Wednesday, December 18, 2013

TTF Piece 3: Learning to Listen and Be Still

(This TTF series starts with the post "Through the Furnace (TTF): Intro 1.")


            Psalm 46:10:  “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”


            That is one of my favorite verses.  I’m working on a goal right now to find my top five “life verses” and that is one of them.  And it’s funny because when I was in high school, I went to a Christian retreat and that was the key verse for the week.  And all I could think was, How boring!  What a boring verse to pick to inspire, challenge, and “activate” the teens for Christ.  Be still?  Blah!

            But now, this verse has become so dear to me.  So, I guess I’ve come full circle.

            To me, this verse is all about humility.  A humble person is one who has learned to trust in God’s goodness, love, and faithfulness so much that, despite the storms that rage around, they can “be still” because God is God!  A humble person desperately desires to be near the Lord and to bask in His presence, and so they have learned the importance of being physically and mentally still with the Lord at times.  And a humble person also knows that everything is about God’s glory!  He will be exalted!!!

            Oh, I love this verse!!!

            But it took me a long time to learn to be still because, deep down, I couldn’t trust others, not even God.  I couldn’t “be still” before Him because I was too busy and concerned with keeping all the balls up in the air.  And as a consequence, I never knew the incredible joy and delight and peace of resting in His arms.  Of being still.


            I think one of the most important (and least developed) characteristics of a deep relationship with God is learning to be still before Him.  We would much rather run around in worry and busyness, trying to keep control of things and to make something great out of our lives. 


            Now, “be still” is a very short sentence, but it has very big meanings.  And I think that there are (at least) four different ways to “be still,” and all are equally important.

            1.  Be physically still and spend time with God and in quietness of spirit.  The problem here is simply that we won’t slow down enough to be still enough to do anything.  We are an over-achieving, constantly-moving group of people, always trying to find shortcuts to make things go even faster.  (When we will get tired enough to remember to enjoy the simple things?  When will we stop trying and trying to be happier… and find the time to just be happy now?) 

            And even when we are not moving, we are busy filling our time and minds with anything else but God.  TV, gossip, friends, work, hobbies, social networking, etc.  But God shows us in His Word the importance of getting away from distractions to spend time with Him.  Matthew 14:23:  “After [Jesus] had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.”  Even just taking a walk in His creation with our family, enjoying His gifts, can be soul-filling and faith-inspiring.           

            2.  Be mentally still so that you can set your mind on God and be receptive to Him.  This can happen even while you are busy doing others things.  I have found that some of my most productive, reflective times are when I am busy doing the dishes.  Most of the time, I will be playing out some stupid daydream in my head or mulling over some concern when it dawns on me to spend that time praying or focused on God.  And as soon as I switch my thoughts to God and begin listening to the Spirit, I find that all sorts of godly “lessons” come to mind.  But I would not have heard them if I didn’t quiet my mind and listen.  Psalm 4:4:  “. . . search your hearts and be silent.”

            3.  Being still also means to have a deep sense of trust in Him so that we can rest in Him, being concerned only with our obedience and letting Him be concerned with the obstacles, problems, timing, and results.  Exodus 14:13-14:  “Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid.  Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today.  The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’” 

            But we can’t really be still before someone if we don’t trust them or trust their love for us.  And we can’t really trust them if we don’t really know them.  This is why I believe that it is so critical for us to sort out our misconceptions about God and to discover our self-protective walls and fears.  (Which we will look at later.) 

            4.  Being still also implies waiting for Him to move in His time and in His way.  If we have done all that we know He has called us to do, and if we have prayed for our concern and handed it over to Him, then our job now is just to “be still.”  Psalm 37:7:  “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him . . .” 

            Do only what He tells you to do through the Word and through prayer, and wait on Him for the answer.  Admittedly, this is not easy to do.  Because I would venture that most of us have trouble with the whole “trust others” thing.  And long waits will dredge up every last bit of fear and doubt that live deep in our hearts and minds. 

            We also struggle with waiting because we are a “microwave society.”  We expect fast, quick results for everything we do.  And sometimes, God moves way too slow for us.  But if we can’t make Him go faster (which we can’t), then we need to learn to go slower, to wait for His timing. 

            I believe that prayer does move mountains, but sometimes they move veerrryyyy slowly.  So slowly that sometimes we can’t even tell they’re moving and we are tempted to give up.  But hang in there and trust that God is at work, as long as you are being obedient and praying.  I learned this lesson by doing so many things wrong while waiting for God’s answers.  I wanted to rush things or force things because I couldn’t just trust Him to handle it.  Oh me of little faith! 

            (Oh … and sometimes prayer does moves mountains, just not the ones we expected.  Trust Him when He picks a different mountain to move.)


