The Slow Voice

Three generations of Old Testament patriarchs received direct messages from God. In various Genesis passages, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob experienced something like personal conversation with him. We want that conversation, too. I do.

But then came the fourth generation, Joseph. His experience was different and new, in that Joseph never experienced a personal appearance and statement from God. If he did, scripture does not record it.

Scripture does record that God was with him—Genesis 39:2. What’s more, Joseph’s implied importance to us seems plain. Out of the 50 chapters in Genesis (a book that covers Adam, Noah, Abraham, and three generations after him), 13 of those chapters deal with the life of Joseph.

Living that life is the way Joseph communed with God. He suffered betrayal and imprisonment, then rose to incredible privilege as the agent of Pharaoh. He practiced a divine gift—dreaming and interpreting dreams—that seemed of no use to himself or anyone else until he met Pharaoh at 30. He proceeded through the events of a life that was by turns desolate, overwhelming, incomprehensible, and exhilarating—simply trying at every turn to hold fast to character and remain true to the calling God gave him.

Significantly, he never even fully understood what that calling was until he looked back on it later, seeing in retrospect God’s working in the events of his life. Genesis 45:8 gives us a glimpse of Joseph looking back on those events this way, working out their meaning.

Out of these Genesis patriarchs, then, whom should our model be? Should we look for the kinds of directly stated personal messages from God that the first three generations received? The line of Abraham was a weak and tenuous shoot in the beginning, needing careful attention from the gardener if it was to take root and thrive. But with Joseph, we see something different, a life now lived with that root beneath it.

I think Joseph did hear from God. He heard from God expansively, through the medium and the process of a life uniquely created for him. It was a life that moved him to the place and position where God wanted him to be, and it was a life in which his understanding was formed for the benefit of us all.

The reason I think Joseph heard from God is because he spoke the line that makes all of the book of Genesis make sense. Why did God allow the serpent into the garden? Why did he allow humans to choose evil when he knew what the result would be? The answer is: God knew even more. He knew not just the result, but also the result of the result. He knows how even the fruit of evil will serve the glory of God in the end. Joseph spoke of this.

Genesis 50:20 comes at the close of the book of Genesis. In this line, Joseph addresses his siblings about their evil toward him decades in the past, but he might have been speaking to the serpent as well. “You planned evil against me,” he said, “but God planned it for good.”

Joseph gathered this insight from the slow voice of God. He heard it from the voice that spoke up to him out of all the events of his life. God was never audible to Joseph, but he was always there. Within the silence, God was speaking to Joseph even more profoundly than he had spoken to any of the generations who came before him.

The Call

She’s fine today, but two weeks ago, my six-year-old took a spill while playing at school and ended up needing stitches. (No worries—the stitches are already out.)

That evening, there was a meeting my wife had planned to attend. When the school nurse contacted her, my wife’s first thought was something along the lines of I need to take care of my daughter and get her comfortable quickly enough that I can still leave for my meeting on time.

But when she saw the wound, and phoned the pediatrician for advice, it became clear that she would need to take the child to the hospital. Her plans for the evening were done.

In recognizing this, was my wife not called?

I think she certainly was. The author of events said to her: Abandon your plans. I have a different plan for you today.

And if we see this as a call, then by definition it was also a voice. This was the voice of God, communicating through events.

The exigency of these events made for a call that was immediate and plain. But here’s the thing: Can you and I look for that same voice in the events around each of us? And can we expect that voice to speak not just loud and urgent messages, but also slow and subtle ones?

As a mother “heard” the Creator in external happenings, we might turn the same kind of attention—the same kind of ear—toward listening into the array of encounters and circumstances that we are given. Each of us stands at the center of a sphere of experience that is absolutely unique. If God might issue a loud call through the events of this sphere, he might speak by the same means—he might be speaking right now—to offer softer messages, such as affirmation or guidance.

A seemingly innocuous question therefore deserves our solemn consideration as we search for what the Creator might be telling us. That question is: What’s going on?


I’ve written about quotation marks, and about the way that much of what appears to be God directly and audibly speaking in the Bible is not necessarily anything of the sort. The punctuation marks that create this appearance were not part of the original text. Those marks were invented much later, and added to the text more than 1,500 years after it was written.

Yet there are episodes in scripture in which speaking directly and audibly is precisely what God appears to be doing.

One of those episodes involves Samuel. God apparently called him by name. If this call was not a direct and audible experience, then it was something like that. Samuel got up from lying down. His reaction was to say:

“Here I am”—I Samuel 3:4.

Abraham had an experience like that. By the time of Genesis chapter 22, he had been refashioned, sculpted through the process of alternately following and failing in the way of God leading him. The moment came for him to be tested, for him to be called out into a trial, for him to receive a new and deeply challenging instruction. God said, “Abraham,” and this too must have seemed as abrupt, clear, and direct as an audible voice, because Abraham answered:

“Here I am”—Genesis 22:1.

I’ve had one experience like that. I did not hear an audible voice, but I experienced the feeling of my attention being called. It happened on a seemingly untroubled day in 2006. I was preparing to do an unremarkable chore—mow the lawn. The pull of my attention being summoned was strong enough that I stopped in response to it, and sat down. Listened. The urging of an idea that took hold of me then led me to step into a church, and ultimately to step onto a different path. I don’t remember whether my lawn got mowed that day. I came to recognize later that my old life—my old understanding of life—had come to an end. And now, here I am.