WHEN MAN LISTENS
by Cecil Rose
Learning God's Plan
God has a plan. That is one of the great affirmations of the Christian Faith.
In that plan each of us has a part. All the world’s troubles and all our own troubles arise from our failure to discover that plan and our part in it. God’s plan is the only one on which either society or my life will work.
When we speak of God’s will we too often think of nothing more than His wish that we should be good and conduct our life on honest and unselfish principles. It does not occur to us that all the detail of our life---what post we take, how we spent this dollar, the use we make of this hour, whom we make friends with, every decision taken on wages or trade policy--are all significant for God, and will, in a really God-controlled life, be consciously related to His purpose for us and the world. Yet the God we see in the Bible is emphatically not the kind of parent who says to His children at the beginning of a day: ‘Now you can go where you want and do what you like so long as you don't get your feet wet and do come back in time for dinner.’ God has a more positive programme for us and a more intimate concern in our lives than that.
It is not only important for Him that Abraham should be a good man, but vital that he should leave his family home in Ur of the Chaldees and go to live in another country. A whole section of God’s plan depends on whether Ananias is prepared to set aside his fear, and pay that call in Straight Street, Damascus. It matters just as much to-day where John Smith, who has handed over his business to God, builds his new factory, or where Mr. and Mrs. Jones decide to live, now that they are letting God use their home. For God is an Architect, planning a building--a building of reconstructed lives and reconstructed society; and the place of every brick is of importance. God is a General directing a campaign--a campaign against evil; and the movement of each soldier is vital to His strategy. He does not want children who will just behave themselves and give him no trouble. He wants willing cooperators who will allow Him to direct their lives in every detail, and to fit them together as a living part of His plan of reconstruction. It is when we are prepared to seek the will of God at this level that we shall find the answer to all our own problems, and the world’s problems as well.
We are in great need of this discovery to-day.
We have tried our hand at the architecture of world-peace, and have failed. We are in the grip of economic forces which we can no longer control. The social structures we have built are crumbling. It is the hour of disillusion and helplessness and growing fear.
Behind all this lies the breakdown in countless individuals lives. There are growing numbers of men and women who cannot adjust themselves to the strains and demands of life to-day. They are the victims of anxiety. They fail to solve the problems of sex, marriage, and home life. They are oppressed by the sense of futility in a life for which they have seen no purpose. They cannot understand themselves and are ill-adjusted to their surroundings and their work. Their real trouble is that they have been trying to run their lives in their own way, by their own wisdom, and in their own strength.
To such a generation, and to such men and women, frightened by the growing demonstration of their impotence, the message that God has a plan--detailed, comprehensive, adequate for every situation and every individual--is like a great shout of hope! With this discovery God comes right back into our lives as an active God who has an intimate concern in the smallest detail of our programme. It is He who is at work directing affairs; we are taking His orders.
But how can we actually receive this direction from God?
We must look for the answer to another of the great affirmations of our faith: God speaks. That is the tremendous fact around which both the Old and New Testaments are built--not that man can and may speak to God, but that God can and does speak to man.
Most of us, of course, believe that God speaks to us in a general way through Nature, through conscience, through reason, through circumstances, or through other people. But the Bible shows us a God who also speaks in a much more intimate, personal, and definite way to those who will listen and obey. The Old Testament is the story of men and women who believed that God told them what to do and what to say in national affairs and personal dealings. In the New Testament a full relationship to God is described by saying that ‘we receive the Holy Spirit’. If that phrase is vague to us, it was not vague to the writers of the New Testament. To those first Christians that gift clearly meant, not only the purifying and strengthening power of God within them, but his directing voice as well. He is the One who dictates their decisions in council. As their Master promised, they are given the words to say when called on to witness. Peter on the roof-top is told to go down and follow the messengers of Cornelius; Philip to ‘get up and go south along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza’; and Paul is directed not to enter Bithynia. Here is a picture of men and women moving obediently under the effective guidance of God.
Is God less able to guide us to-day?
Actually there are thousands of men and women now who are making the experiment of seeking the same guidance in all the affairs of life, and are finding that, right out beyond their own powers of judgment and reasoning; God is able to give them an inward certainty as to what He wants them to do. And the results are incomparably better than when they ran their own lives in their own way.
This is what the head of a big manufacturing firm says about the results: 'My first revolutionary guidance was that I had to make a new price list. God showed me that it was wrong to use varying discounts and secret agreements. He also gave me the power to obey, because, as far as I could see it would cost me my business. All the customers who at lunch had got a secret agreement, would go away. This new price list was made June 1, 1935, with the following results:
(a) Increase in sales by L 3,000; (b) Increase in profit by twenty per cent; (c) More orders than before by letter, as customers knew what the best prices were and did not wait for our salesman to quote special prices; (d) No fear of being away from my business, because the youngest girls can now give anyone the prices and conditions.
