The Speaking Voice
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)
The Deaf Maestro
Ludwig van Beethoven, the son of a court musician and tenor singer, was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. His father constantly drilled him in piano with the intention of showcasing him as a child prodigy. Throughout his early years, he received training in piano performance and composition from Neefe, Mozart, Haydn, Albrechtsberger, Schenck, and Salieri. By 1795 he had earned a name for himself as a pianist of great imagination and passion, admired in particular for his brilliant improvisations.
Around the year 1798 Beethoven noticed that he was suffering from a hearing disorder. He withdrew into seclusion from the public and his few friends and was eventually left completely deaf. Toward the end of his life he communicated with visitors and trusted friends by means of writing in his "conversation notebooks."
Just how bad was Beethoven's hearing? At first the malady was so minor and intermittent that it only worried him occasionally. But in an 1801 letter he described his condition as living with the constant presence of a whistle and a buzz. People who spoke in soft tones were to him an unintelligible hum, while people who shouted loudly were perceived only as intolerable racket. In time his illness completely drowned out all the delicate sounds and distorted all the strong ones. For the last ten years of his life he was totally deaf.
By the early 1800's it became apparent to him that his hearing loss would result in the loss of his career as a virtuoso pianist. He then turned his extraordinary giftedness toward composition. But making a living as a composer proved to be for more difficult than it had as a performer, especially when his compositions significantly preceded the popular tastes of the time.
Soon despair and depression tormented the man. In 1802 his doctor sent him to Heiligenstadt, a village outside Vienna, with the hope that its rural peace would improve his hearing. At first the natural surroundings reawakened in Beethoven a fresh hope and optimism. Among the upbeat works from this period was the charming and exuberant Symphony no. 2. However, when it became obvious that his hearing was not improving, his despair and depression returned. By that autumn he felt so physically and psychologically low that he feared he would not live through the winter. But he did.
For the next few years Beethoven lived in what might be described as a state of monotonous uproar. As his relationships began to suffer damage from both his explosive anger as well as his monstrous depression, his music grew all the more magnificent and thunderous. Though he pursued various women throughout his life, usually aristocratic in class, he never married. His close friends believed that his manic-depressive demeanor was to blame.
By the time his Ninth Symphony (Choral) was completed in 1823, Beethoven was completely deaf. Many music aficionados regard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, including its famous "Ode to Joy," as the pinnacle of musical greatness. Certainly one anonymous buyer thought so. At auction, he was willing to pay $3.47 million for the final 575-page manuscript, which included Beethoven's handwritten revisions and comments. Sadly, the composer had been deaf for eight years by the time this symphony was first performed in 1824. He never actually heard his own masterpiece.
But that first performance of the Ninth was marked by a poignant moment. Despite being deaf, Beethoven insisted on conducting the orchestra. Unknown to him, the real conductor sat just out of sight, making sure that the correct beat was kept. As the last movement concluded, Beethoven, unaware that the performance had ended and that the standing-room only audience had erupted in unrestrained applause, continued to wave his conductor's baton. Eventually, one of the singers took him by the arm, turned him around, and pointed to the audience's exuberant standing ovation.
Performing is an orchestrated endeavor in which all the musicians, led by a single conductor, must blend their individual contributions into one unified symphony. On the other hand, composition is a solitary endeavor in which one musician, inspired by an inner voice, must blend the all the musical elements into one seamless masterpiece. One requires an extraordinary ear for the sound of music. The other requires an extraordinary ear for the music in the mind. Beethoven lost his ability to hear the sound of music; he never lost his ability to hear the music in his brilliant mind. And oh what music he heard!
Isn't it remarkable that within the interior silence of his head, Beethoven was able to clearly hear music with no sound, music that many consider to be the world's greatest? Perhaps, in the spiritual realm, something similar is true for us as well. If so, then every believer that longs to lay their head upon the Father's breast and hear his heartbeat must first learn to shut out the noises of this world and cultivate silence. That kind of listening is not developed in an audiologist's hearing lab, but in the lonely, quiet places, far away from the tumult. History teaches us that prophets, artists, mystics, or saints are forged in the vast silence of the wilderness, for it is a perfect laboratory within which to do soul work.
Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, suggests a fresh perspective concerning the role that the wilderness played in Jesus' temptation by the devil (Matthew 4). It is clear that the Spirit of God led the Lord into the wilderness in order to be tempted. Most of us, including Satan, assume that it was there that Jesus was at his weakest: starving and alone. But as it turns out, the wilderness offered a "home field" advantage for Christ. The place of solitude and deprivation was, in fact, a place of strength and communion for him. For over a month he had been feasting on the Word and drinking deeply from his Father's perfect love. Then, and only then, was Satan allowed to approach him with his gaudy attempts at temptation. But by the point that the devil showed up, Jesus was at the height of his strength. The desert was his fortress. The battle was quick. And the victory was lopsided.
We come now to the sixth chapter of A. W. Tozer's profound book, The Pursuit of God, which he titles "The Speaking Voice." Each chapter contains a central question: Chapter 1 — Will I follow hard after God? Chapter 2 — Am I open to the blessedness of possessing nothing? Chapter 3 — What is my part in removing the veil between me and God? Chapter 4 — How close am I to apprehending God? Chapter 5: How well am I able to perceive the universal presence of God? And now Chapter 6: "What must I do to hear the speaking voice of God?
In the previous chapter, Tozer beckoned us to open our eyes to the One who is all around us. Everything we see around us points to the reality of his unseen presence. And even those things that we can't see he has incarnated first in his Son, and now in his children. Now, in this chapter, he redirects our pursuit to his voice, his speaking voice. And just as before, we are challenged to listen, not with our ears, but with our spirit. For those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
Before "In the Beginning"
In John 1:1 we read, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This truth precedes the truth of Genesis 1:1. This truth speaks of an eternal existence before the created order. In the beginning, before the beginning of Genesis, the Word was and the Word is and the Word will always be. The Greek for "Word" is logos. It reveals to us that God, at the very core of his nature, is a communicator. He is the One who speaks in order to communicate. From eternity past, the Godhead has found fulfillment through the self-expression of communion and community and communication.
Furthermore, the Scriptures tell us that, as Tozer put it, "God is speaking. Not God spoke, but God is speaking. He is, by his nature, continuously articulate. He fills the world with his speaking voice." His voice, just like his presence, is not limited by space or time. It is everywhere present throughout all of time and eternity. Therefore, it is not that he spoke once long ago and then stopped speaking so that he no longer speaks. It is that he continuously speaks. The prophets always introduced a message from God with the words, "Thus says the Lord," not, "Thus said the Lord."
Tozer continues, "The Bible is the written Word of God, and because it is written it is confined and limited by the necessities of ink and paper and leather. The voice of God, however, is alive and free as the sovereign God is free. So it is the present Voice which makes the written Word all-powerful. Otherwise it would lay locked in slumber inside the covers of a book."
God speaks and causes that which does not exist to come into being. In other words, he spoke to nothing and it became something. "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth . . . . For he spoke, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast" (Psalm 33:6,9). "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God" (Hebrews 11:3). Here we understand that God is not referring to his written Word, but to his speaking Voice.
Genesis tells us that, "God said . . . and it was so." Tozer puts it well when he remarks, "The said accounts for the so. The so is the said put into the continuous present." That same God is here now and he is now speaking. This truth is behind all biblical truths. Without this truth there would be no revelation to us today, only a humanly recorded journal of what he once revealed long ago.
Years ago, Francis Schaeffer wrote a book titled, He Is There and He Is Not Silent. In that simple title, Schaeffer sums up the same basic truth that the God of the cosmos not only exists, but that he is communicating. Communication is eternally occurring within the Godhead. Communication is occurring throughout all time. And communication is what he desires to engage in with us. To say that he is not silent means that he never leaves himself without a witness.
Consider the myriad ways he speaks to us. He speaks to us in nature. He speaks to us in our conscience. He speaks to us throughout history. He speaks to us through other people. He speaks to us through dreams. He speaks to us through the prophets. And in these last days, he has spoken to us through his Son — the personal incarnation of that living Word that spoke all things into being. The Son of God speaks his desires for us to know him. He speaks his desire for us to be in him and for him to be in us. He speaks to us in Scripture and reveals his purpose and will for our lives. But the Bible does not eliminate God's continuous Voice; in fact, it is the vehicle for God's continuous Voice.
