Voice Recognition Training
God speaks primarily through the small voice, the conscience voice. He doesn't like using the loud voice because it confuses us. And besides, that kind of voice is far too easy to counterfeit.
With the Children of Israel who had just come out of Egypt, God's quiet voice was not listened to even though undoubtedly that small voice was speaking with them all along. His small voice is the one that points out and reminds us of the evidences about God all around us, evidences that Paul spoke of in Romans 1:19-20, evidence of the invisible attributes of God that can be discerned in visible creation.
Israel had a history of providences in the lives of their forefathers that revealed how God felt about them. Yet because they had become so conditioned to only listen to loud voices, threatening voices, demanding voices and selfish voices, their ears and hearts had largely become unable to discern the truth about God even when confronted with some of the most spectacular demonstrations of His love for them. Oh, they would rejoice temporarily at times after immediate urgent desires were met. But each time their gratitude would fade like the seeds that sprung up in the rocky soil Jesus talked about. Each time not long after their initial outbursts of gratitude, as soon as things began to get tough again they would revert right back to their default mode of complaining, criticizing and assuming that God was out to deceive or to exploit them.
Yet through it all and in spite of them, God's small voice still remained all along, seeking to reveal to their hearts the true nature of the heart of their real Father. That quiet voice sought to remind them of Him as they watched the supernatural cloud amazingly protect them from Pharaoh’s army. They heard the voice as the Red Sea opened to give them safe passage and as the sea relaxed again when doubting, fearful Egyptians tried to use the same route without the necessary faith to keep the waters at bay.
God's small voice had prompted them to trust His heart each morning as they gathered fresh Manna for their daily provision. When they noticed how God's food was never too much or too little no matter how much they gathered, that inner voice was seeking to tell them something about the nature of God's kind of reality where things function very differently than what we are used to in this world.
But it soon became very clear that few, if any, were willing to listen honestly and respond to that quiet voice of God inside. They had become so conditioned to only offer credibility to loud, boisterous, demanding or violent voices. They viewed authority only in terms of who used force and power rather than respect and kindness, so at last God had to resort to using the only kind of voice to which they would listen. He never wanted to speak that way to anyone, but if He was ever to establish communication with the ones He so longed to draw and lead He had to do it. So finally He arranged to speak to them from an imposing mountain in such a way that it would be impossible to ignore.
Yes, God used a big, burning, smoking, shaking, thundering, terrifying mountain with all the accoutrements of power that they were used to obeying in order to communicate His simple but authoritative description of His character. But even then He had to express most of it in negative terminology, for that was about the only kind of language they were willing to acknowledge. They had lived for so long with negative language and threats from abusers that relied on force and punishments to manipulate them as slaves that it had become impossible to reach them with in any other method.
Yet it was a sad day when God was compelled to do this, even though it did inch their relationship forward a little toward their finally respecting God a bit more. But in being forced to resort to inferior communication, God was also risking the danger of setting a precedent that would confuse people throughout the rest of history. And that is exactly what has happened, for everyone since that day has looked back at that thunderous expression of the Law to insist that the Mt. Sinai model is the penultimate revelation of what God is like. But in truth that is not the case at all, and the risk that God took in the desperate measures He used to get through to severely damaged victims of slavery has since become a stumbling-block for us that He has been seeking to overcome ever since that day.
It is highly significant that centuries later God and one of His most prominent prophets of Israel met again on this same mountain where He did something with an interesting link back to this time when God first met with His children there. Elijah was a man whom God had been mentoring to listen more consistently to that small, inner voice, and Elijah had been learning the lessons rather well for some time. God was delighted to have a man who at last was learning His language better, the language of gentleness and quietness, a language of the inner spirit that does not require external communication. Even though Elijah's natural personality was rather blunt and forceful and there were times when he didn't listen to that inner voice very attentively, overall he was learning to follow the directions he discerned from that quiet voice and God had been able to make great progress in moving him away from the false paradigms of the world that had become entrenched in the kingdoms of this world.
But at a most crucial moment in Elijah's career, after God had taken another huge risk with him, Elijah too failed to consistently listen to that inner voice due to the confusion and adrenaline rush of living in the spectacular of the supernatural. Like the Children of Israel had done so long before at the foot of Mt. Sinai amidst the thunder and lightning, fire and smoke and terrifying shaking of the earth, Elijah got distracted by all the commotion of the spectacular spiritual fireworks happening on Mt. Carmel and slipped back into a similar mode of thinking that too many of us get caught up with today. Elijah made the assumption of thinking that because God was so clearly working through him and was using him to awaken the hearts of backslidden Israel to turn back to trusting in God, that he could momentarily ignorethat inner voice and follow his own animated emotions. After all, he was God's man for the hour and he felt confident that he already knew what God would want done under these circumstances.
