I am currently slowly reading through the Psalms. Today as I read from Psalm 119, I realized that I don’t know what the word “testimonies” meant as used in the Old Testiment. How does one “keep His testimonies” (vs 2)? How do I “delight in the way of Your testimonies” (vs 14)? How do I “incline my heart to your testimonies” (vs 36)? I realized that after 50 years of reading the Psalms, I never dug into that word.
Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology says this:
“The biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law.
“[the validity of a testimony] consists in certifiable, objective facts. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims.”
So His testimonies are not just the things God has said and done, they are those things that God has said and done that are verifiable and objective. Think of God’s testimonies as those things He has said under oath.
If I think of His testimonies as certifiable, objective revelations and messages from God, it causes me to read these phrases in the Psalm’s differently.
Keeping His testimonies means to hold those certifiable truths as plumb lines for my life.
Delighting in His testimonies means to delight in those certifiable revelations from God.
Inclining my heart to His testimonies means to lean into these objective revelations from God.
I look forward to continue reading the Psalms with this new definition in mind.
Several months ago our pastor was commenting on Psalm 46:10 (“Be still, and know that I am God.”). He said that we misinterpret this verse when we picture ourselves at a serene brook with our Bible and prayer journal open to be still and know that God is God. I didn’t really get where he was headed with this until just this week. Listening to Mark Buchanan speak about sabbath on the Discerning Leader podcast (https://www.leadershiptransformations.org/podcast/2021/06/03/sabbath-rest-what-and-why-discerning-god-at-his-pace-episode-01/ ) I finally understood what our pastor meant. The psalm is all about God acting in human affairs:
God helping his people (vs 5)
God speaking, and the whole earth softening (vs 6)
God bringing desolation (vs 8)
God bringing wars to an end (vs 9)
God destroying our implements of war (vs 9)
And then God inviting our response: “Be still and know that I am God” (vs 10)
Mark said: “Psalm 46:10 is not about stillness but attentiveness.”
Lord, help us to respond to your invitation to be still enough to be attentive to what you are doing around us.
In these days leading up to the New Year, there is a lot of emphasis on New. I want to spend more time with the old; the ancient in fact. Listen to God’s heart spoken by Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
How often do we stand? Normally we are moving – and moving fast.
How often do we look – really look with eyes that see? Normally we just glance at people and things.
How often do we ask – ask and wait? How often do we ask a question these days and don’t even wait for the answer? And do we ever ask for the ancient paths – normally I am looking for the new path; the new idea; the new insight.
It is by walking on these ancient paths, these good ways that we will find rest for our souls. Let us stop and stand; look with eyes that pause; and ask with an openness to listen. And then let us walk into the New Year on one of these ancient paths.
I am currently reading a series of mediations by David Roper in a book entitled: Teach Us to Number Our Days. I would highly recommend it to those of you who, like me, are aging faster than you would like. In the book, in a chapter entitled, “Learning to Listen, ” David provides ten ways you can know that you are not listening to others.
How to Know You are Not Listening to Others
When I am thinking about an answer while others are talking – I’m not listening.
When I give unsolicited advice – I’m not listening.
When I suggest they shouldn’t feel the way they do – I’m not listening.
When I apply a quick fix to their problem – I’m not listening.
When I fail to acknowledge their feelings – I’m not listening.
When I fidget, glance at my watch, and appear to be rushed – I’m not listening.
When I fail to maintain eye contact – I’m not listening.
When I don’t ask follow-up questions – I’m not listening.
When I top their story with a bigger, better story of my own – I’m not listening.
When they share a difficult experience and I counter with one of my own – I’m not listening.
How to Know You are Not Listening to God
Although all of these are not directly applicable to learning to listen to God, I thought I would put my spin on how to know that you are not listening to God based on the above ten principles from David Roper:
When I am thinking about how to come up with the right words to say to God – I’m not listening to Him. God does not need well worded responses. Pour out your heart to him. Don’t wordsmith your response.
When I try to tell God how to run the universe – I’m not listening to Him. He is not looking for advice.
When I am challenging God’s ways – I’m not listening to Him. That said, He invites us to be honest with Him about what we are feeling – but a posture of listening invites us to learn His ways. God only revealed His deeds to the children of Israel – but His ways He revealed to Moses. (Psalm 103:7)
When I am looking for a quick answer from God to a complex problem – I’m not listening to Him.
When I am struggling to know I am loved by Him and His strong feelings toward me, – I’m not listening to God. God has spared nothing to share His reckless love with you. And He has spoken extensively on this topic.
When I fidget, glance at my watch, and appear to be rushed – I’m not listening to God.
When I fail to maintain eye contact – I’m not listening to God. God has said: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will advise you with My eye upon you. ” (Psalm 32:8). When we take our eyes off Him, we are not listening.
When I don’t ask follow-up questions – I’m not listening to God. This is one of the key principles we teach about listening prayer. Keep the dialogue going when God has spoken to you. Ask follow-up questions like: “What does that mean? and “Can that really be true?”
When God’s simple response is not enough for us – I’m not listening to Him.
When God shares a difficult word with me and I counter with one of my own difficult words to God – I’m not listening. Again, I am not saying that we not say those difficult words to God. But when we do, it is important to know that we are not in a listening posture.
There is much that can be said about how to know when you are not listening to God – but I thought that Mark Roper’s framework for listening to others would provide a helpful window through which to look at this topic from a different angle. Most of the principles about listening to other persons apply to listening to God – because God is a person – actually three persons in one. For more about discerning God’s voice in prayer – check out my blog by the same title.
[After we begin to sense that God is speaking to us…] Finally we attempt to discern – Is this God speaking or is it just my own thoughts – how we do that is a topic for another day.
My friend said – “That is the sermon I want you to preach and teach at our church.”
I thought that it would be good to list the basic principles, insights, and general guidelines that I have learned over the years. So I would like to post these one at a time and see where this goes. Let me know if this is helpful by liking the ones that work. Remember as we look at this, that, as Dallas Willard says: “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.” I think it is important to start with what we can glean from scripture about this whole process of discerning whether what we are sensing is from God or not. So fasten your seat belt – here we go.
Part 1: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer
Oftentimes while teaching on Listening Prayer, I ask the following question:
How do you know that the Bible is the word of God?
I find it surprising that many do not know the way the Jews determined the Hebrew canon and the ways the early church determined what should go into the New Testament canon. Although no single criteria was used, what we do know is that each text was carefully looked at and tested to see if it was actually the word of God. The tests varied – but testing for authorship; testing to see if it has passed the test of time; testing for alignment with the rest of Scripture were all part of the vetting process.
In the same way – one way to know that what you are receiving from God is to test it over time. Does it bear positive fruit in your life? (more on that later) Does it align with scripture? Is there a quiet persistence to it as compared to an urgent demand? Does it convict while not condemning and does the conviction bring real transformation? But of all the criteria that we will discuss, the most important is time. Does what you hear stand the test of time?
Let me know some of the ways you test what your receive from God in prayer.
1 John 4:1-3 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.
Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
1 Thessalonians 4:20-21 Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.
Part 2: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer
Another way that we can discern that God is speaking to us is when there are circumstances that confirm what we have heard after we have heard it. We see this in the life of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was told by God to buy a particular piece of land from his cousin while all of Israel was under siege and in imminent danger of having the land seized by the invaders. Certainly not a wise investment. So Jeremiah had ample reason to doubt what he thought he heard from God. When his cousin came to him and offered to sell to him the exact piece of land, Jeremiah said:
Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. Jeremiah 32:8
Too many followers of Jesus turn it around and interpret circumstances as the word of the Lord before they have received the word of the Lord. I know of no place in scripture where God’s people use circumstances alone as the word of the Lord. For example: “I wasn’t thinking about changing jobs but this head hunter called and offered me this incredible position in California. It is so good and we need the money, it is truly a God-thing. All the circumstances worked out for us to leave here and move to California.” Certainly God uses circumstances to get our attention – but it must be either preceded or followed by the coming confirmation of the inner witness of the word of God. Not just a perfect alignment of circumstances. Confirming signs are to follow us – not the other way around with us following the signs. God is the one “who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,” (Isaiah 44:26).
