Without a doubt, this was the most helpful book in developing my theology and my language for learning how to listen to God. I hope that this summary does the book justice and can encourage others to buy the book and gain what I gained from Dallas.
Right off the bat, Dallas sets the tone of the book:
Hearing God? A daring idea, some would say—presumptuous and even dangerous. But what if we are made for it? What if the human system simply will not function properly without it? There are good reasons to think it will not. The fine texture as well as the grand movements of life show our need to hear God. Isn’t it more presumptuous and dangerous, in fact, to undertake human existence without hearing from God. … Hearing God is but one dimension of a richly interactive relationship, and obtaining guidance is but one facet of hearing God.
Chapter 1 The Paradox of Hearing God
“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because God would have us do it.” Brother Lawrence
Willard starts with a story from his early days as an assistant pastor. It was Sunday dinner and his family (including his wife’s grandmother – Mema) gathered and was discussing the sermon. During the sermon, the pastor spoke about how God had provided specific guidance as to the ministry of the church. And in the process, “he testified that God had spoken to him about things that should be done.” Mema responded: “I wonder why God never speaks to me like that.”
This speaks as well as anything to the paradox of hearing God. Mema was one of the most devout woman Willard knew. He tells us that how we talk about “hearing God” puts “many sincere Christians on the outside, looking in.” Here is his key take away: “They are not necessarily lacking the experience of hearing God, but they do not understand the language or how their experience works.”
This relates very closely to our experience in over thirty years when we were leading individuals and groups to learn how to listen to God. Very often the problem wasn’t that they were not hearing from God but that they either didn’t recognize His voice as such or they didn’t have the language to describe what they had heard. Our job, very often, was to provide a safe environment for people to explore the exciting possibility that God may have spoken to them personally.
I have even found that those who do not believe that God speaks in “the still, small voice” anymore but only speaks through the Scriptures, are really hearing His voice speak to them about extra-biblical topics and themes. With some safe questions, a little encouragement and a lot of love, they can see that God still speaks as He did in the Old and New Testaments.
The Moving of God
Willard tells how he grew in his own understanding of hearing God and thought it was part of the normal Christian life – not knowing that large segments of the church were not experiencing hearing from God.
The Ongoing Conversation
Today I continue to believe that people are meant to live in an ongoing conversation with God, speaking and being spoken to. Rightly understood I believe that this can be abundantly verified in experience.
- Adam and Eve
Given who we are by basic nature, we live—really live—only through God’s regular speaking in our souls and thus “by every word that comes from of the mouth of God.”
But those who experience a directing word from God rarely speak about it. Often they have never spoken of it at all, even to their closest friends
The UFO Syndrome
Hearing from God puts you in the UFO sighting category “because of the lack
of specific teaching and pastoral guidance on such matters.”
He even cites that famous theologian, Lily Tomlin who said:
“Why is it that when we speak to God we are said to be praying but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?”
Our Leaders Hear from God
Willard cites some of the examples of followers of God who hear from Him:
As Christians we stand in a millennia-long tradition of humans who have been addressed by God. The ancient Israelites heard the voice of their God speaking to them out of the midst of fire (Deuteronomy 4:33). A regular place of communion and conversational interchange between the high priest and God was established in the mercy seat over the ark of God (Exodus 25:22; see also Luke 1:11-21).
And this was not just for leaders:
But the individual person with faith among the Israelites also cried out expectantly to be taught by God:
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path. Psalm 143:10
Abiding Includes Conversing
Willard makes the case that it would make no sense for Jesus and the Father to make their home in us without conversing.
How could there be a personal relationship with God, a personal walk with God – or with anyone else – without individualized conversation.
One – to – One with God
We hold a man to be really a Christian when we believe we have ample evidence that God has revealed himself to him in Jesus Christ, and that now the man’s inner life is taking on a new character through his communion with God who is thus manifest. Wilhelm Hermann
Our knowledge of God rests on the revelation of his personal presence. Of such a presence it must be true that to those who have never been confronted with it argument is useless, while to those who have, it is superfluous. John Baille
Dallas further defines the paradox:
On the one hand, we have massive testimony to and widespread faith in God’s personal, guiding communication with us—far more than mere providential and blindly controlling guidance.
Willard says we see this especially among God’s leaders:
Authority in spiritual leadership derives from a life in the Spirit, from the leader’s personal encounter and on-going relationship with God.
On the other hand, we also find a pervasive and often painful uncertainty about how hearing God’s voice actually works today and what its place is in the church and in the Christian’s life.
This paradox can prevent us hearing from God:
Even if we were to beg for a word from God, we may have so little clarity of what it should be like and so little competence in dealing with it that when it comes it will only add to our confusion. I believe that this is one reason such a word will be withheld from us by God.
Basically Willard says that practically we depend on leaders to have this personal relationship with God – but don’t know how to deal with it ourselves.
The stakes are high according to Dallas:
We are all too familiar with the painful confusion of individuals who make huge efforts to determine God’s will for themselves—people who are frequently very sincere and devout. We see them make dreadful errors by following a whim or chance event that, because of their desperation, they force to serve as a sign from God. We see them sink into despair, skepticism, even cynicism. … They “know,” on the basis of what has happened to them, that for all practical purposes they are simply “on their own.”
First Steps towards a Solution
Willard now lays out the purpose of the book:
As disciples of Jesus Christ, I believe we cannot abandon faith in our ability to hear from God. To abandon this is to abandon the reality of a personal relationship with God, and that we must not do. Our hearts and minds, as well as the realities of the Christian tradition, stand against it. The paradox about hearing God’s voice must, then, be resolved and removed by providing believers with a clear understanding and a confident, practical orientation toward God’s way of guiding us and communicating with us, which is the aim of the chapters that follow.
He then lays out three problems that must be addressed:
- We need to understand that God’s communications come to us in many forms.
- We may have the wrong motives for seeking to hear from God.
- Misconceiving the nature of our heavenly Father and of his intent for us creates a truly overwhelming problem to block our understanding of God’s communication with us as his redeemed children and friends.
A Conversational Relationship
Finally, Dallas closes this chapter with the ideal relationship between God and His children:
The ideal for hearing from God is finally determined by who God is, what kind of beings we are and what a personal relationship between ourselves and God should be like. Our failure to hear God has its deepest roots in a failure to understand, accept and grow into a conversational relationship with God, the sort of relationship suited to friends who are mature personalities in a shared enterprise, no matter how different they may be in other respects.
Chapter 2 – Guidelines for Hearing from God
Dallas opens this chapter talking about the movie, The Stepford Wives –
where the women in a particular town are made into “perfect” wives through alien intervention. He tells us that the obvious message of the movie is:
In close personal relationships, conformity to another’s wishes is not desirable, be it ever so perfect, if it is mindless or purchased at the expense of freedom and the destruction of personality.
In the same way, he says, our relationship with God and our conformity to His wishes is never made in a mindless way or made at the expense of our freedom. This profoundly affects the way we approach hearing from God.
Specifically, in our attempts to understand how God speaks to us and guides us we must, above all, hold on to the fact that learning how to hear God is to be sought only as a part of a certain kind of life, a life of loving fellowship with the King and his other subjects within the kingdom of heaven.
