We are surrounded by many voices. There's rarely a moment within our waking lives that someone or something isn't calling out to us and, even in our sleep, dreams and nightmares ask for our attention.
Each voice has its own particular cadence and message. Some voices invite us in, promising us life if we do this or that or buy a certain product or idea; others threaten us. Some voices beckon us towards hatred, bitterness and anger, while others challenge us towards love, graciousness and forgiveness. Some voices tell us that they are playful and humorous, not to be taken seriously, even as others trumpet that they are urgent and weighty, the voice of non-negotiable truth, God's voice.
Within all of these: Which is the voice of God? How do we recognize God's voice among and within all of these voices?
That's not easy to answer. God, as the Scriptures tell us, is the author of everything that's good, whether it bears a religious label or not. Hence, God's voice is inside of many things that are not explicitly connected to faith and religion, just as God's voice is also not in everything that masquerades as religious. But how do we discern that?
Jesus leaves us a wonderful metaphor to work with, but it's precisely only a metaphor: He tells us that he is the "Good Shepherd" and that his sheep will recognize his voice among all other voices.
In sharing this metaphor, he is drawing upon a practice that was common among shepherds at the time: At night, for protection and companionship, shepherds would put their flocks together into a common enclosure.
They would then separate the sheep in the morning by using their voices. Each shepherd had trained his sheep to be attuned to his voice and his voice only.
The shepherd would walk away from the enclosure calling his sheep, oftentimes by their individual names, and they would follow him. His sheep were so attuned to his voice that they would not follow the voice of another shepherd, even if that shepherd tried to trick them (shepherds often did this to try to steal someone else's sheep) by imitating the voice of their own shepherd.
Like a baby who, at a point, will no longer be cuddled by the voice of a babysitter, but wants and needs the voice of the mother, each sheep recognized intimately the voice that was safeguarding him and would not follow another voice.
So too with us: among all the voices that surround and beckon us, how do we discern the unique cadence of God's voice? Which is the voice of the Good Shepherd?
There's no easy answer and sometimes the best we can do is to trust our gut-feeling about right and wrong. But we have a number of principles that come to us from Jesus, from Scripture, and from the deep wells of our Christian tradition that can help us.
What follows is a series of principles to help us discern God's voice among the multitude of voices that beckon us. What is the unique cadence of the voice of the Good Shepherd?
The voice of God, it would seem, is forever found in paradox.