Discerning God's Voice - Nader Sahyouni
FIRST SMALL GROUP BIBLE STUDY I remember sitting in my first small group Bible Study (Pause) If you’ve never been in such a setting, let me paint the picture for you. It’s casual, just in someone’s dorm room, and there are some snacks and everyone is sitting around comfortably to discuss something together about faith or the Bible that feels applicable to life, and as you can probably guess among a crowd that would attend such a group, it’s usually very agreeable and fun conversation.
GOD SPEAKING TO ABRAHAM Well the thing from the Bible this group I came to was reading this day was how God spoke to Abraham and told him he would bless him and so on. Now, I’m not one to want to disrupt an agreeable group, BUT I was very hung up on this idea that everyone else in the room seemed OK with, that God can actually speak to someone, and in the Bible story it sounds like God is on the other end of a long distance call, and I was not shy to challenge the group with that.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN KNOWING GOD AND HEARING HIM What the small group leader said in response was very wise. (Pause) He said something like “isn’t it our challenge though to get to know God as well as Abraham, so we can hear him that clearly”. That answer took me completely by surprise and made perfect sense. There seemed to be a connection between knowing God and being able to hear his voice. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today: how God speaks to us.
THREE TRADITIONS Here at the Brown Line Vineyard we value what we can learn from different Christian traditions, and so today we are going to look at how God speaks to us from the point of view of 3 traditions, Protestant, Catholic, and charismatic.
HEARING GOD AND MAKING DECISIONS When we talk about hearing God’s voice, most people would put that in the context of asking God’s help in making a decision. For the sake of simplicity then, we are going to talk about those two things interchangeably today, hearing God speak in general, as well as discerning which way he is leading us with big decisions.
PRAYER VS ANALYSIS Before we get started it’s important to make a distinction between analyzing God’s will and seeking God’s voice. It’s very tempting for us to try to analyze a situation from what we think is God’s point of view, and that’s a good start, but it’s not really listening to God. Looking for what God is saying can only happen with prayer.
GENERAL PROTESTANT APPROACH First, let’s look at discernment from the point of view of Protestant Christian traditions. Although there are thousands of Protestant denominations, a common understanding of discernment among Protestants is that three things need to line up. When faced with a decision we want to bring to God, we do three things:
THE THREE PARTS OF THE PROTESTANT APPROACH The first is look at what the Bible says, the second is the wisdom and counsel of people who are more mature in their relationship with God, and finally we pay attention to our feelings and look for a sense of peace. Let me give you an example of each one.
BIBLE First, even though I don’t believe that the Bible is a fax from God that I need to interpret like a piece of heavenly legislation, I do believe that the Bible reflects a great deal of spiritual power and authority. It has been very life giving for me, and it is held in very high regard by all of the Christian traditions that I value greatly. So if I am faced with a decision that clearly goes against something that Jesus taught for example, then it is clearly not from God. That is the first test for me.
Like when I was a programmer I got a call from a headhunter who wanted to hire someone to program billing systems, and the job sounded interesting until I understood that the company sold phone sex. That’s a clear no. Of course there is a spectrum of opinions on how to interpret what the Bible says about sex and sexuality, but I think almost all interpretations would agree that at the very least God’s purposes in creating sex, other than procreation, was to promote love and connection, not to create distance and isolation and greater evils like exploitation of women. So that was the end of that call. Test number one failed.
WISE COUNSEL But let’s say the first test passed. Many years ago I was in a situation many years ago where I felt someone in a leadership role had chosen someone over my wife for a particular role and I was very upset. Now the wisdom from the Bible is: if we think someone has wronged us, we should go talk to them. I was very ready to do that. However the second test is to talk to people who are wiser and further along in their relationship with God than we are, so I did that. I talked to a person I respected, and they said no, this leader had the right to choose in that situation and I should not confront them. I talked to a second person I respected and they said the same thing. I thought “o they are just afraid of conflict”, then I talked to a third person I respected and they said the same thing, so I knew then that I really need to be OK with the wise counsel I was getting and to let it go, and I’m glad I did. In retrospect, I was understandably upset for my wife but I was overstepping my role and trying to tell someone else how to do their job. So here’s the situation where the second test failed, and I knew it was not God’s will.
FEELING PEACE The third test is paying attention to how we feel -- and looking for a sense of peace. This is not an easy one for me. This idea of a sense of peace is not something I find easy to determine. It feels very subjective, and that’s because it is. I could feel peace about something today and not feel peace about it tomorrow. Nevertheless it is a very valid test. I find there comes a time when we are making a decision, especially if we are praying about it, when a growing sense of affirmation about the right path takes shape. For me that sense of inner affirmation is what this sense of peace feels like, and this is where there is overlap with the Catholic tradition which we will talk about in a while. But first I want to talk about the Charismatic tradition.
