I was already irritable. Then I learned we were going to work over lunch. And my irritability only made matters worse because I knew I shouldn’t be irritable. I know I’m supposed to have the peace of God no matter what my circumstances. So, in addition to being irritable, I was also upbraiding myself for not acting like a good Christian. Which only further distracted me from trying to hear God’s voice. Which is what had made me irritable in the first place. The vicious circle strikes again!
But I couldn’t help myself. I had been praying for weeks about whether to accept the job offer from the accounting firm in Oregon, to apply for the supervisor’s position at my current job, or to do neither. And I basically had two days left to decide—the job offer in Oregon would be withdrawn then and applications for the supervisor’s position closed the day after that.
I had planned to take my lunch in my office to squeeze in another hour of prayer. But then Stanley stuck his head in my office with the bad news: “Paul, Sally wants you, me, Carl, and Cynthia to walk over to that new Chinese place for a working lunch with her.”
So I was already in a foul moody when we hit the front door. I walked out of the fifty-four story icebox to face a three-block walk through the urban sauna. Then to make matters worse, Stanley grabbed my arm to hold me back. When the others were about six or seven steps ahead, Stanley released my arm and we started walking. I knew he was going to launch into his usual pre-meeting politicking.
Just one problem. The city’s cacophony clamored louder than usual. Immediately outside the door, jackhammers thundered. The policeman directing traffic around the gaping hole shrilled his whistle. On the corner, a time-warped hippie played his guitar for passers-by’s change. Miscellaneous yelling blended in: businessmen hailing taxis; a mentally ill homeless man screaming at his invisible adversary; teenagers, compelled by their pay-attention-to-me culture, running up the street shouting, laughing, bumping into people. Underneath all of this, street noise provided the background and occasionally grabbed attention for itself: the roar of passing cars; the distinctive hissing-wooshing of air breaks; the squealing of tires; police, fire, and ambulance sirens, near and far.
Even after we distanced ourselves from the jackhammer, police whistle, and homeless man, I still could not hear Stanley’s whispered machinations. So I grabbed his arm and jerked him towards the door of the closest building. I found a quiet corner of the lobby. “We only have a block and a half left ‘til we get to the restaurant. In thirty seconds or less—what are you whispering about?” I snapped in a less-than-Christlike manner. Stanley started in. But as his voice echoed off the slick stone walls of the lobby, he dropped his voice to a whisper. He was still speed whispering at the thirty second mark, but I started toward the revolving door. His voice was still audible one second and, as I emerged back into the sweltering heat, was lost in the enveloping clamor the next second. I was glad.
Thus ended my anticipated opportunity to try, once again, to hear God’s voice. The business conducted over lunch demanded my full attention, as did my afternoon schedule. I tried to pray on the commute home but now the traffic demanded my attention and when I even remembered to pray, my mind soon wandered. I arrived home still in a foul mood. I had called Beth to warn her.
She greeted me as I walked into the house. “Hey, babe, I’m sorry you had such a hard day.”
“It wasn’t really the day that was so bad. It was me. I’m so frustrated at not being able to hear God’s voice. And I’m running out of time.”
“I know, Paul, but God will speak to you, to us. He’s the Living God who—”
“Beth, please, don’t! Don’t spout my own family devotions back at me. I know all that. That’s what makes it so hard. I believe—really believe—everything I share with you and the kids. I can just hear myself: ‘One of the Bible definitions of an idol is a god that doesn’t speak. And we don’t serve an idol; we serve the One, True, Living God. Not hearing from God is so abnormal that the Bible calls it a famine. And that was in the Old Testament. Now that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we can expect all the more to hear from God. We can’t make Him speak to us, but we can expect that normally He will.’ I believe every bit of that.”
“I believe it, too, Paul. That’s why I’m sure God will speak.”
“But Beth, I’ve been praying, you’ve been praying, the kids have been praying. And nothing! And I’m trying really hard to listen more than talk.”
Beth handed me a glass of iced tea. Why don’t you go out back on the deck and relax for a while? It’ll be OK—I know it will.”
I went out on the deck and tried to pray. I figured after today’s Symphony for Jackhammer and Urban Background Noise, I would find the early evening backyard peaceful. But I didn’t. The neighborhood noise, inconsequential by this afternoon’s standards, was inexplicably distracting. The sounds of children—yelling, laughing, crying—wafted over the fence. People were still running lawn equipment in the more-than-adequate evening daylight of mid-June. Someone called his dog. Repeatedly.
At this point, I was doing more fuming than praying. But I persevered. Eventually either the dog came home or the owner gave up. As twilight approached, the lawn equipment stopped running. Then mothers called their children home and their noises ceased.
But even then, things weren’t totally quiet. First I noticed the noisy cawing of crows that had landed in the backyard to forage in the grass. I easily scared away the skittish crows. But with the crows gone, the raucous squealing of a flock of grackles that had alighted high in the tops of my neighbor’s trees grabbed my attention. When the grackles took off en mass, I realized that I could hear the wheet-wheet-wheet of the late-feeding cardinals. But amazingly, during the cardinals’ moments of silence, I heard a final sound. It was the tiny cheep-cheep of a baby wren, calling to be fed.
Amazing! I never would have been able to hear the wren’s cry if the cardinals had not been silent. And the grackles. And the crows. And the children and the dog owner and the lawn equipment.
Hey! The same was true today when I tried to hear Stanley’s whispers. Only when I escaped the jackhammer, the police whistle, the yelling, the sirens, and the traffic, could I hear him.
I get I, Lord, I get it! Thank you, Lord!
When I silence everything else, I’ll be able to hear you. But what do the birds and the people and the lawn equipment; the jackhammer and the whistle, and all the rest, represent?
If Stanley’s whisper and the baby wren’s cry represent Your still small voice, what do all the noises represent? Just everyday distractions? I don’t think so. I’ve focused on this decision enough. But what then? Lord show me.
I thought and prayed and thought and prayed. Suddenly the insight came.
I wouldn’t have been able to hear the “voice” of the baby wren if the voices of the other birds and the children and the dog owner and the lawn equipment hadn’t been silenced. Well, OK, lawn equipment doesn’t literally have a “voice,” but, hey, no analogy is perfect. And there were lots of noises in the city weren’t actually voices. But this is it; I know it!
So what other voices must I silence? Well . . . the voices of conflicting counselors. I’ve sought a multitude of counselors. But their advice has been completely inconsistent. At least one person has advocated each choice. And then there’s the advice of unsaved family members. They love me, but their advice seems driven by fear or by worldly standards. And what about the world? Am I really as immune to its voice as I like to believe? Haven’t I considered which job pays more, which carries the most prestige? And what about Satan? I’m sure he’s been whispering to me. Yes, there’s been fear of change, pride, vain imaginations concerning the future. And then maybe the hardest voice of all to silence—the voice of my own thoughts, desires, and inclinations. Which job is easiest? Which is most enjoyable? Not “Which will put me in the center of Your will?”
OK, Lord, help me silence those voices and help me hear Your still small voice.
I stilled my mind and my spirit. I can’t quite explain how, but that verse about “Be still and know that I am God” just happened. The frustration left. The irritability left.
As night fell, I raised my hands in worship. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Glory and honor and majesty be ascribed unto you, O Lord!” On and on, the praise poured forth.
And then I heard! As clearly as Stanley’s whisper. As clearly as the baby wren’s cry.
I burst back into the house. “Beth, Beth! I know what to do!”
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