Let’s admit the plain fact that most of us want to hear God’s voice for one simple reason: Guidance. We’re looking for an answer or some formula that will provide us with a clear choice between competing options.
But God rarely limits his guiding voice to a formula. Rather, like a master painter, he uses an artful mix of brushstrokes and palette, sometimes speaking, other times orchestrating, oftentimes through counsel, and frequently even in his silence.
God’s primary purpose is to deepen his relationship with us. He doesn’t give us a paint-by-number scheme for guidance. Each of our lives is his masterpiece, and each masterpiece is painted with different colors and varying brushstrokes. Let’s not limit God’s guidance to dime-store paint kits.
Let me walk you through a bit of God’s guidance in my journey. As you see God’s painting of my life, I hope you will recognize his brushstrokes in yours as well.
Most believers I know long for—and long desperately for—God’s voice, but we don’t hear his voice because we are unaware of the lavishness of his methods and moments.
Scripture says, “God speaks in many and diverse ways, but nobody notices (Job 33:14). We miss his voice because he’s not a paint-by-number God. He speaks in ways we can’t imagine.
Far too often well-meaning people describe conversations with God with unhelpful, misleading examples. Their exchanges with God sound like dialogues written by master playwrights:
I asked God: What should I do with my life? God answered: Are you willing to take a risk? I replied: Yes, but I don’t know what to do. God said: Move to Timbuktu.
When people tell these stories, we think, I never hear God so clearly. Let me tell you a secret: neither do they. At least not most of the time. Those stories are usually shorthand summaries of hours spent reading Scripture, reflecting on his words, praying, getting Godly nudges, and recognizing God’s voice in circumstances and through friends.
Because God speaks through his infinitely imaginative, artistic mix of methods and moments.
Many years ago, I lived in London with a bunch of friends, working in campus ministry. One of my friends spent a couple hours with Dr. John Stott, an internationally-known pastor with a church that also ministered to university students.
Dr. Stott and my friend discussed prayer. Dr. Stott confessed that his best prayer time is spent in thinking with God, reflecting on scripture passages, and meditating on eternal truths.
My friend argued that the best prayer is found in corporate worship, enthusiastic singing, exalting in the presence of God, shouting his praises, singing, dancing, kneeling, and bowing before the throne of God. We considered Stott’s “prayer” of reflection too intellectual, too shallow, too unenlightened, and perhaps unspiritual. We chuckled.
In fact, I’d say we snickered.
By the end of his life, Time Magazine identified Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the world; he had written over 50 books; and he had helped hundreds of thousands of people —probably millions. And we twenty-something neophytes snickered at his shallowness.
Thirty-five years later, I’m rethinking spiritual reflection—actually practicing it—and it is rich beyond belief. Stott was oh-so-very right, and I was oh-so-very wrong. Spiritual reflection is one of the deepest ways to connect with God that I’ve ever experienced.
I love to brainstorm, whiteboard, and creatively go after innovative ideas. I love doing this with friends when considering anything, so I am trying it with God. And I love it.
Spiritual reflection is connecting me to God, and I’m hearing his voice.
Two months ago I got pneumonia. It took me three weeks before I thought to ask for prayer. For twenty-one days I asked not a soul: not my family, friends, church, or wife. I didn’t even ask me to pray for me. Finally, in a burst of spiritual spontaneity, I asked a friend in a PS tacked onto an email, and he asked my church. In less than a week, I was feeling considerably better.
My 23 year-old mom on her honeymoon.
Coincidence? After all, I had also finally visited my doctor, then taken a course of antibiotics, and I had rested for three and a half weeks. That’s probably all it takes anyway.
Yet it left me convicted about my lack of prayer. I seldom initiate intercession. If someone else asks me to pray for them, I usually do so (often, though, with just a hasty word or two). Rarely do I have the idea to pray for someone else, as in, “Hey, let’s pray for your work situation that’s causing such angst.” The idea of intercession doesn’t cross my mind.
Last Wednesday, my email reader Outlook stopped syncing with my Gmail accounts. When I woke up, I noticed synchronization errors and tried to fix them. I spent the next ninety minutes googling the error message, and changing port numbers and encryption methods. Nothing worked. I restored all my original settings, and the same error message mocked me once more.
I chatted with my wife for a bit (mostly about my morning’s irritations) and headed back to my synchronization headache. On the way, I remembered that I’m trying to remember to pray for help. So I dashed off a quick prayer, God, I’m frustrated; please fix Outlook for me.
When I got to my desk, Outlook and Gmail were syncing great once again. Coincidence? Maybe.
I had a high school friend who was insecure, socially awkward, and overweight. He envied the skills (and good looks) of classmates; he vilified himself for his frequent social blunders; and he castigated himself for his shortcomings.
My friend, however, was in the top five percent of the honors class of a magnet, honors high school; he just never reached the top one percent. And he was the second chair trumpet of a nationally recognized orchestra; he just never made first chair.
Despite his many successes, he saw others do better and it discouraged him. My heart went out to him. We became friends, and in the lunchroom I listened as he told story after story of how students, teachers, and his parents misunderstood him.
His discouragement deepened into depression, and he finally sought a counselor. The counselor said his problem was self-hatred, and that he needed to grow his self-love.
Several years ago, I joined a local business organization. Their stated intention was to help business people do their job better; a kind of coaching through semi-monthly seminars.
At the opening and close of each session, we sang a song that went something like this: “Yes, I can do it; Yes, I can do it; I have a positive frame of mind.” (I kid you not—truth is stranger than fiction.) By the end of the evening, every face was aglow with expectation; and two weeks later, everybody needed another face-lift.
I also found their teachings to be less substance and more selling. Instead of nourishing tips on handling angry clients, I received frothy, double-shot lattes of motivational, positive thinking. The talks were inspiring but insubstantial; caffeine without fruit or vegetables. Or protein.
Then I began to wonder how close my worship-music experience paralleled that seminar jingle feeling; maybe a boost to my spirits to face another week, but mostly just a jolt of java.
Bear with me. Worshipful music is wonderful. But I began to examine the nature of worship. I asked myself, “What is the essence of worship? Does worship require music?”
I tried an experiment: I took a six month sabbatical from any form of worship music—personal prayer time, worship CD’s, and even singing during a church service—and I found I love it.
Song-free worship taught me how to worship better.