Appendix 3: Preparing to Truly Hear God’s Word
“So listen carefully”
We might begin by asking the question, What exactly is the Bible? Most Christians would answer that it is God’s Holy Word, His special instrument of communication to man. And they would be right. Then we need to ask another question. If we believe the Bible is God’s Word and special means of communication, do we take the Bible seriously? Do we have a holy reverence for Scripture and the time we assemble together to worship and study this Word from God?
Are we like the one God esteems or looks for in Isaiah 66:2? “I show special favor to the humble and contrite, who respect what I have to say.” Or as the KJV reads, “but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.”
God is looking for people who have a holy reverence for the Word and His plan for learning and applying it. This means truly hearing God’s voice in the Word. God is the master communicator and biblical history is not only the story of redemption but it is also the story of communication and revelation from God. He encodes and transmits, and we are to decode and receive.
Isn’t it true that one of the keys to life and good relationships is effective communication? And for effective communication to occur, there must be effective listening. This is just one of the reasons we must take the study of the Bible very seriously, whether privately or corporately. This is true not only in Bible study, but in our prayer life and in all aspects of corporate worship. Why? So we might truly listen to God through the various aspects of a worship service, and especially our time in the Word.
We need to listen to God even though He has chosen to use human instruments to communicate with us. It would be well for each of us to take to heart Paul’s praise to the believers in 1 Thessalonians 2:13: “And so we too constantly thank God that when you received God’s message that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human message, but as it truly is, God’s message, which is at work among you who believe."
The process looks something like this:
- COMMUNICATION: Listening to God
- COMPREHENSION: Understanding what God says
- CONFIDENCE: Trusting in what God says
- CHANGE: Being transformed by what God says
Without this process of communication, there simply cannot be any real spiritual change in the life of man. Because of this, God is deeply concerned about how well we hear when we are listening.
Scripture Places on Listening to God
Have you ever noticed how often the Bible emphasizes the idea of listening? It is a concept that is repeated over and over in a variety of ways. This is obviously not without purpose.
(1) The specific clause “hear the Word of the Lord” occurs 32 times in the NIV and 28 times in the NASB.
(2) The words “hear” or “listen O Israel” are found six times in the NIV and the NASB. “Listen” is found 331 times and the majority of these passages in some way deal with listening to the Lord. “Hear” is found 347 times, and again many of these also have to do with hearing God’s Word.
(3) We also find a number of comments like “incline your ear,” “give ear” or “pay or give attention” and similar expressions used in various ways to call man, and especially God’s people, to listen intently to God.
(4) In the New Testament, the Lord warns us to consider carefully what you hear (Mark 4:24) and how you hear (Luke 8:18).
(5) The words “today, if you hear his voice,” are found three times in Hebrews and once in the Old Testament (Heb. 3:7, 15; 4:7; Ps. 95:7).
(6) Seven times, once in each of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 we read “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
(7) In Mark 4:9 the Lord warned, “Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!” and again in verse 23 He said “If anyone has ears to hear, he had better listen!
(8) And is it not significant that one of the titles of the Son of God is the Greek term logos which refers to some form of communication? It means “speech, word, saying, discourse.” As the Logos, Jesus Christ is the living Word of God to man. Of Him Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 18:15, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you—from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him.”
(9) But not only is there the call to listen carefully to the Lord, there is the warning about listening to the wrong voices or influences in the world in numerous passages in both the Old and New Testaments.
The Point is Simple. God has much to say to us and because He is the all-wise and sovereign God and because of our finite humanity as well as our fallenness, it is imperative for us to listen carefully. But, as fallen people, even as fallen people now redeemed, we are ever so prone to be distracted and drawn away with other things, even with good things.
We can too easily be like Martha, who was distracted by so many things, rather than Mary who sat at the feet of the Savior to hear His Word (Luke 10:38-42).
As portrayed in the parable of the sower, the soils, and the seed, we can be like the thorny ground, full of thorns and thistles which represent the cares of the world and which choke the Word and cause it to become unfruitful in our lives (Mark 4:18-19).
Why do you suppose God created man with two eyes and two ears, but with only one mouth? That in itself ought to be a visual object lesson worth a thousand words.
Listen to these words from Proverbs 20:12: “The ear that hears and the eye that sees—the Lord has made them both.” You know, I find it significant and interesting that Solomon says nothing about the mouth. The Lord made that too, yet it seems Solomon purposely didn’t mention the mouth. He only mentions that which is a source or means of receiving instruction from the Lord.
The fact is we are all too quick to reveal our minds and too slow to listen. James reminds us of this very fact: “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (James 1:19).
With this in mind, we might note Proverbs 18:2, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding but only in disclosing what is on his mind.” Compare also Proverbs 22:17-19.
