I, Samuel

One of the Bible’s clearest depictions of God speaking to a human being involves a boy named Samuel.

When Samuel first heard a call from the Lord, in I Samuel 3:4, he didn’t understand what he was experiencing. He ran to his master Eli in response. In fact, he went to Eli again and again, because the experience continued. Eli eventually understood that something special was happening, that Samuel was being called by God.

“Go and lie down,” Eli told him. “If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’”—I Samuel 3:9.

The Lord did call again. Samuel responded, “Speak, for your servant is listening”—I Samuel 3:10. The Lord then did speak, describing to Samuel a fate that was coming for the family of Eli.

There are various points to observe in this simple story. One is that the insight Samuel received came unexpectedly, without the boy asking to be given any news. God chooses the moment and manner of information entering our awareness.

Also, Samuel identified himself as God’s servant. A servant is one who accepts what his master has for him and does what his master has for him to do. Am I prepared to do what God would ask of me in the way that a servant would? The answer to that question might account for the silence on occasions when I say “Speak, Lord” myself.

One other lesson might be seen in the way Samuel disobeyed Eli. The disobedience is so subtle, you might have missed it. Eli told him to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” He left out the “Lord.”

I invite you to seek after the full meaning of this omission. I don’t believe I’ve found it. Someone was standing there with Samuel (literally standing there—look again at 3:10). Who was this?

God comes to us in different ways. He is Son and Spirit, in addition to Father. The Bible says Son and Spirit are both active in our lives, both speaking.

Yet there is also the fact that, as the apostle John put it, “No one has ever seen God”—John 1:18. Whatever we envision when we think of “God” or “God’s plan,” even when we are near to these things, is at best just an icon to represent something too vast for our small minds to absorb and contain. And in some cases, it is an icon created by someone else that we have adopted reluctantly. Samuel loved and obeyed his earthly master Eli, but he did not let this man or this man’s presumptions broker the encounter.

In other words, Samuel confessed how little he knew. He resisted the claim to knowing more than he did. By refusing in this instance even to choose a label for God, Samuel seemed to appreciate the extent to which his role was only to listen and receive, not to try to define the experience himself, and not to try to shape it with his own potentially misguided grasping. In responding to God’s first approach to him without naming the one who called, it was as if Eli was saying, “You know what you want to reveal to me, and you know who you are.”


How can I weigh whether the impression or insight that came to me in prayer is really an instance of God speaking?

Here are four clues that lend substance to the hope that God has spoken:


Truth is God’s identity. “I am the truth,” said Jesus, as part of a well-known quote at John 14:6.

In science, one of the signs that a theory is true is that it answers questions that weren’t even asked as part of the search. Newton’s theory of gravity explained not only a falling apple, but also the movements of planets and the pattern of tides—all previously assumed to be separate and unrelated to one another.

Truth has this characteristic. An insight from God is so true that it is surprisingly revealing. It is so true that the insight jumps the banks of the problem I have laid before God, with the overflow also cleansing other matters in my heart that I hadn’t even expected him to address.


Love is also God’s identity. “God is love,” says I John 4:8.

If God is leading me, then the way I am led should be clearly, powerfully, and even surprisingly the loving way. The fruit of the Spirit of God begins with love, says Galatians 5:22, so any understanding that truly manifests God can only increase my capacity to be loving.

Meanwhile, the fruits of my own ego and my weariness include impatience, expediency, brusqueness, and recklessness. The presence of any of these things suggests the source of the leading I am hearing is not God, but instead just some desire of mine wanting to dress up as God and claim his authority.


Both of the preceding points used the word “surprisingly.” God is surprising. As the creator, he is creative.

His originality provides an important contrast with the darkness that occupies the world and our souls, because the darkness does not create anything new. It merely claims, covets, or corrupts what has already been made. By tarnishing what used to be new, the darkness makes things old.

Meanwhile, a hallmark of the light of God’s will is the way it makes new things appear, including new possibilities, new joys, new friends, and—perhaps more importantly—previously “old” things made new again because God has washed them clean.

Is newness happening for you? Is renewal?


Complexity is what humans generate. It’s what we produce by grasping too much at once, and it’s what we accept or hide behind instead of seeking or facing the truth. Meanwhile, the way of God is straightforward, testable, and plain.

Imagine the way of God as water. Jesus offered this analogy multiple times. (See John 4:14 and John 7:38, for example.) One characteristic of water is that it always finds and flows through the simplest path available.

Is the answer you have found in prayer surprisingly simple and easy to describe to other people?


“The majority of us have no ear for anything but ourselves, we cannot hear a thing God says.” —Oswald Chambers

Reading of Jeremiah’s weeping over his lost and self-absorbed people, I nearly lost it. I could have wept myself. I was reading aloud in front of a few listeners, and I had to pull it together to continue on.

I’ve recently been part of a simple plan advanced by the Gladstone Community Church and Mariemont Community Church. The plan is this: Read the whole Bible out loud. Pass the reading from person to person, anyone who wants to take a turn. The entire reading will take around 80 hours. I have taken a couple of turns at this reading, and expect to take a couple more.

It is often the basic points that elude us. For me, feeling my own voice speak out the lines of scripture has given me a renewed experience of one basic point in particular. Namely, the Bible is not a reference book and really not even a guide book. The Bible is an encounter.

Our God, strangely, has feelings. He tells us he has a heart. By means of scripture—or by means of the human beings whose insight he illuminated as they wrote the documents that would become scripture—God descended into language and into composition in order to explain the ideas and share the emotion that he hopes we will seek to understand.

On this blog lately, I've been holding up the questions of how God speaks and how we can listen. They’re important questions. In looking at them, however, it is vital to be mindful of the extent to which he has already spoken.

Why the Question of How We Listen to God is an Important Topic

Part 1

God creates by speaking. In the first chapter of Genesis, we see him speaking the world into existence with his voice.

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters....”

God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so.

God made human beings at the culmination of this process. After blessing them, the very first thing he did—the very first action he took within this new relationship—was to speak to those he created (Genesis 1:26-30).

Part 2

There was a time when the only known law was one restriction from God, the restriction quoted in Genesis 2:16-17. Namely:

You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.

The serpent approached the human beings who were innocently living by this law. He asked them, in Genesis 3:1, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden?”

In other words, when Satan stepped onto the scene, the very first thing he sought to undermine was our belief that we can trustingly listen to God.

Ergo, God Speaks

Does God speak? Yes.

That question is the first and easiest to answer in an important line of inquiry.

The expectation that God speaks—that he informs and guides people such as you and me—is a logical outflow of what I believe about God. It is a logical implication of Christian faith. The very essence of that faith is that God wants a relationship with human beings.

He sent the Son of God, a person of God himself, into flesh and into death in order to restore this relationship.

That relationship, when obtained, is something to be enjoyed.

Relationship involves communication.

Communication is two-way.

Ergo, God speaks.

The harder questions come next. Namely:

How does God speak?

How do I listen?

How do I know he has spoken?

And more to the point: How do I avoid the danger of going into a prayerful place and simply ratifying my own wishful thinking? If I seek to hear God, how do I avoid hearing myself instead?