Hearing God in a Crisis

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good…

1 Thessalonians 5:19-21

My family and I are in the midst of a tragedy. We are walking through grief and loss. My older brother has just died at 47. He was in a car accident. He left behind a wife and three kids. We feel like so much has been stolen from us. So much time and so many memories that were yet to happen were ripped away from us in an instant. My nieces and nephew lost their dad. I lost a brother. My parents lost a son. My sister-in-law lost her husband. My kids lost an uncle. The pain is real and intense.

During these kinds of seasons we need the presence of the Lord to be near to us and comfort us. We need Jesus to bring His peace that passes all understanding. And it is extremely helpful to hear from the Lord as He speaks to us about what is happening. Yet, many people report that during difficult times, they don’t hear from the Lord. It often feels like the Lord is silent.

I have some thoughts on this. I believe the Lord wants to speak into these situations in our lives. I don’t believe the Lord wants to be silent. But I believe we often experience a kind of silence for a couple reasons.

Have you ever been on a video conference call and someone started talking while they were still muted? You can see their mouth moving but you can’t hear anything. It’s not that they aren’t talking but the mute button is keeping you from hearing them. I believe we sometimes interact with God this way. God is speaking but we don’t hear him. We have a mute button on in our spirit.

The thing that opens communication with the Lord is trust. If we can trust him implicitly in good times or bad, no matter what happens, then the communication lines stay open. Lack of trust shuts down our ability to hear from the Lord. So if personal crisis causes us not to trust the Lord, then we are shutting down the very thing we need in that moment–the voice of the Lord.

Not only does mistrust shut down our ability to hear, but it will sometimes cause God to stop speaking. He stops speaking because He loves us. That may sound strange but just think about it for a second. Imagine you are grieving an incredible loss in your life. Now imagine someone you don’t trust starts talking to you. In that moment, do you want them to keep talking? No. It doesn’t matter what they are saying. It doesn’t matter if they are saying all the right things. If we don’t trust them, we don’t want them speaking to us while we are in the midst of deep grief. It would be better if they were just silent.

God knows this. If we don’t trust God, it doesn’t matter what He says to us in that moment of grief and pain. If we don’t trust Him, we will misconstrue whatever it is He wants to tell us. We will doubt it, question it, and misinterpret it. Our lack of trust toward God often means it is more loving for Him just to be present with us and not speak to us in that moment.

Yet, in the midst of grief and pain, we are willing to hear from people we trust. So if we trust the Lord no matter what, we are willing to hear from Him in the midst of our pain. God speaks and we listen. And when we hear the word of the Lord in the midst of our tragedy, it is so helpful, so comforting, and so clarifying.

This may sound strange to some, but here’s the truth: God has not been silent during this tragedy in my life. In fact, the only way to describe my interaction with God right now is that God has been downright talkative. In the midst of my grief, pain and loss, He has had so many things He’s wanted to say to me.

He has spoken to me directly through scripture, through prayer (His still small voice in my heart), through friends, and through prophetic words from others. When I didn’t know what to pray, the Lord gave me different themes and things to focus on that directed my prayers. When I was confused by what seemed to be missing pieces of the puzzle, God dropped a puzzle piece on me that brought understanding.

My wife had a prophetic dream in the middle of our crisis that brought tremendous clarity. My good friend had multiple prophetic visions that he shared with me that were hard to hear at first but brought a level of comfort and understanding. This is why the above verse of scripture says, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all.” If we can learn to receive and process prophetic words on our normal days, then they will become lifelines during a crisis.

Trust is what keeps those communication lines open. When God begins to speak, and He says something unexpected, trust is what allows us to receive His word without being confused or offended by it. Jesus is the most trustworthy person I’ve ever met. We owe Him our unconditional, implicit, unyielding trust.

We need to stop believing the lie that God is always silent during hard times. Not true. God loves to talk us through a crisis. He loves to speak. He loves to speak words that bring clarity, understanding, comfort, and peace. If God is quiet, it may be that He knows what we need in that moment is His tangible Presence and not His words. But it also might mean that our inability to trust Him has shut down communication. Let’s make sure our trust in Him keeps those lines of communication open. Even during a crisis, He is worthy of our trust.

Hearing God

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

1 Samuel 3:8-10

As a child Samuel was dedicated to the Lord, so he served with the priests at Shiloh. Eli was his chaperone and mentor. One evening, just as Samuel was lying down to sleep, the Lord called to him. Having never heard from the Lord, Samuel didn’t know it was the Lord. He thought Eli was calling his name. Finally, after the third time, Eli realizes it is the Lord and gives Samuel instructions on how to listen.

