"Why do you complain to him that he answers none of man's words? For God
does speak- now one way, now another- though man may not perceive it." (Job
Who does God speak to?
One of the biggest problems that most people (including myself) have with a "personal God" is that unlike 99.9% of other "personal" relationships, we do not seem to hear from God very often, if ever. This problem is only compounded when we get around some "super spiritual" person who says something like "Well, God led me to find the cutest outfit the other day. I was talking with Jesus and praying for all the lost souls in the mall, when He led me into the juniors section and told me to buy this pantsuit!" Well, maybe it isn't that bad (although I have heard people actually say things like this)... but there are those people who constantly talk about God leading them to do this or that, or that God told them this or that.
It tends to make you feel like: (a) God loves them and hates you, and that you will never be "good enough" to hear from God like that; (b) That they are big phonies; or (c) They future mental patients. I mean, how can they be any different from the rash of insane mothers we have had lately who kill off their children under "orders from God"? Let me tell you from my experience in that type of religious environment that none of the top three options are usually true.
Here's what actually happens. They are usually people who have had some type of experience with God's Spirit, in which they felt His presence and assurance in a very real and personal way. The experience was so overpowering and wonderful that, like any of us, they want MORE of it. But, God doesn't give out those experiences all the time, because if He did, we would want God for the experiences and not because He is God. Yet, they still REALLY want the experiences. Not only that, but they are usually in a Church environment that pushes those experiences on everyone, all the time. So, the social pressure of the Church, combined with the emotional pressure of wanting that experience on a regular basis, causes them to "manufacture" experiences of God's communication with them. In short, they so badly want God to speak that they confuse their own wants with God's voice. If they get a strong feeling, they say its God, when it is often actually them.
The problem of hearing God
They are not really crazy, or phony (well, at least not knowingly phony). They are simply people who had a good thing and want more. Like someone who over-eats good food, or watches the same movie over and over. I know, because I have been one of those people. I have wrestled and struggled in prayer and thought about how God speaks to me and how I know it is really Him, and not my own desires speaking in a surprisingly God-like voice. I have also wrestled with the problem of what happens when God does not seem to answer at all. What is He doing? Where is He? Is He even there at all? I still wrestle with all these things. So, if God does not seem to speak to you like that (or in any way that you can understand), do not feel bad. You are in good company.
For most people, the problem of relating to a "personal God" is twofold: First, God doesn't seem to answer and change things when we tell Him what we really need. Second, God does not seem to "return our calls". He does not speak to us. Basically we get upset that God does not DO what we want or SPEAK in a way we can understand when we pray to Him.
Getting beyond "gimme"
So, lets handle these problems in order and look at the problem of what God does when we pray and tell Him what we need. And, as we do this, let us start with some frank honesty. When we ask God for what we need, doesn't that usually mean "what we want" instead? I know that is true in my case. I ask God for all kinds of things that I think I cannot live without, only to find out that I could live quite fine without them. In fact, if I did get what I thought I "needed", my life would actually be worse now. Let's get real. Think back to the things you thought you "needed" five years ago. Now think about ten years ago. If you are old enough, think about your "needs" two or three decades ago. How many of those things would you still consider "needs"? How many were just "wants"? How many of these things were actually BAD wants: things that would make you more selfish, more unloving, more unhealthy if you actually got them?
My "needs" 15 years ago included a girlfriend to make me "whole", success on the football field to make me "important", and a dozen other possessions I thought I couldn't live without. I was a slave to codependency and the American rat-race for success. If I got all that I "needed" then, I would be a far worse, more selfish person today. I think if most of us were honest about our "needs" we would come to the same conclusion. Like God says in the movie Bruce Almighty: "Since when do people have a clue what they want?" God is our Father who knows what we need more than we could ever fully understand, and can provide for us better than we could ever provide for ourselves... if we would just trust Him.
Temper tantrums at God
Most of our anger at God for "not meeting our needs", and not "doing anything" when we pray, is little more than a child's temper-tantrum for God not giving us what we want. We need to get over being grown-up two-year-olds, and realize that 99% of the time God gives us what we need when we need it. He does not give us everything that we want, just like good parents do not feed their two-year-olds candy and ice cream every time they want it. If the only food we ever gave them was what they wanted, they would be hyper, angry, depressed, malnourished, and growth-stunted. So, we make them eat good meat and vegetables, even when they lay on the floor and throw a tantrum. We even give them disgusting tasting medicine when they are sick, knowing that it is the only way they will get better. God is just like that. He gives us what we need, and often that is the exact opposite of what we want. Not only that, but sometimes our "medicine" to heal our souls is painful and disgusting. But, it does go down better when don't throw temper tantrums, but trust Him instead.