The lesson is obvious: We are to listen so we can learn to trust the Lord. To fail to listen shows our determination to pursue life through our own resources and foolishness
The Instruction of
Scripture on Listening to God
How God communicates should teach us something about how we should listen. So how does God communicate, and how should we listen? What do we need to do to be prepared to listen attentively and effectively?
God Communicates Through the Bible
The Bible is our index or guide for all the other ways God communicates. If we are going to listen to God and discern His voice in the other avenues He uses, we must be listening to His Word, the Bible. Of course, God communicates His Word in many ways: through those who teach it formally and informally as in counseling, in personal exhortation and encouragement, through song or music, through books, tapes, film, etc. However, the primary method God has chosen, and that which is foundational to all the other ways God communicates in the church age, is the local assembly when the church is assembled together for the hearing of the Word. Other things are involved, prayer, singing, praise, the Lord’s table, but at the center is the proclamation of the Word (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Tim. 4:11, 13; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).
God Communicates Through the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the resident teacher whom the Father has sent through the Son to indwell every New Testament believer as God’s special anointing to teach and make the truths of the Word understood and real to the hearts and minds of believers. One of His primary ministries today is that of communicating the Word—the completed canon of Scripture.
Since the cessation of the temporary, foundational, and miraculous gifts, He does not give special or new revelation, but He works through the Word which is our index for belief and practice.
To be able to listen to God, to comprehend truth, to worship the Lord, and to be transformed by the Word through faith in God, God has given us the Holy Spirit. He is God’s special agent who takes the things of Christ and teaches them to us whether we receive them by personal study or through the human instruments who teach us the Word.
God Communicates Through Events
- Through special times of worship (singing, praise, prayer, teaching, ordinances)
- Through blessings that reveal His love and grace.
- Through trials and irritations that become tools to get our attention and build character as we learn to rest in the promises and principles of Scripture.
God Communicates Through People
The Bible is full of illustrations of how God uses people to communicate His love, mercy, and grace. This comes in many forms: sometimes in the form of encouragement, sometimes in the form of godly example, and sometimes even in the form of rebuke. Note these passages to illustrate the point: 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Proverbs 27:5-6, 17; John 13:34-45; Malachi 3:16; Ephesians 5:19-20; 1 Timothy 5:1-2; Ephesians 6:4; Galatians 6:1-3; 1 Peter 3:1-2, 7).
Our primary focus in this short study is on how God communicates to us through the Word and the Holy Spirit especially in relation to our times of worship together.
What does this mean in terms of how we listen to God? As already pointed out, listening to God must involve God’s Word and the Holy Spirit working together in the mind and heart of the believer. Even when God uses people and circumstances, we must always consider what God is saying to us in the light of His infallible Word.
God never contradicts His Word. We must learn to examine everything in the light of the Holy Scripture. Further, this means we need to recognize that since the Spirit communicates to us through the Word of God, we need to expose ourselves to the Word privately and corporately as often as we can.
But listening to God also means something else. Listening to God—really hearing what He is seeking to say—demands spiritual preparation and active participation on the part of the listener. In order to listen to God, one must be prepared to listen. Listening to the Lord is a spiritual matter.
But any kind of learning involves preparation and active participation or concentration. Because of this, God is very concerned about how we listen and worship. He is concerned about our mental attitudes and our spiritual state when we worship corporately or sit down privately with the Bible.
The problem is that we can simply go through the motions of religious activity and deceive ourselves as James warns us in James 1. We can play church and do a kind of ‘nod to God’ routine putting in our appearance physically while we are in essence absent spiritually. The result is we don’t even come close to truly hearing the voice of God because we have removed our hearts from Him. We have become passive listeners because we aren’t really prepared physically, mentally, and spiritually to hear the Word of the Lord.
Church attendance is often simply a part of our plan to pursue life on our own terms. We attend church not to meet with God or listen in order to know, love, and serve Him, but to feel good, to have an experience, to hear beautiful music, to hear an eloquent speaker, to see people or even to be seen by people. We attend church to soothe our consciences and maybe earn a little of God’s favor. In this case, our religious activity is a kind of insurance policy—a protection we think. But we are dead wrong if we think this way because such reasons do not line up with what God says to us in His Word (read carefully Ecc. 5:1-2; Isa. 29:1,13; Eze. 33:30-32).
So, the key question is, what can we do to prepare our hearts so we are in a position where we can hear what the Lord is seeking to communicate to us, i.e., understand the message and respond with faith and obedience whether the message comes through a hymn, or a testimony, or through the teaching of the Word?
What Is Needed to Effectively Listen to God
We Need Spiritual Preparation
As has already been stated, God’s communication through the Word always involves the teaching/convicting ministry of God the Holy Spirit. This is evident in a number of passages but we will illustrate the point from Ephesians 3:16-19 and 1 Corinthians 2:9-3:3.
