Listening to God
Imagine a relationship where you never listened to the other person...
You talk to them all the time, you are always asking them for help and guidance, but never give them a chance to respond to your requests for guidance. You spend a lot of time and energy doing things for them, and frequently talk about how much they mean to you. You even try to introduce other people to them. But you never actually take the time to listen to what they say to you. You don’t feel you need to listen because your connection with them is so deep that you already know what they are like, what they value, and how they feel about any given situation.
Most would agree that such a relationship would not thrive for long—but sometimes, this dysfunctional picture doesn’t look much different than the relationships that we have with God. We claim that God is our Father, our friend. We reach out to Him in prayers and praise, we talk about Him, we put a lot of time into working for Him, we fill our lives with His service, but do we ever actually listen to Him? We say that we know God, but how much time and energy do we spend listening to what He says to us?
The relationship we have with God should be the most important in our lives. Open, honest, attentive communication is the lifeblood of any relationship. But how does communication with the creator and sustainer of the universe work? We speak to Him by prayer, meditation, and praise, but where can we go to hear God’s voice? What is the medium through which He speaks to us? We can observe His sovereign power and creative might in the world around us, and we might feel His providence at work in our lives —but since there is no open vision in this era, there is only way to hear God—through His word. The Bible is the only source we can access to hear God’s thoughts.
The Bible is proof that God wants us to listen to Him—He has given us hundreds of pages that describe, illustrate, and declare His character, His plan, His thoughts, His feelings, and His wisdom. This is why the Christadelphian community has repeatedly emphasized the importance of personal Bible study. Bible study is not an optional activity for those who are academically inclined. It’s not just for those who are tasked with teaching within the ecclesia. It’s for everyone who wants to have a deeper, more tangible, more transformative, more enduring relationship with God.
Perhaps we should define what we mean by “Bible study.” Bible study is not about reference books and research or Hebrew and Greek words. It’s not about deciphering complex symbols and matching them up with obscure historical events. Bible study, in its simplest form, is reading the Bible to understand what God is telling us. This doesn’t require a degree in theology; it simply requires some curiosity and some commitment. We are Bible students, not Bible experts. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable Bible student has only scratched the surface of the wonders of God’s word.
Bible study cannot be the mere accumulation of Bible knowledge—it must be the pursuit of Biblical thinking. After all, mere knowledge has a strong tendency to puff up its possessor’s pride, and unapplied knowledge has no more value than a tinkling cymbal (1 Cor 8:1;13:1-2). It’s only when we apply what we know that we can bear fruit. But you can’t apply knowledge you don’t have. Knowledge is not an end in itself, but it is an essential starting point.
Without knowledge, we have no foundation for our worship. When we no longer pursue Biblical knowledge, spiritual shipwreck is sure to follow. God said of the Jews in Hosea 4:6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge… and since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” In the New Testament, Jesus takes up the same theme, condemning the religious leaders for abandoning their responsibility to teach God’s law: “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:51).
Bible study is not (and should not be) the only focus of our spiritual lives, but it is impossible to have a robust relationship with God without listening to Him. Consider a Bible character whose relationship with God we all admire: David, the man after God’s own heart. David was someone who saw beyond the letter of the Law to understand the spirit of God’s commandments, championed mercy instead of judgement, and accomplished astonishing things for God by his faith. But David was only able to have this kind of vibrant faith because he was an eager and committed student of the Bible. The clear proof for this is found in just about any verse of Psalm 119. David’s longest Psalm exudes its author’s passion for the word of God—and it contains a comprehensive description of the effect that careful attention to God’s law can have on someone’s life. According to David in Psalm 119, the Bible guards us against sin, resists temptation, allows us to understand God, reminds us to keep his commandments, comforts us in trial, preserves our faith in affliction, provides direction in uncertainty, gives reason for praise and bestows profound peace.
We live in an age of unprecedented access to the word of God. Unparalleled literacy rates worldwide, combined with the abundance of free or highly affordable copies of the Bible in a multiplicity of translations allow humanity greater opportunity than ever before to discover and dig into God’s revealed will. But familiarity all too easily breeds contempt, and that which is easily accessible is too often viewed with complacency. All scripture is profitable for every aspect of our spiritual lives, so it behooves us to do all we can to take full advantage of the Bible’s power to reveal the mind of God.
