Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Hearing the voice of God

Atheist or agnostic friends frequently tell me: "Prove to me your claim that God exists. If I could see him, hear his voice, see a true miracle, I would believe."

They are in good company: The Apostle we know as Doubting Thomas didn't believe his best friends when they testified that Christ had risen from the dead. "If I could stick my fingers in the nail scars in his hands," he told them, "I would believe."

I have one very sincere friend (I'm honored that he reads my blogs and I'm certain he will respond to this column) who has said, "If I could see a severed limb, miraculously regrown by the power of God, then I would believe."

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times recently, titled, "Is that God talking?" The writer explored the gamut of people who claim to have heard (audibly) the voice of God. The reports range from those which seem to have a certain degree of credulity, to those which are fairly incredible. (I laughed about the one where the person heard God say: "Vote for Bush." She replied: "But I don't like George Bush!" And God [supposedly] responded: "I didn't ask you to like him ... just vote for him.")

I don't doubt God speaks, occasionally, in a voice audibly perceived. But I don't think this is the experience of a vast majority of Christians, and it's certainly not mine. (Yet, anyway.) I certainly believe I have heard God speak, but I don't mean it that way.

I have heard Him "speak" powerfully to my heart, convicted of my sin by a Scripture or a song or a word of truth spoken by a friend. I have heard Him "speak" by gazing up into the awe-inspiring night sky in rural Zimbabwe, where our galaxy was displayed in all its glory. (Well, in reality in only a very small fraction of its glory! But it was breathtaking nonetheless.) And I have heard Him "speak" through indescribable impressions upon my spirit, which ended up (in hindsight) to be important timely insights I really couldn't have known any other way.

For example, read this blog post about the time just such an impression very dramatically prevented me from reversing my truck down a driveway with a toddler sitting (unbeknownst to me) on my rear bumper.

But the truth is, these things all can (and will) be explained by the skeptic. And, taken alone, these are not why I believe in the reality of God and His presence in my life. My faith is not (solely) mystical. It is fundamentally (though not solely) rational -- I believe in God because it makes sense. He has left (in the Bible) a very compelling historical record of His mark on humankind. In so many ways our world revolves around the advent of Jesus Christ, that humble carpenter from Nazareth, who claimed all the way up to His crucifixion to be God. The counterintuitive story of His love and grace and mercy which any holistic reading of the Bible provides drives the final rivets into the bridge of my faith.

And to mix my metaphors for good measure, hearing His voice in this daily walk of life is icing on the cake.

New York Times readers are not known for their embrace of Christianity, so I wasn't shocked to read the incredulous replies to the article. One castigates those who claim to have heard the voice of God for "their inability to distinguish between sensory experience and reality."

So, what if my atheist friend did indeed witness a severed limb, miraculously regenerated? What would prevent these atheistic observers from castigating HIM for his "inability to distinguish between sensory experience and reality?"

Jesus Himself, while demonstrating through many miraculous proofs the power of God, dealt quite neatly with this tendency of ours to say, "If you would only show us more proof, we would believe!" In Luke 16 he shares the story (He doesn't say it's a parable) of an unnamed rich man, and a miserable beggar named Lazarus, who dies of hunger on his doorstep. The selfish corporate suit then goes the way of all the earth, only to discover to his chagrin and horror that eternal life and the judgment of God are very real. In his place of torment he sees Lazarus walking with Abraham afar off and calls out to them for relief. After being told that there was nothing they could do any longer to bridge the chasm and bring him help, he then cries out:
"Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
 And those words were, of course, prophetic ... Jesus Himself later rose from the dead. Did those who were not already inclined to do so, believe in His words as a result?

Scripture holds a different view of faith than we often do (in our lack of it). We seem to think faith will be easy and automatic if only we had "more proof." But we have too much (unwarranted) faith in ourselves. The truth is that faith is never easy and automatic, no matter how much proof is at hand. Jesus taught that faith grows slowly and inexorably, like a mustard seed, only when it is invested, or planted. That faith should have a rational basis, but it will nonetheless be faith. We may not "feel" like believing, but we all should know already that our feelings are not the ultimate judge of reality. (When did you last "feel" like going to the dentist ... even though you know it's good for you?) When true faith is called for, we must take a risk, stake a claim on it.

Our faith will then grow. Jesus said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). Unfortunately it doesn't work the other way around.

The secret of finding God lies in the earnestness and honesty of the seeking. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33). "But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut. 4:29).

Occasionally the rule has its exception. My favorite writer, C. S. Lewis, launched an honest skeptic's search for God. He assumed that in such a search the existence of God would be disproven, but God had other plans, and he was brought full circle to the point where he was confronted with the undeniable reality of God's existence and love.

In a more modern day, Chicago journalist Lee Strobel tells a very similar story, as detailed in The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.

But, as far as writers (or at least journalists) go, these men are unfortunately in the minority. I wonder if most journalists today have the fundamental motivation, energy, and integrity for just such an honest search (in addition to the courage to embrace its very uncomfortable conclusions). In my line of work I have met a number of journalists who have shared that, in their profession, there is indeed a cost to loving Jesus out loud.

I would love to convince everyone I know of the existence and love of the Creator God I know and love. But I long ago realized the truth that I am ill-equipped to do so. This is God's problem (not mine), and there's nothing I can do or say, absent His inspiring power working through me, to make a difference in this regard. Even if I had the power to invoke miraculous regeneration of severed limbs, I'm not sure how much real good that would do. (Honesty, I have trouble just darning my socks, let alone regenerating limbs ... actually I'm not even sure I know exactly what it means to "darn" a sock, gul darn it!)

So, once again, I simply need to trust. It all comes back to trust!