The Shepherd of Hope blog is here to serve you, to help you know Jesus better and to find hope in Him. This blog relies on the Spirit of God using the word of God to build people of God. All material has been prayerfully submitted for your encouragement and spiritual edification. Your questions and comments are welcome.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Voice of His Word

. . . Heeding the voice of His word – Psalm 103:20

God speaks to us through His word. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family disrupted by the mental illness of my mother. I won’t go into the details, but it included many times of public humiliation and embarrassment, physical and verbal abuses, tremendous frustration, anger, isolation because of shame, sleepless nights, and many nights of crying myself to sleep. There was a lot of sorrow. But my parents always made me go to church. We went to church as a family. We were very religious. We put on a good show; a good front as if we were a normal family. Despite all of this I grew up believing there was a God. Rather than be angry with God for my family problems I would cry out to Him. The frustration that comes with trying to deal with the mentally ill bred great anger in me, but not against God, against my mother.

During this time when pressed to my limits, I would cry out to God, or who I envisioned God to be. But I did not know God and had no relationship with Him. I did not care enough to heed the many ways God, in hindsight, sought to reach out to me. My cries were more groping in the dark to an unknown entity than a conversation with someone I knew. Therefore, whenever I would call out to Him there was silence. I remember being given a brand new Bible at age thirteen. My parents gave it to me upon my completion of church Confirmation classes. There were times when my parents would be fighting that I would take shelter in my room. Waiting for the storm to pass there were times when I’d dust off that Bible and open it up indiscriminately and search for something, anything from God. In these times of despair I was being drawn to the Source of a solution to my problem. But I wasn’t ready. All I found when I opened that Book was silence. I wasn’t patient enough or at my limit enough to truly listen and learn from that Book. All those classes and all that church attendance didn’t help me connect with the Author of that Book. The truth is that I wasn’t really interested in what God had to say. I went to Him looking for some relief. I didn’t go to Him on His terms, but on my terms. I wanted a fix and then to go my way. I wanted relief but not repentance. But even then God was doing something in my heart. He was drawing me with questions like, God are you real? God are you there? God will you help me? God will you please speak to me? He was on my mind even if He was yet to be in my heart. There was silence; I just wasn’t ready to hear. I didn’t have the capacity to hear. I was lost; in darkness; separated from God; alone. It hurt.

There were a lot of residual problems in my life connected with this dysfunction. I turned to eating as a source of comfort which led to obesity. At age twelve I was a fat little boy of nearly 250 pounds. I had a size 46 waist. This led to merciless teasing in school. I faked being sick to stay out of school as much as possible, (especially if there was an oral report to give!). My guilt ridden mother was an easy mark for such ploys. This led to poor grades. By the time it came for me to graduate high school I had read one single solitary book. It was the shortest book I could find, Beowulf the Warrior. One teacher told my parents I’d never be anything more than a garbage man. That hurt their pride and they were sure to make me aware of it. Obesity and stupidity are not highly favored in this world. I hated myself.

I searched for a diversion from the pain experienced at home and in school. I got involved with sports. This was the one area in which I always excelled. Sports were my “salvation” at this point in my life. It helped me lose weight and get in shape. It helped me make friends. It helped me get positive attention. It provided an escape. It was an environment where I could pay back some of those who had teased me in school. It was a diversion from what was going on at home. It was a diversion but it still didn’t solve the dysfunction at home or the emptiness inside me. Upon graduation I seized the opportunity to flee home and go away to college.

Upon entering college I had something to prove to myself and to others. I wanted to prove I was more than a “garbage man.” Those early days of college were times when I applied myself and succeeded. I was an “A” student. But once I had accomplished that there was still emptiness. I proved myself but it didn’t fulfill me or lead to the lasting satisfaction I thought it would. I turned to relationships, (if you can call them that). I sought to fulfill my needs through lust and partying. That only led to more pain and more emptiness.

