Discerning Listening

Although the Lord has given you bread of privation and water of oppression, He, your Teacher will no longer hide Himself, but your eyes will behold your Teacher. Your ears will hear a word behind you, "This is the way, walk in it," whenever you turn to the right or to the left. (Isaiah 30:20-21)

I have pondered the meaning of this text for many years and have listened to other people's opinions about it as well. What is meant here in reference to turning to the right or the left? And what kind of voice is it that talks to me? Is it an audible voice?

I struggled for many years to try to understand many of the analogies in the Bible. How does one 'fall on the rock', be 'washed in the blood' or 'have Jesus in your heart'? These and many more concepts seem so out of touch with reality to many people. Religious people use a whole raft of terms that seem strange and even bizarre to the uninitiated and many times I think the religious mainstream only uses many of these terms simply from practice and culture with possibly no more understanding that those outside their walls.

I have spent many years pushing to discover for myself what many of these terms really mean and to make them actually applicable in my own life irregardless of how shallow they may be to others. I came to believe that I am responsible first of all to God and how I relate to the truths of the Bible separate from what any group, family or church teaches me. As a result I have the habit of always questioning the assumed meanings of any phrase or word that has not yet come under enough scrutiny to fit into what God has been showing me over the years. All of these things need to make at least enough sense to fit into the larger context of what I am learning about God and the rest of the Scriptures properly interpreted. And the best source of unpacking these meanings is the Spirit of God who inspired the book to begin with.

I have heard a number of suggestions as to what it means to hear a word behind me when I turn to the right or the left. Some have said that it may only be when I turn from following the straight way that Jesus talked about that leads to life that I will hear an insistent voice internally warning me that I am starting to deviate from the right path. That idea has a great appeal to it and I believe may be very valid. But I wonder if there is much more to it.

After watching and discussing some of the hot-button issues that recently surfaced during the world-wide convocation of the church to which I belong, my mind went back to this verse as I wondered if it applies to times when we begin moving to the right or the left as typically those words are used socially or politically. I see an intensifying battle over the past few years between conservatives and liberals that often is very destructive and judgmental at times. I perceive serious flaws in the logic and the strident tones of both sides and wonder where the sweetness of Jesus and the pure truth of the gospel is in all of this debate. Somehow it would seem that if a person is truly being led by God that they should also reflect the same spirit that Jesus demonstrated when He dealt with similar issues while here on earth.

My mind was also drawn to an experience that happened to Elijah that I believe can add to my understanding of this idea of a voice behind me. It came after an event where I believe Elijah had failed to listen to that inner voice which had resulted in a catastrophic meltdown in his own life and a shameful run for his life before the threats of a wicked queen bent on killing him for revenge.

Where had all his boldness and courage gone? Why did he suddenly act so uncharacteristically after such apparent success on Mount Carmel? What stole away his confidence and left him begging to die?

It was under these circumstances that God took Elijah back to school so to speak, and ran him through a series of events designed to remind him of both his true identity and the right way to tune into God's presence and instructions. Elijah had done pretty well up to the confrontation on Mount Carmel but somewhere something went sadly awry. Now it was time for God to remedy Elijah's confusion and sudden fear and to get him back into proper synchronization with the voice that had guided him previously.

Then he said, Go out and take your place on the mountain before the Lord. Then the Lord went by, and mountains were parted by the force of a great wind, and rocks were broken before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind there was an earth-shock, but the Lord was not in the earth-shock. And after the earth-shock a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, the sound of a soft breath. And Elijah, hearing it, went out, covering his face with his robe, and took his place in the opening of the hole. And there a voice came to him saying, What are you doing here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13 BBE)

As I looked through various translations of this text I found some of the renditions quite fascinating and revealing. Here are a few of the phrases used by various translators.

a sound of a gentle blowing
a still small voice
a sound of sheer silence
a gentle whisper
a soft gentle voice

I have wondered about this voice for many years and just what or where I might hear it myself. I have also noticed that there are competing beliefs and teachings about this subject that make it even more difficult to know if I am hearing this voice or if what I think I am hearing is really the voice of the right Spirit. The context or the perceptions of reality that framework a person's view of life and truth have a great deal to do with the conclusions and assumptions that they are going to have regarding this voice. Even recently I have been listening to a preacher who presents powerful truths about the massive system of deception going on in this world. Many of the things he reveals are compelling and possibly very true. But the conclusions that he arrives at as far as what to do about these conspiracies disturb me and make me question his methods of arriving at some truths in this respect.

