The charismatic Christian community that introduced me to Jesus expected him to speak, vividly and verbally, today. While my prayer life generally consists of squinting my eyes and listening for some echo of a divine voice beneath my own thoughts, I can testify that they were right. A bare handful of times in my life, I have heard words that came, speech-like, unbidden into my mind.
Unfortunately, some of the times God's voice has been clearest have been times when I disobeyed.
During my senior year of college, I was precariously in love. After a few intense months of courtship, my beloved moved to Boston, and I was desperate to follow her. Good Christian that I was, I decided to pray for guidance. As I sat on my bed with my eyes shut tight, two words formed insistently in my brain: "Don't go."
What was this? Clearly, I thought, fears of romantic commitment were welling up from my subconscious. And why would God say, "Don't go," without saying where to go? I decided to pray more intently. "Lord, I really want you to lead me—"
Interrupting my prayers, I heard two and only two words: "Don't go." The voice, entirely clear though not physically audible, was neither harsh nor yielding.
I stopped praying, since the truth was I had already made up my mind. I moved to Boston. A few weeks later, I walked out of my beloved's apartment into a driving snowstorm. Wisely, she had ended our relationship.
Every evangelical has a testimony—mine just runs in reverse. Jesus did not save me from a life of notorious disobedience. When I started my conscious Christian life at age 13, I was a happy, if innocent, Pharisee. But since meeting Jesus, I have become ever more convinced of my deadly propensity to disobedience. I have discovered how inconvenient it can be when God actually does speak—inconvenient, that is, to my own plans for godhood. I have also discovered, as I did that winter morning, just how destructive my own will can be to me and to those around me, and how dedicated I can be to imposing that destruction. Being the god of one's own life is a desolate monarchy.
At least I'm in good company. The Bible is full of people whose encounter with God got them into trouble. As a faithful Jew in a small Galilean town, surely Simon the fisherman never thought himself capable of anything so terrible as betrayal. Jesus of Nazareth permanently messed up Simon's life by inviting him into a journey that climaxed with not one but three curse-laden denials. Tellingly, they were not denials of some theological proposition. They were more personal than that. "Woman, I do not know him." Peter denied the slightest acquaintance with the one whose voice he had heard day after day.
I am less eager for God to speak audibly to me these days—since God made it clear to me, as he did to Peter, that he would not simply underwrite my dreams. And I have given up the illusion many of us cherish that if only our circumstances were changed—if Jesus were here in the flesh, if a pillar of fire showed up to guide us, if a thundering voice addressed us from a cloud—then we would have faith.
Strangely enough, though I have largely given up my desire for dramatic words from God, he has not given up speaking to me. A year after that miserable morning when I waited alone for a bus in the snow, I finally had the sense to break down in tears, in the presence of friends, and ask God's forgiveness for trying to live by my own stupid plan for my life. Nothing in particular happened, except for a sense of relief. But over the next few years I found friends, opportunities for ministry, and—most delightful and unexpected of all—the true love of my life.
Four years later, I was walking through our new neighborhood in Cambridge. As it happened, our new home was one block away from the house where my college girlfriend had gently but firmly tossed me out into the cold. I stopped in the middle of the street, because that inward voice was back. "Andy, look at what I've done with your life. Look at what I did with your disobedience. I forgave it. I redeemed it. I love you. I am well pleased with you."
Oh, I don't know. Maybe he didn't say all that. He didn't really have to put it into words.
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Christianity Today's sister magazine Leadership has published several articles about hearing God, including:
Why Did God Speak to an Inexperienced Upstart? | And not to me? (Fall 2000)
Hearing God When a Critic Speaks | Turning negative comments into a constructive experience. (Fall 1998)
Deepening Our Conversation with God | A classic Leadership interview with Henri Nouwen and Richard Foster (Winter 1997)
Christianity Today has reviewed Dallas Willard's books, The Divine Conspiracy and Hearing God, both of which are about believers spending time with Christ to better discern his will and become more like him.
Andy Crouch's columns for CT are available at our site, as is "The Antimoderns | Six postmodern Christians discuss the possibilities and limits of postmodernism", an article featuring Crouch and some of his colleagues.
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