There once came a moment for me when, just like everybody, I desired to do something intensely but felt nervous and uncertain about the outcome. Like any sorry Christian, I turned to God and asked him to rubberstamp what I wanted, just to know it was okay to go for it. From reading the Bible I intimated that he was telling me no, but I continued to pray and struggle and press harder against his response, convinced that I was letting my nerves fool me into missing his true reply.
Then, while I was studying a passage from Charles Stanley’s daily readings in his magazine InTouch, the answer smacked me. It was as simple as a word. No. Immediately I felt the heaviness of my stubborn attitude. God had pointed out how my desires were blinding me to applying what I knew in my head—that his purposes were right and his truth ultimate. The fear I felt at having come so close to a foolish decision was matched only by the relief of knowing God had protected me from that choice and was even willing to shout at us if it meant our good.
Mulling this experience, I realized not just that God had responded, but that he had spoken. This answer was the voice of God, and I had heard it. In the popular imagination, hearing the voice of God is a phenomenon usually relegated to criminal schizophrenics on Law & Order. But though this voice was real and present, I knew I hadn’t hallucinated it because it didn’t manifest as an audible sound, or really anything that touched my senses. Rather, it was the force of God’s personality leaning on my own spirit—the sense of his truth combating and overwhelming my own version of reality. It was “Discretion will preserve you” (Proverbs 2:11 NKJV) vs. “You can have it all, just as you want it, right now.” It was words, not of my own devising, that appeared in my mind while praying halfheartedly for an expected answer.
From this treasured occurrence, I drew out three characteristics associated with hearing God’s voice that can help us discern when we can be sure he is speaking. I believe all of these traits are scriptural and that they are borne out both in the Bible’s narratives and in firsthand Christian experience.
While I firmly believe these truths to be the touchstones of listening to God, I would welcome any additional guidance or wisdom that God has revealed to you through your experience in prayer and seeking to hear his voice.
What do you do when God says no? What do you do when he takes something away from you?
Answering these questions for someone else is much easier than answering them for yourself. If somebody else is turned down for a job she wanted badly, or if she loses her husband, it’s emotionally easier for us to counsel her with God’s wisdom. God will turn all things to good! we assure her (Romans 8:28). Or we recite verses about love from 1 John 4, or simply tell her that God’s ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9).
But when it’s you losing the job or the spouse, suddenly that advice seems to melt. I have counseled people to remain steady in their faith before, but when I want something, I want it. “God,” I might pray, “surely you wouldn’t take that away. It’s something I’ve planned for and arranged for. Surely you want what’s best?” And that’s true, he does. But the best is not always what we want.
For a good while now, I have wanted to get some corrective eye surgery. I may be a candidate for it, or I may have to wait for a new product to be approved for my eyes. Every time my mind focuses on my flawed vision, a terrible ache of desire comes into my heart—a stronger desire, I’m embarrassed to admit, than I often feel for conversation with God. And if I don’t get what I want, now, in the way I expect it, then I dissolve into gloom, discontent, and rage. When we act this way, the thing we want or the thing we desperately clutch becomes more important than God.
Let me say this: When God says no or takes something from you, he is not doing so for spite or experimentation. He is protecting you.
Abraham, the father of the Jews, undergoes this kind of trial in Genesis. God promises to make a nation from Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 12:2). Abraham is seventy-five years old at this time (v. 4), but the promise of an heir is not fulfilled until he is one hundred (21:5). There’s nothing like waiting twenty-five years for a son to make that child incredibly precious. Imagine, then, his confusion and fear when God asks him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (22:2).
Most of us Sunday-school regulars know the rest of the story—how God stops Abraham from killing his son, how Abraham receives a blessing for his obedience (v. 18). But why would God ask this sacrifice of a man, only to relent at the final moment? God isn’t just testing the strength of Abraham’s faith. I believe he is taking a treasure from Abraham to free him from an idol.
Abraham sees Isaac as part of his bloodline, and also as a long-promised gift from God. We can barely fathom how important Isaac is to him—more important, perhaps, than the God who gave Isaac to him. I don’t question Abraham’s genuine faith, but all of us are weak to idolatries, to emotional reliance on certain people or objects for confidence that everything will be okay. Isaac is such an idol for his father. By taking Isaac away, God purges Abraham’s faith of dependence on anything other than God alone. Abraham, trusting that God will come through on his promise, “conclud[es] that God was able to raise [Isaac] up, even from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19).
As he did with Abraham, God may be protecting you from an idol. This protection may manifest in a loss, a disappointment, a refusal, a setback. This is a hard truth, never harder than when you are the one confronting it. But to let our hearts stray from God, to let anything other than God become so important to us that life is empty without it—God will not permit this to happen to a believer living in his will. This is love. It is a form of love we may not initially welcome or recognize, but it is love nonetheless.
