The Old Testament priest Eli usually gets a bum rap. The priest who trained Samuel comes to a bad end because his sons don’t practice his ways or lead the people justly. The people lose faith in him because he either can’t or won’t control his sons.
But that’s not all of Eli’s story. Eli is the priest who sees Hannah, Samuel’s mother, praying and once he understands the depth of her intense longing for a son, joins his prayers with hers that God will indeed give a son to her. Twelve years later, that answered prayer showed up in the person of Samuel. Hannah, true to her word, brings Samuel to Eli to be trained as a servant of the Lord. Eli must have done a pretty good job. Samuel went on to be one of the most significant spiritual leaders in Israel’s history.
One of the things Eli taught Samuel was how to hear the voice of God. You remember the story. Samuel is asleep when he hears God’s voice. Samuel thinks Eli is calling him and goes to check on the older priest. After three times, Eli figures out its God calling Samuel. Eli tells Samuel God, not him, is calling Samuel and instructs him on how to respond. Samuel does this and begins a conversation with God that lasts for the rest of Samuel’s life.
We live in a very cluttered and noisy world. Discerning the voice of God is challenging and difficult for the most spiritual among us. How, then, do you hear the voice of God — how do you recognize the voice of God — when you’ve never heard the voice of God in the first place? Or, like Samuel, maybe God has called out to us in the past, but we didn’t know it was Him?
Someone has to teach you.
In a perfect world, parents would be the spiritual teachers of their children. According to the oft-quoted passages in Deuteronomy, parents and children should discuss matters of faith in the everyday moments of life such as walking along the road. Ideally, conversations about Jesus, His teachings, our faith, and what it means to live obediently to Christ’s teachings in our world would be part of the natural conversations between parents and their children.
Unfortunately, it’s not. There are several reasons for this. The first one is most parents haven’t taken the time to figure out their own theology. Parents may read the Bible, but most don’t think about the Bible. They will listen to sermons, but not think critically (in the best sense of this word) about what they are hearing. Most parents (most all of us, to be honest) haven’t done the hard thinking to lay out what we believe and why. We haven’t worked out what it means to be a follower of Christ in our world. We haven’t thought through why it matters to believe in a triune God.
Most of us just haven’t done the work. That means every question is a crisis. When our children graduate from “Why is the sky blue?,” to “Why do some people get sick and die?” not only do we not know how to respond, but it throws our own shallow faith into question. We have questions we can’t answer and that makes us uncomfortable.
So, we do what any parent in America does. We take our children to church and demand that the pastor, student pastor, or children’s ministry team teach our children about Jesus. We hire out the discipleship of our children.
That means most of us step onto the front porch of adulthood having never been told how to discern the voice of God in our lives. The voice of God is often confused with emotions, intuition, and “gut feelings.” We think we’re following the voice of God, but we’re never quite sure.
How do you know? As I said, someone has to teach you, and this is no easy feat. For one thing, the teacher has to have had a lifetime of experience listening for and to God. Second, the teacher has to have a deep understanding of their student.
Each of us is unique. We are unique to God. God, then, will make sure He talks to us in a way each of us can understand — in a way most meaningful to us. God, while consistent in His personality and ways, reaches each of us in a way we can know, understand, and comprehend the best. Any parent knows this. You don’t talk to your children the same way. They are different children. While you are communicating the same message, you will do it in a way each child can best hear and understand.
So, how do we begin? We begin by understanding how God has spoken in the past. That means reading and studying His Word. The Bible is the most comprehensive and thorough record of God’s conversations with His people. Knowing how God has spoken in the past is the best way to understand how God is talking now. God hasn’t changed, and the way He talks to you will sound a lot like He does in the Bible.
For me, this has been the most consistent way God has spoken to me. I will be studying a passage and a phrase will stick in my head. During the days that follow, I will face some situation that will be best understood when viewed through the lens of the Biblical passage I have been meditating on. While I don’t know how Jesus will speak to you, I can tell you it will be similar to how He illumines His word when you read.
The radical teaching of Christianity is that our rabbi, our teacher, is alive. He has promised if we open His Word, He’ll teach us just like He taught Peter and John.
And this is the problem I find most people have with hearing God’s word to them. I will ask about their reading of Scripture and they will want to know what this has to do with hearing God now. Everything, I will say.
Just everything. Being able to recognize His voice in history is the first step to hearing His Word now. So, if you want to be able to hear, start reading.