When I was younger one of my favourite authors was Anne Tyler. She wrote about ordinary people, doing ordinary things, and she had a gift for expressing what her characters were thinking. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant there is a bumbling, good-natured young man called Ezra who never really understands the significance of what people say and do around him, and how he should react. He puts it like this:
“I’m worried if I come too close, they’ll say I’m overstepping. They’ll say I’m pushy, or … emotional, you know. But if I back off, they might think I don’t care. I really, honestly believe I missed some rule that everyone else takes for granted; I must have been absent from school that day. There’s this narrow little dividing line I somehow never located.”
When I read that for the first time I thought: Me too! Other people knew how to do small talk; they knew how to greet people, to be hospitable and to put those that they met at their ease. I stood on the outside looking in, wondering how they knew what to do, and where on earth did they learn it?
As I grew older I found out that it wasn’t just socially where I fell short, like Ezra in the novel. There have been times in my life when I have felt that I have been playing “catch up” spiritually. It seemed that others had a better understanding of how the Spirit could guide them, also in regards to their relationship with others, but I had somehow missed out and couldn’t find that “narrow little dividing line” between what is edifying and what isn’t.
Learning to hear
Somebody once said that learning to hear the voice of the Spirit accurately is one of the hardest things we ever have to do; but the thing is, we can learn it. By nature, we judge by what the eye sees and the ear hears, but God looks into the heart and weighs motives and intent; and this is what I have to do with myself too.
I have to let the Spirit bring hidden things into the light, and in that way I understand the motive behind my actions. I will learn that some of the things I am about to say are motivated to make people aware of something good that I have done, or to get approval from someone I admire. By letting the Spirit bring these things into the light, I learn to differentiate between what comes from my own will and what comes from the promptings of the Spirit.
Although I can learn how to act socially by copying other people, I can’t learn to understand the promptings of the Spirit by doing what others do, saying what others say, and going where others go. (John 3:8) If the Spirit prompts me to do or say something nobody else will know but me.
The first time I clearly remember being forced out of my comfort zone by the Spirit was when some people we knew had experienced a tragedy. We weren’t their closest friends, but I had a strong sense that I should go and offer comfort. I was not a natural comforter. I did not feel I had any words to say. I was, in fact, totally unprepared and ill equipped to be of any use to anybody in this situation. My main fear was that they wouldn’t want me there and I would be in the way. What I really wanted to do was ask somebody else if I should go?
But what I did know was that I loved them – so I went, praying all the time that God would help me. And instead of fretting about having something clever or spiritual or insightful to say, I just hugged them and sat and listened and cried with them. A friend who joined us later said to me, “It’s those who follow the promptings of the Spirit that get valuable experiences in life.”
And I did learn something very valuable. I found out that I hear the voice of the Spirit much clearer when I have no ulterior motive; no desire for honour or respect or thanks. And as I learn to silence these thoughts the process becomes easier. When I say “God help me,” then He does. I learnt to face down fear when I am led to speak or bless or help when I feel I have little human capacity. And I learnt that yes, the Spirit does need me to listen and act, and this is both a grace and a responsibility.
“For You will light my lamp;
The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.
For by You I can run against a troop,
By my God I can leap over a wall.
As for God, His way is perfect;
The word of the Lord is proven;
He is a shield to all who trust in Him.” Psalm 18:28-30.
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.