How do you know if it is from God? As Christians we want to follow wherever God leads. But God’s voice is not the only sound clamoring for attention in our head.
According to Alan Kreider, a highly committed Christian youth may have logged 750 hours of Christian formation by the time they are 18 years of age. This, in contrast to the 11,000 hours spent being formed in a school setting, and another 15,000 hours watching TV. Today’s youth are exposed to other media between 10,000-30,000 additional hours. Which do you suppose is stronger: 750 hours, or 56,000?
In his theological work with youth and culture, Andy Brubacher Kaethler answers pointedly, “In truth, we are disciples of Western culture first, and disciples of Jesus only to the degree that following Jesus does not require us to question basic Western cultural values.” This means hearing that “still small voice of God” will prove ever harder for western Christians like me.
Allow me to suggest three things the voice inside our head will point us to if it is really from God, not just another forgotten commercial clamoring for attention.
#1. It will point you to Jesus. The Holy Spirit always points us to Jesus- who is God of gods and lord of Lords, king above all power and authority. His teachings, his life, his death and resurrection are the content of God’s word spoken through Spirit. We can’t overemphasize how alternative this really is. Walter Brueggemann says our Christian task is to “nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”A task that sounds about as easy as separating a bowl of spaghetti from its sauce. Thankfully we have help.
Jesus said in John 14:26-27 the Spirit “will teach you everything and remind you of all I said.” Taught to live like Jesus in our world, the Spirit’s voice will say as much about the paycheck you’re going to receive or where your allegiance lies as it will about prayer or devotional pick-me-ups. Jesus goes on to summarize the “everything” and “all” he’s already taught, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” He who is our peace invites us to make peace.
On the day of Pentecost, when the crowds were baffled by the Spirit’s presence, Peter explains what the Spirit is doing by pointing to Jesus. The oddity of the Spirit’s activity is clarified in the life and teachings of Jesus, who 3,000 people give their life to that day.
#2. It will point you to the other. God’s voice will direct your thoughts, your energies and your resources to somebody other than yourself. This is not separate from the point above; it merely restates it by changing our posture from being withdrawn to engaged. For the teachings of Jesus invite us to “look to the interests of others” rather than self, to love our neighbor and even our enemy. Jesus himself was a servant of all.
On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit pointed the early followers to the other by birthing Christian community. Through extravagant generosity the believers “shared all things in common, selling their possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The Jewish feast of Pentecost itself invites us to keep our attention on the other by allowing for dignified harvesting of wheat for the poorest in the community. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
#3 It will point you to a larger vision. God’s Spirit is always creative, generative, and imaginative- pushing us to see our world and the possibility of its transformation as “surpassing all understanding.” The transformation God’s Spirit engenders in us is a “conversion of our imagination (Richard Hayes),” that redirects our attention away from past failure and limit to the openness of God’s preferred future.
Karl Barth, the great 20th century war-era theologian, highlights the future-focused transformation God is birthing in us through his translation of Romans 12:2. He says, “Do not fashion yourselves according to the present form of this world, but according to its coming transformation, by renewing your mind.” With Jesus always in sight (like a rear-view mirror, perhaps?) we open ourselves to where the Spirit leads.
The task of discernment is not a losing battle, but it is demanding. We can hear the voice of God in the cacophony of noise that is the modern world.
Perhaps the better question remains: do you want to?