The Voice of Lady Wisdom
Recall from the book of Proverbs how wisdom is personified as a beautiful woman whose voice cries out in the city's public square, a central gathering place where the business of the day was transacted. Solomon pictures her this way:
"Does not wisdom call, and understanding lift up her voice? On the top of the heights beside the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand. Besides the gates, at the opening to the city, at the entrance of the doors, she cries out: 'To you, O men, I call. And my voice is to the sons of men. O naïve ones, discern prudence. And, O fools, discern wisdom. Listen, for I shall speak noble things; and the opening of my lips will produce right things. For my mouth will utter truth" (Proverbs 8:1-7).
The woman of wisdom in Proverbs 8 is contrasted with the woman of folly in Proverbs 7. Mark well the dissimilarity. Solomon paints the woman of foolishness in bold colors:
"And I saw among the naïve, I discerned among the youths, a young man lacking sense . . . he takes the way to her house . . . the woman comes to meet him, dressed as a harlot and cunning of heart. She is boisterous and rebellious; her feet do not remain at home . . . with her many persuasions she entices him; with her flattering lips she seduces him. Suddenly he follows her. As an ox goes to slaughter, or as one in fetters to the discipline of a fool . . . he does not know that it will cost him his life" (Proverb 7: 6-23).
Solomon's imagery goes far beyond the obvious warning of sexual temptation. He is describing the journey toward wisdom and the journey toward foolishness. The wisdom from above is peaceful and righteous and pure and it leads to life. The "wisdom" from below is boisterous and rebellious and shrewd and it leads to death. Every day of our life, we hear two voices, two calls. One is the voice of Christ calling out to you, first and foremost, to pursue the only Wise God and, secondly, calling you to pursue his life of wisdom. The other is the voice of the evil one, calling out to you to feed your desires and appetites, to chase after those cheap and phony lures that hook you and reel you toward your death.
Wisdom's voice can easily be drowned out by daily life—our busy schedules, our hectic pace, and our penchant for constant surround-sound. We can easily miss the clear, yet small voice of wisdom as she cries out to us. But to miss her plea is to miss the call to increase our spiritual receptivity. The urgency is that our lives depend upon hearing and responding to her call. But over time we have trained our ears not to hear. Tozer insightfully asks, "Could it be that this Voice distilling like a living mist upon the hearts of men has been the undiscovered cause of the troubled conscience and the longing for immortality confessed by millions since the dawn of recorded history?" Tozer is right. God's Voice creates a longing deep within every heart, a longing that inexorably pulls each heart toward what it knows not. And at the same time, that Voice creates a troubled and restless conscience that cannot be accounted for by the material world, nor can it be eradicated.
Thunder, Monkeys, and a Turtle on a Fence Post
Failure to hear the Voice as coming from God has created some very interesting reactions. When men heard the Father speak from heaven to his Son, they explained it away. In John 12:28-29, Jesus makes a request of his Father, "Father, glorify thy name." Then, God the Father says, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." What was the response of the multitude standing near enough to hear it? Some thought that the voice of God they heard was thunder. Others thought that it was an angel. Most missed it. Imagine that. How many times do we assume that all our faith really needs is one clear, distinct, audible message from God? Yet in the responses of those hearers, we can easily recognize ourselves. God speaks and we come to all manner of conclusions as to what it was; all except the conclusion that God spoke.
Tozer concludes, "This habit of explaining the Voice by appeals to natural law is at the very root of modern science." But, he continues,
"The believing man does not claim to understand. He falls to his knees and whispers, 'God.' The man of the earth kneels also, but not to worship. He kneels to examine, to search, to find the cause and the how of things. Just now we happen to be living in a secular age. Our thought habits are those of the scientist, not those of the worshipper. We are more likely to explain than adore."
But it is important to point out that spiritual truth is not in opposition to science. Science, properly interpreted, is actually an ally of spiritual truth, for it points to something beyond. Ultimately, the person who is looking for a cause that accounts for all that exists has only three options available. The first option is that it was a necessity. It just had to be this way.
