I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me. . . . My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. John 10:14,27
Tom Fox is a successful financial investment manager who heads up a workplace ministry in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, area. He used to be troubled when he heard Christians say, "The Lord told me . . . " He certainly had never heard God speak to him like that. What is different about those people and me? he wondered. In the book of John, he had read that Jesus had said that His sheep hear His voice, but he didn't understand how they could do that. His pursuit to answer that question began his quest to discover how to hear God's voice himself.
Today, Tom realizes that God does speak and that we, as His children, can hear His voice. He has discovered how to hear God's words of guidance in his daily life, which includes the day-to-day operations of his business, and he is teaching others how to hear God's voice as well.
A friend of mine told me a story about an experience he had in Israel that demonstrates how sheep know their shepherd's voice. He and his wife were visiting some of the famous biblical sites when they saw a group of shepherds and their flocks. They watched as three different shepherds put their sheep in the same pen for the night, and they wondered how in the world the shepherds would separate their sheep the next day, since none of them had any identifying marks on them.
My friend got up early the next morning to watch the shepherds gather their sheep. The first shepherd went over to the pen and called out to his sheep. One by one, his sheep (and only his sheep) filed out to follow him. The same thing happened with the other two shepherds. My friend said it was amazing to watch how only the shepherd's sheep followed him while the others remained in the pen-and all because they recognized his voice. What a picture of Jesus' words spoken centuries earlier.
Developing Intimacy With God
If Jesus is the good Shepherd and His sheep know His voice, how can we learn to hear Him speak? The answer is to develop intimacy with God first, so that our hearts are familiar enough with Him to be able to recognize His voice.
Ken Gire, in his book The Divine Embrace, describes the intimacy Jesus had with the disciples:
Before Jesus called the disciples to ministry, He called them to intimacy. Following came first; fishing came later. Before he called them to represent him, he called them to be with him. Jesus appointed the twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority over demons (see Mark 3:14-15). Before he sent them out he drew them close. He went out with them publicly so they could hear him teach and see him heal the sick and cast out demons (see Luke 6:12-19). At times, he withdrew from them privately so they could be with him without distraction (see Luke 9:10). Even as he was leaving the earth he promised he would always be with them (see Matthew 28:20). And later, Luke tells us, the credentials by which the disciples were recognized was that of "having been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13).1
Developing an intimate relationship with God is vital if we want to experience a fruitful life that is led by His Spirit. Jesus longs to have daily fellowship with each of us because He truly loves us. He will help us fall in love with Him in response to His love.
My wife knows firsthand what it's like to fall in love with God. At the age of 29, Angie was single and worked as an account executive in an advertising agency. Her personal life was filled with struggles. One day, her Christian boss led her in praying the sinner's prayer. When she said "amen," Angie thought, Whew! Now I know I'm going to heaven and I can get on with the rest of my life.
At first, she didn't attend church, but eventually she began to do so. It was there she learned that Christianity is a lot more than a ticket to heaven. Reading in Matthew 7:8 that "everyone who asks receives," she prayed and asked God for "a husband or someone to fill the gap." She then saw the words, "Be still and know that I am God," which she felt had been written just for her. She was hungry for more of God, and she spent every available moment reading her Bible and getting to know what God was like.
After a couple of years, the Lord had transformed her life to such a degree that she hardly recognized herself. However, she did not yet have a husband, so she asked God for the second time to send someone to her.
A few days later, she got a note from a friend with "Psalm 27:14" written at the bottom. Sensing that this was an answer to her request for a husband, she ran to her Bible to find out what it said. Much to her dismay, the verse read: "Wait for the Lord, be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord." Angie was disappointed. However, when she mentioned her dismay to a friend at work, she received a response that surprised her. "You are where my wife was before she met me," her friend said. "She realized she needed to fall in love with the Lord before she could love someone else."
Angie pondered that strange comment for days. She realized that she had come to know God as her provider, but that there was quite possibly supposed to be more to the relationship. So she asked the Lord to teach her how to fall in love with Him, though she was not sure He would answer a request that was so personal.