Now, there are times when it appears that God really does not give us what we need. People die, suffer horrible accidents, and undergo abuse and injustice... and God seems absent. Chapter two handles why God does not seem present in some of life's toughest problems. There other times that our lives are so messed up and painful, that God seems like He hates us and is cursing us, and that is discussed in chapter six. If you are suffering from either of these two types of problems, then I encourage you to go to these chapters after reading this one.
Vending machine or Person?
Right now, lets go back to how God answers (or does not answer) our requests. Have you ever had someone who was always asking you to do something for them? Every time you saw them, they asked for a favor or for money. Every time they called, you knew it was only a matter of time before they hit you up for something else. In fact, they only time they called or saw you was when they wanted something. Most of us have had someone like that in our lives: a mooch, a beggar, a sponge, a freeloader. How did they make you feel? How did you treat them after a while? Probably, like myself, you began to feel used and began avoiding them, knowing that they had no interest in you as a person, but only as a "vending machine".
I think many times our prayers make God feel like that, and cause Him to simply avoid us, because the only time we talk to Him is in "gimme prayers". There is no relationship. We do not care about Him as our Father, or Savior, or Lord, or Companion. We only care what He can give us. I believe that God simply stops answering after a while when we only pray "gimme prayers". He knows our hearts. He knows if we really Love Him or just love what He does for us. We can fake people out some of the time and suck up to get what we want, but God has our number. How God answers our prayers is in direct proportion to the relationship we have with Him. The more we Love Him, the more likely He is to answer our prayers AND the more likely it will be that we are actually praying according to His will and His priorities, instead of according to our own selfishness. Like Scripture says: "God works all things for the good of those who LOVE Him and who are called according to His PURPOSE".
Actually, this is a good lesson to learn for communicating with ANYONE, not just God. If we communicate with people just because we want to take from them, and not give ourselves to them and care for them also, then chances are our relationships will fall apart on a regular basis. No one likes to be in relationship with someone who is hopelessly self-centered, and that includes God. I think that is why Jesus Himself gave us a model of prayer that includes nine distinct aspects, only one of which is praying for what we want. It is called "The Lord's Prayer" or the "Our Father" (depending on what clan of the Christian tribe you are in).
The Model Prayer from the Model Pray-er
Here is the prayer and what it means:
Our Father in Heaven: Focuses in on our relationship and intimacy with God, and our identity in Him. He is our Father, and we are His children. We are children of the King of the Universe, and we have the right to boldly come to His throne and sit on His lap. And when we do, He shares His Love with us, and holds us, and draws us near to Himself.
May Your Name be made Holy: Focuses on celebrating who God is and what He does. Someone's "name" is their "reputation", and what they are known by. Making something "holy" means to set it apart and make it special. Thus, we spend time setting apart God's reputation and identity and making Him special. In short, we worship, praise, and thank Him for all He is and all He does.
May Your Kingdom come: We ask for God to rule as King over all the organizations and people on the Earth. We pray that His rule of Love, peace, and harmony will spread through every nation, every church, every workplace, and every home in the world.
May Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven: Asking for God's Kingdom to come is a global request for Him to rule in the world at large. Asking for His will to be done is a personal request for Him to rule in you and for His will to be done (and not yours) in all you think, say, and do. In this, you give Him all that you are doing or plan to do, and ask His will to be done through you.
Give us today our daily bread: This is where we do the "I need" and "gimme" prayers. Our daily bread is what we need to get through each day, and in trust, we ask God to provide for our needs. As our Father, God WANTS to provide our needs (and even many of our wants as well... because He loves us and really does want to see us happy). But notice that this "gimme" prayer is only after establishing an intimate relationship with God.