This scenario is still common today. Many followers of Jesus have never been taught how to hear the voice of the Lord. They have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, and yet they feel as though they’ve never heard the Lord speak directly to them. The reality is, much like this situation with Samuel, the Lord has spoken over and over again but, because we didn’t know what to listen for, we didn’t know it was the Lord. We need an Eli in our life to guide us in our hearing.

The results in Samuel’s life from hearing the word of the Lord directly were profound. Notice what happened to him.

The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

1 Samuel 3:19-21

None of Samuel’s words fell to the ground. Have you ever spoken and felt like your words just dropped to the ground having no impact? Like they didn’t even reach their intended audience? Samuel’s willingness to hear from the Lord changed the power and effectiveness of the words he spoke. Because he wasn’t just speaking his own words but was speaking with words laced with the word of the Lord, they carried weight and authority. Every time he spoke, his words impacted those who heard him. People began to recognized this and named him a prophet of the Lord.

Notice also that God was revealing Himself–His nature, character, and thoughts–through His word. When someone speaks, they reveal pieces of themselves through what they say and how they say it. It reveals what they care about and what they’re focused on. When Samuel heard from the Lord, he was learning a little more about God each time.

This happens with us. This is why John calls Jesus the Word of God in the Gospel of John. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of who God is and what He’s like. So as we read God’s word in scripture and as we hear God speak directly to us through the Holy Spirit, we receive little pieces of what God is like.

We can hear God speak to us in a variety of ways. He can speak directly to us through a scripture passage, a spontaneous thought, a mental image, a dream, patterns in circumstances, and through the words of trusted friends. If you’ve never heard directly from God for yourself, here is a simple practice that can help:

1. Quiet yourself. Set aside some time and space where you won’t be distracted. Play soft worship music if that helps but make sure you are alone.

2. Focus your heart and mind on Jesus. Picture yourself with Him if that helps. Pray this, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

3. Ask the Lord a direction question. Don’t start with theological questions. Ask personal/relational questions. A good one to start with is, “Father, who do you say that I am?” Or, “What is your favorite thing about me?”

4. Watch and listen for any spontaneous thoughts that come to mind or any mental pictures that appear. There might also be a feeling that rises up or a mental movie in your mind’s eye. Don’t dismiss or edit these.

5. Write down what you hear or see. Ask the Lord a follow up question to what He said. Then write down His next response. Take what you’ve written down to a trusted friend who loves Jesus and has some experience hearing from the Lord. Ask them if they think what you heard or saw was really from the Lord.

Repeat this process until you begin to get a feel for what it’s like to hear from the Lord. The more you practice hearing from Him, the better you will get at it. He wants to speak to you. He loves to talk with you.

As we saturate ourselves in hearing the word of the Lord, our own words will begin to change. Our words will start to be woven together with the word of the Lord. Our words will become less and less harsh, angry, sarcastic, and condemning. They will become more and more encouraging, loving, and kind. They will also begin to carry greater weight and authority. People will begin to sense that our words impact people.

Don’t be surprised if you begin to use less words too. People who tend to go on and on–who use way more words than necessary–are verbally revealing, through their endless chatter, their own insecurities, identity issues, and self-absorption. When we begin to hear what God thinks of us and we believe what He says about us, those insecurities and identity issues get healed. We’ll stop feeling the need to give every opinion on every issue. We’ll stop giving every detail of every story. We’ll stop preemptively explaining ourselves and defending ourselves. And our words will go from having no weight to actually leaving a lasting impression.

First Love

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.

Revelation 2:1-4

The church in Ephesus was working hard and persevering under trial without growing weary. They are to be commended for doing what many churches do not in recognizing false teachings. Yet, Jesus calls them back to their first love. He implores them to “do the things you did at first“(Revelation 2:5).

This is one of the keys to deepening our relationship with Jesus. So often we must return to child-like faith–child-like dependence and trust in the Father. Kids live with a freedom and a joy that is often absent in adults. They live unafraid of what others will think of them in the moment. They enjoy giving love to and receiving love from their parents. If we want to take the next step in our journey with the Lord, it will often look like returning to what we did at first when we became a Christian.