A few days later, a friend called to invite her to go on a women's retreat at the last minute. Through a series of events that were obviously orchestrated by God, Angie found herself at a three-day retreat with a wedding theme based on verses from Hosea 2:16,19-20, which read:
"In that day," declares the Lord, "you will call me 'my husband'; you will no longer call me 'my master.' . . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord."
That weekend, Angie was "wooed by the Lord." At the end of the three days, she went to the altar and promised Him that she would never again ask for a husband. She told the Lord that she would let Him be her husband.
Over the next few months, Angie says, "Life with Him became so much sweeter than any relationship I'd had with a man." The Lord began to show His love for her in tangible, even romantic, ways, and Angie felt content. In the beginning He had told her to be still and know that He was God. Seven fulfilling years later, He answered her prayer for a husband-me. By that time, she was so happy with her divine Husband that she was concerned about having a flesh-and-blood one; she didn't want to lose her intimacy with God.
Angie claims, "Jesus remains the greatest romance of my life. He has taken a person who was not seeking Him in any way, shape or form and transformed her life in a way that is best described in 1 Peter 1:8: 'Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.'"
Following the Voice of God
If we are going to experience the reality of intimacy with God, we must do it in our daily work lives. Let me share with you how God led one company to develop intimacy within the context of a working environment.
Julian Watts and Warren Sinclair, who operate an international company called Markets Unlocked in Guildford, England, have learned how important intimacy and the presence of God is to fulfilling His purposes for their business. Even the existence of their company is a testimony of the Lord's loving pursuit, faithful guidance, grace-filled preparations and His plans, which surpass anything Julian and Warren could have thought or imagined.
Julian used to be a partner in the strategy consultancy practice of a global consultancy firm that worked with chief executives of multinational corporations. He gave money to his local church and managed a quiet time with the Lord every couple of weeks when he could fit it into his schedule. In contrast to the high-profile nature of his job, he always kept a low profile on Sundays, usually sitting at the back of the church.
In 1999, the Lord asked Julian if he would be willing to resign his partnership, leave the company and walk out into the unknown. Having spent 15 years single-mindedly achieving his goal to become a strategy consulting partner, Julian was now hearing the Lord's voice saying, "What is more important to you-your career or Me?" He discussed this with his wife, and her brief response was simply, "We've just got to follow the Lord." Julian resigned.
He was now without a job, and he had no idea what to do next. He spent the next few months attempting to discover what the Lord wanted him to do. Eventually, he founded an internet company that specialized in connecting businesses that wanted to buy and sell to each other. He set about building the new company, focusing on all the commercial fundamentals and occasionally praying for God's help to get the task done.
Julian also established a charitable trust in which 10 percent of the company's revenue would be deposited for distribution to Kingdom projects. He felt that God wanted him to pay salaries to other people in the company, but that he and his wife should not draw a salary until the company had started making contributions to the charitable trust. God was calling them to live by faith and to depend totally on Him, an experience that would profoundly change their Christian experience and relationship with the Lord.
The business grew very quickly, riding on the crest of the Internet wave. But the dotcom crash that swiftly followed in the year 2000 was brutal, and the company was all but wiped out. As things were getting worse, the non-Christians in the company left, and the remaining Christian directors started praying together-monthly at first, then, as things continued to worsen, weekly, and finally, as desperation set in, daily!
In the beginning, the directors' prayers just had one focus-the list of things required to save the business. However, the more time they spent with the Lord, the more things began to change. Gradually, the list of urgent prayer requests gave way to simply worshiping God-seeking His face rather than His hand of provision. Now that they had a considerably smaller staff, they set aside a room in their office space for company prayer. Since their corporate communications director, Liz Jones, no longer had much to communicate about, she started spending more and more of her time in the prayer room, worshiping the Lord and praying for the company. The more the directors simply worshiped the Lord, the more they saw Him intervene. Throughout the rest of 2000 and into 2001, time after time, the Lord would provide just what was needed at the eleventh hour.
The directors' daily routines soon began to change. At first, Julian started having his own personal time with the Lord from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. each day. Then, from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., all the company directors would meet to worship and pray. From 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. every weekday, Liz would worship and intercede for the company; and every Tuesday from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., everyone in the company would meet, along with local pastors and intercessors, to worship and intercede.