Deuteronomy 9 5Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Jeremiah 11 4bListen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God,5 that I may confirm the oath that I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as at this day.” Then I answered, “So be it, Lord.”
Jeremiah 32 6 And Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, 7 ‘Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle is coming to you, saying, “Buy for yourself my field which is at Anathoth, for you have the right of redemption to buy it.”’ 8 Then my uncle’s son Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard in accordance with the word of the Lord and said to me, ‘Buy my field, please, that is at Anathoth, which is in the land of Benjamin; for you have the right of possession and the redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.
Mark 16 19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.
2 Peter 1 19And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,
Part 3: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer
The inner witness is the most difficult one to describe and to apply. Unlike testing and circumstances that we talked about in Part 1 and Part 2 which are external, this comes from within and is the most subjective. But it can be the most powerful. Even the Westminster Confession recognizes this when it states:
our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
Although speaking about how we become persuaded and assured by the written word of God, this principle directly applies to listening to God’s voice. Here are a few things that have helped me discern when the Holy Spirit is bearing witness with my spirit that a word I have heard in prayer is from God:
When there is a recognition that it is not my thought – Very often, there is something about the inner witness that sounds different from my own thoughts. Tricia Rhodes says it like this: “we are aware that a voice other than our own has joined our thoughts.” And Philip Yancey “As I persist at prayer, I recognize an answering partner who takes up the other side of the dialogue, a kind of internal alter ego representing God’s point of view.”
When it brings a new insight – Oftentimes God brings a new insight into a dilemma, a relationship, or a decision that was previously not known.
When it brings a sense of peace The peace of God is truly remarkable. It goes beyond our ability to comprehend it. When a word comes in prayer, a good way to discern if it is from God, is whether with it comes that wonderful peace. We may still be anxious about the future – but over and above that anxiety is the deep and unmistakable peace of God. Remember the peace belongs to Him. It is His peace. The apostle Paul tells us to let the peace of God “rule in our hearts.” Not rule as a dictator, but the Greek literally means to “act as arbiter in the games” or to be the umpire.
When it has a ring of truth and quiet authority – There is something about a true word from God that carries with it an authority unlike any worldly authority. The crowds recognized this with the words of Jesus. We can discern that what we have received from God is truly from Him because it has that ring of true truth and solid authority.
When it confirms something that God has said before – One of the reasons we encourage people to write things down that they receive from God is because God is quite persistent when He is communicating with His children. He may have spoken the same word before to you – perhaps in a different way but still the same idea. We can discern that a word is true because He has been speaking about this for a while.
Matthew 728 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
Colossians 315And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
Romans 816 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God
1 John 226 I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. 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.
Part 4: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer
Recognize His Voice
One of the key principles in discerning God’s voice in prayer, is that, over time, we learn to recognize God’s voice. Just as a mother can recognize the voice of her child over a cacophony of voices on a playground, we can learn to recognize the voice of God in the midst of a myriad of other distractions. We are not talking about an audible voice. We are talking about discerning the still small voice of the Spirit speaking in our spirit. Even Jesus had to have his ear woken up and unstopped so that He could recognize the Father’s voice and know what He was saying (Isaiah 50:4-8 – see my sermon from February 2020 for more details about this).
When our spirits are made alive through new birth, we are like a little baby. The little baby recognizes the voice of her parents with growing understanding. It starts out slow, but over time she recognizes the voice of the mother and the father. Initially the child takes comfort just in the voice but with no recognition as to what is being said. And as time passes, the child eventually begins to understand what the parent is saying. In a similar way, initially our recognition of God’s voice is minimal – but with experience, we grow in both recognition and understanding. As Jesus said in John 10:
3bThe sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
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.
[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.
All of this talk about the required experience and “learn to recognize” should make us humble and recognize with Thomas Merton that we will “never be anything but beginners all our life” at discerning God’s voice.
Do you remember the time God spoke to Jesus and others thought that it thundered and still others the voice of an angel? It is one thing to hear His voice, it is another to know His voice.
Isaiah 504The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. 5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
John 1027 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me
John 1227 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
Part 5: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer
Deepening our Relationship with Jesus
1 Samuel 36 And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
When my friend asked me to teach his congregation to listen to God and to be able to discern whether what we “hear” is from God, I said that the most important way to help a congregation discern what is of God and what is not, is by deepening their relationship with Jesus. The more we get to know the living Word of God in a deep and personal way, the more easily we can discern truth and error. The boy Samuel could not tell that it was God speaking because he didn’t “know the Lord.” The implication is that once Samuel knew the Lord, he could recognize when He was speaking. The apostle John, who spent much time resting his head on Jesus, recorded these words of Jesus in John 8:31-32:
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Get to know the words of Jesus recorded in the scriptures. Get to know the heart of Jesus from His words and His deeds. Get to know the person of Jesus by meditating on every aspect of His life, His death, His resurrection and His ascension. Spend time picturing yourself resting your head on Jesus. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, our ability to discern what we “hear” in prayer will grow.
This is not unlike our relationship with any other person. Much misunderstanding in communications with others can be avoided the more we know the other person. For example, our communications with each other are often incomplete and confusing. A husband might say: “We need to make sure we keep all the food off the counter because it is the season for ants.” The wife might hear that as a criticism of the way she keeps the counters clean. But if she knows that the husband not only loves her but honors the way she keeps house, no confusion will arise.
For example, as you get to know Jesus in the scriptures, one of the things you learn about Him is that He doesn’t argue with people. Listen to the words of E. Stanley Jones:
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 example from our own relationships is how two people who are very close know what the other is thinking without even a word being spoken. That should be our goal in our relationship with Jesus. We should know what is of Him because we deeply know Him.
The apostle Paul prays for the Ephesians and us that:
we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, (Ephesians 4:13)
May our relationship with Jesus and our knowledge of Him become fully mature – filled with Christ.
Additional Supporting Scripture
John 148 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. [Note how Jesus ties knowing Him with understanding His words.]
Ephesians 1 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, [ Note: as we grow in our knowledge of Him, we gain wisdom and revelation to discern]
1 Peter 3 take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. [Note that knowledge of Jesus prevents us from being “carried away” with error.]
Part 6: Principles for Discerning God’s Voice in Prayer
The Written Word of God
It goes without saying that the written word of God takes precedent in all of the times we are discerning God’s voice in prayer. Without question, if you hear something that you think is from God in prayer and it doesn’t line up with the truth revealed in the Bible, you know that you are not hearing from God.
But it is not always quite that easy. In my life, I don’t think I have ever heard anything from God in prayer that didn’t line up with the written word of God. Our retreat team has sat with thousands of people on retreat over the past 30 years. In very few cases did the folks on retreat hear something that didn’t align with God’s written word. And that is not because all of the individuals on retreat were well schooled in the Scriptures. So, this section is not positioned towards the end of this document because it is less important, it is because it rarely comes into play.
For purposes of discerning God’s voice in prayer, I would divide the Scriptures up into four parts: the law of God; the God ordained principles that we can glean from Scripture; the ecclesiastical instructions given in Scripture; and the theological understanding revealed in Scripture (who is God and who is man).
The Law of God
Years ago, there was an ad on TV that promoted the wearing of seat belts. The ad ended with a man clicking his seat belt in place with the words: “It’s the law.” At that time, I was talking with a friend at church about tithing. He motioned like he was buckling his seat belt and said: “It’s the law.”
Some people would say that God will not speak to us in prayer about anything that violates the law of God. That would give the apostle Peter trouble discerning when he heard in prayer: “Rise Peter, kill and eat [these unclean animals].” This clearly violated the dietary law of God as Peter knew it. So the question is: Which laws? Traditionally, dating back to Irenaeus (c. 170 AD), Christians have seen three types of Old Testament law: the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial. We find this characterization in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and the reformers. According to this perspective, the only part that we as Christians are required to keep is the moral law. The moral law was given not just for the people of Israel, but for all people because it is rooted in the character of God and His design for creation. And, in fact pre-dates the Law. The other two types of law were just for Israel. For our purposes, let’s go on the assumption that this is true: We can discern that something is not from God if it calls us to violate the moral law revealed in Scripture. For now, we won’t worry if you sense God calling you to make a pork roast for your family dinner.