'I learned that: It is not a burden, but a privilege to have God with me in my business, because God knows more of real business than I.'
The results in other spheres of life are equally remarkable. An author recently told me that, following his decision to give his life to God, he found that he was doing twice the work in half the time. Now his 'reader' says that he must re-write five chapters written before his surrender, in order to bring them up to the level of those written since.
This is another of the truths we are needing to lay hold on afresh. The last generation relied on the adequacy of human reason. Even religious people talked as though reason was itself the voice of God. For the present generation that claim has been disproved by growing chaos. The Bible knows nothing of the adequacy of man's unaided reason. Our judgement is distorted. Our reasoning is very often only an elaborate means of justifying what we want to do; our decisions are dictated by fear, prejudice, feeling, and our disguised lusts. And none of us can we. the issues involved in our simplest act. If we are to fit into God's plan for us, we again and again to take steps for which it impossible at the time to see the real reasons. can only hope to live a life fully effective, possessing a real sense of security and peace, if truth that 'God speaks' can be tested and f true by us.
What if we can prove by experiment that Goda plan for European relations, for the coal industry, for unemployment, and that statesmen, industrialists, social workers can get in touch with Him and learn it? What if He has a plan for my home, for my children's education, for my business, for my future? Then, not only is there the chance that I and a lot of people like me will find the solution of our difficulties and troubles, but there is a chance that God, through lives more fully under His con will be able to build up the kind of world-order He wants.
God has a plan. God speaks.
But if He is to be heard and His plan is to be known and carried out, man must listen.
That means a new approach to God for many of us. Our attitude when we have prayed has been, 'Listen, Lord, for Thy servant speaketh.' Our prayer has been what Canon Streeter classifies as 'pagan' prayer-the attempt to bend God to our desires and make Him the servant of our needs. We have made our plans and decisions first, and then sought God's blessing and assistance. Prayer, when it consists of this one-sided address by us to God, becomes increasingly unreal and is eventually dropped or only formally retained. Christian prayer begins with the desire to know God's will for us and be brought under His control. The promise that our petitions will be answered is only to those who have first placed themselves in line with His will. If God is to become for us the living, active God, at work directing our life and the world's, it is vital that we should learn how to listen.
There is one condition to be fulfilled before we begin. We must be willing to hear anything God says to us. It is useless to seek His guidance in one area of life when we are not prepared for Him to talk to us about a certain other area with which He needs to deal first. If we want guidance about our family, we may have to listen to some things God has to tell us about ourselves, our character and habits. If it is personal problems, worries, or health for which we need direction, we may have to face what God has to say about the way we run our business, or about our attitude to money. It is all or nothing. Before you begin to listen to God, you must get rid of any known reservations.
I remember a man who complained to me that he did not get any guidance when he tried having a 'quiet time.' A few questions brought out the fact that, actually, the name of his sister kept coming into his mind, but he had not given it any attention. A few more questions showed plainly why the name kept recurring. God was telling him to remake a long-broken relationship. He had wanted other guidance. It is often so, but guidance must come along God's lines, not ours.
Our aim, remember, is to put our lives under God's control, and find out whether He can speak clearly enough in our hearts for us to know the steps He wants us to take. In all probability there are things in our lives which will have to be cleared up before God can really take control; and the first word God says to us will be about these. At any rate let us begin by sitting quietly for a few minutes thinking of our life in the light of what we already know of God's will.
The summary of Christ's teaching under the headings of Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Love, will help us. We shall not have been quiet very long before we know that God is putting His finger here, and here, where there has got to be a change, or where we must go and put matters straight with someone else. Perhaps a few minutes more quiet will make us sure at any rate of the first practical step to take. Our first experiment is made.
If we want to go on with it we had better carry out these first orders which have come to us, for God can only continue to speak to us if we obey. Disobedience blocks the line.
Probably our first `quiet times' will bring us mostly these personal convictions and steps. The way between us and God needs clearing. It also needs keeping clear, and every day we shall first listen for God's correction.
But we are trying to discover whether God can direct as well as correct us. Let us now make the experiment of bringing under review some of our practical concerns.
We have certain decisions to make to-day in our business or our home. Let us quietly turn over in our minds all the factors we know which should influence our decision, setting on one side the thoughts that are prompted by fear or pride or self interest, letting the thought of what God would want penetrate deeper into our judgement, waiting for the growing conviction as to the right step to take. If we are prepared to do this patiently and thoroughly and to bring under review all areas of our life--our business, home, leisure, money, time, relationships, health--we shall be surprised at what comes to us, the new certainty in our decisions, the new sense of direction, and the growing assurance that God is in control. A very busy housewife with a husband, three children, and a martyr-complex previously found life complicated and wearying. She now says, `I found when I began to spend an hour daily in quiet, that far from taking- up precious time and adding to an already heavy programme, that hour became the simplifying, unifying, time-saving key to the whole day.'
