Listening to God
Are we training ourselves to hear God’s voice? How are we listening? Christ is the Good Shepherd. His sheep are those who know his voice.
“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8).
How did Adam and Eve hear God walking? The Book of Genesis is an ancient and Eastern text. It reads more like a poem than a historical account. Every word of Scripture is Truth. However, that Truth penetrates deeper than our mind can understand. On some dimension, in some realm or state, God indeed walked in the cool of the day, and Adam and Eve could hear. The Church Fathers call this contemplation or inner prayer. It is the natural state of a person truly alive.
Fr. Matta El Meskeen, known in English as Matthew the Poor, called Inner Prayer, “a return of Adam to the beauty of his former spirituality.” “The more the mind is quiet and silent, the more divine truth radiates, shines, and is transfigured within it.” In this state of openness to God, he says, “the soul realizes, sees, and touches God’s self.” The best part, he insists, this state is available to everyone, living in the desert or in the city, a monk, a businessman, or a mother at home.
Christ tells us about contemplation in our Scripture today.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:11-14).
To begin to unpack, we have to take a look at the two different kinds of shepherds. Each is a Spirit, and each represents a kind of relationship and worship.
The first is the hired hand, the fake shepherd. This can be called the Spirit of the Times. Most of us are not even aware of how thoroughly influenced we are by the fads and myths of pop culture. What was considered basic morality 30 or 40 years ago is now looked at as weird and antiquated. The definition of marriage was set in stone throughout Christendom for thousands of years. Today, it is completely redefined. Gender roles, family values, and even the definition of a boy and girl, were unshaken pillars of society. Today, these are reexamined too. We think we are so smart now, so evolved. How will our basic assumptions today look in another 30 or 40 years? As a culture, we have taken God out of the equation, and everything, again, everything, is up for grabs.
As Christians, we need sharp awareness of the influence of the Spirit of the Times. It has a gravity, and it shapes our way of thinking far more than we realize. Take an issue as simple as head coverings. The Old and New Testament are clear about this. Christians throughout the world, from the far reaches of Russia, to the Baptist South, all shared the same attitude about this. Then it was abandoned in the 1970’s and now appears bizarre. How many of our opinions are influenced primarily by Scripture? How many really resonate with the attitude shared by Christians from older generations?
The Spirit of the Times has such a strong hold on human nature. It is nearly impossible for us to evaluate any topic from a lens other than what is popular and current.
The problem is this. As G. K. Chesterton puts it, “He who marries the spirit of the times will soon find himself a widower.”
“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” (John 10:12).
The second Spirit is the Good Shepherd.
“The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:13-14).
This is one of the most tender descriptions of God. A shepherd’s relationship with his sheep was crucial in biblical times. The shepherd helped the sheep give birth, tended to their wool through the warm months, and protected them from wild animals. The livestock was kept mostly for milk and wool, and so a shepherd spent years with each sheep, knowing it by name, and the cadence of its call. The sheep knew the smell and touch of their shepherd. They would recognize the sound of their shepherd’s voice and very breath.
Are we training ourselves to hear God’s voice? The relationship between the shepherd and his sheep was nurtured day and night, year after year. How much time do we spend listening to and knowing our Lord?
“Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears” (Ezekiel 3:10).
The Book of Proverbs urges this: “If you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (2:1-5).
My grandmother was 90 years old, when I learned that she read the bible front to back an average of 3 times a year. How much time do we invest in studying scripture? How does that time compare to the time we invest in listening to the news or watching television?
“Just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season... Wherefore let us knock at that very fair garden of the Scriptures.... let us not knock carelessly but rather zealously and constantly. For thus it will be opened to us. If we read once or twice and do not understand what we read, let us not grow weary, but let us persist, let us talk much, let us inquire... let us luxuriate, let us revel insatiate.” (St. John of Damascus)
‘To get the full flavor of an herb, it must be pressed between the fingers, so it is the same with the Scriptures; the more familiar they become, the more they reveal their hidden treasures and yield their indescribable riches” (St John Chrysostom).
Do we spend more time listening to the Spirit of God or to the Spirit of the Times? Which shapes us the most?
“I have received this great fiery Spirit: receive him now yourselves,” teaches St. Anthony the Great. “If you wish to receive him that he may dwell in you, first offer hard labors of the flesh and humility of the heart. Raise your thoughts up to heaven night and day. Ask in uprightness of heart for this fiery Spirit and he will then be given you…Persist in prayer diligently, with all your heart, and he will be given you, for this Spirit dwells in upright hearts. He will reveal to you higher mysteries and other things which I cannot express in ink and paper…Celestial joy will then be your portion day and night.”
In Scripture, in meditation, in taking a walk or sitting on a bench, while waiting in line at a coffee shop, every day is pregnant with scattered moments for straining our ears to God.
Christ is the good shepherd. He knows his own and his own know him.
Christ is Risen!