The Birthright of Every Believer
Hearing God’s voice
by Brad Brinson
It was the 1970s, the era of big hair and disco.
I was returning to my hometown of Kokomo, Ind., for the first time since starting college, and the last place I expected to visit was the Isis Theater, our town’s only X-rated movie theater.
I had been back just a few hours when an old friend called me, someone who had also met Jesus earlier that year. He said something like, “I was praying, and I think I’m supposed to go to the Isis Theater to tell people about Jesus tonight and you’re supposed to go with me.”
Have you ever had a Christian friend who, in his zeal to tell others about Jesus, crosses all boundaries of social propriety? That was this guy on steroids. But I agreed to go with him mostly because, as a new Christ-follower, I didn’t want to look like a slacker.
When we arrived outside the Isis Theater, my friend immediately set up shop on the sidewalk—loading a Keith Green cassette into his boom box and blasting worship songs. Then he produced a shoebox full of tracts, the kind that graphically describe hell. He greeted passers-by with a compulsive, “Praise the Lord” as he handed out his tracts to patrons who were clearly seeking invisibility.
Awkward is the adjective that comes to mind.
As I prayed, I felt sadness for him, a sadness that compelled me to engage him in some way, as if God were nudging me.
As I stood there regretting my choice to come, I noticed the man behind the ticket window. Over the years I have realized that God sometimes “shows” us people. I think He was showing me that man that day.
I remember praying, Lord, teach me how to pray for him. As I prayed, I felt sadness for him, a sadness that compelled me to engage him in some way, as if God were nudging me. So I grabbed the only tool available—a tract—and asked God, Do you really want me to do this? A gentle inner voice affirmed that this was what obedience looked like for me in that moment.
When I approached the glass booth and pushed the tract through the opening, the man took it and said into the little microphone, “Thanks.” I stepped back and watched him read. I really expected him to kick us off the property. But after a few moments he tapped on the glass and motioned me back over. Still speaking into the microphone he asked, “Can I have another one?”
After he finished reading a second tract, he waved me over again, and I could see that his eyes were wet with tears. “If I ask Jesus to take my sins away, will He?” he asked. “Will He really do that for me?”
“He did for me,” I answered, to which he replied, “Can we do that now?”
Because I had received Jesus on my knees a few months earlier in a dorm room, I assumed that kneeling was essential to the process. So there in the empty X-rated theater lobby, on the gum-gobbed carpet, we kneeled in front of the concessions counter as the movie played in the background. The ticket-taker poured out his broken heart, appealing to Jesus for His pardon and asking the Spirit of God to come live in him, giving him the power to lead a new life.
As we drove home I reflected, Ministry is pretty easy if we just do what we are told.
God’s listening people
I mention this early experience at the Isis Theater because I believe it represents what each of us can anticipate in our relationship with God. A part of our birthright as God’s children is to hear His guiding voice as we do His work.
When God’s people stood in the desert before Mount Sinai, God spoke this promise: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5, English Standard Version).
From the outset of His relationship with Israel, God declared that His people would hear His voice and be governed by His written covenant.
God then did what He promised: Moses recorded God’s covenant, known as the Book of Leviticus, and received day-to-day words of guidance on how he was to lead God’s people.
In fact, the Bible records that God spoke to Moses so frequently that Moses built a place called the Tent of Meeting for the receiving of this regular guidance.
But the weight of being the “designated listener” was heavy. Consequently, Moses prayed, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29, ESV).
Moses’ prayer was not immediately answered. Generations passed, and still only a few prophets heard God’s voice and related His guidance to His people.
Then Jesus came. He personified the message of God and, like Moses, looked forward to a day when all of God’s people would hear His Father’s voice. Jesus promised His disciples that upon His departure they would receive another counselor like Jesus, but this One would reside in them.
Jesus explained, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17, ESV).
God’s flare for the poetic fulfillment of this promise was revealed in a special way:
After Jesus’ resurrection, God’s people were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate that earlier, historic day at Mount Sinai—the day God called on Israel to listen to His voice and be governed by His written covenant. As they gathered, the wind roared through the streets of Jerusalem and fire-like tongues rested on the followers of Jesus.
Peter explained the phenomena, quoting the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28, ESV).
Moses’ prayer was answered. Jesus’ promise was fulfilled. A community guided by the Holy Spirit and governed by the written Word of God was born. That community became known as the Church.
A church that listens
God’s desire to speak became part of the gospel record in the lives of His covenant people (italics mine):
- Philip in Acts 8:29-31: “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go up and join this chariot.’ Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’”
- Peter in Acts 10:17-22: “While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are looking for you. But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.’ Peter went down to the men and said, ‘Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?’”