But what exactly is the moral law? Has any denomination or church codified it? Certainly, it is not Immanuel Kant’s definition of the moral law. I think some of us are like Supreme Court Justice Black who when talking about pornography said: “I know it when I see it.” We know what the moral law is instinctively. But is that true? In the age of the Spirit, post-Pentecost, God has promised to write His law upon our heart. I would say: Yes, the moral law is written upon the heart of every believer. The apostle Paul also said that non-believers actually know God’s righteous decrees. Paul even says that the moral law is written on the hearts of non-believers. That is another matter. But for this article, let’s keep the argument concerning only followers of Jesus who are listening to God in prayer. Even as believers, we don’t always have a pure heart and a pure channel to that law written upon our heart. Using the moral law of God written upon our heart as a means of discerning truth and error brings us back to a more subjective approach to discerning the voice of God in prayer. It works but is not black and white given our own propensity to follow our own ways (which are not God’s).
I would say that a vast majority of the moral law is clearly understood. Nine of the ten commandments could be considered the foundation of the moral law of God (Sabbath keeping is considered by some to be rescinded under the New Covenant). But take a pretty clear cut-command like: “You shall not murder.” You are a believer who has been drafted into your country’s army. You will be trained to kill your enemy. Is that murder? Or take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s role in the assassination of Adolf Hitler. Or the command: “You shall not steal.” Is there ever a time that God would tell you to steal something? Was stealing a slave from his cruel master ever permissible. Might God have led you to work for the underground railroad in the mid-nineteenth century? Even stealing has some areas of nuance.
We could go on and on with examples. But, although there are nuances, we can generally use the moral law as revealed in Scripture as a means for discerning God’s voice in prayer. See Appendix A for my attempt to codify the moral law of God.
The Bible is chock full of wonderful principles that help order our lives. The book of Proverbs certainly has its share of principles. For example, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” I have found this a wonderfully practical principle that has helped me many times. But can we use it to help us discern what we think God might be saying to us in prayer. Might God ever call us to a hard answer? I am fully convinced that there are times we are to deliver the hard answer and it may incur wrath. Certainly, Jesus gave a few hard answers in His day and wrath certainly followed.
Turning to one example from the New Testament, Paul writes to the Galatians a principle that seems to be at the top of Paul’s list of Godly principles: “2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This is such a priority to Paul, he says that when we do this, we fulfill the law of Christ. But can we use this to help us discern God’s voice in prayer? Might God direct us not to carry another brother or sister’s burden that has come to our attention? Of course. Right now, age and a health issue in my family are preventing me to invest in my brothers and sisters as I once did. In this season, I cannot carry my brother and sister’s burdens. This past week, an elderly neighbor shared his newly discovered health issues. I wanted to tell him – “Any time you need a ride or some help with something – let me know.” But in prayer, I realized I could not share his burden.
So what can we say about using Biblical principles in discerning God’s voice in prayer? Two things: First, we need to recognize things that are essentials in the Scriptures. Many denominations and independent churches do a good job identifying those. (Many do not). We need to make sure that we understand those essentials and use those to weigh what we are hearing from God. Is believer baptism one of those essentials? Is an elder led church an essential? (More on this in the next section.) Many things in Scripture are principles that not essential. A principle, can, at times be fungible. I believe that God may direct us to do something that goes against a principle in Scripture. For example, it is a principle that we are to give our monetary offerings to God first – not give Him what is left over. This makes a lot of sense too. As humans, our wallets (and bank accounts) tend to leak. So, giving up front is not just a Biblical principle, it works well given our nature. But it is possible that God may direct you for a time, to not practice that good principle.
That brings up the second thing: What principles in Scripture are fungible? The apostle Paul makes an interesting statement in his letter to the Romans. In talking about eating food that was sacrificed to idols:
Romans 14: 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Remember that the council of Jerusalem specifically said to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols.” The council puts it in the category with abstaining from sexual morality. Clearly, we don’t consider abstaining from sexual morality a fungible principle. Who would say: “If you commit adultery – but are doing it believing by faith that God has given you the go-ahead, is not sinning!” Of course, Paul was not defining what is not sin, but what is sin in this letter. Herein is the difficulty and some guidance.
First some guidance. We need to take Paul’s statement about doing everything in faith very seriously. If we receive something that we believe is from God (given the principles and practices outlined here), we need to act on it in faith. If we act on it without believing it is from God and thinking that it is wrong, that is sin. Or if we don’t act on it even though we believe it is from God, that is also sin.
The difficulty is that I believe that most of the Biblical principles are fungible. They are the way we are to order our lives. But they are not hard and fast rules. We need to read the entire Bible and be looking for the Biblical principles upon which we are to live our lives. That is because I believe they reflect God’s heart for mankind. But they are not laws. Knowing the breadth of these principles will bode us well as we live our lives. But we cannot use them to discern God’s voice in prayer.
That said, when we sense God saying something that goes against one of these Biblical principles, we need to go into it with our eyes open. Know that God is calling you to an exception. We need to be a little more diligent is using our other principles and practices to discern: “Is that really You, God?
There are many things written in the Scripture about the operation of God’s ecclesia: the Church. The ordering of worship, the appointing of elders, baptism, church discipline and so on are all described in Scripture. These are not exactly laws nor can they exactly be considered general principles. How are we to use what the Scripture teaches on these issues to discern God’s voice in prayer?
Let me give you two examples. Imagine that you are part of a Reformed denomination that believes in infant baptism. You believe God has shown you through the scriptures that believer baptism is the proper approach to baptism. As a result, when your child is born, you and your spouse decide to dedicate them to the Lord. In prayer, you hear God saying that you should submit to your elder’s interpretation of the Scripture – which would mean that you would baptize your infant child. You sense Him telling you that by dedicating your child you would bring disunity within this particular church. How does one use the written word of God to discern whether what you are hearing is from God in that case? Could God be speaking to you about something that goes against what you think the Scripture says? Is the solution more study of the Scripture? Perhaps – but I have some very studious pastor friends who fall on opposite sides on this issue. I am not sure more study is the solution. What is the right path in using the Scriptures in this case?
Here is another example. Imagine that you believe that God has ordered and structured the church in such a way that it should be run by a plurality elders. You have moved to a new town and like the local Anglican church. It is alive. It preaches the gospel. The people love one another. There are new believers regularly being added to the flock. But it is not governed by elders. You join the church and after a few years join a church plant team to form another Anglican church in a nearby town. You and your spouse discern in prayer that God is calling you to join this team. But you will be starting a church that is not elder led. How does one use the Scripture to discern in this case? Could God be speaking to you to go against the Ecclesiastical instruction to “appoint elders.”
I believe that Ecclesiastical instructions cannot help us discern what we hear in prayer for the same reasons I gave for fungible principles.
The Theological Understanding
One of the most important disciplines in listening prayer, is spending time in God’s presence – letting Him reveal who He is and who we are. In fact, I believe that it is the primary thing God wants to reveal to us in prayer. God uses the written word of God as His primary vehicle to reveal who He is and who we are. But it is through words that He speaks to us that makes these words come alive. Thus, the written word of God must be used to help us discern what we are hearing in these areas. Although there is not complete agreement across all of Christendom, there is a lot of consensus about the basics of who God is and who we are.
God is one. He is the sovereign creator and sustainer of all things. He is perfect in holiness. He has existed for all of eternity in three unique persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At His very essence, He is love.
God the Father is Spirit and is the life-giver, the Almighty one and supreme authority over all creation. He is the one who fulfills the father role to us His children. He is the initiator of the redemption of mankind.
Jesus Christ is the living Word made flesh. He is the image of the invisible God. Through Him and for Him all things were made and are held together by the word of His power. He is the King of Kings who will one day give all authority back to the Father.
The Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of all those who are born again. He is a distinct person of the Godhead. He mediates the presence of Jesus wherever He goes. He is actively convicting the world of sin and of righteousness. He bestows gifts on His people.
Man is made in the image of God but has been irrevocably broken by sin which no man repair. Only through regeneration by the Spirit of God can things be set right. At our core, we are loved by God even in our broken state.
These Biblical truths about God and man (and the many other truths in Scripture) should be used to help us discern what we hear in prayer. Anything that we hear in prayer that goes against who God is and who we are as revealed in Scripture can be dismissed. For example, if we were to hear God say that we are unlovable, we would know that this violates both who God is and who we are as revealed in Scripture. The apostle John uses the litmus test of the historical fact of Jesus coming in the flesh for discerning truth and error. Anything that we hear that denies that Jesus, the second member of the Trinity did not come in the flesh is clearly not from God.
How does one use the written word of God to discern if what we hear in prayer is from God? I believe that God wants us to so soak in the written word of God that we truly know the heart of God. And that as much as possible, we are to strive to have the heart of God as revealed in Scripture etched on our heart. We know the moral law inside and out – not just the letter of the moral law but the spirit of the moral law. We are to grow in our knowledge of all of the principles God has revealed in Scripture. And, as we soak in the word, we come to a full understanding of who God is and who we are. With this heart, we are then able to take the whole counsel of God into the discernment process. We can discern when a higher law may be involved. If we hear something from God that violates either one of the fungible principles or goes against the moral law of God while fulfilling what you sense is a higher part of the moral law, we need to take extraordinary care. More time in prayer, more time with other believers discerning together and more careful self-examination of your motives and your own heart on the matter are required. Finally, we must strive to maintain a posture of humility in our listening. Even after all of this, we may be wrong.
A brief summary of the moral law of God
Love God and Love Neighbor (Luke 10:27 Paul calls this “the Royal law” Jesus said: “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” Matthew 22:40)
The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12 Jesus said: “For this is the Law and the Prophets”)
Love one another (John 15:12 – a special command to the community of faith)
Have only one God (Exodus 20:3)
No Idolatry (Exodus 20:4-6)
No Blasphemy (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 24:14,16, 23)
Honor parents (Exodus 20:12)
No Murder (Exodus 20:13)
No Adultery (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22)
No Stealing (Exodus 20:15)
No Lying (Exodus 20:16)
No Coveting (Exodus 20:17)
No Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)
No Sorcery and Witchcraft (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 13:5, 1 Samuel 28:9)
No Bestiality (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:16)
No Incest (Leviticus 18:6-18, 20:11-12,14,17,19-21)
 Romans 2:14-15 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
I picked up this book from our church library. It was not filed in the Women’s section but Priscilla is definitely targeting it for women. That said – I think it is a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to start out learning to listen to God. The whole focus is not on how to discern or recognize God when He speaks – but rather a high level summary of: the what; the how and our response to God’s voice. Note: These notes are from the 2007 edition. She basically re-wrote the book in 2012. There is almost no correlation between that edition and the one I am reviewing.
First off, I want to say I love the way she organized the book. There are five parts:
Part 1: Hearing God’s Voice – This part has the two basics that we teach: Expect to Hear Him and Just do it – practice the spiritual discipline of listening
Part 2: Communicating with God Today – This part could be subtitled: An Invitation to Intimacy with God
Part 3: Revealing God’s Character – This part could be subtitled: What to Primarily Expect while Listening to God
Part 4: Discovering God’s Plan – This part focuses on the guidance component of listening to God.
Part 5: Responding to God’s Plan – The Hebrew word for listen is integrally linked to obedience to God’s voice.
In addition, each chapter contains the following sidebars:
A Saint Speaks – where she quotes other Christian’s response to the topic she is addressing
He Speaks – quotes from the Bible about the topic
How do you Know it’s God’s Voice? – Descriptions from others about how they discern God’s voice.
I love the chapter titles that describe God’s voice as:
I would agree with all of these as descriptors of God’s voice and will probably include it the next time we introduce listening to a group.
“Those who do not believe God speaks specifically will simply ignore or explain away all the times when God does communicate with them. However, those who spend each day in a profound awareness that God does speak are in a wonderful position to receive His word.” A. W. Tozer
“If we come to Him doubting His ability to speak, we will have a difficult time listening. So we must come expectantly.” Charles Stanley
“If you want to hear God’s voice clearly and you are uncertain, then remain in His presence until He changes this uncertainty. Often much can happen during this waiting on the Lord. Sometimes He changes pride into humility; doubt into faith and peace; sometimes lust into purity. The Lord can and will do it.” Corrie Ten Boom
“Conversing with the Father is colored by the needs of the day. Let your prayer be something definite, arising either out of the Word which you have read, or out of the real soul needs which you long to be satisfied. Let your prayer be so definite that you can say as you go out, ‘I know what I have asked from my Father, and I expect an answer.” Andrew Murray
“Note well, that we must hear Jesus speak if we expect Him to hear us speak. If we have no ear for Christ, He will have no ear for us.” Charles Spurgeon
“We can make our heart a chapel where we can go anytime to talk to God privately. These conversations can be so loving and gentle, and anyone can have them.” Brother Lawrence
“I close my eyes to shut out visual stimuli … I close my ears by dealing authoritatively with distractions that threaten my ability to tune in to God. I close a series of shutters on the surface level of my life, thus holding at bay hindrances to hearing the still small voice of God …” Joyce Huggett
“Listening to God today is not about newness but about nowness.” Joyce Huggett
“I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness – secret riches. I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.” Isaiah 45:3
“Have you ever heard the Master say something very difficult to you? If you haven’t, I question whether you have ever heard Him say anything at all.” Oswald Chambers
Minor Points of Disagreement
A couple of minor quibbles with the book. In most cases, I don’t think she really means what these statements say.
Priscilla says that the “Father’s greatest goal is for us to grow into our full spiritual potential…” I think the Father’s goal is much greater than this: that we would fully grow to conform to the image of Christ; that we would achieve a oneness with the Trinity and with God’s people are two goals of the Father that are greater.
She also says: “Hearing God’s voice is impossible for someone who hasn’t yet been born of the Spirit.” Saint Peter heard the Father’s voice concerning Jesus’ being the Messiah. None of us would become followers of Jesus if we did not hear His voice before we were born of the Spirit.
Finally, quoting a friend, she says that “God’s supernatural activity is so evident in my life because I have decided the only appropriate response to Him is complete obedience.” I am so thankful that God’s supernatural activity is so evident in my life not because of my complete obedience but because of His grace towards me and that I look for God’s supernatural activity.
A good introduction to listening to God is the book I just finishedby Loren Cunningham entitled Is that really You, God? Hearing the Voice of God. The book traces the history of the founding of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) with particular concentration on listening to God. I think you will enjoy this easy read as much as I did. It often moved me to tears and more importantly, moved me to draw closer to Jesus.
Here are some of the principles Loren was taught in the process of starting YWAM.
The three steps to hearing God:
1. First, we took Christ’s authority to silence the enemy.
2. Second, we asked the Lord to clear from our minds any presumptuous and preconceived ideas.
3. Third, we waited believing he would speak in the way and in the time that he chose.
Here are some quotes from the book:
One of the principles we use in seeking guidance is ongoing confirmation, similar to the road signs you would look for on an unfamiliar highway.
One of the most trustworthy tests for valid guidance is this: Does it bring the people who are involved one step closer to freedom and maturity in the Lord? If this is not so, the guidance is probably suspect.
Divine guidance is so heavy, so spectacular, that there is the risk of Glory attaching itself to the work rather than to the Lord.
Success itself is the most dangerous obstacle to properly hearing the voice of God.
Twelve steps to hearing God’s voice:
1. Don’t make hearing God complicated. Here are 3 simple steps:
a. Submit to Jesus’ lordship
b. Resist the enemy
c. Expect an answer
2. Allow God to speak to you in the way He chooses.
3. Confess any unforgiven sin
4. Use the Axehead principle from 2 Kings 6. If you seem to have lost your way, go back to the last time you knew the sharp, cutting edge of God’s voice. Then obey. Have you obeyed the last thing God told you to do?
