Jesus said that his sheep 'listen to his voice," 'know his voice," and "follow him" (Jn 10:34). This implies that Jesus expected three things of those who claim to be his:
1. They listen to his voice attentively, not merely hearing it;
2. They recognize it clearly as his voice thus discerning the communication as a divine message;
3.They heed his voice by lovingly accepting and obeying his will (see John 14:15, 21).
Since Jesus himself presents these three qualities as characteristics of those who are really his sheep, we might use them as a reliable checklist by which to calibrate our receptiveness to God's messages. Let us take a closer look at these three traits of a Christ-focused person.
1. Listening. Merely hearing something is not the same listening to it. At this moment you may be hearing traffic sounds or birds chirping, but you are probably not listening to those sounds. Active listening requires both attention and interest – both of which admit of varying degrees. An opera buff can listen with rapt attention to operatic music for hours, while someone else would become bored in minutes. Likewise, a contemplative person might be enthralled with God-communicated insights for long periods, while one less spiritually mature might experience only ennui.
Obstacles to listening come every day from within ourselves (from limited attention span, lack of interest, faulty value system, distaste what is heard, and so on), or from outside ourselves (from extraneous noise, or static or competing voices, for example). From a theological perspective, an example of the first category might be an attachment to sin that results in a spiritual hearing impairment: "They turn their ears away from the truth" (2 Tm 4:4). The second category includes distractions that come from the "noise" of the world (see 1 John 2:15), for "a friend of the [sin-defiled] world becomes an enemy of God” (Jas 4:4).
2. Recognizing. This implies familiarity with the Shepherd's voice as a result of hearing it frequently. It is far easier to recognize the telephone voice of a caller who phones you daily than one who calls only every year or two. But such recognition also implies that there is a clear discernment for knowing it is not a counterfeit communication from a trickster. An impersonator's voice is easily detected as fraudulent by one with close ties to the real friend. Jesus' true followers "will never follow a stranger; they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice" (Jn 10:5).
The countless subtle allurements of the New Age movement are easily detected by a Spirit-filled person as fraudulent communication—not the voice of God. The lure of such things as astrology, reincarnation teaching, and various cults has no effect on the God-discerning individual. Also clearly seen as deceptive are the "fringe doctrines" vaunted by humanistically-tainted theologians and the watered-down, "demythologized" scripture presented by preachers and teachers (even some seminary teachers) in our times.
The Scriptures themselves warn us of such false teachers: "The Spirit clearly says that in later times some "will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared" (1 Tm 4:1-2). In Paul's next letter to Timothy he elaborates on this: "The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths" (2 Tm 4:3-4). Paul minces no words about the importance of this discernment element for recognizing God's voice: “ The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (l Cor 2:14).
3. Heeding. Heeding voice of God is the ultimate criterion of the true follower of Christ. This characteristic is twofold. Passive heeding of God's voice is the loving acceptance of his providence in our lives—of everything from weather inclemencies to incurable cancer. It consists in the serene, love-filled acceptance of all the unalterable agonies as well as the delightful ecstasies of life. Active heeding of God's voice, on the other hand, is full-fledged obedience to his will in all things. It means to follow the shepherd, obeying all his directives, including those he gives to his sheep through his ecclesiastical shepherds (see Luke 10:16; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12), who themselves should be "examples to the flock" (1 Pt 5:3).
Thus, heeding God's voice implies the faithful fulfilling of divine imperatives which may be given directly or indirectly. It means obeying a wide spectrum of injunctions, among them, tithing, not neglecting the sacrament of Confirmation, keeping the Church's laws on marriage and birth control, providing timely and proper sex education for children, frequently and devoutly receiving Holy Communion and the sacrament of Reconciliation. It may embrace such diverse things as the moral obligation to vote, generosity toward the poor, faithfulness in prayer and Scripture reading, prudent fasting, and the eschewing of the common sins of gluttony, gossip, lustful addictions, and rash judgment. The Lord's invitation is constant and comprehensive: "Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live" (Is 55:3).
This excerpt is from the book The Art of Loving God by John H. Hampsch, C.M.F., originally published by Servant Publications, 1995. This and other of Fr. Hampsch's books and audio/visual materials can be purchased from Claretian Teaching Ministry, 20610 Manhattan Pl, #120, Torrance, CA 90501-1863. Phone 1-310-782-6408.