Liz was now the trailblazer for the rest of the company. During the hours she spent in the Lord's presence, God started speaking to her about her personal identity as part of the Bride of Christ. The Lord then began to increasingly speak this message of intimacy with Him to other people in the company. They began to dare to believe that He viewed them as part of His beloved Bride, that He was passionately in love with them as believers, and that He had died so that they could commune with Him.
By late 2001, the company had passed through the wilderness of the dotcom crash. In the process, all the commercial aspects of the company had been completely transformed-including its business strategy, organization structure, people, operational processes, location and everything else. Experiencing God's presence is now the heart and driving force of the company. Each workday, the directors' personal and corporate prayer times are characterized by simply worshiping the Lord. After worshiping, the directors ask if anyone is hearing from the Lord. Based on that feedback, they intercede for whatever God has indicated.
Today, the directors see that the Lord is increasingly establishing their company's corporate identity and defining characteristic as their corporate intimacy with Him. Markets Unlocked is now expanding rapidly around the world, with customers in over 80 countries.
How Does God Speak?
As we have already glimpsed in this chapter, God speaks to His children in many ways, primarily through the Bible, an audible voice, a "still, small voice" or thoughts, circumstances, prophetic words, and visions and dreams. Let's examine each of these ways that God speaks to us.
The Bible is loaded with principles to guide us in our daily lives and should always be the standard by which we weigh all the other methods of hearing God's voice. Spending time reading the Bible and knowing what it says will keep us from making mistakes as we discover the other ways that God speaks. The Bible is often referred to as the "living" Word of God. As you read your Bible, you can expect God to speak to you directly and personally through the words on the page.
God used the Bible to speak to me when I was still grappling with financial difficulties. I had already felt called to help men and women understand their workplace calling, but I had no idea how it would come to pass, and I certainly had no income to support it. I was in such a hard place that I was unable to pray, so instead of trying to do something in my own strength, I asked Angie to come over and pray with me (we weren't married yet). Angie prayed for me and asked the Lord to give us wisdom.
Within a couple of minutes, she blurted out, "First Thessalonians 5:24!"
"What verse is that?" I asked.
"I have no idea," she replied. "It just popped into my head."
I grabbed my Bible, looked it up and read, "The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it." We laughed. Could God be so personal? Could He care that much? That night, God encouraged me to be at peace with the situation in which I found myself. He never failed me once through the difficult years, and now we have a ministry to those in the workplace. God has brought it about.
An Audible Voice
Scripture records many occurrences when God spoke audibly to His children. God spoke to Moses face to face. When Adam and Eve enjoyed unbroken fellowship in the Garden of Eden, they had a two-way dialogue with God.
My mother tells of her own personal experience in hearing the audible voice of God. She was at a low point in her life after my father was killed. For months, she cried out to God in her grief and anguish. After learning that none of the insurance companies were going to pay, she was about to have a nervous breakdown. But one night while she was weeping, she heard an audible voice say, "Trust me, Lillian." That is all she heard that night and it never happened again, but that one experience has kept her for more than 40 years.
A "Still, Small Voice" or Thoughts
Many people describe "hearing" God speak through a sense of "knowing" that often comes in their thoughts. That's what happened for Angie in the story above, when 1 Thessalonians 5:24 popped into her head.
My good friend Dr. Victor Eagan, an orthodontist and leader of an international marketplace ministry, says, "I have found that God often speaks personally to me when I am not seeking to hear Him. In other words, I don't often hear Him speak when I am having my quiet time. More often it is when I am in my car or in the shower."
My friend Brenda found this to be true one time when she was on a flight. Words came into her mind that said, "There is a woman on the plane who you need to find. I want you to pray for her." Not knowing what to do, she walked down the aisle to see if the Lord would show her the woman, and He did. Stepping out in faith, she approached the woman and said, "Pardon me, this is going to seem strange, but may I pray for you?" Without giving the woman much time to respond, Brenda began praying and found that she was being led to pray for comfort in relation to the woman's husband.
After she had prayed, the woman shared with Brenda that her husband had just died. "Normally, my family would pray with me," she said, "But due to the rush of getting on the plane, they could not. But my mother-in-law told me that someone would pray with me on the plane." The woman was deeply touched and felt as if God had reached down from heaven to let her know that He cared about her.
