April 2012 - Vol. 59

“Speak, Lord,
your servant is listening”
(1 Samuel 3:9,10)

by Don Schwager


Who is listening?
In every age and in every place the Lord is ready to speak to young and old alike – to those who allow him to open their ears to his voice and their hearts to his message. We see two great examples in the Old Testament – the young boy Samuel and the older prophet Elijah.

In the first book of Samuel, chapter 3, we read the story of the boy Samuel who lived with the prophet Eli in the temple at Shiloh. Three times Samuel heard a voice calling out his name, “Samuel, Samuel,” as he lay sleeping in the temple precincts. Samuel was sure that Eli had called him. But Eli discerned finally that the voice was the Lord himself who wished to speak with Samuel. Eli counseled Samuel to answer, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9). From that day forward Samuel’s ears were opened to the voice of God and he grew in his ability to hear and obey the word of the Lord. 

Elijah, one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, was very zealous for the Lord. He spoke the word of God courageously in the face of stiff opposition and persecution. He confronted the false gods who were corrupting his people, and he slew the priests of Baal and destroyed their altar on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). But his courage failed him when Queen Jezebel threatened to kill him. In despair Elijah fled for his life and journeyed for 40 days in the wilderness until he reached Horeb the mount of God, also known as Mount Sinai, where God had spoken with Moses and made a covenant with Israel. 1 Kings 19 describes how God made his presence known to Elijah at Mount Horeb, in “a still small voice.”

The Lord said to Elijah: “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Eli'jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Eli'jah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am  left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:11-14).
Listening well to the voice of the Lord doesn’t come easily to most of us. We often hear the word of the Lord in the reading of the Scriptures, in the teaching of our elders, and in the wise counsel of our brothers and sisters in the Lord. The Lord also speaks to us when we quiet our hearts and incline our ears to hear his “still small voice” as Elijah did. But our ability to listen well can easily be dulled by noisy distractions and busyness of life. And if we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we don’t want to listen. We stop our ears or pretend we didn’t hear in the first place. 

How often have we heard the complaint, “You’re not listening to me.” Parents say it to their children, children to their parents, teachers to their students, couples to one another. And even when people say they are listening, the complaint often goes “You don’t understand what I’m saying,” or “That’s not what I’m trying to communicate to you,” or some variation of this. Speaking and listening, being heard and being understood, go together. 

We listen not only with our ears, but with our hearts and minds. If our heart is not engaged in the conversation or if our mind is closed or distracted, there will be little chance for real interpersonal dialogue and understanding to take place. The Lord wants to open our ears and speak to us, but we have to allow him to teach us how to listen to his voice.

I had to learn this lesson the hard way as I was discerning what course to chart for my life. When I was approaching graduation as a university student, I was pretty confident that I knew what I wanted to do with my life and how I wanted to serve the Lord. I presented my plan to the Lord and expected him to pretty much endorse it. To my surprise the Lord led me to read from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 55. Two verses in particular hit me hard:

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
I wrestled with this passage and with the Lord in prayer for three months. Several times I asked the Lord to give me a passage from Scripture that would guide me in discerning his will for me. Each time I prayed for a passage my eye fell on that same verse from Isaiah – “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” I even bought a brand new Bible with gold painted edges that made the pages stick together and with a new binding that had not yet been creased. When I prayed and opened the new Bible my eyes fell on the same verse from Isaiah 55. 

I slowly realized over the course of the summer that the Lord wanted me to put aside my own plans and aspirations so I could be more receptive and ready to hear whatever he wanted to say to me. This lesson also taught me to listen more attentively to those who knew me well, to see what direction they might receive from the Lord for me. With this change of heart it became much easier for me to pray and listen, both to the “still small voice” of the Lord within my heart and to the advice of others who were praying for me. And he did speak. Now forty-two years later, I can confidently say I did indeed hear the voice of the Lord and receive his direction for my life through the counsel of my brothers and sisters in the Lord and through the confirmation of his word in my heart. 

Our ability to hear and respond to God with love and trust mirrors our ability to hear our neighbor with love and trust. If we want to grow in listening to God, we also have to learn how to listen to our neighbor as well. When Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1979, she referred to the words John the Evangelist wrote in his First Letter. She said, paraphrasing them,

It is not enough for us to say: “I love God, but I do not love my neighbor.” Saint John says that you are a liar if you say you love God and you don’t love your neighbor (1 John 4:20). How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live? 
Saint John’s point about love applies to listening as well. “How can we say we hear God whom we do not see or hear audibly, if we do not even listen to our neighbor whom we do see and hear audibly?”