He goes on to define what true prayer is:
prayer is an honest exchange between people who are doing things together. God and I are working together, and I need to invoke his power in that activity. Joint activity is a key to understanding how conversation flows. … In such conversations we also talk about other things besides what God wants done today. We talk about what is happening, what is interesting or what is sad. Most conversation between God and humans is to help us understand things.
Further, Dallas defines our primary goal in all of this:
We must make it our primary goal not just to hear the voice of God, but to be mature people in a loving relationship with Him.
Guideline One: Love God with All Our Being
Some, Willard explains, see God as a tyrant and that prohibits them from entering into a true conversational relationship with Him.
Hearing God cannot be a reliable and intelligible fact of life except when we see his speaking as one aspect of his presence with us, of his life in us. Only our communion with God provides the appropriate context for communications between us and him.
Guideline Two: Mere Humans Can Talk with God
Dallas describes the passage from Acts 14 where the crowds encounter Paul and Barnabas and exclaim:
They just aren’t human! By this we mean that their experience—including their experience of God—is not like ours and perhaps that they are even some special kind of people, so our experience of God could never be like theirs.
But Willard presses the point – their experience with God is provided in the Scriptures not as museum pieces to admire, but as mentors to follow. Elijah is certainly highlighted because James, the brother of Jesus, points to Elijah as a mentor since he was a man like us. No, says Dallas:
Our humanity will not by itself prevent us from knowing and interacting with God just as they did.
He goes on to say:
if we are really to understand the Bible record, we must enter into our study of it on the assumption that the experiences recorded there are basically of the same type as ours would have been if we had been there.
If we don’t read the Bible in this way, Willard says two problems happen:
- [The Bible] becomes simply a book of doctrine, of abstract truth about God, which one can search endlessly without encountering God himself or hearing his voice.
- [W]e simply stop reading the Bible altogether when we do not understand the experience of biblical characters in terms of how we experience life’s events.
Then Dallas points his guns straight at a real problem today:
The open secret of many “Bible-believing” churches is that only a very small percentage of their members study the Bible with even the degree of interest, intelligence or joy that they bring to bear upon their favorite newspaper or magazine.
If we are to hear God’s voice ourselves and on an individual basis, we must, above all else, observe how his word came to those people described in the Scriptures.
I love this story and have used it in one or two sermons:
Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi has a scene set in South Africa where the young Indian lawyer and a white clergyman are walking together on a boardwalk, contrary to South African law at the time. They are accosted by some brutish-looking young white men who seem about to harm them. But the mother of the ringleader calls from an upstairs window and commands him to go about his business. As they walk on, the clergyman exclaims over their good luck. Gandhi comments, “I thought you were a man of God.” The clergyman replies, “I am, but I don’t believe he plans his day around me!”
contradicts what God has taught about himself in the Bible and in the person of Christ. His greatness is precisely what allows him to “plan his day” around me or anyone and everyone else, as he chooses.
contain tragic misconceptions that have the power to shut us off from the individualized word of God.
He highlights two alternate truths:
- In the first place, we are that important.
- His speaking to us does not in itself make us important.
The Strength of True Meekness (and humility)
Next, Dallas address the ever important attitude of the heart in hearing God.
In Numbers 12:1-3 God explained his policy about humility and hearing him. Humility is a quality that opens the way for God to work because God resists the proud (1 Peter 5:5).
Guideline Three: Hearing God Doesn’t Make Us Righteous or even Right
The last thing Dallas addresses in this chapter is the fallibility of our hearing in the face of the infallibility of the message and messenger. He assures us that he will:
offer a fully satisfactory response to this question. We shall then have to examine the issue of authority and of being “right” in relation to hearing God’s voice.
Chapter 3 – Never Alone
Dallas opens the chapter addressing one of the plagues that this world faces:
loneliness is loose upon the landscape. It haunts the penthouse and the rectory, the executive suite and the millionaire’s mansion, as well as the barren apartment, the assembly line, the cocktail bar and the city streets. It is, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, the leprosy of the modern world.
And God’s remedy to that is His presence. But what exactly is His presence and how do we experience it? Dallas lists the following ways:
- Blind Faith – certainly, one of the ways, though Dallas calls it a minimalist way, we experience God’s presence is through shear blind faith. God has said it. I believe it. And it must be true. And so we believe that God is present even with no external evidence – no “awareness of his being here with us at all and no evidence of his action in or around us.” Although admirable, those who hold this must be encouraged that there is more.
- Sensing God’s Presence – Willard calls this “an imprecise but often very powerful sense, feeling or impression of God’s presence.” Dallas claims that this is experienced both individually and corporately.
- The God who acts – “The sense of God’s presence in Christian experience is sometimes accompanied by extraordinary events or powerful effects not easily attributable, if attributable at all, to merely natural causes.”
- Conversational Relationship – Willard calls this the most important form of God’s presence in the relationship between God and human beings. He argues: “How can we be friends of God if this is all there is to it? How is the rich conceptual content and knowledge found in the Bible to be understood as something communicated to us in revelation if the three forms of presence …[listed above] are the totality of human interaction with God? Why, if God is personal, would he not also talk with us?”
Two Types of Guidance
Dallas next addresses two types of guidance:
- Mechanical – as when we guide a car or a remote controlled plane
- Personal – “Ideally, personal guidance brings things to the desired outcome but, at the same time, allows the other person’s mind to be guided to its fullest capacity without coercing that person’s will.”
God, Willard argues, does not guide mechanically – but personally:
For this purpose God must communicate with you, the one who is to be guided. This is the only means by which God can have an impact on you and yet still leave you with the mental and spiritual space to retain integrity as a free personality. You can live as God’s friend yet also govern your own life.
He calls Psalm 32:9 to mind:
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle.
How does this happen you ask? Dallas says there are two ways that God guides personally:
- Communicating through words – He points to many examples in the Scriptures where God speaks directly to his people
- Communicating through shared activity – “we come to understand what God wants us to understand through immersion with him in his work. We understand what he is doing so well that we often know exactly what he is thinking and intending to do. I believe that this is a great part of the condition described by the apostle Paul as having the mind of Christ.”
He then develops the idea put forth in Psalm 32:
I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye” (v. 8 KJV).
Newer versions generally say something like, “I will guide you with my eye upon you.” What does it mean to guide us with His eye upon us? He gives us two ways we guide people with our eyes:
- The first is illustrated when someone “has got their eye on you” so as to affect your actions. Or the parent’s watchful eye on a child.
- The second is more important and happens “when we work or play closely with another and know the intentions and thoughts of the other’s mind by our awareness of what they are focused on. Someone else can work with me effectively only if they can see what I am doing without having to be told what I am thinking and what they should do to help.”
Next, Dallas develops the idea that Jesus calls us friends and what that means in terms of guidance and hearing God.
As God’s friends we always want to be asking God what he is doing and how he wants us to work with him. God’s desires are important to us.
Finally, Willard sums up the positive points of this chapter:
In this life with God, his presence banishes our alone-ness and makes real the meaning and full purpose of human existence. This union with God consists chiefly in a conversational relationship with God while we are consistently and deeply engaged as his friend and co-laborer in the affairs of the kingdom of the heavens.