5. Get you own leading. God will use others to confirm your guidance, but you should also hear from Him directly
6. Don’t talk about your guidance until God gives you permission to do so. The four pitfalls of divine guidance are:
c. Missing God’s timing and method
d. Bringing confusion to others
7. The Wise Men Principle. God will often use two or more spiritually sensitive people to confirm what His tell you (2 Cor 13:1)
8. Beware of counterfeits. Only things of value are worth counterfeiting.
9. Opposition of man is sometimes guidance from God.
10. Every follower of Jesus has a unique ministry
11. Practice makes perfect
12. Relationship is the most important reason for hearing the voice of the Lord
A good friend of mine who pastors a church here locally told me that they keep this book by their bedside table! High Praise! To read more about learning to listen to God, check out our post on Listening Prayer.
Without a doubt, this was the most helpful book in developing my theology and my language for learning how to listen to God. Much of what I learned about Listening Prayer started here. 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:
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
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
This is actually going to be a little more than a book summary. As I have slowed down my reading and attempted to increase the depth of what I take in, I am going back to books I read previously and writing out my notes, thoughts and quotes. Present Perfect is one such book. I wrote about the spiritual discipline that developed out of reading that book in Points of Presence. But I have found that I am learning so much more this second time through. At the end of every chapter Greg Boyd has exercises to help us cultivate the habit of being awake to God’s presence. I am finding that I skimmed over these previously. Now I am finding a treasure in these exercises. You will find them summarized at the end of this blog.
One thing Greg does in the book is to populate the pages with little “Are You Awake” text boxes – like post-it notes. This time through, I have found that these are great reminders to be aware that I am in God’s presence when I am reading. I would turn the page and there was the little post-it. “Are you awake.” I decided to create something using the Windows task scheduler. I will be creating a link to this for anyone interested. You can program it to any increment. 10 minutes is a reasonable place to start.
I would strongly recommend this book. Although I am not an open theist and even though Greg is a big proponent of this theological perspective, I don’t find any instances of open theism in this book . Don’t avoid this book because you differ with him on open theism.
Introduction: “Now” is Where God Lives
This is a major theme of the book – hence the name – Present Perfect – Finding God in the Now. Greg develops the argument that although God was in the past and will be in the future, He is in the Now (with respect to us). Generally theologians and Christians have the following views concerning God’s relationship to time:
The traditional view – God is timeless – i.e. outside of time completely
God is temporal but everlasting – He exists at each moment of time and experiences temporal succession (one thing follows another in time)
God is not within our time but is within His own time. Some have argued against this by saying that God is then somehow limited by His own time.
God is omni-temporal – God is not in our time but he experiences temporal succession in His being. But He does not have His own time.
Although you can argue that God is timeless many philosophers argue that God is temporal (in time) only with respect to his creation. This is my view. When God steps into our time, as in the incarnation, He is in time. When He speaks to us, He speaks in time.
William Lane Craig has argued that God was timeless in eternity before He created time and became temporal thereafter.[i]
All of this does not impact our experience of God in time. I agree with Boyd that we can only experience God in the present moment – the Now. Even when we work with individuals in the healing of memories and God takes the person back to a past moment in their history, they are still experiencing God and healing their memories in the now. And I think that can be true no matter what the relationship is between God and time. What matters is our relationship to God and time. Any comments to this would be appreciated by me because I completely agree with Boyd’s central premise – We only experience God in our present moment because we only live and have our being in the present moment.
C.S. Lewis talks about this in the Screwtape Letters. These are letters from a senior demon to an understudy. According to Lewis, the demons want to keep us away from thinking about either eternity or the present. They will continuously be tempting us to live in the past or the future. Listen to the words of the senior demon:
[The demon Screwtape writes:] The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present—either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience [and I would add – the Holy Spirit] , bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.
Our business [the demons] is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present.
Something to be aware of, is that evil is at work anytime you are dwelling on the past or the future. Lord, help me to live in this present moment with You!
Are you Awake?
This is another major question that he poses for us each and every moment
Are you awake or asleep to God’s presence?
As I mentioned, he scatters this phrase like post-it notes throughout the book. He posts them on his sermon notes. All to remind us – are we paying attention to God’s presence at this moment. When working on my laptop up pops a window every 10 minutes asking: “Are you awake?” At that moment, I turn my focus away from what I am doing to the One who (hopefully) I am doing the writing or reading with! Boyd gives us some instructions as to what we should do at these moments:
Don’t try to feel his presence. In fact, don’t try to do anything at all. Simply be mindful of the fact that you are, in this present moment, submerged in the ocean of God’s perfect love.
Waking up to a Cricket
In this section, Boyd describes the moment in history – the Now – when he was jogging and experienced his surroundings as if for the first time. It awakened in him the desire to be more aware of God every moment. Hear his words about this experience:
Never before had I realized the extent to which our focus determines what we experience—and do not experience—in any given moment. Never before had I seen how being absorbed in the past or future causes us to miss the wonder of the present.
The present moment is all that is real. The past is gone. The future is not yet. We remember the past and anticipate the future, but we always do so in the present. Reality is always now. And the single most important aspect of reality is that God is present in it every moment. To forget that God is present in any given moment is to forget the most important aspect of that moment.
Over the past twenty-plus years since my waking-up experience in the woods, I’ve become absolutely convinced that remaining aware of God’s presence is the single most important task in the life of every follower of Jesus.
It is my prayer that God will use this book to help you wake up to his ever-present love and to passionately embrace the challenge of remaining awake to this love
Practicing the Presence of God
At this point, Boyd introduces the three authors who helped him become awake to God’s presence 24/7:
Brother Lawrence “Among the many things I learned from this man [a seventeenth-century monk] was the need to stop thinking of prayer as something we do at certain times but not others.”
Jean-Pierre de Caussade
While these three authors differ widely in both their theology and their emphasis, they all emphatically agree that remaining awake to God’s presence in the present moment is the single most important task of the Christian life and that no spiritual discipline is more foundational or transforming than this one.
[Practicing the Presence of God] is, I’m convinced, the bedrock of a vibrant relationship with God and the key to transformation into the likeness of Christ. … I believe this practice is foundational to Christianity and how this practice can transform our lives.
The Simplicity and Challenge of Practicing the Presence
The challenge is not in doing the discipline: it’s in remembering the discipline.
When you notice that you’ve forgotten God, don’t get frustrated or angry. This only produces more mental chatter,
Lawrence, de Caussade, and Laubach each testify that whatever task occupies you at any given moment, you’ll tend to do it better if you include God. Remaining aware of God’s presence doesn’t compete with our attention to other things; it augments it.
Chapter 1 – Mere Christianity
For the Supersaints Only?
Boyd opens this chapter making the case that this practice is not just for monks, missionaries and pastors.
For us ordinary Christians, trying to remain aware of God’s presence moment-by-moment seems like a hyperspiritual pipe dream.
But he claims it is not.
Living Out the Pledge of Life
In this section, Boyd takes a bit of tangent – and builds the case that surrendering our life to Jesus cannot be a one time occurrence.
For the only life we have to surrender to Christ is the one we live moment-by-moment.
He uses the example of his pledge to his wife when they got married. The pledge made at the moment of their marriage was life changing and monumental but the pledge needed to be lived out every moment from then on.
Rather, the actual life I pledged to my wife was the life I have lived each and every moment since I made that pledge. The only life I have to give to my wife is the life I live moment-by-moment.
The important question is not, Did I once surrender my life to Christ? The important question is, Am I surrendered to Christ right now? For the only life we have to surrender to Christ is the life we’re living this moment.
We make a vow to submit our life to Christ but then spend 99 percent of our time excluding him from our awareness. We make him Lord over our life in theory, but we do not make him Lord over most of the moments that make up our life.
The Heart of New Testament Discipleship
In this section, Boyd builds the case that being aware of God’s presence 24/7 is biblically based in the following scriptures:
Seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) – How can we seek God’s kingdom first when we hardly pay any attention to him throughout the day? “remembering that God exists and that yielding to his will is our supreme objective, even as we strive for other, less important, goals.”
