During a particularly challenging and confusing season of life, I almost daily cried out to God, “God, is this your will for me? Did I hear you wrong? Did I walk outside your will? I’m not sure what to do. Please tell me what to do. And please make it clear.” But no matter how desperately I called out or how long I pleaded for an answer, I couldn’t hear God’s voice. In that silence, I felt alone.
I’m guessing that you’ve probably been in that place too. That place of desperation where you are crying out, “God, are you there? If you are, just tell me what to do. Tell me anything, and I’ll do it. Just please speak to me.”
I think that most of us would agree that we want to be obedient to God. We love God, we want to know his will, and we want to follow him. But in order to follow him, we first must be able to discern his will. We have to know what God’s voice sounds likes so that when God does choose to speak, we’re ready to listen.
As believers, we are called to cultivate attentiveness to God. Because the more attentive or aware we are of the presence and activity of God, generally the more clearly we will be able to discern his will. And the more intimately I know God, usually the more clearly I can distinguish God’s voice from the many other competing voices.
Ruth Haley Barton defines the spiritual discipline of attentiveness as “the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and the activity of God—both in the ordinary moments and in the larger decisions of our lives.”
Now to be clear, our attentiveness doesn’t force God’s hand or make God reveal his will to us. Attentiveness is simply a posture that opens you up to more readily pay attention to God and his work so that if and when God speaks, you’re more apt to hear it.
The prophet Samuel is a great example of someone who was attentive to God. Samuel’s calling is recorded in 1 Samuel 3, and from this story, we can learn a lot about the practice of attentiveness.
1 Samuel 3:1 reads, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.”
Did you catch that? God hadn’t spoken or revealed himself in a long time to the Israelites. And yet, notice what Samuel was doing—he was in the Temple ministering to the Lord. Even in the midst of silence, even in the absence of direction and clarity, Samuel was still serving God. He was still being obedient to his mentor, Eli, and doing what he was instructed to do. In other words, Samuel was still attentive to the task at hand, even though it appeared that God was absent.
So the first principle we learn from Samuel is the importance of consistency. We’re not just called to be attentive when it’s abundantly evident that God is at work. We’re called to be attentive at all times. Because whether God speaks loudly or softly, he is still speaking, and we want to be attuned to hear his voice. We want to be consistently attentive.
The second principle we learn from this story is to be persistent and not quick to give up when practicing attentiveness. Three times Samuel heard his name called and so three times he obediently and quickly responded. Samuel got up from his sleeping mat, ran to Eli, and humbly said, “Here I am!” Three times he did this, even though Eli told him each time that he hadn’t called Samuel and to go lie back down. It would have been easier for Samuel to quit responding to the call and to just stay in bed. And Samuel had every right to stop responding. After all, Eli wasn’t calling him.
But because Samuel was persistent and didn’t stop listening and responding, the fourth time God called Samuel, Samuel was able to respond with recognition and say, “Speak, for your servant hears” (1 Samuel 3:10).
I love that. Samuel’s attentive persistence paid off and he got to audibly hear the voice of God. How amazing is that?
The third principle we can learn from Samuel is that humility sharpens our attentiveness to God’s presence.I’ve read this passage numerous times, but it wasn’t until I was studying this passage this week that verse 7 jumped out at me. It reads, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7).
It’d be natural when meeting someone for the first time to be skeptical and ask questions. I know I would. If I were Samuel being confronted with a mysterious voice, I’d probably ask, “Who are you? What is your name? Is all that Eli said about you true?” And yet, when confronted with the awesome and powerful creator of the universe, Samuel didn’t have any questions. He simply acknowledged his appropriate place before God as a “servant.” In calling himself a servant, Samuel was exhibiting an attitude of humility.
I believe that it was this attitude and mindset that allowed Samuel to more clearly hear the voice of God. If Samuel had said, “I don’t know who you are. I’m not going to listen to you,” Samuel would have missed God’s revelation. Or what if Samuel had replied, “Who do you think you are, summoning me in the middle of the night and telling me what to do? I don’t know you.” God may still have chosen to speak, but I doubt Samuel would have taken God’s word to heart and been obedient.
So you see, humility is not only key to being attentive to God’s presence, but it is also crucial in our obedience to God’s will.
The final principle that we can learn about attentiveness to God’s presence is that our obedience matters. Notice that although Samuel received bad news concerning the future of his mentor, Eli, Samuel still listened closely and was obedient in sharing that news with Eli. I imagine that it grieved Samuel to have to personally give Eli such bad news, but Samuel cared more about being obedient to God than pleasing man. And so Samuel shared the news and further developed the habit of obedience. And it is this habit of obedience, this desire to honor God and follow his will, that allows us to more clearly know and understand God’s will.
In hindsight, I can honestly say that God was present during that challenging season in my life when I was crying out to him. And not only was God present, but he was speaking. I was just so caught up in my own will and desires that I couldn’t see God’s will and desires. And because of my self-focus, I missed God tenderly whispering, “Tiffany, rest and trust in me. I am enough. Your future is in my good and perfect hands.”
As Priscilla Shirer says, “I’ll never perfectly hear from God. My job is to press into him and learn as I go.” I love that. Our job isn’t to perfectly interpret God’s will. Instead, you and I are called to grow in our relationship with God, and to learn from God as we walk with him. Together, may we be people characterized by attentiveness to God.