My dad is dead and gone, now. But when he was alive, I would try to call him every week, just to check in. We lived thousands of miles apart, and travel across the country was a real challenge for our growing family, three small boys, and a very busy ministry schedule. So, calling every week represented an important part of my responsibility as a son.
Something interesting, though. Often, when I called, he would need to clarify who it was who was calling. I have two brothers, both younger than me, who also did a good job of checking up on my dad and how he was doing. And, invariably, when I called, my dad had a difficult time distinguishing which son he was talking to. “You guys all sound exactly alike, and I can’t tell the difference in your voices,” he would say. On more than one occasion, we might be talking for several minutes before he discovered that it was me on the other end of the line, and not one of my other brothers.
Distinguishing voices isn’t a new thing, of course. In the bible, there are several examples of the challenge of recognizing the identity of the person behind the voice. Remember young Samuel in First Samuel, chapter 3? God spoke to the young boy three times, but Samuel did not recognize the God behind the voice, until Eli suspected what was happening and perceived that it was the Lord speaking to young Samuel. Sent him back to bed a fourth time, with the instruction that when he heard the voice, this time he was to say, “Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth.”
Years later, Samuel had the sad responsibility of conveying to King Saul that God was greatly displeased with him. Why? Because Saul listened to and evidently was mistaken about the voice that was speaking to him. God had given some very specific instructions to Saul, and while Saul said he obeyed the voice of the Lord, Samuel challenged that thought. “No,” said Samuel, “you did not obey the voice of the Lord.” Question: If the voice Saul listened to wasn’t the Lord’s voice, whose voice was it?
There was another Saul in the bible, you will remember, in the New Testament. This Saul was from Tarsus. And he was on a mission from God. Or, at least that’s what he thought. He thought he had a divine calling from God to exterminate those early followers of Jesus. He thought he had heard from God, and his devout and dedicated life was consumed with following through on that heavenly mission. Except … well, except that his ‘heavenly mission’ wasn’t at all heavenly, and the voice he was listening to wasn’t God’s voice. On the road to Damascus, Jesus knocked him off his horse, and clarified things a bit. The Divine Word had a question to ask. The God behind the voice decided to make himself heard: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” he said. And even though Saul thought he knew what the voice of God sounded like, he’d never heard a voice like the one now speaking. So, he asked. What he actually said was, “Who are you, Lord?” A question about the God behind the voice. And that incredible answer: “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.”
I’m not sure how many conversations I might have in the course of a day or a week or a month or a lifetime. Voices are all around me. The sounds of voices bombard my life on a regular basis.
But, the voice of my inner man demands constant and careful examination and discernment. Saul of Tarsus convinced himself that he was following the voice of God, that he was doing the work of God in ‘breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord.” He gave himself permission to follow the wrong road. Even though he was passionate about following God’s will, he was not terribly accomplished at hearing God’s voice.
He mistook his own voice for God’s voice. Sometimes, my voice and God’s voice can seem virtually indistinguishable, I think. I need to be careful what I give myself the permission to believe, what I tell myself about hearing the voice of God. My response to what I tell myself about truth, or priorities or perspectives will determine my growth, my character, my eternal destinations.
The really great thing about my conversations with God, however? I’ve never, ever lifted my voice to my heavenly Father and had him confuse me with someone else, or respond as if he didn’t know who was calling.
The Good News translation of Jer. 33:3: “”Call to me, and I will answer you; I will tell you wonderful and marvelous things that you know nothing about.”