Forgive our debts: This focuses on confessing to God all our debts: debts are when we should give God something, but we don't, so we have something we still owe Him. In fact, we owe it to Him to Love Him above all things and to Love others (who are created in His image) as we love ourselves. When we don't do this, we deny God and harm others, and this creates a debt. But, we can never correct our wrongs if we do not acknowledge them, therefore an important part of out relationship with God is confessing our wrongs, and trusting in Him to forgive us, heal us, and help us overcome them.
As we forgive our debtors: After we have asked God to meet out needs and forgive our debts, it is time to do the same for others. This is called "intercession", where we pray for others, and forgive them, and ask God to forgive them as well. I think this phrase opens our entire prayer to pray for those people who have hurt us, those people who we care for, and those who are in danger or trouble. And just like God acts and answers when we pray for our own needs, He also acts and answers when we pray for the needs of others.
Lead us out of temptation: This phrase asks God to lead us or guide us. This is where we ask God to make it clear where He wants us to go, and what he wants us to do, so that we do not get off track and fall into "temptation".
Deliver us from the evil one: Finally, we ask for God's protection from the forces of evil that seek to destroy us and all that God has created. We name those things that threaten us, and those evils that try to destroy us, and we claim God's protection and power to overcome them, just as Jesus overcame the grave in His resurrection.
This is not merely a rote prayer that must be followed in exact order every time you pray, but it is a guideline that tells us what the major aspects of a good relationship with God are. Notice that it includes not only "I need" or "gimme" prayers, but also prayer for intimacy, praise, submission, confession, intercession, guidance, and protection. I try to pray all day and make my life a living prayer, and I use these elements to guide how I talk to God and what I talk about all day long. Once a day, usually in the morning, I try to pray through the entire prayer, stopping at each phrase, meditating on it, and praying through its meaning. It is a very simple practice that has changed my whole relationship with God. Every day, this practice centers me and fills me with peace, joy, love, and focus for the rest of the day. I would encourage anyone to follow this practice or something like it.
Traffic lights and prayer
So, what happens when we pray like this? What does God do? If we really have a relationship with God, and are no just treating Him like a cosmic vending machine to get what we want, then how does God answer when we truly ask for Him to meet our needs? Well, I am going to use a way over-used, overly simplified analogy to explain how God answers our prayers. God's answers are kind of like a traffic light. God can answer green, and give us what we ask for. God can answer red, and say "no" and "stop" to our request. Or God can answer yellow, telling us to wait for a while. God's three basic answers to us are Yes, No, and Wait.
Let me illustrate. There have been times that I have asked for something that seems to have been God's will for me, and then wham! It happens. Prayer answered. Everything works out much like I thought it would (or should). But, in all honesty, this rarely, rarely happens. And even when it has happened, there has usually been a long yellow light telling me to wait until I was ready for it. For instance, my wife is an incredible woman and a true gift from God, no question about it. I was sure that she was supposed to be my wife when I was 19 years old. I prayed for her to be my wife day in, day out for years. It took 6 years, breaking up several times, and going through a failed marriage with someone else who I was a bad match for, before I finally met her again and got married. My "green light" came only after a series of heart-breaking "yellow lights". But our marriage is so much stronger now because of all the trials we have both been through than it would have ever been if we were married at 19.
There are other times that God flat out says no. Red light. Stop, turn around, go another way. My football scholarship to a "big time" school and playing on national TV was a big, heart breaking red light for me. But, because of that red light I was humbled enough to accept Jesus Christ and come into a relationship with God through Him. I have been fired from jobs, only to wind up at much better places. In fact, I cannot think of a red light that God has given me that didn't turn out to make me a better person. Just remember, God's answers to our requests are not just yes and wait. They can be no too. It may break our hearts, but if you follow Him in trust He will lead Him down a road more wonderful and challenging than you could ever imagine.
But, sometimes it is not even that easy to tell what is really a green light and what is really a red light. God sometimes says "yes" to give us something so that we find out that we never needed it and don't really want it. How many times do we think the "grass is greener on the other side", only to get on the "other side" and find out the grass is actually brown and dying (it was only spray painted green to lure us away). We want to be in a certain social group so we can be "cool", only to find out that everyone in the group is a jerk. We switch companies or get a promotion to make more money, only to find out that the job is miserable. We dump a boyfriend or girlfriend to go to another, only to find that our new love is selfish and high maintenance. Sometimes God lets us get what we want to teach us that we didn't really want that in the first place. Not all that glitters is gold.
