Four (and a half) thoughts on hearing from God

What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to?  And if you’re hearing it, how do you know its God (and not just last night’s Mexican food)?

We don’t all hear God with equal accuracy. I’ve had folks tell me they’ve heard God tell them to do things that have no basis in what I know of the Bible. I’ve also learned from my own mistakes a few lessons about how to know when it is God speaking and when it probably isn’t.

1. Test everything by the Word of God. If I can’t find what I’ve heard in the Bible then I ought to be very slow to move forward. The wise men who first sought the Messiah didn’t actually begin with a star. They began with Jewish prophecies written in the scriptures about the Messiah. In Herod’s office, they quoted scripture as their motivator.  Test everything by the word of God. If you can’t find it there, wait.

2. Listen with a heart for obedience.  Because God is usually not just doing it to hear the sound of his voice. He speaks when he is either ready for us to respond or when he is ready for us to prepare for a response down the road. Either way, when God speaks he is doing more than just making small talk. He is bringing in the Kingdom and plans to do so through us. That ought to provide a point of great humility, and also a point of readiness.

3. Be ready for glory (God’s, not yours). God does not usually (or maybe ever) call us to things or places or works that glorify us. He usually calls us to things that glorify him. When we are following well, either the work itself or our testimony of God at work in us will point back to God.

Side note: One of the best lines I’ve ever heard on the subject of hearing from God comes from my friend, Dr. Bob Tuttle, who says he knows it is God’s voice when what he hears is smarter than what he could have thought of himself.

4. Be ready to surrender your reputation. God will often call us to do things that don’t seem logical and may even make us look foolish. If so, we’re in good company. Read Hosea’s story. Imagine what it was like to be Noah — building a huge boat on a sunny day. Consider the change of reputation that happened in Paul’s life the day he accepted Christ as Lord.  This may well be why Paul said (1 Corinthians 3:18), “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.”

How profound it can be when people get up and do things for and in cooperation with the Kingdom of Heaven! And how incredibly important it is to learn the voice of the Father so we don’t end up on the wrong road in our enthusiasm to get there.

So I come back to my opening question: What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to? What friend is he asking you to make of an enemy, what marriage is he asking you to repair, what humility is he asking you to reach for, what job is he calling you to do, what story is he asking you to tell?

In what way is God calling you to be obedient, to point back to him, to proclaim him by taking up a cross and carrying it?  And what if that move ends up wrecking you for this world while it prepares you for Kingdom greatness?

In other words, if God decides to make a spectacle of you, are you ready to provide?

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Faithfulness breeds blessings.

If you are someone’s child (any age) but not yet a parent, you should know that your life has messed with your parents’ heads. Assuming your parents are at least in some way functional people, you have incredible power over them — power you may not realize you have. Yes, your parent will come after you like a spider monkey when you do something wrong but have the school counselor say you have behavioral issues, and your mom will come after her like ten spider monkeys.

Your parents will take a bullet for you without thinking twice. And will do it again the next time. They will walk into the thick of a Hell’s Angel gathering to snatch you up and take you home without breaking a sweat. They’ll leave you in jail, even if it rips their heart out over and over to do so, because they want so much more for you than you want for yourself.

They will go without food if it means you will get a better education. Any ER nurse will tell you there is no wrath like the wrath of a mama whose baby is sick. You can make the worst possible mistake — forget to call on Mother’s Day, lie about the person you went on a date with, tell us you hate us — but the next time you cuddle up next to us on the sofa and tell us we’re the best mom/dad ever, parental amnesia sets in.

The slate wipes clean.

In a way, parental love is like being possessed. It is a fierce love. And while parental love isn’t always biologically bound, it is definitely not the same as the love we have for all children everywhere or even for the other people we love. A parent’s love is different. Fierce. Strong.

So when Abraham chooses to obey God and take his son up a mountain to make a sacrifice out of him, there is no other story in the whole story of God that shows more profoundly what faith requires of us when God asks us to have no other gods before him. Because Abraham is possessed. He has parental insanity. He is a one-hundred year-old man who finally has a boy of his own. There is no other story that more accurately and starkly paints what God means when he tells us to love him with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, all our strength.

Abraham’s love for that boy is surely a fierce love yet, knowing what he is asking of this man, God comes to Abraham and says, “I am going to make you into a great nation and you will be the father of many people. What you have in this boy, you will have in more children than you can count. But to get there, you and I have to walk through a valley together, the darkest kind of valley. That valley will lead you to the point of laying down your deepest earthly loves so there is nothing left between us, so I can pour all my hopes for the world through your family line.

“Abraham,” God seems to say, “This is what faith means. It is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it.”

Can you imagine what that offer must have felt like for a man who would take a bullet for his son, who would walk into the thick of a violent mob to pull him out, who would have gladly taken his son’s place in that moment?

Can you imagine?

Isaac was probably not a child at this point. Some say he could have been as old as thirty, certainly old enough to know that wood for a sacrifice needs a lamb to go with it. Isaac says to his daddy, “I see the wood, but where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham, with the full weight of mature faith on his shoulders, stands between Isaac and God and replies, “The Lord himself will provide the sacrifice.”

At the top of the mountain Abraham and Isaac build the altar together and Isaac allows Abraham to lay him up on it. Isaac didn’t have to do this. Surely he could have muscled his way out if he’d wanted to but Isaac is his father’s boy. He has his father’s spiritual DNA coursing through his veins. He is the second generation of a breed of people whose faith is centered on the person of God, not on personal tastes.