The second option is that it was chance. It just happened to be this way. This is the option held by most scientists: given enough time, even the most improbable things can happen. But if you put some actual numbers to this position, they never add up. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who hypothesized that if you gave him a million monkeys, all typing on a million typewriters, eventually one of them would type out a play of Shakespeare. At first it sounds plausible, given enough time. After all, with enough time many unlikely have happened. But let's put some real numbers to this hypothetical scenario. If we assume there are forty keys on the typewriters, that spaces and upper and lower case do not count, that the monkeys are typing at the equivalent of a hundred words a minute 24 hours a day, that you have a million monkeys typing, and that there are only four letters in every word, how long would it take one of the monkeys to correctly type the first word? The mathematics of probability predicts that it would be a matter of a few seconds. To get the second word, meaning that any one of the monkeys would have to get all eight letters of both the first word and the second word in sequence, it would take about five days. To get the third word, i.e., twelve consecutive letters in sequence, it would take approximately 100 years. To get the fourth word, i.e., 16 letters in the correct sequence, it would take about a 100 billion years (most astronomers estimate the age of the universe to be 13.7 billion years). Yet the information contained in one strand of human DNA is far greater than all the combined plays of Shakespeare. If you do the math honestly, you soon realize that the first sentence of the play would never be written.
The third option and is that of design. Here, I like to use the analogy of the turtle on a fence post. Imagine that you are walking through the countryside and you spy a turtle perched on top of a fence post. You ask yourself how did it get there? Your options: Perhaps it is necessity; by nature it had to be there. But, upon reflection, you immediately realize that it doesn't have to be there. So, you move to the second option: perhaps it is chance. It is conceivable that a tornado picked up the turtle and gently deposited him on the top of the post by sheer accident. But, as with our hard-typing monkeys, what may be logically conceivable is not always mathematically achievable. In fact, the chances that the turtle's presence on the post can be accounted for via the happy accident of a violent, 150 mile-an-hour tornado are so remote that it raises questions about the stubbornness of the claimant. But if it is not required to be there, and if it didn't get there by accident, then the only option left is that of design. Some intelligent force must have intervened. We know that the little brain of the turtle couldn't have figured out a way to climb up there, so the only logical explanation left is that somebody must have put it there.
When we apply this same reasoning to a world that is resplendent with beauty, intelligence, and complexity, we can see how a scientist can become a more complete scientist if he starts his work by worshipping the One whose handiwork he daily explores and investigates. In the presence of the Creator, the scientist, the theologian, and the child are all allies. My conviction is that if you have the ears to hear, everything in nature points beyond itself to wondrous spiritual truth.
The Listening Heart
In the presence of God's greatness we find, as Tozer says, ". . . a sudden sense of loneliness or a sense of wonder in the face of the universal vastness. Or we have had a fleeting visitation of light like an illumination from some other sun, giving us in a quick flash assurance that we are from another world, that our origins are divine." Note that well: you are from another world and your origin is divine. Your physical birth into this world means that your origin is of this world — you were born in the line of Adam. But your spiritual birth in Christ signifies that your new life did not originate in this world, but was divine. You have been reborn in the line of Christ. Accordingly, your native tongue is no longer earthly, but the language of divine communion.
Tozer says that we can try to explain such feelings away but we are not being "fair to the facts until we allow at least the possibility that such experiences may arise from the presence of God in the world and his persistent effort to communicate with mankind." Tozer rightly goes on to say, ". . . here I will not feel bad if no one follows me . . . every good and beautiful thing that man has produced in the world has been the result of his faulty and sin-blocked response to the creative Voice sounding over the earth." That is, even the atheist who speaks or writes against God in no way destroys the creative power of God's voice in his life. He made each of us in such a way that every human action worthy of praise is a response to the haunting sound of the speaking Voice.
In heaven we will find that the effects of sin will no longer distort our perspective. We will clearly see ourselves, each another, and God, as if for the first time. It will be similar to what happened with the Hubble telescope several years ago. The images were initially fuzzy and out of focus due to a faulty lens. But after the lens was corrected on a Space Shuttle mission, the images returned to earth were sharp and crisp. On an even greater scale, that is what our perspective will be like in heaven. Everything will be clear and focused.
"Whoever will listen will hear the speaking Heaven. This is definitely not the hour when men take kindly to an exhortation to listen, for listening is not today a part of popular religion . . . . Religion has accepted the monstrous heresy that noise, size, activity and bluster make a man dear to God." If that statement were true of popular religion back in 1948, imagine how much more it characterizes our own time. Consider how great is the number of driven people throughout history who have built grand empires, ignited global movements, or created mass-market campaigns, all in an effort to make themselves dear to God.
