Sunday, 30 January 2011

Have We Really Heard the Voice of God? (Part 2): The Pressure of Circumstances

Photo Credit: Jerome Saint-Clair
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“And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli” (1 Samuel 3:15). “The Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me” (Isaiah 8:11).

If you're at all like me you've probably often wondered if God is trying to say something through some specific circumstances. The Bible is full of examples of God speaking to different individuals at different times. Does God still speak to us the same way today? Does God still speak to you and me as He did to the boy Samuel and to the Prophet Isaiah? The answer is both yes and no.

Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (NIV). I take that to mean that today, in these last days, everything that God desires to communicate to you and to me, He does through the Lord Jesus. Everything pre-Calvary has its fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is the answer to every question that can ever be asked about God and His nature and His working in the world. There is no faith or religious question that cannot rightly be answered by and in Jesus Christ. All the prophets throughout the Old Testament ultimately point to Jesus. In truth, we would not be wrong if we chose to end this discussion right here and now. Jesus is the answer, period! Nothing more needs to be said.

Still, there is a wealth of lessons in the Old Testament that we can and should apply to our spiritual pilgrimages today. If that were not so, then we would be justified in tearing out, or at least ignoring, the entire Old Testament. God said, “For I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6 – ESV). At the very least, this speaks of some continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. In my devotional reading this morning, I came upon two such passages of Scripture that once again made me wonder, Have We “Really” Heard the Voice of God?

Isaiah said, “For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me and warned me not to walk in the way of this people” (Isaiah 8:11 - ESV). Oswald Chambers calls this “strong hand” the pressure of circumstances. This raises an interesting question: do we discern the hand of God in our circumstances, regardless what those circumstances might be, and do we hear His voice in those events, or do we only see the occurrence of the event itself? What do we do when circumstances press hard against us? Do we get frustrated, depressed, or worried? Do we think that we've been somehow been victimized or wrong done by? Does the world suddenly become unfair? Or can we learn from Eli's instruction to the boy Samuel and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9 – NIV).

Young Samuel was under a lot of pressure when the “strong hand” of God came upon him. God told him what He was about to do to the house of Eli (1 Samuel 3: 11-14) and for Samuel the pressure came in that he was afraid to tell Eli the vision (verse 15). Just as in Samuel's case, the pressure for us too might be that we don't want to hurt the Eli's in our lives. This is an admirable quality, to be sure. The question becomes, however, should we or should we not reveal to another that which God has revealed to us? The interesting thing is that God didn't actually tell Samuel to tell Eli the essence of the vision; Samuel made that decision for himself. Likewise, it may be that God's revelation to you or me actually hurts someone else, but it is also equally possible that God, in His sovereignty, has ordained that hurt in that individual's life in order to teach him or her some divine lesson. If so, then it would be wrong for us to try and prevent that hurt.

In Isaiah's case, the pressure of circumstances came in the call of God to not walk in the way of the people around him (Isaiah 8:11-22). Now that is hard! It is easy to walk like everyone else walks. However, the minute we start to take a different path than the world, well look out! Suddenly we're not so popular any more. Suddenly we may find ourselves friendless, alone, disliked and maybe even threatened. Not a fun place to be. Whenever someone has a “genuine” conversion experience, they will find themselves with the pressure of circumstances which, on the one hand, calls them to be set apart for God (holy), and on the other hand, to walk in the comfort of the world. Then, to top it all off, often when we've experienced that “genuine” conversion experience, God will time and again test our resolve to follow Him. Abraham was tested when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-2), Jesus was tempted (tested?) in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), and you and I are often tested in areas involving finances. In such a test, how do we respond when the bill collector comes to the door or when we go for long and extended periods of time without suitable employment, or perhaps, no employment at all? Oh, the pressure of circumstances. It is not a fun place to be.

There is a fine line between needing money and loving money. Often it's a blurry line at best that is not easily distinguished. The Apostle Paul said, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10 – ESV). I would argue that people who love money don't believe in the providence of God. Such people become amateur providences, essentially saying “I” have to do this or that to secure my future. Sure, God can use money to provide for our needs, but He is not limited to it. There is a host of other ways that He has blessed and cared for His children. Remember, our Heavenly Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10). If we really stopped to look back and to think about it, I'm sure we would all see God's hand of providence at numerous points in our lives. So why do we tend to worry so much about it? Because we're still in the world and held captive by its system of societal grids and acceptable norms.

