Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, has the most practical, wise and biblically sound reading I have ever done on the subject of divine guidance. It’s a book worth reading over and again for those who wrestle with the problems of how God communicates with us personally: Is it presumptuous to think that God would want to communicate with us directly? Isn’t the Bible an entirely sufficient revelation of God’s will for any and all Christians? What is the relationship between the Bible and more personal forms of communication from God? How do we reliably distinguish the voice of God from our own thoughts and desires? What if something which I believe God is telling me later proves to be mistaken? Willard deals with these issues in very perceptive and insightful ways, not with pat answers and formulas. (Though he does provide one formula at the end of the book, it’s for “living with God’s voice”, not for getting God to speak with us on matters that may concern us.)
It seems reasonable to assume that God’s speaking with us must be a matter which is entirely up to him and is independent of our own condition. If God wants to tell us something he should have no trouble in getting our attention and getting his point across to us, like he did with Saul of Tarsus (who later became Paul the Apostle) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). This is certainly true in principle, but I think Willard would argue that these are exceptional means which would be out of God’s character and intent for normal use. Rather, God wants to speak to those who honestly and earnestly desire to hear his voice. He speaks mainly to those who are humble in character, receptive and responsive in spirit. That God speaks to us isn’t a matter of reward or privilege for being righteous or devout. It doesn’t put what God says to us personally on the same level of authority with Scripture or give us license to neglect careful and rigorous study of the Bible. God’s speaking to us doesn’t make us infallible hearers of what is said any more than we are infallible in our understanding of what anyone else says to us. Nor can we rely on God to speak to us about any matter that we wish him to in order to escape all responsibility for what he wants to be our own decisions or because we are “obsessed with being right as a strategy for being safe.” Hearing from God is not a means toward risk free living. Certain risks are necessary to produce character in us. Though there is certainly some benefit to living wisely in God’s counsel, what God says to us may take us out of our comfort zone. It’s important to understand that, “God doesn’t speak to us to amuse or entertain us but to make some real difference in our lives.” Hearing God has as much to do with who God wants us to be as it does with what he wants us to do.
Willard puts divine guidance in it’s proper context. It is not an end in itself but a vital part of living a “life greater than our own–that of the kingdom of God.” This life is not only for “super spiritual” people but is accessible to anyone who would enter it. For all the correctives that Willard gives on matters of divine guidance for Christians, the book’s main purpose is to show that God strongly desires to communicate with us on a personal, conversational level. Willard shows us how this desire can be met with our own desires as part of a whole life lived in the will of God. This is not without its challenges in the modern world. “Nearly all areas of life in which we could become spiritually competent (hearing God and receiving divine guidance among them) confront us with the same type of challenge. The all require of us a choice to be a spiritual person, to live a spiritual life. We are required to “bet our life” that the visible world, while real, is not reality itself” (p. 219).
“Spiritual people,” Willard says, “are not those who engage in certain spiritual practices; they are those who draw their life from a conversational relationship with God. They do not live their lives merely in term of the human order in the visible world; they have “a life beyond” (p. 222). This book offers tremendous encouragement that not only is such a life possible, it is available to any who desire it. Indeed, if “God has created us for intimate friendship with himself–both now and forever”, our desire to hear God has its source in him and trying to live our lives without hearing God would be more presumptuous and dangerous than otherwise (p. 9-10).
This is an area of life that I don’t connect to much. My communication with God consists of thanking him, confessing to him, asking for his guidance, and asking for his help for others. The kind of fellowship with God that Willard’s book discusses is an activity that seems to me a little beyond human experience, entered by those who have a special interest in that realm. I haven’t been convicted that I’m falling short of something, but I have a nagging suspicion that I am not takng advantage of all that is offered to me.
I just finished the book and am going to go back through it as a basic guide for a Bible study group. It’s stunning but very deep, at least for me. However, as I finally into Chapters 8, 9 and the Epilogue, it took my breath away.
A central challenge for me is to identify the “new me” that has the capacity to hear God’s voice and become enveloped in His will, and to exile and put duct tape on the mouth of the selfish, raucus and nasty “old me” that hangs on for dear death, making so much noise that it drowns out the still small voice of my God.
I want to thank Dr. Willard for what had to be a daunting writing project.