By Allen Quist & Tim Robnett
When my (Allen) children were young, they were endowed with amazing hearing. Mary and I called it selective hearing— keenly selective hearing. One day, as I was going out the door to work I said to one of them, “Please clean your bedroom today.” That was a simple enough request and I said it loud enough. And considering we were in the same room it should have been easily understood. Yet that evening the bedroom was a mess.
Assuming the best, I inquired, “What is going on? I asked you to clean your room.”
“I didn’t hear you ask me to do that!” was the quick response.
Another time with no children around, I might quietly say to my wife, Mary, “Would you like an ice cream cone?”
The child, who claimed to be unable to hear me while in the same room, would come from some other part of the house and ask, “Hey, great idea. Can we all go and get ice cream?”
Is it possible that God’s children could develop the same selective hearing?
Jeremiah says so. “To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the LORD is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it” (Jer. 6:10).
Again he says, “But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts.” (Jer. 7:24)
Jeremiah throws the tension of our selective hearing right in the faces of God’s children today. To whom will we listen? For a moment, think about times we thought, said, or have done something that in our hearts we knew God would not be pleased about. Whose voice were we paying attention to at the time? The subject of hearing God is a huge issue today. It was a huge issue in the early church. Notice Peter’s warning to his readers:
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:16–19)
The disciples heard God as a voice from heaven and from the prophets in the written Word. Peter cautions us to pay attention to the Word as we would a light in places where it is dark.
Have you ever been walking on a treacherous path at night with a flashlight? In that situation, we rely on the light to assure we are walking on the path. What is the flashlight for? To show us the way.
How do you hear God? Many books have been written on this sub-ject—some extremely helpful. The best books on the subject list the sources of input as the Bible, the counsel of trusted people, our circumstances, and our minds.
Back in the midseventies, because of God’s specific answer to prayer, I (Allen) was face-to-face with a man, now deceased who walked with and loved deeply the person of Jesus Christ. The purpose of my meeting with him was to ask how he knew so clearly what it was God wanted him to do, even moment by moment throughout the day.
His answer was profound. Rather than go into a story about how to hear God, he asked me two questions, then based on my response, asked me a third question. Here are his questions:
1. “Is there anything written in the Bible that you do not believe based on how you react to life, your emotions in difficult situations, your fears about the future, your priorities, and in general how you live life?”
2. “Are there any commandments, directives, or teachings in the Bible that you are not now obeying?”
I had to respond yes to both questions. Without even going into the details of my yes answer, he asked a third question.
3. “If your faith in and your love (affection) for Christ is so shallow that you cannot walk in the light he has clearly given you (believe and obey), how can you expect that you would believe and obey him if you knew more?”
To make matters worse, I had to admit to him that I had never even read the entire Bible.
He went on. “Allen, God has given you a love letter, providing you the opportunity to get to know him, his passions, his desire for you to love him in return, and how your love for him will play out through your obedience and faith. You are making this too complicated. It is about a love relationship and you already have most of what you need to live in a love relationship with him. You have it in the Bible. I suggest you get familiar with it. I believe that when the day comes that you need more insight, God will provide it. Remember, you have within you the mind of Christ right now.”
Some say that we can hear from God through the providential counsel of trusted, mature people. It is harder to place confidence in people than in the Bible. There have been many individuals who we thought we could trust but later failed us. However, rather than throwing out all counsel, perhaps it would be better to recognize that though this advice can be good, unlike the Bible, it is not perfectly reliable. We believe that Scripture should remain the foundation of God’s revelation to us, with counsel remaining a source of confirmation of what we believe is God’s leading.
Many believe that circumstances can be a clue to God’s leading. The problem with circumstances as a source of God’s leading is that our interpretation of our circumstances may be clouded. It is easy to miss the influence of the flesh or the evil one in a situation that is pleasant to us. Through the centuries, God has often placed his saints in circumstances of stress. It is equally difficult to see God’s leading while going through disaster. It is likely that we could misinterpret our circumstances and, therefore, what God is communicating to us. Similar to counsel, our interpretation of our circumstances as a source of confirmation about God’s leading is not perfectly reliable. We must ask God to help us see him in our circumstances.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul tells us that God reveals what he has prepared for us and that he does it through his Spirit.
