Two Popes Talk about how Hard it is to Hear God’s Voice

One of the goals of director Fernando Meirelles in his recent movie The Two Popes was to present Pope Benedict and Pope Francis in an “everyman’s” light. As such, the movie has scenes capturing the vast scope and grandeur of the world’s largest church as well as more intimate moments such as Benedict and Francis gearing up in their papal robes and eating pizza in a side room of the Sistine Chapel.

Although the interactions of the two popes in the film are largely imagined, their conversations are based on various published speeches and writings. One of the signature scenes in the movie is a dialogue about hearing God’s voice. Benedict begins: 

Benedict: You know the hardest thing is to listen for God’s voice.

Francis: Even for a pope? 

Benedict: As a young man I always knew what God wanted – his purpose for me, but now? I don’t know. Perhaps I need to listen more intently. What do you think? 

Francis: I think perhaps I need a spiritual hearing aid. When I first heard God’s voice, it brought me peace; such peace. You must have felt that. The call, yes? 

Benedict: I asked God for a sign. I did. Nothing. I can’t hear his voice. Silence.

Here Pope Benedict is struggling to hear from God about his future role in the Church – should he stay or should he take early retirement? Francis (a cardinal at the time) responds to Benedict’s musings with his own experience hearing God’s call as a young man. Though it had been clear at the time, both men agreed how difficult it can be.

Their conversation is reminiscent of so many of us. The struggle to hear God’s voice seems to apply whether we’re from the highest hierarchies of church life or we are brand new Christians. The question is, why? If God by his very nature is a speaking God (the Old Testament alone records references to him speaking over 3800 times), how can something so basic to the Christian faith be so difficult?

A verse in the book of Job redirects the problem from God to us. Like us, Job’s audience found themselves complaining that God was silent. The writer goes on to explain that God was speaking, but they didn’t notice it (Job 33:13-15). The problem was with them, not with God.

The Talking God

When we are struggling to hear from God, we first need to remind ourselves that the expectation to hear God’s voice is a good one. Indeed it is a biblical one. The God of the Bible is a talking God. Two-way conversation lies at the core of relationship with him and is the key distinctive of the New covenant (Acts 2:16,17) as well as the pattern of the entire biblical narrative. Most of the Bible is made up of God conversations! Story after story tells how the biblical characters heard from God, believed it in faith and acted to see it come to pass. Indeed God does nothing without first speaking it (Amos 3:7). So our expectation should be that we can and will hear God’s voice clearly.

If God is speaking then, why don’t we notice it? Part of the issue relates to our ideas about what God says. Too often we come to God with our own agendas – we need answers and we need them now! But God speaks to us as the continuing voice of Jesus (John 14:26; John 16:13). It is his mission that defines the conversation. The Spirit speaks today to bring God’s kingdom from heaven to earth. Hearing and following God’s voice is designed to make us more like Jesus.

This means the silence we’re experiencing may be because our agenda for hearing and God’s agenda for speaking is mismatched. We come to him asking about whether to take a new job, where to live or what person to marry. He comes to us asking us to forgive our father, wash the dishes or be kind to the grumpy next door neighbour. What we need to do is to set aside our own agendas and allow the Spirit to speak to us about whatever is on God’s heart. Then, once we’ve heard God speak, we make a decision to follow (John 10:27; John 14:21). It is this kind of understanding that positions our heart to hear clearly from God every time. It’s a principle that applies to every single member of God’s church – even to the pope (Acts 2:16,17).

Read more: What to Do When God is Silent.

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God Conversations