Ours is a noisy world. An endless cacophony of voices clamors for our attention every day. The incessant ping of our cell phones reminds us that we are always on call. Some of these voices overtly seek to lure our hearts away from God, toward the wicked desires of our hearts. More often, these voices are seemingly mundane and sterile, like the viral video of a fight between a porcupine and a hippo (or something equally mind-numbing). Our social media accounts, blogs, radios, and TVs are vying for our attention and trying to influence our actions. The subtle danger of the unrelenting noise in our lives is that we may miss the voice of God. In John’s gospel, Jesus equates his care for God’s people to that of a shepherd and the sheep entrusted to his care. Like a good shepherd, Jesus leads his sheep to safety (v. 9), suffers to ensure their care (v. 11), protects them from harm (v. 12), and has thorough knowledge of their needs (v. 14). His shepherding stands in stark contrast to thieves and robbers who come only to steal, kill, and destroy (v. 10). Those who are truly God’s sheep know the difference between the two. John writes,
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. (Jn. 10:1-4)
The sheep know the voice of the Shepherd. They hear him call and follow where he leads, because they know his voice.
I’ve Heard That Before
The image of a sheep and a shepherd is indicative of the way God desires to speak to his people. The spoken word is one of the most powerful tools for the work of a shepherd. With his voice, he warns his sheep of danger and calls them towards fertile pastures. Great danger awaits a sheep that foolishly follows his own desires or the voice of an imposter. Only his shepherd knows how best to lead his sheep. In time, sheep are trained to know and recognize the voice of their shepherd. They know that it is in their best interest to listen to that one voice.
We see the same process happen in the life of infants who quickly learn to recognize the voice of their mothers. Regardless of who else is in the room, when mom speaks, the child listens and responds. The reason is clear—the child has learned to associate that voice with food, comfort, and love. The mom’s voice stands out, it captures their attention, and it clams their heart.
God’s children are meant to recognize his voice as well. Before conversion, their sin-darkened hearts make them tone deaf to the voice of God. They have ears, yet cannot hear (Mk. 8:18). But God, in his kindness, speaks words of life to the hearts of his children by the power of his Spirit. He opens their hearts and they hear his invitation to salvation. At first, this voice is new, distinct, and compelling, yet different from the voices they’ve listened to all their life.
Time and again, God speaks. And, as he does, his children learn to recognize his voice. Like little sheep, God’s people discover that they should listen to God’s voice because he knows what is best. God’s sheep hear his voice above the noise of a fallen world.
The Ever-Present Voice of the Shepherd
God is a speaking God who is intent on leading his people. The voice of the Good Shepherd is an ever-present reality in the life of God’s children. Here the image of a shepherd leading his sheep is helpful. No shepherd worth the title would simply get up each morning and say to his sheep, “Alright boys and girls, today is going to be a big day. We’re going to head out toward the west. At some point, some mangy wolves are going to attack, and when they do…well…I’ll figure something out. And somewhere between mile-marker 11 and 14, you’ll need to turn toward a luscious pasture. I hope things work out for you and I’ll talk to you tonight.”
This is not the way shepherds work. They lead by speaking throughout the day. They constantly monitor the sheep and, with their voice, guide each movement, each change of direction, and each defense against an enemy’s advance.
God’s voice works the same way. Many have rightly been told that spiritual formation hinges on meeting with God through prayer and Bible study on a regular basis. There God graciously speaks to us through his Word, exposes our sin, calls us to repentance, and reminds us of the steadfast nature of his love. But, God does not stop speaking when we put down the cup of coffee and head off into the daily grind. He goes with us and continues to seek to lead us by his Word. He knows our hopes and dreams, our deepest needs, and our propensity to sin. Because he is a sovereign, the speaking God is an ever-present voice that guides his children, if we listen.
The Hearing Aid of Action
So, how do you and I train our ears to recognize the voice of God throughout the day? Certainly, we should give thought to the noise we willingly invite into our lives. Many of the voices we hear on a daily basis are there by our own choosing, such as social media, TV, blogs, or text messaging. One way God’s people learn to hear the voice of God is by actively and intentionally turning down the voices of the world. Rest, solitude, and silence position the human heart to hear the still, small voice by which God is continually speaking to his people.
But, James presents another way of training our hearts to hear the voice of God when he writes,
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at this natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing (Jms. 2:22–25).
Action is the hearing aid of the Christian life. James contrasts the hearer and the doer—both receiving the gift of God’s voice, but only one finding the blessing of God. The one who acts not only is “blessed in his doing,” but his action also heightens his awareness of the voice of God the next time he speaks.
Let’s imagine that a husband hears God through the Word, which challenges the husband’s neglect of his family and confronts his passivity in his discipleship of his children. The man quickly rationalizes his actions, protesting that his 80-hour work week is a testament to his love for his family and is necessary for his kids to go to college and succeed in life. As a result, he doesn’t obey the voice of God, and, through his inactivity, he turns down the voice of God and cranks up the voice of the enemy. The next time God speaks, the voice of God will likely be harder to hear because this man has trained his ears to listen to the wrong voice.
Another man may hear the same voice. However, this man listens. Convicted of his sin, this man asks his family for forgiveness and commits to reducing his workload in order to spend more time at home. He trusts God to meet the needs of his family and rests secure in God’s faithful care. This man finds blessing in his action. He learns that God will, in fact, provide and discovers that his family is a source of great joy. Through his action, he turns up the volume of the voice of God—not only in this instance, but also in the future when God speaks to him. He recognizes God’s voice as the one who exposed his sin and led him to blessing. Each time this man hears and acts, the voice of God gets louder and louder, eventually drowning out the competing voices of the world.
This doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, each day, in thousands of ways, we are training our ears to hear. Every time we hear God speak, each seemingly mundane decision he asks us to make, or every time he graciously points out sin in our lives and the countless steps of faith he puts before us are unique opportunities to learn to recognize the voice of the Shepherd.
Matt Rogers is the pastor of The Church at Cherrydale in Greenville, South Carolina. He and his wife, Sarah, have three daughters, Corrie, Avery, and Willa and a son, Hudson. Matt holds a Master of Arts in counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as well as a Master of Divinity and a PhD from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Matt writes and speaks for throughout the United States on discipleship, church planting, and missions. Find Matt online at www.mattrogers.bio or follow him on Twitter @mattrogers_