These are two practical ways in which we can experiment. The important thing is for us to make, each for himself, the thrilling discovery that God has spoken to us. Once we have made that discovery, God will shape our `quiet times' and develop them until they express a full personal relationship with Him, and include our thanksgiving, worship, petition, intercession, as part of our life with Him. We are only talking now of how to begin.
What can we expect as we grow more experienced in this listening to God? Probably the first thing we realize will be that the whole level of our thinking has been altered. We shall see that what we took for sound reasoning before was just our human thinking, dictated by self-will, prejudice, fear, or limited by the fact that we were leaving God out of the reckoning. The judgement of a surrendered man who listens to God is something more than human reason. It may often seem, as Paul says, sheer folly to other people.
This does not mean that, when we have a 'quiet time,' we resign our reasoning powers. The idea that listening to God means making your mind a blank is a curious misconception which has hindered many people. It does mean that you leave room for God to lead you beyond your human thoughts, and tell you things you could never know yourself.
The next thing we shall find is that we are able better to interpret God's other ways of speaking to us through circumstances, through other people, through the Bible. We arc learning to know His voice in our 'quiet time,' and we recognize it better elsewhere.
We shall probably find also that from time to time there come to us clear suggestions about something we should do, or somewhere we should go. Often they have a strong, impelling force about them, and if we neglect them they come back insistently. I remember one day, returning by car from a friend's wedding, I found that I had two hours to spare. There is no doubt about the way in which they would have been spent before I discovered that God has a plan for every minute. The open moors were near by, and it was June. A `quiet time' by the roadside, however, brought the clear guidance to call on the editor of a daily newspaper, whose house was a few miles away. The result, two months later, was a leading article which made a real contribution to preparing public opinion for a Christian solution to national problems. That God does guide us in this direct way has been proved far too often to be doubted.
Of course, every thought that comes to us in the `quiet time' is not God's guidance. We need to test the voices that come to us along a line that has been so long disused or blocked. We have immediate cause to reject promptings which conflict with what we already know of His will. Nothing which is unloving, impure, dishonest, or selfish comes from God. Other suggestions which come to us may have to be talked out with some experienced person who knows how to listen to God. In other cases we may have to wait for clearer conviction in our own minds. Sometimes the only test is to make the venture and act. We shall make mistakes. But an honest mistake is of far more use to God than the timid inaction which makes no venture. God never fails to use an honest mistake, so that we and others learn from it more of His will and how to interpret that will better.
The guided life is a growth. Through the continuous experiment of listening to God, more and more of our thinking and action is freed from the guidance of self, hate, fear, indulgence, prejudice, ignorance, and all other forms of sin, and is made available to God.
And this guidance does work. That is its final confirmation. Listening to God takes time. It takes a lot more time than the brief address to God which we call `saying our prayers.'
It takes time because God has to get down through so many layers of our human, self-governed, sindulled thinking before He can communicate His thoughts to us. It takes time because God leads us in 'quiet time' into the thorough constructive planning of our life in partnership with Him. It is true that God intends us to live in such contact with Him that He can speak to us at any time; but the men and women who have known Him best have invariably found that they could not maintain that constant touch without daily time spent alone and quiet with Him. No one can live a full and vital Christian life who does not set aside a daily period for this quiet fellowship with God. Most of us, when we say we have not time, are simply dishonest. Some of us have not realized how much time later in the day is saved through added efficiency, through clearer selection of what is important and what should be left, through the greater strength and peace which come when we have listened to God and received His directions for our day.
And morning is emphatically the best time. The opening of the day with quiet thought, planning, and prayer, is so obviously the right start for the Christian that it hardly needs the backing of the universal experience of the men and women who have lived nearest God in every century.
Nearly all the objections from men and women in normal health resolve themselves into an objection to getting up earlier. Their difficulty is either laziness, undisciplined lateness the night before, or a sluggish physical condition which will disappear in a few weeks of new discipline and more careful attention to health. But we are on a quest which must not be held up by such things as these. We arc seeking God-controlled lives and a God-controlled world. No second-best in the time we give to listening to God will suffice.
How long ought we to spend? That is a question which will decide itself for every honest adventurer in God-controlled living. As God carries a man out into fuller action and responsibility the question is turned round. It is now, `How much time can I get?' not `How little will do?'
One practical hint is well worth taking. Use a note-book and pencil. Put down the thoughts which come in 'quiet time.' A typist who appeared minus her note-book when her employer wanted to dictate letters, would not hold her post long. It would not help her to plead that she could remember everything without taking it down. There is no reason why we should be less efficient with God. The Chinese say that the strongest memory is weaker than the palest ink.
We are, being called to prove effectively for our world to-day that God has a plan-for the world, for His Church, for me; that He can communicate it in definite, detailed, adequate guidance to those who are willing to obey; and that His plan is the complete answer to chaos, whether public or private.
The price is our willingness to listen.