Then one day I returned home during a college break and noticed a radical change in my sister. Before I had left my sister had been coping with our family dysfunction by overeating, indulging in drugs and dabbling in the occult (e.g. Tarot card reading; witchcraft, spells; etc.) She scared me a few times with some of the things she was getting into. I loved my sister and didn’t like to leave her home when I went away to college but for my own preservation and liberation I had left her behind. But when I returned home she was entirely different. For instance we had always fought (like most siblings do). But now when I came home she was being nice to me. She cleaned up after me. She talked nice to me. She would tell me she loved me. She was patient with me and didn’t respond negatively to my usual taunts. She was different, changed. What happened to my little sister? Her change was inescapable. I asked, “So Suzy, what’s up? What’s going on with you? You’ve changed? What gives?” She responded, “Well Claudie I accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord and you should to.” I was dumbfounded. What?! Wait I minute, I was confirmed in church. I was religious. What did she mean by that?

Over time the undeniable change in my sister’s life made me more and more curious. I became fascinated if not convicted by it. Her loving constant pestering to attend a coffeehouse meeting at her church wore on me. Finally I acquiesced. This coffeehouse was a place where young people gathered to listen to live Christian music, give and hear testimonies, and receive Bible teaching. I was curious. So I went. God was working.

This was a big deal for her and her friends at church. Little did I know that she had told all her friends about me and had them all praying for me. When I stepped through the doors of the coffeehouse my reputation preceded me. Why did I go? What was my initial motive? Well, this was my little sister (four years my younger) and I was her big brother. I thought someone was messing with my sister and even though she was annoying she was still my little sister. It was a matter of pride and honor that a big brother should look out for and defend his little sister. I was living in a delusion but thought she was. And so, being pretty athletic, I went to the coffeehouse to judge those who were there and to threateningly make my presence known so that they would leave my sister alone. I wanted her to get on with a normal life even if my view of “normal” was abnormal by most standards. Not having an answer to her life and words, I would resort to physical intimidation.

When I stepped into the coffeehouse right away I sensed something different. The people seemed genuinely caring and loving and concerned for me. They were friendly in a good way. They all seemed happy. It was clear they had something I didn’t have. I couldn’t put my finger on it. They seemed full while I was empty. I could see it in their eyes.

The guys there were pretty big. That persuaded me to leave my strategy of threat behind. I stayed. I listened. I took it all in. And when it was time to leave they asked to pray with me. I agreed to let them do this. They all gathered in a circle and held hands, including me! It was a bit uncomfortable but they were so disarming. Then one of the young men my age said, “Let’s close our eyes and bow our heads for prayer.” He prayed. When he was done I opened my eyes and it seemed to me like the room was smoky or cloudy, dreamlike, surreal. It impacted me but I still didn’t accept Jesus as my Savior. It was still all strange to me. But I was closer.

Time passed and I continued to take it all in. I didn’t attend church with my sister. I was still ensnared and distracted with the things of this world. But seeds had been planted. Portions of God’s word about salvation had spoken to me. They were ringing in my ears. They were resonating in my heart. The Lord was drawing me to Himself.

The time came for me to return to college in upstate New York. Usually I would carpool with a bunch of my college buddies and split the expenses of the long ride back to school. This time it was different. On this particular occasion they all, one by one, cancelled. I was on my own and all alone, (or so I thought). It was a 600 mile journey in the middle of the winter of 1977, (one of the worst winters on record in terms of snowfall). The Lord arranged this to give me time to think. He wanted to be alone with me.

As I remember the trip took about fourteen hours. During the ride I did some real soul searching. I thought about everything I had experienced in life up to that point. I thought about all my attempts to fill the void in my life and how none of it filled the emptiness. I was lost. I had no direction. I didn’t understand what life was all about. It all seemed directionless, meaningless, futile, and purposeless. God waited patiently for me to get around to Him. Finally I began to talk to God. God what is life all about? What’s wrong with me? Why am I here? What’s going on? Why do I feel this way? I’m so confused, lost. As I asked these questions there was still silence. I was groping for answers and solutions but there was still darkness. I began to think about my sister and her friends. God, what do they have that I don’t have? What makes them so different? More silence. God, why won’t You speak to me? Why are you so silent? The silence in that car was deafening as I drove mile after mile in the snowy silence. More thoughts, more silence.

