In one of our last Bible studies we discussed another chapter of Tozer’s “The Pursuit of God.“ It was on the spoken word of God.
We read a whole series of verses about God’s word and suddenly I realized that we usually assume that these refer to the Bible, even though most of them do not necessarily say that. It’s so easy to hear “God’s word” and think of “God’s Word” as if it was the only word of God.
This reminded me of a book that I had read two years ago, and it motivated me to do a little summary of what I learned through it. The book is Hearing God, developing a conversational relationship with God, by Dallas Willard (1984)
Willard starts the introduction with a story of his wife’s grandmother: When somebody in her house group mentioned that God had spoken to him, she remarked “I wonder why God never speaks to me like that.” She is in good company. Maybe you have had the same question. Many believers like her have a rich interactive relationship with God but are unfamiliar with God’s voice and the possibility of having a conversational side of a relationship with God.
“Our failure to hear God has its deepest root in a failure to understand, accept and grow into a conversational relationship with God, the sort of relationship suited to friends who are matures personalities in a shared enterprise, no matter how different they may be in other respects” (29)
He defines this conversational relationship as telling God what is in our hearts and hearing and understanding the “still, small voice.”
In the following chapters, Willard treats different aspects of this question, misconceptions and arguments why God cannot, would not, and does not want to speak to people. These arguments are partly influenced by “naturalism,” leading people to believe it is unscientific to think that God speaks.(If you don’t have time to read a long post, jump to the end of the post for the summary.)
Willard is very clear on the question that the Bible is the primary manner of communication. However, the second way as expressed in Ps 32:8 is guiding us with his eyes. This means an awareness of what the other person is thinking. This is what Willard calls the conversational relationship, an outworking of Jesus living in us and his presence in us (Col 1:27, Gal 2:19-20).
Jesus promised us that we can hear his voice (Jn 10:1-16). One aspect of hearing his voice is to receive guidance. He can use dreams, visions, voices, the Bible, extraordinary events, etc but the most important one is the “still small voice” or “gentle whispering” that Elijah heard. It is easily overlooked and disregarded. It can be audible, or a human voice, or through messengers including angels, but most often we will hear it inside our spirit.
Willard addresses some common misconceptions:
– “a message-a-minute view” – every movement needs to be ordained by God, and people are unable to act without clear guidance from God even for daily tasks.
– “it’s all in the Bible” view – leading to the assumption that we do not need to hear his voice today. He also call this “Bible deism” – similar to the Sadducees, there are those that believe that God stopped speaking, but this is a wrong way of honoring the Bible.
When the Bible refers to the “word of God” without further qualification it usually means God’s speaking, communicating, his thoughts and his mind (Ps 119:89-91). God’s word is powerful and in speaking God created the universe (Gen 1) and through it he rules the kingdom. In the same way that the word of a king is powerful and can have big effects (including heads rolling), the same is even more true for God’s word. This is what the centurion recognized (Mt 8:10) – “just speak a word and it will happen.”
The reality in the kingdom responds to the spoken word! God also gives power and authority to people (e.g. Num 20:8-12). God handed over power to Jesus, and Jesus handed over power to us, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (Jn 20:21, Mt 10, Lk 9)
There are different degrees of power – sometimes we are called:
– to ask for God to speak a direct word (pray)
– to speak on his behalf (Acts 3:6; 14:10)
– to take action on his behalf (Acts 9:40)
We need to keep in mind that THE word of God is Jesus (Jn 1:10-11).
And the Bible is God’s Word, his written word, and one result of God’s speaking.
Willard makes it very clear that:
“the Bible is the written Word of God, but the word of God is not simply the Bible” (141)
When we examine Bible passages with this in mind, we will discover that
– 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 mentioned in many Scriptures passages: e.g. Ps 119:89, Ps 19:1-4; Acts 12:24; Mt 13 – in comparison to 2 Tim 3:15-17 which refers specifically to the ‘sacred writings,’ or Scriptures or 1 Pt 1:23-24 where both are mentioned next to each other.
All of these are God’s word, including when we hear from him individually!
God’s word is portrayed in the Bible, and available to every person through the Bible, but it is not limited to it. God uses the Bible to renew our mind, but it is mainly through his speaking to us that we are transformed in a character for whom listening to God’s voice is natural. This is what our union with Christ looks like (Gal 2:20, Phil 1:21).
In chapter 8, Willard provides detailed answers on how to recognize God’s voice. It is a learning process. We need to learn to discern his voice, both while reading the Bible and when listening to the “still small voice” because even Satan can abuse the Bible. In this learning process it is good to have help from others, who have a close relationship with God. But first we need to accept that God does speak, and wants to speak to us, then we can grow in experience and ability to hear his voice.
On the question how to distinguish God’s voice from our subconscious voice, Willard cites E. Stanley Jones who points out that the subconscious voice argues with you, tries to convince you, but the inner voice of God does not argue, it just speaks (175).
When God speaks we can sense the weight of its authority. This is combined with a spirit of peacefulness and confidence, which is similar to the godly wisdom mentioned in James 3:17. We should test it because it has to be consistent with God’s character and the principles of his written word, e.g., fear motivation does not come from God.
It also helps to accept that there is no guarantee for perfection, or infallibility of discerning God’s mind. It is impossible to never be mistaken and nowhere promised, but maintaining a close relationship to the Bible helps. Willard warns us that this is not the same as scholarship.
“Scholarship does not replace experiencing the living voice of God.”
Concerning fear of not being able to discern God’s will: “God is not a mumbling trickster” (191) – when we are willing to listen, he can make himself understood and is able to communicate plainly.
God can direct us mechanically, without speaking, like driving a car or directing a robot, “but when he guides us with conscious cooperation, he speaks to us.” The necessary conditions are:
– our willingness to listen
– asking him to speak
– being still
We should not be anxious if we don’t hear from God, but trust that he gives us a lot of freedom to determine our life, and sometimes he wants us to make our own decisions.
Concerning the “perfect will of God”: when we follow God’s general counsel of his written word, we are right in the middle of God’s perfect will, and if there is any specific word, we should be obedient to it.
Beyond that we have a huge freedom, because God does not always have a specific plan for each moment – “no ideal, detailed life-plan uniquely for each believer.”
Two final thoughts:
– Hearing God does not exclude risks or suffering.
– The greater goal of listening to his voice is to move beyond it to living in the kingdom (211).
Willard summarizes the book with the following steps (213)
A) Foundational steps
– having entered into an additional life by the additional birth, including the commitment to find out more what is morally right and commanded by God
– seeking fullness of the new life in Christ at the impulse of the spirit of God, growing in faith, moving beyond living in our own strength
B) Steps to hearing God
– meditate on God’s principles of life in the Scriptures
– be alert and attentive to what is happening in our life, mind and heart
– pray and speak with God about all matters that concern us
– listen carefully and deliberately for God’s voice
– if God does not speak
o ask him about possible hindrances
o seek counsel from other believers who live in close relationship with God
o correct whatever comes up
o if nothing comes up, act on what seems best to you.