Senior Pastor Video Update in the Time of COVID-19 (May 27, 2020)

Here is my latest video update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly video updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. You can watch it here or at the Eastbrook Church Vimeo channel.

In this update I highlight one theme of Hebrews related to hearing the word of God, both in Scripture and in Jesus. I focus that in by mentioning a verse from Psalm 119:

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light on my path. (Psalm 119:105)

If we want direction in the midst of confusion, there is no better source than turning to God’s Word. If we want light in the midst of darkness, there is no better source than the Scriptures.

If this theme captures your interest, you may also enjoy reading a few other posts on my blog:

Senior Pastor Video Update in the Time of COVID-19 (April 1, 2020)

Here is my latest video update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly video updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. You can watch it here or at the Eastbrook Church Vimeo channel.

At one point, I mention the opportunity to join in with 24-7 Prayer Movement here in the city of Milwaukee throughout the month of April. You can find out more information here.

How Do We Hear from God today?

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Through the past two blog posts , I have held up a vision of the God who speaks in various ways and we as His people hearing from Him. That is the vision I want to put in front of us. The prophets heard from God, and their hearing is unique from ours as authoritative Scripture. However, their hearing is not unique from ours in that the Bible tells us the people of God will relate to God as He speaks and we respond.

So, how do we move from the vision of what this is into the reality of hearing God in our everyday lives? Let me suggest a few ways.

Cultivating relationship with God

While it is possible that God will interrupt our lives when we are not looking for Him, I believe the ordinary and regular way that God speaks to us in the context of an ongoing intimate relationship with Him that is cultivated day after day.

In Scripture, we encounter strong relational metaphors for God and His people

  • Parent –child relationship (“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” – Hosea 1:1)
  • Spousal relationship (“‘In that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘you will call me “my husband”; you will no longer call me “my master”’” – Hosea 2:16)
  • Friend relationship (“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” – John 15:15)

It is within this ongoing relationship with God that we learn to hear His voice.

And so, if we really want to hear the voice of God, we must do whatever it takes to draw near to God, to become familiar with who God is, to read Scripture and pray, to gather in worship and meet with others who are like-minded, so that we might build relationship with God and become more familiar and comfortable in His presence. The more we are with Him, the more likely we are to hear His voice. The less likely we are with Him, the less likely we are to hear His voice.

The words of the prophet Jeremiah have been helpful for me in this way:

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

So of primary importance in hearing God is knowing God, and cultivating relationship with Him.

 

Learning to Listen

Second, I would suggest we need to learn how to listen for God. When you want to ride a bike, you have to learn how to do it. I still remember my parents and my older brother helping me learn to ride a bike with training wheels and eventually getting a new bike. I still remember teaching my own children how to ride a bike.

If we have to learn how to ride a bike, and we experience some bumps along the way, how much more should we expect that we need to learn how to hear God? Let me suggest four practices that I think will help us cultivate a listening relationship with God

