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In The Sin of Certainty, I tell a brief story about the time I was in middle school and made myself a sandwich. After I was done, I tied up the bag and tossed it onto the counter a few feet away.

My mom, who had grown up in Europe during World War II (the Big One, for you young folks), looked at me with conviction, “God doesn’t want you to throw food.”

I snarked back, “He didn’t say anything to me.”

Mom shot back before I had gotten the last word out of my mouth, “Maybe you’re not listening.”*

That memory came to mind recently in conversation with a friend who was done with God because, after talking to God for years and waiting for an answer, he never got one.

I’m sure many or most of us can relate.

Can you hear God’s voice?

I don’t think this person or others like him are in “rebellion” against God. Rather, I think they are conditioned only to hear a certain kind of voice and when they don’t hear it they draw the conclusion that my friend did.

He wasn’t expecting an audible voice or anything like that, but he was expecting some concrete, tangible response—evidence that God is there and cares.

After all, this is what we expect of any other being we communicate with. If we talked to family and friends and they never talked back, those relationships would eventually come to an end. Why should it be different with God?

I think this conditioning is rooted in the modern notion that what is “real” is what can be demonstrated through some experienced, objective evidence. That idea works a lot of the time, but problems arise when Christians are either taught (or it’s caught) to apply this idea to spiritual matters.

Hence, when one prays for X and then X (or something like it) happens, that prayer is deemed “answered” and therefore evidence that God is there and is interested in us.

I’m not knocking that idea, though I suspect this scenario works out far less frequently than we might be comfortable admitting if we stop to think about it. And when some do stop to think about it, they draw conclusions like my friend—who was conditioned to hear one voice.

I have wondered, though, over the years whether God “speaking” to us doesn’t take very different forms—and maybe we need to condition our ears to hear them.

Maybe we hear God through others, through their acts or words of kindness (or rebuke).

Maybe God’s “voice” runs deeper than we are able to perceive in our hectic lives, where we are the focus of our energies and attention.

Maybe God’s voice catches us by surprise in occasional moments of happiness and contentment that happen free of words and logic—that moment of peace with your family, the way the shade falls on the late morning grass, reading in a hammock, a breeze that pushes gently through the trees and hits us just so.

I understand how some might react: “This just sounds like a lot of vague spiritual mumbo-jumbo where God is “everywhere.”

Perhaps—or . . . maybe some of us are limiting God’s speech to what we have been conditioned to hear and we need to open up to God’s presence differently . . . more immediately, intimately, and—I don’t hesitate to say—subjectively, rather than what we are conditioned to have to expect.

Maybe God is just bigger than that.

If this is God’s world, after all, maybe God’s voice really is all around us. Perhaps what we perceive as God’s absence is really our conditioned inattentiveness.

Perhaps we just need to learn to listen.

[* For those of you playing along at home, you’ll notice the version of this episode here differs slightly from what I have in The Sin of Certainty (p. 187). I think part of each version is correct but the memories get jumbled together. Now I know what the Gospel writers felt like.]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.