Heart speaks to heart
The Lord wants to speak to each of us from the depth of his heart to the very core of our own. He invites us into an intimate dialogue of love – the love of an eternal Father who yearns for the reciprocal love of his sons and daughters. He is always ready to speak – at any moment, any season, any place – he only waits for us to open the door of our heart to welcome and receive him. In the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, we hear the invitation which the risen Lord Jesus speaks to all his disciples throughout every age. Every day Christ stands at the door of our heart and he longs to enter. 
“Behold I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelations 3:21). 
In biblical times the invitation to join someone in a meal was considered the most gracious and intimate sign of friendship and communion. When God speaks to us, he treats us as his beloved sons and daughters – he draws us into intimate communion with himself. God made us to know him – not simply to know some things about God – his greatness, glory, and majesty – but to know him personally as our God and eternal Father. That is why he speaks to us – day after day – to communicate his great love and care for us. 

Hearing and obeying
Hearing the Lord involves more than simply listening to his word. The Lord wants his word to also form and shape us into the kind of people who please him in the way we think, speak, and act. Tellingly, the biblical words for “hearing” and “listening” are closely connected with “obeying” and “following” the Lord’s instructions. 

The word obedience seems out of fashion today, but Scripture presents it as a key part of our relationship with God. Two examples. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word shama literally meant "to hear, listen, and obey." When the Lord made a covenant with his people at Mount Sinai, he said: ”If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my possession …a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5). 

The Apostle Peter in his First Letter explains how we have been “sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:2) who has made us “living stones built into a spiritual temple, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). 

We know from experience that hearing and obeying does not come naturally. We have to learn through instruction and example. How can we grow in hearing and obeying the voice of the Lord? The Lord Jesus is our model. When the Father sent him into the world, Jesus had to listen and obey, and to learn what his Father wanted him to say and do. Jesus understood that the prophecy of the suffering servant given to Isaiah applied directly to his mission as the one who would lay down his life as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world. 

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught… Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward.” – Isaiah 50:4-5
When Jesus described to his disciples his relationship with his Father, he emphasized his attentive listening and obeying of his Father’s instructions.
Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him" (John 8:28-29).
Hard hearts and dull ears
What can hold us back from hearing the Lord speak to us? Three big obstacles are indifference, lack of faith, and being preoccupied with other things. They stop our ears and hearts from listening. While Mary sat attentively at Jesus’ feet to hear his words, Martha was preoccupied with an anxious concern to get the meal on the table (Luke 10:38-42). She was too busy to stop and listen – even for a moment. 

Shortly after Jesus had miraculously fed 4,000 people with the multiplication of seven loaves (Mark 8:1-9), the apostles anxiously discovered that they had forgotten to bring enough food for their journey across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus chided his disciples for their “hardness of heart” – their inability to hear and understand what he had demonstrated to them about his desire to provide for their needs. 

Jesus said to them, "Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" They said to him, "Twelve." "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" And they said to him, "Seven." And he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?" (Mark 8:14-21) 
What does the Lord mean when he says, “Are your hearts hardened?” Well, it seems from the testimony of Scripture that God’s word cannot take root in us if we allow fear, anxiety, or indifference to take control. We must overcome fear with faith and doubt with trust. If we do not want fear, doubt, or anxiety to rule us, then we need to believe and obey God’s command to us. The psalmist says, “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you” (Psalm 55:22). And the Apostle Peter in his first letter takes up the phrase, “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7). A key question we could ask ourselves is, “Whose word do we listen to and trust?” The Lord Jesus invites us to put our trust in him and in his unfailing love.

If we find it difficult to hear the Lord, we do not need to lose hope. The Lord himself will open our ears if we ask. Even when the Lord seems distant at times, he is, in reality, very close. And in this learning process we are in good company. The early disciples were also learning how to hear and believe. 

After the Lord Jesus had died on the cross and was laid in the tomb, his disciples lost hope of ever seeing him again. They had forgotten that he had foretold not only his death on the cross but his rising again as well. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on Sunday morning to pay her respects to a dead body, she discovered to her surprise an empty tomb (John 20:11-18). But when she saw the risen Lord standing near her and addressing her, she did not at first recognize him. When Jesus called her name, she knew beyond a doubt that it was truly his voice. She ran to tell the apostles that she had seen the Lord and heard him speak to her. 

When two other disciples that same day were walking on the road to Emmaus, Jesus appeared to them and began to walk with them as well (Luke 24:13-32). They did not recognize the risen Lord at first, until he had explained the Scriptures to them and sat at table and broke bread with them. Then they exclaimed, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) The Lord is always ready to receive us and to speak his word to us, to teach us how to listen.

The Lord Jesus stands at our door each day and he knocks. Will you open your heart to his voice and sit for a while and listen as Mary did in her home at Bethany and the two disciples  did when they stopped for dinner on the road to Emmaus? 

> Related article reflections on the Letter to the Hebrews

[Don Schwager is a member of The Servants of the Word and the author of the Daily Scripture Reading and Meditation website.] 

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