            Being still - physically, mentally, in trust, and in waiting - is important for the health of our spiritual and physical lives.  To pray and read the Bible effectively, we need to have times when we get away from distractions and when we quiet the ruckus in our heads and bring our thoughts back to God and His presence.  We need to learn to be still enough to hear Him and to be receptive to Him. 

            When we can’t be still in trust and in waiting, we are tempted to panic and to take matters into our own hands.  This creates consequences that would never have happened if we had waited on God. 

            Now, of course, we can’t force ourselves to feel trusting until we get to the source of why we don’t trust.  So we will look at that soon.  But we can force ourselves to obey!  And if we have a hard time being obedient, we should at least talk to God about it and always stay transparent.  He will bless our honesty and our obedience, even if we don’t feel like doing it.   

            Being still is the only way we will learn to discern His whisper.  He will not shout His messages, but He whispers.  And those who “have ears to hear” will respond.  Cultivating stillness is important to learn to hear His challenges, convictions, insights, and calls - through prayer and the Word. 

            If we rush our prayers, we usually end up just presenting a big list of what we want God to do for us.  But we don’t bother to express gratitude for the things He’s already done for us… and we neglect listening to Him… and we don’t hear what He wants from us and for us.  (Which, sadly enough, is probably quite acceptable to some of us.) 

            And if we rush our Bible reading, we won’t absorb it, letting it fill our hearts with what the Holy Spirit wants to tell us through it.  It will be just a chore to check off.  Bible Reading . . . Check! 

            And if we rush through our days, we will miss out on so many of His simple blessings and wonders.  Those things which draw our hearts and minds back to Him and make our hearts swell with praise.  And we might miss the “open doors” He gives us, the interruptions He uses to change our direction, the guidance and instructions He gives us that we weren’t expecting or planning on, and maybe even the answers to prayers that we were waiting for.  (This can even happen when our bodies are still but our minds are consumed with anything other than Him.)

            We are not a people that are used to being still, especially when “time is money.”  But I think that God highly values the ability to be still because that is when we tune into Him. 

            Like radio waves that are all around us all the time, you do not hear the message being sent unless you have the ability to tune in.  And too much busyness in our days and our minds is like interference that prevents us from clearly hearing His messages and sensing His presence.  And this can make us feel alone, like it’s all up to us, like there is No One there to help us through.  And this leads to fear, confusion, discouragement, and exhaustion.

            Being “too busy” - failing to be still - leads to a crumbling spirit and crumbling faith (and maybe even crumbling health).



            Being still is a skill that needs to be practiced because it feels so unnatural and counter-productive.  So here are some challenges to help you get started:


            1.  If you do not have a regular quiet time with the Lord, journal a description of your life right now - your Christian walk and your relationship with the Lord as it is right now.  Then set aside a specific, regular quiet time for you and the Lord, to pray and read your Bible.  Make it a priority and keep up with it for at least thirty days and see how your life changes.  Journal what has happened over the thirty days and how it has affected your life and your walk. 


            2.  Learn to see and utilize “wasted moments.”  Look for opportunities when you can quiet your mind and set it on God, even when you are physically busy.  Maybe it’s when you are cleaning, driving, waiting in line, on hold on the phone, taking a walk, etc.  During this time, simply let God know that you are listening if He has anything He wants to tell you.  Or bring a concern to Him and ask His help.  Or ask for Him to search your heart and tell you what needs to be addressed.  Pray for the ability to hear His whisper and then see where the Holy Spirit takes your thoughts.  But stop any thoughts that are obviously not from God (lust, vengeance, critical spirit, pride, etc.), confess them, and ask God to help you hear Him. 


            3.  Make these regular parts of your day:     

            Psalm 4:4:  “. . . when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.” 

            Psalm 5:3:  “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my request before you and wait in expectation.” 

            Psalm 139:23-24:  “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” 

            And I think that the best thing we could do, of course, is to write down anything God reveals to us.  Make a habit of writing down what God reveals about your heart.  Write down your prayers, praises, things you are thankful for, anxious about, confessions, etc.  Everything.  And bring it to God in prayer.  Writing it down makes it much harder to gloss over them or to forget them.  (And journaling our concerns, in prayer to God, gets them out of our heads and onto paper.  If we don’t do this, our anxieties roam around in our heads and eat away at our peace and joy.) 


            4.  Take a walk as often as you can and just bask in His presence and creation.  Or maybe do one of my favorite hobbies: gardening.  Gardening forces us to slow down, to focus on simple things, to learn to wait, to put the effort in now for future rewards, and to learn perseverance while struggling through the frustrations and set-backs.  It gives us an opportunity to turn our thoughts back to the Creator, the Giver of many blessings, and to dwell in His presence while dwelling among His creation.  Gardening is not just a hobby; it’s a privilege.  (And there is incredible delight in seeing the fruits of your labor and in being able to share it with those around you.)


