On Hearing God’s Voice—Part 2

Before I begin today’s reflection, I want to remind readers about the purpose of this blog and quote from another page on it.

I have had this blog installed on my website for months now and have desired to use it as a tool for ministry ever since I installed it. Yet it remained blank. I was almost paralyzed with indecision because I could not figure out what to do or how to organize it. Then it came to me in prayer on Monday, January 9, 2006. I had an impulse to use this as a tool for mutual Christian accountability, an area about which I am keenly interested and on which I hope to focus my ordained ministry when the time comes. I will attempt to write a daily reflection each weekday and will trust God to grow this (or not) as he wills. I will also continue to write until he tells me to stop.

My intention, prayers, and hopes for this blog are to provide a forum where Christians can talk about issues of faith and/or real problems they face, identifying resources they use/draw upon to help them overcome these problems or deal with issues. To facilitate this interchange, I will attempt to post excerpts of devotional writings or passages from Scripture on a regular basis and then comment on them. I will then ask interested readers to do likewise, sharing their experiences and knowledge so that we might “watch over each other in love,” as John Wesley put it.

May Christ bless these efforts and use them for his purposes.

I encourage interested readers to share their own experiences in the context of the day’s topic. Only then will this blog reach its full potential and God-given purpose. Having reminded you of this, let us look at today’s topic—hearing God’s voice through the Bible.

[Jesus said] You search and investigate and pore over the Scriptures diligently, because you suppose and trust that you have eternal life through them. And these [very Scriptures] testify about Me! —John 5:39 (AMP)

Again and again, in the passage of time, men have supposed that the Bible had outlived its usefulness and need no longer be reckoned with. In the early centuries it was often criticized for its lack of literary style. Augustine, prior to his conversion, felt that the Scriptures were “unworthy to be compared with the dignity of Tully.” In later years, science was said to have entirely discredited the book. Voltaire thought that nobody would be reading the Bible in the nineteenth century, but, in the twentieth, the demand for it is even greater.

In prayer we speak to God. The Bible is one great way in which God speaks to us. None who seeks guidance can afford to neglect the Book. Let us consider how God guides through the Bible.

Some devout people have substitutes for the Scriptures. They find the Bible a somewhat bewildering library, so that they live on little books of “selections” or even on “promise boxes.” [Promise boxes were popular in the Victorian era. They were wooden boxes that contained biblical promises printed on small pieces of paper and rolled up like miniture scrolls for random selection in times of need]. As to the “promise box” it will do as a sweetmeat but it must not be made into the whole meal. It is all comfort. But God has other things for us beside comfort. God gives us comfort when we need it, but we have need also for counsel as well as comfort, and for reproof and restraint. That is why the “promise box” and similar selections are no sufficient substitute for the Bible…Take the Bible. Let God speak to you through His own Book.

But in urging you to take the Bible, we do not suggest that it be treated as a book of magic. It is our privilege and duty to study it. God cannot desire that the only use we make of His Book is to treat it, in moments of crisis, like a lucky dip. We must study the Bible. Obviously so far as the Book is concerned, God can guide most those who study it most.

How, then, shall we study the Bible to get the maximum guidance from its page?

We shall study it first with prayer. We shall study it every day—and unhurriedly. When we turn to a portion of the Scripture and quietly seek its meaning, not carrying our preconceived ideas to it but just keeping an open mind to what it has to teach, we ask two questions. “What did it mean then?” “What does it mean for me now?” God’s guidance through the Bible is not limited to the repetition of exact circumstances.

As he questions the Scriptures, devoutly asking in the felt-presence of God, “What can I learn about God from this?” “What can I learn about myself?” “Does this Scripture rebuke me or challenge me?” “Does it call for action, or confession, or restitution?” —as he questions the record, the Divine Spirit will answer him and God will speak to his need. So God guides. For it is never enough to say that God has spoken through the Scriptures. God speaks through them still.

