Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice

This week I had a couple of conversations with some LDS folks. They talked about praying that God will reveal to us that the Book of Mormon is true. The evidence they believe they receive is evidently a “burning in the bosom” or other physical sensations. I think there are obviously issues with that, but the conversations I had with them about God speaking to us about the Book of Mormon and about prophets and the role of the Holy Spirit did get me thinking about the issue of hearing and recognizing God’s voice.

God speaks to people in a variety of ways. For me, its usually a conversation that takes place over time. That’s probably because I’m slow, and he has to work harder than you’d think to get my attention. I’ve never had a burning bush encounter, or a visible encounter with an obvious angel. I have had lots of conversations with God, though. During the course of the relationship that I’ve had with him over the years, I have learned to discern his voice, if I’m listening.

In my conversation with the LDS guys I described it in terms of John 10. Verses 4 and 5 say “When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” I’ve found this to be true in my life. When God is speaking to me, I can tell its God’s voice.

This isn’t a burning in the bosom or a tingling feeling. Its the voice of someone I have known for a long time. I know his character. I know the things he says. I know what he sounds like. Like a sheep that knows the shepherd’s voice, I know my Shepherd’s voice. Other than saying I know it when I hear it, that’s really hard to describe. Its analogous to knowing the voice of a family member in a more mundane sense. I know my children’s voice, and they know my voice. If I call them in a crowded room, they can pick my voice out from the other voices that make up the background noise, and its not just because I have a funny voice.

Of course, my kids aren’t always listening for my voice, or listening to me when I talk to them. And of course I’m not always listening well to God either. God’s voice isn’t usually loud. He doesn’t yell, but he is persistent. When he called us to start taking in foster children he spoke to us about it every day over the course of weeks. We’d turn on the radio and they’d be talking about foster care. We’d get on the computer and there’d be something unexpected about it there, an email or an off topic posting in a forum. Each time God would nudge our hearts. “It’s me,” he would tell us, “and I want you to do this.” Its not just in the series of coincidents that is God talking, although that is certainly his doing in these situations. He uses events to get our attention, to start us thinking about something, and then he says what he has to say about it.

A number of years ago I was on my way to visit somebody in another town for a few days. I stopped at a mall on my way. While I was walking into the mall a homeless guy said something to me. That’s not very unusual, but God nudged me and said I should talk to him. I was in too big a hurry, though, so I brushed off the encounter and went to do my shopping. When I came out of the mall later I used a different door, and the homeless guy was there. He asked me for some money for a bus, and again God told me to actually stop and talk to the guy. I gave him fifty cents, but I didn’t have time to talk to a homeless person. Instead, I hopped in my car and drove to the next town where my friend lived. On the way there I had quite an argument with myself and God about why it was ok not to stop and talk to the man. When I got off the freeway at my destination I stopped at a convenience store. Who do you think stepped off of the bus? Finally I gave in and actually took the time to have a conversation with him. I don’t think God was telling me what to say to him. It was just “Stop, talk to him.” We talked for a while about a variety of things. Some of it significant, most of it not. I ended up giving him some clothes I had brought for the visit, since it was cold out. I don’t think that was the point though. I don’t know what that guy needed from me, if anything. I know I needed to learn to listen, learn to act on what I heard, and be willing to stop and talk.

I’m not a prophet. I don’t hear the voice of God like in stories about prophets, or voices in my head. But I have a relationship with my Lord, and we talk. Often when God has something to say he says it in Scripture. I’ll be reading some passage and something will pop out that I haven’t ever seen quite that way before. The Holy Spirit reminded me of that passage in John 10 when I was praying about my talk with the LDS guys and the Book of Mormon. Many times he talks through other people. He speaks through the message at church, or something someone says in a Bible study. What he says to me isn’t always what the speaker thinks they are talking about, but he often speaks in unexpected ways through people who are following him.

And I know I’m not alone in these experiences. I’ve heard other people talk about their conversations with God, and there isn’t anything special about me in this regard. The Holy Spirit is alive in us, and he is active, and he does speak. And truly, his sheep know his voice.

This morning I was listening to last.fm while I worked. I do that just about every day. It isn’t always last.fm, but today that’s what it was. My library on last.fm has 216 artists. It doesn’t really play them randomly. It has some way of deciding which tracks it will play. On some days it plays the same one several times through a day. This morning it played Sara Groves song “When the Saints” several times. I like this song, but I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention. The third or fourth time it played it (with a different song or two in between each time), I really noticed it. I didn’t put much significance in it, but I noticed. Then it reached the point where she sings “I see the young girl huddled on the brothel floor” I burst into tears. It was totally unexpected. I’ve heard this song before. It hasn’t had that effect on me. There wasn’t any warning that this time was going to be different. But this time the thought of one of my little girls being in that situation popped into my mind, and God said, “They are all my little girl.”

I don’t know yet what God has to say to me about the girl huddled on the brothel floor. I went and found my wife in another part of the house, and I told her about it. Again, I broke into tears, which is really unusual for me. Things don’t usually hit me that way. She prayed with me, and I’ll keep listening to what God has to say. I know he’s been reminding me lately that our house is his. He might have something to tell me about foster care again. Or maybe its something else entirely. I’m looking forward to finding out, but with some nervousness as well. A lot of times when God really speaks in ways that take me out of the routine he’s got something that really knocks holes in my comfort zone.

But what I really wanted to say here is this: God speaks to us. The Holy Spirit is active in our lives. He is here now, speaking to each of us in a soft but persistent voice. He has stuff he wants to do in our hearts, people who we wants to touch with our hands, things he wants to say with our voices. Its important that we listen to him. Its important that we pursue him, that we are deep into our Bibles, deep in continual prayer, walking in fellowship with other people who love him too. That way, through a relationship with him, we will learn to hear his voice, and distinguish his voice from all of the other voices that clamor for our attention. Some of those voices intend to deceive. It is important that we can discern the voice of our Shepherd, so that we can avoid the traps of those who would like to steal us from our Master.

“I am the good shepherd, ” Jesus says in John 10:14-15, “and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”

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