            5.  Next time you find yourself waiting on Him “too long” and you are ready to despair, find a Bible verse (after praying about it) to be your foundation verse, the verse that you plant your feet on to help you wait in Him.  Here are a few examples: 

            Joshua 1:5:  “. . . I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

            Psalm 18:2:  “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.  He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” 

            James 1:5:  “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”  (Emphasis is mine.)

            Psalm 25:4-5:  “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”

            Romans 8:28:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”


Questions for Reflection:

1.  Did anything in this chapter stand out to me?  Why?

2.  Do I have a regular quiet time with God?  What do I do during that time?  How does it affect me?  (Or if I don’t have regular quiet time, why not?  And how does that affect me?  How do I typically feel and think as I go through my day?  And how might adopting a regular devotional time affect that?)


3.  What typically consumes my thoughts over the course of the day (or where do they end up when I am letting my mind wander)?  Ways people wrong me?  Self-justifications or pity-parties?  Nonsensical fantasies?  Blatant sins and how I can get away with them?  Justifications for my sins?  Prideful daydreams? 

            (Take note of where your thoughts typically go.  Our feelings will follow our thoughts.  Ask God for help to stop the negative, ungodly ones and to replace them with thoughts that are focused on Him.  Maybe wear a bracelet or something as a reminder to “set your mind on things above” and to listen for God’s whisper, instead of listening to unfruitful/damaging thoughts.  But don’t hide or ignore these damaging/negative thoughts in shame; it only gives them deeper roots.  Confess them, and accept that God forgives them and will continue to speak to you as long as your heart is sensitive and willing.)     


4.  In a general sense, what has my relationship with Him been like?  What do I like about it?  What do I wish were different? 


5.  What do my spiritual disciplines, my physical life, and my emotional life say about my relationship with God?  Basically, what would others say about my relationship with God if they looked at my life? 

6.  Do I seek or avoid quiet time with the Lord?  Why?   

7.  Can I “be still” in all the ways: physically, mentally, in trust, and in waiting?  If not, why not?  Why am I driven to busyness, in life or in mind?  What am I afraid might happen if I were to “be still” in these ways?

8.  If I were to meet God more in silence and to practice listening to Him and abiding in His presence, what do I think He would say?  What might He challenge me to do or convict me about?  (Want to try something bold?  Ask God what He wants to say to you.  And listen for an answer over the next several days/weeks.) 


9.  How do I normally handle it when trials come up or when decisions need to get made?  When I want something or want to do something?  How do I feel about “waiting” and proceeding slowly and cautiously?  How does this affect my spiritual and physical life?


10.  Psalm 37:7 says, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. . .”  Do I trust that God will lead me in His way and in His time?  What in my life shows that I do trust Him and His timing?  What shows that I don't?  What gets in my way of being able to “be still” and to wait on God during trials or for an answer to prayer?  (Ask God to reveal these to you.)   


11.  Is there something that needs to happen first or something that I need to address in my heart or my past for me to be able to “be still” and to learn to wait on God?  To trust Him more?  (Pray and ask God about this.  Listen to what He says.  And ask Him what He wants you to do about the things He brings up.) 


12.  How can I change my life or schedule to incorporate adequate “stillness”?  Am I willing to do this?  If not, why?      

13.  Do I sense that God is challenging me about anything related to this topic? 



            Ask God for His help in learning to be still and in revealing whatever might be blocking your ability to do that.   Admit in prayer any fears or doubts that prevent you from being able to trust and wait.  Journal them.  List them one by one, and explore what started them, what keeps them going, and how they have affected your life and faith.  And ask God for His help in conquering them.  And journal any other insights that He gives you about yourself. 


Example Prayer: 

            Heavenly Father,

            Thank You for the sacrifice of Your Son, Jesus, so that I could have a relationship with You, so that I could have a full life.  And thank You for Your incredible patience with me as I learn to walk with You in faith.
            Forgive me for not taking the time to really meet with You in prayer, in Your Word, and in contemplation.  Forgive me for not slowing down enough to enjoy Your creation, to notice the small blessings, and to be thankful for them.  Forgive me for not being patient with You, for not trusting You enough to wait for Your way and Your timing in my life. 
            So many fears, concerns, and others things fill my time and my mind.  But I want to be able to “set my mind on things above” and to "be still" in You, trusting that You are God and that You can handle all my concerns.  Help me to do that, Lord, so that I may know the peace and security of a life lived in reliance on You, and the joy of a life lived in communion with You. 

            In Jesus’ name,  Amen


Bible Study: 

            Do your own study on what the Bible says about being still, about waiting on God, and about His wisdom and ways and timing.  (And look back on the verses in this section.)  Which verses convict you?  Encourage you?  What do you think they are saying to you?  How can you apply them to your life?