In my previous post, I described how joy arises in us as the Holy Spirit confirms the fact that we are God’s children. When we hear the word of God – whether in a sermon, a song, a prayer, the counsel of a friend, or our own reading and study – the Holy Spirit affirms that word and the fact that it applies to us. The Spirit rejoices over the love that God has for us and calls us to rejoice as well.
At this point, some objections may arise. If indeed the Spirit rejoices within us when we hear the word about God’s saving love in Jesus, then why do some Christians hear and rejoice more easily than others? Why can the same Christian rejoice in the Spirit for a season and then find that the things of God have lost their taste? Does this occur because we grow hard of hearing, or does the Spirit sometimes fail to sing?
The writer Henri Nouwen wrestles with these questions in his little book, Life of the Beloved. He concludes that while the Spirit never stops singing to us that we are God’s beloved, we must train our ears and our lips if we are to enjoy the melody constantly. First, we are called to reject all other voices – inner or outer – that tell us we are not God’s beloved. Second, we must sing the song of the Spirit to ourselves and to others.
Joy Comes Through Hearing
Nouwen says that joy begins with hearing God’s YES to us – the bold assertion made in Jesus and in Scripture that we are beloved – and grows by turning away from all other voices that contradict God’s own:
We have to dare to claim the truth that we are God’s chosen ones, even when our world does not choose us. As long as we allow our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and lovers to determine whether we are chosen or not, we are caught in the net of a suffocating world that accepts or rejects us according to its own agenda. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us.
Is this simply positive self-talk? Yes, and no. Yes, it is self-talk, and it is positive, but it is not a bare assertion arising from our own imagination and will. In repeating such words we are repeating the words of Scripture, just as the Spirit does.
Not everyone has a right to claim these words as his own. Anyone who thinks himself to be a child of God and yet refuses to follow Jesus remains an enemy of God. Assurance of God’s love means very little to people who have hardly any interest in God. Until a longing for God arises within them they are incapable of any genuine, lasting joy rooted in the knowledge of God’s love.
As for those who do long for God, many have no doubts whatsoever about his love while others struggle tremendously to believe it. Both groups draw from all across the Christian spectrum. In either you will find men and women, the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, republicans and democrats, majority and minority races, “raised in the church” Christians and “skid row conversion” Christians. What then accounts for the difference?
After they sinned, Adam and Eve hid in fear from God. Hiding, fearing, mistrusting – these are the default settings for the sinful heart. Those who seem to escape this tendency easily can only do so because God has seen fit to give them a unique “measure of faith” (Romans 12:3). Not every Christian possesses the same gifts, and a profound sense of assurance is nothing if not a gift. Those blessed to have this gift are to enjoy it without boasting (1 Corinthians 4:7), and they bear a special responsibility to encourage those who do not possess it.
For those not set free dramatically from their fear and mistrust, joy often requires a good bit of “reverse audio engineering.” Many different voices reside in our heads alongside the Spirit’s, and they speak both truths and lies. These voices blend together so that it is not always easy to recognize their origin. This is especially dangerous in the case of voices that shout words of accusation, rejection, and shame.
What Voices Do You Hear?
The accumulated insults, slights, and rejections that each person suffers in this life can make the words of Scripture and the Spirit’s echo of them hard to believe. Our own inner voice often mimics these outer voices of accusation. Who hasn’t cursed themselves after receiving criticism in moments of weakness, failure, or embarrassment? Who in their hidden thoughts hasn’t heaped shame upon themselves after being turned down from a job, or turned away by a friend or spouse?
In doing this we are accepting human testimony about ourselves. But should we not accept God’s testimony instead?
In Scripture God says this of all who follow Jesus:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)
As children justified from our sins, vindicated before God, and glorified by his Spirit, we have no reason to agree with any voices of accusation and rejection we hear around us:
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:33-34)
Muffling the Spirit’s Voice
“Ah,” you may say, “this is true for those who are chosen by God, but how can I be sure that I have been chosen by God when I know that there is so much wrong with me, and when others see it too?”
People often give good answers to this question only to see them fail to provide any relief. That is because you cannot give an honest answer to a dishonest question. This question, which tortures so many Christians, demands a new word from God instead of trusting and rejoicing in what he has already spoken. To the one asking, it sounds like it comes from within – from his own mind and conscience. On the contrary, it springs from a different voice, one that will never shut up and listen to God much less believe him. This voice always doubts, always raises objections, always turns our gaze inward instead of outward to Jesus, and always suspects that there is a catch hidden somewhere in the fine print of the Gospel. It is nothing less than the voice of the devil speaking in his native tongue. And as Jesus taught us, when the devil speaks in his native tongue, he lies.