That God communicates the Word through the ministry of the Spirit means we must be properly adjusted to or in right relationship to this divine teacher who indwells us. This is a relationship where, believing that He is present, we consciously depend on Him for insight to God’s Word (understanding and personal application).
But as we can see from 1 Corinthians 3, carnal believers, those who are not dealing with sin in their lives, cannot and will not effectively listen or hear God’s message. Carnal believers are apathetic and simply cannot understand and respond to the things of God while in that condition.
Why is that? Because known sin in the life, things like wrong attitudes (envy, jealousy, resentment, pride, unbelief, self-centeredness), self-protective ways of living, indifference or apathy to God, preoccupation with other things, and other forms of sin grieve the Spirit’s person (Eph. 4:30) and undoubtedly stifle or quench much of His ministry like teaching and making the things of Christ real (1 Thess. 5:19). His ministry is changed from leading and teaching the believer to that of convicting him of his condition. The Lord Jesus put it this way in Mark 4:19, “but worldly cares, the seductiveness of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it produces nothing.”
Martha gives us a classic illustration of this. Though in the very presence of the Lord Jesus, Martha (in contrast to Mary) had no ears to hear what the Savior was saying because she was distracted and drawn away by other concerns (Luke 10:38-41).
Another illustration can be seen in the disciples when the Lord fed the five thousand (Mark 6:30-52). They had failed to truly listen to what the Lord was teaching them through the events of the day because they too were occupied with other things, like with who was the greatest. The result is seen in the Lord’s rebuke in verse 52, “because they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
An Open Heart
There needs to be a heart open to personal soul-searching examination for the purpose of seeing our motives, our sources of trust or the things we depend on for our security, i.e., the condition of our lives as they really are. This needs to be done prior to personal study or a worship service in order to prepare our hearts for hearing God. And then it needs to be maintained as other things (or thoughts) distract or hinder our listening while studying or praying, or during a worship service (Ps. 119:18; 139:23-24; 1 Cor. 11:28f).
Often this is simply not done. People arrive at church harried and upset because of something that happened at home or on the way to church. People get caught up chatting with friends and then sit down and never give any thought to their need to secure a spiritual focus and to be sure they are controlled by the Spirit.
The purpose for examination and self-revelation is honest to God confession in a spirit of repentance. While people can’t see our hearts, God can and He rejects worship that is not in spirit and truth, where the heart is kept from Him (Isa. 29:13).
Regarding confession, we are talking about a confession which seeks to go to the root causes of sin in our lives, especially our stubborn determination to run our own lives and live by our own devices for peace, security, and significance (Jer. 2:13; 17:5; Ps. 66:18; Pro. 28:13-14; 1 John 1:9; Ps. 51:5f; Jam. 4:6-10).
Both James 1:19-25 and 1 Peter 2:1-2 teach us that before there can be a proper response to the Word that leads to true spiritual deliverance through an active faith, a response where we are quick to listen, receive, and hunger as a newborn babe for the pure milk of the Word, we must honestly deal with sin. In James 1:23, “receiving the word implanted” is dependent on “putting aside all filthiness …” In 1 Peter 2:2, the command to “And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk” is dependent on “get(ting) rid of all evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.”
How do we deal with sin? By personal examination and honest confession of sin. Then we will be free to listen to God’s Word and depend on the Holy Spirit to give deliverance over sin.
In our TV generation we have become passive listeners. I think the term is “couch potatoes.” We have become mentally lazy. We have forgotten how to think and stay actively involved in the listening process. Active listening means concentrating, searching, probing, questioning, thinking, interacting, responding and applying.
God doesn’t want pious, passive spectators. He wants actively involved listeners. We aren’t receivers who turn ourselves on, tune ourselves in, and relax. Active involved listening is spoken of frequently in Scripture.243
Note the following passage:
James 1:22-27 But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves. 23 For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. 24 For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. 25 But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does. 26 If someone thinks he is religious yet does not bridle his tongue, and so deceives his heart, his religion is futile. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Having challenged us to deal with any sin so we can truly receive (hear) the Word, James then warns us about the difference between superficial and substantial listening. He is warning us against unprepared, passive, and uninvolved listening. James is teaching us we need the kind of active listening that is diligent to understand and respond to God’s Word in order that its truth touch the heart so that it begins to bring change—not by our own strength, but by the power of the indwelling Spirit of God through faith. Compare 1 Corinthians 2:15.
The words “peers into” in verse 25 represent a different word for “looking” than the one used previously in this section (vss. 23-24). This is the Greek word parakuptw which refers to a very intent and concentrated look. Literally parakuptw means “to stoop down in order to have a close look.” It is used in John 20:5 and 11 of the investigation of the empty tomb by the disciples, and in 1 Peter 1:12 of the angels intense interest and study of the person and work of the Savior. So parakuptw suggests keen interest, close attention, and active investigation.
