My granddaughter has taken to attaching notes to her possessions this summer—notes directed at her five-year-old brother to let him know that she doesn’t want him touching her stuff when she’s not there. A recent note attached to a pack of gum said “Do NOT touch. I mean it!.”
There’s a big problem here that she’s managed to overlook—her brother doesn’t know how to read.
She knows that—and if she thought about it, I’m sure she’d realize that there might be better ways to communicate with her brother. Meanwhile, she thinks that she is communicating with him—because she hasn’t thought about it all from his perspective.
My daughter shared this with me the other day and it immediately made me think about what often seems to happen when we’re trying to communicate with God.
The message isn’t getting through—and the problem, of course, is not God.
Last Sunday I shared with you some of the ways that God has been speaking to me throughout my lifetime. And some of you know exactly what I’m talking about—I know this because you’ve shared with me at various times how God speaks to you. Others of you, however, are still wondering, “Why doesn’t God speak to me like that”? Some of you have been trying hard to hear from God and are disappointed by the fact that you’re not hearing Him.
I don’t want any of you to go away feeling left out. I don’t want to confuse you—and most of all, I don’t want you to go home feeling that you must be somehow less than fully acceptable to God—or even wondering if you really are a part of the family of God.
Because, as I told you last week, I believe that God speaks to every one of us. But right now Aubrey’s speaking to her brother and he’s not getting the message. And even if he realizes, as he surely does, when he sees her notes, that they were written by Aubrey, he doesn’t understand what they say. And I think this is a good illustration of what sometimes happens to us—God is communicating, but somehow we either don’t understand or we just don’t get the message.
There are a number of reasons why this might happen. One of those reasons is that, for some of us—even those of us who are absolutely certain that we are a child of God, even when we spend a great deal of time in the presence of the Lord—we have been unable to relate our experience of God’s presence in our lives to the idea of God speaking to us. You know that God is at work in your life, you know that He hears you when you talk to Him; what you’re missing is an understanding of how to have a conversational relationship with God.
At least part of the reason for this is probably that some church bodies have failed to teach that a conversational relationship with God is not only possible, but is something that we can and should expect to have. Sadly, the Lutheran Church, along with most other mainline churches, has traditionally been one of those church bodies.
What the Lutheran church has been best known for over the past 500 years is being that part of the church that really upholds and teaches the Bible—at teaching people that we can know and understand God through His written Word. And having a conversational relationship with God cannot replace our study of Scripture—nor is it intended to do so. In fact, probably one of the reasons some of us don’t hear God speaking to us is because we haven’t spent enough time getting to know Him through His written Word. And even when we develop a conversational relationship with God, the Bible is still the best way to test what we’re hearing is really God.
But what if God desires a relationship with His people that involves more than just knowledge of who He is? What if God actually created us to live in ongoing conversation with Him? What if God’s visits with Adam and Eve in the Garden, what if Enoch’s walk with God and the face-to-face conversations between Moses and the Lord were not exceptional moments in the history of mankind? What if instead they are examples of the normal human life God intends for us?
What if Moses was really speaking truth when he said that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3)?
I absolutely believe that this is true. And I believe that Scripture provides a great deal of support for the idea that we should expect God to speak to us on a regular basis.
So my purpose in giving this series of messages is to help you to connect in a more concrete way with Almighty God.
Who among us doesn’t want to do that?
Another reason why so many Christians struggle with this might be because we talk about it so rarely in the church. Perhaps that’s because we know how strange—and even preposterous—this sounds to people who are not Christian. Sometimes even to people who are Christian.
A few years ago, Science magazine reported on an experiment in which eight “fake” patients went undercover, checking themselves into psychiatric hospitals across the country. None of them had any history of mental illness, but they told medical staff that they regularly “heard voices.” Apart from this fabrication they behaved normally and reported honestly their own very normal past experiences and medical histories.
Nevertheless, seven of the eight were diagnosed as schizophrenic—the eighth was diagnosed with “manic-depressive psychosis.” All were hospitalized for up to two months, prescribed antipsychotic medications (which they did not swallow). Once admitted to the mental wards, they continued to speak and behave normally; they reported to medical staff that the voices had disappeared and they felt fine. Some of them even kept notes quite openly on their experiment—which were recorded in nursing notes as “writing behavior.”
The experiment, designed by a Stanford psychologist, found that the single symptom of “hearing voices” could have only one possible explanation in the world of psychiatry—you’re crazy.
Perhaps it is with good reason that we hesitate to speak about experiences of hearing God speak to us.
But when we open our Bibles, we discover that as we read through the Old Testament, God speaks. He speaks a lot to a lot of different people. Maybe we think that God speaks to them because they’re somehow different from us. After all, they’re in the Bible—they’re men and women that we look to as heroes of the faith.
But what if those people we read about in Scripture aren’t superheroes? What if they’re ordinary men and women just like you and me? What if the interactions we read about between them and God are the same kind of interactions we should expect to experience?
