Between Heaven and Earth

Listen and/or Obey

Editors’s Note: Dr. Weaver’s sermon this week struck a chord even deeper than usual. You may view the video by going to this link and entering the passcode ww.fW87Y.

Last week we were looking at the question: Why is grace so hard to accept? Why are we so naturally attracted to performance, to industry, to obedience? Why do we so easily turn our backs on God’s grace? 

I alluded to two trees in the garden: The Tree of Life or grace, and the tree of obedience or anti-grace. The original plan in the garden was that Wo/Man would eat continuously from the tree of life, the tree of grace, the tree of something for nothing—but we took a different route. We took the way of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the tree of works, the tree of self-determination, the tree of self-assessment and self-assurance and finally self-discrimination. The decision to take the self-actuating pathway at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil seems to have mutated our spiritual DNA and hardwired us to insecurity, performance, effort, and obedience. 

Not to be missed in the struggle is that what occurred in the garden at the beginning of time still goes on today. The choice between our self-determination and God’s grace is a choice that we must make daily. Like Adam and Eve, we are given a choice: One tree or the other, the tree of grace, or the tree of our own discrimination, the tree of anti-grace. This is the root of anti-grace—the fact that we want to work harder, work longer, work faster, work stronger. 

Jesus calls us to take the tree of grace, calling it a yoke which is easy and a burden which is light:

 “Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is comfortable, and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) 

We are hardwired, it seems, to obedience, to overcoming, to self-determination, to self-control, to the tree of anti-grace. But obedience comes with a price: The price is effort, self-control, piety, and self-denial. We have this notion of trying harder, even as we claim that we can’t do it ourselves but somehow can do it with God’s help. Right behind the thin veil of our impossible holiness is the idea that it can be realized somehow with God’s help. If we’re not holy, it’s our own fault; we just haven’t embraced the Holy Spirit enough. It’s almost as if we try to obey and fail in order to accept grace. 

Only by failing obedience can we really understand and acknowledge our need for God’s grace. Trying to be obedient exposes the need for grace. Failure with obedience may be the path to grace but if it’s so different and even impossible to be holy, why does God insist on obedience? Why so many admonitions to be obedient or to keep the commandments? Why such an impossible expectation? 

Moreover, what does our obedience, what does our self-control, say (if anything) about God himself? We always want to make it about ourselves, about us. But what does our obedience, our overcoming, our own effort, our own industry say about God? 

My thinking about this led me to look at the word obey in the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures. The words for listen in Greek and Hebrew are closely related to the word for obey. This suggests that listening to God’s voice and following his commands is an essential part of experiencing his grace and is the root of obedience. The Bible contains many verses that speak to the importance of listening in the Greek and the Hebrew and how it leads us to experience God’s grace. In both languages, the words obedience and listening can be interchanged in the Scriptures. For example:

 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not just hearers who deceive themselves. (James 1:22)

This verse emphasizes the importance of not just hearing God’s word but putting it into action. Listening is a key component of following God’s voice. And it is through listening that we’re able to experience his grace. 

Jesus speaks these words to his disciples, emphasizing that love and listening are intertwined:

 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. (John 14:15) 

When we love God, we naturally want to follow his commands. And it is through listening that we experience his grace. Paul writes:

 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19)

This verse speaks to the idea that listening has redemptive power, that sin entered the world through Adam’s failed listening but we are made righteous and able to experience God’s grace through Jesus’s listening. John says:

 And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you are to walk in it. (2 John 1:6)

This verse emphasizes that listening is a manifestation of love. When we love God, we naturally want to walk in his way and follow his commands. It is through this listening that we experience his grace. 

So the Greek and Hebrew words for listen and obey, which can be used synonymously, teach us that obedience is the key component of following God’s voice and experiencing his grace. When we listen to God’s voice, it is another way of saying that we experience or know God through grace. We can know God by his voice and we can know God by his grace. What we can do then is substitute listen for obey in our readings. Listening should be considered another word for obedience. 

But listening to God’s voice is not just something that we do:

The Lord God has given Me the tongue of disciples,
So that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word.
He awakens Me morning by morning,
He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple. 

The Lord God has opened My ear,
And I was not disobedient,
Nor did I turn back. (isaiah 50:4-5) : 

Notice here that the listening actually begins with God. Our listening, in other words, our obedience, begins with God. It is his initiative. Isn’t it interesting that most of the activity in this passage is on God’s part? He gives, he instructs the disciples, he opens the ear, he awakens us each morning. Our listening, our obedience, is God’s responsibility. Our obedience is actually underwritten by God. He puts us and keeps us on the right path, the path of his will and his grace. 