I am painfully aware of the mental pattern of this kind of thinking that got Elijah into so much trouble. Just yesterday I was making comments in a discussion on FaceBook when I sensed a familiar surge of intense reactive emotion in my chest while I read other comments arousing resentment in me over some trigger issue. I immediately took things into my own hands and like Elijah ignored that nearly imperceptible inner warning and I let fly some sharp comments of my own which, of course, predictably produced a defensive reaction from my protagonist. As my conscience sharply pricked me over the next few minutes, I tried to excuse my choice to ignore the warning I had felt inside, brushing it off as just an over-active conscience and rationalizing that my comment wasn't really all that harmful anyway.
(In fact, this situation is unfolding in real time even as I write this. After that last paragraph I finally was compelled to go back to FaceBook and leave an apology for this stranger, for I have come to realize that I cannot afford to allow any seed of bitterness to remain planted in my heart that will spring up and quickly create more poison that will eventually produce a devastating harvest. Elijah's story has long served as a stern warning to me about this and I don't want to keep repeating the same mistake others have done. That is why these stories are here, so that we can make better choices and enjoy better results.)
What drew out my attention this morning was the realization that God met up again with Elijah after this incident on Mt. Carmel back on Mt. Sinai, the very same location from which He had delivered His Law amid displays of power similar to what Elijah had just used to impress backslidden Israel. But this time on Mt. Sinai God had something specific to share with Elijah who had become strangely very discouraged and fearful. I am convinced that this happened precisely because of the fiasco of his decision to brutally slaughter 400 priests of Baal because they were the ringleaders who had kept Israel in the dark about the real truth about God. Instead of trusting God to deal with these false prophets, Elijah had impulsively decided he could handle God's work since obviously God was already working on his side. But the evidence that soon became apparent tells me that Elijah in fact had ignored the Spirit's inner voice that would most likely have been directing him to respond more like Jesus would have acted and leave God's problems in God's hands instead of resorting to violence.
It was originally at Mt. Sinai where God had initially taken the giant risk that He would be misunderstood because of the methods He resorted to to get His people to listen to Him at all. Now with Elijah, God took him through a series of explicit replications of those previous methods, only this time He clearly revealed that they were not the right ways to truly perceive what God is like or how He wants to communicate.
He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:11-13 NRSV)
It just occurred to me that possibly a reason Elijah covered his face was for a similar reason that women in many Mideastern countries are required to cover their faces with a veil. Elijah was in fact humbling himself as he suddenly realized how God was so much more gentle, patient, long-suffering and compassionate than Elijah had been willing to demonstrate on His behalf back on Mt. Carmel. Elijah was still in need of discerning more truly the fact that God loves His enemies just as much as His friends. Elijah had let God down by not allowing God to deal with His enemies His own way during that face-off and ensuing slaughter. And by doing so he, like Moses had done centuries before when he inappropriately struck the rock in anger to obtain water for the people, Elijah had again misrepresented God to His children and as a result had created another confusing precedent that would mislead people about God's true character for centuries to come.
Sadly I think the true significance of this story and the purpose God gave Elijah this important lesson still eludes too many of us. God was seeking to explain, not just to Elijah but to all of us, that what transpired at Mt Sinai the first time is not to be taken as the best revelation of how God wants to communicate. Yet the great accuser has convinced most of us that God does prefer to use a loud voice, that He enjoys frightening people by putting on a spectacular show of power to attract attention to Himself and thus demand our respect through intimidation.
Yet in this second encounter on Mt Sinai with one of His prophets, now with one who had already become well trained by that small inner voice for years and who had learned to follow its directions rather well, God wanted to establish more clearly how all those previous external methods are not the ones we should be waiting to notice when we want to listen for God's voice. The Scriptures say that God was not in any of the spectacular demonstrations of power but was only to be found in the silence of the heart where His messages can be heard most clearly.
