Thursday, April 30, 2015

Who Can Hear the Voice of God (Part 1)

On April 1, 1996 I was returning from the Detroit area to West Michigan (Muskegon) with a van load of teenagers who had gone with me to Michigan Christian College (Rochester College) in Rochester Hills, Michigan for the day.  I had spoken at chapel that morning, and then later that I day I spoke in one of the Bible classes.  It had been a full day and everybody was talking excitedly about the days events and about how much fun it was to see some of their friends and so on.  I was just outside of Portland, Michigan when suddenly the car fell silent, a miracle itself if you have ever made a road trip with a van full of teenager’s before, but in the sudden quiet I heard a deep male voice call my name.  Startled I looked around the van to find everyone sound asleep.  I checked the radio only to find it turned completely off. A moment later I heard the voice again, this time much louder and clearer. I was stunned. My response was shaky at best but I inquired of the voice as to what was wanted of me.  I was then very clearly told that the Lord wanted me to get out of debt over the next six months, and then it proceeded to tell me how I could do it, right down to exact figures of how much to pay on what debts, and even how much to sell my van for.  As soon as I had taken down all the information the teens all simultaneously awoke and began to chatter in the same way that they had been speaking previously.  I was bursting on the inside to get home and share this plan with my wife.  I had no sooner arrived home than I told her the whole thing, which was met with a little skepticism. Dawn had been working on a plan to get us out of debt for sometime, and the quickest she could see clear of the debt was three years. How could we possibly do it in six months?  As I lay out the entire plan Dawn was somewhat speechless, in part because I had exact dollar amounts of what we owed.  Understand that at that time I had very little interest in our finances, and I did not know what all of our bills were, let alone any dollar amounts. In her quizzical response she asked me what the password was for the Quicken program;  I didn’t know. She then began to re-crunch the numbers and told me, you must have heard this from God. In the months that followed it was a really hard thing to do.  Honestly, I didn’t really want to do everything the Lord told me to do (like see the van) and in the end, because of my delay in doing some of those tasks, it took more like eight months to get completely out of debt, but we did it.  Had I not heard so directly from the Lord I probably would never have involved myself so deeply in our finances, nor would I have done anything so radical to get out of the debt, but getting out of debt the way the Lord had instructed me was what cleared the way for us to be able to walk away from my job, just over a year later, to begin the ground work on a church plant.  

When I explain those events to others some have asked me if it was an audible voice? You know, I am not sure, it seemed so but there was no one else who heard it.  What I can tell you is that if it was an audible voice that it was the only time God's voice has been audible to me. I have heard God's voice many times before in other ways, and after that event, but not the same way. Sometimes I hear more clearly, and other times ever so faintly, but what I have discovered is that the degree of clarity by which I hear his voice usually is directly proportionate to the task I must tackle. I don’t mean how hard the task is, some tasks like watching my youngest son Matthew go through heart surgery were more difficult, but rather the difficulty in my being able to follow through. It was not really a hard decision to have Matthew operated on, even though it was a painful decision, the alternative was to let him die. However, getting me to engage in the finances, be disciplined in my spending, and make the hard calls that I didn't want to make, and did not absolutely have to make . . . that was hard, but with Matthew I really had no choice, the circumstances dictated my response.

For some, what I just said is no big stretch, but for others that sounds too incredible.  Most of the time when we talk about God speaking to people we want to know what could be so special about that person that God would speak to them. Or even why God spoke to them but not to us. Let me address those two things. What is so special about the person who hears God’s voice that they get to hear God’s voice? Then second, Why do some Christians hear God’s voice and why do other Christians feel they do not hear his voice?

What’s So Special About The Person Who Hears God’s Voice?

