There are several scenes within the Bible that I wish I could have witnessed first-hand. Huge, epic events like the parting of the Red Sea, or intense, emotional ones like Lazarus being raised from the dead would be incredible to see. However, the few short verses describing the baptism of Jesus capture me every time I read them, and I have to say it’s my number one choice. Here is the event as shared from Luke’s gospel:
“When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” Luke 3:21-22
The other accounts in the Bible that tell of this event are very similar; sharing the same essential details, and are equally short. So why does this stand out to me?
In essence, it captures the heart of God toward all of us, and I believe if our ears are tuned in to these words, we will hear the voice of God clearly. He wants to speak such blessing over each of us, but He must be given a chance, and it pains me to see people forming opinions of Him – even turning away from Him – without having heard from Him firsthand.
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells how the message of the kingdom of God will be received by people differently. Some will hear it but immediately dismiss it due to a lack of understanding; some will receive it with joy but only for a short time until trouble, life’s worries, or the deceitfulness of wealth choke it out; yet others will take it into their heart and allow it to grow (Matthew 13:1-24). I’ve witnessed these scenarios play out exactly how Jesus describes them. However, his parable is a reference to the message of the kingdom of God, not His voice. It is true that as a follower of Christ we must talk about this message - the good news of his life, death, and resurrection. This is something he implicitly tells us to do. But this is different from the Father Himself speaking directly over a person’s life, as in the baptism of Jesus. I’ve been witness to the moment a person hears God’s voice; and when they do, it becomes virtually impossible for them to turn from Him.
So why doesn’t everyone have this experience at some point? Or do they? I wonder if there is indeed a point in everyone’s life that God does speak to them, but for some reason they don’t recognize it. I say this because as I look throughout the Bible, it’s jam packed with people who did incredible things in response to being spoken to by God. This direct interaction between God and man has not ceased, and I’ve heard hundreds of testimonies of people hearing His voice to this day. This tells me His communication with us is stronger than ever! The more people I talk with, getting a glimpse into their lives, the more I’m convinced that God has spoken to everyone. However, it’s not always recognized because the credit is placed elsewhere for the affirming words given by Him. We chalk it up to positive self-thinking, giving credit to ourselves, or someone else who has been a good influence in our lives. I’m not suggesting that encouraging words either from a friend or coach or even yourself are not an important part of life. We can indeed be shaped by such things and be proud of what we’ve accomplished by working hard, but human words do not have the capacity to address a person at the core of who they truly are – a child of God, created perfectly in His image. Listen again at how God the Father spoke to his son: “You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Christ had not even started his ministry at this point, nor done any miracles, yet his Father couldn’t have been more smitten; speaking words of affirmation and truth. My words and your words spoken to other people don’t do this. We have a hard time interjecting true love unless they give us a reason to do so. Not God – He interjects love because that is one of the main commodities of His kingdom. We receive it from Him just for being. This is what He was saying to Jesus at the moment of his baptism, and if we understand this love is for us too, we will have the deepest recesses of our heart filled by it. For those that may still question that God is speaking to them, I want to share something I’ve practiced for the past several years that may help.
In 2010, my wife and I participated in a marriage workshop in which one of the exercises was dictating a letter from God to our spouse. I know it may sound strange to some, but it was absolutely priceless. It took discipline and focus to ask Him to speak and quiet all the thoughts in my mind to hear what God was saying about Makayla, but as I did, I could literally hear His heart for her, and I began to write what He was saying. She did the same for me, and when the letters were read to each other, we couldn’t believe the love and care God had invested into each of our lives. After that experience, the question begged to be asked: if God would use another person to speak through, what would it be like if it was done directly to us? Since then, we, and dozens of others, have participated in a similar exercise called “God’s letter to me” to answer this very question. It’s the very simple practice of setting some personal, quiet time aside with a pen and paper and writing down what you hear God saying. Every time the results have been equally astonishing and fulfilling, including recently when we did this exercise at a team meeting for our Mended group leaders. At this point, I’m encouraging each of you to consider doing this yourself.
So how do we know it’s truly God, and not just our own mind filling in the quiet time? There are a few key elements to pay attention to that will help distinguish His voice. First, is what you are hearing affirming and edifying? If not, it’s not from God. He is an encourager and will never motivate with fear or guilt. This doesn’t mean that He won’t lovingly correct, but it will never be done in a way that leaves you feeling ashamed. Instead, your self-worth will increase; leaving you feeling empowered and motivated to change! Second, does the voice sound like your own, or do you get a sense that what you are hearing is coming from someone else? It can be subtle, but each time I hear from God I know the thought hasn’t simply come from my own mind. The very first time I heard from God was when I began having questions go through my head that I’d never even considered asking myself. Often times the subject matter or even the words I hear are uncharacteristic of me. Next, do the things that you hear involve other people; either with a feeling of empathy or compassion, or wanting to help them in some way? God is very concerned with all his children and will utilize you and me to reach them with His love. And finally, is there something that you heard that you know you couldn’t do or accomplish on your own? Nearly everything I’ve heard God call people to, including myself, involves risk, faith, and a network of helpers. If your letter contains things that you have no idea how to accomplish right now or even why, there’s a good chance you heard right from God.
I need to note, and even warn, that the same quiet space in which God’s voice can be heard, is the same space that is prime for hearing lies from the enemy of your soul. Scripture is clear that much of the battle we will fight in this life will be in our thoughts. When the devil tempted Christ in the desert, it was with spoken words, not a physical altercation (Matthew 4:1-11). This is not meant to scare or discourage anyone from seeking God in such ways, but simply to make aware the possibility for interference exists. It can be recognized as virtually the opposite of the queues listed above to distinguish God’s voice. The enemy tells people they have to work for God’s love, as well as using shame, guilt, fear, and hopelessness. Any of these thoughts will make it clear that it is not God speaking, and if recognized, will make you wise to the enemy’s tactics.
As I think back on my sixteen years in ministry, every word spoken over a person from God, every “letter to me” or to a spouse, every moment in quiet prayer in which God’s presence was felt, every sermon that penetrated the heart of a person reminds me of Christ’s baptism because in those moments I can picture them in Jesus’ place. In those powerful experiences, in which a person would profess they heard from God, the message was the same: “You are my son – you are my daughter – whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The key for you and me is recognizing that these words will always make up the opening line in God’s letter to us, no matter how we choose to write it.