Another friend, John Wright from England, told me about his conversation with a Muslim man as they walked together in the country. John wanted to share the gospel with him, but knew little about the man's Muslim beliefs. The two men agreed they would each share their religious beliefs with one another. The Muslim went first and dominated the conversation.
As the man spoke, John asked the Holy Spirit how to share his faith with him. Suddenly, a thought came to him. "Do you consider your god to be your father who speaks?" he asked.
"Certainly not," replied the Muslim man.
"That is one of the big differences between your god and my God. I consider my God as my Father who speaks to me personally."
"You cannot prove that," retorted the Muslim man.
John again prayed silently, "Lord, how do I prove this to him?"
A few moments later, two young ladies came walking toward them. As they approached, John spoke to them and made polite conversation. Then he said to one woman, "I believe you are a nurse, is that correct?"
Startled, she asked, "How would you know that? I have never met you before."
He replied, "I asked my Father and He told me." The Holy Spirit had impressed the word "nurse" on his mind. The Muslim man had his proof.
God will often speak to us through our circumstances. It is easy to miss God speaking to us in this way because we are not looking for His special touches throughout our ordinary days.
Before we were married, Angie had an experience of divine direction that developed circumstantially. She was desperate to find a place to live after moving to St. Simons Island, Georgia, to work for a non-profit ministry. She had taken a huge cut in pay to work there and finding a place she could afford had proven to be impossible. Here's her story:
I knew God had a place for me. One day as I was talking to Him about it, I said, "if only you could show me where it is." I pictured in my head a neon sign lit up against a nighttime sky that said "here it is" with an arrow pointing to the place where I was supposed to live. Of course, I knew that was silly, but I wished God would give me that kind of sign.
With only a few days left in the condo the ministry had let me live in, I went to look at the only house in the area that I could afford to live in. The only problem was that it had huge gaping holes in the walls and was practically falling apart. (I later learned that it had been condemned!) The owner was not willing to do anything to fix it up, but it was the only option I had at that point. I went to look at the house one final time, and as I prayed I felt no sense of peace. So I walked out thinking, OK, God, you must have something else.
As I was driving away, I passed by a little side street that had a huge orange sign in the window that said "For Rent." The sign was at least five feet wide and four feet tall. I slammed on the brakes, backed up and pulled in the driveway. The owner just happened to be inside and showed me around the most beautiful little beach cottage I had ever seen-and it was only 80 steps from the beach! I loved it, but I knew there was no way I could afford it. The owner gave me his card and told me to call him if I changed my mind.
My next stop was a little gift shop in the village. A sales clerk asked me if I needed help finding anything and I said, "I need a place to live." Her response blew me away. "Well you've come to the right place. This is a place where miracles happen." The store owner assured me that she would do everything to help me and told me about how she had found a place for her friend who had just moved there. At that moment, her friend walked in the store and she introduced us. The next thing I knew, I was having lunch with the store owner's friend.
To make a long story short, I ended up living in the little cottage with the lady I met in the store, and we are still friends today, 10 years later. God gave me the "neon sign" I was looking for and a wonderful roommate so that I could afford it. God demonstrated His love and care for me through some amazing circumstances. That taught me to always be on the lookout for Him in the "everyday" things.
I came from a church background that did not expose me to ministry that involved prophecy or words of knowledge. However, God has brought people into my life who clearly operate in these gifts, and I have come to see them as valuable tools to affirm Christians in their faith and calling.
The word "prophecy" comes from the Greek word propheteia, which means, "the speaking forth of the mind and counsel of God." A further explanation in Vines Dictionary states:
Though much of old testament prophecy was purely predictive, prophecy is not necessarily, nor even primarily, fore-telling. It is the declaration of that which cannot be known by natural means, it is the forth-telling of the will of God, whether with reference to the past, the present, or the future. Scripture encourages us to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1); and to not treat prophecies with contempt, but to test everything and hold on to the good (1 Thess. 5:20-21).2
These are God's methods of communication to us through others. Such communication from God does not have to be presented using terms such as "prophecy"; it may come in a simple conversation with another person, who might say something that strikes a chord in your spirit, perhaps confirming something you heard from someone else. Be alert to these types of situations. God is using them to communicate important information to you. Let me give you a couple of personal examples.