The very nature of the question says more than the question asks. Our assumption is that God speaking to someone automatically makes them somehow better than those around them. In fact, one of the greatest turn off for many people is when they see someone who is a hypocrite saying that they have heard from God on something.  They immediately think how could that be?  For some of us that’s enough to write-off the whole idea of hearing God speak to anyone.  Just the other day I heard someone ask, what was so special about the Jews that they became God’s chosen people?  The answers to those two very different questions are really the same.  God does not arbitrarily choose people. God chose the Jews because Noah, in Genesis 6, chose God before the flood, and again in Genesis 9 after the flood. Then one of his son, Shem, chose God (Genesis 11) and then in Genesis 12, Shem’s Great, Great, Great, Great, Great grandson Abram chose God. Abram was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was the Father of Jacob, whom God renamed Israel, and he chose God also. And to each of those men, and their families, God made promises to them based on their decision to keep choosing God in the same way that he chose them. (Not that they did it perfectly.) In fact, they did it quite imperfectly, as we all do, but it is better to choose God imperfectly, then to not choose God because we can do that perfectly. Right? Just to be clear, God did not just look down one day and pick a favorite nation or race. In fact, the Bible is quite clear on this topic in Romans 2.11, speaking of God’s relationship to the Jews as his chosen people, as well as his relationship to those who are not Jews, and it says, “For God does not show favoritism.”  God chooses those who choose him.

So then in John 8.47 it says very clearly in reference to hearing the voice of God, He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God (NIV84). Now with that verse some of you who are Christian's might feel as if you just came under a heavy judgment, but don't judge this yet. The point is that God speaks to his people, and that one must belong to Jesus Christ to hear God's voice. 

That brings us to our second point. Some of you may be thinking why haven’t I heard his voice? Without much explanation you might get one of two responses. One would be to question if you have ever really been saved (and for some people that could be a legitimate concern). As Rick Warren is fond of saying, "Sitting in a church house does not make you a Christian anymore than sitting in a hen house makes you a chicken" but don’t camp out there.  Another common response is to reject the idea that God is speaking today.  In other words, to let a subjective experience (or lack of experience) dictate what you believe. So if you think that you have never heard God’s voice then you conclude that God does not speak today. So the pendulum swings to two extremes? Consider these other options.
First, every Christian can and does hear the voice of God. You may need to get still and quiet long enough to listen but every Christian hears from God, but there isn't any second class Christians. Also, it is not an issue of maturity, or even some kind of second work of grace either. Every Christian church teaches Christians can pray, meaning they can speak to God, and expect that when you talk to God will get guidance from God. That’s why Christians pray! Christians expect that God is going to respond. Prayer for the Christian is not just some kind of mental gymnastics or meditation technique. The effects of Christian prayer are not just psychosomatic.

Christians pray expecting God to respond, because God cared enough about them to that Jesus died for them, and they assume that if God loves you enough to send his Son to die for you that God also loves you enough to talk to you?  Prayer is not just a formula, or method to manipulate God. Prayer is intimacy and relationship with God.  The point is that many Christian’s do not hear from God simply because they have never been taught to identify God's voice. There are other issues that can interrupt people hearing from God, we call those problems, SIN.  

Sin is a common problem in not hearing God. Just like those who do not know God are separated from God by sin, and therefore cannot hear his voice, sometimes Christian's wallow in their sin and can’t hear God either (God knows the proud from afar. 1 Peter 5.5Being prideful in our sin, or being religious, keeps us at a distance from God. Consider the nature of God, Jesus became a man, and was born in a stable with the stench of animals, to reach us. God who had every reason to be prideful was/is humble. In contrast, if you look at pride, all the way back to the garden when the serpent told Eve, 'eat this and you will be like God'  nothing deafens a believer like pride.  Author, C. S. Lewis, once said, the hardest part about pride is that it is easy to see in others but to discover it in ourselves it must be revealed to us.

Another issue that can make believers spiritually hard-of-hearing is how they treat others. In 1 Peter 3.7 it warns the men to treat their wives with respect so that nothing hinders their prayers. The same can be said about how believers treat any human being. No one is exempt, male or female, from treating others with respect. 

