Listening To The Prophets:(5) Discerning the Lord’s Will with Micah
Outside of that famous Abbott and Costello routine, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone whose name is a question. Apart from a first baseman named “Who?”, the people with interrogative names are few and far between. But we know of at least one in the pages of the Bible. The prophet Micah’s name is a question. In Hebrew, Micah means, “Who is like God?” As unusual as that name may sound, it somehow seems fitting for a prophet of God. And it’s even more appropriate for this prophet of God, who was a man of many questions. In fact, Micah asked some of the deepest questions we’ll ever come across.
Micah lived over 700 years before the birth of Christ. That means he predated Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and was a contemporary of Isaiah. Since the book of Micah comes towards the end of the Old Testament we might assume he came later in Israel’s history. What throws us off is that the prophetic books are not in chronological order. If there is an order to them it tends to be from the largest to the smallest. That’s why Micah is grouped among the so-called Minor Prophets. He’s not minor because he’s of lesser importance – far from it. Minor just means his book is relatively short.
Micah was from the small town of Moresheth in the hill country of Judea, not far from Jerusalem. Because he wasn’t part of the Jerusalem elite, he had a fairly objective view of what was happening in the nation’s capital. And like other prophets before and after him, he didn’t like what he saw. He saw a nation being led astray – a nation being led into apostasy and idolatry and corruption.
God told Micah that he had a case against his people. He was lodging a charge against Israel. After all God had done for them – bringing them out of Egypt and protecting them from all who would have harmed them – how could they turn their backs on him? How could they abandon their relationship with him? God was calling his people to account. He wanted them to answer for themselves.
In light of this serious situation, the people of Israel had a decision to make. How should they respond to the charge God was laying against them? Should they try to placate God by bringing him burnt offerings or sacrifices of some other kind? Is that what God wanted them to do? Micah asked, “What does the Lord require of you?” And then he answered his own question. “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
There is no deeper question that could be asked of any of us than “What does the Lord require of you?” In light of everything God has done for you, what is your response? What does God want you to do? What choices does God want you to make? What is God’s will for your life?
This is a question that looms particularly large when people reach a crossroads in life. With various options laid out before them, they want to know which direction they should take. What kind of career should they pursue? Who should they marry? Where should they live? These are life-changing decisions, so they want to make sure they get it right. They want to find some definitive answer as to what God’s will for them is. But the problem they often run up against is that finding that answer isn’t always so easy.
I did a children’s story a few years ago on answering God’s call. To illustrate this idea, I arranged to have someone phone me on a cell phone right in the middle of our time with the children. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but of course these things often don’t turn out the way you plan them. For some reason the call wouldn’t go through when it was supposed to, and when the phone finally did ring it was a bit late for the purposes of the children’s story.
The good thing about failed children’s stories is that you can always turn them into sermon illustrations later on. This failure of the phone to ring when I hoped it would is similar to what we often go through when we’re waiting for God to reveal his will for our lives. We’re expecting him to call to give us a clear indication of what he wants us to do, but oftentimes the phone just doesn’t ring. So we’re left wondering what we’re supposed to do. Why doesn’t God give us a clear sign? At least an email or something. How are we supposed to figure out what he wants us to choose?
For some people this experience of not getting a clear signal from God creates a lot of anxiety. That’s because they’re afraid that if they make the wrong choice – the one that’s not in keeping with God’s will – then God will punish them in some way. They feel as if God is playing a kind of cosmic shell game, making them guess what his will for them is, while at the same time keeping it hidden from them. If this is the way they feel, it’s not surprising that they often become frozen in indecision, holding back from making any choices because they’re afraid they’ll guess wrong.
The pagan religions were totally dominated by this fear – and they came up with all sorts of ways to try to get around it. They had a practice of divination, which was an attempt to pry open the locked box of divine secrets. This is what made places such as the Oracle in Delphi so hugely popular in the ancient world. Kings and generals would consult the oracle before making any major decisions. Alexander the Great went to Delphi before he launched his first military campaign, because he wanted to know for sure that he was doing the right thing.
This pagan way of thinking is pretty hard to square with what we know about God as he has revealed himself in Christ. Obviously there’s much about God that remains hidden from us. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. But that doesn’t mean God is hiding his will from us in some kind of game. The loving God we know in Christ is not going to hide his will from us and then punish us for not knowing what it is.
The prophet Micah was of the view that knowing God’s will really isn’t that complicated. What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. There’s nothing hidden about that. There’s no guesswork required. It’s exactly what God has been saying from the very beginning of the Bible. He hasn’t been keeping it secret. He hasn’t been holding it back. He’s been making it plain all the way along.
