Direction, Leading, and Hearing from the Lord in Prayer: Psalm 25
Good morning, church. Please go with me in your Bibles to the book of Psalms, Psalm 25. If you don’t have a Bible with you this morning, just raise your hand and we will bring one to you, which you are welcome to keep.
We’ve been in a series for about four weeks now asking the Lord to teach us to pray. God is so faithful to answer that request: in the Psalms, throughout the Scriptures, through the prayers of the saints in our church and through history, God is constantly teaching us how to pray, and Jesus assures his disciples, over and over again: when we pray, God hears us. Every time we come to him, even in the middle of the night, even if the need is small and unimportant, like a good father responding to an upset child, every time we come to him, he opens his door to us, every time we knock. Every time we look for him we find him, because he wants to be found.
God has chosen to use prayer as a means of performing his work in the world: of spiritually shaping us and orienting our hearts to his kingdom. God, through prayer, performs signs and miracles; he forgives us and cleanses us of sin and death. In prayer we praise and connect to God, and he meets our needs—not always what we ask for, but always what we need. Today we are going to talk about what, for me is probably the most difficult part of learning to pray, but also something I’m desperate for and really can’t do without—I want to talk about direction, leading, and just generally hearing from God in prayer.
Read with me, Psalm 25. This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
My wife does this thing where she talks to things and people who either can’t hear her or can’t understand her. In our first year of marriage, I wasn’t concerned, but I was very confused. I was constantly coming in from the other room, “sorry, I couldn’t hear you, I was in the other room,” and she would look at me and tell me, with just the two of us there, as if this made sense, she would say, “Oh, I wasn’t talking to you.”
And then in the car, she would constantly talk to other drivers on the road—not road rage, just chatting. I let this happen for a few months before I brought myself to ask her one day whether or not she knew they couldn’t hear her, and she said, “I know.” Year two of marriage, it came to a head. Her childhood dog had a near death experience, and Annie made a very emotional appeal to me to allow her to bring the dog to New Orleans to let her enjoy their last few weeks together. There were tears. How do you say no to that? That dog lived seven more years, and it was seven years of them having full-on conversations when I wasn’t in the room.
I finally had a conversation with her where I made a request: I asked her to let me know if the dog, or the empty room, ever started talking back. “You can talk to the dog all you want,” I said, “but if the dog starts talking back, we have to do something.”
That to say, I’m not a fan of one-sided conversations. They don’t make sense to me. If I’m going to say something, I want someone to hear me, and I want them to respond. So then we come our psalm for today, and to prayer. I have a deep desire to hear from the Lord in prayer. I don’t want to spend my time speaking to an empty room, and I say that as a confession, and I think possibly as a commiseration. I deeply long to hear from the Lord in prayer. I spend most of my time in prayer just listening. I want him to respond, and to lead me.
When I was younger, I had a deep longing in me to hear the audible voice of God, and I would pray over and over again for visions, that I might see his face. I had friends, and admired preachers who had dramatic testimonies of hearing God audibly speak to them, or meeting him in visions, and their life and faith was never the same. I know what it means, like in v.5, to wait for the Lord all the day long. I do think God is able to empty himself and minister in that way. I’ve come, though, to a greater understanding of what I’ll call the hiddenness of God, and I no longer pray for direct experiences beyond the one I had which broke me in a variety of ways.
This is one of my main points for today: God’s leading is usually hidden and mediated for our sake. God’s leading is usually hidden and mediated for our sake. There is a reason God speaking from the heavens, like at Jesus’ baptism, is a rare event. There is a reason Jesus doesn’t open the clouds every Sunday and speak from the throne of heaven to the peoples of the earth so that all might believe and be saved.
God remains hidden for our sake, because of our frailty. The word glory in the language of the Old Testament literally means weight, and God’s glory, his weight, is such that the strongest of us cannot hold even a fraction of it before collapsing. The reason God remains hidden is the same reason they used to tie a rope around the high priest before he entered the holy of holies to make atonement for the people—in case the priest died. God remains hidden so he doesn’t destroy us. Throughout the Bible, when the heavens are opened, or when angels appear, the response is always a visceral one. People collapse, fall to the ground mortified with fear or a feeling of unworthiness captured so beautifully in Isaiah when he sees God on his throne and collapses and shouts, “woe is me!”
Experiencing God is like experiencing the sun, both in the glorious beauty of it and in the danger of it. The sun can kill or burn us from a million miles away through the ozone and the ionosphere. Less than a billionth of the energy output of the sun actually reaches the earth, and still it is enough simultaneously to sustain all life and to cause the oceans to rise and cover the earth. What I learned about my desire to hear and experience God directly is that he often hides himself away because we would not be able to bear the experience of knowing him fully, or even of knowing ourselves. He is too glorious for us to look at directly, or to stand too long even in his veiled presence, like Moses who saw the hem of his robe and came down from the mountain glowing. He doesn’t reveal himself to me because I am too frail and would break.