So, lets talk about the "yellow light". What is God doing when He tells us wait? He is almost always telling us that we need to stop and learn something important before He answers our prayer. He will either teach us something that we need to know in order to fully appreciate the gift He will give us, or He teaches us that what we really desire is not that gift at all. But, how do we hear what He wants to teach us? How does He speak? How can we hear what He is saying?
Do you really want to hear a voice from heaven?
Most people say they want God to speak to them directly and tell them exactly what He wants them to do. But, do we REALLY want God to do this? Do we really want a thundering voice from on high to speak from the clouds with angels ascending and descending to say "Nate! Pick the Turkey sandwich! The burger is too high in triglycerides! Do this lest the wrath of God be revealed in your heartburn! Thus says the Lord!"
That is not how I want God to speak to me, and I don't think that is how most people would want God to speak to them as well. We do not want Jesus following us everywhere like a backseat driver, looking over our shoulder and judging everything we think, do, and say. I know this is some people's concept of God, but I do not think it is Biblical nor Realistic. Do not misunderstand me. I want Jesus to be with me wherever I go and I want to constantly be filled with His Spirit, but I want to choose His ways because I Love Him, not because He is my slave master or personal trainer.
You see, if God revealed Himself to each person directly all the time (say, if Jesus popped into the room like a genie at any given moment), two things would happen: First, it would destroy freedom and Love. When God's presence is so apparent, there is no room for faith and trust anymore. We have to do what God wants because He is standing right there, like a man with a galaxy sized gun threatening us with His power if we did not do what He wants. We would only do what God wanted because we had to, not because we want to. Our Love for God is not true Love if done out of compulsion.
Second, it would destroy community. We would no longer listen for God to speak through other people, because we would only pay attention to God directly. We would no longer rely on anyone else, because we would only rely on the God right in front of us. In fact, I bet we would not pay attention to, or care about, anyone else at all. We would be so consumed with serving the God right in front of us that we would forget about everyone else. God has made the world in such a way that we hear Him speak mainly through other people in community. The idea of a "personal-Jesus-genie" totally isolates everyone and destroys the whole need for community. This is not to say that God does not speak directly to people today, but this is to say that when God speaks to us, it is almost always to help others through us, not just to meet our selfish needs.
Tuning in to God's frequency
So, if God does not speak to us by appearing like a Jesus-genie or speaking from the clouds, then how does He normally speak to us? I will start by saying that I think that God is always speaking to us in all ways, through all things, to draw us into Himself. I do not actually believe that there is time that God is NOT speaking to us, just like there is never a time when there are not radio or TV signals going through the air. In fact, I do not believe that out prayer to God is speaking to Him as much as it is responding to what He has already said in the world all around us.
The real question is whether or not we are tuned in to hear the wavelength God is speaking on. Most of us are not listening on the right wavelength. We try to listen to God on the channel of selfishness, expecting God to say what we want when we want Him to say it. In fact, we tend to turn the station if we do not like what He has to say. Most of the trick of listening to God is to believe that He is always speaking to us, and to tune in on HIS wavelength, nor ours.
But, fortunately God has given us a tuning device to fund His wavelength. It is Scripture, which we call the Bible. Scripture is the first and foremost way that we learn to hear God because it tunes us in to His frequency and sensitizes us to His voice. He has "inspired" Scripture by sending His Spirit to fill the human writers of the Bible, over the course of around 1500 years, to write 66 separate books which are all uniquely, amazingly, on a very similar wavelength about God and His will for our lives. In fact, there is no other tool given by God which "tunes us in" to His frequency better than Scripture, so long as Scripture is used correctly.
Does the voice of God measure up?
To switch metaphors, Scripture is the ruler by which we measure our experiences of God. The reason we use a ruler is because when we are left to our own devices, we do not accurately measure things. If you ask 100 people how long a meter is, you will get 100 different answers. One of these answers will be more correct than all the others, but no single answer is likely to be correct without having an actual meter-long ruler to measure by. In fact, even if the whole group got together and said "we all agree that Susie's meter is closest to the true meter", they could all still be wrong. It might actually be Tim's. But the only way we know that is to measure by an actual meter stick.
