Hearing God speak

Brenda’s seen a job advert, and she’s wondering whether she should apply. Liam’s wife has just left him, and he simply doesn’t know what to do. Richard feels as though God has been distant, and he longs for a closer walk with him. Sophie’s just had to undergo tests at the hospital, and she’s bracing herself for bad news. Daniel’s getting married in a few weeks, and he want the best possible start to married life. Lucy’s stuck in the same old sin (again), and she aches to be free.

Six very different people, with six very different problems. Each feels that the Bible must say something that could help them. But whilst all six know a few Bible verses they can turn to in times of trouble, none of them are finding much help in their regular Bible readings. They do benefit from remembering that the Lord is their Shepherd, and that all things work together for the good of those who love God. But they each think there must be more in the Bible than that, and they suspect Joshua and Judges and Jeremiah ought to be as relevant and helpful John 3:16.

Brenda and Liam and Richard and Sophie and Daniel and Lucy all long to hear God speak into their lives, but too often they feel he is silent. Maybe sometimes you feel like that, too.

The good news is that God is not silent. He speaks today in many ways, but he speaks most clearly and authoritatively through the Bible. It’s living and active, and sharper than any double-edged sword (Heb. 4:12). If you want to hear God’s voice, it’s essential you read his Word. But reading is not enough, is it? Our six friends don’t just want to read the Bible, they want to apply the Bible to their lives. If that’s what you want too, then read on.

(1) Incline your ear

If God is going to speak into your life, it’s vital you’re listening. It’s a healthy habit to prayerfully reflect on a portion of Scripture every day. I’d recommend you do that in a morning – set the alarm 15 minutes earlier if you need to – and slowly read through whole Bible, books from both Testaments, over the course of several days or weeks. Let me explain why.

Twenty years ago I was struggling to understand whether sins I’d committed in ignorance were really sins. After several weeks of wondering, I came across Leviticus 4 in my daily readings – one of several chapters in the Bible that deal with that very topic. I felt that God had answered my prayers, and I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned from that chapter. I also remember stumbling across Psalm 73 when I was struggling because my non-Christian friends seemed to have an easier life than I did. God used that psalm to speak powerfully into my situation, and it remains one of my favourite passages of Scripture.

If I’d have known there was such a thing, I could have looked up both topics in a thematic index like the Dictionary of Bible Themes. But providentially coming across these passages in my daily readings reinforced that I hadn’t just unearthed information – I’d heard God speak. In this age of instant information, I often seek God’s voice without seeking him. That means I hear dim echoes of his voice, not thunder from heaven. I find truth, but not help.

You do need truth to live the Christian life, but you need more than that. And whilst you think you need some guidance on some particular issue that’s troubling you, it may be that God wants to teach you something entirely different first. Regularly and systematically reading Scripture reaches beyond finding information on your specific problem, and opens your heart to hear God speak on a topic of his choosing.

(2) Understand what the text says

If you want to hear God’s voice, you need to listen to all he says. Don’t be tempted to skim through a chapter or two of the Bible looking for a verse you can immediately apply to your own situation. Although the Bible was written for you, it wasn’t written just for you. So before you ask what the text says to you, make sure you’ve understood what it said to the first hearers, whether that’s the Israelites on their way to the promised land, the exiles in Babylon, or the Roman church hearing Paul’s letter. What was God saying to them?

(3) Find the principles in the text

Once you’ve considered what the text said to its original hearers, it’s time to draw out principles. The principles will be timeless and independent of culture. The same principles will apply to the ancient near east, the 21st century Western world, and everything in between. They’re usually deduced from the passage, not explicitly stated in it, so they need to be tested against the rest of Scripture. Don’t pursue a principle that you can’t find supported elsewhere in the Bible.

If you’re struggling to find the principles in the text, two simple questions will be a great help: What does this passage teach about God? What does this passage teach about mankind?

For example, part of my Bible-reading this morning was Joshua 2, where Rahab the prostitute sheltered the two spies before the conquest of Canaan. Asking those two questions reminded me that even in godless societies there are those who fear God and perhaps even long to serve him. The fact that the spies just happened to enter a house of someone so willing to help them, reminded me that God is in control of every detail of our lives. The fact that the faithful heroine was a prostitute reminded me that God welcomes all kinds of people – even the broken and the despised – into his kingdom. These lessons aren’t just for me, they’re timeless principles for every believer.

 (4) Apply those principles to your own life

Once you’ve thought through the timeless principles, the final stage is to prayerfully apply them to your life. Two principles I noted earlier were that even in godless societies there are those who fear God, and God welcomes all kinds of people into his kingdom. As I tried to apply those principles, I remembered I’ve been praying through how our church can reach people who may be broken or even despised. I also remembered that just yesterday I was reading the story of someone who, because of a long history of sexual sin, felt despised by many Christians. Yet one Christian took the time and care to befriend her, and eventually led her to Christ.

I don’t think I learned anything new in my Bible-reading today. But although I do sometimes learn new things, more often I find that God uses my reading to remind me of something I’ve forgotten, or at least something I’ve forgotten to apply to my life. Today, God used the faith of Rahab to remind me that the gospel is for the broken-hearted and to challenge me as to whether I really live that out.

But what does God want to remind you of? As you read the Bible and prayerfully consider how timeless principles apply to you, God will speak into your life. What a privilege, and what a joy!

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