Now the LORD came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
And Samuel answered, “Speak, for Your servant hears.” (1 Samuel 3:10)
I often think how young Samuel must have felt, left at the temple by a mother who loved him desperately to be raised by a corrupt priest. We couldn’t have blamed this very young boy if he’d been influenced and seduced into following the same path as Eli and his sons – after all, it’s a known pyschological fact that if a young child is trained in particular behaviour from an early enough age, it’s possible to shape them to that behaviour for life. It was a Jesuit who said something along the lines of ‘give me a child until the age of 7 and he’s ours for life.’ Our potential is often shaped in our formative years, but this is also the time when things of the flesh creep in, the natural inclinations of mankind that wedge themselves between God and man and create misconceptions and self-centred choice. One of these is what parents often laughingly refer to as ‘selective hearing.’ It’s one that that has tremendous impact on our lives, and it’s one that seems to dog our footsteps throughout our walk on earth. It’s also one that affects a critical Christian issue: how to hear the voice of God.
We have to train ourselves to hear the voice of God. It’s not a ‘magical’ ability that Christians are born with.
This critical behaviour is not one we’re born with, but rather one we have to exercise discipline, self-denial, and determination in order to achieve. It’s also one we’ll never fully perfect until we’re in His presence for eternity. This is because human nature is such that we instinctively and automatically tune out anything we don’t want to hear. Let’s go back to the illustration of a child for a moment to understand this truth a little better. The Bible – rather shockingly, for some – firmly tells us that we’re born sinful. In fact, we’re sinful even at the point of conception. This offends the traditional perception of the innocence of children for one thing. But what does it have to do with the whole process of learning to hear the voice of God?
Jesus’ attitude to little children seems to contradict the harsh truth of man’s inherent sinfulness – a sinfulness we cannot avoid because it’s part of us from the very moment of conception. The truth is that children are born both sinful and innocent. They contain the pull potential for sinfulness from the moment they are conceived, but are also fully innocent because they have no yet acted on it. Think of the harshest, cruelest, most violent dictator you can – and the world has produced many – and remember that he or she was once a baby. They contained both the sinfulness and the innocence of every single baby. Now, let’s ask ourselves – did we ever have to train our children to ‘selective hearing?’ It’s a critical question in understanding what we need to do to hear the voice of God.
From a very early age, children have the uncanny ability to hear what they shouldn’t and tune out what they should hear. They may do it consciously or subconsciouly, but the effect is the same. While this ability is not inherently sinful, it becomes a problem because of self. Our fleshly human nature is always driven by the innate need for self-gratification. It’s rather like having a filter that screens out anything that does not agree with our perceptions, desires, or self-perceived needs. This ‘tuning out’ may be through introducing other thoughts that better fit our agenda, or it may be a deliberate action like to physically blocking our ears. We’ve learned to block our ears spiritually too, closing ourselves off from the one thing we need most – to hear the voice of God.
There is no doubt that Samuel was raised up for a powerful purpose, and that God worked in Him to open his spiritual ears. It’s a remarkable truth that God does break through our elaborate processes of selective hearing to speak into our spirits – to call us to salvation, to ministry, and to service. This is grace, for which we give thanks, but it’s not the way that He intends us to go on. God never intends to spend our entire Christian walk pushing His way through the worldly and fleshly static to be heard. He intends that every single one of His people – like Moses, Abraham, Elijah, David, Samuel, and all the others – hear His voice clearly and obey. Part of our purpose on this earth is to hear the voice of God. Without it, we are utterly unable to fulfill what He has called us to, because it becomes our interpretation and we do it in our strength.
How to hear the voice of God is a subject on which much is written and taught, and yet the question echoes on. We all have this yearning to hear God’s voice – to hear it better, hear it clearer, hear it powerfully…and yet we struggle on, feeling somehow deprived or inadequate. How many times do we hear the Bible tell us that ‘the Lord said’ or so-and-so ‘heard the voice of the Lord?’ Our inability to hear the voice of the Lord as these ‘great’ men and women of God did makes us feel somehow incomplete or inferior. We’re missing something, but we all to often won’t admit it – not even to God, or ourselves, let alone the other believers around us. We maintain a mask, a semblance of having it all together.
This creates two very dangerous results. The first is that we never really grow or step out into the full potential and purposes for which we were created. We may hear the voice of the Lord, but it’s never clear, and we’re never able to act in complete faith that we have heard right. We’re always second-guessing, always hoping rather than believing, or we’re rushing out when we should be still or chasing after something we think is right when that’s not what God said at all. This is very fertile ground in which the enemy can sow his seeds of deception, and it leaves us vulnerable because, often, it puts us out of the will of God.