Before ending the chapter, Dallas examines three mistaken views as to how God speaks to us:
- A message a minute “God is either telling you what to do at every turn of the road or he is at least willing and available to tell you if you would only ask him.” Not only is this not supported in the life of the Spirit filled apostles, “extensive observations of individuals who try to live with this model, or at least profess to, show that they simply cannot do it and that any sustained effort to do so leads quickly to disaster.”
- It’s all in the Bible For Willard, this view “is seriously misguided and very harmful.” He asserts that the Bible does provide a lot of direct instructions about how to live our lives but there is no guidance in terms of what song to use on Sunday worship or what the theme and text should be for the sermon. Nor will it provide the details about many important areas as to how to live your life. “The principles are all there, however. I happily insist that the Bible says all that needs to be said or can be said, so far as principles are concerned. But the principles have to be applied before they can be lived out , and it is largely at the point of application that almost everything imaginable has been ‘proven’ from the Bible.”
- Whatever comes is God’s will This can be described as “accept everything that happens as the guidance of God.” “When we accept whatever comes we are not receiving guidance. The fact that something happens does not indicate that it is God’s will.”
Chapter 4 – Our Communicating Cosmos
Earth’s crammed with Heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees takes off his shoes.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Dallas starts this chapter by discussing the limits of hearing stories of how others have heard God or even the limits of miraculous signs. They don’t have as much of an effect as one would think. And that doesn’t surprise him because “it illustrates a fact about how our minds work.” All the encouraging stories of hearing God and miracles do not “automatically clear up our confusions or straighten out the entanglements of our heart. … They may stimulate us to seek understanding, but they do not of themselves give us faith and understanding.”
He continues this section by listing four ways we deny the idea that God wants a conversational relationship with us:
- God would not communicate with run-of-the-mill human beings by surrounding them with his presence and speaking to them
- God does not communicate with them that way
- God cannot communicate with them that way
- God should not communicate with them that way
God Would Not
Dallas addresses the “would not” with two arguments:
- We must understand that God’s greatness is not like a great dignitary. They are limited and would not communicate with just anybody. God’s greatness is manifest in his wanting to communicate with us
- We don’t have an adequate understanding of the lowliness of God. His greatness is precisely the thing that enables him to enter into our world.
God Does Not
Next he addresses the “does not”
- Just because we don’t hear God speak does not mean that he doesn’t speak. Willard claims that “we are showered with messages that simply go right through or past us. We are not attuned to God’s voice.” Jesus, Dallas tells us, gave some of his deepest teachings about hearing and not hearing. And Jesus urges us to expend great effort to hear “assuring them that what they heard would be proportional to their desire and effort.” Mark 4:24-25 “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you.25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
- We might not be hearing because what we hear may not be of any use to us because of the way we are living. “Hearing God is a reliable, day-to-day reality for people with good sense.”
- Am I in business for myself or am I in business with God with my life?
I am not satisfied with this list or these answers. There are many other things that block our hearing. But that is for another day.
- Some say it is unscientific that God should speak to us. He notes that to communicate there must be some sort of medium through which we communicate. What is that medium? Hebrews 1 tells us that it is Jesus and His Spirit.
- Conversational life with God – or prayer – is not hindered by space and distance. So He certainly “Can.”
- Willard claims that: “The current state of the physical sciences, in opposition to the crudely mechanical view that was dominant in some previous centuries, is very congenial to the view of God’s presence in his world that we find in the New Testament.” … “Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the side of Physics approaches almost to unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of nature.” – Sir James Jean
- Eugene Wigner has pointed to a general recognition among physicists that thought or the mind is primary to physical reality: “It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” Princeton physicist John A. Wheeler even goes so far as to hold that subjective and objective realities, consciousness, and matter mutually create each other. Another leading physicist, Jack Sarfatti, remarks that “an idea of the utmost significance for the development of psycho-energetic systems . . . is that the structure of matter may not be independent of consciousness.”
- Willard makes sure that we know that these statements don’t prove God but help us see that current science doesn’t tell us that God cannot speak to us.
God Should Not
Here Willard addresses both Moses (would that all God’s people would be prophets) and Joel quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost – (“Your sons and your daughters shall prophecy”). This can cause great concern for pastors. But Willard tries to talk us off the ledge and say that this tells us that our understanding of leadership in the local church is skewed. Should leaders be Sheep-dogs or Shepherds? Cultic or Christlike? “To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them.”
Chapter 5 – Small Voice and It’s Rivals
Dallas opens this chapter with the following:
God could, certainly, determine the course of our lives by manipulating our thoughts and feelings or by arranging external circumstances—what is often called the “closing” and “opening” of doors in the “sovereign will” of God. But he can and does also guide us by addressing us.
Notice that he says: “could.” But he later also says: “What would you say is His preferred method? Which method does He use more frequently?” This is a question I address in my forthcoming book Circumstantial Evidence. Let me know if you would like to read an advanced copy.
Willard says that God “addresses us in various ways:
- The Bible
- Extraordinary events
But, he says, we can “be easily confused about the significance of the various ways God speaks with us.” All of the ways are “not equally significant.”
In terms of overall importance, the written Word and Jesus, the living Word, aren’t to be compared to a voice or vision used by God to speak to an individual. And from among the individual’s experiences of hearing God, the “still, small voice” has a vastly greater role than anything else.
Vastly? This is where Dallas differs from many of our fellow followers of Jesus. But at this point he doesn’t develop this thought but goes on to define what he means by the “still, small voice” obviously drawing from 1 Kings 19:11-13.
The translation might just as well read “a gentle whisper of a voice” or “a gentle whispering.” Each expression places the emphasis on the unobtrusiveness of the medium through which the message came. They are all seemingly unremarkable, inconspicuous, unassuming and perhaps not immediately noticed.
But how much store can we place in one text taken from the Old Testament? And what about scholars that think the Hebrew translated “still, small voice” means roaring?[i] Willard doesn’t address that now but instead says:
[the still small voice] bears the stamp of his personality quite clearly and in a way we will learn to recognize … [and] the medium through which the message comes is diminished almost to the vanishing point, taking the form of thoughts that are our thoughts, though these thoughts are not from us.
Basically, he is saying two things:
- The still, small voice as a medium is consistent with what we know of God’s personality.
- The means by which God’s word is communicated to us takes a back seat to the actual message and is often indistinguishable from our own thoughts.
Dallas says that this combining of our thoughts with His thoughts is born out in the following Proverb from chapter 20:
27 The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord,
searching all his innermost parts.
Willard does not provide a lot of Scriptural evidence of this. Let me provide some other indications that God intends the still, small voice to be the primary way God speaks to us today.
The indwelling Spirit leads us / guides us into all the truth
John 16 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
How does the indwelling Spirit lead and guide if not by an internal movement of communication? If all His speaking was through the Bible, through others, and through external circumstances, why would the Holy Spirit need to dwell in us 24/7? John repeats this teaching in his first epistle chapter 2:
27 But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.
Of course, the anointing is obviously the same Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth.
We are taught by the Spirit – In the following passage we find the close connection between our spirit and the indwelling Spirit.
1 Corinthians 2 10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
This entire passage speaks of an inner movement of conversation.
