One of the ways we can determine whether or not we are listening to the voice of God versus that other voice is to examine the four foundational relationships in our lives that the gospel is redeeming: our relationship with God, ourselves, others, and creation.
Beginning with your relationship with God—which is essential to all others—consider the time you spend in his Word and the nature of your communion with him in prayer. Do you, for example, read the Bible as a task to be completed, or do you instead meditate on his word, waiting for the Holy Spirit to give you insight and wisdom? Do you read expecting God to speak to you when you engage with his Word? When you pray, do you simply lay out your petitions before God—a list of wants, so to speak—or do you invite him to examine you and remain silent in his presence as he probes your innermost being? Do you, like David, ask God to search you and then listen while he reveals those things about yourself that grieve him (see Psalm 139:23–24)?
If you’re like me, this last part is difficult, if not uncomfortable. There are times when I find myself very intentionally talking to God in order to shield myself from his examination. My strategy here is simple: if I don’t give him a chance to speak, I won’t have to hear those things about myself that shatter the illusion of my own righteousness.
However, when I sit silently in his presence, he speaks and I begin to see. I see that in my relationship with myself, I have been listening to that other voice that tells me I am good and God should be pleased to have one such as me! As he continues and I listen, I learn that I am hiding my sinfulness behind a presumption of righteousness. I am further reminded that I am incapable of being righteous and more importantly that I don’t have to earn his love. By his grace, I stop listening to that other voice; I stop trying to earn God’s favor and I receive forgiveness. In the end I recover an accurate self-knowledge and he settles my soul, freeing me from works, and he restores me in the right relationship between Creator and creature through grace, thus bringing peace (shalom).
This reconciliation with God lays the foundation for loving others without fear. Here again, I can plainly see to which voice I am listening. If I am listening to God, I am driven to give of myself to others; I earnestly seek their welfare and I desire to bear their burdens. If, however, I am listening to that other voice, I am pharisaical—critical of others—judging them by my standards and demanding they meet my needs before I am willing to act on behalf of theirs. My love is conditioned upon theirs for me, a sharp contrast to a love that bears all things, believes all things, and hopes all things. Granted, this is usually occurring in the privacy of my head and heart unbeknown to others but it is another of those “grievous ways” within me known to God who desires to lead me in “the way everlasting” (see Psalm 139).
In order to walk in that way—the way that brings life—I must listen and follow Jesus, who says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” I take these words from John 10:27 (NIV) literally. We must listen for his voice and then follow his leading.
To which voice we are listening may become most obvious in our relationship to creation, meaning our activity as God’s stewards in the world. I find that the idea of biblical stewardship is often reduced to nothing more than the management of one’s financial resources. However, the broader biblical understanding is best summarized as follows:
At is core, biblical stewardship is a coronation of God’s human stewards to fulfill the Father’s mission in creation and redemption. This is a profound privilege that goes well beyond simply being a wise trustee of God’s money and property (Mohamed, Elder, Grabill, eds., Kingdom Stewardship: Occasional Papers Presented by the Lausanne Resource Mobilization Working Group for Cape Town 2010, Christian’s Library Press, 2010).
In other words, we are to be managers of God’s world and since “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it…” (Psalm 24:1–2 NIV) this work extends into every area of human activity. This applies to us personally as well in terms of how we live and act. Do our life and activity conform to the way God has made—or to the world’s? In order to understand the true way in this work, we must seek a true interpretation of reality from the Creator. God’s way brings life (abundantly) while the opposing way of the world brings death.
It is here we discover our most pronounced failure when it comes to listening to God. I liken this to child rearing. If you have adolescent or adult children, you know what I’m talking about. Because you love your children, you labor to instruct and guide them in the ways that will lead them to prosper and flourish. You diligently present the most compelling case, demonstrating that if they walk in this way, things will go well for them, and yet they will occasionally ignore your counsel, listen to others or the world, and follow a way that leads to ruin. You are left scratching your head, thinking, “Why would you not listen to me? I know with absolute certainty from my own experience that your choice will result in ruin.” Your children know you love them, they think you wise, and yet they still did not listen, choosing instead “a way that seems right to them” at best or defying your counsel outright to satiate their foolish desires.
Is it not the same with our heavenly Father and us? Except he, being perfect, has made a way to live that is true, good, and beautiful and he has given us admission into this new life through his Son, Jesus. God has instructed us in this way; he offers to guide us; he has warned us of the consequences of not following in this way and yet we—like foolish children—ignore him and listen instead to that other voice that leads to death.
If you are not at peace with God or yourself, perhaps you are not listening to your Father’s voice. He does not condemn you; he loves you and desires intimacy with you—and in pursuit of this relationship, he desires to deliver you from the sin that separates you. If you live in fear of others and how they might hurt you, you are not listening to the voice of your Father and following him into these relationships by faith, trusting him to reconcile and preserve you. If you are making decisions in your stewardship duties that are rooted in self-preservation and fear of losing your security, you are not listening to the voice of your Father who invites you to seek first his kingdom and promises that your essential needs will be met (see Matthew 6:33).
May we all become like little children, attentive to the voice of our Father who desires to lead us in the way that brings “wholeness and not evil, to give [us] a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
© 2012 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the president of Battle for Truth and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on Battle for Truth and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit www.battlefortruth.org.