“I pay my taxes like everybody should…”
“Just because I’m not perfect…”
“Well, I didn’t mean to shoot him…”
Maybe you have defended or justified yourself with one of the above lines. I have to hope you didn’t use the third one (I’m talking to YOU, Dick Cheney). It is comforting to externalize evil, to believe it an out-there force embodied in terrorists and abusive parents, while our families and friends are flawed but basically good people.
That belief is wrong.
There are no good people. Truly. And I’m not speaking on my own authority here.
Once, two very different people died.
The first was a grandfather in his seventies who was helping his daughter and son-in-law build a new house. After finishing his work one day just before Christmas, he promised to return and trim the windows. Then he went home to spend the evening with his wife. As he sat speaking to her, a heart attack snatched him out of the world. He was never conscious again, and died within a few days at the hospital. His shocked family missed him, but found consolation in knowing he had followed God and his life had been rich with love toward them and others.
The second person was a widow in her nineties. At one time she’d bought a new five-hundred dollar suit every week to wear to a country club. She called the employer of her ex-brother-in-law’s new wife to accuse the woman, falsely, of breaking up a marriage. When her younger sister died, she said, “I’ll not shed a tear over this one.” She teased her nieces and nephews constantly about the money she would give them. The money never came, of course.
“New Year, same world. But new garment, new birth—new person.” – Jesus (paraphrase)
Here are the top five recent posts from this year, according to page views. May your year be more than a new number on the calendar!
1. We're Made of Dirt
Let's remember, we're all Adams here. Excuse my dust, please.
2. An Inconvenient Messiah
God didn't bother becoming a man to fulfill somebody else's agenda.
3. God Gives the Increase
God, never just a cheerleader, is the wellspring of everything we can accomplish on our "own."
4. What's Write for You?
Define your own way of writing, from the chair you choose to how often you write.
5. God Had a Seventh Day - Why Not You?
Rest is vital to the creative process. No one demonstrates this better than God.
The last year of high school can batter the ego. In my experience, friends who had spent years bragging that they would attend college in a sweeter clime—somewhere warmer, somewhere things happen, anywhere but [insert hometown, USA]—sheepishly admitted that they would be going to State U due to a scholarship’s failure to materialize. Nothing wrong with State U; I know people who have picked that route and thrived. But when someone has been staring at that castle in the sky for too long, and telling everybody else how tall the spires are and how the rooms are furnished in velvet, the castle’s fall into the sea will leave a humbling bruise.
Maybe this will sound glib, but it makes utter sense to me that if God became a man, we would all nail him to a piece of wood and spit on him until he died. Hence, the story of Christ’s Passion. People have an urge to get God out of the way.
Christ is a master of the unanswerable question. When the Pharisees are preparing to kill him for rebuking their unprofitable customs, he asks, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone me?” (John 10:32, NKJV). Outrageously, he seemed to find no distinction between himself and God: “The Son of Man [Jesus’s name for himself] is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).
The Bible quickly scissors away a person’s self-admiration, a sense of having “made it,” a comfort with one’s comfortable position on planet Earth. For example:
When we die, what goes with us?
We leave behind our money, however much we line our coffins with it. Just ask the rich man in Luke 12:16-21, who used his bounty only to build new barns to house it, and was not “rich toward God.” So regardless of our earthly inheritance, we all die poor.
Our death is our own, and no one goes with us. So we all die alone.
Our clothed bodies remain behind to decay. “Is not…the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 NKJV). We will die and leave our clothes behind. So we all die naked.
In addition, Scripture tells us that God “knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” and that Adam was formed from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). These verses are a gentle, poetic reminder that all people, from Fortune 500 CEOs to the most wrung-out heroin addict in a soup kitchen, are made of dirt.
And there’s the sermon for today. We’re all made of dirt, and we’ll die poor, alone, and naked. “Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!” (Psalm 100:1)
In his 1908 book Orthodoxy, the feisty G.K. Chesterton described our search for truth and meaning as that of a man who sails from the coast of England, spending many days on the ocean, until he arrives back in the very village he left. At first he does not recognize the place, and it seems fresh and wondrous, untainted with familiarity. Then he realizes he has lived here all his life, and sees his home with newly appreciative eyes.
Chesterton equated the unappreciated village to church, to our view of God and wherever he chose to put us on Earth. I have detected this same veil in myself and other people, especially when it comes to writing. I once saw a Twitter profile whose author asked something like, “Why write about the boring mundane world when you can write about fantasy?”
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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