Elijah's review lessons on Mt. Sinai were intended to reverse a paradigm that had been sadly established long before in that same location. Now God wanted to move His children forward in a direction that some day will ultimately culminate in a delicate relationship of intimacy with Him that will be enjoyed and relished by all who finally come to trust His heart fully. God is now seeking to show us that what He longs for most is to relate to us like a lover, like a tender, passionate, wooing suitor who is keen to have His love seep into the deepest areas of our heart and soul and spirit. And using rough, course, loud or threatening means of communicating is never a very effective way to share intimacy with a lover.
I see a similar pattern in other stories of the Bible. The experience of Saul-turned-Paul comes to my attention. Saul had a distilled concept of God from his religion that is still too popular with many today. He believed God was a demanding authority that expected unquestioning obedience or else. Saul's God was one who was ready and eager to dish out retribution on anyone who didn't relate to Him in legally proper ways or who didn't line up and comply with established, God-ordained religious authorities.
Because this was Saul's deeply entrenched perceptions of God and what God was like, he naturally acted out the same kinds of behavior toward those around him reflective of his own perceptions of how God related to him. So in harmony with his rigid, stern and demanding perceptions of God, Saul set out to zealously force everyone belonging to his religious group to comply with the prevailing beliefs about God or face imposed and severe punishments. In full belief that he was honoring God and honoring God's reputation in the face of perceived spreading apostasy and heresy, Saul simply used the same principles he believed harmonized with the displays of power as seen in the first Sinai encounter between God and His people. He believed in a God who relied primarily on fear and intimidation to command obedience, so it was no surprise that Saul felt perfectly justified in relying on the same methods that he believed God used to create fear and enforce compliance to the laws of his God.
Yet Saul could not escape being haunted by the same inner voice of conscience that speaks to each one of us. As he continued to harshly round up and abuse more and more innocent victims, he could not help but notice how they did not react in kind to his forceful methods and harsh treatment but rather demonstrated a strange kind of love and only showed compassion towards him. As a result, from every encounter with this kind of strange, even bizarre behavior his heart increasingly accumulated sharp pains that were multiplying a torture in his soul he could never escape or suppress.
As the haunting memories of the faces of innocent victims he had persecuted continued to accumulate inside of him – faces filled with forgiveness instead of resentment, lips that expressed only words of kindness in response to his harshness, faces of innocence and sometimes even a strange joy that made no sense to him in the context of what he was doing to them – all these memories acted to increasingly amplify a weight of guilt and shame that he desperately sought to ignore or escape by any means possible.
Saul likely found it increasingly hard to sleep at night. Whenever he closed his eyes those faces of the children and women and gentle men he had abused and slandered constantly came back to haunt him relentlessly. Very possibly he began having recurring nightmares that may have evolved into daytime terror attacks that he could not repress. He kept assuring himself that he was doing all this for God's honor and that it was his duty to stamp out this dangerous heresy that was threatening to undermine the very existence of God's chosen nation on earth. He may have tried to convince himself that all this inner anguish was simply his sacrifice for God's honor and that maybe this suffering might even somehow earn him greater reward in the future life, so he must keep faithful to the 'truth' as it was clearly revealed in the law.
Saul, like the vast majority of religious devotees throughout history, believed that God is one who demands explicit obedience and that all disobedience earns and deserves just and severe punishments. The big problem as he saw it with this new movement started by Jesus that was infecting more and more people around him, was that these heretics were claiming that God was in fact not like what everyone had believed and assumed about Him ever since He had thundered His law on Sinai.
This crazy new idea taking root and spreading so prolifically was that God was as wimpy as the heretic Jesus who had already been dispensed with by the religious authorities. This Jesus had become so dangerous that His heresies had required exercising the kind of forceful suppression that was considered normal in ancient times. Clearly the law of Moses spelled out death sentences for any who disrespected God's authority, so Saul was simply seeking to promote a revival of true primitive godliness in order to protect God's reputation from being further blasphemed by these deluded followers leaving the truth of the established church.
When Jesus at last showed up in person to challenge Saul's picture of God, I find it quite interesting that even though He had to use maybe a little stronger tactics at first like He had to do the first time on Mt. Sinai, the very first thing He mentioned to Saul was in reference to the inner, quiet voice He had been trying to use all along that Saul had so desperately been trying to ignore.