Living in the Spirit / Keeping in Step with Spirit – (Galatians 5:16-18) – How can we keep in step with the indwelling Holy Spirit when we ignore Him most of our day
Take every thought captive ((2 Corinthians 10:5) – How can we do this
apart from being aware of every thought and submitting it to the Spirit. “I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but your brain never stops thinking. It’s constantly chattering! If you doubt me, go into a quiet room, shut off the lights, and try not to think. Listen carefully for the voice in your head and see how long you can keep it completely silent. If you’re attentive, you’ll probably discover that within five to ten seconds you’ll be chattering to yourself. You’ll hear things like: ‘So far so good’ or ‘This is stupid’ or ‘Don’t forget to take out the garbage.’ … Our brain never shuts up. To submit every thought to Christ, therefore, we’re going to need to have Christ on our mind all the time. …This doesn’t mean we should try to analyze every thought to make sure it’s submitted to Christ. This would turn our mental focus completely onto ourselves and would pull us out of the present moment. It would also likely drive us crazy.”
Be transformed by the renewal of your minds (Romans 12:2) – Can our minds really be renewed through a few quiet times a week and a church service or two? No! The transformation is taking place moment by moment.
We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) – If He truly is the head of the body, doesn’t the body analogy require 24/7 connectivity with the head?
I would add to this list:
You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. Deuteronomy 6:7 (see also 11:9)
…praying at all times in the Spirit – Ephesians 6:18
16 Rejoice always,17 pray without ceasing,18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. Luke 18:1
Chapter 2 – Finding Home
This chapter takes a few tangents as he attempts to build his case.
Our Insatiable Hunger
In this section, Greg talks about how animals are just fine when they have food and shelter [Don’t tell our grand-dogs that]. But as humans we have an insatiable hunger for life. Yes, we hunger for love and happiness [as do our grand-dogs], but we also hunger for meaning, worth and significance. [Nope – no grand-dogs I know have that hunger]. He goes on:
Our insatiable hunger for a depth of Life that only he can give is a sort of built-in “homing device” intended to lead us to him. The Trinity is our home, and we are never fully satisfied or at peace until we rest in him.
Sounds very Augustinian! (“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”) And he says that when we don’t follow that lead, we replace it with:
An idol can be anything we use to meet the need that only God can meet.
Whatever we try to derive our core sense of worth and meaning from is our god.
Beliefs and Reality
Boyd hits head on the difference between our beliefs and what we actually do.
many assume that believing Jesus is Lord of their life magically makes him Lord. …merely believing Jesus is Lord no more makes him Lord of my life than believing Kim Jong-il is the leader of North Korea makes me his follower. For Kim Jong-il to be my leader, I would need to submit my life to him and become a citizen of North Korea. So too, for Jesus to be my Lord, I need to submit my life to him and become a citizen of his Kingdom.
The important question, therefore, is not what you believe. The important question is what you decide to do, moment-by-moment, on the basis of what you believe.
The Futility of Idols
In this section, Boyd develops what should be obvious – but isn’t. False gods and idols will never give us what we need.
Living “As Though”
While the true God lives in the now, false gods always live in the past or future. Chasing them to find our worth and significance always takes us out of the present moment.
How much of your thought-life is spent in the past or future, and what is the purpose for this nonpresent thinking? You may be so accustomed to living in the past and future that you find it difficult to notice how much of your thought-life is spent there, let alone why you spend so much of your thought-life there.
if you are completely honest with yourself, you’ll probably find that most of your past and future orientated thoughts revolve around you and are centered on your attempts to feel worthwhile and significant.
This was a revolutionary thought for me. I never realized that my thought life / my self-talk was mostly about the past or the future. But it is! This idea has helped me immensely to turn my self-talk / my idle thoughts to the sacred present moment.
The very process of trying to acquire Life on our own forces us to miss most of life, for real life is always in the present moment. When we live as though we can acquire Life from things other than God, we inevitably live as though reality wasn’t always in the present moment.
Reorienting the Homing Device
Coming home is simply a matter of waking up from the illusion that you aren’t already there. Yet, while the belief that the love of God is our home can be embraced at one moment and then forgotten about, the actual decision to release the illusion and embrace the truth cannot.
Greg mentions one of the side benefits of learning to become aware of God’s
presence 24/7. Agreeing with Laubach he says:
I feel much more “at home” in my skin—and in the universe—than I used to.
Chapter 3 – Chasing the Sun
Boyd opens this chapter quoting from what is, in his opinion, one of the greatest rock songs ever written. You are going to have to buy the book if you want to know what it is. But the song addresses the human condition that we all face: death. And the fear that grows out of that. He says:
The fear is not just that we’re going to die. The fear is that we’ll never really live.
Boyd makes the claim that learning how to practice the presence of God will free us from fear and dread. Both fear and dread cause us to live in either the past or the future. But we were meant to live in the present.
If you are truly present, [fear and dread] cannot help but disappear—just as it cannot help but reappear if you once again begin to cling to idols and get pulled out of the present moment. For as we’ve seen, our fear and dread are directly associated with our pursuit of idols and, therefore, being pulled out of the present into the past or future. To relinquish the idols and remain in the present, surrender to God’s ever-present love. In this way the practice of the presence of God completely frees us from the fear of death.
The bottom line is that we were meant to live life as a celebration of a fullness of Life we get from God rather than as a desperate attempt to get fullness of Life on our own.
At the end of this chapter, Gregory addresses the question: “Won’t focusing our full attention on God every minute of the day, lead us to inactivity.”
Pointing especially to Laubach (the non-monk in the trifecta of authors) as one who accomplished an immense amount of work all the while practicing the presence of God every moment, Boyd emphatically says: NO!
Chapter 4 Single-Mindedness
Greg now addresses one of the reasons nobody practices the presence of God 24/7:
We’ve been conditioned to have a “flesh-mind-set” that habitually pushes God out of our awareness moment-by-moment.
He then encourages us:
Whatever else is going on—whether we’re taking a shower, engaging in a discussion, watching television, or reading a book—we must try to remain consciously anchored in the present.
He defines what it means to be single-minded:
We are single-minded not because every thought is about Christ but because every thought is taken captive to Christ.
Chapter 5 Living in Love
He begins this chapter by addressing our hunger for information. We have bowed to the idol: “knowledge is power”
This is one of the reasons why many contemporary Western Christians place so much stress on hearing sermons, engaging in Bible studies, reading books, and attending seminars and conferences. We believe that acquiring information is the key to helping us grow spiritually and solving our personal and social problems.… Think about it. Western Christians today are massively more informed than Christians at any time in the past. Yet no one would dare to claim that we’re generally more spiritually mature than Christians in the past.
Why do so many Christians today spend more time listening to sermons or reading books than they do feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, welcoming outcasts, visiting prisoners, or engaging in other activities Jesus said should characterize Kingdom people? I suspect it’s at least partly because many believe they’re already living in the Kingdom by virtue of the fact that they’re learning about the Kingdom. The truth is that there is no necessary connection between these two things.
Boyd goes on to say that none of the three authors put much store in books transforming lives! Okay – I know – he is writing a book hoping to transform. Not that they didn’t see the worth of books, they just saw their limitations.
It’s just that all the information in the world is worthless if it distracts from the simplest thing in the world, which is practicing the presence of God in the present moment.
He then gets to the main point of this chapter: To live in love is to practice the presence of God. He looks at the challenge to love as Jesus loves us. But he says:
The challenge, then, is not first and foremost to love like Christ. The challenge is to live in Christ’s love, for only then can we love as Christ loved.
Chapter 6 Being Present
Greg opens this chapter with a quote from the play Our Town. In it, a woman, Emily, comes back from the dead as a spirit and sees what is really going on and exclaims: “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”
This beautifully expresses the goal of practicing the presence of God. It’s to “realize life while [we] live it…every, every minute,” and it includes looking hard at things and really seeing others.
