There was once a rich young man with faith. He wanted to be a good person. He tried to obey all the laws in the Bible. He thought there might be more, so he asked Jesus what he should do.
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. This man wanted what was most important. So Jesus told him.
“If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.”
That wasn’t what he wanted to hear. At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad.
There was once another rich young man. He came to faith and like the earlier rich man he sought the ways of God. He was a sensitive young man who wanted to be a good person. He prayed and tried to live a good life. God answered him in a vision, telling him to get rid of all his possessions and become poor.
In one story he was so eager to obey that he instantly took off all of his clothes and ran out of his house and down the street into the countryside. He lived thereafter as a beggar.
Which of these two men obeyed God?
Now I must confess to asking you a trick question. The question suggests that one man obeyed while the other didn’t. Their different responses would perhaps lead you to agree. In fact, they both disobeyed. But they seem to have disobeyed for different reasons.
We don’t really know anything about the first young man. The second young man was Francis of Assisi. We actually know something about him. They both truly heard from God. Francis however misunderstood what God was saying and in this way, despite achieving many things, he disobeyed. One time he clearly heard God speak.
“Francis, Francis. Go and repair my house; which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis took this to mean the ruined church building in which he was presently praying. Most other people have since concluded, and perhaps Francis too, that God was actually talking about the church universal. The church was corrupt and God wanted it purified, or repaired.
Francis was a bit like a dog chasing ball, who then runs off with the ball instead of bringing it back.
Francis heard God correctly but misinterpreted what he was saying. Jesus own disciples had the same difficulty even though they were right there with him.
Jesus made a statement about how Peter would die. Peter then asked Jesus how John would die. Jesus had a simple answer: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” (John 21:22)
The disciples misunderstood Jesus. Then they started a rumour that spread their faulty interpretation of his words. John takes the time to correct this rumour in his Gospel.
‘So the rumor spread among the community of believers that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that isn’t what Jesus said at all. He only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”’ (John 21:23)
How about us? We may hear God speak to us, but that doesn’t mean we have understood what he’s said. This is why we need to learn how to listen. We need to hear all that God says. We need to make an effort to not distort what God says. The dog that runs off with the ball and doesn’t bring it back has missed the second part of the activity.
This is so important, we have to understand all of what God is saying. We have to listen and understand before we act. Or before we start a rumour.
As Francis probably came to realise, God often gives instructions in stages. First he shows us that his church needs repair. Then we know why he is training us. He is making us ready to repair his church. We engage in a dialogue with God about repairing his church. We discuss with God what we need to learn and how we need to grow to understand the rest of his desires. We are not capable of understanding right away. God is too different for that.
“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” (Isaiah 55:8)
The Lord’s voice often causes us to struggle to understand, forcing us to listen carefully.
God will not be angry that you didn’t dash off instantly, running naked out of the house. Pause. Does God want you not really knowing why you were running or where you are going or what he wants? He wants you to wait and listen. Talk to him. Patiently seek his wisdom. Get counsel from those who are spiritually mature, and never move in haste.
God is seeking people who share his heart. God’s language is a language of heart, not words. The word of God is a way for God to share his heart.
Elijah tried hard to follow and obey God. He got frustrated and wanted to die, as it says in 1 Kings 19.
‘Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said.’
God told Elijah to stand before him on a mountain. Just stand there and wait. Elijah stood there and slept in a cave for we don’t know how long. He stayed on the mountain in a cave until he was good enough at listening to God that he could hear God whisper.
‘… there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.’
To hear someone’s whisper, you need to be near them. Whispering doesn’t work very well if you’re speaking to someone at a party and they are on the other side of the room. God doesn’t want a long-distance relationship; he wants a close, intimate relationship with you. Get close.
The first step in listening to God is to develop your heart. Deliberately try to focus on God’s desires instead of your own. Seek him like David. Be honest with him.
Read your Bible. God’s already said a lot. Read God’s word to find his heart and know his purposes.
Go into your cave, and tune out the noise of fire and thunder and wind. Turn off your phone. Practise listening to God. Our daily prayer at 12.15 may help you do that. You may have another time of day that fits your schedule better. Doesn’t matter when, just do it.
Still your heart. Don’t worry. If that’s hard, try not to worry at least for this time of listening.
Have patience. Have perseverance. You may want to go straight to the next level, but God might ask you to wait for 10 years. Don’t be concerned. When you are ready, he will let you know. Be patient, and don’t dash off before you are ready. Surely if you do, he can rescue you. But is that what we want, to have to be rescued because we disobeyed. To obey is an important part of learning to listen. Each act of obedience is training in listening and grows our faith.
Faith grows stronger when we exercise it. God looks at the heart. He sees how much you desire to be close to him. He sees how hard it is for you to be patient, and that you do it because you love him. He doesn’t look at your deeds alone.
God looks at the heart that motivated those deeds. Francis of Assisi had a beautiful heart even though his understanding fell short on some occasions. And surely God used Francis, and Francis got better at listening to God.
You have heard God, but did you listen to him? We need to listen. Let’s practise.