"I already heard you Daddy," says the confident 7-year-old going on 17 as she carries on doing the very thing she says she "heard" me ask her to stop doing. The parental instruction repeats, and the child's unwanted behavior persists. "Are you listening to me?!" cries the exasperated parent. We'll call this exchange fictional, but I imagine we all have an expectation that if someone is truly listening to our instruction or counsel, they're actions will soon follow. We feel our voices are heard when others respond practically and accordingly. If this is true of listening to one another, how much more true when listening to God?
To truly listen to God is to respond in obedience to God.
GOD'S PRIMARY APPEAL
I once heard an Old Testament professor at seminary mention in passing that the Hebrew Scriptures don't have a word for our English "obey." The closest approximation is the Hebrew word shema, which is translated into English as "listen" or "hear." In other words, the concept of listening is so intertwined with obedience that linguistically they're one and the same. (Check out the word study video on the Shema to find out a little more.) To truly listen to someone's counsel is to obediently live out that person's counsel. This is why the all-encompassing commandment of the Old Testament, the one that devout Jews repeat every morning and that Jesus said was the greatest, begins with the simple command to shema if you will:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Deuteronomy 6:4-5, NKJV
The initial appeal of this great commandment is simply to hear it, listen to it, and when we do we'll live out a love for God that is supreme and wholehearted. God's word and command are life-giving (cf. Ps. 33:6) and life-sustaining (cf. Heb. 1:3). All creation naturally responds to the power of God's Word, and yet in love we've been entrusted with the unique capacity to choose to respond to the voice of God. And so primary to any do's and don'ts is this simple appeal to listen, and when we do we'll find life itself: "Hear, and your soul shall live" (Isa. 55:3)!
GOD'S PRIMARY DESIRE
This responsive listening is God's primary appeal because it's His primary desire. He isn't content with just giving us a manual of things He likes and doesn't like to see in our lives. What God longs for is a relationship with us that is characterized by genuine faithfulness, a faithfulness not just of profession but of action. The psalmist hits on the contrast between what God desires and what He doesn't in Psalm 40:6-8:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
but my ears you have opened...
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come...
I desire to do your will, my God;
your law is within my heart.”
I long to have ears that are open to God. I want to know His voice. Don't you? Apparently ears that are inclined to listen, ears that are cleaned out of this world's deafening gunk will always be connected to a life that is wanting to actively do the will of God.
This is what God desires over and above our gifts for Him, even our acts of worship. He wants open ears that are evident in an obedient life.
Let's face it, what we listen to is what has our attention. And when we know that someone listens to us, there's a relational security that follows when we are certain of their attentiveness and responsiveness to us. God wants that relational attentiveness with you and I.
OUR PRIMARY BARRIER
This leads us to understand what then is our biggest obstacle in hearing and listening to God: our willingness to do God's will. If we're not hearing from God, it's not because He's silent. His Word has proven that God speaks. He promised we would hear a voice behind us saying, "This is the way; walk in it" (Isa. 30:21). Jesus put a finger on this barrier of the will in John 7:17:
Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether My teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.
The principle is clear: We’ll only be able to discern God’s voice of truth when we’re willing to do His will. We can’t expect to hear from God if the jury is still out about whether we'll obey Him.
What decision are you trying to make? What question are you asking God? What counsel do you hope to hear but haven't yet discerned? What I've found is that once I'm able to truly surrender my will, once I've genuinely prayed for God to swallow up my will in His and actually let Him answer that prayer first, once I've gotten to the place where I'm willing to not only hear but also do whatever it is that God speaks my way, I more easily hear God's instruction and discern a plain path before my feet. May we respond to God's appeal, fulfill God's desire, and remove our own barrier. May we listen and live.