Tips for Getting Started
If we want to prioritize listening for the still, small voice, we must be prepared to intentionally invest in personal Bible study. Knowing how to approach personal Bible study can be a daunting task, but thankfully, there are a variety of useful practices and valuable resources that can help you get started.
Commit to reading the Bible every day: From a young age, Jesus himself made time to listen to God in his daily schedule (Isa 50:4). Daily intake of the word of God is fundamental for us to maintain a healthy relationship with Him. Whatever reading schedule you choose to follow, make sure that you are engaged in what you are reading. Keep a notebook with you to jot down notes, questions, and themes you encounter. As time goes on, you’ll have a growing pile of potential topics and questions to kickstart a more in-depth study.
Choose a topic: A limited section of Scripture is often the most straightforward type of study to navigate: consider a minor prophet or epistle; one chapter or psalm; or a character you find intriguing and relatable. Read the relevant sections several times in different translations, taking detailed notes. Try to brainstorm questions about each verse in your section. Those questions will become an invaluable roadmap for your study. Endeavoring to find answers will get you well on your way to developing a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of your topic.
Utilize Resources: If starting your own study from scratch seems too intimidating, there are several great resources available in the Christadelphian community which you can use to guide your way through the study process:
Youth Conference Workbooks: There are dozens of workbooks available for free download on most youth conference websites. Most youth conference workbooks guide you through a study of a manageable topic by providing a framework of key questions to answer. Pay attention to the kind of questions asked, and the methods of finding answers that are provided in the book, so you can use those same strategies when you embark on your own personal studies.
Audio Resources: Listen to a series of classes from christadelphianbibletalks.com if you are more of an auditory learner. Some series have accompanying notes or slides you can download for reference. There are also several very useful and engaging Christadelphian produced podcasts available on most podcast streaming applications. These audio resources are a great way of digesting spiritual content when you are occupied with busy tasks that don’t require too much mental space.
Print Resources: There are hundreds of books written by Christadelphians that carefully lead you through a given Biblical topic. Many of these books provide profoundly helpful insights as you work through a topic. In addition to books, our community contains a rich library of more digestible, short-form articles published in our various magazines published for the past century and a half.
Develop Consistent Bible Marking Practices: Bible marking has several benefits:
The space constraints of your margins force you to be succinct, which helps to ensure that you fully understand and can clearly explain the point you are making.
Recording your findings in your Bible will help preserve your discoveries. Even years later, a well-placed note can help jog your memory about an exciting connection or Biblical gem you discovered.
The more time you spend writing and highlighting in the pages of your Bible, the more comfortable and familiar you’ll be navigating God’s word.
The final two tips have the most potential to tangibly improve the consistency, quality, and fruitfulness of your own Bible study:
Create a personal study schedule: Once you’ve chosen your topic and gathered some resources, the most important thing you can do to make sure your study is effective is to make a plan for working through your study. Decide on a time, length, and frequency for your personal study sessions that you can realistically commit to. Take the time to block out in advance what you want to cover in each session to avoid distractions and to make sure you get the most out of your time with the Word. Once you’ve made your study plan, make sure you follow through! It will take a while to build up the habit but stick it out—as time goes on you will find that your time alone with God’s word can be truly life-changing.
Build accountability through community: One of the best ways to stay committed to your study goals is by sharing them with others. This may mean finding a Bible study accountability partner or building a wider group of friends and mentors with whom you discuss your studies. Make a point of sharing with them what you’ve been learning whenever you see them and ask what they are working on. Consistently updating each other on your study progress helps to keep you accountable to your study plan and helps to build a bigger community of people who are united by their shared commitment to and love for God’s word.
One of the most effective ways to build a community around listening to God is to organize a consistent group of people who will study together. In the two ecclesias I’ve been a member of, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a group of peers who would meet fairly consistently at someone’s house on a free evening of the week for personal Bible study, food, and fellowship. It’s inspiring to be surrounded by others who are actively engaging in their personal relationship with God, and the discussions that ensue afterward can become an amazing source of encouragement as everyone shares what they have been learning.
God is looking for people with whom he can nurture relationships. His invitation to join his family is open to anyone who will take the time to listen to him. By investing in personal study of the scriptures, we are investing in a relationship that will last for eternity.
Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David. (Isa 55:2-3).
(Thousand Oaks, CA)