We are told to listen for God’s voice, but what role does God himself have in making his voice heard? To put it another way: What role does God have in our listening? And what role does God play in our obedience? The Bible teaches that God speaks to his people in many different ways and that it is important for us to listen for his voice. For example:

 My sheep listen to My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me;… (John 10:27)

Jesus speaks these words emphasizing that his followers are able to hear his voice and to follow him. This suggests that God has an active role in making his voice heard to those who are willing to listen. And at the temptation in the wilderness Jesus says to Satan:

 ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4) 

This verse stresses that God’s word is essential for spiritual nourishment and growth. It suggests that God actively speaks to us through his Word, and that we need to listen to his voice in order to thrive. 

 Certainly the Lord God does nothing
Unless He reveals His secret plan
To His servants the prophets. (Amos 3:7) 

This verse emphasizes that God speaks to his people through prophets, revealing his plans and his purposes. It suggests that God actively communicates with his people, through spiritual leaders, and that he desires for us to listen to his voice in that manner. And finally: 

  The voice of the Lord is on the waters;
 The God of glory thunders,
 The Lord is over many waters. (Psalm 29:3)

This verse paints a picture of God’s voice as powerful and awe-inspiring, emphasizing that God has the ability to make his voice heard in dramatic ways. It suggests that God is not limited in how he speaks to us and that we need to be open to hearing his voice in all its many forms. 

The Bible affirms, then, that God has a very active role in making his voice heard to his people, whether through his Word, through the prophets, or through the sounds of thunder and of nature. God desires for us to listen to his voice. God’s voice is for us to listen to. 

There’s a difference between listening and hearing: Hearing denotes the sensory experience of sound entering the ear, but listening implies that hearing has an additional dimension, that something in what you’ve heard takes root in the mind, in the soul, or in the body. It is through listening, in short, that we are put on the right path by God. 

 Your ears will hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” whenever you turn to the right or to the left. (Isaiah 30:21)

By listening, we are led down the correct path—a path of grace. 

Speaking of the right path, the 23rd Psalm is one of the most well known and beloved passages in the Bible. It’s a beautiful and comforting expression of God’s care and guidance for his believers. The psalm speaks to the idea that listening to God’s voice leads us on the path of grace, a path that brings us peace and comfort and abundant blessings. It puts obedience—as we’ve always thought of it—in a completely different light. 

The psalm begins with the words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”. These words convey a powerful sense of security and trust in God’s provision. The metaphor of the shepherd and his flock, as we’ve talked about many times, is a common one in the scriptures and represents the close relationship between God and his people. The shepherd cares for his sheep, protects them from danger, and guides them into green pastures and still waters. Similarly, God cares for us ,protects us from harm, and guides us in the path of grace—if we’re listening.

The psalm goes on to describe the blessings that come from following God’s guidance: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” These images of rest and refreshment are powerful reminders of God’s care for us. When we follow God’s voice and walk on the path of grace we experience a deep sense of peace and renewal. We’re able to find rest for our souls and refreshment for our spirits. 

But the psalm also speaks to the challenges and dangers that we face along the path of life: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” These words remind us that even in our darkest moments God is with us. He never leaves us or forsakes us. He is able to guide us through even the most difficult and unpleasant of trials. 

Finally, the psalm speaks to the abundance of blessings that come from following God’s voice: “You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” These words are a powerful acknowledgment of God’s generosity and abundance. When we follow God’s voice and walk on the path of life, the path of grace, we are blessed beyond measure. We experience the fullness of God’s love and joy and his peace. 

The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful expression of the idea that listening to God’s voice leads us on the path of grace. When we trust in God as our shepherd, we are able to find rest, renewal, and protection. Even in the face of difficulty and danger we can trust in God’s guidance and care. When we listen and follow God’s voice, we experience God’s everlasting grace. 

Obedience, then, as listening, puts a new face on everything that we’ve strived to do as an overcomer. 

Listening to God puts us on the path of grace. This is God’s path, however, and that is important: It is not our path. Listening to God is the way of grace. It is emphasized throughout the Bible as a vital aspect of a life of faith and obedience. The Bible teaches us that listening to God involves recognizing our need for guidance and direction from a higher power and acknowledging that we cannot rely solely upon our own understandings and abilities. It is through listening to God that we receive the unmerited favor and love that he freely offers us and experiences grace in our life. 

One of the most prominent examples of listening is found in the Old Testament story of Abraham. God called Abraham to leave his homeland and go to a new land. Abraham listened to God’s call even though he did not know where God was leading him. Through Abraham’s listening and trust in God, he became the father of many nations and was blessed with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham’s story demonstrates how listening to God’s call can lead to great blessings and fulfillments in our lives. 