If the earth were any further away from the sun, experts say, all life would end in ice and cold. If we were any closer, we would burn. We are held as close as we can be to our source of life without it overwhelming us. This is why our God remains hidden. I no longer pray for visions or to hear the audible voice of God, because I don’t think I would very likely survive the experience.
But God speaks in other, more mediated ways, too, and I’m learning to listen. Like how I enjoy all the fresh berries and creole tomatoes our summer brings in New Orleans, but I don’t spend much time outside until Fall. V.5 of our passage says that God is able to lead us in his truth, and I want to go deep on that for a moment, because we need to go deep here.
Too often, we depend on our own thoughts and emotions to lead us; oftentimes we will even baptize our own thoughts and emotions by telling other people God gave me this thought, or this emotion. Careful. That can be a dark road, and I’ve seen too many people walk it to their destruction, where their every thought and every feeling carries the weight of prophecy, and no amount of teaching or rebuke can change their mind. We live in a day of strong conviction, where people speak their minds and follow their hearts. Careful. What does the Bible say? “Take every thought captive,” and “speak only what is useful for the building up of the body.” And whatever you do, don’t follow your heart. Our hearts are broken until they are made whole; follow the paths of God instead.
We live in a day where, to quote Isaiah, “truth has stumbled in the public square,” and many, like Pontus Pilate, are asking, “What is truth?” What is this truth through which God is meant to lead us, and how do we find it? Christ responds simply, “I am the truth.” Truth in Christianity is not merely propositional, or systematically organized, but it is a person, namely the person of Jesus. So we can have a relationship with the truth of God, but we cannot own the truth or control it. We cannot boil the truth down into a series of statements, just as me describing my wife to you does not constitute your having a relationship with her. We also cannot separate our idea of truth from the life Christ lived and the work he has done in the world.
So if the leading of God comes through truth, and his truth is often mediated for our sake, we need to expand our typical idea of prayer and leading a bit. I went hiking with some friends a few months ago in Georgia, and in the morning, as we’re breaking camp and setting off on the trail, one of my friends shouted the words of Psalm 19 into the forest: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.”
And as his words bounced off the trees back to me, I knew what I had been hearing in the forest that weekend. It was God leading me toward his praise in the midst of his creation. My silence on the trail, with no screens or tasks or distractions, was a kind of listening, a kind of prayer. We are able to meet Christ in his creations.
God created the heavens and the earth, and he created the Scriptures; in both creations, he speaks volumes to us. In both he leads us. We also meet this truth in the sacraments of the church, and as C. S. Lewis reminds us, we meet truth as well in our neighbors, human beings, like Christ, bearing the image of God. He writes:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, art, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
So, I would argue, you cannot know the truth of God in isolation, but God’s light, his sun’s radiance, is given to us through creation, through the work and community of the church as we devote ourselves to praying together, worship, to the reading of the scriptures, and to the sacraments. Each of these things is a form a leading, and participating in them is a way of hearing from God. I see a lot of people destroying the community of the church by what they are calling the truth of the church, insisting on propositions while dividing church bodies and denominations ever smaller. Snubbing your brother in Christ, or separating yourself from the community of the church, is a contradiction, an inconsistency in your noetic framework, and will hamper your ability to be led by the truth of God.
To get a little more practical, if you are wanting to hear from God, if you are longing to be led by him, you need to stand in his light as much as you can. Incorporate scripture reading into your prayer, and written prayers, or pray with someone else. Or maybe your issue is just taking intentional time out for prayer. People talk a lot about leading as attuning your heart mystically to hear the small voice of God which will inform your decisions. Hear me, I have a healthy respect for mystics, but biblically speaking, God’s leading is usually loud and clear—a burning bush, a pillar of fire, Jesus calling to a fisherman saying, “follow me”—you don’t need to be super-spiritual to hear him. This is not scientology, you don’t need to take a class—if you want to hear the Lord speak, take one of the Bibles home with you and read it, and come immerse yourself in the community of the church.
In my pastoral experience, usually when people are having trouble hearing from the Lord, it’s not a lack of spiritual openness, it’s that they don’t want to go where he is leading them. God is usually being incredibly clear—thou shalt not commit adultery, for example—but in our foolishness, we go the other way. Or, usually when people are having trouble hearing from the Lord, they are asking him about something over here—dating, grades, work, etc.—and he is leading them toward something over here—more important things like right living, healing, hope, community, and serving humbly.
I see a lot of people in our culture living life and making choices in isolation, ignoring the advice of all the people who know and love them, who know Jesus and are wise. Simply not asking for advice if you know it will upset you. Isolating yourself from God’s people is closing your ears to the leading and truth of God. Your church community, the people in your life who are wise and bear the Spirit of God, are able to mediate God’s truth to you just as crops and food bear the energy of the sun to us to nourish us. Your people are able to speak the truth of God to you in a way that, may still burn a bit, but you should be able to imbibe it for your good.