—From God Does Guide Us by W. E. Sangster

Yesterday I reflected on W. E. Sangster’s book, God Does Guide Us, and how I hear God’s voice in prayer. Today I consider the second way Sangster urged us to listen for God’s voice—reading the Bible. I consider this topic especially appropriate in the context of my blog because with the exception of this series on hearing Gods’ voice, each of my entries has come from insights I gleaned from reading Scripture! Sometimes a particular passage dovetailed with that day’s devotional readings but the idea behind each blog entry has always come from hearing God’s voice through his Word on a given day. And just as I prefaced my reflections on prayer, I want to address briefly the “rules of engagement” that guide my approach to reading Scripture.

First, I believe the Bible to be the infallible Word of our God—a living, breathing document that speaks to us in many ways and at multiple levels using various literary genres. As the infallible Word of God, I believe the Bible gets it right in all instances and when we have problems with it, it is because we are broken, fallible humans and our understanding is finite and incomplete. In other words, we don’t have the option of picking and choosing the chapters and verses we like while ignoring the ones we don’t; the Bible comes to us as a whole package. So like Sangster, I believe it to be an accurate guide for daily living. And like Sangster, I also believe I increase my chances of hearing God’s voice when I study it.

Second, I believe daily Bible reading and prayer are intimately interconnected, having a synergy of sorts, so that I increase my chances of hearing God’s voice when I read the Bible prayerfully and allow the Bible to help prepare me to pray.

Third, because I believe God speaks to me through the Bible, I try to read it with faithful expectation that I will hear God’s voice in the passages I read for that day. As with prayer, when I speak of “hearing” God’s voice, I do not mean I hear an audible voice; rather, when God speaks to me through Scriptures, thoughts usually come to mind or I am reminded of something or I am inspired or have a peace that is not my own, etc. And yes, there are times when God reprimands me. As with prayer, I hate it when that happens 🙂 but understand he does so for my benefit.

To help prepare myself to read God’s Word, I first do some journaling. I actually have two journals, one for prayer and the other for reflecting on the Scripture I am reading for the day. I find this helps me center down and focus on the task at hand—listening for God’s voice. I also use various devotional resources that provide structure for reading the Bible and before I read the assigned verses, I always start with this prayer, “Lord Jesus, open my heart, mind, and very spirit to your Word for me today. Speak to me according to your will for me and my ability to understand and bear it.”

The devotional resources I use organize devotions into weekly themes with an assigned psalm for the week and related daily Scripture readings. I also use a study Bible to assist my reading. I prefer the NIV translation but have multiple translations on hand and consult them if I just don’t understand a verse or passage.

After my opening prayer, I proceed to read the assigned psalm for that week. If any impulses come to me or if a given passage or word jumps out at me, I make note of it. I try to read Scripture aloud because I find it helps me concentrate better and keeps my mind from wandering, something over which I constantly struggle. When I’m done reading the psalm, I read the assigned Scripture for the day. I usually try to read the passage straight through and then read the study notes if I am unsure of the meaning of something.

When I finish reading the assigned chapter and verses for the day, I try to do what Sangster prescribes above. I summarize in my journal what I think the passages say or what they are about and how they speak to me in my situation. For example, this morning I read 2 Corinthians 4 and made note in my journal that preaching requires simplicity, straightforwardness, and a focus on Jesus Christ. As such, it reminded me of the ground rules for any work I do in ministry—to bring honor and glory to Jesus Christ.

I also found this reminder to be particularly appropriate today because yesterday this blog received wonderful validation from three sources whom I respect very much—one from my dear friend and priest, one from Kendall Harmon’s blog, titusonenine, and one from The Confessing Reader’s blog. Consequently, today’s assigned passage helped me resist the temptation of having an inflated opinion of myself and prompted me again to remember Whose I am and why I write this blog—I write it because I believe God has called me to provide a forum to help Christians who struggle with issues of living faithful daily lives. And so I was quite thankful to hear God’s reminder to me in Scripture this morning; it was just what I needed!