Scripture is that measure for us and God. Lots of people have different ideas about what God is, who God is, how God acts, and what God requires of us. There are whole religions and whole cultures that are dominated by certain ideas of God and His activity in the world. Some of these ideas are closer to the Truth than others. One of these ideas is the closest to the Truth and gives us the most accurate measure of who and what God is, and how He acts in the world. According to Christianity, this is Scripture, and it has been validated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, along with thousands of miracles and archaeological finds... but you can learn more about that in section two of this book.
God's most-wanted picture
To switch metaphors a final time, Scripture is like a picture by which we identify God. It is like God's "mug shot". By looking at it, you can see what God looks like, and then learn how to identify Him in the world and in your life. But, like a mug shot, you do not learn to identify someone by just looking at his right ear or his left eyebrow. You have to look at the whole picture to learn how to identify God. The Bible, more than anything else, is one vast story of how God has worked in the world and revealed Himself. Some people cut up that story and treat it instead like a dictionary, or a textbook, where you can flip to a certain place and pull a verse or two out of context, and say this is what God is. That is like trying to find out what someone looks like by only looking at his eyebrow or earlobe.
To learn to see and hear God in your life, you have to soak in the Bible. You have to look at the whole picture and see the broad outline of how God is at work in the narrative of the ancient people of Israel and in the life of Jesus and then in the story of the early Church. Only when you start seeing the whole picture of Scripture, taking it in like some vast awesome landscape, will you be able to use it as a "ruler" to measure what you think God is saying without falling into error.
But, Scripture was never given to us as just a "me and God" book. Rather, it was written by dozens of authors, all of whom lived in different communities at different times. Each book in the Bible was written to meet the needs of a certain community with a certain need. The Bible is, more than anything else, a "us and God" book. It is a book given by God for us to discuss, wrestle with, and meditate on as the family of God.
God speaks through His Family
This brings me to the second major way we hear God speak to us: through His people, His community, the Church. When the Church is made of God-loving people who take Scripture seriously and wrestle through it together, they are a great help to understand where God is leading. If you want to really understand Scripture and what God is saying to you, I would tell you to go ask people who truly love Jesus, and who live in ways that are wise and loving to others. More than anyone else, they will help you really hear God.
With that said, I must say to beware of Churches and people who claim to be "Biblical", and yet do not live in the Love of God. People like this usually take their own ideas and their own agendas and force Scripture to say what they want it to say in the Name of God. They often do this by saying that certain parts of the Bible were not really inspired by God, and are no longer useful for "modern people". They simply edit out the parts of Scripture they do not want to listen to in the name of "modern criticism". Or, they might rip certain verses out of context and create an outline which they fit these texts into, so they can make the Bible say what they want it to say. This is called "proof-texting", because they rip out certain texts to "prove" what they say. Beware of "proof-texters", "modern critics", and those who do not live the Love of Christ. You are not likely to hear God's voice through them.
But, when you find a Church body filled with people who passionately Love God and who are dedicated to hearing Him speak through Scripture, you are likely to hear God speak through them. And I do not think that we should limit ourselves to only those alive right now, but we should also be in conversation with all of those through history who have loved Jesus and learned how to follow Him. You see, the community of the Church is not just limited to those on Earth right now, because all are alive to God.
Rather, there are great saints, thinkers, writers, and mystics from the last 2000 years that have gained significant insights on how to do life with God as revealed in Scripture. If we do not also listen to these wise voices of history, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past (anyone for crusades or witch hunts?). We are also impoverished because we do not learn from the great insights the Holy Spirit has given them. That is why it is also good to be involved in a Church that is not only Biblical and Christ-centered, but also Traditional in the sense that they are rooted in our spiritual fathers and mothers who have gone before us. We believe that God's family is not just a democracy of those who are alive right here, right now. We believe it is also a "democracy of the dead", where we give God's people before us a vote in our decisions as well.
I guess what I am saying here is that if you want to hear God speak to you, you cannot do it alone. You have to do it as a part of the Church, the family of God. True, God may speak to you apart from the His family, but what He speaks to you is always given to benefit the whole community, not just you alone. If you hear from God, but it does not mesh with how the Church through time has read Scripture and heard God, it is very doubtful that you are hearing anything but your own desires. God speaks to us, so that we may speak to His people. God blesses us to be a blessing to others, not to horde the blessing for ourselves.
