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.

Hesed: the lovingkindness of God in Hosea

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In the purposes of God, Hosea’s life was a message to God’s people about the ways God would show love to His people. With Hosea’s life as a reference point, God tells the people He will relate to them like a faithful and loving husband relates to his wife. In particular, God will steadfastly love His people, even though they have become like a wife who strays in her heart and actions. This is how Hosea describes that love, speaking on behalf of God to His people:

“I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.” (Hosea 2:19-20)

The love of God is undeserved and extravagant. God’s love is beyond our understanding and enduring.

In the midst of those verses there is one little word that I want to give more attention to in this post. It is the word translated as “love” here in Hosea 2:19, and it becomes a theme throughout the prophecies of Hosea. That word is, in Hebrew, hesed. It is one of the most significant words in the Hebrew Bible. Hesed speaks both of the reality of God’s character and the ideal of His people’s character.

It is sometimes translated as ‘love’ or ‘steadfast love’ to convey the persevering love, tender affection, and ongoing care one person has for another.

It is sometimes translated as ‘mercy’ to convey an undeserved kindness or passing over of deserved judgment.

It is sometimes translated as ‘covenant faithfulness’ to convey the loyalty of one partner to another in promises made. Hesed speaks of fulfilling the promises fully in action and attitude.

Hesed is the sort of thing we see in the best of friendships, in the most-enduring marriages, in athletic teams that band together to achieve a goal, in soldiers who stick together through hell and high water, and partnerships in business or non-profits that attain their highest goals while upholding honorable relationships.

In Hosea 2, we’re told that God’s hesed is so great and strong that He will not ultimately forsake His people but will faithfully love them forever and loyally care for them based on the promises of His covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David. Even though Israel is a faltering and weak partner in those promises, God will be faithful. In fact, God is saying that because of Israel’s inability to exhibit hesed, God will pick up the slack, so to speak, and bring it all to fruition because He is a hesed sort of God. He is merciful. He is faithful. He is loving.

God shows us what true love is like, what faithfulness is like, what mercy is like. It begins with Him and it changes Israel – and all of us who encounter God.

Perhaps you know what it is like to be loved with an enduring, tender, faithful love. Perhaps you have had a friend who has stuck with you in difficult times. Perhaps you have had a family member – a daughter or son, a father or mother, a brother or sister, an auntie or uncle – who has been there for you when no one else has. Perhaps you have experienced unwarranted mercy from a colleague at work, a teacher at school, a business partner, or neighbor. All of these experiences of love, mercy, and faithfulness change us. When you have that on your side, it helps you stand up again, get going, and feel supported in whatever may come.

So, too, when we encounter the love, mercy, and faithfulness of God, it changes us. The story of Hosea begins, as we even explored last weekend, with the powerful love of God.

God’s love – his hesed – is so strong for His people that He will do whatever it takes to recapture them with His love. And when we begin with that love, mercy, and faithfulness of God it should change who we are and how we live.

Hosea, part 2 [God in the Ruins]

God in the Ruins Series GFX_App SquareThis past weekend at Eastbrook, we continued our series, “God in the Ruins: The Message of the Minor Prophets,” by looking at the second part of Hosea, chapters 4-14. The challenge of preaching a message on eleven chapters is that you really have to choose which way to go and what to focus on.

Based on the message I delivered the previous week with my wife, Kelly, I focused in on themes of hesed in Hosea. Hesed is a difficult word, appearing five times in Hosea, and is a major theme throughout the Hebrew Bible. Notoriously difficult to translate with precision, hesed has a range of meaning including steadfast love, covenant faithfulness, and mercy based on the context.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series on the minor prophets here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities to connect.

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Hesed Prayer: inspired by the prophet Hosea

Almighty God,
You have loved us first
with an everlasting love,
showing us what love truly is.
You have shown us great mercy,
preeminently in the gift of Your Son, Jesus Christ,
who lived among us, died on the Cross, rose again,
and now eternally intercedes on our behalf at Your right hand.
You have invited us into loving relationship with You,
both in our daily lives now
and unto eternity as Your bride.
Because of Your hesed
Your steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness –
make us people of hesed,
living in love and loving others,
receiving Your mercy and showing mercy,
held in Your faithfulness and living faithfully,
until the day we see You face to face.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.

