I want to improve my life. I want to be more open to the will of God, more ready to hear His voice. Like the child Samuel in the temple, I’m not expecting to hear God speaking to me directly—so I try to be alert to other voices which have some authority, and to answer when they call.
Easier said than done. There are many worthy voices out there saying many worthy things, but here’s the catch: not all of them are talking to me. When I hear a good idea, a criticism, a suggestion, a plan, a description of a lifestyle, I often think, “Oooh, that’s absolutely right! I ought to be doing, thinking, or being that way! I’LL START RIGHT NOW!” Every day, I thread my poor conscience onto a hook and toss it out into the stream, where every passing predator can stop and take a nibble of me. By the end of the day, I haven’t caught anything at all, and I’m a chewed-up mess.
Here’s my plan to avoid being nibbled to death: When someone or something seems to be calling my name, demanding some action, I ask myself the following questions:
1. Was it spoken by someone with a very bright, happy, strong face, and did he start by saying, “Do not be afraid?” Do whatever he says right away. (Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m prepared.)
2. Am I tired when I hear it? Don’t listen. It may or may not be a good idea, but there’s no possible way that I can do anything with it now. If it’s important, I’ll remember it later, when I’m more sane.
3. Is it a personal criticism made by a stranger? Don’t listen. I wouldn’t listen to an engineer’s ideas for how to edit a poem, so why would I listen to a stranger’s ideas for how to fix my life? It’s not their area of expertise. Besides, they lose credibility by being, well, the kind of person who criticizes strangers.
(Still, criticism from the blue can hurt. A good way to de-fang unsolicited criticsm is to pray for the offender. This usually makes the sting go away right away.)
4. Did they call me a warthog from hell? This is the exception to the above rule. Sometimes, someone has no right or reason to be critical—and yet they’re sorta kinda right. Wrong messenger, right message, same solution: pray about it. If God really wants me to hear something, He’ll tell me again.
5. Is it someone who knows me and loves me and with whom I communicate well? Listen with all the ears I’ve got, even if it seems like that person is giving me too much credit or letting me off the hook.
6. Is it not necessarily directed at me (as in a blog post or a sermon), but hits me hard, and makes me uncomfortable and convicted and self-critical? These are the trickiest. If we tried to follow every urging we came across, we’d quickly pull ourselves to pieces. There are so very many good, worthy, commendable ideas out there—but not even the most striking message is relevant to everyone.
On the other hand, we can go overboard with this caution. While it is extremely important to learn how to “keep our eyes on our own work,” and not to be constantly distracted and dissatisfied when we see the (carefully-selected) fruits of everybody else’s chosen lifestyle, a healthy sense of humility and contentment with our own lives can easily become mediocrity and laziness, or even a kind of inverted vanity. It’s wrong to boast, but it’s also wrong to do nothing boastworthy!
So if something really tugs at my conscience—if it seems to be speaking directly to me, then I ask these questions: What is likely to actually improve in my life if I try this thing? It it something that actually needs improving? Have I already tried this same thing a thousand times, and always failed? Whom am I really trying to please by improving in this area? And what will I lose if I do allocate time, energy, and enthusiasm toward this new thing?
NB: I’m not talking about clear-cut moral issues here. There’s never a bad time or a bad reason to turn away from sin. I’m talking about laudable “extras” which can make us feel guilty or even sinful for not achieving.
7. It it an interior voice, subtly but habitually calling myself names like “useless,” “lazy,” or “disgusting?” This is most certainly not God speaking. Seems obvious, but if it’s not God speaking, then who else would be whispering those words in my ear? Do not listen! Even if the words are accurate, it’s not the whole truth. Counter these insults with the powerful name of Jesus. I would not stand by and let my child be insulted, and neither will God.
One final rule: no matter what else happens, above all, do not tweet about your plans until victory is secured. Or, at very least, don’t go to Stout Burgers the night before.