We have the mind of Christ – 1 Corinthians 2:16
This tells us that our thoughts become co-joined with His thoughts.
Father and son taking up residence
John 14 23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
What are they doing in there 24/7 if not communicating?
Jesus promises to come and dine with us – Rev 3 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Same as the John 14 passage.
Jesus way of teaching when He was physically present – not thunderous didactic treatises but gentle whispers of truth that need to be carefully listened to and thought about after hearing.
The Shema – Hear O’ Israel – The central command of God upon the Israelites to hear.
Whispering is done when you are in close proximity – this is a constant theme throughout the Old and the New with countless passages that God is very close to us – even to the point of indwelling
Whispering requires us to listen closely and pay attention. Mark Batterson says that, as a father, when he wants his kids to draw near, he starts whispering. The Scriptures tell the same story for us to pay attention and listen closely. All of the following Scriptures imply that God generally speaks in ways that are not thunderous but easily missed.
- Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. Hebrews 2:1
- And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear… Mark 4:24
- So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 2 Peter 1:19
- Listen, O daughter, give attention and incline your ear. Psalm 45:10
- God created Adam with a whisper (He breathed on him)
Although these texts are far from exhaustive, they should give us enough confidence to move on. Dallas reiterates his point:
… a major point of this book is that the still, small voice—or the interior or inner voice, as it is also called—is the preferred and most valuable form of individual communication for God’s purposes.
The Scripture teaches that the less dramatic the message, the fuller the content and the more advanced the person who is receiving the message. If you study the lives of Moses and Abraham, you will see that this is true.
But what is God’s still, small voice like?
I say in all seriousness that we may mistake the voice of God for the sound of someone’s radio turned up too loudly, for some accidental noise or—more likely still—for just another one of our own thoughts.
He says to hear His voice we must seek Him:
When I seek for something, I look for it everywhere. It’s when we seek God earnestly, prepared to go out of our way to examine anything that might be his overture toward us including obvious things like Bible verses or our own thoughts—that he promises to be found (Jeremiah 29:13).
… we turn now to six ways God addresses people within the biblical record:
- a phenomenon plus a voice
- a supernatural messenger or an angel
- dreams and visions
- an audible voice
- the human voice
- the human spirit or the “still, small voice”
I won’t highlight his Biblical examples of the first 5 because:
Of all the possible subjective routes, [the still small voice] is best suited to the redemptive purposes of God because, once again, it most engages the faculties of free, intelligent beings involved in the work of God as co-laborers and friends.
Willard hits head on the idea that these means of God speaking to us should be normative. Not as the Westminster Confession says:
it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
This, in one broad brush, tells believers not to expect God to speak in any of the ways Dallas is commending but that God only speaks through what has been written down in the Scriptures. Dallas says unequivocally:
nothing in Scripture, in reason or in the very nature of things asserts why any or all of these types of experience might not be used by God today. … But there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that the biblical modes of God’s communication with humans have been superseded or abolished by either the presence of the church or the close of the scriptural canon.
Nothing means nothing (Stephen Hawking notwithstanding). Dallas doesn’t refute the arguments used to justify this theology but it is hard to refute a non-argument. But there are some which we should touch on even if Dallas doesn’t give them the time-of-day:
The following are the “proof texts” given by the Westminster confession of faith for the above statement (Note: These are from the King James Version because that is what the Westminster Confession uses). I will leave it to the reader to see if they agree with Dallas or the Westminster divines:
- John 20:31. But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.
- 1 Cor. 14:37. If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.
- 1 John 5:13. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.
- 1 Cor. 10:11. Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
- Hebrews 1:1–2. God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.
- Hebrews 2:2–4. For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?
Dallas continues making the point that God responds to our prayers. He asks us: Why do we call requests that are not granted: “Unanswered Prayer?” Hasn’t the request been denied and that is the answer? But he goes further:
Often God does not give us what we ask for, but I believe that he will always answer, always respond to us in some way. … If we know how to listen, God will normally tell us something when he does not give us our requests. … Some people say that God’s silence is an answer in these cases. But I think that if we know how to listen, God will normally tell us something when he does not give us our requests.
Willard goes on to address Bible Deism:
Classical deism, associated with the extreme rationalism of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, held that God created his world complete and perfect and then went away, leaving humanity to its own devices. God no longer offered individualized intervention in the lives of human beings, no miracles. Bible deism similarly holds that God gave us the Bible and then went away, leaving us to make what we could of it, with no individual communication either through the Bible or otherwise.
Speaking to pastors, he says that they should help their congregations to hear God’s still, small voice:
Most importantly, and right at the outset, they must be helped to see that recognizing God’s voice is something they must learn to do through their own personal experience and experimentation. They must especially be encouraged to do so if they do not already expect God to speak to them. And we may even have to help identify the voice of God for them and instruct them in how to respond.
When addressing the clarity of God’s voice he says:
It is therefore natural and right that God’s word comes to us in forms that we must struggle to understand. This is even true of the Bible, which is very explicit in many respects but still require persistent and energetic work to understand.
Chapter 6 – The Word of God and the Rule of God
Dallas opens this chapter with a bold statement about hearing God’s still, small voice:
Hearing this divine but small voice is what lies at the heart of a relationship with God. One who hears God’s voice is operating from the foundation and framework of all reality, not from the fringe.
The heart of a relationship with God? That sounds extreme but it is central to Willard’s life and beliefs. Willard believes that to fully embrace the concept of our ability to hear from God requires us to understand the role that word and God’s word play in reality.
He begins this chapter by looking at the story of the centurion who had a sick servant (Luke 7:2-8). This story forms the backdrop for the role that words and God’s word play in reality. Jesus is astonished at the quality and magnitude of his faith. Although he expressed faith in Jesus, he also showed an uncommon knowledge about the power of words: “Just give the word and my servant shall be healed.”
The following statement summarizes the essence of this chapter and the next:
God created, God rules and God redeems through his word. God’s creating, God’s ruling and God’s redeeming is his word.
But what does it mean? Today I reviewed what I had written for my wife, Barbara, on our ten day 40th wedding anniversary trip. Each day as we celebrated, I wrote up one of her 10 core essentials and gave them to her in an anniversary card. One of them is that she is a woman of the word – both written and living. Yesterday, as I reminded her of this essential, I wondered if I could explain and justify this distinction. What is the distinction between the written word and the living word of God. Then, tonight I noticed that this was the question Dallas was addressing in this chapter:
If we wish to understand God’s personal relationship to us, including how he speaks to us individually today, we must understand what the word of God is in general and how both the Son of God and the Bible are the Word of God.
To understand this distinction, Dallas starts by telling us what words are:
Through our words we literally give to others a piece of our mind. By hearing or reading others’ words, we may know their thoughts and feelings and share in their lives. … The power of the word lies finally in the personality that it conveys.
Then Dallas gives us a bullet list of scriptures that tell us the true power of words:
- “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21);
- “a soft tongue can break bones” (Proverbs 25:15);
- “a gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).
- [the tongue is] “a small member, yet it boasts great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” (James 3:5).
