Sitting in time-out on the bottom step, she stomps her feet. Thuds reverberate across our old wooden floor.
“I want to be a good listener!” Her shrieking voice echoes through the room, and she peeks at me out of the corner of one eye. I sigh and look back at the Cheerios spilling halfway to the next room. With a grunt, she flops over and sticks out her lower lip. She repeats her plea, her pitch rising. It’s become her go-to phrase; a last-ditch effort to avoid punishment.
“Why did you do that?”, I ask, exasperated. “I said no.” She glares at me. I glare back. Realizing I’m not budging, she switches strategies, innocence washing over her face.
“I forgot,” she says. “I want to be a good listener now.” She lets that last word stretch and swell as if it will convince me of her sincerity. In the middle of her temper tantrum, God speaks.
“You do the same,” he says. “Only listening when you want.” Surprised, I stop. I’ve spent my life reigning in my impulses, seeking his will. What could he mean?
“You obey in the big things, but not the little. Things you decide are not important, or don’t feel like doing.” He was right. He must get so exasperated with me sometimes, I thought.
How to Hear God’s Voice
These encounters with God happen pretty regularly these days, but I couldn’t always hear so easily. It’s taken time, practice. The truth is, he’s always present, always speaking, encouraging, correcting. Still, sometimes it’s hard to hear.
Whether or not you’re new to listening prayer, I’ve found these three steps helpful: quiet yourself, ask, and wait.
- Quiet Yourself
Our minds are perpetually busy. Learning to quiet your mind is hard but necessary to build spiritual maturity and emotional health. Honestly, it just takes practice —- bringing your focus back to the Lord again and again until it becomes your natural response.
We tend to tell God what we want, asking for approval for our ideas. Learning to stop and shift the focus to him and his ideas is pivotal in hearing God. Prayers begin to sound like, “Lord, what do you want? How should I handle this? What are you trying to teach me?”
We don’t like waiting and want answers yesterday. Hearing from God isn’t about getting answers, it’s about having conversations. Don’t be in such a hurry that you run off as soon as you think you’ve got your answer. Sit with God. Be with him. Think of him as a trusted friend or mentor, instead of a genie or magic eight ball.
Listening is key, but obedience must follow. We’re hardwired to satisfy every craving, to do things our way. “Mommy, I do it.” I’ve heard it a thousand times. My kids are not interested in guidance, and we can be just as stubborn. Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (NIV).
So how do we learn? How do we cultivate a desire for something that often goes against the grain?
Being obedient isn’t something we just decide to be, any more than we decide to be fit, skilled, or successful. It has to be practiced like everything else. You will fail often at being obedient, but that’s ok — just keep bringing your failures to God and ask for the grace to do better next time.
- Start Small
We seek God’s guidance for where to go to college, what career path to follow, who to marry, etc. Start small. Learn to obey the mundane, ordinary things God asks. If we learn to say yes to God over little things, obedience is a lot easier when we face more substantial challenges.
The Right Motivation
Obedience can feel restricting if we’re doing it for approval. God is not adding gold stars to a sticker chart when we obey. We’re not “in the club,” or good enough if we do enough good. He doesn’t love us more when we obey, or less when we don’t. Think of obedience as strength training. In Ephesians 4:14, the apostle Paul says that if we obey, “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there.” Obedience equips you for the journey, making you spiritually mature, filled with integrity and emotionally healthy.
I look down at the little one at my feet. I wonder why she can’t just obey, why she won’t follow simple instructions. She’s looking up at me — anger and contempt piercing through those round, brown eyes.
I marvel at her desire for independence, for freedom to make her own choices. It’s an inherent, carnal desire all too familiar. I see myself in her: strands of independence, pride, stubbornness. Nonetheless, my responsibility is to teach her to harness her feelings and reign in her impulses, so she can use them for good, and not harm. I kneel to face her.
“Why are you in time out?” I whisper.
“I didn’t obey.” She can’t quite meet my gaze.
Underneath her bitter exterior, I know she’s trying. I know, also, that she won’t have a chance if I don’t stick with her for the long haul, correcting her missteps, and talking her through her decisions. We talk it out and apologies are made as we hug — a little longer this time — before she scampers off. I take her place on the stairs. It’s my turn to listen.
“Lord, I’m sorry,” I start. “I haven’t been listening. Not really, anyway.” I picture him, kneeling with me as I had been with her. My mind wanders through weeks and months past, lingering over my missteps. One at a time, he tenderly shows me where I chose to ignore his prodding or disregard his instructions, choosing to act in my own interests instead.
Philippians 2:3-4 came to mind. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” (NIV)
“Yes, Lord,” I said. “I need to work on that.” We sat awhile as I surrendered to each bit of instruction as it came, promising I wanted to listen, to do better. I ended with one final request; a prayer I have worn thin with use.
Give me a new perspective, Lord,
Help me to see things from your point of view.
Give me the desires of your heart.
Pull the scales from my eyes that keep me from seeing you.
Pull the plugs from my ears that keep me from hearing you.
Soften my heart so I am changed by you.