  1. Read Scripture slowly and reflect upon it: If we want to hear from God, then the easiest place to begin is with the Bible. Since we know the Bible is trustworthy and authoritative, we can readily learn to know the character of God and the quality of His voice by reading the Bible. However, let me make one qualification about this. We need to not only read the Bible, but reflect upon the Bible. Many times we read the words of Scripture, but do not let them really trickle down into our lives. We need to slow down and prayerfully read Scripture, pondering the truths into our souls. The longest of the psalms, Psalm 119, is an extended reflection upon the power of the Scripture to shape, guide, correct, and enlighten our lives. We need to let it have its way in us. When reading Scripture, if we want to hear from God, we should read a passage, then take time to read it again, reflect upon it, and let it shape us. If you like to write, you may want to journal about it. If you are a verbal processor, you may want to talk with a good friend about what you are hearing. When we approach Scripture, we should ask, “what does this mean?” But the Scripture has not had its work in us until we ask the next question, “what is God speaking to me personally in this?”
  2. Take time in silence and solitude with God: Think about Peter in Acts 10. Three times God gives him a word with a vision about the inclusion of the Gentiles. Peter was on the roof in the middle of the day. He was undistracted by others and by the hustle & bustle of life so that he could be attentive to God. Without silence and solitude we will not hear the voice of God. It would be like every time you wanted to talk to your best friend or spouse you turned on the television, the radio, and the blender all at the same time. If you really want to have a conversation you need focus and attention. Few things help us with this more than silence and solitude with God.
  3. Talk with God through your day: The first two practices, reflective reading of Scripture and solitude/silence, must happen at a set time and in some place. But this third practice leads us to learn how to hear from God all times and all places. In his letter to the believers in Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul instructs them to “pray continually” or “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17, NIV and NASB). The life of hearing God must continue into our lives beyond set times and places. Some of the best guides on this are two men from vastly different times: Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk, and Frank Laubach, a 20th century missionary and worldwide ambassador for literacy. Both of these men learned how to cultivate everyday conversation with God, both speaking and hearing. I would encourage you to read their books, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and Laubach’s Letters by a Modern Mystic and Games with Minutes. Hearing God does not mean we withdraw from life but that we engage in life with God. We can begin to converse with God in the midst of our activities, work , and other conversations. Let me use an example from my own life. Not too long ago, I was was in a long planning meeting with others, trying to work together to come toward a strategic plan for an initiative.  My first inclination, if I am honest, was to present my best thoughts and hear others’ thoughts so that we can figure this out together at a purely human level. Unintentionally, this was largely a work on the horizontal plane of human relationships and strategies. About two hours into the meeting, I began to realize that what we most needed was to hear from God. What was God speaking to me and to others in that meeting? What was it we most needed? I began to talk a little less, and listen a little more, both to God and to everyone there. I found the surging of my own desire to be heard and my own longing for people to hear and agree with my points began to settle down. I began to ask God, what it was He wanted to do. The heavens did not rip open and neither did an angel open the door to the meeting room, but I did sense that God was stirring us into a specific direction for the conclusion of that meeting and next steps. I sensed I could join in with God in that as I tried to listen to Him while engaging in the conversation. 
  4. Obey what you hear: Finally, let me urge us to the simple practice of obedience to what you hear. The reason God speaks to us is to draw us close relationally, but also to draw us deeper into the life He has for us. One important practice for us is to obey what we hear God speak. The Apostle James describes how important this is in his letter to the early church. He writes: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:22-25). When you hear God speak, obey it. If it is a dramatic thing, ask God for confirmation in His word, through wise counsel, or through your circumstances. But whatever you do, do not fail to do what God speaks into your life. The more we fail to obey, the less likely we are to hear God in our lives. First, we will stuff our ears and dull our hearts through disobedience. Second, He will not entrust us with a word, but will take it and give it to another. The word given is a word to be responded to. Hearing God means obeying God.

Now, one of the saddest moments of my young life in bike riding came shortly after I learned to ride and was given a new bike for my birthday. I was turning from the steep slope of our driveway to the sidewalk in front of our house, and I completely wiped out. The new bike had a few scrapes on it, as did my elbows and knees. Now, I had a decision at that moment: should I give up bike riding forever or should I dust myself off, get on the bike, and keep learning how to ride? Thankfully, I took the latter course, eventually, learning to ride smoothly. As time went on, I learned how to ride with no hands and do some simple tricks on my bike to impress my friends in grade school.

If we have to learn how to listen to God, should we not also expect that there will be bumps along the way? When those moments arise – when we don’t hear correctly, or we’re not sure if it’s us or God, or when we get confused in one way or another – we have a decision: will I give up on developing a conversational relationship with God or will I confess my confusion or failure and try to keep learning? I hope you’ll choose the latter route so that as God speaks to us His people, we will have ears to hear, and lives ready to walk with God wherever He calls us. We may not end up looking like Hosea or Jeremiah, but we will become more truly ourselves as we step more deeply into the adventure of life with God.

What Does It Mean to ‘Hear God’?

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Yesterday, I began a series of posts about hearing God with the question, “Does God Speak Today.” Today, I want to continue that theme by asking a second, but related question.

If God speaks, how does He speak? And what does it mean to “hear God”?

