Who are you listening to?
In our church at the moment we’re in the middle of a series looking at grace – all about what that is, what it means, and how it can transform us, heal us, free us etc.
It’s all got me thinking about that well known bit from John 8:32 – “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The trouble is that I work with a lot of people who do know the truth. In fact they are often experts on it, able to quote a lot more of the bible than me. They are diligent bible studiers, have generally read hundreds of books all about how to find ‘freedom’ (frequently lent to them by well meaning friends) and know ‘the truth’ back to front. The trouble is that they would not describe themselves as free. They struggle, whether it is with emotions like anxiety, with the terrible muddy swamp of depression, with negative thoughts and worries and sometimes with stuff from their past which haunts them whenever their guard is down. So how do we understand this verse for those people? Why doesn’t it seem to ‘work’? Too often the assumption is that they are not working hard enough to ‘learn’ the truth, thus all those books lent, and the millions of times people have quoted verses at them hoping it will make the difference.
I love the translation of John 8:32 found in the message – and I think it explains something really vital about what Jesus meant when he said this. It reads like this: “If you stick with this, living out what I tell you ... then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.” You see, there is a huge difference between knowing the truth and experiencing it for yourself. So how do you do this – ‘stick with this, living out what[Jesus]tells you’? I think just one aspect of learning how to experience the truth for yourself comes from learning who to listen to.
Imagine if I stretched a tightrope across a huge ravine and then selected at random two people from a crowd and asked them to walk across it. Then, when the first person had their go, I asked the whole crowd assembled (you’d get a pretty big crowd for such a crazy stunt!) to shout really encouraging comments – things like “You can do it!” or “You’re amazing!!” or “You’re the best!”. Then for the second person I asked the same crowd to shout negative things like “I can’t believe you’re stupid enough to try this!” or “You are SO going to fall!” or “You have really useless balance anyway”. Which person do you think has the best chance of making a go of it? Everyone I have shared this example with always immediately goes for the first person – the one who was supported by all the positive comments. Ok, so in reality this is a pretty stupid example as both would probably fall off. But why is it that we are always so sure that the first person would do so much better? Neither had any previous tightroping experience and both probably had as much a chance as anyone when they first started out. But we know that what you listen to really does make a difference – so the second is going to have a much tougher job.
This is true for all of us throughout our life. If you are constantly drowned out by negative comments, people telling you how useless you are, reminding you of past failures or predicting gloom and disaster, it is much more difficult to do anything very well. It’s got nothing to do with what actual ability lies underneath – it’s all to do with what you listen to.
Have a look at this Charlie Brown clip
on youtube. In this clip Charlie starts off feeling pretty awful. He feels like he never gets anything right – that he is a total failure. Everything he touches just goes wrong. In the clip Lucy plays the role of a super critical teacher, listing his faults and reminding him of them again and again. She seems to think this will help him – but of course it just makes things worse. A lot of us do exactly this to ourselves. We constantly remind ourselves of our worst faults, our mistakes and our failings. But this doesn’t help – it just makes things worse!
Charlie reminds me of a bit from Romans 7 where Paul is talking about his own failings. Yes, Paul had failings too, and in this section he talks about just how much they get him down – and he sounds a lot like Charlie! He says “I know the law but still can't keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it's predictable....I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me?” (Romas 7:17-24, The Msg) Luckily instead of heading off to Lucy for help, or getting bogged down in his own self-critical thoughts, Paul has learned an important lesson – he knows who to listen to. And he realises that “The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart, and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different....Those who enter into Christ's being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air!” (Romans 7:25 and 8:1, The Msg)
That last verse is another one you might have heard quoted before – in the NIV it reads “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” It’s worth thinking about what that means. God doesn’t condemn you for your faults and failings – that’s something that comes from somewhere else. It may be that other people, either now or in the past have condemned you, but God does not.
So what does all this have to do with learning who to listen to? In another verse in Romans, Paul has some advice for us – and it’s another often quoted passage. It reads : “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The message translates it like this: “Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead fix your attention on God.” What Paul is challenging us to do is to be careful who we listen to. Because in our culture and in our lives, there will be many people and places who try to tell us things which just are not true! We need to learn not to get so used to our culture that we listen to this stuff without even thinking. Instead we need to tune our minds in to listen to the really important stuff – and that is what God says about us and to us. That is a really vital step in moving from knowing the truth, to experiencing it for ourselves.
