Listening for the Unheard Voice

Listening for the Unheard Voice July 27, 2015
Listening for God's unheard voice (Photo: Flickr, Moyan Brenn, Creative Commons License, some changes made)
Listening for the Unheard Voice (Photo: Flickr, “Meditation” by Moyan Brenn, Creative Commons License, some changes made)

This article is part of my blog series inspired by Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice by James Alison.*

On 2004 my denomination, the United Church of Christ, chose as a slogan the phrase, “God is Still Speaking,”. They cleverly ended the phrase with a comma, the perfect punctuation to represent the ongoing nature of God’s communication. Unfortunately, if God is indeed still speaking we are having a hard time discerning that voice among the din of modern life. And let’s face it, discerning God’s voice in the Bible is no easier. Which is okay by me. I mean, the fact that we need to wrestle to hear God is probably a good thing. If God really is God then our human ears might not be used to hearing the divine voice, which just proves that God is God and we are not, as far as I can see.

But that doesn’t mean that receiving a communication from God is impossible. We just need to remember that communication is a kind of relationship between two parties – one speaks, the other listens. We know what it’s like when we speak to someone who really isn’t paying attention. Especially when we are trying to convey something true about who we are, blank stares or pro forma responses like, “Uh, huh” and patronizing nods can be frustrating, even hurtful. We may have spoken volumes, but no communication happened at all. My guess is that that’s how God feels sometimes when it comes to our, shall we say, lack of attention.

This issue of communication guides the first part of Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. James Alison invites us to reflect on this question: What is the effect on us of being on the receiving end of an act of communication from God? Because if God is speaking and we are truly listening, wouldn’t our reaction be a bit more than a dismissive nod? Wouldn’t being on the receiving end of an act of communication from God change us rather dramatically? Maybe like Paul we would find ourselves being knocked to the ground and the whole trajectory of our lives dramatically reversed.

As James wants us to understand, God is constantly speaking to us, not sending us occasional text messages which we might not notice. That communication has a particular shape since the resurrection, perhaps recognizable to us now though it has existed since the beginning of time. Don’t bother to reread that sentence – it’s hard to make sense of because what we are talking about is really weird. Just how weird? Well, James starts the course with this baffling text:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

It’s not at all clear to mere mortals how someone who appeared at a particular moment in history, as Jesus of Nazareth did, could also have been involved in the creation of the world. James wants us to stay with the weirdness of it and not try to impose a sensible explanation on it too quickly. The course takes ample time to consider what this type of communication from this God of ours looks like and what impact it has on us. But let me offer this thought: God’s Son, through whom God is now speaking, is a resurrected victim of human violence. That’s what the first part of the course title refers to, and which I have written about here. Jesus is our victim who forgives us. He is the appearance of God’s forgiveness in the midst of human violence so blind to what it was doing that it turned against God himself. God, it seems, chose to communicate to us when we are at our worst. But isn’t that just when we would most need to hear Him speaking? Isn’t that when Paul was spoken to? To our discomfort, because Jesus occupied the place of a victim of violence it may be that God’s voice is still speaking to us from the place of our victims. As James explains about the purpose of small groups meeting to take the course:

What I hope we are going to be doing together is to begin to become habituated to being the sort of people who might be able to hear God speaking through the Son whom he appointed heir to all things.

When he set out to persecute the followers of Jesus, Paul thought he was doing God’s will. The revelation that God was not on his side but counted Himself among Paul’s enemies was shocking and shameful. Yet Paul faced the unpleasant truth about himself which is what it takes to be a follower of Jesus. God’s voice is “unheard” not because God is silent, but because we resist knowing the truth about ourselves. God is indeed still speaking. Are we prepared to listen?




*Years ago, just when I was about to give up on Christianity as irrelevant to my life, I stumbled across the work of James Alison. He helped me encounter a God of mercy who loved me more than I could imagine – what a gift! So when he asked for help to produce his course of introduction to Christianity, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, I jumped at the chance. All proceeds from sales of the course go to support the website, translations, promotion, and James’ living and travel expenses. James is an independent scholar and itinerant preacher and is very grateful for your support. James and I both pray that this blog series and the course itself will be a meaningful part of your journey toward a deeper faith and fuller life in Christ. You can learn more about the course and purchase it at our store.

For other parts of this series see:

Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Huh?

Listening for the Unheard Voice

Authentically Boring: The Case for Praying by Rote

If Jesus is the Forgiving Victim, Then What Am I?

Trump, Biden, and the Search for Authenticity


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