The various ways God speaks[1]

Dallas Willard outlines six ways Scripture tells us that God speaks. I want to take a moment to simply outline those, and then connect that with hearing from God:

  1. Phenomenon plus voice: There is a recognizable sense experience that accompanies a voice. When Moses hears God’s voice at the burning bush serves as the most recognizable example of this type of revelation (Exod 3:3-6). Other examples are God’s word to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai that was accompanied by lightning and earthquakes (Deut 5:23), or the bright light that accompanied God’s voice at Paul’s Damascus road conversion (Acts 9:3-8).
  2. Supernatural messenger or angel: There is a divine messenger from God who brings a word from God. Think of Mary hearing God’s message from the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38) or Joshua encountering the angel of the Lord before the Fall of Jericho (Josh 5:13-15). There are countless examples of this angelic messenger coming to people to give God’s message.[2]
  3. Dreams and visions: Some of us have heard stories of Muslims who experience dreams and visions that lead them to faith in Jesus. This idea appears in Scripture, whether in Paul’s nighttime vision of a man compelling him to change course in his missionary journey to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:9) or Peter’s rooftop vision of a sheet filled with unclean animals that brings a message about Gentile inclusion in the church (Acts 9:10-13).
  4. Audible, but disembodied, voice: Think with me of the young man, Samuel, who is awakened in the night by a voice calling his name, “Samuel” (1 Sam 1:3-4). Thinking it is the priest Eli, who he serves, Samuel runs to Eli. But it is only after a few occurrences that Eli realizes it is God speaking to Samuel. The response Eli encourages him to offer has become paradigmatic for those wanting to hear from God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (3:9). No physical presence, yet God’s voice is clearly heard.
  5. The human voice: “No means of communication between God and humankind is more commonly used in the Bible or the history of the church than the voice of a specific individual human being.”[3] In this way, God speaks to a person and also through a person. Thus, God spoke to and through the prophets. God spoke to and through Moses. God spoke to and through the Apostle Paul. A human voice is used as a conduit for God’s word. We speak of this today when someone brings us back to God’s word in one way or another in our lives.
  6. The “human spirit,” or “still small voice”: Lastly, God can speak through the human spirit, or the still small voice. Unlike the other means, which come from outside of a person, this final way that God addresses comes into our spirits – “our own thoughts and feelings, toward ourselves as well as toward events and people around us.”[4] This is what the Apostle Paul is describing when he says in 1 Corinthians 2, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11). Within our spirit our deepest thoughts are found. Within God’s Spirit God’s deepest thoughts are found. God communicates with us in this deepest place and we listen for it. The invitation at the end of Psalm 139 describes the invitation of hearing from God in our spirits by His spirit: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

Of the six ways that God speaks, Willard says that these last two – God speaking through a human voice and God speaking into our spirits are the “most important ways God speaks to us” because they are “most suited to his presence in our lives as a close personal friend” and “to the development of our personalities into his likeness.”[5] They engage us personally and rationally. When God speaks through another human it is the preeminent objective way that God speaks because it comes from outside of us and is most clearly understandable in ways that dreams and visions, supernatural phenomena, or angels are not. God speaking into our spirits with His still small voice is the preeminent subjective way that God speaks because it comes from within us and addresses us in the most personal way possible.

Often when we talk about hearing God speak in this way, the immediate concern many have is how all of this relates to the Bible. So let me just address that concern very succinctly.

We believe God speaks.

We agree that the preeminent objective mode of God speaking is through a human voice.

The highest encounter we have with this is Jesus, who is the Word of God incarnate. He is the ultimate word of God.

On the one hand, the Bible is the record of God speaking through human voices.

On the other hand, the Bible has authority derived directly from the inspiration of God in a way that no other record of God’s Word.

When we talk of God speaking and humans hearing, all of this is subject to the authority and guidance of Bible as God’s one-of-a-kind written word. The Bible derives its authority and guidance from the God who speaks. This is how Paul describes this reality to a young pastor, Timothy:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

Let me be as clear and specific as I can be. Any “word from God” that we sense we receive should be tested against the trustworthy guidance and authority of the Bible. If the “word from God” contradicts the Bible, then it is not a word from God. Either we have misheard it, misunderstood it, or mis-assigned it to God (i.e., is coming from another source than God).

 


[1] This section is drawn from Dallas Willard, In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 92-105. That book was later republished as Hearing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999, 2012).