A final example of God speaking to me through his Word occurred on Tuesday, the day I travel to Toledo to work at my part-time job as interim Technology Director. As I read and reflected in my journal on Christ’s call to discipleship, about how I had to deny myself and take up my cross daily, I realized that I will probably not be able to continue that job next year because of the demands of seminary work. While that saddened me because I really enjoy my work there, I also realized that my call is to the ordained ministry and therefore I had to make seminary work my first priority; I just don’t think I can do both. I never cease to be amazed at God’s timing and the insights he provides me through his Word. And when I really stop and think about it, I am in awe of the fact that the Creator and Lord of the universe has the time, ability, and desire to be intimately involved in my daily living. If that cannot evoke thanks and praise in a person, I’m not sure what can. As such, I try to thank him daily in prayer for being so gracious to me.

I do not wish to give the impression that I never have problems hearing God’s voice when reading his Word. To the contrary, I am beset with a host of difficulties I think plague all men and women of faith. Sometimes I read a passage and don’t always understand what I read or the passage troubles me. For example, the thoughtful person cannot help but be troubled by God’s command to Joshua to slay the inhabitants of the Promised Land. Why would God do that? Then, of course, there’s the deep anguish of Psalm 137 and the terrible existential loneliness of Psalm 88. What are we to make of these passages? Whenever I am confronted by God’s Word in ways I do not understand or comprehend, I try to remind myself what Sangster says about Scripture, how we must not attempt to pigeonhole it. I also try to remind myself, although not always successfully, that I am finite and broken, that I am not God nor am I capable of understanding his ways—his thoughts are not my thoughts nor are his ways my way (Isaiah 55:8). It is moments like this that demand my absolute trust in God, even when understanding does not follow. And so while I am troubled by certain verses or chapters in the Bible, I always try to read them with the eye of faith and accept there are some things that are simply beyond my ability to know or comprehend. Acknowledging that does not invalidate God’s Word, however; it simply affirms our human condition.

I am also beset at times by a wandering mind and/or tiredness which detract from my ability to hear God’s voice. Moreover, I have found that if I do not start reading Scriptures early enough in the day, I am bothered by distractions that normally occur in our house, e.g., the TV playing, phones ringing, etc. The solution to the latter set of problems is to find a regular quiet time when I can read the Bible unhurriedly and without external distractions. During those times when I am distracted internally, I usually ask God to help me focus. If I am not successful in doing so I normally just acknowledge that this is a product of the human condition and do the best I can, trusting in God’s grace to speak to me according to my ability to hear it.

In sum, I try to follow Sangster’s wise counsel when reading the Bible. I approach it with faith and trust God to act according to his will for me and my ability to hear his voice on any given day. As with anything else related to matters of human endeavors, especially when interacting with the Spirit, results will vary. 🙂 In other words, I acknowledge that some days I can hear his voice more clearly than others and recognize that is my problem, not God’s. Like prayer, I read the Bible primarily to listen to what God has to say to me, although I am not afraid to question what I read and ask God about it. When I don’t get an answer to my questions, I have learned to be satisfied with the ambiguity and can accept an element of mystery in his Word. I use devotional materials, e.g., a study Bible, devotional readings, journals, etc., that work for me. I consider prayer and Bible reading to be interdependent and synergistic in nature so that I have a better chance of hearing God’s voice when I do both instead of doing one or the other. When I am confronted with passages I don’t understand or that trouble me, I try to read them in faith and trust in God’s purposes and ways, acknowledging that I am simply incapable of fully understanding God’s Word or Nature. I have found that in doing so, I am less tempted to rewrite Scripture to fit my own idolatrous image. Finally, I try to find regular times to read the Bible so that I will not be rushed or distracted in my reading. In all these things I give thanks to God in Jesus Christ for being loving enough and gracious enough to speak to me intimately and in myriad ways.

Now it’s your turn. How do you read the Bible? What are some things you do to help you hear God’s voice in his Word? What things prevent you from hearing God’s voice and what do you do to help overcome those things? Tell us your stories so that together we can learn to be better readers of God’s Word and hearers of his voice.

Monday: Hearing God’s Voice through circumstances