However, as it is written:
“No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”—
but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (1 Cor. 2:9–10)
Paul also tells us that God not only reveals himself to us by his Spirit, but that he has put his Spirit in us so we are able to understand what God has given us. Paul continues by stating how a person who does not know God cannot understand the things of God, and then he finishes this thought by quoting Isaiah 40:13.
We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment:
“For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor. 2:12–16)
The Bible is clear; with God’s Spirit in us, we do have the mind of Christ in us, and it is God’s intent to do a work in our minds.
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:2)
It may be helpful at this point to look at what gets in the way of hearing God—whether from Scripture, counsel, circumstances, or our minds.
Time to Listen
Who has time to listen these days? Life is going from one “to do” to another. We have a living to earn. We have a home to maintain. We have our church activities. We have children. There are the favorite television programs to watch or movies to see or games to attend.
Life is hectic today. We have convinced ourselves that we do not have enough time, and listening suffers.
Real listening is love because love focuses on the other person. Love takes communication; communication takes time. A father once said to his pastor, “I may not give my children much time, but what time I give is quality time.” The pastor said, “Baloney, there is no such thing as planned quality time with anyone. The quality of the time is in the hands of the other person, not just you. It takes much time invested to have quality time with someone.” Hearing someone with an understanding ear (quality hearing) takes time.
Hearing God is similar; it requires time for listening with an ear ready to listen.
The Tempo of Life
When Jesus Christ walked on earth, he walked two to three miles per hour. While he was walking, he was talking and teaching. He spent hours of the day conversing with his Father. Life was slower then—no more carefree, but slower.
The tempo of life may seem similar to “lack of time,” but the difference lies in what is crammed into any one hour.
Television is one of the industrialized world’s primary places of relaxation and entertainment. Some homes have several televisions so family members can watch programs of their choice. However, have you ever watched a television screen when it was too far away for you to be involved with the program? Did you notice how rapidly scenes change? You could measure scenes in seconds, and even then you would probably not find many that last ten seconds. While the scenes scream past our eyes, the tempo of the music, the words, and the sound effects hammer at us. This is anything BUT relaxing. Professionals design the programming to grip your attention. The rapid-fire pace does a lot to destroy an atmosphere for meaningful listening.
The nearly instant communication of telephone and e-mail make it possible for us to perform far more of whatever we think we need to perform per hour, but at a great cost. Our hectic technology-based communication has replaced much of the face-to-face communication. It is easy to see why there is a drought today in real hearing.
Real hearing is hearing between the words. We might say that real hearing is hearing with the third ear, and the third ear hears better face-to-face.
The Desires of Our Hearts (Our Affections)
The lack of time and the tempo of our lives muffles our ability to hear (listen to) God or hear (listen to) other people. However, limited time and rapid tempo may not be as significant a barrier to hearing as we would like to believe. It may be the issue is more that we simply choose not to listen. Remaining silent before God or with another person is uncomfortable.
Most people want to talk. They do not want to listen. Why? Perhaps it is because when we talk we feel in control or important. Even in time with God, believers monopolize the time by talking. In these cases, prayer (a visit with God) is mostly asking God for something. We pray for God to make us (or someone else) healthy, to provide what we need and want, to make us a better people, or to help someone else see that he is wrong and we are right or whatever else.
It seems that this kind of life is more about receiving love that loving, more about talking than listening, more about getting than giving.
We will make the time for what is most important to us. Spending time with family or God may be important to us; however, the urgent things that may not be important in the end seem to loom over our heads and take over our time with family or God. Simply stated, it is more important to us to get rid of urgent things than to take care of important but not urgent things. It is usually our choice—whether we recognize it or not.
It is what we value, the center of our affections, that controls our behavior and choices. When we are the center of our affections, then listening to others will be a priority only when what they have to say will affect us—when there is something important for us to gain or lose. Perhaps at times we listen to make a good impression or so we will not be embarrassed when it is our turn to say something. We are still the center of our listening.
The Focus of Our Love
In chapter three, we read that God’s desire for our love is his priority for us. The time necessary to love God is no different than it is with a family member or friend. Time alone with our Lord with a listening heart is critical to hear him and to grow in our love for him. Time spent reading his love letter to us will give us understanding about his sovereignty and the depth of his love for us.
