Jennifer and I are in the midst of wedding season right now. That's right. It seems like more and more couples are getting married in the fall. It's a beautiful time of year. I've officiated two weddings in the last three weekends and next weekend we'll be attending the wedding of a family friend.
We love weddings and all the celebration that goes with them. And Jennifer and I love counseling couples who are planning to get married. We typically meet with them four times before their big day and each time we get together we emphasize the importance of good communication.
Couples need to talk to each other and listen to each other. The communication needs to go both ways. They need to communicate about their relationship and about finances and about sexuality and about what's going in their hearts and lives. They need to communicate with God together in prayer. And if and when kids come along they need to communicate about parenting and all the other complexities that involves. We tell every couple that good communication is the key to a strong marriage and that means both talking and listening to each other.
And just like good communication is the key to a strong marriage relationship. Good communication is the key to a strong relationship with the Lord and that involves both talking and listening, like good friends or good couples talk and listen to each other.
This morning we continue our series called Teach Us to Pray with a teaching I've called "Two-Way Prayer." Two weeks ago Matt introduced this series and described prayer as a two-way conversation between a child and his or her heavenly Father. Prayer is a two-way conversation. It's not just me talking to my heavenly Father, as important as that is. It's also about making space in my life for my heavenly Father to talk to me. Just like in any good relationship communication needs to be two-way.
But how does God communicate with us? How do we hear his voice? Can we hear his voice? And if so, how do we know it's him speaking and not an imposter or our own voice?
Jesus said in John 10:27, My sheep listen to my voice. I know them, and they follow me. Jesus is the good shepherd and we are his sheep. And he wants us to listen to his voice and follow him.
So this morning I want to talk about how God speaks to us and how we can recognize his voice. And let me say right at the outset that the challenge that I face and maybe your do too is not getting God to speak, it's slowing down long enough from me to listen. That's the challenge. God has plenty to say, but are we slowing down long enough and often enough to listen?
First, God speaks to us through his Word, the Scriptures. In fact we call the Bible the Word of God because it's how God reveals himself to us. Numerous passages emphasize the value of Scripture. One is 2 Timothy 3:16-17 where the Apostle Paul writes, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
That's why we teach the Bible here every Sunday. Over and over again we've seen how God uses his Word to transform our lives. To teach us, rebuke us, correct us, train us in righteous living. The Word of God is powerful. It how God speaks to us, but we need to listen.
That's why we have groups studying the Bible together or processing the teaching during the week. Take away the Bible and you take away God's voice in a big way. The number one request of persecuted Christians around the world is give us Bibles. Please send us Bibles. That's why I love the disciple making piece of Operation Christmas Child. It gets kids and families into the Word of God.
That's why we encourage you to slow down long enough each day to let God speak to you through his Word. Right now I'm reading through the book of Jeremiah. It's all about God's judgment on the nation of Israel. It's tough stuff. And I'm being reminded of God's justice and the serious consequences of sin but also of his love and patience and kindness and the hope he offers his people in verses like Jeremiah 29:11, For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. God says that over the nation of Israel and God says that over your live and mine as well.
On Wednesday night at our Leadership Team we started with worship as we always do and read through Philippians 4. And when we were done one team member said that's exactly what I needed to hear tonight given what's going on in my life.
God speaks to us through his Word. But we have to take time to listen.
God speaks to us through his people.
The Scriptures are filled with examples of prophets who speak in the name of the Lord. The book of Jeremiah, for instance, records the words of the prophet to the nation of Israel. Ephesians 2:20 says the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Thank God for those who speak in the name of the Lord.
But there are also examples of false prophets in Scripture, those who claim to speak in the name of the Lord, but are really imposters. So we're told to be discerning and to test the spirits to see whether they are from God.
There are those in this community whom I believe have prophetic gifts. They're not infallible and inspired prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah. But they have exceptional insight and discernment. They ask great questions, sometime uncomfortable questions. And God uses them to speak truth into our lives if we're willing to listen.
The book of Proverbs talks about the wisdom of seeking counsel from others.
Proverbs 15:22, Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.
Proverbs 19:20, Listen to advice and accept instruction, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.
This is why community is so important. This is why we need to intentionally pursue Jesus together. We need to give others, that we trust, permission to speak into our lives. Sometimes that comes in the form of pastors or spiritual directors or professional counselors.
I've benefitted greatly over the years from meeting with professional counselors and so have many of you. Men and women of insight and discernment who can see things in our lives that we're not able to see for a lot of reasons. Thank God for wise, professional counselors. We have a few who meet right here at Sunnyside with clients every week. Their contact information is on our resource table.
But we also need to journey together with one or two close friends who have the courage to challenge our thoughts, attitudes, and behavior, to ask us the hard questions.
Proverbs 27:6 addresses this. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. In other words, be careful if the people closest to you only ever tell you what you want to hear, only ever give you kisses. We need those who are willing to wound us with the truth.
A good friend is not afraid to tell us what we need to hear. And what might feel like a wound is really intended to help us grow and develop as a person. The Holy Spirit speaks through our friends and spouses. And after almost 31 years of marriage, I've concluded that the Holy Spirit sounds a lot like my wife! Jennifer's not afraid to wound me with the truth if she knows it will help me because she loves me. And I don't always like it, but she's usually right. Usually. And I thank God for her. And if you have a person like that in your life thank God for them too.
