I hear voices

As I’m traveling myself I recruited Mark Nicklas, a pastor in Beaverton, Oregon, and good friend to share from his own heart for God. As you will read here, we once shared in a 4-month Bible read-through together, sharing with me the pleasure I always find there.  I’m pleased to have him fill the post while I need to defer my own writing activities.  His comments have been part of the Spreading Goodness conversation so many readers will know him already.  Welcome, Mark!



At 38,000 feet over the North Sea, I am settling in for the long flight back to Portland from Amsterdam.  Ron has long been asking me contribute to the blog, but until now, whenever I tried to write it felt forced.  I am feeling inspired today and it’s a long flight, so I hope that I can bring some meaningful word to Ron’s readers in what I will share.


I want to talk about voices.  I don’t think I am unusual in saying that I hear voices.  The fact is, I’ve always heard voices – lots of them.  The churning of thoughts and ideas within is a cacophony of voices.   They come from outside, from inside and from somewhere else.  There is a steady stream of them competing for my attention, often coming from points of confusion no different than my own. 


Voices on the outside are easy enough to distinguish.  Audible and attached to people, they comment, coax, console, comfort, confuse, confront, combat (apologies, though I will leave it in – it is the preacher’s curse – until the last two of these, I swear the alliteration was unintentional).  The media wants to inform me, advertisers want to entice me, friends want to influence me, some even want to control me.  There is never an end to the voices on the outside.  Being audible, they are easier to resist, but their steady drumbeat does get inside until it too can take a place among the voices on the inside.   


The voices on the inside have the greater influence.  These tend to sound like me.  They are accumulated from a life of internal conversations.   And though I wish it weren’t so, these can often be the hardest voices to hear – they can be accusing, discouraging, cursing, suspicious and insecure.  More than I want to admit, they breed an internal discontent that I would not want anyone else to ever see, leaving me with confused motives and conflicting desires.  Even my parent’s voices find place in the things I mull over – left over phrases from long ago, encouraging here and admonishing there.   


There are other voices as well.  One set of these has a common theme – these are like voices on the inside, but seem to be from somewhere else.  They play on the insecurities and fears that hide inside from a lifetime lived in a broken world.  These voices rile up the things inside and can leave me despairing and hopeless.  They mock things that are innocent – accusing such thoughts as naïve.  They treat healthy altruism with cynicism, telling me to choose safe fearful responses rather than courageous and beautiful ones.  But there is another amazing Voice…


In the Old Testament, shortly after the fall, Cain has a conversation with God.  There is clarity – Cain knows to whom he is speaking and he listens to the voice of God.  He doesn’t listen or trust, but he does hear.  Was he any different than we are today?  I believe that the voice of God is not so far away as some would propose.  I further believe that He is always speaking to us, but that we have made room for louder voices and have forgotten what He sounds like.  I hadn’t always listened to His voice, though as I’ve come to know it, I swear it was always there. In my own life, when I responded to His voice, I found myself hearing a voice that was very, very familiar; a voice I had learned to ignore.


Before I started writing this article, waiting at the gate to leave, I was listening to a song called Missed the Boat by Modest Mouse.  Acknowledging that my interpretation could be a little off (the artist gets more say in this than the hearer, though I think I have this one right), it is a song that laments the writer’s involvement in religion.  The title suggests that while he and others in his church community were trying to fake spirituality, they were missing the boat on life.  The chorus of the song celebrates his emancipation from a belief system that focuses on rewards after death – the “end gong” – while missing “life’s sweet bells.” 


Having come to Christ later in life, I can appreciate where he is coming from.  If the voice of God were absent from faith, then adhering to it becomes an exercise in mind-over-will and faith an exercise in the suspense of reality.  The religious experience of the songwriter, Isaac Brock, was devoid of real hearing, and so he rightfully challenges what it was based upon.  In one particularly poignant phrase, after talking about how “our ideas held no water but we used ‘em like a dam,” he says this:


We were certainly uncertain; at least I’m pretty sure I am

Well we didn’t need the water, but we just built that good God dam

Oh and I know this for myself, I assume as much for other people


The voice of the artist captured something that I hear Christians say all the time, though not nearly so transparently.  He is uncertain, he rejects the need for God (something that in his life was never confirmed by a direct revelation), and so he reduces belief in a good God as something that is used to hold back the tide of the kinds of ideas we fear.  There was nothing real in his faith experience, which he assumes about others.


The past week in Holland I met a number of young people preparing to be missionaries.  Surprisingly, they sounded similar to Isaac Brock.  Quite a few of them were confused; they were listening to all the internal voices and not hearing God’s voice, though they were desperate for it.  So far God has been silent.  I wondered how many of them would walk away with the same sense of discouragement as the songwriter with the belief that God is ultimately a silent God – or no God. 