Many people believe that a disciplined reading of the Bible coupled with disciplined prayer will result in God loving us more, or at least looking favorably on us. Please dispel that thought. God will not love us any greater because of our great discipline of Bible reading and prayer. God loves us infinitely now. However, we should find that because of our disciplined time with God (pouring over his love letter to us while praying and listening) we grow in our love for Jesus Christ and an awareness of what pleases or displeases him.
Dr. Ronald Frost, a professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, captures this relationship of time with God and hearing him. Dr. Frost shares the story of when he was a boy. His father did not have a printed rulebook, but he knew his father well from the years of close interaction with him. Dr. Frost knew all through the day whether his actions or attitudes would be pleasing or displeasing to his father because he knew his father well. He knew his father well because he had spent time with him.
As we meet with churches having problems, we find that many of the leaders spend little time with God either in conversation (talking and listening prayer) or in reading his love letter—the letter he has provided them to get to know him.
Think about a young couple when they begin to discover that they are mutually interested in each other. What do they do? They spend every available moment with each other sharing about themselves, listening to each other’s dreams, fears, experiences, and values. When they are apart and receive a letter from the other, they read the letter repeatedly. When they are reading they feel closer to the one they love. Our growing relationship with God should be the same way.
Since it is God’s number one commandment for us to love him with all our heart, all our soul and our entire mind, it would seem that it would be important to us as leaders to do just that. To love God with our entire heart, soul, and mind requires that we spend focused time with him in order to know and love him deeply. And hearing God corresponds directly with knowing and loving him. No matter how we look at it, our lives as believers or leaders pivots around taking time to know and love our sovereign and loving Jesus Christ.
Reading the Bible is reading God’s love letter to us, so that we might get to know him well and fall more deeply in love with him. If we wrote a love letter to someone we loved, we would hope they would not read our letter out of a sense of duty and discipline. Instead, we would hope they would embrace every word because they love us and want to know us better and in some way grow closer to us.
Idols in the Heart
When the leaders of Israel went to Ezekiel wanting a word from God (Ezek. 14), God responded by pointing out that these leaders had idols in their hearts and “stumbling blocks” before their faces and that God would deal with them in accordance with those issues. Obviously, God knew that they did not ask for a word from him with the intent to receive the word in their hearts and take appropriate response. These double-minded men were interested in their own power, respect, recognition, approval, safety, and comfort. Each was his own biggest idol. They loved themselves, giving lip service to their relationship to God.
This is still happening today among many church leaders. As church leaders or as individuals, we may be going to God asking for a word about his will, yet keeping the right to make the final decision. Other things have to be considered, things that tug at our hearts. If those other things keep us from responding to what we know God is calling us to, these things are idols.
Those idols are things that society has convinced people are essential for life. The idol may be a house that is bigger or more expensive than Jesus would have had us buy if we had let him decide. Of course, it could go the other way. The house we have may be smaller or less expensive than Jesus would have had us buy, perhaps for a larger ministry to which he may have been calling us. Other idols may be success, power, recognition, respect, approval, predictability, comfort, or any number of other things.
Like the leaders of Israel, we can wrap all these idols into one— “the self.” People tend to be their own biggest idols. We can easily lull ourselves into the illusion that God is pleased with how we live, because after all, we make good money and we give to the church. Look how much we do for God. God wants us to be happy and enjoy life, does he not?
As a church leadership team, we may use words that tell people we are inquiring about God’s will, yet keep in our hearts the right to make the final decision. Or we may hold a subtle yet real expectation that God’s answer would only be within our preconceived limits. It is possible that a church could turn a church ministry into an idol. It may not even occur to us that God might have something different for the church from the direction we have been going.
Remember the carousel when you were a kid? It was a lot of fun when you were small., but after a while it probably occurred to you that you weren’t going anywhere—just around and around. In the movies, the horse and rider always went places, so you wanted to move up to the real thing. Yet when the time came to make that switch, perhaps at the beach or summer camp, it was scary getting up on that horse for the first time. Oh, the exhilaration when you did it—you rode the horse and actually went somewhere.
Life and ministry in our churches can be much like that carousel. We feel like we have been riding the carousel horses up and down and round and round. But God wants us to exchange the imitation horse for a real one and to ride off with him to an adventure full of risk and uncertainty, yet with him fully at our side. It can be scary when our churches start looking at getting up on that horse. That fear can act like an idol that controls us.
