How Do We Know When God Speaks?
6-3-18 Scripture: I Samuel 3:1-20
Theme: How do we know when God speaks – especially when our own voice, and the voices around us, seem to be speaking all the time? How can we discern when a directive is divinely-inspired, a motivation is free from personal agenda, a calling absent of self-interest? As we think about who God is, how God reveals himself, and what our place is in the will of God, we gain clarity on just who’s speaking.
This past week, I was watching the news on my computer, when an interesting item caught my attention. Here it is, on Youtube;
(link: https://youtu.be/LM4EudCC6bE )
To recap: This man’s name is Jesse Duplantis, a well-known evangelical preacher who broadcasts his sermons on television; he has 750,000 followers. He recently announced that he needed a $54 million-dollar plane to move his ministry forward; he announced that God had told him “I want you to believe me for a Falcon 7X” which is the name of the plane; and he said that, “if Jesus were physically alive with us today, he wouldn’t be riding a donkey.”
Something is very wrong here, I believe.
This news item caused in me one of those reactions where I laughed, cried, and got angry all at the same time. I laughed at the notion that Jesus would travel in a $54 million-dollar plane if he lived amongst us today (I believe his choice would be walking, bicycling, or possibly the bus? And you thought I’d say “motorcycle,” didn’t you?). I got sad when I thought that this kind of theology is out there, preying upon the vulnerable and the trusting. But mostly, I became angry over my faith being horribly misrepresented.
May I state, for the record, that I do not believe that Mr. Duplantis was hearing the voice of God telling him he needs a $54 million dollar plane. It is, of course, possible I am wrong, but I sense that the God I perceive through Jesus would be laughing, sad, and mad at just how ridiculous this idea is. But here it is, a representative of the Christian faith, proclaiming that he heard the voice of God – who’s to say he’s wrong?
It’s a question raised by our scripture lesson today — Just how do we know when God speaks to us? Samuel was a boy living at a time when the word of the Lord was rare; he is an assistant in the Temple, a servant to the high priest Eli. It was evening, the day was winding down, and they were both retiring for the night. Three times, a voice spoke to Samuel; he assumed it was Eli, whom he ran to and awoke. The third time, Eli realized something else was going on, and it just might have something to do with God. Wisely, he says to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if the voice calls to you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Samuel did as Eli advised; and it was then that he heard clearly what God had to say – the distressing news of his master Eli’s house falling apart.
There are lessons here for us to gain, regarding how we, like Samuel, may be counseled in how to listen for God’s voice, and to know when it is God’s voice and not something else. For one, once he realized that God might be speaking, Eli counseled Samuel to “Go and lie down; and if the voice calls out to you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’” In other words, ELI CALLED SAMUEL TO A HEIGHTENED ATTENTION, to make space in his situation and in his mind for God’s activity to be expected and experienced.
One of the greatest examples of the value of heightened attention is – can you guess? – FISHING! Especially fly fishing, which I had never done until about eight years ago, when one of my parishioners (his name was Bill), who was a very experienced fly fisherman, took me fly fishing for the first time. He even gifted me with a flyrod he made himself – it was very nice. He coached me on how to tie on the fly, how to work the reel, how to work the line, and how to seek likely spots for a strike. For an hour, I kept getting strikes, but I just couldn’t hook a fish. Then Bill let me know what I was doing wrong – he let me know that I had to pay complete attention to the line, to make sure the slack was right and it was in the right area, but mostly to expect a strike at any second, for, in order to hook a fish, the strike must be immediately followed by a setting motion, namely a firm jerk on the line, to set the hook. I followed his advice, and very soon, I had hooked my first and only fish that day. Paying attention really worked! (unfortunately, I hadn’t been paying much attention to Bill, who had been spending so much attention on coaching me, he failed to catch a single fish that day; and, come to think of it, he never invited me to go fishing with him again…..).
It is the same kind of thing with sensing God, I believe – we are more successful when we have heightened our attention toward the divine. Not only prayer and meditation, not only study and reflection, but also in regularly expecting God to show up, to be present in every interaction and experience in life. To be attentive to God means to hold it as an essential truth that God is always present in our lives, waiting to be heard, desiring to be understood. It is often through paying greater attention that we see or hear what otherwise is easily missed.
But that brings us to another essential element in knowing it’s God’s voice that we hear, and it is this: when we’re pretty sure it is God speaking, just what do we think we hear God saying? The content of God’s communication is the point of the whole exercise of faith – to know the will of God, the heart of God, the presence of God, are essential to knowing it is God who is doing the talking.
A few years ago, while serving as pastor in another church, I received an alarming e-mail from one of my parishioners. The letter reads as follows:
I am sorry to write you about this, but I am presently traveling in Thailand, and just found out that my wallet was stolen. I have absolutely no money or credit cards, not even an ID. Could you please help me with this emergency? Even if you could help me with $200, I would be so grateful. You can wire the funds to me through the following link (listed). I will repay you when I return. Thanks for helping me out!
God bless you,
Now, this e-mail did come from Nancy’s address; it was signed with her information listed under her name (address, phone number, etc.). But I immediately suspected something fishy was going on for a number of reasons. For one, Nancy had never contacted me by saying, “Dear John.” That’s not how Nancy usually addressed people — she was one of those “Hi John” kinds of people. Secondly, I knew that Nancy was a very resourceful and careful person; it was extremely unlikely that she would find herself in such a compromised situation at all, let alone seek direct financial assistance from her pastor. But perhaps the most significant reason that I suspected something was that I had just seen Nancy the day before in a meeting at church – a quick call to Nancy, who was indeed still in town, led to the awareness that her e-mail account had been hacked.
My suspicions arose because I knew Nancy fairly well, and recognized when a voice posing as her own was indeed someone else speaking.
We need to do the same with God, and this is where Jesus helps us tremendously. Would the God of Jesus advocate for a $54 million dollar plane? I think not. Would the God of Jesus advocate for a particular political party, or reduce every complex issue facing humanity to one black-and-white response, or decree that there is one and only one denomination or faith perspective or life orientation which is correct? I don’t believe so. Would the God of Jesus advocate for my desires or my opinions? Only when they match God’s – otherwise, the voice we hear is only our own.
I have learned to grow wary of anyone who says with great clarity that they know precisely what God’s specific desire for them, for I see this tendency in myself all the time – and have explored such experiences with the result that, often, I have mistaken my voice for God’s. And pastors especially need to be aware of this danger. Anyone who claims to speak for God should be held to the highest of standards for content – just what is it that they hear God saying? Is it consistent with the God revealed in Jesus? Is it in line with the love modeled by God’s Son? Does what we think we hear speak loudest in advocacy for the marginalized, the homeless, the forsaken, the hungry, the abused, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the broken? Or does that voice we think is God’s tell us things we like to hear about ourselves, that our sins are lesser than others, that we are better than others, that we deserve the blessings we receive and the burdens we avoid, that our way is God’s way, rather than the other way around?
It was Psychologist Edward Stein who said, “I am convinced that God speaks not out of burning bushes but in our burning hearts, from within, through the very processes that God implanted in us; our reason and our conscience, our inner values and guilt system. The trick of faith is to let that voice speak for itself, without interference from our desires.” (Psychologist Edward Stein
in Pastoral Psychology, July 1996, 390). Let us then seek with full attentiveness the voice of God speaking to us in life – and once heard, let us make certain we haven’t replaced that voice with our own, by comparing what is heard to what Jesus shared in his words and his life.