Following God’s Directions
5.17.21 The most important part of our journey in Christ is to be able to identity God’s voice as He speaks to us in our minds. This is so difficult, because our own interior voices are so loud and persistent that they can easily drown out God’s “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). And even if we do hear that voice, God’s suggestions to us are often so unheard of in our own thoughts that we are apt to answer, “I can’t do that!” and forget that it ever happened.
So how do we learn to entertain God’s thoughts in our minds? To my mind there are two ways that work well. The first is to do lectio divina with short Bible passages. For instance, if we were to take the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:1-8, we would read it through slowly three times with a good pause in between each reading. At each pause, we would look for any phrase or word that seemed to be highlighted in us and think about its importance is to us. Lectio is a way of reading the Bible to see what God is saying to us this very day in this passage.
A second way is to meditate in silence or to do Centering Prayer. The biggest obstacle to sitting these ways in silence is that it is so hard to sit quietly and listen to our own thoughts. The best way to overcome this reluctance in us is to become an observer of our thoughts. As an observer we are acknowledging our thinking, but refusing to engage emotionally with what the thoughts are telling us. When we can observe them, they no longer upset us or make us afraid or judgmental of ourselves.
The repetitive thinking in our minds is a product of our early childhood when we had trouble following our parents wishes for us. Usually formed by the time we are six, before our reasoning brains can kick in, these thoughts are trying to make us into the perfect people we think our parents wanted us to be. And then as we grow up, any abuse or trauma or alienation or experiences in school and the culture just seem to make these early thoughts stronger. Now as adults, we can be driven by our own criticisms of how we look or what we are doing or saying. My favorite example from my childhood is that my parents thought being on time was the most important thing we could do in every situation. Even today, many decades later, I can still feel pressured to be on time, anxious even though I know that I’ll be 10 minutes early. Now I just relax, instead of succumbing to the pressure within me. And that’s just one example.
To become an observer of our thoughts means that we step back emotionally from them and discover the source of many of them. In the example above, it was clearly my parents who were the source. My parents and my Aunt Grace who could not talk on the phone longer than three minutes no matter who was paying were the source of much of my thoughts about spending money—they had all lived through two world wars and the depression. Many of my thoughts also come from our culture which highly values individualism and attaining the goals we set for ourselves–what our culture extols in its citizenry.
The more we can step back from our thinking and see the sources of it, the more we become just an observer of the thoughts. We no longer have to fight them or push them away or be upset by them. They are just a part of us. I had hoped that observing them would make them go away, but I think that they stay with us for all our days. The important thing about these old thoughts is that they don’t have to rule us. We can just be like this: “Oh, fear, old friend, there you are again.” And we do not have to be afraid.
I want to highly recommend a book that my son, Peter, who is a therapist, gave me last Christmas. It’s called “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living.” I just finished it. The author, Russ Harris, gives many exercises that help us step back from the pressure of our thoughts and then shows us how to lead a meaningful, rich life. If you are interested in stepping away from the influence that your thoughts picked up in childhood have on your life, and are looking to live as fulfilling a life as you can, this book will help.
Maybe you can see the connection to what I wrote last month about the lens through which we see life. So much of our lens has been formed by these old thoughts, but as we move towards disengaging with them, our lens gets clearer and clearer. And we can see ourselves and our lives with more clarity and less with our conditioned thinking. So we become freer and freer to just be the persons that God designed us to be. And think about how much lighter and freer we will feel without all those old burdens!
Not only can we sit in silence and not be bothered by the thoughts which still try to engage us, but we can begin to hear God’s “gentle whisper” as the NIV version of 1 Kings 19:12 puts it. Sometimes there is a nudge to go home in another direction or to do “this” next. Sometimes it’s a thought that is loud and clear in our minds, like this one—one of the first I ever heard from God: “I have an agenda for my life.” At the time I didn’t know who the “I” was who had that thought, much less what the agenda was for me. But, after thinking about it, I began to ask another question each time something came up: “What do I really want to do?” instead of “What should I be doing?”
Sometimes God can speak through a friend or another person who says, “You should read this book” or other suggestion. Then there are the thoughts that come with lectio divina. Here’s another thought that sounded loud and clear in my mind: “How can I say I love God if I can’t love my mother?” That led me on a two-year search to undo my teen-ager’s rebellion(in my 40’s!) against my mother; I was not successful. At the end of that time, on a railroad platform in Wilmington DE where she lived, He surrounded us with a cloud of love (my experience of it) and transformed our relationship.
Probably the biggest help God has been to me was when my husband had lymphoma, was treated for it, declared cancer-free, and then, three months later he was back in the hospital with the cancer raging. I was devastated; all I wanted was for him to be well, for all this to go away. By three o’clock in the afternoon I would wish the day were over and I could crawl into bed and forget all that was happening. At that time, I heard this: “If I can just hold all possible outcomes equally, well then…..” I was already practiced in surrendering to His messages, at least about small things, so I worked at holding all possible outcomes equally. As soon as I could do that, I could see that there were many different outcomes, only one of which meant that he would die. With that realization He gave me a gift of faith that felt like I was standing steadily on a rock of faith. As the disease progressed, I was able to support my husband, our adult children, and our friends. I was at peace.
Even as we called in hospice, I was still thinking: “the possibilities are fewer, but it still doesn’t mean that he will die.” Two and a half months after I heard God’s voice, he died. And after his memorial service, I dropped into my grief. But I never resented his death, only tried to grieve and to adapt to it. I was already two years into a training program for spiritual directors from which I had taken a leave of absence when Hank got sick. That training program became the basis for a whole new life for me that culminated in my moving to Charlotte NC, beginning a writing career and living close to my grandchildren.
My experience of following all the suggestions that God gives me is this: I live in peace with who I am and what I am to do and with what is happening in my life. I am dedicated to the work He has given me to do. At a time when most people are retired and thinking about their next trip, I am writing a weekly blog and, now my fifth book on leading a spiritual life in Christ. I had no idea in my life that I would be a writer, much less have a career at the end of my life. But, God, who blesses us all, had this in store for me long before I knew it. He has similar plans for you, based on who He created you to be. Follow His guidance! You’ll be amazed!
 The book was published in Boulder CO by Trumpeter Books in 2008.