So many people start their journey with the Lord excited, full of faith, spending time in God’s word, and spending abundant time in worship and prayer. Then life happens and we move away from these as if they are somehow less necessary as we grow in Christ.

But the reality is that triathlon athletes need more food not less. Body builders need more protein not less. The stronger we get the more fuel we need. The more elite athletes need not only more fuel but better fuel for their bodies. This same principle is true of us spiritually.

If we want to continue to grow in Christ as we get older, we need more time with Him, not less. We need more of God’s word, more time in prayer, more moments of worship, not less. It is striking how many so-called “mature” Christians don’t spend any time with the Lord. It is even more shocking how many ministers hardly have a prayer life, hardly read the word (unless they’re getting ready for a sermon) and only worship on Sundays. This is mostly true in America because the Church around the world knows it can’t afford to dabble in such foolishness.

Identity Amnesia

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1:22-25

Just listening to the word of God and not doing what it says is a form of deception. It make us feel religious without actually demanding that we take up our cross and follow Jesus. The illustration of the mirror that James uses here seems purposeful. Listening to the word and yet not doing it can lead to an identity crisis. We forget who we really are in Christ. We suffer from a kind of identity amnesia.

There are two prevalent errors out there in the American church right now with this as its root cause. One group loves the word of God and loves learning about, studying, and listening to preaching from the word of God but often stops short of doing what it says.

There is a falsehood that is perpetuated in this group that believes an increase in biblical knowledge automatically leads to spiritual maturity. What is forgotten is that intimacy with Jesus, not information about Jesus, is what leads to spiritual maturity. Obedience to the word and not just the accumulation of facts about the word is how our spiritual muscles grow. This kind of error tends to happen in more conservative parts of the church.

The other group doesn’t hold scripture in high regard and so listening to the word, studying the word, and looking intently into the perfect law that gives freedom is not a high priority. Yet, they spend a lot of time “doing.” They are actively attempting to imitate certain parts of Jesus’s life, especially care for the marginalized, without actually submitting to the word of God.

Often in these circles there is a continual attempt to reinterpret uncomfortable passages of scripture in light of cultural norms. So whatever our culture deems to be normal takes authority over scripture. This tends to happen in more progressive parts of the church.

The first group looks into the mirror and walks away immediately forgetting what they look like. They are setting themselves up for a spiritual identity crisis. The second group has a mental picture of what they look like and uses that to get ready without ever looking at a mirror. They are setting themselves up for deception.

We are called to intently study the word and then actually do it. We are called to hold scripture in high authority both by studying it deeply and by practicing it regularly. It is in doing both that we experience the power of God. Both conservative and progressive groups often lack any experience or demonstration of the power of God because they have chosen to express one side of a false dichotomy.

The Sadducees came to Jesus with a question about scriptural interpretation. They wanted to know whether Jesus’s interpretation would fit with the cultural norms of the day, norms that they wanted to preserve for their own comfort. Rather than playing their game of interpretation manipulation, Jesus said, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God”(Matthew 22:29).

If we do not trust the scriptures and do not live out the scriptures in our life, we will forfeit the power of God. We will find ourselves comfortably smug in our “rightness” and completely void of the power of God. Our ministry and church will have very little resemblance to Jesus’s ministry in the Gospels or the early church’s ministry in the book of Acts. “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do(James 1:25).

Average Christians

Notice how the writer of Hebrews describes average followers of Jesus. He describes them as people who have…

…been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age…

Hebrews 6:4-5

So here is what the writer of Hebrews expects from the average believer:

  1. They’ve been enlightened. They think differently now. They have set their minds on things above. They have experienced a renewal of the mind.
  2. They’ve tasted the heavenly gift. This is a reference to the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God, and salvation. In other words, they have the Holy Spirit and have experienced salvation.
  3. They’ve shared in or have partaken in the Holy Spirit. So, beyond just having the Holy Spirit, they’ve partnered with the Spirit. They are actively engaging with the Spirit and with the gifts of the Spirit.
  4. They’ve tasted the goodness of the word of God. They are convinced that God is good and that God’s word is good. They have been regularly and profoundly impacted by the word of God. They trust the word of God.
  5. They’ve tasted the powers of the coming age. The New Testament envisions two ages: 1) “this age” (the one we are in now, human history as we know it) and 2) “the age to come” (the point at which eternity begins, there is a new heaven and new earth, God dwells with humanity and Jesus brings the fullness of the Kingdom of God). Through the Presence and power of the Holy Spirit we get to experience powers that exist in the coming age, but we get to experience them right now! This is part of what it means for the Spirit to be a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. This is the power Jesus told His disciples to wait for in Jerusalem (Luke 24:49).

