Playing Games with God
Chapter 5

The Listening Game

by Robert M. Smith

Living Water at the Oasis
Living Water at the Oasis

Playing Games with God
Chapter 5
The Listening Game
by Robert M. Smith

I have fond memories of my six year sojourn in Edmonton, Alberta. My wife and I headed west from Ontario to spend a couple of years at Mount Carmel Bible School. As young Christians, we longed for the solid grounding that this extraordinary institution could provide and we were not disappointed. With the likes of Robert Taylor, Bill Gurnette, Nelson Annan, Stan King, John King and Gary Inrig as instructors our time was extremely well-spent. Since we were also in our mid-twenties at the time we had innumerable opportunities for fellowship with many other young believers in this burgeoning western city. There were a great variety of things to do as a Christian "young peoples' group" ... including [to remain in context] playing games. On a number of occasions we'd try the "listening game" where 15 or more people would line up or sit in a circle. The person designated to start this experiment would whisper a sentence into the ear of the individual beside him or her. From that humble beginning, the sentence would be whispered into neighbour after neighbour until it reached the last person in line, who would then recite, out loud, what he or she heard. Thus, a simple statement like, "I fed the pigeons in Stanley Park last Wednesday." would come out of that human pipeline sounding absolutely nothing like that! It was a simple and yet most informative experiment in the communication processes that we humans tangle with every single day.

I'm sure that we have all seen sit-coms and jokes about men and their "selective hearing" problems but I'm here to say that selective hearing is a universal problem. Sometimes all of us hear only what we want to hear; we tune into what we like and we tune out what we disdain ... and we're never wrong, are we? It matters little what is being said and it matters little who is saying it; if it does not meet with our approval it gets dispatched to the circular file of our minds. This malady can be witnessed through the example of Old Testament Israel. Time and time again accounts of this wayward nation reveal that they would readily listen to the wrong messages delivered by false prophets and reject the right message given by the true prophets of God. Why? Well, there are numerous answers to that question. Impure and false desires, pride and irresponsibility come to mind but it actually boils down to the age-old, global-wide longing of all humanity: man would rather have sin reigning than God reigning. Jesus called it serving the master that we loved dearest; it comes naturally to a selfish creature. And in Israel's case we have a most distressing testimony of how far they pursued this strategy of rejecting God by rejecting His messengers: "Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth." (Heb 11:35-38 RSV).

This rejection got so bad that by the time the Old Testament was drawing to a close the people were incapable of hearing God when He spoke directly to them. Upon entering the New Testament era this listening problem grew worse. On one particular occasion, in speaking openly about the purpose of the Father and His own purpose, Jesus said, "Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, 'Father save Me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father glorify Your name." (Jn 12:27-28a NASB). In response to this public declaration of the holy plan of God, it is recorded, "Then a voice came out of heaven: 'I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.'" (Jn 12:28b NASB). One would expect that those present would have been stunned by this revelation, perhaps falling to the ground in reverential fear. But no such reaction is given. Instead we find excuses foisted as rationale – indeed, the very same themes we are likely to raise in the North American church today: "So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, 'An angel has spoken to Him.'" (Jn 12:29 NASB). How true is the testimony of Isaiah, Jesus Christ, Luke in the book of Acts and the writer of the book of Hebrews when they state that the people had grown "dull of hearing"; unreceptive in their desire to be unrepentant.

To pursue this problem further, we should consider why Jesus spoke through parables to the masses. His explanation acts as an encouragement to us now as it did to His inner core of disciples then:

"And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?"

He answered and said to them, "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:

'Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
And seeing you will see and not perceive;
For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears Bare hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.'

But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." (Matt 13:10-17 NKJV)

Though this delineates the favour of God to the faithful it also exposes the magnitude of the apparent deafness of both the Pharisees and the worldly in that day. They were blinded and deafened by many things, but like Pharaoh before them, their hardness of heart stemmed from a lack of trust in God and an inordinate pride in themselves. The Apostle Paul, who knew this sin firsthand, would later tab it as the devil's sin (1 Tim 3:6). To shed even more light on this subject and to see this game played out in its finest, we shall have to visit the eighth chapter of John's Gospel. Jesus had just humiliated the Sanhedrin, who in an unabashed lust to disgrace the Son of God, fabricated an adulterous liaison between a man and a woman for their purposes. If ever there was a total disregard for the law of God, this exemplified it ... above and beyond the act of the supposedly disreputable couple! But herein was Jesus challenged; and in response to that challenge, He set the entire group, "beginning with the older ones", to flight from His holy presence with His unexpected assessment.

