Hearing a still, small voice: Yours or God’s?

A historic set of events has taken place this week.

For the first time, candidates from the Democrat and Republican parties have been invited to participate in televised forums about matters of faith.

I was pleased, not only that the forums took place, but also that female religious leaders were included in the conversation. On a personal note, I was especially excited to see Sharon Watkins, the general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), our denomination, representing us as one of the panel members.

Because each candidate only was allowed 15 minutes to speak, and because politicians have an innate tendency to over-long answers, most panelists had the chance to ask only one question during the hour. Watkins, participating in the Democrat forum, posed a question to Sen. John Edwards that caused him – and the rest of the audience – to pause, laugh and really think about her words.

“As a person of faith,” she asked (and I’m paraphrasing), “how do you pray, for what do you pray, and, when you listen in prayer, how do you discern the difference between God’s voice and your own, mistaken as God’s?”

Edwards answered as candidly and as well off-the-cuff as could be expected. “Most important,” he said (and again I’m paraphrasing from memory), “I ask for God’s will in my life rather than my own, and those two things are in conflict with one another on a fairly regular basis.”

I admit that I’ve not been a personal champion of Edwards’ candidacy, but of all the participants, he certainly was the most personal, the most candid, and the most relatable.

Listening prayerfully is hard enough sometimes. It’s far too easy to fall into “output” mode, beginning and ending with our own monologue to God, cutting off our prayer time before we’ve ever taken time to sit quietly, listening for answers.

But how do we know when it’s really God? Sitting in silence, it’s so easy to have random thoughts, images and even voices run through our imagination. When a particularly desirable thought pops up, there’s not much to keep us from saying, “Yep, that’s God all right, telling me exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Do we sit around, waiting for tongues of fire, burning bushes, visions or booming voices from the clouds? Do we test God by demanding outward signs, hemming God in, setting the parameters within which we will allow our communication with God to take place?

Part of the problem can be the overwhelming static of daily life. We get so used to the endless stream of white noise that we often don’t know what to do with silence. If God’s voice indeed is still and small, do we ask God to crank it up a notch, or do we start by actively seeking quiet time and space?

In considering this question, I think back to a joke I heard once about a man who was drowning in the ocean, and he called out to God to save him. Soon, a boat comes by and throws him a line, but he refuses help, insisting that God will save him. Another boat happens by, and again he rebuffs their efforts to rescue him.

Finally, the man drowns, and as he stands before God in heaven, he’s ticked. “Why didn’t you save me?” he asks. “I prayed for your deliverance and you let me die!”

“Geez, what do you want from me?” says God. “After all, I sent you two boats.”

Looking for answers from God? Listen to those people of faith around you. Read Scripture. Learn to spend time in silence, and just as Jesus – and in this case, John Edwards – did, don’t forget those resonant words from the Garden of Gethsemane:

“Not my will, but yours be done.”

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