How to listen to God

Today we hear of God speaking to little Samuel (1 Sam 3:3-19) and sometimes misunderstand what is happening. I think that this is because nowadays we make a clear distinction between a voice – something that we actually hear with our ears – and a thought – something that is in our minds. In the Bible however a voice can just as easily mean a thought. This is very important for us, as most people do not hear a voice when God speaks to them, and because they don’t have this kind of experience, many people assume that God doesn’t speak to them at all ; and from there it is but a step to the view that therefore God does not exist.

The fact is that God is speaking to us all the time, and what we need to do is to listen more carefully to the various thoughts that we have, and work out which are from God and which are not from God. Sometimes this is easy to do. If we see someone fall over in the street then it is clear that God is telling us to go and help them, and if we think we are too busy to help others in this sort of situation, then we are refusing to listen to God. But more often things are not so clear cut, are they?  How much time should I spend on my work and how much time with friends and family?  How much time should I spend on the computer or watching the TV rather than doing more important things? Well… we can probably get a rough idea what God is saying.. if we have any commonsense… because God will be wanting us to have a balance in our life. Those who work and never play are as bad as those who play and never work. This is what prayer is all about – listening to God.

But surely, I hear some of you say, God speaks to us through our conscience?  Well I am sorry to tell you that this is not necessarily the case. The Church teaches us that our conscience is something that needs to be formed. It is not that people who do bad things do not have a conscience, what they have is a badly formed conscience – what St Paul calls a weak conscience. (1 Cor 8)  My guess is that most of us have a fairly well-formed conscience. Our parents set us an example of kindness and love in their lives and taught us how to do the same in ours. Our teachers and other people in the place where we live or lived hopefully continued that process. Above all, our practice of the faith helps our conscience to continue to form as we face the more difficult issues of life or death. Further, and this is aided by the example of good friends, and our resistance to the influence of bad ones.

The problem is that because most of us have been brought up like this, we don’t realise what an important thing has been happening to us, nor do we realise that our conscience can just as easily be weakened as strengthened. St Paul mentions this in our 2nd reading when he points out how easy it is for our body to be tempted by physical pleasure – cake in my case!  I have seen people completely destroyed by the temptations offered by one other person. So be warned, God does not speak to us automatically through our conscience, and the good things our conscience has learnt can easily be swamped by our desire for pleasure of one kind or another. How often I get people in distress saying to me “It felt OK at the time but then it all went wrong, I suppose I didn’t really think about it very much.”

It’s worth remembering also that although God wants us to be happy, we may also be called by God to do things that are difficult or even painful. True happiness does not come simply from following what feels good to us.  Little Samuel was to discover this in the bit of his story we don’t hear today, for God gives him a message for his beloved master Eli, which is very hard indeed – “Your sons are no good!”

Sometimes, of course, God will speak to us powerfully out of the blue, as he spoke to Samuel. But even then we need to test what we think we are hearing. Test it internally by using our common sense and our knowledge of what is good and bad, and test it externally – maybe by sharing the idea with a couple of good friends, or with a priest.

Notice today in the Gospel (John 1:35-42) that even Jesus needs to do something of what we need to do. He knows that he must find one of the disciples to be their leader, and thinks that it could be this man Simon. Like us, he needs to assess the situation facing him in order to apply God’s will in the appropriate way, so we hear that he looks hard at this man Simon, and only then does he say “You are to be called Cephas (Peter) – meaning Rock.” Yes, not only do we have to listen carefully for what God is saying to us, but we have to look hard at the people and the world around us, if we are to move closer to doing all that God wants us to do, both now, and in our future wherever that may take us.

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