In the New Testament, Jesus emphasizes the importance of listening to God:

My sheep listen to My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me;… (John 10:27)

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leads and guides us and who calls us to listen to his voice and to follow him. When we listen to Jesus and follow his teachings we experience his grace and his love in our lives. The book of Proverbs provides many many examples of the benefits of listening to God’s wisdom. For example:

For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding. 

He stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
He is a shield to those who walk in integrity,… (Proverbs 2:6-7)   

“Now then, sons, listen to me,
For blessed are those who keep my ways.

Listen to instruction and be wise,
And do not neglect it. 

 Blessed is the person who listens to me,
Watching daily at my gates,
Waiting at my doorposts. 

 For one who finds me finds life,
And obtains favor from the Lord.” (Proverbs 8:32-35) 

The Bible teaches us that listening to God’s wisdom leads to blessings and favor from the Lord. Furthermore, as we saw earlier, James teaches that listening to God’s Word and putting it into practice is essential for a life of faith. The doers of the Word, he says, and not hearers only listening to God’s word and putting it into practice leads to blessing and fulfillment in our lives:

 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not just hearers who deceive themselves. (James 1:22)

Listening to God then is the way of grace because it involves recognizing our need for guidance and direction from a higher power and acknowledging that we cannot rely solely on our own understanding and abilities. The Bible emphasizes the importance of listening to God’s voice, listening for his wisdom and his Word, and teaches us that in doing so, it leads us to blessing. 

This takes us then back to the to the garden of Eden one more time. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life are two important symbols in the creation story in the Book of Genesis. While the Bible does not explicitly state that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents obedience and the Tree of Life represents grace, these symbols, I think, can be interpreted in this way.

The real test, the real question. in the garden is: Who do you listen to? That’s the argument that goes on in the garden. Do you listen to God or do you listen to the serpent? The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil can be seen as representing obedience because it was the tree that God instructed Adam and Eve not to eat from. The commandment not to eat from this tree was a test of their listening to God’s will. 

When Adam and Eve failed to listen to God and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they became aware of their own nakedness. This act of faulty listening led to their expulsion from the garden and introduced sin and death into the world. In this sense, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil can be seen as representing the consequence of not listening to God and listening to the serpent instead. 

This shows us that the original sin in the garden was that we turned our backs on grace by listening to the wrong voice, to the misleading voice. Listening to the voice of God is another way of saying obedience. But somehow listening is obedience without striving and effort. Listening requires a response, to be sure, but it’s a response initiated by God. Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life” and he promised, like a shepherd, to lead us on the right path if we listen to his voice. It’s his job to keep us on the right path and not our job to do it ourselves. We simply need to be in tune with his voice by grace, because if we stray off of the path he will lead us back onto it and back to the right path—if we stay tuned to his voice,.

Paul said:

 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17): 

…and that grace is the fruit of that which is born by faith:

 …without faith it is impossible to please Him, for the one who comes to God must believe that He exists, and that He proves to be One who rewards those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6) 

Obedience, then, as well as overcoming, living a righteous and holy life, has been for believers from the very beginning the Holy Grail, the thing most highly sought. All religions preach a life of upright self denial, a lifestyle of perfection. But obedience turns out to be something else. It is no more and it is no less than simply listening to God’s voice, like the sheep who hear the shepherd and follow him. The believer is called to follow the voice of God. Hearing God is easier when, by faith, we come to expect that somehow God will communicate with us. 

Even reading about God can’t compare to knowing God by the experience as we recognize his voice. Beyond even the borders of the pages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit speaks to our thoughts, our intuition, our conversations, as well as through the preaching of his Word, and the wise counsel of friends and fellow believers. You may even hear God’s voice in this class. It’s possible. Nothing ignites deep faith like holy moments hearing God speak to our hearts. 

So I’d like your thoughts this morning on listening to God’s voice, listening for God’s voice; about the words in Greek and Hebrew that equate listening with obedience; about what you should expect on the path of life from listening. 

Does the idea that obedience is God’s work in you make a difference as to what it means to obey? Is your faith strong enough that when you don’t hear anything from God you recognize that God is in that too, that God is in both the thunder and in the silence, that God is committed to being heard when he needs to be heard—he won’t be shut out, as Saul found out on the road to Damascus; that you can substitute listen for obey as you read the Scriptures? Does that reassure you or give you even more anxiety? 

What does it mean to listen to God’s voice? Obedience isn’t striving as much as it is to sit back and to hear God with a responsive heart. 