It seems to me that some people assume that to find truth they must search the Scriptures, expose errors and deceptions in the world and then go as far to the other extreme from error as they can to arrive at truth. But in my thinking and observation, it seems to me that if error is a counterfeit of truth then to go to the other extreme might just as likely leave one deceived as believing in the original errors. Instead of assuming that we need to go far away from a counterfeit it makes more sense to find the real truth that false doctrines are trying to counterfeit and that may in fact look very similar to the false. The difference, it seems to me, would be more in the spirit of a person as well as being faithful to following the Word of God as our only safe objective guide.

Many conservatives generally view anything to do with emotions with great disdain and suspicion at best. They see the dangers of many who fail to search the Bible for sound doctrine and rely primarily on emotions and feelings as their guide for spiritual development. I too can see the dangers of that approach. But going to the other extreme and suppressing or ignoring our emotional side in favor of a purely intellectual religion and calling that 'faith' seems to me to be falling into an equally dangerous error. That mistake tracks right along the same problem that the Jews had in Jesus' day who searched the Scriptures diligently believing that they could have eternal life by doing so while resisting the presence of the very One who had inspired those very Scriptures.

It is this very issue of seeing problems in the logic or practices of both the right and the left religiously that make me think that this verse from Isaiah may indeed be talking about God's method of keeping a person on the straight path to life. I am seeing enormous and compelling pressure from both the left and the right, both the strident, left-brain intellectual conservative side and the emotional, deceiving and popular right-brain appealing side. Both of them appeal to areas of truth that my mind and my heart need to experience but both of them also disparage the others and lead to imbalance and deceptions of a unique nature.

What I realize I need is not just a thorough knowledge of the Bible, as important and vital as that is, but I also need to be able to discern the voice of the author of that book that is the only reliable interpreter of it messages of warning and mercy. And given the texts that I am looking at here it seems to me that this voice just might be very easy to ignore or miss in my chaotic and urgent world pressing me to believe this or that extreme on both sides of many issues.

I hear the conservative teachers insisting that it is dangerous to meditate, engage in contemplative prayer or practice listening skills and times of silence. I can see the roots of many of these popular practices and how they are designed to deceive the whole world into ignoring the truths of Scripture by replacing solid Bible study with inner voices and powerful emotional experiences. I am learning about many of these dangers and do not want to ignore them.

But at the same time I also sense that there are serious problems to address in the suggestions of these same conservative teachers who imply that all of these appealing practices along with most music and worship styles today are to be dismissed as dangerous heresy. Because the counterfeits are very likely to resemble what is truly needed, I believe that I need to search even more diligently to discover what my heart was designed to experience in order to thrive in the ways that God created me to live. I believe that conservatives have become so frightened about emotions that they have endorsed suppressing and marginalizing emotions and thereby undermining part of the very foundation that is vitally necessary for us to be able to stand against the enemy in times of crisis.

On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to fail to spend significant times of careful study with an open mind in the Word of God and allow the truths of God to continually challenge our assumptions about what is real and especially about who God is and what He is really like. Both the left and the right have very perverted ideas about God that are often more reactive to the other side than they are based on what God is revealing about Himself. And I also believe that it is just as dangerous to ignore the voice, that internal still, small voice or whatever translation you might use, just as much as it is dangerous to ignore careful study and allegiance to the Word of God in the Bible.


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