Listening to God

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 11:3 (Autumn 1993)

Listening to God

Evangel 11:3 (Autumn 1993)

Christian publishers are now turning down manuscripts on ‘spirituality’; the Christian public having been saturated by the books that have poured forth almost unabated in recent years have now turned their attention to more recent ‘fads’. Nevertheless, the entail of the earlier interest is still with us and there is still a widespread emphasis placed upon the need to ‘listen to God’.

  This call is, at its most basic, almost a truism. It ought to be axiomatic that a believer has fellowship with his or her maker and saviour. However, all too often the phrase is used in such a vague and ill-defined way that it is doubtful whether that which is being encouraged has any biblical basis whatsoever as such believers are being encouraged to engage in dubious and (at worst) potentially dangerous proceedures.
  It would seem that we can speak of ‘listening to God’ in at least three different ways. They are as follows:

i) listening without the word. This form of listening encourages a form of spirituality which has close affinities with eastern mysticism and certain elements in medieval Christianity. Essentially this ‘listening’ is undertaken by means of ‘emptying oneself’ of all other thoughts so as to have access to the ‘word’ which ‘comes’ direct from God. It has, of course, a considerable appeal since it offers the prospect of intimacy and accords with the subjective and existential spirit of the age. It fails, however, to provide any biblical warrant and opens the door to deception and even occult influences. It is very doubtful that such ‘listening’ should ever have a place within evangelicalism!
ii) listening in the word. By way of contrast, this would seem to be the essentially evangelical and biblical way of ‘listening to God’. Prayerfully and carefully the child of God reads and meditates upon the Scriptures. As their truth is correctly perceived and personally applied, so the believer is brought into an encounter with the one who speaks in the Scriptures. A personal encounter with God in his word takes place as his voice is heard; as the Puritans used to say, ‘God is revealed in his word by the Spirit’.

As this relationship develops it is possible to speak of a third form of ‘listening’ which never supplants listening in the word but grows out from it. This is:

iii) listening within the word. Precisely because God is personally encountered in the word, it follows that a deepening relationship with God (through a deeper knowledge of his word) produces within the humble and obedient believer a knowledge of God and his ways. This has (at least) two consequences. The first is that the believer often, almost instinctively, knows what God is saying to her or him in a particular situation (as, for example, when seeking guidance) having learned to know how God thinks. Familiar with his ways they can discern his purposes now! Secondly, there is now some objective reference point to judge the ‘still small voices’ that arise within the soul.

This last form of listening cannot exist apart from a deep knowledge and encounter with God in the Scriptures. Hence it is here described as ‘within the word’ since it is fostered by and judged by the Scriptures.

  Thus, evangelical listening cannot escape from being radically biblical. To ‘hear’ with a closed Bible is almost a contradiction in terms!
 
  The challenge of this conclusion must not, however, pass us by. It is surely a failure by evangelical leaders to live out the biblical model for ‘listening’ that has, in part at least, created the confusion and the sense of dryness which has prompted sincere believers to look to broken cisterns. Those of us, in particular, who preach must seek to minister in such a way that our listeners are made conscious that in engaging with the text we have encountered God and have come from his presence to draw others into fellowship with him. And when pastoring God’s flock, we need to ensure that they are led to the Scriptures and are conscious that our ‘advice’ is drawn from a reservoir which taps deeply into the knowledge of God and his ways which is found in the Bible.

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