Pastor Note #82: Learning to Hear God’s Voice


On a path at the Community of the Cross, Black Mountain, NC
Western North Carolina; photo by GAC

From Digital Camera to Bird Songs

When I got my first digital camera, photography opened up for me in a new and exciting way.  In the old days of film photography, every time you took a picture, it cost you half a dollar for the film and the processing.  That could run into money pretty quick.  With the arrival of digital photography, it costs essentially nothing to take a picture and look at it.  I could take my camera with me on a walk, take fifty or sixty pictures, come home, and look at them right away.  And it wouldn’t cost me a penny.

At that point, I was on a constant search for interesting things to take pictures of.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that birds are a good subject for a photographer.  Such a vast variety of colors, shapes, sizes, behaviors.  It also didn’t take me long to realize that birds are a lot harder to find than most people realize, especially if you are trying to find them out in nature.

If the birds are way up among the leafy branches of the trees or down among the tangled stalks of the undergrowth, how can you find them?  If you can’t see them very well, how can you know what kinds of birds are out there?  If only there was a way to find and identify birds that you can’t see.  Ah, but of course, there is a way.  You can do that with your ears by knowing their different songs and calls.

Every type of bird has a distinct song or call.  You can hear birds from quite a distance.  Leaves and branches don’t really interfere with your ability to hear a bird song.  You don’t even have to be facing the right direction to hear a bird singing.  Bird songs are the key to knowing what kinds of birds are around, in which direction to look for them, and about how far away they might be.  So, from being a guy with a digital camera who was just looking for interesting things to aim his camera at, I found myself learning bird songs.

For most of my life, I couldn’t much tell one bird song from another.  When I was outside on a pretty summer day, all I would hear was this general cloud of chirps and cheeps, squawks and twitters and peeps.  They all pretty much blurred together in my ears.  I suppose if I were pressed, I could have recognized a robin, a crow, a blue jay, and a sea gull.  But most of the time, the bird songs that filled the air were just so much background noise.

Early on in my venture to learn some bird songs, I remember standing in my backyard in upstate New York looking up into the trees for something to take a picture of.  For a while all I could see were common, familiar birds doing common, uninteresting things.  Then I noticed a piercing loud song coming from the pine trees in the back corner of my yard.  The song didn’t sound at all familiar to me, but, as I said, I had never really paid any attention to the individual songs of particular birds.  I worked my way toward the back of my yard, trying to pinpoint the location of this strong song that was repeated over and over.

Carolina Wren in my backyard
Carolina Wren in my backyard; photo by GAC

Then there it was on a branch about twelve feet up.  A small, rich brown, little bird with a lighter breast.  It held its tail at a perky angle.  There were dramatic, white eyebrows over its eyes, and its beak was longish and slightly curved.  What was this loud little songster?  Surely, some sort of exotic migrant passing through my yard on its way toward some northern forest.  I shot a bunch of pictures and watched until the bird flew off into someone else’s yard.

Then, I went in and put my pictures of this rare little bird onto my computer and began trying to figure out what it was.  Ah, there it was in my bird identification book—a Carolina wren.  Hmm. . . . the bird book said that this was a very common bird in eastern North America.  That couldn’t be right.  I was in my forties.  I’d lived in eastern North America all my life.  I didn’t remember ever seeing a Carolina wren or hearing a Carolina wren’s song.

But as I have said, I had never learned to pay attention to bird songs before this.  Before this, all the bird songs blended together into an undifferentiated mass of chirping.  But now I was learning to listen, learning to pick out one song from another.  In the days that followed my first sighting of a Carolina wren, I began to hear them everywhere I went—standing in the church parking lot, walking in the local town park, sitting at a traffic light in the middle of town with the windows open.  Everywhere I went, I was hearing Carolina wrens.  They’d been there all along, singing their lungs out.  I’d never noticed them.

Carolina wrens really are one of the most common backyard birds in North America.  That wasn’t a new development in the world of birds.  The truth is, I’d been hearing Carolina wrens all my life.  I just didn’t realize it.  I wasn’t paying attention.  It was just part of the background noise.

 

Recognizing God’s Voice

God is talking to us all the time.  He wants to be in conversation with his people.  He wants to speak his heart and mind into us.  Most of the time, God’s voice just blends into all the background noise of our lives—all the buzzing and murmuring of voices in our heads.  Mostly we go through life oblivious to the fact that amid all the background racket, the voice of God is speaking to us, calling us to listen, directing us toward his plans and purposes for our lives, calling us back from wrong paths, reminding us of his love for us and his grace, speaking his peace and assurance into our troubled lives, nudging us toward wisdom, and so many other things.  And we just don’t notice.  Just like all those Carolina wren songs I’d been hearing all my life but never noticing, we go through life with the voice of God always calling out to us.  Mostly we just don’t notice.  We’re too preoccupied with some worry or some lust or some resentment.

