At 38,000 feet over the North Sea, I am settling in for the long flight back to Portland from Amsterdam. I want to talk about voices. I don’t think I am unusual in saying that I hear voices. The fact is, I’ve always heard voices – lots of them. The churning of thoughts and ideas within is a cacophony of words. They come from outside, from inside and from somewhere else. There is a steady stream of them competing for my attention, often coming from points of confusion no different than my own.
The first voice I can remember is the voice of my mother. She said amazing things to me; “you’re so good, you’re so handsome, you’re so wonderful…” There are times when I have failed or disappointed someone terribly and I really need to hear that voice. Sometimes I will pick up the phone to hear it. Other times it is as easy as recall. And I hear the words I need to hear in the voice that always said them so well. Then there was my father’s voice. He was more likely to be the voice that corrected and challenged me. I don’t always want to hear that voice, but there it is. And just like those formative days many years ago, I still need to hear it. My dad died many years ago, but his voice is still there challenging and correcting and encouraging me.
There were many other voices – voices that would try to define me. And unfortunately, I let them. One teacher would speak to the unlimited possibilities in my life and another teacher would convince me that I was a very limited young man. One friend would compliment my skills at one thing or another and a neighborhood bully would tear down everything that was built up. One girl would tease and flirt with me while another would make it clear that I didn’t have a chance. It still surprises me that I react to this world from the perspective of words that others defined about me. It doesn’t even have to be true. But people of influence sometimes spoke into my life and redefined what I knew to be true and their voices linger, as do their judgments, as do my insecurities about what they said.
Voices on the outside are easy enough to distinguish. Audible and attached to people, they comment, coax, console, comfort, confuse, confront, combat (apologies, though I will leave it in – it is the preacher’s curse – until the last two of these, I swear the alliteration was unintentional). The media wants to inform me, advertisers want to entice me, friends want to influence me, some even want to control me. There is never an end to the voices on the outside. Being audible, they are easier to resist, but their steady drumbeat does get inside until it too can take a place among the voices on the inside.
The voices on the inside have the greater influence. These tend to sound like me. They are accumulated from a life of internal conversations. And though I wish it weren’t so, these can often be the hardest voices to hear – they can be accusing, discouraging, cursing, suspicious and insecure. More than I want to admit, they breed an internal discontent that I would not want anyone else to ever see, leaving me with confused motives and conflicting desires. Even my parents’ voices find place in the things I mull over – left over phrases from long ago, encouraging here and admonishing there.
There are other voices as well. One set of these has a common theme – these are like voices on the inside, but seem to be from somewhere else. They play on the insecurities and fears that hide inside from a lifetime lived in a broken world. These voices rile up the things inside and can leave me despairing and hopeless. They mock things that are innocent – accusing such thoughts as naive. They treat healthy altruism with cynicism, telling me to choose safe fearful responses rather than courageous and beautiful ones. They encourage me to bear offense, to harbor bitterness and to be angry.I know the source of these voices. We have an enemy of our souls and he can speak into our spirits like a shout in an open room gets into our ears. Being aware of him is a first step to learning how to resist him.
But there is another amazing Voice…
In the Old Testament, shortly after the fall, Cain has a conversation with God. In this conversation there is clarity – Cain knows to whom he is speaking and he hears the voice of God. He doesn’t listen intently or trust Him, but he does hear. Was he any different than we are today? I believe that the voice of God is not so far away as some would propose. I further believe that He is always speaking to us, but that we have made room for louder voices and have forgotten what He sounds like. I hadn’t always listened to His voice, though as I’ve come to know it, I swear it was always there. In my own life, when I responded to His voice, I found myself hearing a voice that was very, very familiar; a voice I had learned to ignore.
Before I started writing this article, waiting at the gate to leave, I was listening to a song called Missed the Boat by Modest Mouse. Acknowledging that my interpretation could be a little off (the artist gets more say in this than the hearer, though I think I have this one right), it is a song that laments the writer’s involvement in religion. The title suggests that while he and others in his church community were trying to fake spirituality, they were missing the boat on life. The chorus of the song celebrates his emancipation from a belief system that focuses on rewards after death – the “end gong” – while missing “life’s sweet bells.”
Having come to Christ later in life, I can appreciate where he is coming from. If the voice of God were absent from faith, then adhering to it becomes an exercise in mind-over-will and faith becomes the suspension of reality. The religious experience of the songwriter, Isaac Brock, was devoid of real hearing, and so he rightfully challenges what it was based upon. In one particularly poignant phrase, after talking about how “our ideas held no water but we used ‘em like a dam,” he says this:
We were certainly uncertain; at least I’m pretty sure I am
Well we didn’t need the water, but we just built that good God dam
Oh and I know this for myself, I assume as much for other people
The voice of the artist captured something that I hear Christians say all the time, though not nearly so transparently. He is uncertain, he rejects the need for God (something that in his life was never confirmed by a direct revelation), and so he reduces belief in a good God as something that is used to hold back the tide of the kinds of ideas we fear. There was nothing real in his faith experience, which he assumes about others.
The past week in Holland I met a number of young people preparing to be missionaries. Surprisingly, they sounded similar to Isaac Brock. Quite a few of them were confused; they were listening to all the internal voices and not hearing God’s voice, though they were desperate for it. So far God has been silent. I wondered how many of them would walk away with the same sense of discouragement as the songwriter with the belief that God is ultimately a silent God – or no God.
It is the same problem I am seeing in the church in America. Churches, ever pursuing cultural relevance, search the culture’s philosophies and discoveries and bring them to the pulpit – a place that should be for prophetic preaching of God’s Word. I have been through worship services where enthusiastic messages could be reduced to psychology, or motivation, or triumphant utilitarian 3-steps-to-something-better speeches. Where is spirit-led revelation from God’s Word? In an informal survey of young people, in addition to discontent with the church (especially those who have grown up in it) I find a low regard for the Word of God. People are simply are not reading it – or worse yet, they have turned it into a kind of self-help text book – reading small amounts and trying to make meaningful applications to their daily struggles. They want to hear from God, but they don’t consider time in His Word as important. They are wandering thirsty in the rain.
What does God sound like? He sounds like Himself. Like He sounds in the pages of the Bible. Do you want to hear God? Reading God’s word is key. Reading a lot of God’s word daily gives us a sense of His presence and we begin to hear His voice and to know what He sounds like. He is clear. He is close. He is compelling. He is here.
Maybe we would have fewer cross-culture missteps if we learned Who to listen to and who not to listen to. To God first, then to others, and not to the cacophony of words that too often are part of the mixed cauldron of confusion inside.
This is a slightly edited version of a guest post I did for Ron Frost’s blog, A Spreading Goodness, on March 16, 2009.