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Editorial: Hearing the Shepherd and Listening for Truth


I live on five wooded acres, which would be a vast kingdom for my dog—if my dog came when called.  But she does not, so Sandy’s activities are limited to a small fenced play area with sporadic supplemental walks on a leash.  When touring the renovated Birmingham zoo, my family was pleased to see the elephant space had been expanded to include several acres of tree-speckled terrain.  When the zookeeper showed us the sturdy structure at one end, which could house the elephants during periods of severe weather threat. I asked, “How do you quickly get them inside during tornado warnings?”  The zookeeper replied, “I call them by name.”  

What freedom we can have if we recognize God calling us by name and guiding us. Yet, if we have not learned to recognize His voice, we would be better off in a limited enclosure with less space to explore.  How do we know the nature of God’s call to discipleship in 2015?

Competing voices surround us. Living in Alabama, I take note of the tension in discerning the roles of various branches of government. A recent skirmish involves the Alabama Supreme Court, local probate judges and a federal district judge litigating the constitutionality of an Alabama amendment forbidding same sex marriage. Alabama has a history of tension in deciding which governmental agency will rule the day, regarding immigration, civil rights and more. To which government authority should the probate judges listen?

It can be a confusing time within our denomination as well, with loud, intense, and varied voices claiming to be authoritative for all. We have no urim and thummim, and sometimes the fleeces that are placed for guidance may be open to interpretation. In addition, plainly reading the biblical text can seem to support contrary conclusions. We are in a war of words—a polemic—a battle for our minds.1 In the midst of this epic Great Controversy, would not it be imperative that we emphasize discipleship and learning to recognize God’s voice?

The Gospel of John refers to the sheep who recognize the shepherd’s voice. Why did others not recognize Jesus?  Was it because He challenged their status or their preconceived notions? Was it because He befriended their enemies? Or, perhaps, it was because Jesus was not definitive enough for their tastes.  Maybe the most important question through the ages is how did some of His sheep know His voice?  Jesus gave the small group that did truly hear Him special instruction about living in a hostile world. They were assured of God’s special protection and presence through the Holy Spirit. The gospel of John is unique in its extensive references to the benefits of the Holy Spirit. In the midst of all the conflict, there is comfort. There is promise.  

How do we learn to hear His voice? Referring to scripture, Ellen White says we need a Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul, because the minds of men differ.2  So today with diverse peoples and temperaments in our world would there exist a variety of authentic walks with God? And what strategies should be employed to help individuals develop a keenness in hearing Christ’s voice?

Many believers would say that we live in the era of the Laodicean church, and should heed the noteworthy counsel to buy gold and white raiment and to use eye salve. Could the eye salve be a remedy to ensure an accurate hearing of God’s voice? Is the implication that the Laodicean church would strive for a more mature discernment which would go beyond merely agreeing with recommendations of others? True discipleship surely must mean more than agreeing with certain respected figures. Could it be that God is looking for people who will use the promised eye salve and who can see for themselves the ultimate course to pursue?

Jesus describes a final judgment in which some who claimed to work for Him actually did not know Him at all. So how do we go beyond claiming a label and genuinely fully participate in end-time discipleship?  Through the ages, it seems that God’s guidance for the pilgrimage has come through passages from the Bible, particular circumstances, and impressions from the Spirit.  While there is a recognition of a certain interdependence among these three, does one trump the other two? Often we hear that the Bible is the gold standard and the only address for hearing God. But, increasingly we are faced with the question of whose interpretation of the Bible.  In seeking to hear God’s voice, do we humbly ask if we are grappling with the passages correctly?  After all, we must concede that infallibility in discerning the mind of God is not a part of the human condition, and it should not be expected in our relationship with God.  We will make mistakes. Nevertheless, He will be with us.  Being no mumbling trickster, God will communicate, and He will communicate clearly if needed.

We are to be “Thinkers not mere reflectors” as Ellen says. In seeking to hear God, we cannot be groveling robots or obsequious, cringing sycophants and still call ourselves children of God. Such creatures do not bear the family resemblance.  A son or daughter is not, merely, a family toady. “Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”  (Psalm 32.9 (NLT) We are not robots, but we are created in the image of God with ability to think and freely choose.

We see some of Jesus’ flexibility in discipling  people as He spoke to Peter.
Jesus uses a play on the words which one would miss when reading in English.

     “Peter, do you agape me?” 
     Peter says, “Yes, Lord, I philos you”   
     “Feed my lambs.” 

Then a 2nd exact exchange—
    “Peter, do you agape me? “
    Peter replies “I philos you.”
    Jesus says “Shepherd my young sheep.” 

Then, a third time—
Jesus asks “Do you philos me?”  Note the switch from agape to Peter’s level of   love which was philos.
Peter, replies “You know that I philos you,” acknowledging, perhaps with   sadness, that Jesus knew exactly the quality and level of his love.
Jesus, nevertheless, charges him with the responsibility of feeding his young sheep.

Is God flexible and adaptable in teaching and leading each of us like He was with Peter?  (Note Jon Paulien’s discussion on John 21).  Should not we adopt the same stance with each other?

Even as we recognize the latitude God uses with each person, how do we know truth for ourselves?   “It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones” (The Desire of Ages, p. 83 1898).  Could our frequent meditation on the real and the true protect us from counterfeit voices?  Federal agents don’t learn to spot fake money by studying the counterfeits.  Rather, they study genuine bills until they master the look of the real thing. It is only then that they will reliably recognize the bogus currency.  Maybe the apostle John had discernment in mind when He frequently used the terms  “real” and “true”; true light, true vine, real bread, real judgment.  He understood that it is important for genuine discipleship to distinguish the true vs false.  In fact, we see in John 14.6-12 that Jesus clearly claimed that He had shown them the Father.  I find this instructive in learning to hear God’s voice.  Look to Jesus for the real thing.  Perhaps that is the key to hearing His voice, to knowing His voice, to finding truth.


1Sigve Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation, 2006.
2Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, Mountain View CA: Pacific Press 1913, p. 432.


Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine.

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