How I Started Listening
For the last couple weeks, I’ve been writing about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Not only has this produced our most popular post yet, Jeff Manion recently hit the topic head-on in his sermon series, “When God Moves.” The response has been mixed. Some are excited, some are curious, and some are less interested.
I think part of what’s going on here is that we all come to this topic with preconceptions. Last time, I mentioned some of the reasons we resist taking the Spirit seriously, all of which have been true for me at one time or another.
I don’t come to “Spirit talk” easily or naively.
However, I am convinced that if we take God and his Word seriously, we must take its teaching about the Spirit seriously as well. Jesus followers simply cannot ignore this, explain it away, or accept it merely at the idea level.
We must live into the reality of the Spirit. The immediate question, though, is how do we do this?
The question is an awkward one. “How” implies steps and formulas, but we’re talking about our relationships with God. No one relationship is exactly the same because no two people are the same. Plus, God isn’t a vending machine. We can’t put in a quarter and expect to get the same result every time. We can only come to him authentically and humbly and let him take the lead.
So, instead of giving you steps to take, let me just describe how I started taking the Spirit seriously and learned to listen. (And, of course, I am still learning.) Your journey will look different, but maybe this will stir your imagination on how you might learn to listen as well.
I have always recognized the reality of the Spirit (as a fact I believed), but my daily habits and decisions seldom enlisted the Spirit’s wisdom and power. It was only a number of years ago that I started to realize how much I was ignoring him.
You see, I was trained in seminary that God uses our minds, our skills, the Bible, and our community to guide us (which is all true), but I went overboard. I basically stopped praying. I figured God is sovereignly guiding me anyway, so if I just tried to follow Scripture and the wise counsel of others I wouldn’t go wrong. (I’m not exaggerating. I was a ministry leader, and I stopped praying.)
Here’s the problem: It was a smoke screen. Deep down, I was afraid to listen. I was afraid of what others would think. I was afraid of what it would mean about me if I tried to listen and failed. Deep down, I felt unworthy.
The idea of getting alone with God—and the few times I tried it—was frightening.
Eventually, God used some painful experiences to get my attention, and I discovered a reality of God’s Spirit that has been truly amazing. It started with humbly opening my heart and mind to the Spirit’s voice. I finally decided to take him seriously and listen.
I got alone with God more. I turned my car radio off more often and asked God why I was so afraid of silence (seriously, I hated it and didn’t know why). I tried some new spiritual practices people called “disciplines” (Hint: I’m alluding to many of them here).
During this time, I read the Bible not just with my physical brain but with my spiritual ears—listening for what God wanted to say to me in that moment. I started reading with a simple prayer: “Lord, speak to me.” And I expected him to.
I started actually talking to God about what I was feeling and the questions I had. (Sometimes I even shouted and said words I shouldn’t repeat here.) I never got an audible response. Sometimes I got no response at all. But sometimes God spoke by either reminding me of passages in the Bible or by simply giving me an awareness of his loving presence. (That’s a hard one to explain.)
In those moments, my questions suddenly seemed small and irrelevant. I began to know God in way that went beyond information. It was more like getting to know a real person, and I experienced a level of grace and healing that changed me deeply.
This kind of journey doesn’t start with a 10-step formula. It starts with acknowledging and letting go of our fears so that we can humbly (even clumsily) begin to listen to the Spirit.
We need to talk about this: How do we learn to listen to Jesus’ voice through the Spirit?
I dare you to start a conversation with your friends, your small group, or a pastor about how to listen to the Spirit. Start with these passages: 1 Samuel 3; Jeremiah 29.13; John 10.27; and 15.1-10. How do you do that?
Let’s have a conversation right here. What is your experience with listening to the Spirit? What questions are you wrestling with?
Whatever we do, let’s not settle for the bland, safe Christianity so popular—and empty—today. God has more for us, and it has everything to do with learning to listen.