When you read these Old Testament stories, do you try to imagine yourself in the story? Do you think about the different emotions they experienced as they carried out the tasks assigned to them by God? James, the brother of Jesus, writes in James 5:17 that “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”
Imagine why James might have been thinking about Elijah, that great prophet who performed amazing miracles—and who was also terrified by Jezebel, who ran for his life in fear. And who did not die, but was carried up into heaven in a chariot. Imagine how James’ understanding of God must have changed when he finally realized that his older brother Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus, whom he’d interacted with on a daily basis throughout his entire life. Imagine what it was like for him to realize that he’d been talking to God without even realizing it. That his brother Jesus rose from the dead and later ascended into heaven.
What if we looked at Moses and David, at Elijah and Peter and Paul, at Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus—looked at them and saw ordinary people just like you and me? What if we looked at them and realized that if God talked to them, there is no reason why God cannot or will not talk to us.
What if we were to come to recognize that our humanity by itself does not prevent us from knowing and interacting with God in the same ways that they did?
What if we read the Bible with the assumption that the experiences recorded there are basically the same type of experiences we could have had if we had been there? That the emotions experienced by all those ancient people were probably very much the same emotions you and I would have felt had we been there?
And what if this is the way God intends us to read His Word?
What if failure to read Scripture in this very personal way is the reason that so many people see this book as simply a book of rules? A book that is boring? A book of abstract facts about God? A book that doesn’t change their hearts or grow their understanding of who God is?
There are people like that in the Bible—they’re called Pharisees. And it’s when we read the Bible this way that we tend to eventually just stop reading it. Or if we do continue to read it, we view it kind of like taking medicine. It’s supposed to be good for us, so we somehow manage to choke down small doses occasionally.
What if we read the Bible paying close attention to the times when God spoke to His people? How did it happen? What was it like for them? What was it like for Moses to encounter a burning bush that just continued to burn without being consumed and then to hear God speak to him? How do you think Ananias felt when he heard God tell him to go find Saul of Tarsus, that man who was murdering Christians, and lay his hands on him?
What if part of hearing God involves asking Him for the faith and for the experiences that would allow us to believe that such things could actually happen to us?
Let’s walk through one of those stories.
In our Old Testament reading, King Saul is dead—dead, we’re told in I Chronicles 10:14 because “he did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.” So the first thing we learn is that if God’s going to kill somebody for failing to seek His guidance, it must actually be possible to receive that guidance.
The Ark of the Covenant had been stolen by the Philistines twenty years earlier even before Saul became king. But when the Philistines set the Ark up in their temple, they found that their god, Dagon, was continually being knocked to the ground before the Ark. Then the Philistines themselves began to be afflicted with tumors, so they decided the ark had to go. They put it on a new cart, as instructed by their pagan priests, and sent it back to Israel, along with a box of golden mice and golden tumors. The cart ended up at the house of a man named Abinadab, and that’s where the Ark remained until David, the newly crowned king, decided that it needed to come to Jerusalem, which was now the capitol city of Israel.
So David did what we usually do when we have what we think is a great idea. David “consulted with all his officials, including the generals and captains of his army. Then he addressed the entire assembly of Israel …[and said]: “’If you approve and if it is the will of the Lord our God, …”
Basically what he’s saying is that “if we all agree, then surely it must be God’s will.” And verse 4 says, “The whole assembly agreed.” Now it’s clear that David’s intentions are good.
So what’s the problem? Nowhere does it say that David “inquired of the Lord.” Instead, he inquired of his officers. Not only did he not inquire of the Lord, he also failed to study God’s written Word. Because in Numbers 4, God gave specific instructions on how to move the Ark. It must always be done by the Levites—and even they are not allowed by God to actually touch the sacred things. Numbers 4:5-7 says that “When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.”
They carry the Ark with the poles on their shoulders. David doesn’t pay any attention to any of that—maybe he’s not even aware of God’s instructions to Moses with regard to the Ark. Because he has a better plan—one he learned from the pagan Philistines (2 Samuel 6:3). They moved the Ark by placing it on a new cart, so he decides that’s what he’ll do, too. The problem is that God never said anything about using a cart, new or otherwise. David either didn’t know or didn’t care—he was going to do it his way. And so when the oxen stumbled, Uzzah reached out to prevent the Ark from sliding off the cart. His intentions were good, but like David, he was completely disregarding God’s instructions—and “he died there before God” (I Chronicles 13:10). Right there on the spot.
Imagine that you’re David. What must he have felt seeing Uzzah struck dead on the spot? How must this have affected his ideas about God?
“David was now afraid of God” (I Chronicles 13:12).
Do you think he realized that consulting other people is never a substitute for consulting the Lord God? Did he even understand why Uzzah died?
How often do we do this? How often do we assume that because what we want to do seems good to us, surely God agrees? God had carried David through many difficult times—and David knew it. Could it be that because of his certainty that God was with him, he’d begun to think that God would bless David in all situations?
