Learning to Listen
February is a good time to make New Year’s resolutions since most resolutions made in January don’t stick!
One resolution I encourage you to consider is learning to listen to God in prayer.
Most of us are not good listeners. In our conversations with others most of us prefer talking over listening.
Often prayer is explained as “talking to God”. The problem with that definition is that prayer is often a monologue with God rather than a conversation where we actually listen to what He has to say.
In 1 Samuel 3:1-10 Eli the priest taught Samuel who was just a boy, an important lesson – how to listen to God. It was a lesson that Samuel used in making important decisions as an adult when he was the spiritual leader of Israel. The decisions he made, I believe, would have been different if he had not listened to God first.
Here are three times in Samuel’s life when listening to God made a difference in his decisions:
I. When Israel demanded a King
I Samuel 8 begins by stating that when Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders but the people rejected them because they were “…dishonest…accepted bribes and perverted justice.” (v.3)
Instead, the people demanded,“Give us a king to lead us,” (v.6). That verse explains Samuel’s response to this, “this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.”
God’s response to Samuel must have brought clarification of the problem and some relief to the prophet. “The Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king”. (v.7)
Samuel went on to explain the disadvantages of having a king but the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “’We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’ (vv.19,20)
Once again Samuel took it to the Lord and the Lord said,“Listen to them and give them a king.” (v.22)
What a difficult place for Samuel to be in! He wanted to stay faithful and true to the Lord but the people he was leading did not.
Many ministers and other church leaders find themselves in this situation. How can they serve a congregation when they know the congregation is making the wrong decision or are not committed to following scripture?
Do they quit and walk away? That was Samuel’s choice.
He could have fought with them. He could have argued that his unworthy sons were better than a king. He could have dwelled on his failure to raise his sons to be godly leaders.
Instead, he set aside his feelings, listened to the Lord and did as the Lord instructed. I think God’s decision to let them have a king is not the decision that Samuel would have made if he had not listened to the Lord.
Listening to the Lord can help you keep your own feelings and opinions out of the way so that you can obey the Lord.
II. Getting over the disappointment of Saul as king
Saul was chosen as the first king of Israel but he soon proved to be a poor leader. He was proud, rebellious, disobedient to the Lord, made excuses for his sinful behavior and blamed others for his wrong choices. In chapter 15 Saul is informed by Samuel that the Lord rejected him as king and that another king would be chosen to lead Israel.
The chapter closes with these two statements:
“Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Sam 15:35)
Samuel was heart-broken by Saul’s failure to be a godly leader. He had invested much in Saul and had been there as a spiritual leader but Saul did not have the heart of a godly man, and Samuel mourned. He likely mourned for both Saul and the people, for a leader’s failure always impacts those he or she is responsible to lead.
1 Samuel 16 begins with “The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”
God understood Samuel’s grief and sense of loss but He did not allow Samuel to get stuck in his grief.
After a great disappointment or loss, people often do get stuck in grief. It is important to acknowledge our losses. When grieving the loss of a loved one it is helpful to remember that you don’t get over it but you can get through it. The key is to get through it and not to get stuck there.
By listening to God Samuel knew when it was time to move on and to take action.
III. When Samuel anointed David
God told Samuel that the next king would be one of the sons of Jesse but He did not tell him ahead of time which one that would be. In chapter 16 each son of Jesse was told to stand before Samuel.
When Samuel saw the oldest son he was impressed and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.” (v.6)
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (v.7)
Samuel had the next son stand before him and the Lord said that this was not the one either. When the last son stood before Samuel he must have been ready to anoint him but the Lord said: “not this one”. Samuel must have thought the Lord had made a mistake! After all, Samuel had followed the Lord’s instructions. He must have wondered, “Did God make a mistake or did I?
Have you ever asked yourself those same questions? I have.
Samuel listened to the Lord and then asked Jesse if he had any more sons. There was one more, David. Once he came and stood before Samuel, the Lord said. “This is the one.” (v.12)
By learning to listen to God, Samuel was able to make decisions that had a great impact on his life and the lives of others.
- He was able to obey God when he disagreed with the people he was leading.
- He was able to move on and not get stuck in grief and disappointment.
- He was able to choose God’s man for king even when it looked like God had made a mistake.
So, how do we learn to listen to God?
Let’s go back to 1 Samuel 3.
- Find a place that is quiet – God spoke to Samuel at night (v. 2). Both he and Eli were lying down. It was quiet.
Do you find it a challenge to find quiet in your day? I do!
Ruth Haley Barton in your book, Sacred Rhythms writes,
I am aware of longings that run much deeper than what technology can address. I am noticing that the more I fill my life with the convenience of technology, the emptier I become in the places of my deepest longing… I long to be one who waits and listens deeply for the still, small voice of God, even if it means I must unplug from technology in order to become quiet enough to hear…Solitude is an opportunity to interrupt this cycle by turning off the noise and stimulation of our lives so that we can hear our loneliness and our longing calling us deeper into the only relationship that can satisfy our longing. (p.36)
Decide on a quiet place in your day. For me, it is morning, before breakfast, before listening to the news, and before checking email. For you, it might be during your lunch hour or late in the evening.
- Take on the posture of a listener – Eli’s advice to Samuel is good advice for us to follow. He told him to say to the Lord, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (v.10) In your quiet place, practice saying those words and then stop and listen. At first, it is uncomfortable and the temptation to talk is very strong. However, this takes practice and patience. Remember too that this discipline will not manipulate God to appear on cue! God will speak when He wants to. We cannot determine that but we can prepare ourselves by practicing being quiet and learning to listen.
If you want to deepen your prayer life, I encourage you to develop the discipline of listening to God in prayer. It will bring more intimacy into your relationship with God and it will impact the decisions you make that could change your life and the lives of others.
DEEPER FAITH. GREATER JOY.
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