Micah wasn’t the first prophet to speak about justice and mercy and humility. He couldn’t claim to be saying anything original. But he summed it all up beautifully in what’s been called one of the noblest utterances of holy scripture. Micah says there’s no point in elaborate religious ceremonies or desperate attempts to impress God. What’s important is simply to walk humbly with God, acting justly and loving mercy as you do so. Walking humbly with God means we recognize God for who he is. It means we commit ourselves to him and follow his ways. It means we have a relationship with him.
One day Jesus’ disciples asked him what they should be doing in order to do what God requires. And Jesus said to them, “It’s very simple. The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
When you break it right down to its most basic level, this is the will of God for our lives. This is what he wants us to do. While we’re concerned about where we’re going to live, who we’re going to marry, what kind of job we’re going to have, God’s concerned about something much more elemental. He’s concerned that we believe in the one he has sent – the one he has sent into the world as his only begotten Son. Whatever else we do in life, this is the one thing that’s essential. As important as all those other life-decisions are, there’s one decision that takes priority over them all – the decision to believe in the one God has sent to be our Saviour and our Lord.
Of course, when we say God’s will for us is that we believe in Christ, we’re not saying that all God wants from us is an opinion about who Jesus is. It’s been noted by experts in biblical Greek that “to believe in Christ” literally means “to believe into Christ.” That’s not really translatable into English, but what it suggests is that there’s more to this belief than just having an idea in your head. It implies there’s a connection between us and Christ. It implies there’s a relationship. To believe “into” Christ is to be united with him in a relationship of trust and loyalty. It even suggests that our relationship with Christ is so close that our own identity becomes lost in his.
When we look at it this way, we can understand why the one thing God requires of us is to believe in the one he has sent. In that believing, in that relationship with the one who embodies the fullness of the eternal God, we are transformed into different people.
United with Christ, we are naturally drawn towards acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. These are the qualities Jesus himself displayed. These are the actions that we see Jesus doing again and again in the gospels. If we truly belong to him, then we will do these things too, and that clearly is God’s will.
So where does that leave us when it comes to those other decisions we have to make – the ones we struggle with when we’re at a crossroads in life? Is God indifferent as to what we do about them? Can we, as Augustine said, love God and do as we please?
Perhaps there are decisions in our lives that we agonize over needlessly. Whether we decide to live in Thornhill or Timbuktu, we’ll still have the opportunity to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God. Our relationship with God will still be in place.
But I think it’s also true that seeking God’s will and listening for God’s voice, even for the relatively simple decisions in our lives, is a good thing to do. As we do this we need to remember, of course, that God’s will is often that we use the brains he has given us to figure out the best course of action. We can’t expect God to make every decision for us. He’s given us the freedom to make choices, and with that freedom comes the responsibility to make those choices for ourselves. God has given us minds to reason with, and hearts to feel with, and imagination and intuition to see with. We honour God when we use these abilities to make the everyday choices that confront us.
The danger of course is that our hearts and our minds don’t always get it right. Sometimes that’s because we’re being pulled by our own egos in the wrong direction. This is where we need God’s guidance. We need to find ways to listen for God’s voice so that we’re not just listening to the voice of our own egos. This is a very delicate process, and we can’t assume that discerning God’s will in these circumstances is always so easy to do.
Debra Farrington has written about this and she says that having a sense of God’s will is difficult to describe. She says, “I often have a sense that it’s God’s will if I feel some challenge, as well as some pull.” If there’s no challenge, and it seems too easy and too simple, then I have to wonder if it’s my own decision. God’s hopes and desires for us should stretch us and make us grow – and if we’re not little bit anxious about that, we may well have taken the easy road.
Debra Farrington talks about how important Christian friends can be in helping us hear God’s voice. Too often we try to figure out God’s will all on our own. We need to remember that God doesn’t just speak to our own hearts – he also speaks to the hearts of others, and they can be invaluable guides as we seek to find our way forward.
For Debra Farrington, if we are truly in tune with God’s will, then we’ll start to see things aligning in a number of different ways. We may not find that everyone agrees with our decision, but we will find doors starting to open, and other signs of encouragement that help to confirm that we are moving in the right direction.
At the centre of this process is the prayer for discernment. We ask God to guide us according to his will. The very act of praying this prayer brings us closer to the will of God, because it brings us closer to God.
One thing is certain – if we want to know the will of God then we must know God. Debra Farrington says we must “learn to be as equally present to God as God is to us.” That may not be something we can achieve on this side of eternity. But perhaps we can live with God at the centre of our lives. If we can do that, God’s voice will be much easier for us to hear.
What does the Lord require of you? Ultimately what he requires of us is us. He wants us to live in relationship with him – a relationship in which we walk humbly with him. It’s within that relationship that God speaks to us most clearly – and it’s within that relationship that we can know that even when we make wrong decisions, as we inevitably do, God is with us, surrounding us with his merciful and compassionate love.