Editor's note:

It is fun­ny how a book can become a friend. First there is the lev­el of acquain­tance. Here, I share about a book I am read­ing, often excit­ed­ly, bring­ing quotes and read­ing sec­tions aloud. Many books don’t even make it this far in my life.

Then, the book becomes a com­pan­ion. It walks with me for a ways. I share more of not only what the book says, but how my life is changed by its pres­ence, encour­age­ment, help, or guid­ance. I may even urge oth­ers to read such a book, but not always.

Final­ly, I befriend a book. Its words and ideas become my own. I for­get that I am quot­ing or ref­er­enc­ing it. I share it with my chil­dren as wis­dom to guide their ways, as a sure path and a reli­able guide. It opens remark­able doors into God and his Scripture.

Dal­las Willard’s Hear­ing God” is such a friend for me. Oth­er than the Psalms and the touch of God on my spir­it, noth­ing has influ­enced my prayers more. What a joy to have shared some time with the writer and learned under him! I am grate­ful and in his debt.

Here are some excerpts from the Pref­ace. Dal­las reminds me that life with the liv­ing God must be rela­tion­al and con­ver­sa­tion­al if it is to be real. He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own.”

—Matt Filer

Excerpt from Hearing God

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 the need. Is it not, in fact, more pre­sump­tu­ous and dan­ger­ous to under­take human exis­tence with­out hear­ing God?

God has cre­at­ed us for inti­mate friend­ship with him­self-both now and for­ev­er. This is the Chris­t­ian view­point. It is made clear through­out the Bible, espe­cial­ly in such pas­sages as Exo­dus 29:43 – 46 and 33:11, Psalm 23, Isa­iah 41:8, John 15:14 and Hebrews 13:5 – 6. As with all close per­son­al rela­tion­ships, we can sure­ly count on God to speak to each of us when and as it is appro­pri­ate. But what does this real­ly mean? And how does it work in practice?

When our chil­dren, John and Becky, were small, they were often com­plete­ly in my will as they played hap­pi­ly in the back­yard, though I had no pref­er­ence that they should do the par­tic­u­lar things they were doing there or even that they should be in the back yard instead of play­ing in their rooms or hav­ing a snack in the kitchen. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing we are in God’s will when­ev­er we are lead­ing the kind of life he wants for us. And that leaves a lot of room for ini­tia­tive on our part, which is essen­tial: our indi­vid­ual ini­tia­tives are cen­tral to his will for us. 

Of course, we can­not fail to do what he directs us to do and yet still be in his will. And quite apart from any spe­cif­ic direc­tions he may give us, there are many ways of liv­ing and being that are clear­ly not in his will. The Ten Com­mand­ments giv­en to Moses are so deep and pow­er­ful on these mat­ters that if human­i­ty fol­lowed them, dai­ly life would be trans­formed beyond recog­ni­tion, and large seg­ments of the pub­lic media would col­lapse for lack of mate­r­i­al. Con­sid­er a dai­ly news­pa­per or tele­vi­sion news­cast and elim­i­nate from it every report that pre­sup­pos­es a break­ing of one of the Ten Com­mand­ments. Very lit­tle will be left. 

But one who inquires seri­ous­ly after God’s guid­ance must nev­er for­get that even if one was to do all the par­tic­u­lar things God wants and explic­it­ly com­mands us to do, one might still not be the per­son God would have one be. It is always true that the let­ter kills, but the Spir­it gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). An obses­sion mere­ly with doing all God com­mands may be the very thing that rules out being the kind of per­son that he calls us to be. 

Jesus told a para­ble to make clear what God trea­sures in those who intend to serve him: 

Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plow­ing or tend­ing sheep in the field, Come here at once and take your place at the table?” Would you not rather say to him, Pre­pare sup­per for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; lat­er you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was com­mand­ed? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, We are worth­less slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” (Lk 17:7 – 10; cf. Mt 5:20)

The watch­word of the wor­thy ser­vant is not mere obe­di­ence but love, from which appro­pri­ate obe­di­ence nat­u­ral­ly flows. 

Much of what you will read [in Hear­ing God] is only elab­o­ra­tion on this para­ble. Cer­tain­ly I hope to be of some ser­vice to those who con­tin­ue to think just in terms of doing what they are told to do. But for all the good there is in that atti­tude, it remains the atti­tude of the unprof­itable ser­vant. And it severe­ly lim­its spir­i­tu­al growth, unlike the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a life of free-heart­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion with Jesus and his friends in the king­dom of the heavens. 

More­over if we are firm­ly gripped by a true pic­ture of life with Jesus and are mov­ing by expe­ri­ence deep­er and deep­er into its real­i­ty, we will be able, strong­ly but calm­ly, to resist the mis­takes and abus­es of reli­gious author­i­ty. From the local con­gre­ga­tion up to the high­est lev­els of nation­al and inter­na­tion­al influ­ence, we hear peo­ple and groups claim­ing that they have been divine­ly guid­ed as to what we are to do. This is some­times benign and cor­rect, both in inten­tion and out­come. But this is not always the case. 

An appro­pri­ate response to mis­use of reli­gious author­i­ty will be avail­able to those who have an under­stand­ing of how indi­vid­u­al­ized divine guid­ance, on the one hand, and indi­vid­ual or cor­po­rate author­i­ty, on the oth­er, meld togeth­er in Jesus’ com­mu­ni­ty of trans­form­ing love. Today there is a des­per­ate need for large num­bers of peo­ple through­out our var­i­ous social group­ings who are com­pe­tent and con­fi­dent in their own prac­tice of life in Christ and in hear­ing his voice. Such peo­ple would have the effect of con­crete­ly redefin­ing Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al­i­ty for our times. They would show us an indi­vid­ual and cor­po­rate human exis­tence freely and intel­li­gent­ly lived from a hand-in-hand, con­ver­sa­tion­al walk with God. That is the bib­li­cal ide­al for human life.

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Excerpts tak­en from Hear­ing God: Devel­op­ing a Con­ver­sa­tion­al Rela­tion­ship with God (For­ma­tio, 2012) and used grate­ful­ly with per­mis­sion from Inter­Var­si­ty Press. 

Pho­to by Har­li Marten on Unsplash

Originally published December 1998