So how do we take steps to learn to listen to God more and to the other stuff less. Here’s 4 tips!
(1) Make a choice to listen to the good stuff!
Paul puts it perfectly in Philippians when he says “Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” (Phil 4:8 The Msg) We need to focus on the positives and fill our minds with those – rather than dwelling on the negatives. It’s easier said than done – especially if you have had years of being taught to recognise every little mistake you make. But it makes a huge difference to what you can achieve!.” (Phil 4:8 The Msg) We need to focus on the positives and fill our minds with those – rather than dwelling on the negatives. It’s easier said than done – especially if you have had years of being taught to recognise every little mistake you make. But it makes a huge difference to what you can achieve!
(2) Don’t place too much weight on opinions that are not worth much!
Ultimately we have a choice who to listen to. The people here on earth – our family, teachers, bosses, friends etc, or God. Now hopefully your family, friends etc have a reasonably good idea of who you are and know you pretty well. But sometimes they just get things wrong, or they think they are helping when in fact they are not. But God knows you back to front – in fact He made you. Psalm 139 says this about how well God knows us: “I'm an open book to you; Even from a distance, you know what I'm thinking. You know when I leave and when I get back; I'm never out of your sight. You know everything I'm going to say before I start the first sentence….” (Psalm 139:13 The Msg). So remember – if what someone else says clashes with what God says, I’d go with God’s opinion first! He’s a lot more important, He’s been round a lot longer and He knows you a lot better!
(3) Learn what God really thinks of you
Of all the things I have learned in my life nothing has transformed it like the day I realised just what God thought of me – and how much that contrasted with some of the other opinions I had heard. There are so many verses I could quote and I simply don’t have time to go through them all but here’s a great one. “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Eph 2:10 NLT). Did you know you are God’s masterpiece? Not just a hastily scrawled sketch, but a masterpiece.
(4) Meditate/dwell on these things
How often every day do you find yourself dwelling on something negative? Its not really your fault – your brain is set to be more attuned to negative things than positive, but if you get caught in this trap you can find yourself only ever thinking about negative things. It’s a really good exercise to do to take time each day to deliberately practice thinking and dwelling on positive things! After all, that is what that verse from Philippians advises us to do. Here it is the way the NIV puts it: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil 4:8 NIV).
One treatment approach currently taking the NHS by storm is something called Mindfulness. Mindfulness, in a nutshell, encourages people to spend time each day practicing thinking about positive things about themselves which replace the negative thoughts they are more prone to (it’s used in conjunction with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which helps people identify common negative thoughts which are affecting them). Mindfulness has been quite controversial in Christian circles because it has its roots in Buddhist meditation practices. But really it is simply recommending something the Bible told us to do long ago.
Right back in the old testament, when the Jews were preparing to go into a very different culture, they were given this advice: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night ... then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8 NIV). What this verse is telling them is to never let go of the truths that God has taught them. In order to avoid getting taken in by some of the lies from the culture around them they needed to constantly meditate on the things God had taught them. The message puts it perfectly: “Ponder and meditate on it day and night, making sure you practice everything in it. Then you’ll get where you’re going; then you’ll succeed (Joshua 1:8 The Msg).
How much time do you spend each day meditating in the wonderful things that the Bible says about you? Longer or shorter than you spend listening to negative thoughts in your own head about yourself? Think about it – are there some verses you need to stick up on your fridge, or on the mirror, so that you see them every day. What can you do to spend more time tuning in to listen to what God wants to say to you?
I truly believe that being careful of who we listen to can help us to experience God’s truths for ourselves. The Bible teaches us that God wants to write his truths on our hearts (see Jeremiah 31:33 and 2 Cor 4:6). But I love the way Adrian Plass puts it in his book ‘Life on the Bouncy Castle’ when he says that sometimes the devil has scrawled graffiti over God’s message and made it hard to read. For a lot of us, life has taught us some very hard lessons – and they might not necessarily be true. Take the time to see through the devil’s graffiti and to listen to what God wants to say to your heart. As Psalm 78, verse 1 puts it “Listen, dear friends, to God’s truths...” (Psam 78:1 The Msg). Because experiencing the truth for yourself is the most amazing thing that can ever happen to you. And it really does free you.