This reminds me of a great quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh:
Hurry is an unpleasant thing in itself, but also very unpleasant for whoever is around it. Some people came into my room and rushed in and rushed out and even when they were there they were not there – they were in the moment ahead or the moment behind. Some people who came in just for a moment were all there, completely in that moment.
Live from day to day, just from day to day. If you do so, you worry less and live more richly. If you let yourself be absorbed completely, if you surrender completely to the moments as they pass, you live more richly those moments.
Boyd wants us to understand that the incarnation isn’t just something that happened a long time ago and now has accomplished its purpose:
… the earliest Christians understood that the incarnation wasn’t just about what God did once upon a time in Jesus. Because Jesus reveals who God really is, the incarnation tells us something about what God is always doing.
He then says that to live “incarnationally” means to practice the presence of God 24/7. We are to always embody Jesus wherever we go.
This captures the heart of Chapter 6.
Chapter 7 – The Father is Always Working
Boyd opens with a warning:
If we’re not careful, our own religion can blind us to the ever-present God.
And then an encouragement:
The Father is always working, and if we are looking for it and willing to participate, some amazing things can happen.
Quotes from the Three Mentors (Laubach, Lawrence and de Caussade)
Can I bring the Lord back into my mind-flow every few seconds so that God shall always be in my mind? I choose to make the rest of my life an experiment in answering this question.
Some people have compared [remaining aware of God’s presence] to getting out of a dark prison and beginning to live. We still see the same world, yet it is not the same, for it has a new, glorious color and a far deeper meaning.
Can we have that contact with God all the time? All the time awake, fall asleep in His arms, and awaken in His presence? Can we attain that? Can we do His will all the time? Can we think His thoughts all the time?
If you should forget Him for minutes or even days, do not groan or repent, but begin anew with a smile. Every minute can be a fresh beginning.
This practicing the presence of Christ takes all our time, yet does not take from our work. It takes Christ into our enterprises and makes them more successful.
One may never get to the point where they continually are in God’s presence. You may not win all your minutes to Christ, or even half, but you do win a richer life. There are no losers excepting those who quit.
This concentration upon God is so strenuous, but everything else has ceased to be so. I think more clearly, I forget less frequently. Things which I did with a strain before, I now do easily and with no effort whatever. I worry about nothing, and lose no sleep.
Students can keep Christ in mind even when taking an exam by saying things like, “Father, keep my mind clear… How shall we answer this next questions?” He will not tell you what you have never studied, but He does sharpen your memory and take away your stage fright when you ask Him.
You do not need to forget other things nor stop your work, but invite Him to share everything you do or say or think…
My part is to live this hour in continuous inner conversation with God and in perfect responsiveness to his will, to make this hour gloriously rich. This seems to be all I need think about.
One can pour something divine into every situation.
[Practicing the presence of God] is the secret of the great saints of all ages. “Pray without ceasing,” said Paul, “in everything make your wants known unto God. As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.”
If you should forget Him for minutes or even days, do not groan or repent, but begin anew with a smile. Every minute can be a fresh beginning.
Jean-Pierre de Caussade
The present moment is all that matters.
Each moment is a revelation of God.
I will devote myself exclusively to the duty of the present moment to love you, to fulfill my obligations and to let your will be done.
The practice [of God’s presence] is so simple, so easy and so accessible that it need only be wished for it to be had.
God is only asking for your hearts. If you truly seek this treasure, this kingdom where God alone reigns, you will find it. Your heart, if it is totally surrendered to God, is itself that treasure, that very kingdom you long for and are seeking.
All that matters is…to belong totally to God, to please him, making our sole happiness to look on the present moment as though nothing else in the world mattered.
What is the secret of how to find this treasure [of God’s presence] – this minute grain of mustard seed? There is none. It is available to us always, everywhere.
I wish to make all see that everyone can aspire…to the same love, the same surrender, the same God and his work, and thereby effortlessly achieve the most perfect saintliness.
It is not pleasure we seek. Let this exercise [of practicing God’s presence] be done from one motive alone: because we love him.
My set times for prayer are exactly like the rest of the day to me. They are but a continuation of the same exercise of being in God’s presence.
I kept my mind in His holy presence. I recalled His presence as often as I found my mind wandering from Him. I found this to be a very difficult exercise! Yet I continued despite the difficulties I encountered. I did not allow myself to become upset when my mind wandered.
If a Christian is to truly practice the presence of his Lord…then the heart of that Christian must be empty of all else. All Why? Because God wills…to be the only possessor of that heart.
I am in a calm so great that I fear nothing. What could I fear? I am with Him.
While I am with Him I fear nothing.
If your mind sometimes wanders or withdraws from the Lord, do not be upset or disquieted. Trouble and disquiet serve more to distract the mind further from God than to recollect it. The will must bring the mind back in tranquility.
So begin… make that resolution. Now!…Be daring. None of us have a long time to live… what years we have, let us live them with God.
Oswald Chambers (not from this book but related)
The characteristic of a disciple is not that he does good things, but that he is good in his motives, having been made good by the supernatural grace of God. The only thing that exceeds right-doing is right-being…. Jesus is saying, “If you are My disciple, you must be right not only in your actions, but also in your motives, your aspirations, and in the deep recesses of the thoughts of your mind.”
When you are insulted, you must not only not resent it, but you must make it an opportunity to exhibit the Son of God in your life. … A personal insult becomes an opportunity for a saint to reveal the incredible sweetness of the Lord Jesus.
if we are His disciples, we will always do these things [turn the other cheek]. We will not say, “Oh well, I just can’t do any more, and I’ve been so misrepresented and misunderstood.”
Every time I insist on having my own rights, I hurt the Son of God, while in fact I can prevent Jesus from being hurt if I will take the blow myself. That is the real meaning of filling “up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ…” (Colossians 1:24). A disciple realizes that it is his Lord’s honor that is at stake in his life, not his own honor.
the essence of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is— Never look for justice, but never cease to give it.
The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else. “Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord”;… The Highest Good—The Pilgrim’s Song Book
We are apt to think that everything that happens to us is to be turned into useful teaching; it is to be turned into something better than teaching, viz. into character. We shall find that the spheres God brings us into are not meant to teach us something but to make us something. The Love of God—The Ministry of the Unnoticed,
If I will take an honest look at myself, becoming fully aware of my so-called innocence and putting it to the test, I am very likely to have a rude awakening that what Jesus Christ said is true [Matthew 15:18-20], and I will be appalled at the possibilities of the evil and the wrong within me. But as long as I remain under the false security of my own “innocence,” I am living in a fool’s paradise.
Purity is something far too deep for me to arrive at naturally.
Until we can come face to face with the deepest, darkest fact of life without damaging our view of God’s character, we do not yet know Him.
Every God-given vision will become real if we will only have patience. Just think of the enormous amount of free time God has! He is never in a hurry. Yet we are always in such a frantic hurry.
Prayer is not only asking, but is an attitude of the mind which produces the atmosphere in which asking is perfectly natural.
Have you been propping up that foolish soul of yours with the idea that your circumstances are too much for God to handle? Set all your opinions and speculations aside and “abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). Deliberately tell God that you will not fret about whatever concerns you. All our fretting and worrying is caused by planning without God.
We are in danger of being stern where God is tender, and of being tender where God is stern. The Love of God—The Message of Invincible Consolation,
Look at God’s incredible waste of His saints, according to the world’s judgment. God seems to plant His saints in the most useless places. And then we say, “God intends for me to be here because I am so useful to Him.” Yet Jesus never measured His life by how or where He was of the greatest use. God places His saints where they will bring the most glory to Him, and we are totally incapable of judging where that may be.
is not true to say that God wants to teach us something in our trials. Through every cloud He brings our way, He wants us to unlearn something.
Game with Minutes
Boyd describes this Frank Laubach exercise as follows:
This game challenges us to bring Christ to mind at least one second of each and every minute within a designated hour. He called it a “game” both because he wanted it to be “lighthearted” and because he found it to be “a delightful experience and an exhilarating spiritual exercise.”
