In 1989 the company I worked for was dying; it was losing money like the prodigal son, it had a two-year sales drought, and our owner—though previously successful—was out of cash. The company asked me to demonstrate our software to one of our prospective clients. Actually, our only prospective client. If we didn’t land this deal, we were out of business and I was out of a job.
The night before the demo the client’s consultant Jerry invited me to dinner. He said our competitors had bungled their demos by wasting half of their time showing “cool” features that the client didn’t need. And when the client said they weren’t interested in such functionality, our competitors ignored their requests, and continued showing off the coolness of this or that particular feature.
Jerry went on to say that our competitors had failed because they wouldn’t yield control of the conversation to the client. The competitors thought they knew what was needed, while in fact only the client knew what was needed. Jerry suggested I begin my demo by asking the client to describe their needs. And then he suggested that I use the rest of the presentation to show solutions to their needs. I did. They liked it. We got the deal. And I kept my cubicle.
What does demoing software and controlling conversations have to do with hearing God?
During the last several months of 2011, I faced a major decision. Almost every day I asked God for direction. I prayed, I begged for wisdom, I asked friends, I read scripture; and God continued to withhold a direct answer to my question.
This past week I was reading Colossians where Paul prays that we be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1:9).
I said to God, “that’s what I’m asking for, knowledge of your will.”
And in my heart I felt God say, “No you aren’t.” (Please note that no writing on the wall appeared and no audible voice spoke, but a tug in my heart told me to stop, that somehow, somewhere, something wasn’t right.)
I paused to reflect on what this quickening of my heart might mean, and I realized that I was not actually asking God for his will. Instead, I wanted an answer to “this” question—and this question alone— while God was speaking to me about something completely different. While claiming I wanted his will, I really only wanted his input in the area I thought was most important. I was ignoring what he knew was most important.
I was controlling the conversation—with God!—by ignoring what he wanted to talk about.
It’s not that God doesn’t want to answer our questions, but that our questions often miss the main message he wants to convey. It’s like asking God which color to paint my closet while he builds me a mansion next door. When I finally listen to God’s answer—which is always grander and more profound that what I’m looking for—then (and only then) will I have the answer for my comparatively tiny question.
While I was wrestling with my question these past months, God kept talking about other things, and I felt—though I never said it to myself—like God was missing the point, that he wasn’t answering my question. But he was answering my question by answering a deeper question than the one I pursued.
And I wasn’t listening, because I was controlling the conversation.
God is always speaking to us, but his answers are almost always deeper and more profound than what our simple questions ask.
- Moses saw a strange bush on fire, and he asked, “What’s that all about?” and God said, “I want you to lead my people out of slavery into freedom.” God’s answer didn’t directly answer Moses’ question.
- Nicodemus said to Jesus, “You clearly are a man of God,” and Jesus answered, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God you need a new life, you have to be born yet again.” Again, a seeming non-sequitor.
- The woman at the well asked Jesus to “give her this water so she’d never be thirsty again,” and Jesus told her to go get her husband.
God is always speaking, always offering more than we ask or think. Moses was curious about a scientific anomaly and God gave him a new life mission; Nicodemus wanted a bit of wisdom so he could live a bit better and Jesus offered a whole new righteousness; the woman at the well wanted freedom from a domestic chore and Jesus offered a life of freedom from her relational-addiction.
Not only does the bible include conversationally oriented episodes, it also includes an entire book on the subject. The book of Job has spoken to more people than any book written by any modern author (including C. S. Lewis) and the book of Job has comforted more suffering people than any other book ever written.
And the book of Job concerns who controls the conversation.
The first 29 verses of Job sketch what happens to Job. The next 36 chapters paint a picture of people controlling the conversation—Job’s wife and friends and even Job—all asking why God has done this. The best advice given to Job comes from the youngest counselor, who tells Job to stop controlling the conversation, “Listen to this, O Job: stand still, and consider the wondrous works of God” (Job 37:14).
And when Job finally stands still, God speaks, revealing his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And Job was satisfied, saying, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). And that is all we ever really need.
So God, let’s talk. Uh, you first.
Also see, Hearing God and Making Decisions and Hearing God and Reflection.
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