And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.' (Acts 26:14)
Clearly Saul was not having problems with physical pain produced from kicking cattle-prods. Jesus was reminding Saul of the severe mental torture he had been desperately attempting to escape or suppress but that was impossible to ignore. Saul had been experiencing for some time the torture of resisting God's persistent love he had been repeatedly exposed to each time he had used severity and harshness against the innocent victims who had only responded in the Spirit of their Savior. Saul had been exposed repeatedly to similar revelations of God's heart, the same kind of love that had been explicitly revealed at the cross of Jesus. It was the intense torture of resisting the truth about God's love that had been producing so much misery, and Jesus now was inviting Saul to embrace this love for himself.
When I looked up this last verse in Acts, I was struck by something I had never noticed before. Paul in recounting this experience many years later and recorded here, notes specifically that Jesus spoke to him using the language of Hebrew. Why was that significant? Because Hebrew was not Saul's native language. Saul had been raised outside of Israel in the city of Tarsus where very likely he had been raised speaking primarily Greek. And although he had likely learned Hebrew early on in his religious studies, his natural language that was most comfortable for him was Greek.
So, why did Paul make a point of saying that Jesus spoke to him in Hebrew? I believe it was because it was yet another way of Jesus making an emphatic point about Saul's mistaken passion for defending beliefs he was so certain were the truth about religion. Saul, later turned Paul to more readily accepted by the Greek population, was zealous, yet tragically mistaken in his attempts to protect and defend the God of the Hebrews. Saul, a name taken from the first king of Israel from a man of the same tribe as he had descended from, felt it his duty and calling to defend the faith of his fathers. He had been trained in the schools of the rabbis and had excelled over all his peers, both in education and in zeal. He had become passionately involved in trying to stamp out a growing threat to the religion of his Hebrew ancestors to bring about the kind of reformation needed to restore Israel to their former days of glory.
Saul was sincere in his passion for God and country. Saul was not so much an evil man but rather a very religious and righteous man, even by his own later recounting.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6 NRSV)
So when Jesus showed up to confront this zealot who firmly believed it was his God-given duty to defend God's reputation at all costs, Jesus used the same language of the nation Saul believed were God's exclusive representatives on earth. Jesus did not use the more familiar language of Saul's upbringing but rather the language of Saul's religion so as to confirm that the God Saul thought he was defending against heretics was in reality the very God that he himself was found to be blaspheming.
It is one thing to look back on these stories and how people back then got it so wrong when it came to understanding the truth about God. But it is a very different thing to be willing to challenge our own perceptions of God today when we feel so confident that we now have it all together correctly and can safely promote our own campaigns to stomp out any false notions about God that we believe threatens His chosen church. Yet nothing has really changed that much since the days of Saul have they, for we are just as susceptible to ignoring the inner voice prodding us to view God differently as were people back then. And how we relate to that still, small voice will determine the direction our own lives and what direction our own passion will steer us.
God doesn't like raising His voice, for in doing so the results are so often misunderstanding and fear.
Whoever blesses a neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing. (Proverbs 27:14 NRSV)
Yet it is still taking a very long time to convince us that God longs for us to relate with Him at a radically reduced level of volume and a much greater level of trust.
Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4 NRSV)
I want to learn to listen more carefully, more consistently and more obediently to that voice that is becoming a little more familiar to me deep inside. It is certainly a gentle voice, a quiet voice, a kind voice but one that at times is bothersome and cuts across my natural intense impulses so often. It is then that I have to make the choice of whether I will follow my cravings first and listen to that voice later, or whether I will submit in deference to His urgings and let go of my own agenda no matter how much pleasure I may feel temporarily from doing things my own way.
Father, you know how most of my life I have viewed You in terribly warped ways that have made me afraid of You. But in these last days You have been revealing Yourself in new ways to my heart, ways that are sometimes rather unfamiliar to me as well as to many around me. Yet what You have been revealing is exactly what is designed to make my heart thrive. You designed me to thrive best by staying directly connected in realtime to Your great heart of passionate love for me.
I am just beginning to perceive this but still too vaguely. And although it is thrilling to learn these things, I have many pockets and areas of selfishness, fear and lies about You still embedded deep inside of me. You keep trying to challenge them, exposing them and giving me opportunities to be freed from them. Thank-you so much for what You are doing and continue to do in healing me of all these roots of bitterness that poison my soul. Thank-you for revealing more and more of Your beauty and attractiveness and glory that is drawing out my heart from years of hiding in terror. I want to know You the way You want me to know You. Keep pursuing my heart and filling me with the same passion that marked the life of Jesus, a passion to exonerate Your reputation on this earth. Have Your way with me and lead me in the true paths of righteousness – for Your reputation's sake.