CHARISMATIC TRADITION By charismatic, I mean the church traditions today that are comfortable with the idea of God acting in supernatural ways today in the same ways he did when the Bible was first written. People from charismatic churches will pray for healing and expect that God could heal today. Although most Christian traditions would agree that God speaks into our lives, those from a charismatic background would be more open to God supernaturally entering into our thought lives.
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH CHARISMATICS My own first encounter with this approach to hearing from God was a bit jarring. It was about 4 years or so after my initial decision to follow Jesus, so I was in grad school at the time, learning to be a scientist, and all of a sudden I found myself in a church where people would say things like “God told me x y or z” and I found that to be …well…let’s say … surprising… and also…extremely uncomfortable. It was as if we were at the Abraham level again… Every time I heard that, I wanted to say “what he called you and left a message on your answering machine?” answering machines was what came before voice mail for those of you too young to remember…
QUESTIONS Anyway it used to irritate me to no end when people would say that. My first reaction was first of all how could you isolate a thought from your own stream of consciousness and say that’s God speaking. The second question is how do you know it’s God and not your subconscious, or how do you know even it’s not some other spiritual source? It took a while for me to get used to this, and then it took some more time for me to begin to experience some of this for myself.
DREAMS, ARTICLE, BIBLE Fortunately during that time I read an article in the Vineyard magazine that talked about asking God to speak to us in dreams. I thought, that could be a good alternative, because at least a dream can be an isolated piece of data that you could evaluate and decide if it’s from God or not. To make a long personal story short, I began to pray for God to speak to me in dreams, and I started to remember dreams more often, and sometimes they seemed to be from God. Sometimes it was just too much pizza I had the night before, or my brain was just rehashing the day’s events, and interestingly, in the Bible there are many examples of God speaking in dreams, but the Bible also says that we do have dreams that are not God speaking at all, but rather because we’re hungry or worried about something.
PRE-COGNITIVE/PROPHETIC DREAMS AND MY FIRST ONE Now what the Bible calls “prophetic” dreams, in the psychology research journals those are called “pre-cognitive” dreams. I had my first significant one not long after I started praying for dreams. I was in a job I hated and I prayed that God would give me a dream telling me when I would find out I’m changing jobs. I had a dream where I was telling my brother in law that I got a job, and there were two dates in the dream, the first date was my birthday and the second date was the last day of this class I was taking. I ended up getting called for a second interview on my birthday and being offered the job on the last day of this class I was taking. Now I don’t recommend necessarily asking God for dates like that, I was pretty immature when I did it, but nonetheless God humored me and it built up my faith. There’s more to the story, but the bottom line is that these things started happening to me, and it strengthened my faith. It made God much more real to me.
HARD LESSONS WITH DREAMS - CONDO At the same time, I had to learn some hard lessons. At the time we were looking for a house, and we couldn’t afford a house, and one night I had a dream of getting a call to see this place and it was beautiful, and the second day we got a call from a friend to see this condo and it was indeed beautiful, and we bought it, and ….well… it was a disaster.
Now if I hadn’t had that dream we probably would have still bought it because we still had a lot to learn about finances, but the dream certainly encouraged me and it really should not have. I mean it was so not the right thing to do. It was more than we could afford, the assessment was too high, and it was very bad for a couple like us who wanted to have kids right away. So I learned the hard way that when we think we hear from God directly, we can make pretty big mistakes.
I’ve learned since then that God can sometimes speak to me through inner impressions or symbolic pictures, but once again, I only rely on these as ways to help me pray or as confirmation with the other ways of discernment I just talked about.
FUNNY DREAM Last week for example, as I was praying for this sermon, I had a dream where Kyle and Vince were preaching and all of you were asleep, and I came in and started preaching and all of you woke up and were hanging on every word…. JUST KIDDING…. I didn’t have any dream like that.
To summarize the charismatic approach then, hearing from God can be a powerful way to build up our faith and draw us nearer to him, but it’s not how we make decisions. It can be one component, along with a sense of peace, wise counsel from people we trust, as well as what is portrayed in the Bible.
CATHOLIC TRADITION Finally we come to the Catholic tradition, and within the Catholic tradition, there was a priest from the 1500’s called Ignatius of Loyola, who started what is called the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits for short. Loyola University here in Chicago is one of the ministries of the Jesuits. In the US they tend to be mainly educators, but in other parts of the world they do run other ministries also. But back to Ignatius of Loyola for a second. Ignatius developed a very powerful set of exercises to help people grow spiritually and to grow in their discernment. I am going to cover just one small piece of it here to give you a flavor.