Don’t we do this? If we’ve heard from God in favorable ways in the past, it can be easy to begin to believe that He’ll always be on our side—when, of course, He makes no such promise. When the preincarnate Jesus, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, appeared to Joshua prior to the battle of Jericho, and Joshua asked him, “Are you friend or foe?” “Neither one,” he replied. “I am the commander of the Lord’s army” (Joshua 5:13-14).
God doesn’t favor one person or one army over another. God favors whoever’s obedient to Him. Some of you might think that’s not fair—God doesn’t care. God is God and we are not—we don’t get to make the rules. And we never get to dictate to God what He must do.
“David was now afraid of God” (I Chronicles 13:12). David’s known God all his life. He’s served God all his life. He killed the giant Goliath when he was just a boy. We know that David loves God; we know that David tries hard to keep God’s commands. But until now, there’s no indication that David fears God—at least not the way he fears Him now.
Uzzah died and the Ark was left at the home of Obed-edom for three months. Basically, they left the Ark at the nearest place they could find from where Uzzah died. David and the people with him had seen God’s mighty hand and they couldn’t get away fast enough.
The next thing we know, in chapter 14, “the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over all Israel, and they went up to search for David.”
They’re on their way to Israel to kill David. This time, David talks to God, he asks Him what He should do. And the Lord answered. He didn’t just say, “Yes, David, go out and fight them.” He told David exactly what to do. He gave him detailed instructions—He laid out a battle plan. David listened and obeyed and was victorious.
When Uzzah died, “David was afraid of God” (13:12). Now, when David listens to God and follows His instructions, 14:17 says that “the Lord caused all the nations to fear David.”
So we see that God talks directly to His people, instructing them as to what they should do. And when they listen and follow His instructions, things go well. When Joshua went out to fight his first battle against Jericho, God told him exactly what to do and how to do it. Joshua listened and the Israelites were victorious.
But there’s more to the story. Because years earlier, when Saul became the first king of Israel, I Samuel 10 tells us that God sent the Spirit of the Lord upon Saul and turned him into another man, gave him a new heart.
And when Saul went out to fight the Philistines, the prophet Samuel gave him specific instructions from God. Saul, however, paid no attention—he had his own ideas and he did what seemed best to him. God was so angry that He rejected Saul. Samuel told Saul in I Samuel 15:23 “For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.”
Perhaps God was testing David in the same way that he’d tested Saul. David passed the test—only after his failure to inquire of the Lord caused the death of Uzzah.
And when David went back again to try to move the Ark to Jerusalem, he followed the instructions of the Lord exactly. I Chronicles 16:1 says “And they brought in the ark of God and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it.”
If God cares this much about our obedience, at least sometimes to His exact instructions, He must surely expect that we will seek and be able to hear those instructions.
It appears from this, and many other stories, that God wants to be in relationship with His people in a way that’s more like a friendship or family than it is like just one person—God—taking care of our needs. At the same time, God insists that we remember that He is holy. Holy far beyond anything we can understand. We see this in the way that He interacts with people from Adam to Abraham, Isaiah, Nehemiah, his brother James.
We have thousands of years of evidence that God invades human personality and history on a one-to-one basis. And not just in the Bible: we see Augustine, regarded by many as second only to the apostle Paul in his influence on the church. Augustine lived in the fourth century A.D. and spent the early years of his life engaged in wild living. His mother, a devout Christian, was praying for him, and one day, he said that as he sat in his garden, he “heard from a neighboring house the voice of a child saying, “take up and read.” “Take up and read.” Over and over again. He couldn’t identify the child’s voice and he couldn’t think of any children’s game that used those words; finally he decided that it was a command from God. So he opened a Bible and began to read—and immediately he was transformed, becoming one of the greatest and most influential of all Christians.
And then there’s Martin Luther, John Wesley, D. L. Moody, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham, all of whom heard the voice of God—to name just a few.
Some of you might be thinking, “But they’re all giants of the faith. I’m just an ordinary person. I’m not important enough for God to talk to me.”
What if, instead of thinking that way, you turned to what the Bible says about you. What if you began to consider that if you’re important enough for God to give His Son’s life and then to choose to inhabit your body as a living temple, that surely you are important enough to Him to guide you and speak to you?
It’s not God’s speaking to us that makes us important. His speaking to us simply provides us with greater opportunity to be and to do good as His servants. In fact, if we think that God’s speaking to us makes us important, He’ll probably soon stop speaking. King Saul is a case in point.
So as we seek to hear God, we must do so also seeking the grace of humility. We must refrain from pretending that we’re what we know we are not, from presuming that we are in any way better than anyone else as a result of hearing from God, and from using God’s name to try to push our personal agendas.
Paul warned us that knowledge puffs up but love builds up. This is so even when we are hearing God. The voice of God we seek to hear in the Way of Christ is only one part of a life of humility, power, faith and hopeful love, whose final overall character is life with God as we are embraced by the everlasting arms.