IMG_9630
photo by GAC

But we can learn to listen and to recognized God’s voice in the midst of this world’s noise and racket.  One of the ways I’ve learned bird songs is by listening to recordings of bird songs over and over.  I do that while I’ve doing other things.  Eventually, you begin to learn what to listen for.  You become familiar with the particular sound of particular birds.  And you begin to recognize them.  They become familiar to you.

Reading the Bible is something like listening to recorded bird songs.  As you read it and become really familiar with it, you begin to learn what his voice sounds like.  You begin to recognize it more and more when you hear it.  Prayer is another place where we can practice listening to God.  Prayer is the context where we can create some quiet space in our lives.  Prayer is the place where we can begin to hush the world’s racket and just listen.  Keep a notebook handy where you can write down what you think you’re hearing.

With bird songs, I can check myself.  I can hear a song and think to myself, “Oh, I think that’s a rose-breasted grosbeak.”  Then with binoculars and a camera, I can go looking for the bird.  Sometimes, I discover that I’ve been wrong.  The bird I’m hearing isn’t the one I thought it was.  I learn to listen more carefully that way.

 

Listening to God Isn’t “Safe”

Learning to hear God’s voice begins first with the desire to hear him.  Do you want to hear God’s voice speaking to you?  Don’t be too quick to assume that the answer to that question is yes.  Whether we can put it into high-sounding theological terms, we all recognized on some deep level that, when we come before God, we do not come before an equal.  We come before the Lord of heaven and earth.  In that sort of conversation, we will not be the ones who are in control.  If the thought of that sort of conversation doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then you are not being honest with yourself.

A scene from C. S. Lewis’s classic book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, illustrates the challenge of entering conversation with God.  Shortly, after arriving in the land of Narnia, the main characters are told that they are about to meet with the Aslan, the Christ figure of the stories.  When they are informed that Aslan is a great lion, one of the main characters asks anxiously, “Ooh!  A lion!  Is he – quite safe?”  Their guide is shocked by the question.  “Safe?” he replies.  “Who said anything about safe?  ’Course, he isn’t safe.  But he is good.”

Kings Creek in Weirton, WV
Kings Creek in Weirton, WV; photo by GAC

Most of us know on some level that allowing God to speak to us is not a “safe” activity.  It’s not “safe,” because he may tell us truths about ourselves that we don’t want to hear or admit.  It’s not “safe,” because he may call us to do things that will interfere with our own plans and wishes.  It’s not “safe,” because he will challenge our right to be in charge of our own lives.  And so, because on some level we know these things, despite what we might say, we really don’t want to hear God speaking to us.  It’s a form of that selective hearing most parents have experienced from their kids and most spouses . . . oh, let’s be honest, most wives have experienced from their husbands.

We are all prone to hear what we want to hear.  Typically, God won’t talk to us on those terms.  With God either we come to him without preconditions, willing to hear whatever he has to say to us, or we go our own way without his voice.  With God, preconditions are a conversation stopper.

Some years ago, when I was beginning to explore the possibility that God might be wanting to move me from one church to the next, I was reading through the list of churches that were seeking pastors.  One church kept coming to my attention, as if God were highlighting it every time I looked over the list.  It seemed in some ways to be a good fit for me.  But it had one big mark against it.  It was located in southern West Virginia.

Now, I was born and raised in West Virginia – northern West Virginia.  I consider West Virginia to be a very fine place to be from, but I did not have even a slight interest in returning to live there, especially not in southern West Virginia, which always felt like a foreign country to me.  To add an even less appealing element to the story, the church was located in the Kanawha River valley, otherwise known as “Chemical Valley” because of the large number of chemical manufacturing plants located there.  Sounds like a garden spot, doesn’t it?

Okay, in fairness to the Kanawha River valley, I have to confess that I’ve never actually been there.  So, it might really be a garden spot.  The point isn’t so much that it actually is a bad place to live.  The point is that I had decided that I didn’t under any circumstances want to live there.  But it seemed very clear to me that God kept pointing this southern West Virginia church out to me, prompting me to apply for their pastoral position.

I resisted for a while, but eventually God became very insistent, and so I finally sent my resume to them to be consider for their pastoral vacancy.  They couldn’t have had my information for more than a day before sending me back a polite reply.  They thanked me for my interest in their church, but they didn’t believe I would be a good fit for them.  In other words, they said “Thanks but no thanks.”  Well, immediately I had words with God.  “What was this all about?  Why were you so insistent that I apply to that church only to have them turn me down?”  His reply was a bracing attitude adjustment for me.  He made clear to me this message, “It was never my intention to send you to the Kanawha River valley.  I simply want you to be willing to go to the Kanawha River valley – or anywhere else I may send you.”  He was clearing away some of the preconditions I had been setting on him, so that I’d be able and willing to hear him clearly when he spoke to me.

If you want to hear God speak to you and lead you, then get rid of all the preconditions.  Come to him willing to hear anything – absolutely anything – he wants to say to you.  Yes, it is certainly true that he is not safe, but he is good, so very good.

