“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
I Samuel 3:10
I once had a deaf friend, an earnest Christian, who asked me whether hearing people could hear God’s voice as clearly as they could hear one another’s voices. He had often observed hearing people responding to one another’s voices, mysteriously communicating meaning to one another through the movements of their jaws and lips, and understanding one another even when they weren’t looking at each other, or when the speaker was in another room. He had learned that they possessed a mysterious ability that he had never had, and now he wondered if the same ability that enabled them to communicate with one another even when separated by a wall or a door enabled them also to communicate with God. “Does God talk to you?” he asked; “Can you hear God?”
I assured him that, for me at least, it was not quite that simple. But I could relate to his question. I had grown up listening to the stories of the Bible about how God spoke to Abraham and Noah and Moses and all the others, telling them so very clearly what they were expected to do, and how they so clearly understood God’s voice, even if they weren’t always inclined to obey it. It all seemed so simple and straightforward in those stories, and as I grew older it caused me to wonder if God would ever speak to me that clearly, or even if such a thing were possible in this day and age. I’m certain now that God does speak to us, though seldom (if ever) in the way my deaf friend imagined, and that God probably spoke to those Old Testament saints in much the same way as God speaks to us today. They simply used a more literal language to describe their experience that most of us are likely to use—at least most of us Anglicans.
So how do we hear God’s voice? How do we recognize when God is speaking to us, when we can’t hear the words or judge the intonation? Although the biblical narratives might not seem to offer us much help at first, if we examine them more carefully we may find that they can still speak to our experience today.
Let’s look at the story of the call of Samuel that’s recorded in I Samuel 3. Perhaps the first thing we can observe is Samuel’s openness to the voice of God, and his eagerness to respond. Of course, at first he didn’t know it was God’s voice that was calling him—he assumed it was the voice of his master, Eli. But note how readily he responds to that voice, jumping up in the middle of the night to see how he can be of service—not just once, but three times! And when Eli finally catches on to what is happening and instructs the boy, Samuel is willing to take on his lips those words which should be on our lips as well, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” The first requirement for those who would hear God’s voice is to listen for it, to wait quietly and attentively and expectantly for that voice, desiring it with all one’s heart, and eager to do whatever it asks.
Here’s a second thing to observe: namely, that the voice of God is a persistent voice; it’s a voice that comes to us not just once (lest we should miss it) but again and again, until at last we are ready to grasp its meaning and respond to its call. So often, when we finally arrive at a place of clarity, when we can say with some certainty, “This is what I believe God is calling me to be and to do,” we recognize that this call has not come to us in an instant—usually not—but has been gradually growing inside us and has finally come to its fullness. It is as if God speaks a word to us in the deepest place of our heart, and that word is gently but persistently repeated over and over again until we finally wake up to its full meaning and impact. Of course this does not rule out the possibility that God might speak to us in words so bold and dramatic that they would change our life’s course in an instant. But for most of us, most of the time, God’s word comes to us persistently over time, gently turning us in a new direction, gradually making clear the will of God for our lives. God’s voice is a persistent voice, and a very patient voice at that.
Here’s a third thing from Samuel’s story: sometimes it helps us hear God’s voice when we have a more experienced listener guiding us in how to attend to it. Granted, Eli was a little out of practice, since “the word of the Lord was rare in those days,” and it took him a few tries to figure out what was going on. But he proved to be an invaluable help to the young boy, advising him on how to answer God, and proving more than courageous when the message that came to the boy turned out to be a prophecy of doom for his own household. It took his experienced ear to discern that the voice belonged to God, and his wise heart to know how to respond. Sometimes a more experienced listener—a spiritual director, perhaps, or a trusted spiritual friend—can help us sort through all the competing voices we hear inside us and distinguish between those that belong to our past or that come from our culture or that represent our “false selves”—and that one voice which is genuinely God’s.
I wonder how Samuel felt about the difficult message he received from the Lord. Some¬times the word of God to us in a particular situation is not quite the message we were hoping for; it may not be the word we wanted to hear. It may be a word that challenges us or rebukes us or calls us to something that we know will be difficult for us. We don’t get the feeling from reading their stories that Moses was thrilled when God named him the new leader of Israel, or that Jeremiah accepted the call to be God’s mouthpiece with confidence and ease, or even that Jesus himself embraced his call without dreading what it would demand from him. And yet there will always be a “right-ness” about God’s word, even if it demands of us all we have to give and more. There will be something about it that fits in with what we know of the character and purpose and will of God—and with what we know of ourselves—and this sense of “right-ness” will enable us to rise up to meet its challenge. Furthermore, with every challenge we can be sure that there will also come a promise; with every call there will come an assurance: “Be not afraid. I will be with you. You are not alone. I will never leave you or forsake you.” With every challenge there comes a promise; with every call there is an assurance of God’s strength present in our weakness. God never speaks the one without the other.
One final word. The boy Samuel is called to be a prophet, called to become something greater than he now is. And this also seems to be true of the words God speaks to us. So often, when God speaks to us, God invites us into a larger vision—perhaps a larger vision of ourselves, or a larger vision of what we can be or do in the world, or a larger vision of the world itself, of its potentialities and possibilities. It seems to me that God’s words are expansive words, leading us beyond ourselves, beyond the safe spaces we have created for ourselves, beyond the cautious boundaries we have so carefully marked out for our lives; God’s words have a way of opening us up to God’s larger vision for us and for our world. “Follow me. You will see greater things than these.” Moses, the shepherd, becomes the prophet standing in the court of Pharaoh—who would have dreamed it? Jeremiah, the young boy too youthful to speak, is given a word for the nations—who could have imagined it? Mary, the simple peasant girl, is told that she is the one who will give birth to the Savior of the world—who ever could have believed it? Surely not Moses; surely not Jeremiah; surely not Mary. And yet God’s word is a daring word, an expansive word, often a surprising word—that calls us beyond our small and limited selves and joins us to God’s greater Self. God’s word invites us to “greater things.” It is a word of vision and of hope and of inspiration, not of narrowness or discouragement or defeat.
Would you like to hear such a word? God is already speaking it to you, speaking it deep within your heart. Listen for it. In the quiet moments of your life, turn yourself to God and say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”