When I was in high school, I was a “good girl.” Sure, I was mean and violent and angry all the time, but other than that, I think I was probably every parent’s dream kid. I got myself up and ready in the morning, cooked, cleaned, did laundry, never snuck out at night, almost never broke curfew [with the exception of a few unforeseeable circumstances, like getting stuck while mudding (or muddin’ if you prefer) one night], and was just generally obedient to any of my parents’ rules.

What’s more, I didn’t drink, smoke, do any drugs (other than an unhealthy amount of over-the-counter painkillers for migraines), or have sex. I was way too insecure for the last one and way too self-aware for the first three. I knew the way I was about things, very easily addicted. Food, actions, games, people–you name it, I’d get addicted to it after one good experience. I hung out with people who regularly did all four, but my best friend and I didn’t get involved. We were smart, smart enough to see the consequences of such self-destructive actions, and we wanted everyone else to know them as well. So we created “commercials” to run throughout our high school’s closed-circuit TVs during homeroom to encourage people not to drink, take drugs, or have sex. The campaign was called, “Is It Worth It?” and even earned us co-Student of the Year awards from the Chamber of Commerce for our efforts.

I wrote a monthly column for our high school newspaper. In one edition, I very bluntly stated all the things I have never done: shot heroin into my veins, had sex, smoked, etc. I’m not sure now what the point of the column was, perhaps just to encourage people to stop doing any of those things and be as cool as me. (I was cool. I sometimes brushed my hair and wore makeup, and my attire was usually jeans, white wife-beater tank, plaid button-up unbuttoned over the tank.)

My column somehow garnered more attention and I spoke to a group of kids during Red Ribbon Week, encouraging them to Just Say No or Just Do It or something like that. I was on the news. See what I mean? Cool. Epitome of.

I was active in my youth group and church, sometimes walking the mile or so to church and back if I didn’t have a ride. I sometimes prayed before bed and, when I really needed answers stat, I opened up my Bible and pointed and that verse told me what to do next. Or I kept trying until one of the verses made sense.

Impressive, right?

Flash forward five years. I’m a full-fledged alcoholic. I keep bottles of vodka or rum in my trunk, glove box, purse, and sock drawer. I do shots throughout the day or mix the liquor with soda in what is usually a 1:1 ratio. I drink during my classes, at work, while driving, whenever, wherever. I’m no longer a virgin. I date potheads, sleazeballs, guys who call themselves Christians, guys who couldn’t find a church if it was built right in front of them. I smoke constantly and usually try to hide it from everyone. I try to quit, throwing my cigarette box into the dumpster. The next day, I climb into the dumpster to get it back out. I love prescription pills. I take Vicodin, Darvocet, whatever I can get. I’m Superwoman on Hydrocodone. I don’t do hard drugs. Something inside me always holds me back, probably the last sane part of me who knows if I start, it will kill me. I’m already trying hard enough to kill myself in other ways. I have a daily devotional I read every night until I feel too convicted. I hide it in my drawer and pray sometimes in moments of clarity.

So what happened?

For a long time I told people it was because I had gotten confused. The morals I thought I had got mixed up and I didn’t know what to believe in anymore. I had myself convinced that my behavior was Scripturally sound. I blamed my behavior on events, circumstances that happened around me or to me. It’s easy, very, very easy, for me to place blame. We didn’t have a lot of money, my parents are divorced, I was mistreated by friends, I wanted to feel accepted, I needed just to feel something, I wanted to perpetuate my suffering for the sake of my emo poetry writing that spoke to other people, etc. It’s enough to confuse, sure. But here’s the thing God just showed me, this morning, the truth about what really happened:

The world is louder than God.

Remember when Jezebel was hell-bent on killing Elijah in 1 Kings 19? He ends up at Mount Sinai, and he gets to talk with God. But the windstorm blows by, and God isn’t in it. And the earthquake comes up and God isn’t in it. And the fire burns by, but God isn’t it. And God’s used all of these things to get people’s attention before, but not this time. This time he comes after all the noise and destruction has died down, and he speaks. In a whisper. Elijah may have been expecting God in the windstorm or the earthquake or the fire. What if his ears were still ringing from the sound of it all? But God chooses to speak to him in a whisper. Elijah would have had to be listening for that. And me, in my case, I was so focused on the earthquakes and fires and windstorms of my world, I wouldn’t have heard God if he’d shouted at me, much less whispered. And he was whispering, all along. I know that now.

Ray VanderLaan is one of the smartest people I wish I knew. He talks in his Follow the Rabbi lectures (you can find them for free here) about spending time with the sheepherders in Israel. A shepherd’s flock relies on his voice to get from place to place. They stop when he stops and walk when he walks, using only the sound of his voice as a guide. At one point RVL spent the night with three shepherds whose flocks intermingled during the night. In the morning, each shepherd stood away from the flocks and called out, and each of his sheep came to him. The sheep that didn’t belong to him didn’t come when he called, as they didn’t know his voice.

Wow. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.” (John 10:3-5)

As our shepherd, Jesus’ voice should be the only voice to which we respond. We learn to recognize his voice by reading his Word and praying. We learn to stop when he stops and walk when he walks, following only the sound of his voice and hearing only him. And this is the difference between where I was in high school and where I am now. When I was younger, I thought the Christian thing was going to church and knowing how to jump rope to the books of the Bible and closing my eyes when I prayed. But none of those things really taught me how to hear Christ’s voice. I learned to hear him over time, as I established a daily quiet time with God. It trained me to listen for the whisper among the windstorms of this world. And every once in a while, the world is shouting at me and I get confused and frantic. And this is where John 10:5 comes in: “They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.” I have to be so focused on hearing Jesus that any other voices send me running back to him.

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between God’s voice, my voice, my friends’ voices, and the voices of the rest of the world. Because, like God said, the world is loud. My friends’ voices are loud. My voice is infamously loud. And God is whispering.

God isn’t going to force himself on us. That’s the awful beauty of free will. But he does promise that if we come close to him, he will come close to us. (James 4:8) That means if we’re seeking him, we’ll find him. If we’re listening for him in spite of fires and earthquakes, we’ll eventually hear the whisper. We may not hear it first, and we’ll doubtfully hear it loudest, but it’ll be there. And when the devil calls out to us or the world tries to get our attention, we will recognize it instantly as a stranger’s voice and run back to our shepherd.