When Angie and I met for the first time, she told me she was called to the mission field. The moment she said that, I heard in my inner spirit, She is called to the mission field, but it is not what she thinks. I did not mention this to her. However, when we were together the following week, she asked if I would pray for her. She was about to sell all of her belongings to go to the mission field, but was unsure where she was to go. That's when I told her, "You're called to the mission field, but it's not what you think." She actually got upset with me because she thought I was trying to date her and disrupt her calling. But a few days later, she called to say that whenever she felt God giving her direction, it was never what she thought it was.
Nine months later, we were married. One night, as she was lying in bed, this thought came to her mind: You thought your mission field was somewhere overseas when it is actually six inches away, beside you. Angie has worked alongside me in our ministry since we were married. Now she realizes that she is indeed called to the mission field, but it definitely is not what she thought it would be.
I was strongly encouraged by prophetic words around this same time in my own life. One came as an email from a friend in another state, which read:
I believe that God is saying that the worst is over for you and that you need not fear any repeat of the pain of the past. You are not a second-rate son, as the enemy of your soul will try to tell you. Lift up your eyes and see your Father smiling at you. From now on, you will work with God, rather than just for Him. He will show you the plan and the steps. You have learned to wait for His voice. There is a latter rain for your life. It will refresh you and cause you to forget the dryness of the past. Even now, the clouds are forming. There will be new crops, new fields, new harvests, new plantings, new partners in your life.
This was echoed and confirmed when, at a conference, a man named Bradley Stuart came forward with a word of prophecy for someone in the audience. The minute he read his words I knew they were for me. Here is the message the Lord gave him:
The past few years have been times of deep preparation where I have allowed you and your business to be torn and smitten. But this is the season where I want to start to restore and heal you. However, right now, as you are about to be restored, it is a time when I want you to allow me to show you what I have been teaching you. The seed is about to spring forth, so simply wait and rest in me. I am in control, I am working on the seed and it shall come forth as I send the gentle rains.
Among other things, the first message was also another confirmation to me about Angie, whom I would marry eight months later, and who represented a new planting and new partner in my life.
Visions and Dreams
The Bible is full of examples of God speaking to people through visions and dreams. God can use dreams to give us specific direction or revelation about something in our lives.
In Acts 10, a man named Cornelius had a life-changing vision one day at about three in the afternoon. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, "Cornelius!" The angel instructed him to send some men to get a man named Peter in another town. The following day, God gave Peter a vision in which He instructed him to go with some men to the house of Cornelius. The obedient responses of both men to the visions God gave them resulted in immediate conversions and the beginning of the spread of the gospel to the non-Jewish world.
God still speaks through visions and dreams. Our five-year-old nephew came over for a sleepover. When he awoke the next morning, he told Angie about a dream he had had the night before in which a bulldozer came down our driveway and knocked our house down. Angie was thrilled! Our home was literally falling apart. For three years she had had to wash her hair in water heated on the stove because otherwise the water turned her hair green. Our home had been for sale as commercial property and we were waiting for a contract to go through. We both sensed this was God's way of telling us it would sell. Six months later, the deal closed and we became debt-free-and the house was bulldozed a few months later! Angie's nephew had no idea that any of this was in the works.
The Difference Between Religion and Relationship
In Psalm 32:8, God speaks through the psalmist to tell us that He indeed will give us direction and instruction: "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you." In the Church today, we often think the only way God speaks is through the Bible. (Someone once said, "You would think some churches think the Trinity is more like the Father, Son and Holy Scriptures.") There is such a focus on the Word of God to the exclusion of the other ways God speaks that it is no wonder we do not find out what God wants us to do.
Because so many of us do not know how to listen for God's voice, we're not able to hear Him in our places of employment. In order to hear, we must believe and take the time to listen. We must depend not only on our logical reasoning, but also leave room for the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
The difference between hearing God's voice and not hearing it is the difference between having a relationship with God and just having a religion. God wants to have an intimate relationship with you to enable you to hear His voice speaking to you. Ask Him to give you sensitive ears to hear and the courage to obey His voice.
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