I talk to people both in and out of my worship community about issues of faith and belief. Many times, we end up discussing prayer. Whether these individuals have been in church for years or haven’t darkened our door for most of their adult lives, they are more than willing to talk about their prayer lives, what God is saying to them, and how they are responding to God’s presence in their lives. Those whose prayers seem to go unanswered or unheard aren’t as forthcoming. They are not as willing to volunteer the content of their conversations with God. In these instances, the people in question are frustrated (at best) and disgusted (at worst) with God. The underlying assumption is, in both situations that God does speak and is speaking. The people who feel their prayers aren’t being answered typically say something like this: “God’s just not speaking to me right now” or “God is speaking but I don’t understand what God is saying.” That’s the premise we’re working under, God is always speaking. Hearing, listening, and understanding are different matters. Some get it and some don’t. This is the perceived conventional wisdom in many of our churches today. I think this is extremely wrong.
Our present beliefs fall apart when tested agains scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The notion that God is always speaking runs contrary to significant parts of the Old Testament and one of the greatest prayer journeys of all time, the call of the prophet Samuel.
1 Samuel 3:1 says, “Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time and visions weren’t widely known.”
Rare, infrequent, worse than occasionally periodic; that’s how the writer of 1 Samuel describes how often God spoke to people. This is a unique time in Israelite history. People were sacrificing, Israel was rising to power, and things were generally considered to be good. Tribes, congregations of the faithful, and the leadership considered themselves to be onboard with God’s will and God’s plan for their kingdom. Weird, don’t you think, God isn’t speaking or revealing God’s self to anyone. The machinations of state and religion were moving along with efficiency and sanctity, clear in the idea they were living out the divine order. How did they know? If God wasn’t talking or appearing to anyone how did they know their course was correct and the ideas theologically related to God’s vision of how humanity should live? It couldn’t be that they were making it up. It wouldn’t be that they convinced themselves they were hearing from God (when they really weren’t) and did whatever they wanted to do in the first place? If God’s word was so rare, how could they have idea about God’s will? Could it have been that they were just playing at being religious, making up ideas of their own and trying to pass them of as God’s? Yes. I believe this is the ethical and moral vacuum from (and into) which Samuel was called to become a prophet.
How do we know we’re not living in the world of 1 Samuel? Are we in a time where God’s word and appearance are extremely rare yet everyone claims to be hearing from God? Either we’re all right or all deluded. There is no in between. Samuel believes it is important to understand God’s word and appearance were rare occurrences. This is an honest appraisal of life in ancient Israel. Religious, moral, and ethical life existed in a self-directed vacuum. However, religious people must hear from God. If we aren’t actually encountering God, we will a create God (or gods) of our own design. Then, we will tell ourselves, the God we made is the “real” God. We will listen for words of affirmation and love from the idols we created. Without hesitation or equivocation, proclamations will inevitably be made that God is speaking to us today. All the while, the words of 1 Samuel 3 remain unread and misunderstood, “The Lord’s word was rare at that time and visions weren’t widely known.”
God forbid we stop filling the world with our own projections of God and wait on God to speak instead of putting words into God’s mouth. How would our world change, if we were to answers questions with, “I don’t know what God wants you to do? God’s word is rare and not widely known.” Or when people say, “God is telling me to do this thing or the other”, with the same reply; God’s word is rare and not widely known. Perhaps God isn’t telling you anything. Are you telling yourself something? Did you know God’s word is rare and not widely known? Have you thought about listening to the silence? It worked for Samuel. It might work for us if we discard the arrogance that comes from thinking God is always speaking and widely known.