The second result is that we can so easily end up in that place where we do not hear the voice of God at all. This may manifest in two ways. Firstly, we live rigid, religious lives, guided by the letter of the law rather than by the Word and the Spirit. We have no living relationship with God, only a set of rules and rituals, and exist on the perimeter of all He has planned for us. The second is very much in evidence in the church today. Rather than admit that they don’t really hear the voice of the Lord, people will often speak self and claim to have heard from God. I all too often hear ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ but it’s a dangerous thing to claim to speak the words of God when that isn’t the case. It opens a dark door. God will not speak to one who misrepresents in this way. We may continue to hear a ‘voice,’ but it will not be the voice of the Lord. We only have to consider how many men and women of God have been seduced into wrong teaching to see the truth of this, and it’s only going to get worse.
It is an absolute truth that every single believer is intended to hear the voice of God. We cannot doubt that this is His will for us. As parents, it’s our will for our children. We need and want them to hear what we say so that we can teach them and guide them, and God is no different. Like us as parents, He wants His children to be obedient, and that can only happen when the children hear. To hear the voice of God is not some super-spiritual experience. It’s meant to be a simple, natural thing, a day to day part of our walk and relationship with Him. So why, then, do we not hear as we should, and what can we do to change this?
These two questions are essentially two sides of the same coin. They work together to determine our ability to hear the voice of God. Today’s verses and the example of Samuel provide wonderful insight into three things that affect our spiritual hearing – desire, attitude, and discipline. Though seemingly separate, they all combine to shape our ability to hear because they define our willingness to hear.
Desire is that part of us that wants something. The more we desire something, the more we are will to give and to give up in order to have it. Desire is more than simply want or need. It’s a deep, consuming yearning that overshadows everything else. Young Samuel could very well have rolled over in a huff and gone back to sleep, but the call had stirred his desire. Something rose up within him that would not be ignored, and it started him on a path that made him God’s prophet in his time. Had the desire not been present – powerful, strong, and consuming, Samuel would never have had the courage to take up his purpose and fulfill it. His desire became to hear the voice of God and be obedient, and God honoured that in mighty ways.
Attitude is, essentially, the motives behind the desire. Do we desire something based on pride or self-gratification, or because we recognise that God is sovereign and His ways perfect, no matter what the cost to self. The cross is the ultimate example of pure and holy desire – for God so loved the world. His desire to have us return to Him is so great that He was willing to give all. Do we desire to hear God’s voice so we can be a ‘prophet’ with the perceived prestige this brings? If so, let’s consider the dreadful death of so many of His prophets, and then ask ourselves if we still desire it, no matter what. Do we desire to hear the voice of God because we think it will bring power or respect? Let us remember that all too often, those who really hear God’s Word and speak it are seldom welcomed. Our motives – the attitudes with which we pursue our desire to hear the voice of God – will determine what and how we hear. God will not honour an attitude that is self-seeking or prideful.
Finally, to hear the voice of God requires discipline – a word most of us prefer to avoid. Discipline seems rigid and difficult. It seems to contradict words like freedom and deliverance. It seems to imply that our walk with God is onerous and hard, one which constitutes a kind of ‘punishment’ rather than the comfortable Christianity that seems so popular today. Yet without discipline, it’s not possible to hear the voice of God. Our desire may be right, and our attitude may be right, but until we action these through discipline in our lives, we will never come close to hearing the voice of God.
Our God is always ‘spiritually practical.’ This means that, in everything, there are actions and choices that must be made in order to grow and progress. These are effected through discipline. Jesus told us that if anyone wants to follow Him, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross. This is the essence of spiritual discipline. I’ve lost count of the times God has woken me in the middle of the night for what seems to be an entirely trivial thing, or even simply to pray in tongues, having no clue what I was praying for. Our natural inclination in these moments is to push it away and go back to sleep, but, like Samuel, if we respond with ‘Speak Lord, your servant hears,’ how much more willing will God be to entrust us with His words next time around?
Discipline is the enactment of ‘not my will but Thy will.’ It’s consciously putting aside my natural desires in favour of what God desires. It’s denying myself something I want in the flesh in order to wait in His presence. That is the place where I hear the voice of God. If I want to hear it more, I must discipline myself so that I am able to walk with Him more. If I want to hear it clearer, I must discipline myself to stay close and rid myself of interference. Instead of focusing on the hearing, we should focus on the being – the walking with God. If He is beside me, I will hear because there’s nothing between us.
Our desire should be for Him, and then we will naturally hear the voice of God. Our attitude should be for Him, and self will not interfere with our ability to hear the voice of God. Our discipline should be towards Him, and we open ourselves to hear the voice of God. Like everything, it is a process of unlearning the habits and instincts of the flesh. Just as we, as parents, need to teach our children to hear, God needs to teach us, one small step at a time. But, as we learn to love Him with hearts, souls, minds, and strength, we will find that hearing the voice of God becomes as natural as breathing. He is within us, after all.
Lord of All, Your ways are perfect and complete. Help us, Your children, to learn from You, to draw near and to desire You above all else. Lead us first into Your presence Lord, changing our hearts and attitudes. Help us to discipline ourselves, to lay down self and take up our cross, and to follow You with the ears of our hearts open to hear Your voice in all things.