I’ve been talking about God’s general plans for our lives. But what about the times when we feel we need more specific divine direction and guidance?
Or to widen it out a little, how can we ever hear from a God who tends not to speak in an audible voice or communicate in everyday human speech?
Not being able to hear from God is something of a problem, it seems to me. Communication is the basis of any meaningful relationship. Admittedly, it’s not the only thing; sometimes silent presence is enough. It can be enough just to know we’re known and held and loved. But without two-way communication, it’s hard to sustain any relationship long-term – particularly one where you can’t even see the other party.
The communication from us to God isn’t a problem. We can pray any time we like, expressing whatever we feel. It’s the communication in the other direction that’s so puzzling, tantalising, frustrating. And it’s particularly difficult when we’re desperate to hear something from God – perhaps an answer to prayer, a word of encouragement or comfort, guidance for a major life decision, or instruction for how to handle a tricky situation.
Now, of course, we have the Bible, and we have the model and words of Jesus. Evangelicals (and not only they) would argue that the Bible is God’s primary and normal means of communicating with us.
To which I’d respond, yes, but it’s not really direct or personal communication if it’s just the general words of Scripture, mostly addressed originally to someone else over 2000 years ago in a very different situation from our own.
To which the reply would doubtless be that the Holy Spirit speaks creatively and afresh to each of us through the words of Scripture. In this way God brings out new nuances of meaning that can address our situation directly, as though the words were written to and for us, here and now.
I do actually agree with this, but it’s only rarely that I experience such direct communication through the Bible. (Though to be fair, I might experience more if I read it more.)
And I’d also add that Scripture is often very far from crystal clear and easy to interpret, whatever the fundamentalists might proclaim. And we’re unlikely to get direct, specific instruction from the Bible relating to particular questions we have or decisions we have to take – for example, which job or school or house to go for. We might get obliquely relevant advice, but it can often be read more than one way. The Bible isn’t a horoscope.
Picking up the signal
In any case, clearly God doesn’t only speak through the Bible; he’s not limited to that means of communication. He spoke directly to the people in the Bible after all. I believe that God can and does speak to us in a variety of ways by his Spirit, but it’s just not always easy for us to pick up these messages.
(As an aside, I recently read something by Rick Warren saying that God will only speak to you if you have determined beforehand that you will say yes. I strongly disagree with this. Even in the Bible, a lot of people God spoke to weren’t too sure at first, or argued the toss with him, or even said no. Moses, Gideon and Jonah all spring to mind.)
Sometimes I feel like listening to God is like listening to a radio signal, but it feels like there’s a problem with my receiver, or that I haven’t worked out how to tune into his signal or distinguish it from the background noise. And even when I do on rare occasions manage to pick up the signal, I still need to decipher or decode the message, which I’m not sure how to do.
And sometimes it’s perhaps not so much picking up a message as listening to the silence, and discerning the type or quality of that silence…
Another way of looking at it might be that God’s silence is actually an over-abundance of communication (an idea I got from Christian post-modern philosopher Pete Rollins). Perhaps God’s speaking so much all the time that we just experience it as white noise and don’t hear the individual ‘words’.
And there’s the psalmist’s idea that ‘day and night the heavens pour forth speech’; that all creation is communicating all the time, but silently or in ways that we haven’t learnt to pick up. Perhaps.
Solving the puzzles
Or again, sometimes listening to God can feel a bit like solving a cryptic crossword puzzle or a detective mystery. It requires work and effort and lateral thinking. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a lot of cryptic crossword setters are clergymen.
So why does God make it so tricky for us to work out what he’s saying? I’m not sure, but I suspect that it’s partly because if we’re to gain true understanding, we need to work stuff out for ourselves rather than being spoon-fed. God quietly leads and subtly guides us, but like any good parent he won’t do everything for us, nor give us everything we want on a plate.
Going back to the skies pouring forth speech, I think God’s primary means of communication to us outside the Bible is through secondary natural agents. In other words, God speaks and acts through nature, through other people, through the events and circumstances of our lives, and of course through our own thoughts and consciences.
Some report that God speaks to them through dreams; this has rarely if ever been my experience, but God uses different ways for each of us. Others set great store by ‘signs’, but I wouldn’t, unless the number of signs mounts up to the extent that it’s impossible to ignore.
Sometimes we may have the sense of God guiding us by what the Christian cliché calls ‘opening doors’ (new opportunities arising) or conversely ‘closing doors’ (choices taken away from us by circumstance or others’ decisions).
Again, sometimes we can be led by an inner sense of rightness or peace about the path we’ve chosen – or else the opposite. But I don’t think we can fully rely on this; neither our circumstances nor our feelings are necessarily reliable indicators of God’s will.
One way I think I’ve occasionally experienced God’s cryptic communication has been through odd coincidences while (or just after) I’ve been praying. I may have been asking about a particular issue in my life, and then I’ve looked up and spotted something which seems oddly (if tangentially) relevant. It’s often hard to work out what if anything these odd coincidences mean; perhaps nothing. But perhaps at the least they may be signs that God is listening.
God of the disruptions
I can’t take credit for this idea, but I also think that God often speaks to us through the unexpected and the disruptive. The idea is that God is not so much in our personal agendas and programmes (even our Christian ones), but is rather that which annoyingly and inconveniently interrupts those agendas and disrupts those programmes. Sometimes we need to look for God in the irksome and the irritating, the problematic and even the painful. He seems to like throwing spanners into our orderly works, and sending us off course.
Again, God is rarely what we’re looking at or attending to directly. He lurks just out of sight, just beneath the visible surface of our lives and plans. You almost have to learn to see God out of the corner of your eye, on the fringe of your consciousness.
And I think we have to be open to God speaking to us through all things and all people, including atheists, those of other faiths, and people whose lifestyles or politics we strongly disagree with. I think God particularly enjoys using the unlikeliest and most unattractive people to speak to us; it humbles us, and maybe appeals to his sense of humour.
God told me?
Of course, some Christians (particularly charismatics) do claim that God speaks to them pretty much all the time, directing or instructing them in the specifics of life. I can’t comment on this, apart from to say that it’s not my own experience and I tend to be very suspicious of any claims of ‘God told me…’
I’ve only met one person who I believe had a genuine prophetic gift, and I don’t think he experienced it as an unmixed blessing. For the vast majority of us, I think we have to be generally content with far more indirect, equivocal and cryptic divine communication.
So keep your eyes and ears open…