I was ten years old the first time I ever heard God speak to me personally. The new school year had just begun, and a new fad spread among my classmates, cussing.
I was raised in a conservative Christian home. At church, Sunday school teachers taught the Ten Commandments. They were vague about adultery so I wasn’t too concerned. They weren’t clear about coveting either, so I felt kind of safe.
They made up for their ambiguity when it came to cussing. Instead of an elusive, “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain;” they precisely taught, “Don’t swear.” And that meant, “Don’t cuss.”
One day, while playing schoolyard tag, I tagged my girlfriend Diane, and she shouted, “Shit!” I felt a horrific shock as though hit in the gut with a sledgehammer. Forty-five years later, I still feel that visceral punch and I can exactly picture the playground corner where Diane cussed.
Looking back it seems silly that a cuss could cause such a shock, but it did. I expected God to throw down a lightning bolt and burn her to an ash. The thought almost paralyzed me.
But not quite. I leaped backwards in case the bolt went wide.
But nothing happened
Nothing happened. Not one thing. The game of tag continued. No lightning bolt. Not even a firefly. The absence of lightening spooked me more than the cuss.
My understanding of Christianity was simple: God blesses good people and he punishes bad people. In my ten-year old mind, blessing meant being cool, and punishment meant being un-cool. But it didn’t happen. Instead, the cussing kids became cooler while the clean-speaking kids became un-cool.
The wicked flourished and the righteous were trampled.
I decided that God cannot exist. Oh, it took a week or so of watching the “wicked” flourish, but there was no doubt in my mind. God didn’t exist. It was all a cruel hoax.
The next day I unleashed the filthiest mouth of my age on the school. I said things even the wicked feared to say. They still harbored some fear of God—I knew better. I dropped “F” bombs like fall trees drop autumn leaves (and I didn’t even know what it meant). I was a poet in profanity.
At the end of that day I was in my bedroom and God spoke to me with a fierce, undeniable certainty. But all he said was, “Sam, I am real and you don’t understand.”
Above all else, God wants us to know him, but we mostly want to know answers, “Should I take this job or that job?” or “What can I do about my fears?” We want information; God wants a real relationship.
When God spoke to me, I was deeply moved, but not by an answer to “Why do the wicked flourish?” God didn’t even hint at an answer. I was moved because I began to know God. I actually heard him speak to me.
God always gives us what we most need, though not always what we think we most need. And what we most need is to know God. That’s why Paul wrote,
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8).
Before my first date with my wife, I knew a lot about her: she was a farmer’s daughter, she studied social work, she went to Hope College; and she was cute. But on our first date, over a glass of wine, she said she told me of a secret longing. And I fell in love.
Knowing about God just isn’t enough. We need to hear God from his own lips.
How do we hear God?
When I heard God as a ten-year old, it wasn’t through an audible voice. There was no handwriting on the wall (except what I may have crayoned), nor was there a burning bush or a levitating tablespoon. I wasn’t even reading the Bible. (I was an atheist.)
Yet something stirred in my soul. It was a clear as an audible voice and as powerful as a thunderclap. Somehow I knew God had spoken real words to me personally. There was an inner resonance, a quickening in my heart. And I knew it was God.
When the Emmaus disciples reminisced about their unexpected discussion with Jesus, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us.” That’s a better description of what happened to me. I experienced a voice burning in my heart. It thrilled and delighted me.
God is always speaking
When we learn to recognize that inner quickening, that burning in the heart, we begin to hear God speaking all the time:
- I was on a plane to New York, and the stranger next to me said something about Churchill. I heard God say he has a mission and purpose for me.
- I was at a retreat on Calling. I heard God almost shout that he loves me.
- I once watched the movie The Fisher King—a pretty dark movie—and I heard God say he sees me to the bottom and loves me to the top.
- I took a walk last week, and God interrupted my thoughts (about finances) to say that he longs for me to know him deeply.
And forty-five years ago, my girlfriend cussed, God spoke in the absence of lightening, and it changed my life.