The how to was a little lacking in Frank’s booklet and Boyd doesn’t help a whole lot:
Laubach recommends that we begin by designating a particular “uncomplicated hour” to “see how many minutes of the hour you can remember…Christ at least once each minute.” The basic idea is that we need to become accustomed to remembering Christ when our mind has little to do before we can learn how to remember Christ with any consistency in situations that require more attention.
To begin this “game,” think about the times when you tend to be most bored. Designate one or more of these periods as a time in which you’re going to challenge yourself to remember Christ at least once every minute.
This game remains elusive to me.
Waking Up to God
Here Boyd encourages us to spend 10 minutes just after you wake up in God’s presence. Invite Him to keep you aware as you get going in your day. I have tried this and forget most of the time – but overall, I like it.
Inviting Fellow Travelers
Simply, bring others along. Anyone care to join me on this journey? So far I have invited my wife and two directees.
Strategically Placed Reminders
This was the most helpful of all the exercises to me. You can read about it in the “Points of Presence” blog. Here we place reminders in strategic places to be awake to God’s presence.
Being at Home in your skin
This exercise does not seem to be related to the title of Chapter 2, but I have found it useful for brief moments. I have not integrated this into my Points of Presence. Basically, the idea is that the world supports us through gravity. And the exercise is to become aware of all of the points where our body is sensing the tug of gravity. When we are laying down, it is the length of our body. When sitting, it is our seat and feet. The idea is that God has made this place as home and you can actually experience his holding you through the law of gravity. Feel it. Experience it. I am doing it right now sitting in this chair on my deck. Unusually (actually never in my 70 years), a nuthatch landed on my bare foot as I was doing it. He pecked away and didn’t find anything worth eating, and flew away. But for that moment, the pressure of his little feet were felt.
Boyd says this about this discipline:
Engaging in this discipline, I have found that I feel much more at home in the world because my continual contact with the world has become a sacrament communicating to me I’m always at home in God’s loving presence.
Experiencing God’s Fullness of Life
Greg offers two exercises to help us experience more of God’s fullness of life:
Become mindful of God’s care for me by whispering truths such as ““I could not possibly be more loved than I am this moment.”
I set aside regular times when I darken a room, play some nice background music, and imaginatively see, hear, and sense Jesus pouring his perfect love on me. As vividly as possible, I see, hear, and sense Jesus expressing to me all the things Scripture says about me, but now these truths are intimate, personal, and, therefore, much more impacting. This is called “cataphatic [or imaginative] prayer” in the church tradition and multitudes have found it to be a powerful way of experiencing and being transformed by the fullness of Life that come from Christ alone.
All three authors tell us that to experience God moment by moment – to live constantly in His presence, we need to let go:
“All things hinge upon your hearty renunciation of everything which you are aware does not lead to God,” Brother Lawrence
“The reason I didn’t have it [a sense of God’s ‘hereness’] before was because I failed to let go,” Frank Laubach
Boyd recommends using the old “palms up and palms down” exercise to help us let go.
Whenever you find you’ve begun to focus on things that are taking you away from an awareness of God’s presence in the present moment or are feeling weighed down by the concerns of life, you can simply put your palms down and let it go. Whenever you find you’ve begun to resist God’s movement in your life or are trying to acquire some element of your worth, significance, or security by idolatrous means, you can simply hold your palms up so that your body is in agreement with your intention to receive God’s Life.
I have revised this slightly and reversed the order in what I call the catch and release discipline. You can read more about this in the “Catch and Release” blog here.
Standing in the Middle of Infinity
[Knowing that there is an almost infinite universe above us with distances that stagger the imagination, and a universe below us with particles so small they could travel through light years of steel without colliding with anything] we can think of ourselves as situated in the middle of a virtual infinity extending beneath us into incomprehensible smallness and above us into incomprehensible vastness. To remain aware of the awesomeness of the God whose presence engulfs me, I find it helpful to sometimes remember this fact as I experience events around me. I encourage you to try this exercise. Sit in a comfortable public place and simply observe events around you. As you do so, try to remain aware of the virtual infinity extending above and beneath you and everything you observe. Let your awareness of being situated in the middle, between the infinitely large and infinitely small, form the background against which you observe everything.
As you engage in the discipline of situating yourself in the middle of infinity, therefore, be sure to remain aware that you are surrounded every nanosecond by the infinite intensity of God’s burning, perfect, Calvary-like love.
I am reminded of the phrases from the Canticle of Saint Patrick
Christ, as a light
illumine and guide me.
Christ, as a shield
Christ under me;
Christ over me;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Christ as a light;
Christ as a shield;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.
Observing Your Mind and Heart
Boyd tells us that an important skill in practicing the presence of God is to gain the ability to observe your own experience.
Most people go through life so completely identified with their thoughts, feelings, and urges that they are essentially slaves to them. We don’t make the distinction between “this particular thought” and “me,” so we just ride the waves of whatever happens to be affecting us in the moment. We think we are what we think and feel, moment-by-moment.
Try a little experiment to see if you can experience what I’m talking about. Recall a harsh or judgmental thought that you’ve had recently. It might be something like “I’m so stupid” or “That person is such a jerk.” Remember how it felt or how you responded when you were having that thought.
Now imagine that instead of just thinking that thought, you observed yourself thinking that thought. It might even be helpful to say something to yourself like, “I notice the thought that I’m stupid.” And now, as you observe yourself thinking the thought that you’re stupid, become aware that you’re immersed in God’s ever-present love. Notice what changes as you observe yourself thinking “I am stupid” while engulfed by God’s perfect love. You’ll find the power of the indicting thought dissipates, for you’re now experiencing the truth that you are more than your thought. The real “you” is the “you” that is defined by God’s love, not the indicting thought.
Another thing he encourages us to do, in addition to turning our self-talk into God-talk, is:
I encourage you to cultivate the habit of stepping outside your thought life to simply observe what is there—without judging it—while remaining mindful of God’s loving presence.
Do Everything for the Lord
Lawrence, de Caussade, and Laubach each stress the importance of transforming everything we do as an act of service and worship to God. This is one of the surest ways to stay awake to God’s presence.
Thinking in Terms of “We”
I have taught this as: Turn all of your self-talk into God-talk.
Laubach says that the single most important thing that helped him become habitually aware of God’s presence was when he learned to transform his thinking into a conversation with Christ. “All thought employs silent words and is really conversation with your inner self,” he observes. “Instead of talking to yourself,” he recommends we “form the habit of talking to Christ… Make all thought a conversation with the Lord.”
Cultivating the habit of thinking as a conversation with God rather than merely talking to ourselves is thus challenging, to say the least. Ask God to help you think of creative reminders.
The Space Between Us
This exercise could be summarized as:
Find a way to represent God’s redemptive love filling the interpersonal space between you and others.
In other words, any time you are with another person, try to see God’s love for that person filling the space between you and the other person.
The Primary Goal of Every Social Activity
Boyd describes this exercise as follows:
Whatever other goals you may have as you engage in any social activity—attending church, a party, a sports event, and so on—consciously choose to make your primary goal to love every person you encounter or think about as profoundly as possible. Challenge yourself to remain awake to the truth that each person you encounter has unsurpassable worth, not because of anything worthwhile you happen to see in them, but because their Creator thought them worth dying for.
Silencing the Accuser
Whenever you find yourself judging another, thank yourself for reminding you that you need to live in love.
Volunteering for the Worst Sinner Award
…, when you catch yourself looking down on another person, I encourage you to remind yourself that whatever sin or imperfection you think you see in another person, it is a mere speck of dust compared to the tree trunk of sin and imperfection in your own life.
Seeing through Jesus’ “Unattractive Disguises”
Drawing on the great prayer that Mother Theresa prayed every day:
Dearest Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of your sick, and, whilst nursing them, minister unto you. Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognize you, and say: “Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you.”
Boyd encourages us to look for Jesus every day / every minute in the unattractive.
Imagine the Child
In this exercise, we are to look at every person (especially those we have problems with) as a little child. What did they experience? How were You working in them as a child, Jesus?
Imagine the Prequel
Recognizing that there is a story behind the present state of everyone we meet and that it might be hard for us to see them as a child, Greg encourages us, in the moment, to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal what went before this behavior