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What Does a Spirit Sound Like?

By Andrew Sharp, RMM staff writer
From the March Beacon

The Old Testament writers had it easy. When God spoke to them, he would get their attention by setting shrubs on fire, sending angels with burning coals to thunder out pronouncements, or at least prefacing his remarks with “Thus saith the Lord.” Few people experience his voice that way today. If he is speaking, we should probably pay attention. But is he still speaking? And if so, how can we hear him?

That’s the topic of Rosedale Mennonite Missions’ sixth biennial prayer conference, Tuning in to the God Who Speaks: A Family Conference on Listening Prayer, with speakers Joseph and Irma Chon. This year’s conference will feature special sessions for children and will take place April 20-22 at the Rosedale International Center in Columbus.

The subject of “listening prayer” or the attempt to hear God’s voice will get many different reactions from people, RMM Prayer Coordinator Mim Musser said. Some don’t think God speaks to us today. Some are scared out of their wits because of people who claim God has said some pretty crazy things. And many really want a meaningful and personal relationship with God that goes beyond religious duty.

Conference speakers Joseph and Irma Chon think God does speak today. They come across as thoughtful, not the sort of people who would make wild claims about God’s voice, and seem understanding of people who may have reservations. They emphasize personal connection with God as a key goal of listening prayer. As we hear from God through scripture and life circumstances, Joseph said, we can have intimate fellowship with him and learn to obey him.

Listening is not just for individuals, but for the church as a body, RMM President Joe Showalter said. “I think the church needs to hear God’s voice. We really do need to move out of his speaking. This conference is about how does that happen, how do we hear it, what are the ways we distinguish his voice from among other voices and from our thoughts,” he said.

Joseph and Irma will be in charge of discussing how to do that. They serve at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Hilliard, Ohio, where Joseph is senior pastor and Irma is the children and youth pastor. Joseph has been an ordained pastor with the Christian and Missionary Alliance since 1988, and has worked as an adjunct professor with several seminaries and colleges. Irma has a master’s degree in church ministries and in addition to her work with the church works in missions mobilization for the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Her passion for children has led her around the world to teach children how to pray.

One of the Chons’ greatest strengths, Mim said, is that they bring experience in practicing listening prayer as a family. Joe echoed that. “From what I’ve seen and heard, they bring a really keen interest on this whole topic and a fairly long history of personal practice,” he said. “So I’m really interested to hear what they say…from that experience.” And they will bring a balanced approach—Joseph will address more of the foundational theology of listening prayer, Mim said, while Irma will teach about the practical side. Irma’s adult daughter, Rachel Chon, will help out teaching the children’s sessions.

These sessions are only useful, of course, if God is actually speaking today. “There are likely a variety of perspectives on this in our conference,” Joe said. “At the same time, it seems to me that it’s pretty clear in scripture that God’s people hear him speak. Jesus said, ‘My sheep know my voice,’ so somehow we seem to have the privilege of hearing from God.”

A privilege, maybe, but one that can be frightening. If God is speaking, what will he say? Will he yell? And so many people who have claimed to hear God seem to have gotten it wrong. Some are mostly harmless—“God told me we should get married (but forgot to tell you, I guess”). Others cause far more damage, leading bloody crusades or starting destructive cults. Some simply use God’s voice to get their own way in the local church. “God told me the trustees are out of line…” And many others sincerely desire to hear God, but have struggled to discern his voice.

“I’m not one who says that any time anybody says they heard God that it’s true,” Joe said. “I think because of the danger of incorrectly hearing him, some of us have gone to the point [of saying] ‘You just can’t ever know and so don’t ask,’ and I think that’s unfortunate.”

The prayer conference organizers and speakers all identified with uncertainty about the voice of God, and none of them claimed to be experts.

“I think all of us experience [hearing God] as a learning process and most of us at least don’t claim to infallibly hear his voice,” Joe said. His own beliefs on the subject have changed over the years. At one point he didn’t think God had much to say to him directly, while no doubt wanting him to make right decisions. But then one day Joe realized that if he believed he was made up of both body and spirit, and if God was spirit, maybe God was communicating on a spiritual level and Joe just wasn’t paying attention. He started to think that God sometimes wanted to speak to him directly. “As I gave it a chance, I started experiencing situations that to me seemed pretty hard to define otherwise.”

In Mim’s life, a difficult mistake about God’s voice made her question her ability to hear. She has since grown in confidence in that area, but at one point she was sure God had spoken to her and said she would be a pastor’s wife. That did not happen, and it was a big issue for her. “That really messed with my mind,” she said.

Listening prayer was not always a part of Irma’s life either. “Most of my adult life being a Christian, it was always my desire to know God and to follow him, but…to hear his voice and to recognize it, to know him in that way was not always a practice of my life,” she said. “It was really through the dark times…the trials, the testing, the darkness of life that caused me to begin to know that there was more and to find him there.”

Surely, at least Joseph, the one teaching theology at the conference, must be an intimidating expert who has always heard God clearly. But he declined that title. “I’m not speaking as an expert,” Joseph said. “To be honest with you, this is something that I’m learning.” When he went to seminary and Bible college, he said, the focus was more on knowledge—history and language and culture. There was prayer and spirituality, he said, but they didn’t teach him listening prayer. “I was kind of afraid of it at the beginning but God is a good God. He is a very loving God, he is not scary…and he loves to communicate.”

The prayer conference won’t make everyone into an expert, but Mim said she hopes it will give attendees good Biblical information on the subject of listening prayer, an awareness of how much God wants to have a relationship with them, and some tools they and their families can put into practice once they get home.

“I’m looking forward to sharpening my own understanding of hearing God’s voice,” Joe said. “I feel like I need to keep challenging myself to listen, because I’m living in a culture which says basically, ‘God doesn’t speak…and the whole spiritual realm is probably just your imagination.’ I feel like there’s this current that’s always against my hearing the voice of God, so I want to keep learning and growing.”

For more information on Tuning in to the God Who Speaks: a Family Conference on Listening Prayer, and to register, visit our website, prayer.rmmweb.org. Or, call the RMM office at 740-857-1366.

Thoughts on this article? Andrew Sharp can be reached at andrew@rmmoffice.org.