I hate to admit it. My hearing is not what it used to be. Voices in the room sound a bit more muffled. Reading lips is an emerging skill. Some days I truly believe my kids are speaking more softly just to mess with me. Maybe you’re there, too; finding it a little bit harder to tune in to the voices that you want to hear amid a growing sea of noise around you.
Discerning God’s voice is a lot like that. It is challenging to listen for the Spirit’s guidance while other loud and persistent voices clamor for our attention and competing motivations lure us in opposing directions.
The good news, though, is that, just as there are ways to mitigate the noise around us to enhance our physical hearing – sitting closer to the speaker in a meeting, turning up the volume on the television – scripture shows us that there are things we can do that enable us to hear God’s voice more clearly as well.
Discernment didn’t just happen for folks like Moses and Samuel and Elijah. They got ready for it. They didn’t always know at the time that they were getting ready, but they did things that put them in a position to hear God; actions and attitudes that created an environment in their lives that was more conducive to discerning God’s voice.
If you’re seeking direction from God – in your personal life or in your ministry – consider these ways to get you ready to hear.
1. Be Curious. In Exodus 3, Moses was curious and went to investigate the burning bush. He leaned into the moment. Discouragement, worry, boredom, cynicism – these are all great enemies to curiosity. They keep our eyes cast downward. They filter the divine wonder out of conversations and experiences and reduce them to less than ordinary; simple life moments that may very well be burning bushes in our path. When God saw that he had caught Moses’ attention, (and not before), God called to him.
Burning bushes are never what we imagine they will be. They are unexpected, out of place, not obviously divine – and they require a response from us. How is God trying to get your attention? Are you curious enough to lean in and see where it leads?
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.
–Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
2. Pay attention to patterns. God persists. If God wants to get our attention, he won’t give up easily. That’s good news for those of us who are a little slow to take a hint or worry that we’ll only get one chance to discover God’s will.
In 1 Samuel 3, God called to Samuel four times as he slept in his bed. Samuel shared what he heard three times with Eli, the priest, before Eli understood the divine nature of the encounter. When they finally understood that repetition was holy, God spoke.
God’s hand was on Samuel from before his birth. He certainly was not going to give up easily on guiding Samuel’s life. That same hand rests on us as well. God wants to lead us. And we can count on him to persist.
Where is the repetition in your life? In your ministry? Who can help you pay attention to the pattern?
3. Come out of the cave.
In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah is weary and afraid. The people have broken their covenant and they are trying to kill him, so he has run away. “I have had enough, Lord,” he says.
Have you ever been there? Feeling alone? Exhausted? Defeated? When moving forward feels too risky? Fear greatly diminishes our ability and our inclination to hear what God has to say about what’s next. God reminds Elijah of two things at this point.
First, Elijah must be in this for the long haul. He needs to prepare himself for this journey and so God puts food and water before him to strengthen him and get him ready.
Second, Elijah cannot hide in fear. “What are you doing, Elijah?” Come out of the cave. Truth is, if there is no one at all trying to ‘kill us,’ we are probably not investing ourselves in much of a vision from God.
Discernment is a journey that requires stamina and courage.
4. Know who you are. Mission and identity. The clearer we are on these two things, the more we’ll be able to distinguish God’s voice from the cacophony of constituencies that aim to stroke our egos or prey on our vulnerabilities in order to get their way.
Before Jesus began his public ministry, he was tempted by Satan for 40 days in the desert. Henri Nouwen contends that Satan tried to distort Jesus’ understanding of who he was with the lie that we are loved and have value because of what we do, what people say about us, what we possess. Prove that you can do something and turn these stones into bread. Jump off this building and let them catch you and they will say good things about you. Worship me and I will give you everything you want. But Jesus could not be moved from the truth of who and whose he was.
We are not nearly so steadfast. We are lured by the siren call of accomplishment and affirmation and acquisition that we too easily wrap in holy language. God’s voice will be elusive when our identity is locked up in what we do, not whose we are.
Discernment doesn’t just happen. We have to get ready for it. Be curious. Pay attention to patterns. Come out of the cave. Know who you are. God wants to lead you, and he will persist until you are able to hear.