Immediately after this failed attempt by the Sanhedrin Jesus boldly declares that He is "the Light of the world", whom to follow is to avoid the pitfalls of groping in darkness. With this proclamation Jesus established an extraordinary contrast: 1) that the Sanhedrin and all the restrictive religious bric-a-brac that they represent is epitomized with darkness; 2) that He, the Messiah, not only dwells in light but is – as is appropriate to the very nature of God – Light itself. In this regard, the Psalms reveal several visages of the Divine attribute known as light: Psalm 104:2 states that God is light in essence; Psalm 43:3 tells us that spiritual light and truth, alike, are given as Divine guidance; Psalm 37:6 states that spiritual light is righteousness; Psalm 36:9 declares that only through Divine light shall anyone ever see and approach the light needed in this life. Since these attributes were readily recognized by the religious authorities as an attestation to the Divinity of Christ they launched into an unprecedented assault here, in John chapter eight. And in order to grasp the depth of their problem and to see the listening game at its worst, we shall look at their comments exclusively. At this point, still stinging from their encounter, they simply want to attack Jesus. They no longer care whether they appear morally and theologically right or wrong ... they just want to show that they are not aligning themselves with Him. They were determined to make the pedigree of Jesus the issue rather than the message. So, in a complete and utter dismissal of Old Testament truth – where God's truth was delivered by sheep herders, goat herders and farmers – they decided to concentrate their attention on our Lord's background. As a side note, here, we should also comprehend that the pedigree of the messenger is never the issue with God: He has utilized academic failures like Spurgeon and mere shoe salesmen like Moody ... men who proved God's strength through what the world considers weakness.

Understanding none of these spiritual truths, the religious authorities begin their ad hominem arguments, seeking to de-legitimize their Opponent:

Verse 13: "You are bearing witness to Yourself; Your testimony is not true."

Verse 19: "Where is Your Father?"

Verse 25: "Who are You?"

Verse 33: "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been in bondage to anyone."

Verse 41: "We are not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God."

Verse 48: "Are we not right in saying that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?"

Verse 53: "Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets who died? Who do you claim to be?"

It is obvious that the Jewish authorities would do, say and believe anything to show their contempt of Jesus. If we were to translate all of these comments into the jargon of our day, it would come out in the sarcastic question: "Who do you think you are?!" At the very heart of the listening game, this derogatory remark lies coiled, ready to lash out when we don't like what we hear. This is a very old tactic. It has been utilized for thousands of years. The Pharisees were the perfect practitioners of this condescending, satanic attitude. Both, Jesus and John the Baptist were subjected to this interrogation. Greek philosophy introduced the ancient world to what is called the "Socratic method" where one questions his way to the truth of a matter. Unfortunately this same methodology can be used to avoid truth: case in point, note Pontius Pilate's conversation with Jesus in John chapter eighteen ... particularly his conclusion in verse 38 ["Pilate said to Him, 'What is truth?'"]. Taken the wrong way, the "Socratic method" fosters an air of self-superiority and self-sufficiency which disdains God-sufficiency.

Even the great beloved chapter of Scripture [John chapter 3] has an undercurrent of this selfishness in it, evidenced through Nicodemus. Too long have Christians misinterpreted his questions as the musings of a kindly old man ... when they are actually nothing of the sort. He came to Jesus at night in order to avoid detection. Something was bothering him enough to cause this late night rendezvous but upon meeting Jesus, he adopted the long-held, ingrained Pharisaical approach to issues. He started with flattery ["Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." NASB] which neither he nor the Sanhedrin believed. This introduction was designed to simply get a hearing and Jesus, not fooled, completely ignored every word of it. The Lord cut to the chase while the Pharisee did what Pharisees do ... after all he had been a Pharisee for an awful long time and it is truly hard for an old dog to learn a new trick. So upon hearing that he needed to experience rebirth, Nicodemus responded the way every Pharisee would: "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" (Jn 3:4 NASB). With this he was not trying to understand as much as he was trying to avoid, and there's nothing cute about that. In "debating terms" this is called "Reductio ad Absurdum" – making something absurd in order to deflect it; it is also called "Faulty Syllogism" – drawing faulty conclusions in order to evade an issue; these days we might call this "putting words in other peoples' mouths". Jesus did not let him get away with these things and, as the record shows, Nicodemus' evasive tactics failed in the long run (Jn 19:39). His self-induced listening problem was eventually remedied. The question remains, however: Will ours?