Worship and the Idolatrous Heart: Spiritual Harlotry in Hosea

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One of the pervasive themes in Hosea, chapters 1-3, is that God’s people have become like a promiscuous spouse through their idolatry. Like a harlot seeking after other lovers, God’s people turned to other gods, seeking good things in them as lovers, even though God is the source of every good thing they have.

This longing for other lovers shapes the way we worship, in particular what we are looking to find in the worship we offer. Worship that arises from a spiritually wayward heart, from the Baal worshiper, is self-focused and looks more to the satisfaction of our own desires than meeting with the Living God. To encounter the God of the Bible in worship means the displacement of ourselves and our desires from the center.  It means we let God be God, speak what He wants to speak, and shape us the way He wants to shape us. This theme echoes throughout Scripture, as Eugene Peterson points out in his book The Jesus Way in a chapter on Elijah and the encounter with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18.

‘Harlotry’ is the stock prophetic criticism of the worship of the people who are assimilated to Baalistic forms (Jer. 3:1ff.; 5:7; 13:27; 23:10; 23:14; Ezek. 16 and 23; Hos. 1:2ff. and 4:12; Amos 2:7; Mic. 1:7). While the prophetic accusation of ‘harlotry’ has a literal reference to the sacred prostitution of the Baal cult, it is also a metaphor that extends its meaning into the entire theology of worship, worship that seeks fulfillment through self-expression, worship that accepts the needs and desires and passions of the worshiper as its baseline. ‘Harlotry’ is worship that says, ‘I will give you satisfaction. You want religious feelings? I will give them to you. You want your needs fulfilled? I’ll do it in the form most arousing to you.’ A divine will that sets itself in opposition to the sin-tastes and self-preoccupations of humanity is incomprehensible in Baalism and so is impatiently discarded. Baalism reduces worship to the spiritual stature of the worshiper. Its canons are that it should be interesting, relevant, and exciting – that I ‘get something out of it.’

[From Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 110.

Hosea’s family: biography, allegory, parable, or something else?

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One of the key interpretive issues in the book of Hosea is whether the account of Hosea’s family – his marriage to Gomer and three children – in chapters 1 and 3 is based in true events from the prophet’s life or whether it is a prophetic parable or allegory with a teaching purpose yet not based in real-life events.

James Luther Mays, in his commentary on Hosea writes, “Disagreement about the nature of this family narrative is as old as the interpretation of the early Church Fathers” (Mays, Hosea 23).

Claude Mariottini, with whom I studied the book of Hosea in seminary, catalogs the different views on Hosea’s family life, and the proponents of each view, as follows:

  • Inconclusive – The prophetic symbolism behind the marriage makes reconstruction impossible (Gerhard von Rad)
  • Historical – The marriage is an actual experience in the life of the prophet: Gomer was a prostitute before marriage (C. Hassell Bullock and James D. Newsome)
  • Proleptic – Gomer lapsed into prostitution after marriage (Walter Harrelson)
  • Cult functionary – Hosea married a sacred prostitute (Theodore H. Robinson)
  • Idolatry – Gomer’s harlotry was spiritual unfaithfulness to God (Robert H. Pfeiffer)
  • Gomer was not Hosea’s wife but only a concubine (Thomas Aquinas)
  • Literary device – Hosea’s marriage was only a literary device to convey a message (Hugo Gressman)
  • Vision – This marriage never occurred, but was only a vision or dream of the prophet (Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg)
  • Parable – The marriage is only a parable to illustrate the sins of Israel (Jerome and John Calvin)
  • Allegory – The marriage is only an allegory invented by Hosea to illustrate the love of God (various Jewish rabbis)
  • Drama – The marriage of Hosea was a stage play (Yehezkel Kaufmann)

With all of these various views presented, the case could be made that at one level it makes no difference to the interpretation of Hosea which view we hold. However, I find James Luther Mays illuminating here. He writes:

Is the story an allegory whose only reality is the meaning, or do the marriage and births represent actual episodes in the life of Hosea? The majority of recent commentators agree that the latter is correct….The story reports the real. And yet it is not, indeed cannot be, approached as though it were biography. The interest is not in Hosea and the experiences of his life, and perhaps it was the recognition of this which led to the allegorical approach before prophetic symbolism was properly understood. There is a severe concentration on the divine word through the prophet’s family life….The narrative is kerygmatic, not biographical….The details of Hosea’s family life are hidden behind the word-function of the narrative.

As Mays suggest, Hosea’s prophecies in chapters 1 and 3 brings together real-life events, while presenting those events through a theological lens so that a specific message from God might be communicated.