So what if you are a Christian, and you are not wallowing in sin, but you still don’t think you hear God’s voice? The next few articles on my blog are going to be about helping you, so make sure to follow along through this series of articles on hearing the voice of God, because the primary reason some Christians do not hear God’s voice is because they have never been taught. Even Jesus' disciples had to ask Jesus, to teach them to pray. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Kingdom Life

One of the central tenets of Jesus' teaching while he was on the earth was that the kingdom of God was coming, and that the kingdom of heaven was near. The word in our New Testaments that we most often translate into English as kingdom literally means reign or rule. It is the picture of God as being sovereign (king), and that his ruling and reigning usher in true justice, righteous government, peace on earth, and freedom from sin, disease, sickness, and death.
For the Jews in Jesus' day, it was heavily tied to the hopes of the promise land, that a man, a messiah would come, and he would reign as the very vessel of God, bringing justice and righteousness to government, and that he would conquer all of Israel's enemies, and rescue them from the gentiles and their governments. As it turned out, his gracious offer was not limited to the Israelites but it was to be extended even to the gentiles, so that the promise God made to Abraham, that his seed would be a blessing to all people, would come to pass (Genesis 22.18). What is essential to our understanding of the kingdom of God is not location, or time, but rather the effect of God's kingdom. Choosing his rule, and submitting to his authority (reign) not only transfers our loyalty, and guarantees our ultimate redemption, but it sets us on a new course of living in this world, in step with kingdom of God living rather than kingdom of darkness living. Meaning, we start living in this world as if God's kingdom was already fully established, obeying God rather than men, and living victoriously rather than as those who are on the defensive. So then taking our eyes off of the world, what would it look like for you and me to live life victoriously?  
Living a victorious life means doing what is right without worrying about what others outside of the church are not doing right. (Not that I don't care but it does not control my actions or cause me to worry.) It means being stewards of God by fulfilling our original command to care for all of his creation (1 Corinthians 10.26). It means loving my neighbors, and not just those I like (Luke 6.32), and it means protecting the defenseless (Isaiah 1.17).
My favorite part about that message is that it's not defined by lists of do's and don'ts, it's not just rules and regulations of religion and restriction. Instead, its the invitation to do life better. Now that is something worth inviting your friends and family to experience; The kingdom of God is good news.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Spirit of Christmas

When it comes to holy day celebrations I love the Old Testament feasts and my family and I have taken time to celebrate them and to teach our children, but Christmas is a time when our whole society stops to celebrate. So we do, too. I love Christmas. Over the years numerous people have asked me about the validity of celebrating Christmas, to which I respond that God can redeem anything, and without Jesus’ coming as a child we would not have had his life example, his sacrificial death, and his resurrection. So I think Christmas has merit. As for the materialism and excess, well, that is up to you. You don't change the holiday by railing about materialism or Roman sun god celebrations. You stop the spirit of materialism in your own house and you put the focus on Jesus.

Since the time our children were small we taught them that Christmas wasn’t about getting stuff, we didn’t make it about a season of coveting, so presents have always been secondary in our house. We sleep in and then we get up and eat a big breakfast together. We spend time reading the scriptures about Jesus’ birth and the passages about the coming of messiah and we sing. Then someone takes a special stocking off the tree that contains my grandmother’s rosary and tells the story of our family heritage of faith. They remind us of the pastors, nuns, church planters, and faithful Christians that make up that heritage of faith. Then we give Jesus a gift (since it is his “birthday”). We tell each other about how we intend to grow in our faith over the next year. When that is all done, sometime around noon we finally get to our presents. We don’t spend a lot of money either. We save up all year, so that we can pay cash for Christmas and we don’t charge anything because it is about Jesus not materialism. We watch each other open every gift. We celebrate with every person and the receiver of the gift hugs the giver after each gift is given. The gifts are mostly practical and it takes a long time for all of that loving and gratefulness to be expressed. That’s why we need that big breakfast! Then we clean-up the tree mess and head to the kitchen to prepare a feast. It's not spectacular but it has put Christ into our Christmas. 

My kids still tell me that Christmas is better at our house than their friends house. They didn’t miss 5 a.m. present grabs; they got the best gift of all, growing up with a Christ-centered Christmas. You don’t need to do what the Hester family does. You make your own traditions. But   let’s be the joy-givers in the holidays, not the joy-killers. Let’s not rail about what isn’t good enough, or what is too materialistic, or too secular. You be the Christmas spirit you want to see in the world around you.