So when the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:4)
It’s a wonderful truth that God speaks to us from the most unexpected places in the strangest situations. We don’t, of course, get anything as dramatic as a burning bush to capture our attention, but then we aren’t expected to lead a few million people out of slavery in Egypt either. We also seldom seem to have the kind of dramatic encounters that the Old Testament or early church characters did, but this may well be due to the fact that we have the indwelling presence of God and the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit in us wherever we are.
When God speaks, do we respond with a willingness to be obedient?
We seem to have an assumption that God speaks only in bold, dramatic ways, in burning bush scenarios and heavenly writing on the wall. It’s as if we limit Him to His vast, awesome character and don’t expect or tolerate anything less than the extraordinary. Perhaps this is because of our own uncertainty, that we’re so aware of how easy it is to mishear the message that we seek for larger-than-life signs that a particular instruction or revelation is indeed from God and not our own imagining. While looking for the large, we may well overlook the little.
The real truth is that God speaks to each of us at our own level. He skilfully adapts His communication to reach us each individually. His ways of reaching me are different to how He reaches you, though the principles are exactly the same. In a crisis, it may well be a dominant, demanding voice that cannot be disputed, but generally, at least in my own personal experience, it’s the ‘still, small voice’ that can often be drowned out by busyness, our own indecision, or the distractions of life.
There is one common thread that runs through both the Old Testament and the New, and through the lives of all the Bible ‘greats.’ That is that they have all had, in one way or another, a time in which they learned to hear God speak. They learned to recognise when something was their own thoughts and when it was not. Burning bush and Damascus road experiences were reserved for the really big stuff like the Exodus or the founding of the church. The assumption under the ‘covenant of grace’ is that we learn to recognise His voice when God speaks and so don’t need the dramatic backdrop to reassure us and confirm the Word.
Having said this, there are many Christians who lament the fact that God ‘never speaks to them.’ This isn’t a Biblical possiblity. The Bible makes it plain, over and over again, that God speaks to His people, so the problem lies with us rather than with God. I believe it’s rooted in our wrong perception that God, being vast and awesome and immeasurable, will only speak in a certain way. The vague understanding is that if there’s no burning bush or its equivalent, God isn’t speaking.
The real truth is that we need to learn at the feet of Jesus. Of all the biblical characters, Jesus only had two dramatic events – the first was at His baptism when God spoke His approval and the second was on what we call the mount of transfiguration, and this was only witnessed by two people. The rest of the time, He communicated with His Father in ‘normal’ ways, in quiet communion alone, or in giving thanks and listening as His Father revealed His will. The resurrection of Lazarus is a case in point. This is generally the same way that God speaks to us.
What is interesting is to study the travels of Jesus and to note how often He ‘turned aside.’ A good example is His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. He deliberately chose a course that seemed utterly illogical and even a little crazy, and ignored the protests of His disciples. When we keep in mind that Jesus Himself said that He obeyed the will of His Father, it becomes very clear that everything He said and did, and every destination, was directed by God. This is our model in the matter of hearing and obeying when God speaks.
The most important thing we can ever learn and take hold of is that God speaks through the little before He speaks through the large – unless it’s a matter of huge importance to the world, or of life and death, or it’s a matter of an extremely critical and sensitive message. He tells us that He will never leave us or forsake us. This is the essential foundation of how He speaks. His presence is constant, ongoing, and very real. He is already within us, so speaks directly to us in every situation. We do not need Him to first get our attention unless we’re either not listening or have not learned to know and recognise His voice.
There is no ‘secret recipe’ when it comes to hearing when God speaks, but there are certain principles we need to apply, each of us in our own individual ways. The first is that we must desire to hear. This may seem ridiculous – we all desire to hear God speak, don’t we? – but when we consider the reality that He may often say what we don’t want to hear, this becomes significant. We cannot expect to hear from God if we’re not willing to hear everything, whether we like it or not, or are not willing to obey, no matter what it may be.
