31 May 2022

Can’t hear God? Read your bible!

Prayer is talking with God, and the emphasis is on with God: Yeah we talk to him, but it’s not a one way-monologue where he doesn’t speak back. We don’t presume, like pagans do, that God’ll tell us stuff like “the universe” does—with omens, signs, coincidences, and other superstitions which can easily be misinterpreted, same as all natural revelations. We talk, and God definitely talks back.

That is… till he doesn’t.

’Cause sometimes we can’t seem to hear him. Much as we try, we can’t detect what he’s telling us. Sometimes because we’re too stubborn or impatient to listen. Sometimes because haven’t listened to the last thing he told us to do, so he’s waiting for us to act on that before he tells us anything more. (Oho, didn’t think of that one, did you?) And sometimes because we’re listening to him instead of reading our bibles.

Y’see, too many of us Christians get into the bad habit of not reading the scriptures. And once we’ve learned to hear God, we figure, “Why bother?” God already tells us what we need to know! Why dig around some 2,000-year-old book for answers when we can just ask our Father, “Hey, what do I need to know rght now?” I mean, if it really is a need-to-know deal, God’ll come through, right?

Yeah, it’s immature behavior. It’s like a history student skipping the textbook, and asking Siri or Google for the answers to every line on the take-home exam.

God’s training us to be better than that. You think Jesus, just because he is God, has godly wisdom and character in abundance, figured it was okay to give the scriptures a pass? Nuh-uh. He made darned sure he knew ’em better than everyone. Jesus read his bible. We’re to be like Jesus, remember?

So from time to time, when he feels we need to crack our bibles and get back into ’em, God puts his side of the conversation on pause. Or he straight-up tells us (as he has me, many times), “I already answered that in the scriptures; read your bible.”

Hence that’s become my go-to response whenever somebody tells me, “I haven’t heard from God lately,” or otherwise complains God feels so distant, or the heavens feel like brass when they pray. Dt 28.23 My usual advice: “Read your bible.”

Okay, maybe you already do read your bible. Good. Keep it up.

And go deeper.

A lot of people don’t read. Not just bible; they don’t read anything. My dad, fr’instance: He doesn’t read newspapers, the internet, or books. He listens to the radio, and watches TV news and YouTube. Buy him a book and he’ll never read it. Write an email that’s too long, and he’ll get irritated: You could’ve phoned him and said all this stuff, and now he’s gotta read it.

Likewise a lot of Christians don’t read. Not because they’re dodging the bible; they don’t read anything. (They might listen to audio bibles instead; just a suggestion.) Reading bible is therefore something they dodge—and talking with God provides ’em a handy excuse. “Why should I read the bible when I can just talk with God directly? I can say, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ and he’ll just tell me.” Sounds so much simpler, doesn’t it?

There are a number of valid reasons people don’t read, like learning disabilities, poor eyesight, poor retention, and so forth. Reading takes a lot of effort for them. Way more than they care to put in. Which is why I point such people to audio bibles; does it matter how they get their bible?

Other times it’s purely an deficiency of patience. Humans like quick answers, and don’t wanna “waste” a lot of time looking for them, or studying the scriptures to find them. Thing is, God’s answers—long or short—are far from wasted time. They’re wisdom. He’s trying to grow wisdom in us followers, and make us deep thinkers. Short answers won’t do the job!

When we get too dependent on God’s short answers, it’s a lot like feeding children nothing but Doritos and Pepsi: Kids need a regular substantial, nutritious meal! For Christians, that’d be bible. The writer of Hebrews was irritated at how her audience was only interested in snacking at God’s table. Because they weren’t deep thinkers, it seriously restricted what and how much she, and her fellow Christian leaders, could teach them:

Hebrews 5.11-14 NLT
11 There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. 12 You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. 13 For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. 14 Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

The problem with quick answers is how little thought goes into them, and how rarely Christians meditate on them. Because why meditate?—it’s not complicated and weighty, it’s simple! This is why we have so many superficial Christians. And superficial Christians suck at discernment. They use their gut, not their minds, to understand the difference between right and wrong—and their knee-jerk reactions are usually based on humanity’s innate selfish impulses instead of God’s wisdom and God’s grace.

So we gotta wrestle with these ideas. Study them. Meditate on them. Short answers, even when they come from God (because let’s be honest, we’re gonna bungle them), are no substitute for the depth we can pull from the scriptures. We gotta read our bibles. So read it!

Get a better grip on how God’s voice sounds.

Every so often, a Christian’ll tell me something cool they’re pretty sure God’s told them. Problem is, their cool new idea doesn’t always jibe with the bible. Verses instantly come to my mind which contradict their clever ideas. (’Cause I know a lot of bible. ’Cause I read it!)

So here’s the obvious question: Why do these people think God told them this?

Well a clever idea dropped into their heads, and they’re pretty sure it’s not just a clever idea, but a God-idea. It’s so clever, it can’t be their idea; the Holy Spirit must’ve dropped it into them.

Which makes sense. That is one of the usual ways God talks to us. But here’s the catch: The Holy Spirit is not the only spirit in the universe, and not the only spirit who drops ideas into our heads! Any spirit can drop an idea into us. Including not-so-holy spirits. Including evil spirits. Spirits which specialize in coming up with clever-sounding ideas, then trying to see which of us humans are stupid enough to run with them.

God’s voice isn’t an audible voice! (It can be of course, but more commonly he doesn’t talk to us with an audible voice.) So how do you know what you heard is his voice? How do you know it’s not your imagination, where you’re imagining what the Holy Spirit might say… but really it’s just you, having conversations with yourself like an entertainer and his sock puppet?