Jesus does not provide us with easily assimilated words and, as seen in Matt 13:10-17, they were difficult to swallow for a very important reason. Many people who heard Jesus, even disciples (Jn 6:66), turned away when He got too deep for them. Some like the Pharisees refused the message because of the Messenger; others refused the message because of its content. To borrow a theatrical phrase, they couldn't "handle the truth" so two strategies were implemented: 1) Jesus' followers ran away from it; 2) the Sanhedrin tried to kill it. And, believe it or not, these two strategies are still utilized – even by Christians when they are confronted with a message from God. So often our meetings are "opened" with the plea, "May we hear a message from You, this day, oh Lord our God?" ... and yet when a message from God arrives without our stamp of approval on it, those two age-old strategies kick into high gear: 1) we run from it in our minds, hearts and spirits – even while sitting in a pew; 2) we try to kill it in our minds, hearts and spirits with a bevy of rationale – poor rationale being as good as any other at this point. When pricked in our hearts we often become Pharisaical, responding with: "Who do you think you are? Have you any idea of who you're talking to? I have nothing to learn from the likes of you!" That is the central theme of the listening game and it happens far too often in North American Evangelicalism. Our error is as Tozer describes it: "Whoever will listen will hear the speaking Heaven. This is definitely not the hour when men take kindly to an exhortation to listen, for listening is not today a part of popular religion. We are at the opposite end of the pole from there. Religion has accepted the monstrous heresy that noise, size, activity and bluster make a man dear to God."[1]

We Christians are a peculiar lot: we decry abortion and euthanasia in secular society but we condone and conduct "spiritual euthanasia" when we dismiss messages from God because of our selfish desires. Selective hearing has thus become a plague and only Jesus can heal such a problem, just as He did in Mk 7:31-37:

"Again He went out from the region of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, within the region of Decapolis. They brought to Him one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty, and they implored Him to lay His and upon him. Jesus took him aside from the crowd, by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He said to him, 'Ephphatha!' that is, 'Be opened!' And his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was removed, and he began speaking plainly. And He gave them orders not to tell anyone; but the more He ordered them, the more widely they continued to proclaim it. They were utterly astonished, saying, 'He has done all things well; He makes even the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.'" (NASB)

Take note that the man with the hearing problem also had an accompanying speech problem. It is well attested that deafness affects one's tongue in the physical realm but we, as believers, must recognize that by playing the listening game we will influence both our hearing and our speaking abilities in the spiritual realm. We tend to think that the listening game will remain unnoticeable to those around us but the tragic reality is that true disciples of Christ are not duped by this. How we listen to the Word of God and messages from God will always be mirrored in our conversation and deportment. This has nothing whatsoever to do with our intelligence; it has everything to do with who we listen to. And when we shut God out as Confidant, there aren't many other options left open to us! We become ineffectual in output because God has been allowed limited input ... and when that happens the stinging commentary of Francis Schaeffer is our inheritance: "Unless people see in our churches not only the preaching of the truth but the practice of the truth, the practice of love and the practice of beauty; unless they see that the thing that the humanists rightly want but cannot achieve on a humanist base – human communication and human relationship – is able to be practiced in our communities, then let me say it clearly: They will not listen and they should not listen."[2] To put it bluntly: if we, as believers, don't listen properly to God why, on earth, should any non Christian listen to us?

There are a couple of solutions to this dilemma and the primary starting point is, as it should be, with the preachers of the land, for if the listening game can be stymied upon the platform first it will have greater effect in the pews. A preacher is obligated to be a student before becoming a teacher and students with hearing problems are of little value to God as teachers of His word. At times the truth of a preacher's ability to listen to God can easily be deduced by the content of his message. Oswald Chambers gives us an indication of how rampant the hearing problem is as he cites a rather common, modern methodology that has swept, and continues to sweep, this continent: "The average type of preaching emphasizes strength of will, beauty of character – the things that can be easily noticed. The phrase 'Decide for Christ' which we so frequently hear is too often an emphasis on the thing our Lord never trusted. Our Lord never asks us to decide for Him: He asks us the yield to Him – a very different matter."[3]

But, of course, it is decidedly difficult to teach "yeildedness" when one has not practiced it. And the engagement of it is shunned because there have been too many other longings taking up space in many a preacher's heart. I am particularly fond of Vance Havner's assessment of what a true preacher [he uses the term "prophet"; and quite accurately I might add] ought to be like. Cutting through trendy notions and leaving only the Scriptural he writes: "The true prophet has slight regard for forms and ceremonies. He belongs to no boards or committees. He courts no favors and never runs for office. He is disconcerting to the System and irritates those who seek only to maintain the status quo. He does not fit into the neat little patterns of swivel-chair strategists far removed from the actual conflict. He is hated by all Ahabs and Herods and Amaziahs and Jezebels and Queen Marys, the Pharisees and politicians, who resent any disturbance in institutional religion. He does not fawn upon notables nor seek the favor of either mob or monarch. He is not remotely interested in being 'in' with the rich, wise, mighty or noble. He is not a guest in Herod's palace but may be a prisoner in Herod's jail. Like Savonarola, he may offend the Medicis and end up a martyr. Prophets are still beheaded, not in the gory original way, but with more finesse.

