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.

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

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

Text First Published December 1998 · Last Featured on Renovare.org January 2023