That’s a great question, isn’t it? It is one of my favorite quotes, and it gets to the tension many of us feel when it comes to the subject of hearing the voice of God. It doesn’t sound as scary for us to talk to God. But God speaking to us? That often feels like it lives in the land of the spooky.
One of the most famous promises from Jesus is also the springboard of my book. In John 10:10 Jesus says he has come to lead us into fullness of life (and to protect us from the evil one). But while fullness of life may be the most well known of his promises here, it’s certainly not the only one. In fact what he says right before it is just as amazing, just as mysterious, and maybe even scarier (in a good way).
Jesus begins the teaching in John 10 with what is his audacious expectation for every follower of his. To be connected to Christ by faith means we both can and should hear the voice of the Good Shepherd:
“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (John 10.3-5)
To be certain that it’s not missed, Jesus basically repeats the same point four different times:
> The sheep listen to his voice.
> Jesus calls his own sheep by name.
> Jesus leads them out.
> His sheep follow him because they know his voice.
Jesus suspected that his followers would lack the confidence that they could truly know his voice, which is why I think he then adds one additional angle. He says the sheep not only recognize his voice – they can also recognize and differentiate it from the voice of a foreign shepherd. “But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
So here’s the question I want to pose in this blog post: do you believe this? Do you believe you can hear the voice of God?
Before you answer, let me say this. I don’t expect you to do so quickly. And I certainly wouldn’t want you to answer it tritely. It’s a serious question, and is worthy of serious reflection.
As we consider this question… or as least as I do, I think of two things at the same time. On one hand, it’s true that Jesus invites us into this type of intimate, faith relationship, and he draws a very straightforward picture. He is the Good Shepherd, and we are the sheep. Jesus calls us by name, and he leads us towards life. We listen to the voice of Jesus, and respond obediently.
And yet, there is so much baggage that comes with that invitation. So many questions get unleashed. How do I know it’s really Jesus speaking? How do I know it’s my name he’s calling? How do I learn to decipher what he’s saying to me? And how do I know I’m not just making it up? How can I differentiate between my voice and the voice of Jesus? How can I differentiate between the voice of Jesus and… well every other voice competing for my attention?
Do you believe you can hear the voice of God?
When I look back over the course of my life, I would have answered that very differently depending on which era I was in.
As a boy, I would have confidently answered, “yes.”
When I was eight years old my grandfather got very ill, and suffered tremendously. It was hard to watch. I was very close with him, and I still didn’t understand death. I believed in God, and I wished that God would heal him of his pain.
One weekend, as his health weakened, my father sent me and my four younger siblings to stay with a family friend. The five of us were playing at a park, and something unusual happened. I heard God speak to me.
It wasn’t an externally audible voice, but it felt very easy to hear. I felt God telling me that it was time for my grandfather to come home. I had been praying for healing, and it was about to happen. But not in the way I hoped. I hoped that he would come back to full health and be able to play with me and throw me around and read stories to me while I sat on his lap.
But that wasn’t the healing he was going to get. Instead, his earthly body was going to be laid to rest, and he was going to be received by God into an eternal state of health. It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but I felt confident that it was what was best.
I gathered my younger siblings together and told them that grandpa had died, and that we needed to head back to the house. They were too young to inquire as to how I knew that, so they solemnly followed without question.
When we got back to Bill and Pam’s home, I informed them of what I believed God was telling me. Their mouths dropped open. They had just received the news of my grandfather’s death, and had been debating how to best inform us. Now here was I telling them that God had spoken to an 8-year old boy about how it was time for grandpa to come home. It ended up becoming a tremendous source of encouragement for the extended family, and brought a great deal of joy to an otherwise incredibly sad time.
So if you would have asked me as an eight year old, “do I believe I can hear the voice of God?” I would have confidently said “yes.”
But over time that confidence faded.
Part of it was connected to my deteriorating confidence in Church. I was part of a lot of nasty church business in my formative years, and it’s often hard to find the light in the darkness during times like that. A piece of this was also specific spiritual corruption around this idea of hearing the voice of God. I got a front row seat to a lot of frauds, and that shook my confidence that anyone could hear God, much less me.
I still have vivid memories of going with my dad to a number of W.V. Grant healing services. It was something to behold. Pastor Grant would spend hours calling out specific ailments that God was revealing to him in real time, and then would call out to the audience to see who had just been healed.
“Who couldn’t hear in their left ear when they came in, but now has full use of it?” Someone would come running to the front, weeping with joy. The whole place would go crazy.
“Who has a leg that is slightly shrunken, and you have trouble walking, but it is now fully healed?” Someone would come running to the front, weeping with joy. The whole place would go crazy.
It was something to behold… until a number of journalists targeted him and his ministry, and demonstrated that much of the supposed healings were staged and manipulated. He would later do time for tax evasion as well (although I just looked him up, and it appears he is going as strong as ever. Crazy.)
My cynicism in the organized element of church began to peak during this era, so if you would have asked me as a teenager, “do I believe I can hear the voice of God?” I would have said, “probably not.”
And that didn’t even get to the biggest obstacle of all: my personal failings. While I legitimately experienced some jacked up stuff in the institution of church, I can also see with hindsight how this provided a convenient excuse for me to become morally unscrupulous. I went through an extended period of sin through high school and college where I committed just about every offense possible to God.
If you would have asked me as a college student, “do I believe I can hear the voice of God?” I wouldn’t have even known how to answer anymore. I was rebellious, sinful, confused, hurt, lost, and spiritually disoriented. I still carried the memories of an 8-year old boy that was confidently assured of the presence of God. But I also carried the memories of a teenager who had seen the voice of God used as a weapon to manipulate people. And now I also carried the wounds of a 20-something who had terribly violated the grace of God I had professed decades earlier.
That’s why I think the question, “Do you believe you can hear the voice of God?” is a complicated one. We bring all kinds of stuff to this question. We bring hurts and hopes, dreams and disappointments. We all bring distorted pictures of God to the altar as we try to receive this humble gift. It can be complicated.
And yet, at the same time, there is a beautiful simplicity to it. One of the beautiful quotes that I have been reflecting on lately comes from Richard Rohr, who says this:
“We cannot attain the presence of god. We’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.”
I believe this with all of my heart. We are not on a search for God. God is on a search for us. We cannot attain the presence of God. We’re already totally in the presence of God.
What’s absent is awareness. What’s absent is openness. What’s absent is a faith filled connection to Jesus. What’s absent is our readiness to listen for, and to respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
I am going to do a few more posts on this, because it is multi-layered, and needs a balanced perspective to avoid misuse or misunderstanding. But don’t let the confusion or fear or hurt cause you to miss the bigger point.
We are totally and completely in the presence of God – now. You are totally and completely in the presence of God – now.
And what’s even better is that Jesus knows your name – he calls you by name (John 10.3). He desires to lead you into the fullness of God’s presence.
What promise in this world could possibly be more compelling than that? What truth in this world could possibly be more comforting than that? It’s truly a life changing reality.