As we look at this list, is this what the average believer looks like today? Is this what the American church is full of? If not, we need a new standard!

Double-edged Sword

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 

Hebrews 4:12 NASB

Reading scripture regularly is so important to the Christian life. Many followers of Jesus believe they can live the Christian life without immersing themselves in the word of God. But this leaves us open to deception and the ever-changing whims of cultural preference. We need the word of God in our life, regularly bringing us back to the truth.

The word of God is living. It is alive. It moves and breathes when we read it. This is why we can read it a thousand times and never get to the end of its power and wisdom. Like the dry bones in Ezekiel 37, when the Holy Spirit breathes on the word of God, it comes alive to us. Without the Spirit, without ears to hear, you can read and study scripture your whole life and it will only be an ancient text to criticize, writings from a bygone era, as dead as dry bones in a desert valley. Without the Spirit, the Bible is just a book to dissect and reject.

The word of God is active. The word used here in the Greek means “at work.” The root word is where we get the English word “energize.” The word of God speaks to our hearts and begins to expose us. It highlights the good and brings conviction where there is sin. The word of God is at work renewing our mind, changing the way we think and changing how we see the nature of God.

The word of God is a sword that pierces us deeply. It pierces us all the way down to that place where soul and spirit meet inside of us. It pierces our bodies all the way down to where the joints meet, down to our bones. It reaches down to our hearts and into our thoughts, exposing the unhealthy things that exist there.

And with the word of God, it’s a double-edged sword. There are always two sides to the cutting. It declares the good news that salvation is available. Yet, it also demands that we admit we need saving. Those are the two edges of God’s word. It declares that we can be healed, if only we’d admit we need healing.

To those humble enough to admit their need, the sword is a surgical scalpel removing the cancerous tumor of sin. To those offended by the notion that they need saving or that they need healing, the sword cuts painfully into their pride. To the tax-collectors, sinners and prostitutes, this sword meant hope, life, healing and salvation. To the Pharisees, this sword was a constant irritation, a constant cutting against their pride and posture of superiority.

This is the beauty of the Bible. We don’t like people judging us, but we need help exposing our blind sides. There are things about us that need addressed; they need lovingly corrected, so that we can be made aware and be set free from our selfishness and sin. And so we come to the word of God, and it graciously exposes our hidden thoughts and the intensions of our heart. It judges us as we stand naked and exposed before God.

And in this place we don’t receive harsh condemnation, but instead loving correction, full of grace and truth. When we allow the word of God to pierce our lives, we are transformed by love. His kindness leads us to repentance. Like a Father doing surgery on His sons and daughters, we leave our time in the word of God changed, different, encouraged, embolden, loved, forgiven, and hopeful.

Father, thank you for your word! We are grateful for it!

At Work In You

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. 

1 Thessalonians 2:13

It has become popular to reduce the word of God to just words written by humans years ago. This gives us authority over it so that we can manipulate it, dissect it, and make it fit our culture. But when we do that to the word of God, when we treat it as if it is just a human word, we prevent it from having any transformative power in our lives.

The Thessalonians received the word of God as the word of God, and because of that it was at work in them. When we treat the word of God as the word of God, we submit to it rather than trying to make it submit to us. When we do this, there is an energizing of the word within us. As we surrender ourself to the truth of God’s word, the power of the word of God flows through us.

We see Jesus teach this principle in Matthew 10 when he says:

“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.”

Matthew 10:32, 40-41

If you acknowledge Jesus for who He really is, the Son of God and Savior of the world, then He will acknowledge you before God the Father. If you welcome a prophet as a prophet, you’ll be able to receive from the prophet their reward and blessing (see 1 Kings 17:7-24). If you welcome a righteous person as a righteous person, you’ll receive the reward that comes from acknowledging them for who they really are.

Likewise, if we treat the word of God as the word of God, and not just words of humans written thousands of years ago, we get the reward of having the very words of God dwell in us, work in us, and pour through us. And God’s words have life-giving, creative power every time He speaks! (Genesis 1; Mark 5:41-42; John 1:1-5).

If, however, we treat the word of God as mere human words, our “reward” is that we’ll have unbelief, skepticism, and doubt at work in us–in our hearts and minds. The fruit will be human reasoning that is empty and powerless.