I’ve met more than one Christian who’s been talking to themselves all this time. How can I tell? ’Cause their “messages from God” aren’t necessarily evil—they know better than to embrace evil!—but they’re not consistent with bible. Or they think they’re consistent with bible, but they interpret the bible wrong in obvious ways, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t interpret the bible wrong at all.

And of course their predictions about the future don’t happen. Every time they go out on a limb, it snaps.

Okay, let’s begin with the basics. How do we detect whether the voice in our minds “sounds” like God, even though he doesn’t use soundwaves? It’s actually simple: We gotta recognize the content of his character. We know him by his fruit.

But how do we learn the content of God’s character? Also simple: Read your bible.

With rare exceptions, God won’t tell us anything inconsistent with his character. And in the scriptures, that’s what God sounds like: We see him consistently speak in character, regardless of whatever prophet he speaks through. When we read the words of Jesus, we hear exactly what God sounds like.

So we need to get very familiar with, and regularly return to, the scriptures’ examples of God’s voice. Otherwise we’re gonna base God’s voice on what we think he last told us. And if that’s actually the devil who last told us something, it’s gonna trick us into making it the baseline for what God sounds like. Yep, this is precisely how heretics and cults start: People who think they heard God, follow those voices withersoever they go, and wander far away from all the other Christians in the world. Watch out for such people! And lest the devil trip you up too, keep returning to the scriptures.

I mentioned “rare exceptions” where God’s gonna say something inconsistent with his character. Yes, sometimes he does that! It’s meant to shake us up a little, and get our attention: “Wait a minute, God! Didn’t you say otherwise?” But how’re we gonna know he said otherwise… unless we read our bibles? Note Acts 11.4-17, when Simon Peter objected to God violating his own Law—and the Holy Spirit trying to show Peter there’s a vast difference between the ritual cleanliness in his Law, and the gentiles the Spirit was sending to Peter’s door.

Who says God can’t speak to us through the bible?

The Holy Spirit inspired the bible, y’know. When we read it, and try to follow it, the Spirit supervises what we get out of it. Christians tend to call this illumination—the Spirit lights up the scriptures, so to speak, so we can read them better. “Didja notice this? And this? And did you catch what I said here?” Sometimes the Spirit drops insight after insight into us as we’re reading the bible—so much so, it’s like we just had a concentrated talk with God.

Now don’t get the wrong idea: When the Spirit drops these insights into our brains, he doesn’t change the meanings of the scriptures so they now mean something new. Yet plenty of Christians imagine he does. I’ve heard many a false prophet quote scriptures out of context as a result—and blame their misinterpretations of the Spirit, of all people. Don’t be like them. If it’s truly the Spirit, he knows what he meant! He knows what his prophets originally meant. He’s not gonna go all loosey-goosey on you.

True, you’re gonna read the bible and think, “I thought it meant one thing, but in context it means something entirely different!” Happens to Christians all the time. It’s because there are so many bad teachers out there, misquoting away. We’ve learned so much junk, and the Holy Spirit has so much to correct! It’s just shameful how often bible is misused.

But yeah, the Spirit’s frequently gonna remove the veil from in front of our eyes so we can finally understand what the scriptures have said all along.

Frequently the Spirit’ll show me something as I’m reading the bible… and then I’ll go double-check it with a historian or biblical commentary. Most of the time, the scholars’ studies of these verses line up precisely with what the Spirit just told me. It’s kinda nice to have God’s revelations confirmed by scholars. It helps me know I (and they!) aren’t misfiring.

When the Spirit gets personally involved in our bible study, it’s direct revelation—precisely like prayer. He’s talking to us and we’re listening. He’s using the bible to do it, instead of prayer, but he is talking to us. And if we’ve not been hearing from God lately, it may very well be he wants us to crack open our bibles and study it along with him. He’s been keeping quiet because he’s waiting for us to do this. He has lots to show us!

Indirect revelation.

But even when the Holy Spirit doesn’t plan to personally guide us through his bible, it’s still a good idea to read it as we’re waiting for the Spirit to say something.

Back in the olden days—before phones, email, DMs, and texts—people had to wait a long time between communications from their loved ones. They’d send a letter or telegram, and have to wait a day. Or days. Or weeks or longer. What were they to do in the meanwhile? Well they could sit and wait and go squirrelly. Or they could get out their loved one’s old telegrams and letters, and read them.

The bible is God’s old letters.

So rather than sit there and imagine what God might say, it’s much healthier and more realistic to look back on what God did say. Because it’s very easy to imagine God wrong. We’re nothing like God. Our sin and self-centeredness twists everything. When we speculate what Jesus might do, we have a bad habit of inventing a twisted caricature of Jesus which resembles us more than him. We often wind up following ourselves… but with Jesus’s face pasted on.

But when we read the scriptures (and don’t distort them!) we have something solid to go on. Really, it’s a lot more solid than the stuff he told us personally. Not because the bible’s more reliable than God; I’m absolutely not saying that. It’s because the bible’s more reliable than us. We might’ve misheard or misunderstood God. We might be re-interpreting what he told us, just as we might bend what he said in the bible, in favor of our own selfish ideas which we like better. But in the case of the bible, everybody has a copy of God’s words; everybody can read it for ourselves; everybody can confirm he really did say and mean that. Much easier to double-check the bible than our personal revelations.

So read your bible. Keep reading your bible. Never stop reading your bible. And whenever God grows quiet… fall back on your bible. Not as a substitute for God; it’s never that. Those that treat it that way are falling into idolatry. But the bible’s a substitute for hearing nothing from God at all… and gets us prepared for when we start hearing from God again.