In 1 Timothy 4 Paul told Timothy to “take pains” and “be absorbed” in these things, a reference to the previous commands regarding his ministry in teaching, being an example of Christlike character, and using his gift (4:11-14). One simply cannot “take pains” and “be absorbed” and remain a passive listener. “Take pains” is the Greek word meletaw which means “cultivate, think meditate, attend to carefully.” “Be absorbed” is literally, “in these be,” and connotes the idea of “be totally enveloped, absorbed,” “give yourself totally to them.”
But note the next verse: “Be conscientious about how you live…” Bible study or hearing the Word is to be aimed at personal application for changed living from the inside out.
Passive, uninvolved listening to God is inadequate and judged by God as futile religiosity. Believers are always to be on the alert, probing for meaning and application. Lethargic, half-hearted listening just doesn’t cut it with God nor can it result in spiritual deliverance. In practical terms what does this entail?
What does this mean in terms of my listening to God? When I read and study the Word, I must put everything else aside and concentrate on what He is saying to me. I must give Him my undivided attention. I should do this on a regular basis, for that is the only way I can develop my listening skills. I should do this in a place where I have minimal distractions. I should read and meditate out loud and take notes and ask questions, for these are the kinds of things that make me an active participant.
I should observe carefully to whom God is speaking, what He is saying and why He says it. I should interpret accurately what God means I should apply these truths personally and practically in my own life.244
Finally, to round out our preparation, there are two more things we need so we can listen carefully.
The nobility of the Bereans refers to the fact that the Berean Jews (in contrast to Jews in Thessalonica) were teachable and open, though not gullible. They listened attentively as active participants, but they tested Paul’s teaching against the Scriptures as their index for truth—always a noble and biblical attitude. Their authority for what was truth was the Word. They sought to set aside or block out their prejudice so God’s Word could speak for itself. The result was many came to trust in the Savior.
When we attend church, God wants us to be like the Bereans—good listeners and teachable—and also biblically active participants who search the Scriptures to see whether these things are so.
Mark 7:7-13 stresses the ever present problem of prejudice and background whether religious or secular which we all bring to church and to our background. This passage shows how our background, tradition, experiences, prejudices, etc., can nullify the power and truth of the Word in our lives.
Second Timothy 3:15 teaches again the value of active participation in the words “be diligent” or “study” (KJV). But to that it adds the importance of applying sound principles of Bible study so we are truly listening to God and not the ideas of man that are so often based on man’s tradition or human experience, including our own (cf. 2 Pet. 1:17-21). We need to be precise in our hermeneutics so we truly hear what God is saying.
Why did the apostle say this? Because Timothy was faced with false teachers who were neither diligent nor accurately handling the Word. That leads to hearing man’s voice and not God’s. When we apply poor methods of Bible study and poor methods of listening, we can end up hearing man’s voice rather than God’s. There is simply no place in God’s plan for lethargic, passive listening, or listening carelessly.
In Luke 22:7-14, we find that the Lord sent Peter and John to make preparations for the Passover meal that they might observe it according to its meaning and significance. The word “prepare” is used three times in these verses (vss. 9, 12, 13). The Lord saw to it that everything needed was properly prepared so He could observe the Passover with His disciples.
Truly listening to God involves physical as well as spiritual preparation. Certainly without spiritual preparation, the best physical preparation in the world accomplishes little. But we often fail to see the need to be physically prepared to listen to God. Physical preparation should be seen as a part of the spiritual preparation needed to listen to God.
- Noise, people moving around, poor lighting, and other physical conditions can be distracters which hinder our ability to concentrate.
- Being physically tired from failing to get enough sleep the night before can create a major hindrance to good listening.
- Those who have a part in the worship service as song leader, pianist, organist, ushers, the speaker, etc., can call attention to themselves through a lack of preparation and thus hinder people from listening to God.
- Preparation needs to start at home on Saturday night by getting to bed early, getting the kids clothes ready, and by even planning breakfast. For many families, getting to church becomes a frantic, harried experience with mom and dad looking for socks and shoes, and trying to feed the family. In such circumstances, who is prepared to listen?
- Preparation can include something as simple as seeing to it that the children go to the bathroom before the service.
The bottom line is that listening to God is no small issue. If we are not prepared to listen so we can respond with our hearts, let’s face it, we are simply playing church and we are withholding our hearts from the Lord. Our religious activities then become an exercise in futility and deception (Jam. 1:22).
243 Grant Howard, The Trauma of Transparency, Multnomah Press, Portland, 1979, p. 91.
244 Howard, p. 92.