Hearing and obedience go hand in hand. Jesus said that if we love Him we will obey Him. If we hear when God speaks and then disregard what He says, we become the victims of selective hearing. The process of learning to hear includes the process of learning to obey. The two cannot be separated. Unless we learn to hear and then put into effect what we hear, we will actually learn to ‘tune out’ based on what we are willing to obey. When that happens, we become spiritually deaf, and we will hear God less and less.
The second principle is that when God speaks, He has little regard for our busyness or personal involvements. It’s critical that we understand that there is a difference between our quiet time alone with God and our times in the normality of life. In the first, God speaks and we hear much easier because we’re focused on Him. But these times are for our own growth, encouragement, learning, and instruction. Much of what God has to say to us concerns others.
We cannot lose sight of the fact that our purpose is to continue the work of Jesus in the world. This means that often, when God speaks, it is to reveal His purpose to us in a particular situation and He then expects us to obey. We are not only the children of God or the saints of God or the people of God. We are also the servants of God, but it’s all to easy to overlook this. As servants, God expects us to hear when He speaks, no matter what we are doing, and to obey His instructions. A very practical example of this is the times when we’re really busy – say hanging out the washing or finishing a report – and there is a very clear imperative to go to see someone. We’re all guilty of putting off the moment – when this is done, I’ll go – but by then, the need has passed. Someone else has heard and taken up the assignment. Our going is a waste of time.
In the light of this, we need to take hold of the principle that when God speaks, it’s usually in practical ways. It’s usually something we have to do for Him. Obedience is essentially hearing and then acting in faith. It’s always active, never passive. Hearing God speak is being willing to obey, and while it may be practical it’s seldom convenient or even comfortable. The closer we move to a place of ‘what God wants comes first,’ the more we will begin to hear Him.
The wonderful thing about this kind of obedience is that God uses it to grow and strengthen us. He uses it to build our faith, to make us more receptive, to bring us to a place where we understand His will and purpose. But it starts with the little things. We all have a desire to serve God, but all too often, pride gets in the way. We want the bold, ‘out there’ messages from God because they feed our need for self-importance. The real truth is that God tests us in the little, ordinary, day to day moments of obedience – the things we all to often consider to ordinary to be part of the purpose of an extraordinary God. But the real truth is that when God speaks, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, it’s all part of the divine, eternal picture. Our tiny act of obedience combines with millions of others to effect the will of God in the world.
It all comes down to the simple matter of putting God before self. Hearing when God speaks is about accepting that, first and foremost, He is concerned about our spiritual welfare, not our fleshly desires – even we aren’t fully aware of what they are, God is. When He speaks, His first purpose is to work on and remove those things that hinder us spiritually. These are the ways we put self before God, and the greatest ‘cure’ for this is having us serve others. Selflessness is the antidote to self-centredness. This is the beauty of the purposes of God. In serving others through obedience, we end up serving ourselves far better than we ever could because we grow spiritually.
Hearing when God speaks can be best achieved when we learn to live as Jesus did, to obey the will of the Father who sent Him. How many times when He must have been weary and footsore did He obey the command to serve? The miracle of grace is that, no matter what the instruction, He will release what we need to not only fulfill that particular commission, but also to complete the tasks we were busy with before we were sent.
It is the willingness to obey, to set aside self and our own pursuits – no matter how important they may seem – that opens our spiritual ears. It’s an incredible privilege that the almighty God of the universe indwells us and speaks directly to our spirits. This is intimacy. We don’t need burning bushes. We don’t need dramatic and bold events. We have the perfect intimacy of the voice of God within. We only to need to set aside self and be willing to obey. God Himself will take care of the rest.
Thank You, Father, that You are a constant, abiding presence in our lives, and for the awesome privilege of hearing Your voice. Help us to surrender, to be willing to obey, to follow the example of Jesus and live our lives in service to You. Open our spiritual ears and give us the grace and the courage to hear all You have to say, even those things we don’t like or don’t want to do.