Listening is something of a lost art which needs to be recaptured, retaught, and reapplied in our relationships with God and with others; both because it will greatly improve our quality of life, and because it lies at the heart of what it means to be like the God who Himself listens to us.
In his book The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction, Adam S. McHugh talks about listening as one of the best gifts we can both give and receive. At the time of writing this I’m four chapters in to his book and already I’ve been encouraged and challenged about the importance of listening with all my senses—not simply listening with one ear while my fingers text and my head writes a shopping list. (more on this in part 2)
When it comes to listening to—and hearing from—God, McHugh argues that although Scripture is the primary means through which God speaks with his children today we would be doing God (and ourselves) a disservice if we were to consider it to be the only means. He writes:
I am prepared to take a liberal position on God’s voice and his communications to his creation. God wants to be known and speaks freely, in a multitude of different ways. I believe all these means of hearing God’s voice are fair game. This entire book is about listening to God because God’s voice fills the universe, and when we listen to any agent we are potentially listening to God. Such a position may make me the most raging charismatic the Presbyterian Church has ever known. But if we want to confess God as truly sovereign, then his means of communication must be unrestricted, and they certainly cannot be less than what the Bible testifies to.
Rather, McHugh believes that the answer is to have safeguards for hearing (what we think is) God speaking to us. In this way we flip the restrictions from how we ‘allow’ God to speak over so the restriction is now on us, our interpretations, and what we do with them. I find this approach excellent, and well aligned with the church throughout history. McHugh suggests three ways that we can rightly filter what we’ve heard in order to use our God-given wisdom to better respond.
First, what we hear has to sound like the God of the Bible. If it is inconsistent with what we read about God’s character and ways in Scripture, it must be rejected. Any voice that calls for personal gain at the cost of others, self-aggrandizement, any voice that goes against the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindess, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) is inauthentic. Straight up.
Second, we have been saved into a community of saints with whom we seek to better listen, and with whom we filter our interpretations. Listening is a communal exercise, and God rarely (if ever) gives direction to people in a way that has no benefit for His people—at the very least for the purpose of building each other up in the faith through a shared testimony of His goodness. McHugh writes: “People that hear from God on an island have nowhere to go but into their own egos.” We need the wisdom, experience, and maturity of fellow believers in order to best confirm the words we believe we have been given.
Last, we should be people of reflection. It is not simply enough to immediately act, as though we are mindless robots whose only requirement in relationship is to obey. Each Christian has been given the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and with His presence comes wisdom to consider the impact of these decisions and we would be wise to take time to reflect. The Holy Spirit is never confused; so if we feel there is a lack of clarity, the best thing we can do is wait.
Recently I was with a group of people who shared their experiences of acting upon (what they felt was) God speaking to them. In my case, hindsight can clearly see that this voice was in fact my own desire colouring the lens through which I saw the right decision. Would I have interpreted the words I heard differently if I’d spent more time with the Bible, the community, and reflection with the Holy Spirit? It’s impossible to say. What I do know is that Jesus tells us that his sheep know his voice, and that should be equally true in the silence as it is in the midst of this turbulent, noise-filled world. To know his voice, I first need to learn how to listen.