 

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Millers Run near Pittsburgh; photo by GAC

Different Types of “God-Songs”

God communicates with his people in a wide variety of ways.  I may have given you the impression from some of what I’ve shared about my own interactions with God that he has spoken to me in audible words.  In fact, I have never heard him speak in audible words.  I know people whom I trust as reliable who have heard from God that way.  Sometimes, as in the case of the church in southern West Virginia, I simply had a strong, insistent, and persistent impression that God was directing me toward that.  Sometimes I know the words God is communicating to me, though I don’t hear a voice.  I simply know what he is saying.  That was the case with his explanation about why he had me send my resume to the church in West Virginia.  Sometimes God will lift a Bible passage up and apply it into my life or some situation in a powerful way.  I’ve known people who have distinctly heard from God in dreams.  I know people who receive images and pictures in their minds.

 

Putting Safeguards in Place

Now, it should be pretty obvious that we can easily get any of these communications wrong.  We need to use discernment, a good knowledge of the Bible, and reliance on the wisdom and insight of other mature Christians who know us well.  Here are some steps to take to protect against being led astray by ourselves or by the devil when we are trying to listen to God.

First, when you think you may have received a word or a leading from God, ask yourself whether it is consistent with what he has already revealed to us in the Bible.  God will not contradict himself.  The Bible is the infallible revelation of God’s mind and will.  He will never tell you anything today that contradicts what he has already told you in the Scriptures.  Knowing the Bible well is an absolutely necessary safeguard to discerning God’s voice today.  The revelation of God’s heart and mind in the Bible is the measuring stick for testing whatever guidance or leading you may believe you are receiving from him.

Second, ask whether the word you believe you are receiving will bring glory and honor to the name of Jesus Christ.  Everything that the Spirit does is aimed at giving glory and honor to Jesus Christ.  The Spirit who is the One who speaks to us will never lead us in any way that does not glorify Jesus and build up his church and his kingdom in the world.  Measure your leadings and words from the Spirit against that standard.

Third, seek the input and wisdom of other mature Christians who know the Bible and who know you.  Hearing God’s voice accurately is not a game of solitaire.  God puts us into communities of believers.  You need to have wise, godly, mature Christians in your life.  Involve them in this process of discerning what God is saying.

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House finch; photo by GAC

Finally, keep discerning even as you begin to act on the leading you believe you are receiving.  Look at the outcomes.  This is part of learning to hear better.  If after acting on the leading you find that you heard correctly, remember that.  Remember what his leading sounded like, felt like, so that you will recognize his voice better the next time.  Learning bird songs works like that, too.  Sometimes I’ll hear a bird song that I think I know.  “I think that’s a house finch.”  Then I’ll go looking for the bird to see if I was right.  If I’m right, it will help me recognize that song better next time.  If I’m wrong, I may learn a new bird song.  Do the same with the words you receive.  It will help you learn to listen better.  It is always good to debrief yourself as you go forward trying to follow God’s leading and direction in your life.  As you do it, you will learn and become better at doing it.

I’m convinced that God wants to have a living, vital, on-going, two-way conversation with us as we go through life.  If we will be open, willing, and attentive, we will hear him.  Let me suggest one way to begin to prime the pump.  Start asking God specific, concrete questions about your life, about circumstances, and about decision you have before you.  Then listen.  Then when you think you’ve heard, test it in the ways I’ve defined above.  Then pay attention to how that works out.  You’ll find that your life becomes very rich and alive with the voice of God.

 

Hungry to Hear

One of the major families of birds in North America is the thrush family.  I’ll venture to suggest that one of the thrushes is a bird that pretty much every American can identify on sight and by sound—the American robin.  Robins are pretty good singers, but they aren’t the best singers among the thrush clan.  The other three all have a very special vocal skill that robins don’t.  The other three thrushes are the hermit thrush, the wood thrush, and the veery.  All three of these other thrushes have the ability to sing two notes at the same time.  They can all sing chords!

All three of these special singers are little, gray-brown birds that are really hard to see when they are in their natural habitat, nested down in the tangled brush beside a little stream or way up high in the branches of a tree.  I’ve never seen any of them, but I’ve heard them.

The Chemung River from Tanglewood Nature Center overlook, Elmira, NY
The Chemung River; photo by GAC

One evening, I was out with my camera along the bank of the Chemung River in upstate New York.  I was looking for water birds of which the Chemung River has an abundance.  All of a sudden, I realized I was hearing something special from high in a tree off to my right.  It was the aethereal, spiraling song of a veery.  The hunt was on.  With binoculars and camera, I searched the trees with that beautiful song playing out in the background.  Eventually, it got too dark to see, and I had to give us the search for the time being.  But I’m always alert, ready to take up the hunt again.

May we all be even more alert for the sound of God’s voice, hungry, eager for the sound of our God calling to us.

© 2019 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.

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