The prophet is essentially a rebel. Rebellion may be either bad or good. Satan was a rebel against God and was cast out of heaven for it. Today he heads up a vast host of demons – all rebels – who war against God. But rebellion can be good. Jesus was a rebel against the lifeless established religion of His day. So were Paul and Luther and Knox and Wesley and all who clash with the established order of their time. When religion becomes a performance instead of an experience, when the living faith of the dead becomes the dead faith of the living, prophets are needed. To equip such men, God usually endows them with a streak of stubbornness and a disinclination to follow beaten paths. This makes them unpopular with the prevailing set-up of their day."[4]

Clean up the preachers and the church will follow suit. And how is this done? With three simple concepts:

1) Be sure to have a right relationship with God as expressed in John 10:1-5 and 11-16.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers."

"I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for he sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd."(NASB)

In this allegory Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd and His followers as His sheep. It is abundantly clear that no one will be able to hear the Good Shepherd's voice unless he/she is indeed one of His sheep. Hearing and listening are, therefore, entirely dependent upon "relationship" and we, as Christians, ought to recognize that this relationship is the "number one issue" in the life of every man, woman and child on this planet. Without it we shall not acquire the salvation God offers and – not to be underestimated since it is a significant part of this scenario from Jesus – we shall not hear God. We erroneously assume that rationale and mental acuity are the means by which we hear God and many a preacher has adopted this philosophy. But this hearing of the voice of the Good Shepherd is a spiritual component, not a physical/mental one. "The Holy Spirit witnesses only to His own nature, not to our reason. Jesus said 'My sheep hear My voice,' not because it is argued to them, but because they have His Spirit."[5] Giving "relationship" the primacy it deserves, we must also conclude that, not only will we not hear God without a right relationship, we cannot respond to God in love without it either – drawing attention to the most important commandment of a Holy God, according to Jesus Christ our Lord (Matt 22:36-38).

2) Be Berean with the Scriptures.

"The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so." (Acts 17:10-11 NASB)

The Bereans mentioned in this account were Jews who, upon hearing the Gospel from Paul and Silas, decided to do an unusual thing. Compared to their kindred in other places (Acts 9:23; 13:45; 13:50; 14:1-7; 14:19; 17:5; 17:13; 18:6; 18:12-13; 20:3; 21:11; 21:27; 23:12; 25:6-8; 26:21; 28:19; 28:29) these Jews were willing to search the Scriptures. But let me point out, because it is so incredibly important, that these Berean Jews examined the Scriptures in a specific way. Their intention was not to launch into debate by myopically looking for excuses and arguments in a vain attempt at attacking the Apostle Paul. They poured through the Scriptures objectively "to see whether these things were so". Their sole purpose was to clarify and ratify, not repudiate and denounce impulsively. They heard some earth-shattering things from the two disciples; things that would only be understood through surrender to God; things that far-exceed any Biblical radicalism of our day within ecclesiastical walls. The only ears that work properly are the objective ears of the virtuous ... the ears that seek God for Who He is and not what we want Him to be. Such ears are rare ... such ears do not play listening games.

3) Don't play.

Many years ago I watched a movie called "War games". Since it was produced in 1983 the computer technology of that time appears quite antiquated but the plot was certainly conceivable. A bright but lazy young high school student was searching random telephone numbers across America in order to tap into other computers – one of the earliest renditions of a modern day "hacker". Because of his fun-loving nature this young fellow, however, was innocently trying to find computer games to play with and after an extensive search he found – unbeknownst to him – the main computer for NATO. The "W.O.P.R." [pronounced "whopper"] was programmed with both simulated and real-time responses to any perceived enemy assaults on North America during the age that we have called "the cold war" era and, through a sequence of interactions with the young student, the W.O.P.R. initiated a thermonuclear response program. Throughout the movie no one is sure whether the W.O.P.R. is preparing for war or not because NATO headquarters was certainly taking all of the on-screen data very seriously. To make a long story short, however, we get to the end of the film where the W.O.P.R. is finally simulating a nuclear war instead of starting one. And once all the maneuvers had been made and all of the horrific results were tabulated the great computer goes quiet. After a long pause – of systematic reflection no doubt – the mechanical voice of the great computer breaks the silence, to the relief of everyone present, saying: "Strange game! The only winning move is not to play!"

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we too, are playing some strange games ... and we are playing them, not against some meager and menial computer, but against the God of the universe. We must, however, come to the same conclusion that this imaginary story comes to: we must see the futility of playing and the fatuity of playing any sort of game with God who loves us and gave Himself for us. God deserves better from us and we, through the life that He has instilled in us, can indeed do better. Don't play around with God!

[1] A. W. Tozer, The Best of A.W. Tozer – Volume 1, Christian Publications Inc., Camp Hill, PA, Page 25

[2] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Curch at the end of the 20th Century, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1970, Page 40

[3] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 661

[4] Vance Havner, Three-score & ten, Fleming H Revell Co., New Jersey, 1973, Pages 68-69

[5] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 698

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