We wonder how a man can lay his child up on a pile of firewood but as it turns out, this is how it is in the Kingdom of God. Nothing is what it seems. To get life, we have to lay it down. To be first, we have to be willing to be last. To save our children’s lives, we have to be willing to put God above them at any cost. To save our families, our marriages, our reputations, our country, our you-name-it, we have to be willing to lay it up on the altar.

This is what Abraham’s story shows us about the Kingdom of God: Faithfulness breeds blessings, the kind that pour out over your children and your children’s children. The kind that raise dead things, that redeem relationships, that restore purpose and health. The kind that change the world.

The blessings of God will always run through a fire fueled by faith. Make no mistake about this: anything else that looks like blessing is merely a cheap imitation.

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What grace feels like (or, what I learned from a roomful of missionaries)

I spent seven days in Costa Rica with about 95 missionaries and assorted others who support them through The Mission Society. I had the great pleasure of teaching daily on themes from the book of Ephesians. Anyone could have done what I did so I recognize and deeply appreciate the grace that placed me in that room with such a Spirit-filled community. I’ve rarely felt so undeservedly blessed.

The missionaries came mostly from countries in the southern hemisphere but there were also missionaries from Tanzania, Kenya, China, India, the Philippines and a few other places. This was a global snapshot of God’s work in the world.

Here are a few things I learned from my time with these folks:

costa-rica-4The Kingdom of God comes through obedience. What I found most refreshing about this group was their quiet yet firm obedience to God’s call on their lives. These aren’t rock stars; they are ordinary men and women with a rare sense of what it means to obey God. Some of the folks I met have moved thousands of miles away from children and grandchildren, sometimes over their families’ strenuous objections. Others have taken small children into dangerous areas to live and serve. They do so not because they are naive or foolish but because they have sensed the strong call of God into this work. Their children, I might add, are some of the most remarkably flexible, faithful and fun of any kids I’ve been around.

Humility is cultivated through challenge. The most striking difference in my opinion between acosta-rica-3 roomful of missionaries and a roomful of preachers is ego. I don’t want to throw my own tribe under the bus, but the fact is that a roomful of American preachers will spend a lot of time measuring and posturing. A roomful of missionaries — that roomful, anyway — will spend time in more transparent conversation. My sense is that there is something uniquely humbling about being in another culture, mostly alone, having to figure out language, strategy and friendships on the fly.

costa-rica-1Missionaries know how to have fun. In the week I was with them, I laughed more than I have in a long time. We played simple games, watched silly skits, danced with silly cartoon figures, and told great stories. We also shared deeply, worshipped richly, and learned attentively. These guys were just plain easy to be with. I appreciated the spirit cultivated by our hosts, the staff team of The Mission Society. It was most definitely a spirit of joy, simplicity and rest.

The body of Christ is a beautiful thing. I loved the structure of this gathering. There were Bible teachers, counselors, strategic thinkers, musicians, creative minds, organizers, story-tellers, culture watchers, innovation managers and prayer warriors all gathered together and all encouraged to share their gifts. Each was able to contribute or receive as they were led. The result was a gloriously restful time of sharing, learning and growing.

I spent the first half of my life exploring different organizations and offering my support where I was able. In this season, I’ve chosen to focus my attention on three: Asbury Theological Seminary (and its publishing house, Seedbed), The Mission Society and Mosaic Church. Seeing the heart and soul of The Mission Society as I met and mingled with its missionaries, I am left with a deeper commitment to this fine organization. Since many of those missionaries spent time at Asbury, I’m all the more impressed with the kind of servant heart incubated at that school. And the trip itself was possible only because the gracious community of Mosaic has so generously embraced my speaking ministry as part of their contribution to the Body of Christ.

I am blessed indeed to be associated with such greatness. This must be what grace feels like.

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The Parable of the Church Planter (or, “Why I’ve Been Angry With God”)

There’s an old story about a man who is asked by God to push against a large rock. God tells him this is important work, this rock-pushing. He asks the man to give it everything he’s got. The guy obliges. In fact, he takes up this call excitedly. “stone3I am going to be a great rock-mover for the Lord!” He begins the work early the next morning. He pushes. He shoves. He leans into it. He gives it everything he’s got.

The rock doesn’t budge. Not even a little.

This becomes the man’s daily grind. Every day, he goes out to this rock (that he can’t possibly be very fond of by now) and he pushes against it from morning till night. He tries every angle. He surveys the options. He gives it all his strength and all his time and all his concern and all his best ideas.

And the rock doesn’t move. Not a hair.

Some time into this venture (years, possibly), the guy is wildly frustrated. Calloused. Patience worn thin. Very nearly burned out by all this rock-pushing. He turns to God in his frustration and says, “What the heck was this about? I have done exactly as you asked. I’ve done everything I know how to do to get this rock to move. I was passionate about rock-moving. I thought you had a plan for me. I thought you’d be there for me. But all these years and I have gotten absolutely nowhere. Why would you ask me to do this?”

To which God replied, “Oh, but I never asked you to move the rock. I only asked you to push against it. And you’ve been incredibly faithful to the task. Well done.”

“Why in the world would you ask me to push against a stone you knew would never move?”

“The project was never about the stone,” God replied. “The project was about obedience.  Sanctification. You’ve spent years at this task, and now look at you! Well-toned muscles. Tough skin. Seasoned passion. What a great return on this investment of time!”

At this revelation, the very core of the man was shifted to some new place.

God went on. “Stones moved here or there don’t amount to much in the Kingdom of God. But people who get moved by stones?  Now, that is cause for rejoicing in the Kingdom.”

And oh, what dreams I had. What ambition. I was going to move mountains. And now to find out that the mountain was designed to move me.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

 

(This story was first posted on my old blog, Fivestones, in 2012.)

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