Finally I arrived at the college. I was the first one there other than the dorm director. He let me in and I went up to my room; all alone. I unpacked. Then I just flopped on my bed mentally and physically exhausted. I was sick and tired of life as I knew it. The weight of my sinful life was heavy on me. All my efforts had failed. I had no place to turn. As I lay there I reached my hands longingly to the ceiling and prayed. I don’t remember the exact words. I acknowledged my sin. I told God I didn’t want to live this way anymore. I told God I believed in His Son Jesus. I asked God to forgive me. I simply surrendered to God. The particular words I do remember are, God, if You’re real come into my life. At that moment I settled it; that struggle was over. I made a life decision to do whatever Jesus would ask of me. And at that moment it felt like a tremendous weight, a weight of sin had been lifted from me. I was filled! I was free! A light went on. I then got on the phone and called my sister and told her what I had done. She was ecstatic and I could hear her jumping for joy over the phone.

I didn’t feel any tingly feelings after I had made my prayerful decision. But something definitely had happened to me. I was different and there was evidence of a real change in me. Prior to my decision to receive Christ my words were laced with filthy profanity. I was an angry person. I hated the world. And I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I once nearly started a riot at my high school homecoming because of my filthy language and my willingness to shout it out with no care of those around me. But now that was gone. The anger was gone.

My college friends began to notice a change in me. I was still they’re friend. But now when I would join them in one of their dorm rooms as they smoked marijuana, played cards and passed along the bong (a kind of marijuana smoking device), when it came to me I’d just pass it on. Instead I tried to share with them what God had done in my life. They weren’t interested. My desire to smoke pot or drink alcohol was gone. I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t want it. Rather than seek a numbing I wanted to experience this new life. I was excited about Jesus. They thought I had gone crazy or something. But I knew I was never more sane.

The Lord began to clean up my life. I had been engaged to a girl when I accepted Jesus as Savior. I still loved her. But as time went by it became more and more clear that we were no longer compatible. She wasn’t interested in Jesus while Jesus was all I was interested in. I began to see her more as a source of temptation to drift away from Jesus than as an answer to the hole inside me. That hole was now filled. Jesus filled it! I was full and free. It took me a while to fully see God’s way. There were things I continued to do once I became a Christian that I would later regret. We broke up. God was straightening out my life. God had different plans for me.

Eventually I transferred to a college closer to home so I could start attending my sister’s church. Her church became my church and I began to grow in the Lord. I got involved. I met a Christian girl who loved Jesus supremely and who would eventually become my wife. She’s God’s greatest gift to me outside of salvation. My parents were eventually saved. The Lord did an incredible work in my mother’s life. My father became a leader in the church. Our family became a testament to the power of God. We all attended the church together. God did an incredible thing in my life and the life of those in my family.

The greatest blessing from my decision to receive Jesus as my Savior was that the silence was broken. How was it broken? When I said God if You’re real come into my life, He proved His reality by coming into my life and changing me. But I still thought, God if You’re real how will you speak to me? I needed more than a one way conversation. That was still a major concern and question for me. In the first conversation with my sister after my decision I asked her, “Does God speak to you?” She said, “Yes.” I asked her, “How, how does He speak to you?” She said, “He speaks through His word the Bible. When you read it read it as though He’s speaking to you.” So that’s what I did. She had forced me to take a Bible from her when I left for college. So I got that Bible and began reading it. And as I read it, I could understand it. It was as though God was speaking to me! To me! The silence was broken. The conversation with God had begun. I devoured His word and He revealed Himself to me.