Rimon: This sermon is a masterpiece and should be read daily.

Anonymous: Yes, yes, yes. I couldn’t stop thanking God and praising his name for all the words spoken this morning. 

Rimon: I wonder what I have missed in past classes! 

C-J: What I want to share in regards to listening and grace is that they are braided together. My cat’s skin got infected. She had a cut that didn’t heal, it kept fussing with her. The last time this happened, it was two rounds of antibiotics and two rounds of steroids before it began to dissipate. This time I said “Lord, I just can’t do that.” And I was praying about it after I had cleaned it and did everything I knew how to do. And I was saying “Lord, I can’t do this again.” 

I went to reach for the hydrogen peroxide and I saw this box of Bag Balm, which everybody should have in their house. In less than 24 hours of applying it—cleaning the wound and applying it—it is pink, the scab has come off, she’s not scratching. I’ve been praying about it and I went to reach for that and my eyes just saw that in the cabinet. I said “I’ve tried everything else” and to me, that’s what you were saying, hearing God and God’s grace, his provision, his abundance. Oftentimes it flows just like that, and we don’t recognize it. 

Even as I was caring for my cat, usually she’d be fighting me—”Let me down. Let me down! This hurts!” She laid there and let me work with her and she was purring. It’s like she knew she could trust me. I really felt that was God’s presence in the room in a profound way. So I agree that this was a wonderful message, not just because of what happened, but it is core to growing in God. Thank you.

Reinhard: Obedience doesn’t lead to heaven nor disobedience to hell. Being self-centered, self-satisfied, self gratified, may prevent us from being obedient, but obedience might not be all that important. What is important, what is key, is faith. Faith leads us to obedience. Faith is everything. Paul used that as the magic word in the New Testament. We don’t see it used much by itself in the Old Testament. In Hebrews 11 Paul confirmed that men of old had faith in God. Bu was Paul talking about more than just the regular word? Because I think that without faith we cannot see God. With faith, we can receive grace. With faith, we can get justification, righteousness, sanctification, everything. Faith is operational in every angle of our Christian life, 

Of course, we still fail, but the Israelites failed miserably in the eyes of God because they relied on their strength to fulfill the law. Psalm 119 talks in almost every verse about statute, law, decree, works, the commandments. People in the Old Testament tried to satisfy God, to make peace with God, through their efforts. In the New Testament (Hebrews) God put aside the old covenant and issued a New Covenant through Christ. The Old Covenant meets the New Covenant mainly in matters of ceremonial law—the shedding of blood of animals for sacrifice in order to get their sins forgiven—but also to assuage guilty feelings. 

In the New Testament, the sacrifice of God is the ultimate goal. Jesus said he came to fulfill the law. It doesn’t mean we have to disregard the moral law. But by having faith, we can see God. By having faith, we’re going to obey God. Forgetting about the law doesn’t mean we disregard it. But by having faith we will accomplish, we will fulfill, God’s commandment to us. 

We’re going to fall short. People in the Old Testament relied on their efforts. The rich young ruler did everything according to the law. When God asked him to sell everything, he was too arrogant. He boasted of his righteousness. His possessions were physical things, nothing to do with faith. So he missed the point. He wanted to get close to God. We have to remember that in the Old Testament, salvation was about life on Earth. They were afraid of severe punishment in this life when they disobeyed God, hardly thinking about the life hereafter.

Some prophets mention the life hereafter—David for instance said he would “live forever in the house of the Lord.” The Pharisees believed in resurrection, the Sadducees did not. We are past the Old Testament. We’ve got this message very clear: We need to live using grace. Old Testament people had to sacrifice animals to get their lives in order, to get forgiveness and feel relieved of their guilty. We have grace available always, by listening to God. 

We need to draw close to God. We might be far from God at times, but grace is everywhere and it’s free. We just need to claim it. I think by living close to God we can experience grace. We have to really understand and embrace the grace that is there. We don’t have to worry about the future as long as we listen to God’s word.

Kiran: I remember a verse that says faith comes by hearing the Word of God or Christ. There also, faith is initiated by God, by listening to his Word.

Michael: It’s a choice a person has to make, to accept the grace of God. It’s amazing that God leaves it entirely up to us to choose his path or the other path, the path of obedience—the path of acknowledging his existence which we can’t see—and the path of following this world and being lost in our mind.