I can think of wise counsel I've received over the years that has helped me make big decisions relationally, educationally, vocationally. This week I went to dinner with a close friend that I trust. And I shared deeply with him because I know he listens and he'll tell me the truth and he'll pray. And that's just what he did. Do you have a friend like that? I hope so.
God speaks to us through his Word. God speaks to us through his people. And God speaks to us through his Spirit.
There's a story in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings about the prophet Elijah who after a great spiritual victory went into a deep depression. Matt actually taught on it not long ago. And during his depression he hid in the mountains. And while he was alone, there was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then there was a great earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a great fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And finally, there was a gentle whisper, a still small voice. And it was the Lord saying, "Elijah, what are you doing here? Go back the way you came." God came to Elijah in a still, small voice.
And God still comes to us today in a still, small voice. The voice is called the Holy Spirit who lives inside every believer in Jesus. He's that gentle whisper. But we have to be quiet to hear him. We have to slow down long enough to hear his voice. And that can be the greatest challenge for us living in this noisy, busy, constantly connected, overstimulated culture we call America. I know it's my greatest challenge.
This week, I read an article on the discipline of solitude http://www.soulshepherding.org/2005/08/solitude-and-silence/ in which Dallas Willard, an expert on spiritual formation, said that practicing solitude and silence are the most important spiritual disciplines for people today, especially pastors. They are disciplines of abstinence where we unplug ourselves from the noise of the world and the bondage of our electronic devices to create space for God to do a deep work in us.
And the point of solitude and silence is to do nothing and not try to make something happen. That's why it's so difficult especially for us active types. In solitude and silence we learn to stop doing, stop producing, stop obsessing, stop pleasing people, stop entertaining ourselves, stop doing anything except being our naked selves before God. All we do is listen.
In Scripture we see John the Baptist living alone out in the wilderness and people think he's a weirdo. Yet Jesus says he's the greatest prophet who ever lived. We see Jesus often slipping away from the crowds and paparazzi to be alone with his heavenly Father. We see the Apostle Paul after his conversion spend three years in isolation in the Arabian Desert.
And we think, "How in the world am I going to pull that off? Are you crazy? I'm a busy parent with young kids and can barely get three minutes of isolation to go to the bathroom!"
I get that. I've been there. And without a doubt there of seasons of life when extended times of silence and solitude are virtually impossible. Please don't beat yourself up if you're in one right now. I've often wondered what Jesus' life would look like if he were married with three kids and working full-time.
But that doesn't change the fact that God wants to communicate to us through the Holy Spirit and we need to get quiet for that to happen. We need to be still and listen. Psalm 46:10 says, Be still and know that I am God.
As I mentioned last week, I try to make it a habit to take a walk in the park as often as I can without an agenda and a prayer list of needs. Just to be alone with my heavenly Father. One of my seminary professors once said, "Leaders take long walks." Leaders take long walks to disengage and be alone.
Swimming laps is a pretty mindless exercise and often gives me a chance to listen to the promptings of the Spirit. When I take my wake up shower in the morning I often sense the Spirit's leading for the day ahead.
Some of you spend a lot of time in the car commuting to work or running errands. I know lots of people who use a portion of that time behind to wheel for solitude and silence. They turn off the radio, the CD player, the iPod to pray and to listen to the Lord. Jennifer has been doing a lot of driving recently to see her mom and her time alone in the car has become like a sanctuary for her.
But how do we know that it's the Spirit's voice we're hearing and not our own? For me, it's never been an audible voice speaking. Instead, it comes in the form of thoughts and impressions, desires, ideas, solutions. I call them promptings.
And I've learned over the years to run those promptings through a simple grid. First, does the prompting square with Scripture and God's character? I don't believe the Spirit is going to prompt us to do anything contrary to Scripture or the character of God. In fact, sometimes he'll lay a passage of Scripture on our heart or an image from Scripture on our mind, a tree, a mountain, a river, the cross, an image of Jesus or our heavenly Father. That's why it's good sometimes to have a journal to write things down as you listen to the Spirit.
Second, does the prompting involve sacrifice and servanthood? That's the life Jesus is calling us into, not a life of self-promotion and self-serving. Does the prompting involve sacrificing time, money, or energy? Are we feeling led to humble ourselves, ask forgiveness, serve somebody, reach out to someone, give something away. That's what the Spirit's into.
Third, does the prompting lead me to love? Silence and solitude are not ends in themselves. They are a means to an end. And the end is to be better lovers of God and each other.
Richard Foster who's written a lot about the spiritual disciplines says, "The fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others. There comes a new freedom to be with people. There is a new attentiveness to their needs, a new responsiveness to their hurts." If the prompting is from the Holy Spirit it will lead me to love my wife, my kids, my friends, my neighbors, even my enemies.
God wants to speak to us. God is speaking to us. He speaks to us through his Word. He speaks to us through his people. And he speaks to us through his Spirit. But we have to slow down, get quiet, and listen. And just like in a marriage, good two-way communication makes us better lovers. So in our relationship with the Lord, good two-way communication makes us better lovers of God and each other.