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07 February 2018

Can’t hear God? Read your bible!

’Cause sometimes God holds back his answers when he’s already given them in the scriptures.

So I’ve written on how prayer is simply talking with God. It’s not a one way-monologue where we do all the speaking, but God communicates back through omens, signs, coincidences, and other natural revelations which we can easily misinterpret. We talk; he talks back. Once we get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to hear his responses whenever we pray.

That is, till we don’t.

’Cause sometimes we can’t seem to hear him. Much as we try, we can’t detect what he tells us. Maybe he’s talking and we’re too stubborn to listen; maybe he’s not, ’cause he’s waiting for us to finally act upon the last thing he told us to do. (Oho, didn’t think of that one, did you?)

Or maybe it’s time we stop putting off reading our bibles.

’Cause once we learn how to hear God, too many of us Christians get into the bad habit of not reading the bible. We figure why bother?—God already tells us everything we need to know! So we don’t read the scriptures and find out what else we might need to know. If it really is a need-to-know deal, God’ll tell us. Right?

Yeah, it’s immature behavior. And 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, and we’re to be like Jesus.

So from time to time, when he feels we need to crack our bibles and get back into ’em, God stops talking. 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. I’ll explain why.

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, but now he’s gotta read it.

Likewise a lot of Christians don’t read. They’re not dodging the bible; they just plain don’t read. And they figure, “Why should I have to? I can just talk with God directly. Why go digging round the bible to seek God’s will, when I can just ask him, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ and he’ll tell me.” Doesn’t that sound so much simpler?

Actually, it sounds like an absence of patience.

That’s why people don’t read: Reading takes effort. Sometimes because they never really got the hang of reading, or of reading comprehension. Sometimes they have legitimate learning disabilities. Reading is far more effort than they care to put in. I tend to point such people towards audio bibles—they’re bibles, so they count. But the gist is they’re never gonna find out what a valuable payoff it is to read their bibles, because they don’t read.

And humans like quick answers. We don’t wanna “waste” a lot of time looking for answers, or studying the scriptures to find them. Thing is, God’s answers—long or short—aren’t wasted time. They’re wisdom. He’s trying to grow wisdom in his followers. He’s trying to make us deep thinkers. Short answers aren’t gonna do the job!

When we get too dependent on God’s short answers, it’s like feeding children with nothing but snack food. Kids regularly need a good, substantial 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 We have many messages about these topics—and explaining them is complicated,
because it’s like you’ve all become hard of hearing!
12 You were expected to be teachers long before now,
but you still need people to teach you certain basics about God’s word.
You’ve become babies who need milk, not solid food.
13 Every newbie who shares in “milk” is unskilled in righteousness: They’re children!
14 “Solid food” is maturity.
Through its use, sense is exercised when we dispute over what’s right and wrong.

The problem with short answers is little to no thought is put into them. We wind up with superficial Christians. And superficial Christians suck at discernment. They use their gut, not their minds, to understand the difference between right and wrong—and react to it wrongly instead of rightly, with outrage instead of 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 so well. So I gotta ask: How do these people know God was the one telling them this?

When Christians are first introduced to the idea of listening to God’s voice, some of us get the hang of it right away. Others don’t: They’re quickly misled into believing other things are God’s voice. They think they’re listening to the Holy Spirit, but it turns out they’ve been imagining what the Spirit might say to them, and their imagination is pretty darned haywire.

Worst case: Some evil spirit has been pretending to be the Holy Spirit all this time, and really messing ’em up. You do realize the devil’s favorite trick in the book is to play God, don’tcha? And it’s gotten really good at faking God’s voice among various Christians who think God actually approves of all their self-righteous, hateful, fruitless behavior.

God’s voice isn’t an audible one. He doesn’t use soundwaves. He uses our hearts and consciences. How do we detect a voice that “sounds” like God? Simple: By the content of his character. By his fruit.

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

With rare exceptions, God won’t tell us anything that’s 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, 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, he does that. It’s 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’ve 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 he 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’ve 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 interpretations of the scriptures so that they now mean something new. Plenty of Christians imagine he does, and interpret plenty of scriptures out of context as a result—and blame their bad behavior on the Spirit. Don’t be like them. If it’s really the Spirit, he knows what he originally meant, or 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 bible like crazy. The Holy Spirit isn’t necessarily revealing new stuff: We’re just finally reading these verses in context for the first time. And it’s just shameful how often they’re misquoted.

But yeah, often the Spirit’s gonna remove the veil from in front of our eyes so we can finally understand what the scriptures have been saying 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 a lot to show us!

Indirect revelation.

But even when the Holy Spirit doesn’t plan to talk to us as we read 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, instant messaging, 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 take them out of context!) 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 selfishness. 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.