Well, if our impressive efforts don't make enough noise to get God's attention, what does? Tozer answers from Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know that I am God." God's attentive Presence is drawn to those who seek out the still, quiet places and patiently wait for his approach. In time, he will come and we will know who it is. But until then, it's best to get alone with your Bible spread open before you and wait with a receptive heart.
How will God speak to us? Tozer suggests a general progression, although it will vary according to the individual. He says,
"First a sound as of a Presence walking in the garden. Then a Voice, more intelligible, but still far from clear. Then the happy moment when the Spirit begins to illuminate the Scriptures, and that which had been only a sound, or at best a voice, now becomes an intelligible word, warm and intimate as the word of a dear friend. Then will come life and light, and best of all, ability to see and rest in and embrace Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of All."
In addition to what Tozer says, let me suggest that you also try this. When you read a passage of Scripture try to identify one verse that seemed to speak to you. Then hone in on that truth and read it over and over until you are no longer reading it for information, but for "formation." Allow that truth from God to have its way with your spirit. Read it in another translation. Meditate on it. Ask questions of the passage. Pray it back to God. And as you pray, periodically stop talking and listen for God to speak to you through his Spirit. If your mind should wander, then simply return to the passage and continue. Start off with a passage like Colossians 3 and work your way through the chapter, two or three verses a day. The key is listening, listening for God's Spirit to speak to you within your spirit. Don't listen for something to come from the outside, because the way to intimacy is by being in the Word and him being the Word in you. In time, you will learn to recognize the distinct Voice of God.
Don't worry about "doing it right." God is not rating your technique; he is only looking for your heart. And he will honor and celebrate whatever you bring to him. Like a parent whose child comes and says "Mommy, Daddy, look what I made for you." If that parent were evaluating the drawing through the eyes of an adult critic, they would see little to commend. But because they are welcoming a special present that their child took the time to make just for them, they view it as a cherished masterpiece, suitable for the refrigerator gallery. They know its worthless on the open market, and they know it won't fetch anything even at a garage sale, but they put it up because it is their child's labor of love. And that's just what God does. He takes our childlike attempts at pleasing him — our prayers, our journal entries, our meditations, our tears, our inexpressible groans — and treasures them by hanging them throughout heaven's museum of grace to be viewed throughout eternity.
God is articulate everywhere in his universe. But to hear him speak to us we must quiet our spirits, then open our Bibles, then listen for his Voice. All three components are needed. Being quiet and listening is not enough. We need the Scripture to keep us anchored. Nor is being quiet and in the Word enough. We need to train our hearts to listen. And even if we are in the Word and trying to listen, we will find it hard to hear if we have not taken steps to leave the noises of the world behind.
Tozer concludes this chapter by saying, "If you would follow on to know the Lord, come at once to the open Bible expecting it to speak to you. Do not come with the notion that it is a thing which you may push around at your convenience. It is more than a thing; it is a voice, a word, the Word of the living God." We are indeed victims of a "divided psychology" if we think that God is mute everywhere and only vocal in a book, as though a long-silent God decided to speak, only to lapse back into silence. As Tozer says,
"I think a new world will arise out of the religious mists when we approach our Bible with the idea that it is not only a book which was once spoken, but a book which is now speaking. The prophets habitually said, 'Thus saith the Lord.' They meant their hearers to understand that God's speaking is in the continuous present."
Throughout his life Beethoven raged at God, considering his deafness a tragic joke by the Almighty. His anger drove much of his work, particularly in his later compositions. In addition to being deaf, it appears that he was also blind to the gift he had been given when he lost his hearing. For it was within the silence of that mental cathedral that he was able to create some of the most soaring music ever written. How tragic if it turns out that the man who was able to hear the music of heaven was never willing to hear the voice of heaven's Musician.
For the child who wants to learn how to listen for the sound of the approaching Father, this prayer is a good place to start:
"Lord, teach me to listen. The times are noisy and my ears are weary with a thousand raucous sounds which continually assault them. Give me the spirit of the boy Samuel when he said to Thee, 'Speak, for thy servant heareth.' Let me hear Thee speaking in my heart. Let me get used to the sound of Thy voice, that its tones may be familiar when the sounds of earth die away and the only sound will be the music of Thy speaking voice. Amen.
Related Topics: Spiritual Formation