The most dangerous part of the devil’s work here is that he can make the voices of accusation – our own and those we have heard – seem like God’s own voice. Disparaging and dehumanizing words first spoken by others and then adopted as our own can be “baptized” by the devil. He will remind us of our sins and insinuate that no true child of God would ever commit them. He will direct us to the wrong passage of scripture at the worst possible moment, solidifying the impression in our hearts that we are outside of God’s family and favor. He will orchestrate a careless or hurtful word from a Christian we deeply respect, as though God were confirming our worst fears through a messenger.
What must we do when the devil’s voice starts to sound like God’s voice? How can we tell the difference? The answer is simple, if not always easy: get to know Jesus.
Tune In to Tune Out
If we want to know who God is, what he is like, and what he has in mind for us, then we need to look at Jesus. The prophet Isaiah said that Jesus would be the kind of person who never breaks off a bruised reed or snuffs out a smoldering wick. When Jesus came, his every word and action confirmed this prophecy. He delighted in welcoming people who were crushed by their sins and weaknesses. Even though he spoke hard words to the rich, the proud, and the self-righteous, he did so because he desired even their presence in his kingdom. Indeed, many of these natural enemies came to embrace him in the end.
Desire for sinners to come to him, and delight without disparagement when they do; this is Jesus. This is God. Any voice that speaks differently comes from the evil one. When you have trained yourself to recognize God’s voice you can begin to tune out those voices that contradict him. Debating these voices and their accusations accomplishes nothing.
Imagine a woman in a crowded airport filled with all manner of noise. She has returned from a long and arduous work assignment overseas. In the distance she spots her husband who is there to meet her! Suddenly the cacophony around her begins to fade. The noise is still there, but it does not register in the same way. All that matters to her now is reaching her husband. As she walks, then runs, she begins to hear his voice in her head, carrying on a conversation even before they embrace. Words that she has long desired to hear from him now arise in her heart even before they have been spoken from his lips. When at last she embraces him, and he says to her, “I love you and I’m so happy that you are home,” she hears nothing else at all.
Instead of believing or even arguing with the voices of accusation, learn to cry out “Abba, Father!” The lies of the devil cannot withstand the joyful words of the Spirit.
The Next Step – “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Learning to hear and trust the voice of the Spirit as He speaks in Scripture and in our souls is incredibly liberating. However, just listening to the Spirit’s song is not enough to keep the melody in your heart. In order to experience joy regularly, we must sing the words of the Spirit to those around us. Why?
Because we have drowned out the voice of the Spirit in their souls.
In our sinful relationships we are not only the accused, but the accuser as well. Consider:
We have all insulted people, in effect declaring that they have no value.
We have judged people according to their appearance, skills, or usefulness to us, disregarding the glory of God that is stamped on every one of their cells.
We have selfishly taken from people for our own gratification, enjoying their work, their money, and even their bodies without gratitude, praise, and mutual giving.
We have failed to give hurting people our time, energy, and care, or we have done so grudgingly.
We have been physically abusive of some, and neglectful of others.
In what we’ve done and failed to do, in what we’ve said and failed to say, we have rejected those around us. The rejections we have experienced can partially explain why we have acted this way, but they can never excuse our assaults upon our neighbors or our denials of their dignity. Jesus sympathizes with us – he understands how the wounds that we have received tempt us to wound others – but his sympathy always calls us to repentance. His song is no mere duet but a multi-part chorale, and he sings to you his song so that you can then teach it to the person next to you. As Nouwen writes:
When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the chosenness of others. That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions.
Healthy Christians who sing with the Spirit long to strengthen the voices of their brothers and sisters, because they realize that their own joy can never be full or lasting without others sharing that joy. They desire just as much to hear new voices, those of people who have not heard or have not yet believed the word about Jesus. They fight to suppress the voices of accusation that arise from poverty, neglect, and abuse, and that keep so many of God’s image bearers in chains. Churches with rich fellowship, bold evangelism, and compassionate care of the poor are churches filled with Christians who have learned to be still long enough to hear and sing the song of the Spirit. They are refuges for the guilty and shamed, families for the lonely and abused, and rehab centers for the proud and violent.
They are symphonies of joy.