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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“Eli called him and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ Samuel answered, ‘Here I am.’”
During the course of one long night, Samuel’s life changed forever.
It was the first night he ever heard the voice of the Lord.
His mother Hannah – overwhelmed with gratitude that God had allowed her to have a child – has surrendered him as a kind of living gift to God’s service. Samuel, though just a child, spends all his days in Israel’s tabernacle, the sacred tent that housed, among other things, the ark of the covenant. He lives under the authority of Eli, an old man who had served God only half-heartedly.
One night Samuel is awakened by a voice calling his name. “Samuel!” He runs to Eli. “Here I am. You called me.” Eli insists it wasn’t so, and Samuel finds his way back to bed. Then it happens again. And then a third time.
“Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, ‘Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’” (I Samuel 3:8-10)
This is the beginning of a life of service during a period of Old Testament history when few of God’s people seem even remotely interested in what God has to say. But Samuel listens. Our “3:16” verse is the continuation of this night’s extraordinary three-way conversation – the difficult moment when Eli asks the young boy to pass along what God just said to him, which he accurately suspects is going to be some long overdue accountability for his own failures as God’s representative.
Does God still speak today?
If so, what would it be like to hear from him?
It’s tempting to imagine a sonorous voice like that of Liam Neeson, James Earle Jones, or Morgan Freeman calling us by name in the middle of the night, then showering us with nuggets of wisdom for the days ahead. But if we’re honest, what we’re most likely to hear tonight is sheer silence.
If God actually wants to be known and genuinely wants to be found, it’s maddening that he seems so shy. Why doesn’t he blow away all of our doubts (and blow all of our minds at the same time) by orchestrating some kind of unmistakable visual demonstration? The celebrated 19th century atheist Robert Ingersoll used to begin his public presentations by daring God to strike him dead. He would wait a few moments and then sigh dramatically, “Well, now that we’ve got that out of the way…” If God wants to make it absolutely clear that he is God, why didn’t he turn Robert Ingersoll into toast?
The answer is actually rather simple. God’s real target is our hearts. Strategically directed lightning bolts, signs in the sky, and Purdue winning this year’s March Madness (we’re talking about miracles here) might get our attention. But they wouldn’t transform us into people who truly want to know God at the level of the heart.
God’s love is always persuasive. It is never coercive.
We may not hear an audible voice as Samuel did, but we can choose every day to “tune in” to the rhythms of God’s grace. How exactly do we do that?
Right now the place where you are sitting is being bombarded with tens of thousands of messages carried on radio and television waves. Your body is being penetrated by sports chatter, political talk radio, updates on the war in Ukraine, and some misguided disc jockey playing My Achy Breaky Heart. Whether or not you choose to hear those messages is simply a matter of tuning.
To hear from God we have to make a choice. We have to bet our lives that the invisible world is real, and that its values are more important than those the visible world is continually imposing upon us. To put it simply, we have to want God to speak to us in order to hear from him.
In his book Hearing God, Dallas Willard writes, “God is not trying to play hide and seek with us. He is not a mumbling trickster,” making it as hard as possible for us to know what he’s up to. But the fact remains that we shouldn’t expect to hear anything from God if we have already decided that we’re not going to do what he tells us. Receiving guidance is not about deciding whether God’s advice is good advice.
Why doesn’t God just do a data-dump right into our brains – you know, the way the characters in The Matrix can quickly “learn” things they have never actually learned? Why doesn’t God automatically download helpful programs like How to Be Patient in Traffic and How to Forgive that Annoying Person in My Family?
The answer is that God created us to be in the kind of relationship with him that requires us to want to stay on an ever-steepening spiritual learning curve. A huge part of knowing God is wanting to pursue him through his Word.
It’s Willard’s opinion that when we need to hear a specific word from God, most of the time we will hear it from another person. Sometimes the one thing we most need to hear comes from a surprising source – our own lips. From time to time when I’ve been talking with someone I’ve spoken the very word of encouragement, or warning, or direction that I myself needed to hear. Because of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, each of us is capable of speaking more wisdom than we actually know.
What if God remains strangely silent? What are we supposed to do if we aren’t getting a specific leading of any kind on a decision that we simply have to make?
We must choose wisely.
As Willard points out, “What a child does when not told what to do is the final indicator of who or what that child is.” We are not the Stepford children of God – robots programmed to obey God whether we like it or not. Within a living, active, ever-maturing spiritual relationship, we are given the privilege and the responsibility of making decisions.
You may be wrestling even today with a major decision about job opportunities, financial investment, or committing yourself to a life partner.
If, after you have consulted the wisest counselors that God has placed around you – and if you have openly, honestly, and attentively listened for God’s guidance, and still no particular word of direction has come – it would seem that God’s call is for you to make the wisest decision you can make.
That’s what God’s grown-up children must learn to do.
And we do so by coming to God with open hands, open ears, and open hearts.
Samuel, it turns out, had it just right: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
I Samuel 3:16
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.