EXAMEN AND HOW I DO IT Through this church, Some of you may have done the spiritual exercise called the Examen. Jesuits do it three times a day. Mother Teresa used to do it twice a day. I do it personally just once a day. There are some complex ways to do it and some very simple. I choose to do my simplified version of the simple way. The way I do it is that as I sit down to pray each day I go over the previous day with God. I thank him for the times I seemed aware of his presence and his movement and I was aligned with it, and I ask him for help in the areas where I was not. If at any time I feel God gently pointing out that I need to apologize for something to someone or to God, I do that too.
EXAMEN AS A WAY TO BUILD DISCERNMENT MUSCLES Now you might think that the main value of an exercise like that is that it helps us to align more with God’s desire for us to live a full life, and it certainly does that, but I think a much greater side effect is that by doing this exercise every day we become better and better at discerning God’s activity and his movement, that way when bigger decisions come, it’s not as hard. I wish I could tell you that that solves everything, it doesn’t, it’s an ongoing journey, and it’s especially hard sometimes to know God’s will where we are especially invested in going one way versus the other.
DAVID BENNER - WANTING GOD’S WILL David Benner was a psychiatrist and a spiritual director and he wrote a book about discerning God’s will and he said that the real question of God’s will is not whether he wants us to do A versus B, but whether we want A when he wants A and we want B when he wants B. God is more interested in changing our hearts so that we want the things that he wants.
TOO BIASED TO HEAR GOD - PRAY FOR NEUTRAL HEART - THEN PRAY FOR GOD’S HEART So if we find ourselves too invested in a given direction, and too biased to be able to hear God objectively, Ignatius of Loyola recommends that we pray for neutrality, a freedom from bias before we start out trying to figure out what God is saying. He says that when we are free from bias, then we can be more easily led by God and care only about what he cares about.
I don’t know about you but that appeals to me a great deal. I’d love to have that kind of freedom, to be free to care only about what God cares about. That’s a maturity that I really long for, it’s a kind of intimacy with God that really draws me. I feel like the people I’ve met who are closer to that have a lot more peace and joy than I do, and are able to love others a lot more freely than other people I’ve known.
IGNATIUS ADDITIONAL SUGGESTIONS Ignatius wrote out a number of suggestions that we can’t really go into, but I will share with you three quick ones that could be helpful as you pray about big decisions: First, you could imagine yourself on your deathbed, and wonder which decision you would have taken. Second, you could imagine yourself at your best self, your truest self, when you are the most ideal self you can be, and ask yourself what decision you would make then. Third you could pretend you made a decision one way and go with that for a few days and see how you feel. If you feel aligned with God’s will and at peace, then it’s probably where God is leading you. If on the other hand you feel more agitated and further from God, he is probably not leading you in that direction.
MY CHANGING CAREERS As many of you know for example, I’m in the middle of changing careers. I am leaving a corporate job to focus more on counseling, spiritual direction and ministry. In the middle of that decision, here’s what how these three tests would have looked like:
I could imagine myself on my deathbed wondering which decision I should have taken many years ago, do I continue in the corporate world or move to counseling and ministry? I could imagine myself when I’m not anxious about finances or health or what the future might bring, and when I feel connected with God’s purpose for my life, and ask which decision I should take Finally, if I still can’t make up my mind, I could decide inwardly for a week or two to not make the change, and see how that feels. Then I could decide inwardly for a week or two to go ahead with the change, and see how that feels. For me this was easy as I felt God’s desire for me clearly in the decision to make the change.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION One other thing that comes from the Catholic tradition is the concept of meeting with a spiritual director. The idea of spiritual direction has evolved over the last 2 thousand years quite a bit. In today’s world, there’s a joke among spiritual directors that spiritual direction is neither. It is not spiritual and it is not directive. It is not spiritual because we talk about anything the directee wants to talk about, not just prayer for example. It is also not directive, because the spiritual direction should not be acting as a mentor or advisor. Rather as a facilitator who allows the person to be directed by the HS, so when a directee leaves a spiritual direction session, they should expect to feel guided by the HS, not by the Spiritual Director. Usually those meetings are once a month and they go for an hour. Usually Spiritual Directors charge for the ministry, somewhere between 50 and around 100 dollars per session. If you want help finding one, I’d be glad to provide a referral ...
CLOSING That’s a bit of a crash course we’ve had today in how to listen for God’s voice and his leading in our lives, and I’m guessing that some part of what I said today probably hit home for you, and I’d like to pray for you for that… and Vince will tell you about some options for moving forward with this as well. Let’s have everyone stand up for a minute…