- The church leaders in Antioch in Acts 13:1-3: “While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”
Today, listening for and obeying God’s voice has marked the culture of our local church in Knoxville as well.
Twenty-plus years after I heard God’s whisper outside the Isis Theater, Two Rivers Church began services at the local high school. As I was out driving one Saturday afternoon, the last thing on my mind was finding property. After all, the church was only weeks old and its office was in my upstairs bedroom.
But as I drove past a large hayfield, a thought interrupted my routine. That familiar voice whispered: Stop and pray for that land. Out my window I noticed a 20-acre field. It was beautiful, but I dismissed the thought as too outrageous to be from God.
Yet as the day continued, my conscience grew uneasy; I sensed I might have resisted God’s leading. So that night, under the cover of darkness, I returned to do what I felt was likely crazy: I parked in that hayfield, stepped into its dark expanse and asked, “What now, Father?”
That same gentle voice whispered again: Ask me for this.
I haven’t often shared this outside of our church, because I know it sounds like some wacky “name it and claim it” story. But that evening the powerful presence of God overruled my self-consciousness to pray boldly. A thought occurred to me: If this isn’t God, then I will just get some exercise. If it is God, I don’t want to miss His leading.
Such moments have become an axiom: Err on the side of obedience.
So I began to walk through the dew-soaked hayfield, asking God to teach me how to pray. It was a holy moment. God was near. I sensed that I was joining God in something He was doing. I prayed a bold and audacious prayer.
And I told no one. What happened in the hayfield stayed in the hayfield. It was just too “out there.”
Then Wednesday came. At our weekly prayer meeting I proposed an experiment to the dozen or so people gathered: “Let’s read John 10, then conduct an experiment to see if we, His sheep, hear His voice today.”
The same God who spoke to Moses and Jesus and Peter and Philip also speaks to us today.
After reading the passage, I handed out pens and paper with the following instruction: “If you sense God speaking to you, write down what you have heard. If you hear nothing, write down ‘dial tone.’”
What happened next was stunning. Of the dozen or so people there, 10 returned papers with some variation of a subject we had never ever discussed: “Secure property.” What had been my private experience with God was now being confirmed by others.
So the next day I invited to lunch three friends who worked in real estate. I told them about the prayer meeting the night before (still remaining mum about my adventure at the hayfield). One of the guys, an expert on properties in our region, volunteered his opinion on the best location in the area for a future building site: the hayfield I had walked on and prayed over.
I began to believe I was part of something God was doing, and this provoked many more nocturnal prayer walks on that land and a search for the property’s owner.
It took several weeks to identify the land’s owner because she had taken action to avoid solicitations regarding the property. The land was not for sale, which didn’t discourage me because we didn’t have a cent. But when I finally met her, I told her the full story, and tears began to stream down her cheeks.
She then told me how, 20 years earlier, God had made clear that she was to refuse all developers and reserve this property for a church. She “just knew” that one day a pastor would come to her and request it for the Lord’s use. With a smile as well as tears, she said, “I always wondered who you would be.”
Today, the facilities of Two Rivers Church stands on that hayfield and two adjoining pieces of land I walked on and prayed for at God’s instruction that night. It still moves me.
It is both humbling and sobering to know that the same God who spoke to Moses and Jesus and Peter and Philip and the leaders of that sending church in Antioch also speaks to us today.
Ever since God first called His people, He promised we would hear His voice and be governed by His written covenant. This defines us as His. The big questions I ask myself daily are: Am I listening? Am I obeying?
Brad Brinson is senior pastor of Two Rivers Church in Knoxville, Tenn, which he planted 15 years ago. Today, more than 2,000 people attend weekend services, and listening to God’s voice while being governed by the Scriptures remains a core value of the church. They have also planted churches in South Florida and are currently planting in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Do I Hear God’s Voice?
Ask yourself the questions below. The answers may just surprise you.
- Did God speak to me to draw me to Him when I became a Christian?
- Have I ever heard God speak to me through the Scriptures?
- Has God ever spoken to my heart in a sermon or message through a minister or teacher?
- Has God ever spoken to my heart through a worship experience?
- Has God ever spoken to me about an issue I need to make right with Him or others?
- Has God ever spoken to me by affirming me in areas where I truly please Him?
- Has God ever spoken to me by giving me a strong urge/burden to pray for someone?
- Has God ever spoken to my heart to prompt me to encourage someone?
- Has God ever spoken to me in His “still, small voice” to give me direction or encouragement?
- Has God ever spoken to me through a dream?
— created by Arthur Ellison, director of EFCA PrayGlobal, a division of ReachGlobal