A solitary Christian is almost a contradiction in terms. His vital growth depends upon sharing and service, as well as upon prayer and meditation. God’s guidance, in its completeness and corroboration, requires fellowship as well. We bear glad witness to the fact that God speaks to us constantly without any intermediary at all—but we bear witness also to our need of his Voice through the fellowship. The doubts which fill the mind at times when our personal guidance is not clear, can be resolved in the fellowship.
Perhaps the disciple is hesitating at a difficult interview, or growing lax with his period of daily devotion, or slipping down from his new level of life to the ineffective routine of conventional Christianity. The fellowship holds him up and keeps the challenge high. Every week brings its time of refreshment and God fulfils His promise made to the twos and threes [to be with them where they are gathered]. He is in the midst to guide; from self to surrender; from sin to holiness; from sloth to service; from the vision seen in a glass darkly to those blinding moments when we dare to say we see Him face to face. Robert Barclay knew the secret. He said, “When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and, as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.”
—From God Does Guide Us by W. E. Sangster
Previously I reflected on how I have heard God’s voice through prayer, reading the Bible, and in life’s circumstances. Today I reflect on the fourth of Sangster’s ways of hearing God’s voice—through Christian fellowship. Before I begin, however, I must state the obvious. It would be a mistake to once again pigeonhole God’s voice to small groups of Christians. Indeed, God can and does use all kinds of people, Christian and non-Christian, in all kinds of contexts to speak to us. But if the testimony of the saints is accurate, that seems to be more the exception than the rule. Consequently, it is beyond the scope of today’s reflection. Moreover, as is the case in my previous reflections, hearing God’s voice in the fellowship means we must be listening for it.
Fr. John Wesley believed there was no such thing as an isolate Christian. He believed correctly that as Christians, we are part of the body of Christ—a living, breathing organism. As members of Christ’s Body, the church, we are mutually accountable to each other to help keep Christ’s Body healthy as a whole and to help each other grow individually into the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13). So important was this idea of mutual Christian accountability to Wesley that he placed great emphasis on developing an extensive small group structure within the Methodist movement with the purpose of raising up and nurturing Christian disciples, calling these small groups the “sinews” of his movement. As Sangster points out above, Christian fellowship can play an important role in encouraging, exhorting, restraining, or rebuking and we must trust each other and God’s presence in their voices if we are to hear him speak through them.
This idea of mutual support (accountability) is nothing new. People who start diets or exercise programs or anything else they know will be difficult—and let’s be clear about this: denying ourselves and following Jesus is no small or easy thing to do—often get a buddy to help them continue doing what they are doing. Let’s face it, it’s easier to do something hard when you can count on someone else to support you (remembering there is only a six inch difference between a pat on the back and a swat on the behind :)) or when you have to hold yourself accountable to someone else, and we humans tend to find it easier to be held accountable to flesh and blood rather than to the intangible Spirit! Why, then, would it be unreasonable to expect to hear God’s voice in other Christians, especially given Jesus’ promise to be with us wherever two or three of us are gathered in his name (Matt. 18:20)?
I relate the following four stories to illustrate how I’ve heard God’s voice in the voice of other faithful Christians.
Two weeks ago, Fr. Ron announced my postulancy to the congregation in all three services. In two of the three, spontaneous applause erupted, something that embarrassed me in the service I attended, but also something I interpreted to be both a tangible sign of support and yet another confirmation of God’s affirming my call to ministry. The former is especially remarkable because I don’t go to the 11:00 service and suspect that most folks there don’t even know me!
A second example comes from about six years ago when I went to a Christian therapist to help me get through my divorce. I was devastated and very despondent. Yet every time I visited, I would pray to God to use the therapist, a devout Christian and former minister, to speak to me what I needed to hear that day. I don’t want to suggest that things were peachy after each session or that my road to emotional recovery was easy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet slowly but surely I began to feel some palpable relief and hope again. That was probably the darkest period of my life but God spoke to me regularly and in many ways. In doing so, he sustained me even as I momentarily contemplated (and rejected) ending my life. I can really love and adore a God who refuses to let go of his children, even in their most profound state of brokenness. What about you?
The third example is illustrated in the following email I recently received:
Meanwhile, I’ll offer some encouragement regarding your blog. When I first started my website, it seemed a bit silly to me. After all, who would care about – much less download – my teaching? In fact during the first 2 years it existed, I had only a handful of downloads (literally only 3-4 per month). Then six months ago, God decided it was time to make use of my efforts, and things started to change. During the first week of 2006 alone, I saw 2,500 downloads of my teachings. God is amazing.
This came from a man whom I have never met. His name is Steve Armstrong and I originally learned of him when I began listening to his podcast series on the Sovereignty of God, a series I found to be quite good as well as provocative. Steve lives in Texas and I listen to his sermon every week on my way to and from Toledo. We also exchange email occasionally. Now I don’t always agree with him nor he with me but that is not the point. My point is that here is a man who doesn’t know me from the next fellow, but who took the time to look at my blog and offer encouragement for this ministry. Now THAT’S an example of Christian charity on Steve’s part and I also consider it to be God offering his encouragement to me through Steve. Why? Not because I got my ego stroked but because I think Steve is a faithful soul and God happily uses a man like him to speak to others. As such, I am thankful to both. BTW, this is also a good example of how God can use technology to connect Christians in meaningful ways from literally all over the world. Powerful stuff!
A final example comes from yesterday morning. After looking at one of the syllabi for my online courses, a syllabus that really put me off, my pride and intellectual arrogance reared their ugly heads (or perhaps it was Satan tempting, I’m not sure) and I was seriously contemplating giving up this call to ministry—I just didn’t want to do the work or be a student again in the formal sense. My wife, bless her heart, in her own inimitable and gentle way called my motives into question and this led me into an extended prayer session with God to clear the air. Long story short: I realized I WAS being sinfully proud (or HAD been tempted) and was going down the wayward path; I was contemplating active disobedience toward God yet again. Regardless if it was satanic temptation or sinful pride (or both), I am thankful that God spoke through my beloved wife to drive me to prayer where he could finish me off! 🙂
In closing, I do not wish to convey the false and mistaken notion that discerning God’s voice in the voices of the Christian fellowship is easy or infallible. It most certainly is not! I recall one set of extended conversations I had with one of my friends who thought I was clinically depressed. He was surely sincere, but I believe sincerely mistaken, and we could not come to agreement on this matter. My point here is twofold. First, I am thankful my friend loves me enough to express his concerns to me. Perhaps God WAS speaking through him but I was unable to hear his voice; I just don’t know. This leads me to my second point. As with anything else involved with listening for God’s voice, we must always test our Christian friends’ voices against other reliable sources because Satan is always active and we are not infallible creatures. As with anything else, the more we practice listening for God’s voice in the voice of others, especially our Christian brothers and sisters, the better we are able to discern the Voice from the other voices. That’s good news as far as I’m concerned.
What about you? How has God spoken to you through the fellowship? Has God used others to speak to you? Has he used you to speak to others? How were you able to know it was God’s voice you heard or spoke? What difficulties have you had in hearing God’s voice in the fellowship and what suggestions can you offer to help us better listen for, hear, or speak the voice of the Good Shepherd? Tell us your stories so that God might use you as his voice right now.
—Tomorrow: Conclusion-Hearing God’s Voice Through Reason