We are surrounded by many voices.
There’s rarely a moment within our waking lives that someone or something isn’t calling out to us and—even in our sleep—dreams and nightmares ask for our attention. And each voice has its own particular cadence and message.
Some voices invite us in, promising us life if we do this or that or buy a certain product or idea; others threaten us. Some voices beckon us towards hatred, bitterness, and anger, while others challenge is towards love, graciousness, and forgiveness. Some voices tell us that they are playful and humorous, not to be taken seriously, even as others trumpet that they are urgent and weighty, the voice of non-negotiable truth, God’s voice.
Within all of these, which is the voice of God? How do we recognize God’s voice among and within all of these voices?
That’s not easy to answer.
God, as the scriptures tell us, is the author of everything that’s good, whether it bears a religious label or not. Hence, God’s voice is inside of many things that are not explicitly connected to faith and religion, just as God’s voice is also not in everything that masquerades as religious.
But how do we discern that?
Jesus leaves us a wonderful metaphor to work with, but it’s precisely only a metaphor. He tells us that he is the “Good Shepherd” and that his sheep will recognize his voice among all other voices.
In sharing this metaphor, he is drawing upon a practice that was common among shepherds at the time. At night, for protection and companionship, shepherds would put their flocks together into a common enclosure. They would then separate the sheep in the morning by using their voices. Each shepherd had trained his sheep to be attuned to his voice and his voice only. The shepherd would walk away from the enclosure calling his sheep, often times by their individual names, and they would follow him. His sheep were so attuned to his voice that they would not follow the voice of another shepherd, even if that shepherd tried to trick them by imitating the voice of their own shepherd—shepherds often did this to try to steal someone else’s sheep!
Like a baby who, at a point, will no longer be cuddled by the voice of a babysitter but wants and needs the voice of the mother, each sheep recognized intimately the voice that was safeguarding them and would not follow another voice.
So too with us!
Among all the voices that surround and beckon us, how do we discern the unique cadence of God’s voice? Which one is the voice of the Good Shepherd?
There’s no easy answer and sometimes the best we can do is to trust our gut-feeling about right and wrong.
But we have a number of principles that come to us from Jesus, from scripture, and from the deep wells of our Christian tradition that can help us.
What follows is a series of principles to help us discern God’s voice among the multitude of voices that beckon us. What is the unique cadence of the voice of the Good Shepherd?
• The voice of God is recognized both in whispers and in soft tones, even as it is recognized in thunder and in storm.
• The voice of God is recognized wherever one sees life, joy, health, color, and humor, even as it is recognized wherever one sees dying, suffering, conscriptive poverty, and a beaten-down spirit.
• The voice of God is recognized in what calls us to what’s higher, sets us apart, and invites us to holiness, even as it is recognized in what calls us to humility, submergence into humanity, and in that which refuses to denigrate our humanity.
• The voice of God is recognized in what appears in our lives as “foreign,” as other, as “stranger,” even as it is recognized in the voice that beckons us home.
• The voice of God is the one that most challenges and stretches us, even as it the only voice that ultimately soothes and comforts us.
• The voice of God enters our lives as the greatest of all powers, even as it forever lies in vulnerability, like a helpless baby in the straw.
• The voice of God is always heard in privileged way in the poor, even as it beckons us through the voice of the artist and the intellectual.
• The voice of God always invites us to live beyond all fear, even as it inspires holy fear.
• The voice of God is heard inside the gifts of the Holy Spirit, even as it invites us never to deny the complexities of our world and our own lives.
• The voice of God is always heard wherever there is genuine enjoyment and gratitude, even as it asks us to deny ourselves, die to ourselves, and freely relativize all the things of this world.
The voice of God, it would seem, is forever found in paradox.