As I read and studied God’s word I discovered that the reason for all the silence was that my sin separated me from Him (Isaiah 59:1-2; Psalm 66:18). The problem wasn’t with God, it was with me. I was dead spiritually (Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 2:13). The wages of sin is death. I owed a debt of death for my sins. Jesus paid that debt for me on the cross (Rom. 6:23). Through faith in Him God removed my sin and made me righteous before Him (2 Cor. 5:21). I discovered God loved me and had been reaching out to me (John 6:44; 16:8-11). He is reaching out and offering salvation by grace, as a gift to be received by faith (John 1:12; Rom. 5:1-10; Eph. 2:8-9). When I was at the end of myself and willing to come to Him on His terms, forsake my sin, ask God to forgive me, and receive Jesus as my Savior He gave me spiritual life. I was born spiritually; a rebirth; a second birth (John 3). God made me a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). He gave me spiritual life by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling me (Rom. 8:9-11; 1 Cor. 6:19-20). Now I know God and Jesus personally (John 17:3). God’s word is all about Jesus (Heb. 10:7). God’s word is God’s language and you have to know that language to know Him and the meaning of life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God’s word is truth (John 17:17). The Spirit uses it to help me know Jesus (John 14:26). Before Jesus came into my life I was merely a “natural man” devoid of spiritual life or understanding, unwilling to hear God. But once I was born again by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, the Spirit gave me life and indwelled me and helped me hear and understand God (1 Cor. 2:9-14).

God speaks through His word. His voice is in His word. The Lord impressed that on me recently during a time of devotional study with Him in His word. Hence this writing. I was prayerfully reading Psalm 103. It’s a fantastic Psalm expressing blessing and thanks to the Lord for all His benefits, forgiveness, healing, redemption, lovingkindness, tender mercies, righteousness, justice, and grace. It thanks God for not dealing with us according to our sins but making a way to remove our sins as far as east is from west. It thanks Him for pitying us as a Father pities and has compassion on His children. His mercy is everlasting and all should praise Him for it. Then, in the last verse of the Psalm, I came across the phrase “heeding the voice of His word” (Psalm 103:20). The Lord spoke to me in that phrase. “The voice of His word,” God’s word speaks! Yes, God speaks! And I can hear Him. Thank You Lord! Can you hear Him? When you go to His word are you listening to what He wants to say to you? Do you realize what an incredible blessing that is? Just look at that Psalm. It’s a Psalm of praise to God for His salvation and care. It’s a Psalm about His mercy and grace, His love and blessing. Read it and listen to His voice in His word.

But listening is not enough. The full phrase says, “Heeding the voice of His word.” God speaks in His word but we must respond to it. His word calls for decision. We must “heed” it. We must yield to it. We will either obey or disobey His word; there is no middle ground. Indecision is decision. Jesus said we are either for Him or against Him (Mat. 12:30; Luke 11:23). If you’ve read this far I pray God has spoken to you. Ask yourself, What is God saying to me? What does He want me to do? God is drawing you to Himself. Why wait until you bottom out? Surrender now. He has spoken and wants to have a conversation with you. His word is a love letter to you. His voice is in His word. Are you willing to listen? Ask Him your tough questions. Bring Him into your personal conversation about life. Seek Him with all your heart and He will be found by you (Jeremiah 29:11-13).

If you’ve tried to read God’s word only to find silence then ask yourself some questions. Have you turned to Him like I did and asked Him why the silence is there? Are you ready to surrender? Are you sick and tired of the silence and the futility of life without God? Are you willing to come to God on His terms, forsaking your sin, asking His forgiveness by His grace through faith in His only Son Jesus? If you do that He will forgive you and will give you spiritual life through the indwelling Holy Spirit. If you do that, you will be made new, you will become a new creation and the silence will be turned to a holy, comforting, constructive and eternal conversation with a God who is there for you always. If you do that the burden of your sins will be rolled away. Do you hear “the voice of His word”? Are you ready to “heed the voice of His word”? Go back and look up the references I’ve noted in this writing. Ask God to speak to you through His word about your salvation.

Many years have passed since I received Jesus as My Lord and Savior on January 16th, 1977. The years have been rich with revelation and spiritual fruit from God’s word. The Lord eventually called me to be a pastor. It has been a venture in faith. There have been incredible blessings. There have been difficulties as well. Sadly my sister has drifted away from the Lord. She’s proven to be like the shallow or thorny soil (Mat. 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-25). It’s so important to heed God’s voice in His word. Pray for her. Through it all God has proven ever faithful. His still small voice speaks in His word (1 Kings 19:12). Life heeding the voice of His word has been blessed and full. I’d have it no other way. My prayer for you and everyone is that you would hear and heed “the voice of His word.” God make it so. God bless you. Listen. He’s speaking.

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