For my dear and inquisitive friend: My feeble attempt at explaining the sometimes unexplainable.
I grew up afraid of the silence inside me. I had read all the stories in the Old and New Testament of people being approached by God. There were burning bushes, prophetic dreams, appearances of angels, and miracles of epic proportions that guided people so clearly. When I was struggling, I prayed for the same. But mostly I heard silence, crickets chirping. Other times I heard everything. I was awash in voices like the time I visited an open-air market in Mexico. Voices hawking their wares, persuading me with colorful baubles, calling me over from another stand. The din was all-encompassing and confusing. This all-or-nothing approach to listening for God’s direction became paralyzing in my faith journey.
Over the years, there were so many things I wanted to do. Places I wanted to visit, people I wanted to help, ideas I wanted to grow to fruition. Sometimes I would begin, hoping to feel the tug of purpose, only to abandon it at some awkward halfway point because it felt like an empty endeavor. Other times, I clearly felt a nudge, but I allowed the noise to drown it out. I was unfocused, moving but without direction. I watched others. Some confidently followed unlikely, amazing, even terrifying journeys that seemed like they must be so clearly spoken by God. Others performed tasks of talent and tenacity yet seemed void of God’s calling, filled instead by a self-involved desire to be known. And in the middle of that spectrum, I teetered, faltered, wondered, and worried: How would I know what God was asking of me?
Sometime in my adulthood, at a pinnacle of my personal faith, I began to feel a shift. I prayed with confidence, I listened intently, and I practiced patience. And once in awhile, I felt it. It was like the first fluttering kicks of pregnancy, clearly moving within me from a source outside my own body. Usually, the voice was quiet, but forceful. Hearing it, after years of floundering, I felt compelled to act. The acts were often small, hardly even self-sacrificing. They felt sometimes silly- outside of the comfort of acts I would perform unbidden. Other times, it felt strong, a hand on my back guiding me out in faith. But there are still stretches of silence and wildernesses of words. And somewhere in the midst, there is still God. I think of Moses, after the burning bush experience. How he must have hoped that he would see God so clearly again. But I am sure God spoke often in the silence, leading Moses in the everyday, not only in the miraculous.
Other times, in the threatening din of voices, I wonder if I will hear the wrong voice. So often, the voice is simply our own, justifying our choices and our behaviors, without any inhabiting of a calling at all. Other times, the voices are others: good people giving good advice to promote good works. And also in that cacophony is a devilish voice, rarely leading us astray through overt evil, but through deception and indecision and questioning of faith that turns us, sometimes in a stroll, other times in a sprint, off the path God has laid out ahead.
And in my unscholarly answer to my friend, I would give this guidance from my own experience. When you are listening for “The Voice”:
- Test it. Read Scripture. Ask a trusted mentor, a pastor, a friend. Remember that although they will not necessarily be able to tell you if something is God speaking, they can at least help you flesh out the calling. Ask for proof: like the fleece Gideon leaves on the threshing floor, ask God for validation. Judges 6:36-40- Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.
- Test yourself. Our own desires often cloak themselves as “callings” if we are not careful. We must always be alert to our own desires, prejudices, and fears. If you feel like moving to Africa will fulfill some emptiness within you, you might be attempting to fill a hole in your own power. Pray continually. Be honest with yourself and those close to you. Find ways to lay down your own desires in your daily life so you are ready for the sacrifices that might be asked of you.2 Cor 10:3-5 (NIV) For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
- Trust it. If you are walking in God’s will, immersing yourself in prayer and Scripture, and actively looking for ways to serve others and show God’s love, He will reveal opportunities for you to be used. Be confident. Romans 12:2 (NIV) Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.