Some years ago, an artist was explaining his view of impressionism. He was trying to explain the difference between painting what the camera sees and what the mind sees. To explain the difference, he asked his listeners to look at Mount Rainier, which was in view, and notice how big it was. He then showed a picture of roughly the same scene. Mount Rainier was only a small part of the picture. The artist explained that the mind is able to filter the total view received by the eye and to focus attention on only a small part of what it sees.
We hear in much the same way. Have you noticed how when we are in a social situation, such as a restaurant or party, with people milling around visiting, music playing in the background, plates and glasses clanking, everyone talking and laughing, we are still able to have a discussion with one person? We seem to be able to sort out what that person is saying from all the sounds that are coming at us. Our minds are able to filter out sounds that are not pertinent at the time.
Even more amazing is that in the middle of that noise, including the voice of the person we are listening to, we are able to hear our son or daughter off in the near distance crying out, “Mommy, Daddy, where are you?” Is it not amazing how out of all that clamor, our child’s voice grabs our attention—not someone else’s child, just ours. Why is that? It is because we know that voice intimately. With love, we have spent a great deal of time listening to that voice. Through our relationship with our child, we have an intense interest in hearing that voice.
Jesus said, “My sheep recognize my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27 NLT). That brings us back to the need to be in a dependent love relationship with Jesus Christ—to know the voice of the one who loves us most in order to filter out the competing noises.
There are two factors that determine what we expect to hear from God: our view of our ability to hear and our view of who God is.
In his book Christ Is All, David Bryant addresses the believer’s tendency to spontaneously talk or not talk about Jesus Christ. He says the following:
What if He (Jesus) usually seems to be indifferent to securing meaningful solutions for the struggles of our lives? What if He comes across to us as offering little immediate hope for broken relationships, or financially besieged families, or bungled battles with addictions, or our beaten-up sense of self-worth, or the breathless bustling of our churchly activities, or the moral bankruptcy of our communities? What if the Jesus we call Lord is perceived frequently as incapably involved with us when we are drowning in dark moments of despair? Why would we want to make him a major topic of conversation when we gather together?
If Bryant paints a word picture similar to our real view of God, then why would we expect to hear from God? Or for that matter, why would we want to hear from him?
Many believers today do not expect to hear God because they do not understand that they can hear God. That idea just does not reconcile with the rational thinking of the Western world.
As we have already discussed, the most obvious place to start is Scripture—the Bible. Be careful, because there is a question that we need to answer first: “Do we really want to hear from God?”
Many believers say they want to hear God’s voice—they even pray about it. Yet look how much God has already spoken to his children through his Word. Perhaps believers should be more consistently obedient to the Word they have already heard.
Paul wrote, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:1–2).
Bring this verse to its logical conclusion and it has to affect myriad choices we make. What house will we buy, and what will be our criteria if we are a living sacrifice, holy (set apart) and pleasing to God? If we are a living sacrifice, what movies will we watch or what discussions will we not enter into? If we are a living sacrifice, how will we treat a difficult person at church—the one we want to avoid?
Ezekiel 14 suggests that our hearing of God may be linked to our affections—in direct proportion to the idols or lack of idols in our hearts.
We have come to believe the number one controlling factor in hearing God is our relationship with him, knowing and loving him. If we want to know more about God’s will for us, we have to start by getting to know God more. We have to open our Bibles and start reading his love letter, not to get some verse that we can quote or use, but to know better the God of the Bibles. Spend more time with him, just as we would someone we were courting. Talk to him more in prayer, tell him how much we love him, and bask in his love for us. Occasionally, be silent and meditate before him. Let our minds dwell on him. Ask him to help us recognize doors he is opening or closing. Do all this with him alone and together as a leadership team. Please do not turn this into an obligation.
God already loves us infinitely. The time we spend with him will not cause him to love us more; but it may have an enormous impact on our love for him, and as a result, our love for others and our ability to hear him.
It is critical for us as leaders and as leadership teams to allow God to lead us. Therefore, it is critical that we are intentionally and continuously crucifying idols and drawing closer to him into a deeper and deeper love relationship.