[2] Willard lists Balaam (Numbers 22:22-35), Gideon (Judges 6:11-24), the parents of Samson (Judges 13), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:6-13), Daniel (Daniel 9:20-27), Joseph (Matthew 1:20-25), Zechariah (Luke 1:11-20), Mary (Luke 1:26-38), the women at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:2-5), Peter (Acts 5:19-20), and Paul (Acts 23:11; 27:23-24).

[3] Willard, In Search of Guidance, 97.

[4] Willard, In Search of Guidance, 101-102.

[5] Willard, In Search of Guidance, 97.

Does God Still Speak Today?

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Working through a preaching series on the minor prophets, again and again I come across a phrase, “The word of the Lord that came to…”

That phrase appears more than twenty times in the minor prophets (at least 10 of those are in Zechariah alone!):

  • “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri” (Hosea 1:1)
  • “The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1)
  • “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai” (Jonah 1:1)
  • “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” (Jonah 3:1)
  • “The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth” (Micah 1:1)
  • “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi” (Zephaniah 1:1)
  • “the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel” (Haggai 1:1)
  • “the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai” (Haggai 2:10)
  • “The word of the Lord came to Haggai a second time” (Haggai 2:20)
  • “the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo” (Zechariah 1:1)
  • “Then the word of the Lord came to me” (Zechariah 4:8; 6:9)
  • “The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi” (Malachi 1:1)

Many times the word was unexpected, but it was always clear.

We see this throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, in characters like Noah, Moses, Hannah, David, Mary, Zechariah, Peter, and Paul. Again and again, we see these people having encounters with God that are clear, in which God clearly speaks to them and they are truly hearing from God.

This raises several questions for us about what it means to hear from God.  Over the course of the next week on my blog, I want to wrestle with a few of those questions as a way to engaging more deeply with God in a lively, dynamic relationship of faith. Here is the first question I want us to wrestle with today:

Can we hear God like the prophets and these many other characters in Scripture?  To put it another way: does God still speak to His people today as He did in Scripture?

This question immediately raises two more:

  • If no, why not?
  • If yes, how can we experience it?

So, let me do my best to walk through some answers to this question a little bit at a time.

Some would answer that question with a resounding “NO.”

  • No, God does not speak to us and we cannot hear Him today like the prophets and others in the Bible
  • The biblical characters are unique in a way that we are not
  • They received special revelation so that we don’t need to
  • The Bible is sufficient – it is enough – and we shouldn’t look for some additional revelation from God

But, I think that the answer to that question is YES.

  • Yes, God does speak to us and we can hear Him today in ways that are similar to the prophets and others in the Bible
  • The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is to a God who speaks
  • In fact, what sets the God of the Bible apart from other purported gods is that our God speaks, uniquely in words
    • Genesis – “And God said…” – God creates with words
    • Exodus – Sinai covenant and the Ten Commandments – God guides with words
    • Prophets – “The word of the Lord that came to…” – God corrects with words
    • Jesus – “the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14) – God is the Word
  • The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that God speaks and Hs people listen
  • Jesus Himself said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. ” (John 10:27, NRSV).
  • That is also true in the history of God’s people after the time of the Bible– the pervasive testimony of Christians in history is that God speaks to His people
    • Augustine hears God speaking to Him through Scripture and the song of a child[1]
    • Teresa of Avila, a 16th century nun, speaks of hearing God and receiving visions from him[2]
    • Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk, speaks of developing a conversational relationship with God in the midst of his mundane duties, like washing dishes[3]
    • In more modern times, 20th century English evangelical writer Joyce Huggett tells of hearing the voice of God[4]
    • John Piper, a renowned conservative evangelical preacher and author, tells of clearly hearing the voice of God on March 19, 2007, in a way that changed his life.[5]

Again, our first question was “does God still speak to His people today as He did in Scripture?”  The testimony of Scripture itself and the history of God’s people over time and in various places is affirmative. Our God is a God who speaks, and we, His people, can hear His voice.

This, of course, raises the question: what does it mean to “hear God,” and to that question we will turn tomorrow.


[1] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, VIII.29.

[2] Teresa of Avila, Autobiography and The Interior Castle.

[3] Brother Lawrence

[4] Joyce Huggett, The Joy of Listening to God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).

[5] John Piper, “The Morning I Heard the Voice of God,” March 21, 2007; https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-morning-i-heard-the-voice-of-god.