So when the pressure of circumstances comes upon us, what is the one big lesson to be learned in the midst of it? If it is a test of God, what is the subject matter of that test? To be sure it could be many different things, but the one central theme I believe is centred on how much do we trust God to be our source and providence. Therein lies the question and dilemma. We call ourselves Christians, a word that literally means “follower of Christ” or perhaps “little-Christ,” but when the rubber hits the road, just how closely do we follow? God will test the genuineness of our profession of faith.

We started by saying that everything to do with faith has its answer in Jesus, so it is appropriate that in closing we consider something Jesus said on the subject. He said:
“You can't worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you'll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can't worship God and Money both.
“If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more than birds.
“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion – do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers – most of which are never even seen – don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with 'getting', so you can respond to God's 'giving'. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. 
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things [the pressure of circumstances] come up when the time comes. (Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 6:24-34 -The Message).
Does that sound like a pat answer to the pressure of circumstances such as unemployment and financial woes? Maybe, but if so, could it not be that the reason it sounds like a pat answer is precisely because we are still looking at things through worldly eyes and not God's eyes? Remember, Jesus said it, I didn't. I'm simply quoting Him.

One more question (and no excuses and no buts): Do we believe Him and take Him at His word? Hmm, I wonder.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Have We Really Heard the Voice of God?

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Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine” (John 12:30, ESV). “He who has an ear, let him hear...” (Revelation 2:7, ESV).

I was reading in John 12:29 where it says that “the crowd that stood there and heard it [the voice from heaven] said that it had thundered” (ESV). This caused me to wonder, how many times aren't we just like that crowd in that we also often misinterpret the voice of God for simply natural events? Similarly, how many times haven't we read that certain things will happen as “signs” of the approaching end of the world as we know it, for example Matthew 24:6-7, and we don't see the association between these events and God's sovereign plan for the end of the age? We simply chalk them all up to natural events.

But God says that they are “signs” to us, much like the voice from heaven in John 12 was also a “sign.” Strange how we usually don't seem to see, or we stubbornly don't want to see, the connection between the “sign” and that God is through that “sign” saying something to us. This is not just a phenomenon of the non-believing world. Even many so-called Christians are really quite worldly in that they tend to listen to and believe the world's explanation rather than listening to and believing God's explanation.

The purpose of any “sign” is to inform. This is as true in the natural as it is in the spiritual. Sometimes this “sign” is simply for general information or interest whereas other times it's designed for more serious things and brings with it penalties and consequences for disobedience. For example, a highway “sign” at the edge of town can inform me of things like the town's population, which may be of interest, whereas the posted speed limit “sign” at the edge of the same town, while not particularly interesting, will certainly bring penalties and consequences (speeding tickets / fines, etc) for failure to obey.

God's “signs” serve the same purpose; they can inform, and they can also bring penalties for failing to obey. To ignore God's “signs” is not only foolish, but it is also akin to wickedness. Think about it, how foolish to listen to and trust in man, but ignore God when He is trying to communicate with us! The Bible says that God “laughs” at our foolishness (Psalm 2:4; 37:13; 59:8; Proverbs 1:26). It's almost like God is saying, I can't believe that they can be so stupid! What more does God have to do to get our attention? The Apostle Paul reminds us that “we will all stand before the judgement seat of God” (Romans 14:10, ESV). God will have our attention then for sure! How sad that for some of us, it will then also be too late, as each of us then has to give an account of ourselves to God (Romans 14:12).

So here's the question. Was that just another thunderclap just now, or was it the voice of God speaking to us? Was that just another insignificant earthquake that woke us from our slumber last night, or was that a “sign” from God of something greater? When the news reported recently of a northern nation flexing its muscles and threatening war on its southern neighbour, was that just the normal way of the world, or was it also a “sign” from God related to the time of the end? Have we made the connection between these events and the voice of God, or is it all simply noise and thunder to us? Likewise, one cannot help but wonder what else God is saying that we've also turned our deaf and lethargic ears to.

Have we “really” heard the voice of God? For the majority of us, the answer is unfortunately, “No, we haven't.” The majority of us really don't have an ear for anything but ourselves. God forgive us.