I confess I was concerned when I first heard William P. Young’s book The Shack was being made into a movie. The book managed to wade through a minefield of theological themes with such literary skill and sensitivity, I feared putting characters like Sarayu the Holy Spirit, Jesus the carpenter and an African American woman as God on the screen might be a recipe for cliched, syrupy mess. The film however was a pleasant surprise. In The Shack, director Stuart Hazeldine has created a tasteful and thoughtful reflection on the toughest theological question of all.
How could a loving, powerful God stand by in the face of evil such that a 6-year old child is brutally murdered? This is the question of The Shack – and one that is not far from every one of us. The story takes us back to the scene of the crime – an abandoned shack in the bush – where the central character Mack wrestles with the pain and confusion of his daughter’s death. It’s here that he meets with the embodied members of the Trinity and asks the questions that have wrecked havoc on his life, finding peace and resolution in their answers.
Fans of Young’s work will be pleased to know the movie remains faithful to the book with only a few minor departures – notably in the opening scenes. These provide a more comprehensive version of 6-year-old Missy’s disappearance and sets up the emotional context to carry the intense exchanges that follow.
A good friend of mine regularly talks about what the universe is telling her. She sees cues in her circumstances and interactions that work together to point her in the right direction. I’ve often said that I could substitute the word ‘God’ with the word ‘universe’ and we would sound the same! We both acknowledge that there are forces in the unseen realm that work together to guide us along the right path.
My friend forms a growing category of people today who call themselves spiritual, but not religious. While those in the modern world appear to be ‘losing their religion’, statistics show that they are not losing their spirituality.1 Contemporary spirituality is an eclectic mix of beliefs that don’t rely on any fixed text as their source. The focus is on experience that is practiced and owned personally rather than collectively. The ‘spiritual’ are often intuitive, philosophical, seekers of wisdom and strive to make a difference in the world. Sometimes they believe in God, but they’re more likely to talk about the universe.2
History tells us that people have always been spiritual. In ancient times, nearly everyone held a belief in the power of spiritual forces. Back then, those forces took on unique personas and were usually associated with natural phenomena. So for example, there was Zeus – the Greek god of the storm, Ra – the Egyptian god of the sun, and Baal and Asherah – the Mesopotamian gods of fertility. People looked to natural and circumstantial signs in the ‘universe’ to understand the workings of the gods in their lives. Today of course, those identities are no longer revered, but we still seek to read and interpret the signs the universe may be sending us.
It can be difficult to recognise the sound of God’s voice. How do we know it’s him? How do we discern God’s voice among the many we hear?
The answer is simple: get to know Jesus.
When we know someone’s character and personality, we are in a better position to recognise their voice. One of the reasons we struggle to recognise the sound of God’s voice is because we don’t always have a clear picture of what he is like. We see this problem all the way through biblical history. The Israelites constantly confused the nature of God with other gods in the ancient Near East pantheon. Back then people believed in many gods, but these gods were more like super-sized humans. They were capricious, ruthless and moody, dishing out punishment whenever their demands weren’t met. They required sacrifices for obeisance and fought with one another for control.
So in the Old Testament particularly, we see God’s constant calls to his people to understand who he was (eg. Isaiah 45:5-6, Psalm 115:5-6). He wasn’t like the other gods who were satisfied with sacrifices without a subsequent change in behaviour (Psalm 50:7-10). He wasn’t bound by geography and his presence was assured of far beyond the walls of a temple building. His nature was loving and merciful and he desired true relationship rather than a set of fear-driven rituals. Unfortunately the Israelites rarely understood him.
I don’t know what your social media feed looks like, but mine is crowded with a confusing stream of conversations about Trump’s rise to the White House. The Christian church it seems, is deeply divided, particularly inside the US. For the 80 or so percent of white American evangelicals who voted for him, Trump is an answer to prayer and the fulfilment of God’s plan to address the immorality in the USA.1 At the other end of the spectrum, he’s seen as a misogynistic and unethical bigot; his win a shame on American Christians who care more about preserving their privilege than protecting the marginalized.2
The majority of these statements are presented as mere opinion, so we know there’s plenty of room for them to be flawed. But among them, there’s also a number of ministries who claim to be hearing God’s voice directly on the matter3: So, Trump is “God’s anointed man to turn America around”4 and, Trump is “like the Cyrus of old who will be used as God’s instrument to lead the nation back to him.”5 These voices make confident appeals to divine origin. But what do we make of them? How do we know if what they’re saying is – or isn’t – from God?
Jesus promised that his people would hear his voice and follow it. Having a personal conversation with the Creator is one of the incredible privileges of being a Christian and one of the best ways to experience the tangible presence of God in the midst of our everyday lives. Here’s four easy-to-follow steps to hearing God’s voice for yourself:
1. Start a Conversation
Hearing God’s voice starts with an expectation that he can and will speak to us. The Scriptures reveal that God has always been a talker. From Genesis to Revelation, we see him speaking to people about all manner of topics from their personal fears and concerns to the rise and fall of nations. This desire for conversation shouldn’t be surprising given God’s heart for genuine relationship. We can never truly know someone without two-way communication.
Want to hear God’s voice? It starts with the understanding that there is a God who loves you and wants to reveal himself to you. All you need to do is introduce yourself. Ask him a question. Start the conversation.
The God who Speaks Back
A Lesson in Hearing God’s Voice from the Meerkat
How a Quiet Heart May Not be the Key to Hearing God’s Voice
2. Hear the Sound
We would all love to sit down and have a coffee with Jesus. But Jesus himself said hearing his Spirit would be better than a personal audience with him. God’s voice is the Spirit of Jesus. It’s a spiritual voice that we learn to recognise as we get to know the kinds of things God says and the kind of person God is. Hearing it is not a skill for those who’ve been a Christian the longest or a formula for those who have studied the Bible the most. It is not something reserved only for pastors, theologians and spiritual leaders. Jesus said that all those who seek him would find him. Those who have ‘ears’ would hear. It’s all about the posture of our hearts.