And in the midst of that community, we receive truth through the Scriptures and through the liturgy, the worship of the church. Everyone is a theologian, everyone has beliefs about truth and God, but not everyone is a biblical theologian. Fewer people are informed by the incredible inheritance of thought we receive through the great cloud of witnesses through the history of the people of God. But if you want to bathe in the sunlight of God’s truth and allow it to lead you through life, you need to bathe in the word of God and in the work of his church in the world.
Spiritual art and song, too, the creativity of people who are seeking through their work to lead you to greater understanding of God. So many times I have been led by the Lord through specific situations and decisions, and what the Lord used to speak truth to me, was a really good book, fiction, usually for me, or a really good song. Other people speak other languages, like music and dance, but God speaks to each of us in ways we understand. But if you are seeking to live according to the leading of the Lord, go to church, spend time with his creation, take time to pray, read a good book, wrestle with the Bible, take communion, or sit in your car and sing your heart out. Or, my preference, all of the above.
So, God’s leading is usually hidden and mediated for our sake; also, God’s leading is always for his sake and our good. To help you recognize God’s leading in your life, God’s leading is always for his sake and our good. V.8, God instructs sinners in his way, why? Because he is “good and upright.” V.11, the Psalmist asks God to pardon him, why? “For your name’s sake.”
I think this is becoming a theme in my preaching, but so be it, it’s a good theme: God’s leading, us hearing from God in prayer, it’s not for us, and it’s not about us. It has more to do with God than it has to do with us. So often our prayers for God’s leading are about us. We are trying to get God to help us in what we are doing, rather than asking him to lead us into his work in the world. God, please help me know what will advance my career. God, please lead me to the right boyfriend, girlfriend, the right spouse. God, please don’t let me make a mistake here. I’ve personally prayed all of those prayers.
We have a stunning ability as humans to take something like prayer, direct access to the creator of the universe, and make it selfish, try to use it towards our own ends, try to point cosmic power at our small desires. Going back to my own prayers I confessed to you earlier, I was praying to have visions and hear the audible voice of God, not because I wanted to know God more, but because I wanted to be sure I was in the right in what I was doing with my life, and I wanted others to revere me as I revered the pastors with those spiritual testimonies.
At the time, I was trying to make several big decisions: what job I was I going to pursue out of college. I was single at the time, reeling from a breakup, and I was asking God for guidance in dating or singleness. I was struggling, too, with making friends, and I was asking God to show me what I was doing wrong, what about me needed to change. I got really frustrated at the time because I felt like God wasn’t responding and I wasn’t receiving any leading from the Lord, like I was making all of these decisions on my own.
I want to go back and tell myself I needed to stop focusing on myself, on what I was doing in my life, and start focusing instead on what God was doing in my life. I was trying to be more in control of my future, my career, and people’s perceptions of me—God in his grace gave me the opposite. He showed me that he was in control of my life, that I knew nothing of my future, and that even if everyone hated me, he would stay beside me.
During that time I started borrowing a prayer of Moses in Exodus 33. Over and over again, I would pray, “God, show me your ways, so I might know you.” And that prayer helped rid me of my selfishness. God, let me know you. Not my dating life, not my friend-set or career, not my future, but lead me in your paths that I might know you. I began to understand I didn’t need to know my way and my future, I needed to know him more and trust him with all of the things I couldn’t control, knowing that he would orchestrate good around even my mistakes.
This is probably an unsurprising statement to anyone who has struggled though Christian life for any amount of time, but selfishness is at the root of a lot of the mistakes we make in our prayers, both in what we give to God and what he speaks to us. Your life just isn’t about you.
Know, that if after this you actually do seek God’s leading in your life, know that God’s leading won’t always be about you, and if you do listen to him, he won’t always tell you what you want to hear. But you can trust in this, and we’ll close here, but God’s leading is always toward love and faithfulness. God’s leading is always toward love and faithfulness.
I’m looking at v.11: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.” As you consider your paths forward, as you try to discern the leading of the Lord in your life and try to hear from him, whenever you are in doubt that you are on the wrong road, know that the Lord is always going to lead you toward steadfast love and faithfulness.
If you’re unsure of the leading of the Lord in any given situation, default to steadfast love and faithfulness. All of God’s paths are that way. If you are trying to walk in his way, this is at the core of what it means to follow him. Steadfast love and faithfulness—God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to each of us, enabling each of us, in our fumbling, stumbling way, to steadfastly and faithfully love the people around us.
God’s not going to lead you to act in a way he does not act. God will not lead you to live in a way he did not live. He’s not going to lead you to work in a way he does not work, and all of his paths are steadfast love and faithfulness. Every last one of them, from the first step until the last. Your family, your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, steadfast love and faithfulness.
My prayer and my invitation for you today is for you to seek the leading of God in your life, knowing that he will lead you down roads that aren’t for you to live a life that’s not about you, knowing that he will pour you our in steadfast love and faithfulness to the people in your life. And the whole time, whether you are able to admit it or not, that Lord will do great things.