C-J: Personally, I have also found that when God’s grace within me is being allowed to flow it is effortless for me. It just seems like breathing air, there’s a rhythm, there’s an expectation. And the gift of whatever it is that God is revealing just seems very natural. It seems what God intended us to be in this relationship with the divine. It’s just like me reaching in the cupboard, just as natural as me going about my business. It hadn’t even rolled off of my consciousness (“Lord, what am I going to do?”) when I saw that can of Bag Balm. I’ve seen that operational in my life so many times that I trust it and I seek it. 

I read another thing today about emergency preparedness. It said: “What’s the most important thing you do when an emergency becomes present?” Like, you have to do something. It said: “Take off your backpack and sit for five minutes and make an assessment.” I think we should do that all the time, just as naturally, so that we can hear, that we can move in grace and understand God’s wisdom is greater than ours. That’s something I don’t take for granted. But I have to pause. I have to believe that there’s this perpetual conversation spiritually happening, as a person who tries to walk in this grace and faith consciously.

Michael: I like the idea that obedience is as simple as listening. But true listening is actually not an easy exercise. It requires me to bracket myself out of the equation, to put aside all of who I am—my experiences, my thoughts—so I’m really able to listen to what is being said. It is not an easy thing. It takes some effort but when it’s done properly I think the other person can really feel that they have been heard and it can be a quite effective way of showing love.

Anonymous: That’s why it takes so much time for us to come to know God. It’s not an easy task for us to truly listen. That’s why it takes years. We should persevere in reading God’s word and listening, at least for a little bit, every time. We can’t totally focus, we can’t really listen all the time. When we read the Bible, we may read a chapter or two and maybe get something when we are truly listening. That’s why in God’s grace he gives us all the time we need—year after years of being so gracious to us, so patient. 

Just go on, keep reading, keep listening. Maybe this time you can’t listen very well but next time you will have more life experiences to help you understand what you read. When you are listening, something is etched on your heart, to understand it and experience it better. Just keep walking with God. God’s greatest graciousness is his patience with us. That’s why we come to learn how to listen to God. 

It doesn’t come right away. It doesn’t come between a day and a night. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a constant walk with God. The more we read his Word, the more we know him, the more we appreciate him, the more we are victorious over our weaknesses. The more grace we need the more in love we fall with him. It is just so much bigger than life to know God.

Kiran: Dr. Weaver said that only when we fail in obedience are we exposed to grace, only then do we realize the need for grace. Jacob was wrestling with an angel who had the power to dislocate his hip with a touch but the angel let him fight him all through the night and it was only in the morning when he dislocated his hip that Jacob realized he needed—and received—grace 

In our attempts to try to be obedient in our own way we don’t realize truly how much we need God or how much we need Jesus’s grace. Many times I felt bad about having been so legalistic in my past, but I realize now it was for a reason, otherwise I wouldn’t really appreciate the grace that God so freely gives. 

Substituting obey and listen reminds me of Hinduism, where everything is about listening. For example, shruti (श्रुति) in Sanskrit means “that which is heard”—eternal secrets that confer moksha (मोक्ष) meaning emancipation, enlightenment, liberation, and release. But even in that ritualistic religion, the concept of grace somehow got through. The majority of Indians understand that you have to listen to these eternal truths for salvation. Like Daoists, they believe that you just follow the Way. 

Robin: We start out, I think, trying to obey from fear of what will happen if we don’t. And when we obey from fear, the end result, to me, seems to be resentment and then rebellion. But when we learn to be still and know that he is God (it’s hard for us to be still) and we surrender our will to the love that actually says: “Follow me and then you will know peace”, that’s when we learn obedience from love. 

The heart of Christ becomes so precious to us that we don’t want to do anything to hurt him. I just think that it’s a painful lesson and as Anon has said it can take years. Life, including our spiritual life, is a journey. It’s not instantaneous.

Carolyn: Busyness comes from trying to do too much, and we don’t always include the Lord in our busyness. We’ve always said some things are sacred and some things are not. Truthfully, I feel we must listen at all times but we we are consumed with so many things in our lives that we put them in front of our relationship with the Lord and all of a sudden we no longer have the wonderful freedom that comes by listening. As has been said, it takes a lifetime to get the rhythm and have the Lord included in our busyness no matter what we’re doing.

Don: It’s a good thing for those of us who are old and haven’t found a rhythm yet that God’s grace still covers even us. 

David: I would equate “listening to God” with meditation, which is a universal practice. We tend to think of meditation as a peaceful, calm, quiet exercise, but Jacob’s anguished struggle—presented metaphorically as a wrestling match—was essentially a meditation. He was struggling mentally, spiritually, and that was his way of talking and listening to God.

Don: Something to think about this week. Hopefully you’ll reread some of your Scriptures and substitute the word listen for obey and see what it does to your understanding about God.

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