Experience, Emotion, and Reason
Alright, it is clear that God speaks through Scripture and the Community of the Church. But does He speak in any other ways? Yes, at least three more that I can think of: Experience, Emotion, and Reason.
First we will look at experience. The Bible tells us that God "works all things for the good of those who Love Him", and that when dice are cast, their result is controlled by God (see Romans 8.28; Proverbs 16:33). This means that there is no luck or chance. God is at work in all things and is trying to get our attention in all things. When opportunities come along and doors open for us, God is trying to tell us something. When trials come along and doors shut on us, God is trying to guide us. By our experiences, we know that God is trying to get our attention. Sometimes the reason God is trying to get our attention is obvious. Other times we may need Scripture and Community to help us understand.
But God also uses our own emotions and feelings to guide us as well. Sometimes God leads us by our own deep desire for something. Scripture tells us to "delight ourselves in the Lord and He will give us the desires of our heart". This means that if we Love God first and foremost (as I have said above), then our hearts will begin to be in line with what His will is, and we will truly begin to desire the things of God. But, if we expect God to answers us to meet our own selfish desires, this will probably not happen.
This is hard to describe because this form of guidance is not "rational", but usually speaks more to our emotional or artistic side. We find in Scripture and in the writings of teachers and mystics that God speaks in unusual and sometimes shocking ways. Sometimes this enlightenment comes through a "gut feeling" that something is either really good or really bad. Other times it comes through an inner voice or conscience where God seems to whisper to us, telling us what is right or wrong. God may use bodily sensations to get our attention, such as sudden unexplained onset of chills, warmth, pain, relaxation, or alertness. Yet, we cannot just assume these feelings are from God. They may not be. They might just be indigestion. They might be from the evil one. We must test all things and hold to what is good, by studying Scripture and wrestling through what it says as a community of Christ's disciples.
The final way that God guides us is through reason, meaning our common sense or simple logic. By our common sense we take what we have learned from Scripture, Community, Experience, and Emotion and organize it all. We compare one to another and order it in a way that makes sense, without contradiction (because God doesn't contradict Himself!). If we cannot put it all together and make sense of it with reason, this simply means that we need to have faith, wait on God, pray more, study Scripture more, and rely on those wise people God has put in our lives. Understanding God's guidance is not usually a one-time "aha" moment where everything fits, but a lifetime journey in faith. By relying on God to steer our lives, we will gradually understand how to use the gifts He gives.
Super-natural guidance from God
I want to end this by saying that when we have faithfully and lovingly followed God with all our heart, mind, and soul, God often does give us gifts of direct communication. He does this through visions and miracles. Often those to whom God gives these special gifts have been in a deep, regular, consistent relationship with God for years or even decades. It is just like a human relationship. The more loving and faithful you are over a long time, the deeper the relationship goes and the more you share with one another. When we seek God steadily over long periods of time, God shows Himself in some amazing and miraculous ways.
Some people are given gifts of healing, whereby they are able to pray with great confidence for people to be healed, and then they are indeed healed on a regular basis. Some are given dream visions, in which God speaks to them in highly symbolic ways through pictures and visual metaphors. Others are given waking visions, in which God does the same thing without going to sleep. Still others are visited by angels or the presence of God directly, and given messages from Him. Many report hearing God speak in their conscience, giving them wisdom and knowledge beyond their abilities. This seems to happen to me on a regular basis. And yes, God even does speak from the clouds on some occasions (check out Matthew 3:17 and 17:5). These are called auditory visions, in which people actually hear God speak to them just like a person would speak.
All of these things still happen, but they are somewhat rare and they happen to people who have a deep, honest, consistent relationship with God. But even for these people (myself included) the way that God normally speaks is through Scripture, Community, Experience, Emotion, and Reason. In fact, what God says in visions and miracles is never outside of, or contradictory to, what God says through more "normal ways".
But, again, communicating with God is just like communicating with other people. If we do not spend lots of time to practice and master hearing God speak to us in "normal" ways, then we will never be able to hear Him speak to us in "special" ways. All relationships are based on regular practice in learning how to better communicate with one another. A relationship with God is no different. If you want to learn how to hear Him, start listening regularly and intently to the means He has given you. You will hear Him speak to you if you listen hard enough and intently enough to the right sources. If you listen, He will speak.