- Jesus himself regarded words as a direct revelation of our inner being: “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:37)
But words don’t just have power, they have spiritual power. Willard claims that the scriptures and pagan philosophers expressed this truth. First, he defines spirit:
Spirit is unbodied, personal force. It is personal reality that can and often does work independently of physical or bodily forces. It can also work in conjunction with them. We can most clearly see spirit in our own selves as the force that belongs to thought, emotion and intention. … [But] spirit reaches far beyond these—and beyond our limited understanding—and ultimately serves as the foundation of all reality. “God is spirit” (Jn 4:24).
Once, when his followers were struggling to understand him and were overemphasizing the material realm, Jesus said to them, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63).
Note that the “words” Jesus spoke are spirit. What does this mean? Here is my shot at it: Since spirit is unbodied force, words are spiritual because they are able to move people and things without material substance. For example, with my words I can encourage my employees to work harder or with my words I can discourage them and cause less work to be done. But, let’s listen to Dallas:
This meant that through his words Jesus imparted himself and in some measure conferred on those who received his words the powers of God’s sovereign rule. Through him they “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). This imparted power is referred to in Jesus’ later explanation that “if you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
The word as a person’s speaking is therefore to be understood as a spiritual power—whether of ourselves, of God or of some other personal agency and whether for evil or for good. It is the power of the one who is speaking.
The word of God, when no further qualification is added, is his speaking, his communicating. When God speaks, he expresses his mind, his character and his purposes. Thus, God is always present with his word.
This simple truth hit me today for the first time. God is always present with his word. If the word of God is God speaking – then of course, He is always present whenever the word of God is present. Somehow this seems both obvious and profound!
All expressions of God’s mind are “words” of God. This is true whether the specific means are external to the human mind (as in natural phenomena [Psalm 19:1-4], other human beings, the incarnate Christ [the Logos] or the Bible) or internal to the human mind (in our own thoughts, intentions and feelings). God’s rule over all things, including the affairs of humankind, is carried out through his word, understood in this way.
How Kingdoms Work
Dallas says that we often see the universe as a place where the only relationship between things are physical and mechanical. With this view, we can never understand the power of words since they exert power without the physical or without mechanics. Jesus gave a different view of the universe. It is a kingdom. And a kingdom is not governed or ruled merely by physical or mechanical pushing and pulling:
Essentially [a kingdom] works by the communication of thoughts and intentions through words or other symbols, for a kingdom is a network of personal relationships.
Some of our greatest problems in understanding and entering into life in the kingdom of God come from an inadequate appreciation of how that kingdom—like all kingdoms —works: that is, by communication, the speaking or use of words for the expression of minds and intentions.
I love this idea – but I wonder how true it is that: all kingdoms work by the communication of thoughts and intentions. I think that power is the way a lot of kingdoms works. Think of a bad king you know. It seems that he rules by power and intimidation. Perhaps, Dallas is telling us how a good or ideal kingdom works. If that is what he means, then I can buy into the argument.
Creating by words
Most of us know that God spoke the universe into being with words. He creates by speaking. How can words “create?” Can we create by speaking? We cannot say: “Let there be a jet engine” and create a jet engine. Dallas says that:
There is, however, one arena where the human mind simply “speaks” and what it wishes is done. This is in the voluntary motions of the body—such as the hands, the feet and the face—and the voluntary wide-ranging journeys of our inward thoughts.
Thus we can create a face just by “speaking” as when our mind says to our face, “Look angry.” We can create a walk when our mind says to our legs – “Start moving.” We can create an idea in our mind by just speaking a thought (most of the time silently).
God is always able to speak and to create without going through channels, without working under restrictions. … Within a certain range we too have been given a similarly unrestricted ability in our own natural powers, though it is very narrow, in contrast to God’s. In the realm of our finiteness we must learn how to do things.
He summarizes his point here:
God has given us a power that, so far as our conscious control is concerned, is as immediately creative as his own. A realization of how our own thoughts (inner words) translate themselves into an act of creation is absolutely vital if we are to gain any concrete sense of God’s rule through his word.
Now how does this tie back to Jesus as the Word of God?
At a certain point in history this word—this visible language, the upholding order of the universe—came to us through the womb of Mary: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11).
What we see [in the story of the Centurion – “Just speak the word and my servant will be healed.”] is trust – based on experiential knowledge of the power in the words spoken by authorized individuals in a kingdom. In a personal universe run like a good kingdom (whether our own small arena or God’s cosmos) the word directs actions and events.
Willard says that our practical atheism and skepticism may rise up and say: “Wait a minute. The universe isn’t like that. It doesn’t respond to thoughts and words.” But Dallas pushes back: “Surely we live in precisely such a universe. But our faith does not normally rise to believing it”
… our skepticism comes from the fact that we often speak words unaccompanied by faith and authority. Such words do not have the effect on reality that words laden with faith, spoken in the fulfillment of an authoritative role, do have.
Dallas mentions that Moses was not allowed into the promise land because he did not trust the power of words to bring forth water from the rock but struck it. [Numbers 20:10-11]. Previously God directed him to strike a rock and it brought forth water. (Exodus 17:6)
Was Moses’ action truly such a serious offense? Did it deserve such a strong reaction from God? And if so, why? Without understanding the matters we have already discussed, one might see little wrong with what Moses did.
What indeed? Dallas brings us to the reference to this event in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 10:4) where Paul tells us that the Rock was Jesus! Dallas then tells us:
If what we have come to understand about the Logos, or Word, within creation and nature is true, rocks are things that might well respond to words spoken with the appropriate kingdom authority and vision of faith.
Dallas never really answers why the punishment was so severe. Did Moses know that inanimate objects respond to words when they are authoritative? He saw the Red Sea part – but he spoke no words to the sea. Again, we don’t find that Dallas answers this. But Dallas’ main point is that people have been given the authority of God’s word. The sending out of the 12 and then the 70 illustrates this.
Willard addresses a New Testament story that has puzzled me a bit. Jesus’ disciples could not cast out a demon and heal a little child. Jesus said that this kind comes out only with prayer and fasting – but then proceeds to cast it out and heal the child without prayer or fasting. He addresses the question more broadly when he observes that Jesus rarely prayed for a need brought to him. What does Dallas think is happening?
I believe this is an illustration of the principle that (as experience readily shows) there are degrees of power in speaking the word of God and that prayer is necessary to heighten that power.
Prayer is more basic in the spiritual life than is speaking a word and, indeed, is the indispensable foundation for doing so. The role of speaking the word of God has become limited today because of a widespread lack of understanding of such “speaking,” coupled with the generally low quality of the life of prayer.
But he also observes that, “perhaps in most cases, a direct word or action from God himself rather than from ourselves is what is required.”
Sometime we should be in a position to speak, to say on behalf of God and in the name of Christ how things are to be.
Dallas believes that the movement of the Spirit in the present day is the result of us learning that reality is a kingdom:
This [more evidence of the power of the Spirit] is to be expected as we grow in our confidence that reality, including the material world, is ultimately a kingdom in which authority, personal relationship and communication (words) are basic to the way things run. We have, of course, much still to learn.
Dallas admits that we don’t have all of the answers but he says:
In a life of participation in God’s kingdom rule, we are not to make things happen, but only to be honestly willing and eager to be made able.
