C S Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, suggests that ‘The moment we wake up each morning, all our wishes and hopes for the day rush at us like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.’ Listening to God requires a deliberate choice to shut out the chaos around us and focus our thoughts on the one Person we really need to hear from. We live in a world of noise. Almost everywhere we go, we find sounds, voices, competing with our minds, keeping us from letting our thoughts get beyond the surface level. Hearing God’s voice means not listening to the noise of the world around us. It’s not easy, but it can be done. This is particularly important when it comes to discerning God’s will for our lives, and having an effective prayer life. It is also an essential ingredient in the art of Waiting on God.
According to the Apostle John the secret of answered prayer lays in asking God to do that which he wants to do in the first place – ‘This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked for’ [1 John 5:14,15]. One of the main purposes behind this First Letter of John is the writer’s desire to shore up the confidence of the Christians to whom he is writing. We may have lots of questions … and many things may be unclear … but there are some things of which we can be absolutely certain. For John, one of these certainties is the assurance of eternal life – ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ [v.13]. Whereas the Gospel of John was written for unbelievers ‘that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ’ [John 20:31], the First Letter of John was written for believers so that they might know with every fiber of their being that they possess eternal life.
One of the consequences of this assurance of eternal life [v.13], John tells us, is a ‘confidence’ or boldness before God in prayer [vs.14,15]. John has previously raised this subject in 1 John 3:21-23 where he tells us that answered prayer is directly linked to keeping God’s commandments and living a life that pleases God. Here [vs. 14,15] John tells us that answered prayer is directly linked to asking according to God’s will. But what does this really mean?
Firstly, it does not mean simply attaching ‘if it be your will’ to our own prayers. We have all heard prayers concluded in such a way (presumably on the basis of a misunderstanding of the phrase ‘your will be done’ [Matthew 6:10] in the Lord’s Prayer), and indeed may well have done so ourselves on occasions? Usually this phrase is used as some sort of ‘escape clause’ in case God doesn’t answer the prayer offered … or simply because the person praying is not really sure that what they are petitioning God for is correct in the first place. But, according to Robert Law, effective prayer ‘consists not in bringing God’s will down to us, but in lifting our will up to his.’
Thus secondly, ‘asking according to God’s will’ involves listening to God. Most of us are not very good at listening full stop … leave alone listening to God … which is possibly why (as we have noted previously) God gave us two ears and only one mouth, so that we might do twice as much listening as speaking. If we are to ‘ask anything according to [God’s] will’ [v.14], however, it means not coming to God with a great list of things we want him to do – however spiritual or well-meaning that list may be – but simply laying our concerns before God … and then waiting on him to reveal his will on those matters to us. Then, and only then, can we confidently ask God to do ‘that we have asked of him’ [v.15]. All other intercessory prayer is simply guess work. Discerning God’s will on these matters or concerns requires listening to God – waiting on him for him to reveal his will to us, either right there and then in the immediate context of our prayers … or in future days. A good example of this (as we have seen previously) is in 2 Kings 19 where Hezekiah lays the threatening letter he has received from Sennacherib before the Lord and invites God to both read the letter and reveal his will on the situation [vs.14ff]. God then reveals his will to Hezekiah prophetically so that Hezekiah is able to align his prayers (and his actions) with the will of God … thus his prayers are answered and the nation is delivered.
The reason for consulting God in this way is not because God is some kind of divine megalomaniac but because God knows best – ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ [Isaiah 55:8,9]. Putting it simply, God simply knows what’s best for us … certainly better than we know what’s best both for ourselves and for others. An example of this is found in John 21 where, after a frustrating and fruitless night’s fishing for the disciples, the risen Lord Jesus appears to the disciples and tells them exactly where to cast their nets (even though his advice runs contrary to the laws of fishing) and as a result they catch a huge amount of fish. Although this story is sometimes called ‘Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish’ there may well be nothing miraculous about it, in the normal way we understand the meaning of ‘miraculous’? The beach at Tabgha (where this incident is presumed to have taken place) has a warm stream flowing out into the Sea of Galilee and from where Jesus was standing, looking down to the sea, he could see exactly where the fish were congregating. Thus he was able to advise the disciples accordingly. In much the same way God is able – from where he stands – to see things much better than we can … and advise us accordingly.
Discerning the will of God is complicated. I want to return to this subject in the future. For now I simply want us to concentrate on the need to learn to start listening to God. Perhaps a good start – even before considering in greater detail exactly how God reveals his will to us – is to start to make time to simply lay our concerns before God … and simply listen. Such an exercise, even at this early stage, may produce some startling rewards.
He came to you, for in His gentle voice
He’d much that He would say …
Your ears were turned to earth’s discordant note
And so … He went away.
He came, and in His hand He had a task
That He would have you do.
But you were occupied with other things
And so you missed that too.
He would have touched you, and His touch could thrill
And give you quickening power,
But earthly things enveloped, and you could
Not feel Him in that hour.