There is this funny little story at the end of John’s gospel. John tells the third resurrection appearance of Jesus. It is early in the morning on the beach. Jesus hasn’t spent every minute of his resurrected life with his disciples as he did before his death. So we find Peter deciding to go fishing.
The others go with him. They are out all night and catch nothing. Hours of cold, exhausting work and nothing to show for it.
Then, in the first light of morning, they notice a person on the beach. John tells us it is Jesus, but the disciples do not know that. This person on the shore offers them a suggestion: Throw your nets on the other side of the boat; you will find some fish.
Perhaps they are determined and hungry and do not want to head to shore until they have caught something. Whatever their reason, they listen to this stranger and cast their nets to the other side, then nearly break them with the number of fish they catch.
Then they recognize Jesus. They are not surprised that he knows where the catch can be found; he has amazed them before. Back when he called them to follow him and catch people instead of fish, he filled their nets to overflowing. And here again, after empowering them with his Spirit and commissioning them to continue his work, he tells them where the harvest of fish can be found, if only they will listen to the voice of the One on the shore.
God is not as instant as our society full of smartphones, prepackaged meals, and everything on demand. God values patience, the process of the journey, and insists on speaking to us in a still, small voice instead of shouting at us.
This story is obviously not about fish. It’s about listening to Jesus’ voice. It’s a reminder to these commissioned disciples that the way forward into the mission of Jesus is ultimately dependent upon listening to Jesus’ voice and following where Jesus leads. All their years of fishing experience couldn’t have made them successful that night. But Jesus, our resurrected Lord, knows where and how to be successful at fishing, whether you are looking for fish or trying to catch people.
The central notion that disciples of Jesus ought to listen for Jesus’ voice is nothing new. In the church we talk about how important it is to follow Jesus. But it seems to me that we do not talk often enough about how we listen for Jesus’ voice. If Jesus is calling us to follow him, and if the success of our mission of fishing for people is wrapped up in his leading, then certainly we should be talking about how we know it is Jesus’ voice, rather than just the shortsighted whims of our own thinking.
The church has a word for this practice of distinguishing the voice of Jesus from all the other noises. It’s called discernment. Too often in the church today, discernment is a lost art. Too often we have replaced the work of listening to Jesus’ voice with listening to all kinds of other things: market research, strategies learned from bestselling books, copying others, our fears, and even going after our hearts’ desires without question. Our list of ways that we “hear from God” without really listening can be quite long.
Sometimes the work of discernment is easy, and all we need is the courage to follow when we hear God speak. Sometimes God’s voice is so clear that we know it is God, and all that is left is for us to obey.
Other times it is not so easy. That’s when we need more help. The work of discernment is long and hard and takes time. God is not always as verbose as we would like God to be. God is not as instant as our society full of smartphones, prepackaged meals, and everything on demand. God values patience, the process of the journey, and insists on speaking to us in a still, small voice instead of shouting at us.
I found myself waiting for my own future to unfold and seeking God to speak and open the doors for me. But God was silent. I heard nothing. It took years. I read more Scripture during those days than any other time, yet I still heard nothing. And while God most certainly took care of me during those days, I was not let in on what shape my future would take. My prayers were met with silence. I had to wait for God to reveal it. Those were difficult days of waiting. I never had a good answer for people about why I was seemingly doing nothing. I could only say that I was discerning what was next, which always sounded more spiritual to me than it felt. God took his time, and it seems to me that is one of the reasons we do not want to listen to God’s voice. We don’t have the patience. Finding a book, making a list of pros and cons, or doing whatever we want to do in Jesus’ name is so much easier.
But I also learned that those days of waiting, though slow and painful, contained their own blessings. All my own efforts were useless, as unsuccessful as the disciples’ night of fishing. I couldn’t force anything to happen. I had to wait for the doors God would open. I had to wait for the work and the mission that only God could provide. God is, after all, the One who called me to follow and do God’s work.
Waiting for God to speak while we sit in the dark is not a new or unusual experience for those who follow Jesus. It may not be part of our common vocabulary with one another, but enduring God’s silence is not new. Christians throughout the years have discovered that, though painful, it does bring with it unusual gifts. God’s silence helps us hunger for God in deeper ways. It made me see how powerless and in need of God I am, not just when I am forced to wait, but always. In those difficult days of waiting, I learned in profound ways that I am not sustained by food or drink but “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). And, even though it took until my waiting was over and I had heard God’s Word and followed it, I discovered the depth of trust and faith in God that it developed in me.
Trusting God is the whole point anyway, isn’t it? Following God’s voice, doing what God asks of us, letting God lead our lives instead of doing whatever we want: This is the heart of discipleship. God isn’t so much after all the things we can do for God and in God’s name; God is simply asking us to listen to God’s voice and carry out God’s mission in God’s power and not our own. God knows that a massive catch of fish can be found on the other side of the boat, or a few months or years down the road, if only we listen to the One who calls to us from the shore.
In my season of waiting to hear God’s direction for the future, I wanted to give up and take things into my own hands frequently. What stopped me more than anything else were the wise words of a mentor and friend who helped me listen to God’s voice. (And we do need lots of help from wise and thoughtful Christians if we are going to discern God’s voice.) She told me that I could go grabbing for whatever I could get my hands on while I sat there in the dark. I could grab the first opportunity that came along and be done with the waiting and the hard listening for God’s voice. But in her wisdom she told me the problem with that is how it makes our hands already full when God might be ready to give us something else. If I loaded up my hands or my calendar with my own stuff, it would be difficult to receive a gift or opportunity God sent my way. She said we really do need the wisdom and power of God when we are limited and unable to see in front of us. God is bigger than we are. God’s ways and God’s wisdom are beyond ours. The end to my waiting proved that to be true more than I could have known at that point.
God’s silence helps us hunger for God in deeper ways. It made me see how powerless and in need of God I am, not just when I am forced to wait, but always.
Perhaps the most help that Christian tradition can give us for discerning what is God’s voice and what is not, is the evaluation of our motives and desires in making our decisions. If we can weed out our less than holy motives and our untrusting inclinations, we can better identify when it is God who speaks. So we must ask or be asked some tough questions: Are we making this decision because we are scared? Because we need something to do? Because we want to impress? Does this seem like a good answer because it will mean we don’t have to wait anymore and we’d really rather just get moving? Or are we choosing it because it seems we aren’t doing enough? Have we waited long enough for God to speak to us? Or do we have this notion that this is what we must do? That this we must do, even if it is scary, hard to explain, or nothing we set out to do in the first place? If we can sift through all our wrong desires, messed-up motives, and unreasonable fears, we can identify God’s voice. If we commit to the work of listening, we can be ready when God finally opens for us the future that only God can unfold.
Discerning God’s voice can be difficult, time-consuming work. Jesus has called us not to work for him but to follow him; to listen to his voice calling from the shore; to obey, rather than make things happen ourselves. God knows the catch of fish he has sent us after, and God knows where to find it, if only we will listen.
If we discern that voice and listen to what it says, we will be Jesus’ faithful disciples. There is not much more in this life we can be that is better than that.
CHRISTA KLOSTERMAN is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene on special assignment serving two United Methodist churches in Fruitland, Idaho, and Ontario, Oregon.