Willard next addresses the nature of superstition as opposed to the true working of God’s supernatural power. Some believe that if we say the right words and perform the right rituals, people can be healed. Not so says Dallas:
we do not believe that the power concerned resides in the words used or in the rituals taken by themselves. If we did, we would indeed be engaged in superstitious practices. Instead, we regard the words and actions simply as ways ordained in the nature of things, as established by God, for accomplishing the matter in question.
I love what he says when he describes what we do during healing prayer:
We are under authority, not in control.
Then, Dallas tells us how he thinks divine healing works:
The combined condition of faith, love, hope and understanding that is present in those who work with the word of God is in its very nature connected with the effect to be brought about. As part of the kingdom this condition forms the appropriate channel from the supply to the need—relating the nature of the human body or mind (in the case of healing) to the creative and redemptive Spirit who is God. This forms a natural (though really supernatural) order of influence and causation.
This is so thick – let me try to re-phrase it: The faith, love, hope and understanding of those who pray for and receive divine healing, is in some mysterious fashion connected to the desired healing. It is because the kingdom is central to the way God intends to run things, these four elements cause God’s divine healing power to flow to the one in need for healing. This flow of divine healing power connects the human body and mind being prayed for to the power of the Spirit. All healing then is both natural and supernatural.
Dallas concludes this section with a summary:
the very nature of the material universe is to be subject generally to the word of an all-present, all-powerful, all-knowing divine mind. This mind is what mediates between the word spoken by God’s servant on his behalf and the physical structure of the waves or the rocks, or of the body or mind to be healed.
Again, let me try to re-phrase it. All aspects of our universe are subject to the word of God. God is the mediator between the words God’s servant speaks and the physical structures of the waves that are calmed, the rocks that bring forth water and the mind or body that is healed.
Sometimes I fear that we Christians do engage in truly superstitious uses of words and rituals. This occurs when our activities are not an expression of an understanding of the connection between the desired result and our faith and union with God. In other words, this arises because we do not really understand how the kingdom of God functions among us.
Dallas says that the “name it and claim it” approach to God is pure superstition. He also says that legalism is also superstition. He defines legalism as:
Legalism claims that overt action in conforming to rules for explicit behavior is what makes us right and pleasing to God and worthy of blessing.
This legalism tries to control people and events through superstitious behavior but
they depart from the natural connections of life. They bypass the realities of the heart and soul from which life really flows.
Dallas closes this chapter answering this question he began with:
how are we to understand the relationship of the Bible to this word of God that we have just seen growing mightily and prevailing around Ephesus and to the Word that is God and that upholds the world?
What is the Bible: “The Bible is one of the results of God’s speaking. It is the unique written Word of God. It is inerrant in its original form and infallible in all of its forms for the purpose of guiding us into a life-saving relationship with God in his kingdom. The Bible is the Word of God in its unique written form. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ, who is the living Word. Neither is the Bible the word of God that is settled eternally in the heavens. The Bible is not the word of God that, in the book of Acts, expanded and grew and multiplied (Acts 12:24). It is not the word that Jesus spoke of as being sown by the active speaking of the ministry (Matthew 13).
“The Bible is a finite, written record of the saving truth spoken by the infinite, living God, and it reliably fixes the boundaries of everything he will ever say to humankind. It fixes those boundaries in principle, though it does not provide the detailed communications that God may have with individual believers today.”
What is the word of God: while the Bible is the written Word of God, the word of God is not simply the Bible. God reigns in his kingdom through his speaking. That speaking is reserved to himself, but it may in some small measure be communicated through those who work in union with him. The word of God in the larger sense portrayed in the Bible is therefore available to every person through the Bible, the written Word of God.
What is the living Word – Jesus is the living Word. He is the one who speaks the world into existence (Remember how Lewis portrays this in The Chronicles of Narnia) “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” Colossians 1:16.
So, has Dallas answered my original question? Can I articulate why Jesus is the living Word of God? I am afraid that with all that Dallas wrote in this chapter I cannot. But if I combine my own understanding with what he wrote here – here is what I would say:
Jesus is called the Word because God has spoken to us in these last days in/by His Son. The very person of Jesus is God speaking. Every minute detail of Jesus life here on earth and now in heaven embodies God speaking. Remember when Dallas said that our words demonstrate who we are – Jesus, as the Word of God, demonstrates who God is. One other point, The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Christ. So here again, the Holy Spirit is so closely aligned to the Word, that He is Christ’s Spirit. And since the Spirit is the means by which God speaks – when He does, it is Jesus, the living Word speaking. But as Dallas says: I have much to learn.
Chapter 7 Redemption through the Word of God
Dallas opens this chapter with this statement:
To understand how God speaks we must understand to some extent what the word of God is.
discerning God’s voice is essentially just one dimension of a certain kind of life, the eternal kind of life, a life lived in conversational relationship with God (John 17:3).
17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Studying the word of God helps us understand what this eternal life is, how we are to take part in it by the graciousness of God, and especially how hearing God is part of it.
We will truly be at ease hearing God only if we are at home with the word of God, with his speaking throughout creation and redemption. Hearing God is not a freakish event.
The light that they [the followers of Jesus] radiate is not what they do but who they are.
Dallas then asks: How are we to have the mind of Christ and to walk in His steps? And answers:
It is through the action of the word of God upon us, throughout us and with us that we come to have the mind of Christ and thus to live fully in the kingdom of God.
What again is Willard’s definition of the word of God? Remember for Dallas, the word of God is God speaking. That can be through all of the ways God speaks (dreams, visions, other people, etc.) in addition to everything that comes from Jesus and the written word of God. So this last statement means, when God speaks to us in all His different ways, we gain the mind of Christ. But it is more:
the word of God is a creative and sustaining substance, an active power, not limited by space and time or physical constraints. It organizes and guides that which it is directed to by God and by persons in union with God.
Commenting on Matthew 8:26 where Jesus calms the storm he highlights the fact that the disciples had great faith in Jesus – they fully believed that He could have calmed the storm – yet Jesus upbraids them for lack of faith. What is going on?
Now the disciples obviously had great faith in Jesus. They called upon him, counting on him to save them. They had great faith in him, but they did not have his great faith in God.
This, he says, is the life we are called to. A life where we allow God to speak to us and giving us the mind of Jesus; the faith of Jesus; the love of Jesus; and the life of Jesus. But, in the process, we don’t lose our life. Talking about the new birth – our new life, Dallas says:
Our additional life, though it is still our life, is also God’s life in us: his thoughts, his faith, his love, all literally imparted to us, shared with us, by his word and Spirit.
Here is my summary of these three sections:
“Christ’s Faith as My Faith”: His thoughts, his faith, his love, all literally imparted to us, shared with us, by his word and Spirit.
“Paul on Salvation”: The new life is a new supernatural quality of life. It is a different kind of life.
“Focusing on Our Aliveness to God”: As we take a stand as to who we are in this new life, identifying with the Christ-life in us and against the sin, the “boat” of our life begins to turn around.
