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“LISTENING TO GOD”
“LISTENING TO GOD”
Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Prebyterian Church
March 18, 2022
1 KINGS 19:11-18
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
John 10: 27
27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
Revelation 3: 20
20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
I have been using the image of speaking to God as if we are in conversation with a dear friend. That is fine for imagining how we might speak to God but does not work quite as well when we imagine listening to God. When we ask a friend for an opinion or for concrete help, it is likely that their response will be clear. The response to those same requests when directed toward God, however, is far more often an indecipherable silence. Out of that experience, my first take on ‘Listening to God’ was to ask how God communicated to us. How does God guide us? How does God answer prayer? But, ‘ How does God speak so that we have something to listen to?’ is a different question than ‘How do we listen to God?’ The first question is about God—the second is about us.
So, first, a few words about how God speaks. The bible is full of direct words from God. He is heard in burning bushes, visits from angels, visions and dreams. They are usually portrayed as direct verbal communications. There is no doubt about who is speaking. In today’s scripture, Elijah is given explicit instruction about where to go, when to eat and how to confront the priests of the idol Baal. When Elijah is fleeing for his life, he is told to stand on the mountain ‘for the Lord was about to pass by”. There is no ambiguity. I haven’t known that to happen very often in today’s world. And even if we do have such an experience, we have to wonder if we are hearing from God or if we need to be hospitalized.
Unfortunately, exactly the same words can be understood very differently. It requires discernment to determine meaning and that means there will be major differences of opinion. Is it God’s will that doctors who perform abortions should be killed? I don’t think so. But there are equally sincere Christians who believe to do less is to excuse murder. One of the first tasks in listening is discerning who is speaking. Many people speak with great authority that God told them to do x, y, or z. But just because someone believes it does not make it so. Each of us has to decide how credible such claims are—no matter how convinced the speaker is. It is all too easy to confuse our will with God’s. Almost anything can be justified as God’s will. Historically, we rely upon scripture and the collective wisdom of our tradition to help us make such decisions. But, as anyone knows who has studied scripture, discerning God’s word in scripture presents its own raft of problems. In real life, there is no way around uncertainty. We make our best choice and live with the possibility that we could have misread or misheard.
We can improve our odds if we learn the basic requirements of good listening.
1. Listening to God starts with the faith that God has something reliable and relevant to say to us.
That is often not immediately apparent. It takes work to read stories written two to four thousand years and find applications to modern day life. But unless we listen with such an ear, our faith will always be compartmentalized into the then and there instead of the here and now. For example, in our scripture today, Elijah is running for his life. He needs powerful protection from a powerful and vengeful queen. When we are in trouble, we do not expect help in the silence. Big dramatic events—rock splitting wind, earthquakes or fires would seem far more likely to house the kind of God who could save your life. A God who emerges from the silence, not so much. It is often true that God is not where we expected. If we are to listen to God we must be ready to be surprised. We must stay open to the unexpected. Jesus certainly was not the Messiah the Jews sought or expected. How can someone nailed to a cross be much help against the Roman empire?
We may have all kinds of trouble figuring out just what that ‘something important’ is—but we assume God is speaking to us. In ordinary life, good listening treats every human being as important. In real life, however, we often have trouble hearing. We dismiss people because of our preconceptions. Children, the homeless, different religious groups, anti religious groups all have something to say. If we do not think of them as valuable, we will reflexively dismiss everyone outside of our self confirming bubble.
2. Listening to God requires humility and deference.
One woman in our Faith in Real Life group starts every day with the prayer that she live that day in accordance with God’s will. She stays within certain guard rails of conduct as she goes through her day. Guard rails like:
Every person is a child of God deserving of love and respect (even if she can’t offer it).
Love and coercion cannot exist in the same place
Our individual needs do not automatically come first. We live with others and must balance our needs with theirs.
We do our best to love the person in front of us.
We will go off the rails and we trust that God does not hold our sins against us but earnestly seeks to find us.
There are, of course, more but for blog purposes, these will serve as examples of the basic framework within which we try to discern God’s voice in the cacophony of competing interpretations and values that surround us. We need guidelines along the path of life.
3. Finally, in order to listen to God, we must follow Christ’s example and self empty.
Our egos really get in the way of good listening. In real life, we seek agreement. We want recognition and want to be right. But as human as those desires are, they get in the way of listening. In real life when we feel wounded, it is really hard not to take everything personally. It is really hard to listen to what might be valuable when what is said is hurtful. It is really hard to assume positive intent. Most of the time we can’t.
But if we take the discipline of listening to God seriously, we will get better at hearing his word. Another woman in FIRL was in conflict with a bossy entitled sister. The sister, in another state, needed care but she made caring for her very unpleasant. On return to Atlanta, our FIRL member swore she would never go back. However, she was embarrassed about how she felt and she prayed. Then, when her sister needed help again, she did in fact, return. Her sister was just as difficult but she discovered her heart had softened. It was just as difficult but not quite as hard. She put down her own ego long enough to listen to the guidelines and the promises of her faith.
If we learn to listen to God, we are promised the life that gives life.
Let it be so.