It is the same problem I am seeing in the church in America.  Churches, ever pursuing cultural relevance, search the cultures philosophies and discoveries and bring them to the pulpit – a place that should be for prophetic preaching of God’s Word.  I have been through worship services where enthusiastic messages could be reduced to psychology, or motivation, or utilitarian 3-steps-to-something speeches.  Where is spirit-led revelation from God’s Word?  In an informal survey of young people, in addition to discontent with the church (especially those who have grown up in it) I find a low regard for the Word of God.  They simply are not reading it – or worse yet, they have turned it into a kind of self-help text book – reading small amounts and trying to make meaningful applications to their daily struggles.  They want to hear from God, but they don’t consider time in His Word as important.  They are wandering thirsty in the rain.


Reading God’s word helps us to hear what He sounds like.  Reading a lot of God’s word daily gives us a sense of His presence – we begin to hear His voice and to know what He sounds like.  He is clear.  He is close.  He is compelling.  I will be forever grateful to Ron for taking me through a 4-month read-through of the Bible.  I have since taken others through the same thing and am watching them as they begin to hear the Spirit as Counselor.  So… to quote Ron… make this the day.



  1. Bobby Grow

    Hi Mark,

    Great post, I couldn’t agree with you more about the state of the church (in general)! If only more pastors would read through their bibles, I think the world might be turned upside down if that were to happen.

    Reading through the scriptures over the past 14yrs has radically transformed my life (probably in ways that I will only really understand from heavens vantage point); I would be “lost” without them.

    I’m glad Ron had you post! Keep up the good work at your church . . . your “flock” is blessed to have someone committed to being saturated in the scriptures (“filled with the Holy Spirit”).

  2. Steve MItchell

    Exegeting Modest Mouse? You rock! I am so thankful you posted this. I know so many people who hunger and thirst to hear from God, while their Bibles gather dust.

    “They are wandering thirsty in the rain.” What a beautifully crafted idea. It’s heartbreaking, though. Thanks!

  3. N. Dan Smith

    Quid pro quo:

    “In New York freedom looks like too many choices
    In New York I found a friend to drown out the other voices
    Voices on the cell phone
    Voices from home
    Voices of the hard sell
    Voices down the stairwell
    In New York, just got a place in New York”

    And allow me to spur you on to more secular exegesis, since Jesus himself did the same: Acts 26:14

  4. Mark

    Thanks, Dan for adding Bono and Aeschylus to the mix – voices, voices… A longstanding Christian tradition, eh?

  5. morgan

    …a subject near and dear to my heart. i never tire of exploring this wonderful gift, never tire of learning to discern the voice of The Spirit of God through reading His Word.

    yesterdays “Voice”
    i have been studying the life of Moses and became ‘sidetracked’ with the death of Miriam…almost a week went by, i couldn’t get her out of my mind! i imagined the sequence of events and was consumed with her attitudes and subsequent judgment. i re read the scriptures, and prayed for an answer to question’s that i couldn’t even articulate.
    and then..
    i heard “BE SILENT!”
    it startled me so much i literally stood at attention. what followed was a clear overwhelming repentance of a critical spirit..
    it came without condemnation (although i tried to muster this up) it came with forgiveness and with the knowledge that my prayer to know our Risen Christ continues, that God is indeed faithful to continue the work He has begun, and that He disciplines those he loves.
    He is indeed close, clear and compelling!
    thanks for a great post!

  6. Keith

    Mark – Whenever I read anything you’ve written, I always learn something new and I find my heart stirred into a deeper devotion to the Lord. One of the more pointed things He said about discipleship is John 8:31, “If you continue (abide) in My Word, then you are truly My disciples . . . .” That simple statement is worthy of a lot of prayerful mulling. Thanks to Ron and you for championing quick read-through. I started January 1, and I just finished the Old Testament. I’m on track to finish the New Testament by my goal of April 1. It’s been really good for me to break out of my comfortable, daily, meditative pattern and to get a panoramic view through “power reading.” Thanks for the great thoughts – keep reading . . . and keep writing!

  7. Tom Mueller

    That was the greatest thing I’ve ever read:-). Really though, it was very thought provoking. What was even more thought provoking was premarital counseling this morning. Thanks.

  8. Mark

    Well, Tom – let’s just say that our pre-marital counseling session with you and Sarah this morning was an exercise in hearing voices 🙂

  9. Ron

    Thank you, Mark. Your post was very much appreciated!

    My travels are going well. A pleasant and intriguing meeting with Peter while in London. I fly from Brussels tomorrow morning to Kigali. Thanks so much for your prayers.

  10. Sarah Butrell

    So many of us are trying to balance relevance and culture with tradition. I think we have this “need” to make this our generation’s faith…not something that feels stale and handed down. The problem is what is being negotiated. we risk compromising unchanging truth in the midst of it all and then the power and life of it is gone.

    I guess it is a good reminder that the Gospel is not all about us even though we like to think so!

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