Next Dallas, looks at the written word of God:
The written Word of God is an expression of God’s mind just as surely, though in a different manner, as are creation and Jesus, the living Word. As we read and study it intelligently, humbly and openly, we come increasingly to share God’s mind. … Scripture is a communication that establishes communion and opens the way to union,
He cites Madam Guyon’s method of reading the scripture which is a form of Lectio Divina. I would recommend her book A Short and Easy Method of Prayer on this.
He adds William Law comments, “Therefore the Scriptures should only be read in an attitude of prayer, trusting to the inward working of the Holy Spirit to make their truths a living reality within us.”
When asked if one should read the Bible through every year, he says:
It is better in one year to have ten good verses transferred into the substance of our lives than to have every word of the Bible flash before our eyes.
I hope he meant – not “every year.” I have found that reading through the Bible when we first start following Jesus and periodically after that, I would agree. How does Dallas recommend that we read the Scriptures?
Come to your chosen passage as to a place where you will have a holy meeting with God.
Read a small part of the passage and dwell on it, praying for the assistance of God’s Spirit in bringing fully before your mind and into your life the realities expressed.
Chapter Summary about how to approach the written word of God
- take in the information written
- allow your heart to have a longing for it to be so
- affirm that it must be so
- make an invocation to God to make it so
- appropriate by God’s grace that it is so
If my summary of this chapter and the last doesn’t hold together, it is in part, that I am not able to adequately see how chapters 6 and 7 fulfill Dallas’ statement in the preface:
Chapters six and seven discuss the centrality of God’s speaking—God’s Word—to his creation and to the process of redemption. The Word of God is not foreign to routine reality; it is at the very heart of it.
At the beginning of chapter 6, Dallas says:
God created, God rules and God redeems through his word. God’s creating, God’s ruling and God’s redeeming is his word.
Chapter 5 is partly about how God’s speaking (God’s word) is what creates. In chapter 6, Dallas writes about Him ruling the universe (the universe should be thought of as a kingdom ruled by words). This chapter is mostly about how the written word accomplishes His redemption.
Chapter 8 Recognizing the Voice of God
How do we know whether what we hear is from God? Dallas’ simple answer is: “By experience.” He then re-iterates one of his central themes:
the teachings of the Bible, no matter how thoroughly studied and firmly believed, can never by themselves constitute our personal walk with God. They have to be applied to us as individuals and to our individualized circumstances, or they remain no part of our lives.
He then launches into the main subject of the chapter. He writes about how animals learn to recognize the voice of their trainers and how we learn to distinguish colors by experience. In the same way …
those who have been given the additional birth—the new birth through the redemptive message of Christ that has entered their lives—can learn by experience to hear God as he speaks, to recognize his word and confidently interact with it
We may mistakenly think that if God spoke to us we would automatically know who is speaking, without having to learn, but that is simply a mistake—and one of the most harmful mistakes for those trying to hear God’s word.
Dallas proposes three possibilities as to why we need to learn to hear God speak:
- It could be our fallen nature. But, Jesus, who did not have a fallen nature, also needed to learn to recognize God’s voice. (Isaiah 50:1-4)
- It could be the natural result of a personal relationship. We need to learn to recognize the voice of those we are getting to know.
- It could be in the nature of the way God speaks (He whispers)
Next, he addresses the three lights often used in helping us discern God’s will:
- Impressions / Promptings of the Spirit
- The Bible
When these three things point in the same direction, it is suggested, we may be sure the direction in which they point is the one God intends for us. When these three things point in the same direction, it is suggested, we may be sure the direction in which they point is the one God intends for us.
Quoting F. B. Meyer “The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will, when they concur with the inward promptings of the spirit and with the Word of God. So long as they are stationary, wait.”
Dallas doesn’t buy into the three lights completely. Here are the problems:
The problem of their Inter-dependence – “Basically stated, since we need the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible, lights two and three are inter-dependent. And since circumstances like an open door could come from God, from Satan or from a person involved in the decision, they require the Spirit and the word to discern where the circumstances are coming from.”
The Three Lights method is limited to decision making and does not help us understand a conversational relationship with God – “For example, I have found that I can find affirmation in the Scriptures and in the prompting of the Spirit -but my circumstances may be in the tank. Does that mean that God’s simple prompting of addressing me: ‘My son’ cannot be validated?”
Willard doesn’t completely dismiss the three lights, but says:
The three lights are simply the factors that we must consider in the process of making a responsible judgment and decision about what we are to do.
The voice of God is not itself any one of the three lights nor is it all of them together. But the inner teaching of which John speaks in his first epistle—the voice or word of God coming to individuals, as repeatedly displayed in biblical events—usually comes to us in conjunction with:
- responsible study and meditation on the Bible
- experience of the various kinds of movements of the Spirit in our heart
- intelligent alertness to the circumstances that befall us
He concludes this line of reasoning with the following:
when God speaks and we recognize the voice as his voice, we do so because our familiarity with that voice enables us to recognize it. We do not recognize it because we are good at playing a guessing game…
Dallas believes that we can learn from how we distinguish distinct human voices in learning to recognize God’s voice. There are three factors that we use to distinguish human voices:
Quality: “is mainly a matter of which tones are produced and the manner in which they are modulated. Quality, at the human level, also includes the style of speech. For example, is it slow or fast, smooth or halting in its flow, indirect or to the point?”
Spirit: “A voice may be passionate or cold, whining or demanding, timid or confident, coaxing or commanding. This is, of course, not merely a matter of sounds but also a matter of attitudes or personal characteristics that become tangibly present in the voice.”
Content: Very often I can recognize the author of written text by the content.
In addition to these factors, God’s word to us carries a weight of authority. Willard puts it this way:
A certain steady and calm force with which communications from God impact our soul incline us toward assent and even toward active compliance.
Quoting E Stanley Jones:
Perhaps the rough distinction is this: The voice of the subconscious argues with you, tries to convince you; but the inner voice of God does not argue, does not try to convince you. It just speaks, and it is self-authenticating. It has the feel of the voice of God within it.
Another distinguishing characteristic of God’s voice is
a spirit of exalted peacefulness and confidence, of joy, of sweet reasonableness and of goodwill. His voice is not the voice of a bully. It will not run over you and your will.
Next, Dallas says the following:
In order to qualify as the voice of God, a thought, perception or other experience must conform to the principles—the fundamental truths—of Scripture. It is the principles, not the incidentals, of Scripture that count here.
How do we know what in the Bible is a principle or fundamental truth? Examples of incidentals are things like head covering. Then there are commands that are incidental to people generally like the command to go and sell everything. He makes a strong case from the rest of Scripture that this was just a command for the rich young ruler. Examples of enduring principles are things like:
- God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5)
- “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and that the second is “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31)
- “strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:31)
He explains further:
No specific word that is from God will ever contradict such principles. … Principles of Scripture are to be identified most of all from the actions, spirit and explicit statements of Jesus himself.
Willard then devotes an entire section rejecting any words that would promise us that faithful followers of Jesus would be free from pain, suffering and hardship. He emphatically rejects any teaching as such and we should be wary of any words from God that echo that line of thinking.
Concerning how infallible our hearing is, Dallas says:
When I am sure that God is speaking to me and sure about what he says, couldn’t I still be mistaken, even though I’ve had apparently successful experiences of hearing and understanding his voice? Yes of course you could still be wrong. … Infallibility, and especially infallibility in discerning the mind of God, simply does not fit the human condition. It should not be desired, much less expected, from our relationship with God.
