no other time of the year when familiar strains of music exalting the Savior are played in public venues. Regularly I pray that someone’s heart would awaken when they hear, “Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” or “I know that my Redeemer liveth…” Even the most hardened pagan can understand the message despite the antiquated, Shakespearean forms of these verbs. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will open the heart of a person to ponder the question, “What Child is this who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Why did the “angels greet [Him] with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping”?

For us who believe in Jesus, these lyrics give us opportunities to speak of the substance of the Christian Gospel while the rest of the world is merely “fa-la-la-ing” among their boughs of holly. Despite the political correctness of this world, the traditional carols (so far) are still considered part of our cultural celebration, so that the thoughtful pagan reveler might actually begin to link the celebration with Jesus, the King of Kings, rather than Santa Claus, the benevolent home invader.

I also pray for the innocent child who hears about the Baby Jesus and asks his/her parents why there is such a fuss over this Baby. What makes Him special? Perhaps the Lord will use the discomfort in the child’s parents over an innocent question to make them consider what really is the “mercy mild” that this Baby brought to reconcile God and sinners. Maybe the Lord will awaken their hearts to realize that they themselves are the sinners that He came to reconcile to Himself!

Even if the person doesn’t respond to the Gospel through the text of the familiar lyrics, the lyrics will have accomplished their purpose. It will be a sad scene for some as they stand before the throne of God on that day, as they try to justify their rejection of Christ by claiming that they had never heard the Gospel message. I can imagine the Lord stopping them mid-sentence (Rom 3:19) and bringing to their remembrance the music they heard in the mall or on their secular radio station that told them to “Fall on their knees” before the incarnate Son who became flesh on that holy night.

I know that there is much Christmas music these days that is pseudo-Christian or downright secular which we all enjoy, which highlights the cultural aspects of the season. We innocently dream of the white Christmases depicted by the Currier and Ives paintings while quietly wishing for a tender Tennessee celebration so that we don’t have to fight the weather. Nostalgically we can even smell the pumpkin pies, even if we are not originally from Pennsylvania. But I love the music of Christmas because inevitably we are drawn back to the stable near the overcrowded inn where Mary’s little boy-child was born so that men can live forevermore if they put their trust in Him.

Don’t Forget Jesus

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, ESV).

It’s almost sacrilegious to say, but sometimes I find the Christmas season almost nauseating. It’s not that I don’t like the Christmas treats, and my wife is a great cook, along with all the others whose goodies I partake of. What I find nauseating is the endless repetition of the phrase, “the true meaning of Christmas,” when those spouting such drivel don’t know or won’t tell us what Christmas really does mean. My struggle is the willingness of men to focus on the trappings of Christmas while ignoring the Holiday.

It is NOT merely an opportunity to give gifts or do good to others. Don’t misunderstand — we are called upon to give and to do good for our fellow man, but that is true in every season of the year.

It is also NOT merely a chance to reflect upon how blessed we are. Yet during this season many people let these blessings proudly inflate their inner Scrooge by comparing themselves to the homeless or others in their family, or by how much they can deduct from their tax bill through end-of-the-year giving. Again, I say, there is nothing wrong with traditions of helping the less fortunate or visiting family or charitable giving. But these are not “the true meaning of Christmas.”

All of the things we will hear about the “true meaning of Christmas” are merely smoke and mirror devices used by the enemy of our souls to distract us from Jesus. In fact, some of the traditional religious institutions surrounding Christmas have become so familiar that we lose sight of Him.

The piety of Mary and Joseph that led the Lord to honor them by being the Messiah’s parents has given way to the idea that Christmas is now an occasion to provide for a homeless couple. No one denies the importance of helping the homeless, but that is not the lesson to be drawn from the narrative — it’s not “the true meaning of Christmas.”

The Christmas lights that used to remind us that Jesus is the light of the world are now the subject of TV special contests (complete with large financial prizes) to see who can create the most spectacular display. There are people who work year round to engineer these home decorations, without a thought (apparently) of Jesus. But we will hear them or some reporter explain that this is “the true meaning of Christmas.”

We could go on and on with the Christmas traditions that have been distorted to distract us from Jesus. The true meaning of Christmas involves Jesus’ willingness to lay aside the glory that was rightfully His to come to rescue mankind from sin. In that act He demonstrated the patient and giving nature of our Creator who fulfilled the plan that He had in mind from the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed in the Garden. That act also demonstrated the power of God to overcome the pride of men who falsely imagine that the world revolves around them. It’s not just a cliche — Jesus really is the reason for the season. Let us not forget Him.

Pompous Men


Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish…Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish (Ps. 49:12, 20).

The ancients have described pride as one of the seven deadly sins. That is exactly right, as the psalmist attests. Twice in this psalm, the author compares the proud man to the beasts that perish and are no longer remembered.

When an animal dies, if it is a pet, we are sad for a while but we will get over it. Animal life, though valuable as part of the created order, does not have the same value as human life which is created in God’s image. Despite the suggestion of Disney and other animators, the deer family doesn’t conduct a funeral for a member that becomes roadkill or a hunter’s summer sausage. No one typically mourns.

That same plight is the end of the proud and pompous man. He may have enough money to have a headstone erected with his name on it so that ancestry websites can trace his descendants, but within a few weeks after the funeral, he has become a distant memory. But the psalmist points out that his wealth will not endure. Neither will his reputation.

On the other hand, the Scripture is replete with references to how the man WITHOUT his pomp will endure. Dozens of times, in a variety of ways and contexts, the Lord calls upon his people to humble themselves. Repentant humility softens the Lord’s heart to the most incorrigible sinner (reflect upon 2 Chron 33:10-13). The problem with most of us, as the Psalmist notes, is that we are not willing to truly humble ourselves, and He isn’t going to play our game of faking it.

According to the Apostle Paul, Jesus’ humility was His signature characteristic, exemplified at the cross (see Philippians 2:5-11). We are called upon to be like Him, to set others before ourselves. It works every time it’s tried. Show me a home where husband and wife are more concerned for the welfare of the other than they are their own, and I will show you a peaceful home. Show me a church where the members are more concerned with prioritizing the needs of others and I will show you a peaceful church. Humility is the recipe for resolving every interpersonal conflict. (May I step on a few toes by saying, “Politicians should take note!”?)

True humility cannot be imposed upon us from the outside; it is a function of our relationship with Christ. Non-Christian religions (and even some so-called Christian groups) merely manage the pride of their members. Secularism hides pride in its promotion of self-esteem; Christian legalists appeal to pride to get their members to follow their rules; non-Christian religious groups and cults claim to be pleasing God when their members simply want to claim some proud righteousness for themselves.

Only Christ can make us truly humble. Only when we see ourselves with all of our imperfections in the light of His purity can we experience true humility. Jesus’ humility to the point of being our Substitute on the cross led God to exalt Him to the highest place and we are commanded to have the same attitude. When we follow this command, we will endure while the men with proud and pompous hearts will perish with no remembrance.

 

The Lord Is My Portion

I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (Psalm 142:5, ESV).

The seventeenth century author, John Donne, wrote, “No man is an island…” His point was that every other human being enriches us and their loss diminishes us to some degree. Another way of saying this is that no one is sufficient in himself; we all seek some kind of refuge because ultimately we cannot stand alone.

The writer of this Psalm was David, long before he became king. He was running for his life and took shelter by hiding in a cave. This happened twice in the Scripture (I Sam 22 and 24). In the first incident, he was fleeing from the king of Gath; in the second he was fleeing from Saul. We cannot be sure which incident this arose from, but it is immaterial. David knew his resources were insufficient. The men that were with him were a comfort to him, I’m sure, but they were no match for the thousands that either enemy could bring against them. David felt overwhelmed; he needed a Refuge.

The Refuge he found was in the God of Israel. It wasn’t that he disdained or didn’t appreciate those that supported him; he just knew that if he were to be delivered, the God he worshiped would have to step in to do it. In both cave episodes, David sees a marvelous deliverance. The first was the provision of a pagan king who sheltered his parents; the second was the shame that Saul experienced when David could have killed him but did not. Other people surrounded David in both places, but his trust was in the God of Israel, not in human deliverance.

We in this generation have lost that spirit of genuine trust in God. The terms, “faith” and “trust,” are often interchangeable in the Scripture — trust is an active expression of faith. But our society has substituted a nebulous “belief” for active trust. Perhaps it’s because we have grown accustomed to having a safety net beneath us. If everything seems hopeless, our savings or our government or our family or someone else will step in and bail us out. David didn’t have the government as a safety net — indeed, it was the government that was pursuing him!

At least part of the reason we have lost that trust in God is that the government (or any other refuge) is gullible — we don’t have to be completely honest with them. We don’t have to admit our sins and our failures; we don’t have to declare our fears. In short, we don’t have to make ourselves vulnerable. But we do with the God of Israel. He expects humility and honesty when we come before Him, not excuses and justifications. He is certainly willing to forgive, but most of us fear that our deliverance will be conditioned upon some loss of face before others. That may be a legitimate fear; He may demand it. But the rewards for truly trusting Him are well worth any humility we might experience.

In another Psalm, David put it this way, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7, ESV).