I was disappointed that he doesn’t address the fact that Old Testament prophets were expected to be infallible. That is an unanswered question for me. Perhaps some you, my readers, could help me understand why this is true and is not true for New Testament prophets.
Concerning the role of scripture in recognizing God’s voice:
It cannot be stressed too much that the permanent address at which the word of God may be found is the Bible. More of God’s speaking to me has come in conjunction with study and teaching of the Bible than with anything else.
Knowing the voice of God and having a practical understanding of that voice in our minds and hearts is not a luxury for the people of God.
Dallas digresses and lists the benefits of developing a conversational relationship:
- Direct, daily access to God and his kingdom
- Confidence, Comfort and Peace – Without real communication from God, our view of the world is very impersonal, however glorious we may find God’s creation.
- Protection from mad religionists and legalism. – It is also important for us to know on a practiced, experiential basis how God speaks, so that we might protect ourselves and others about whom we are concerned.
- A quality of life like those in Scripture.
Dallas sums up the chapter by stating that he believes that God’s “voice” to us is not mysterious and goes on to tell us what we should expect:
It is possible to talk about hearing God in terms of mysterious feelings, curious circumstances and special scriptural nuances of meaning to the point where God’s character is called into question.
we can expect (given the revelation of God in Christ) that if God wants us to know something, he will be both able and willing to communicate it to us plainly, as long as we are open and prepared by our experiences to hear and obey.
We may be sure that “no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). With very little exception, the form such inspiration took was nothing more than thoughts and perceptions of the distinctive character that these people had learned by experience to recognize as the voice of God in their own souls. The thoughts and perceptions were still their thoughts and perceptions. It could not be otherwise. But the thoughts and perceptions bore within themselves the unmistakable stamp of divine quality, spirit, intent and origination.
Chapter 9 A Life More than Guidance
Dallas begins the chapter by emphasizing that the life of faith is a life of hard work. And part of that includes the hard work of learning to hear God. But the questions he addresses in this chapter are:
- How may we come to live confidently and sensibly with God as a conversational presence in our lives?
- How much can we count on hearing God?
- What does it mean when we don’t hear his voice?
- What are we to do then?
Dallas begins this section with a summary of his teaching on hearing God.
While God’s communications come through experiences of many kinds, their detailed content or meaning always takes the form of the inner voice, a characteristic type of thought or perception.
Wow! I never thought of it like that. Dreams, visions, the written word of God – their detailed content or meaning comes in the form of the still, small voice. So obvious – but such a new thought for me.
Let’s summarize his summary with bullet points:
- God’s primary means of communicating is the still, small voice
- God may choose to guide us mechanically without words
- The primary way God speaks to us is through the written word of God
- We need to learn to recognize God’s voice by experience and experimentation
- Through practice and experience, we can learn to recognize God’s voice by the quality, the spirit, and the content of His voice.
- Infallibility in hearing is “completely out of the question.”
- In human relationships, some of us recognize a voice and then turn it off and stop listening. This happens to those who are in rebellion against God.
- Using God to get out of trouble or to make a decision is not a good way to learn to hear God. “it is much more important to cultivate the quiet, inward space of a constant listening than to always be approaching God for specific direction.”
Speaking to pastors and church leaders:
In every congregation we need a group of people who, in front of everyone, are explicitly learning and teaching about life in dialogue with God.
Next Dallas addresses the question – What if we don’t get an answer from God to a question we have posed? Let’s bullet point his response:
- We have done something wrong. This he claims is possible but that the wrong can be readily discerned by asking Him, friends and more mature followers of Jesus if we really want to know. “We must resolutely resist the tendency to blame the absence of a word from God automatically on our own wrongness.”
- God wants us to decide. “in general, it is God’s will that we ourselves should have a great part in determining our path through life. This does not mean that he is not with us. Far from it. God both develops and, for our good, tests our character by leaving us to decide.”
- We may live in fear of being wrong / choosing wrong. And God may then withhold His direction.
- We may want God to decide difficult decisions so that we can avoid responsibility for our actions. I have seen this so often where people (not me of course!) make terrible decisions and then say that they were only following God’s direction.
Another situation that Dallas addresses is when we act upon a word from God and have assurance that it is from Him but it does not work out. Dallas assures us to not fret.
The will of God made plain to us is sometimes not fulfilled because of the choices of other people. We must not, because of that, lose confidence in God’s guiding words.
Dallas addresses those who believe that if we are perfectly hearing from God and obeying Him, we will not be taking any real risk.
In truth, we don’t need to seek risk but we will never be without it, at least in this world. Nor should we try to be.
Epilogue – The Way of the Burning Heart
Dallas tackles one more obstacle that we might face in developing a conversational relationship with God.
“the seeming unreality of the spiritual life.” We could equally speak of it as “the overwhelming presence of the visible world.” The visible world daily bludgeons us with its things and events. They pinch and pull and hammer away at our bodies. Few people arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs. But instead of shouting and shoving, the spiritual world whispers at us ever so gently.
God’s spiritual invasions into human life seem, by their very gentleness, to invite us to explain them away. … We are hindered in our progress toward becoming spiritually competent people by how easily we can explain away the movements of God toward us. They go meekly, without much protest.
How do we combat this one?
[these hinderances] 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.
What does this life look like? Dallas says:
Christian spirituality as practiced through the ages takes the form of this companionship with Jesus. Spiritual people 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 terms of the human order in the visible world; they have “a life beyond.”
Today, as God’s trusting apprentices in the kingdom of the heavens, we live on the Emmaus road, so to speak, with an intermittently burning heart. His word pours into our heart, energizing and directing our life in a way that cannot be accounted for in natural terms. The presence of the physical world no longer has to be a barrier between me and God. My visible surroundings become, instead, God’s gift to me, where I am privileged to see the rule of heaven realized through my friendship with Jesus.
He makes it so in response to my expectation. There, in some joyous measure, creation is seen moving toward “the glorious liberty of the children of God”—all because my life counts for eternity as I live and walk with God.
He then closes with this poem:
Now is the shining fabric of our day
Torn open, flung apart, rent wide by love.
Never again the tight, enclosing sky,
The blue bowl or the star-illumined tent. We are laid open to infinity,
For Easter love has burst our tomb and His.
Now nothing shelters us from God’s desire—
Not flesh, not sky, not stars, not even sin.
Now glory waits so He can enter in.
Now does the dance begin
[i] In an article entitled “A Gentle Breeze or a Roaring Thunderous Sound?” the author posits that there was no whispering going on in Elijah’s encounter with God. He suggests that the Hebrew phrase kol d’mama daka is unique in the Bible and is based on damamu, an Acadian rather than a Hebrew root. It refers to roaring and moaning. Based on his linguistic research and the pattern of theophany in the Tanakh (OT), the author believes a better translation might be “a roaring and thundering voice.” Lust, Johan. “A Gentle Breeze or a Roaring Thunderous Sound? Elijah at Horeb: 1 Kings XIX 12.” Vetus Testamentum 25 (January 1975): 110- 15 https://www.jstor.org/stable/1517376?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents