Editor's note:

While The Divine Conspiracy and Renovation of the Heart are Dallas’ most well-known and expansive books, Hearing God is my favorite. To my ears it is Dallas’ most personal book, tender and intelligent like the man himself. In it, Dallas declares that God does indeed speak with His children. He explains the nature and acquisition of a conversational relationship with God, focusing attention at one point on distinguishing God’s particular timbre from the cacophony of squawks and hisses inside our heads. In the passage below, Dallas gives some reasons that so many, fearing themselves deaf or God silent, have trouble noticing God’s voice.

—Elane O'Rourke

Excerpt from Hearing God

I believe we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, 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 [in Hearing God]. But before we can even begin working on this task, there are three general problem areas that must be briefly addressed.

First, what we know about guidance and the divine-human encounter from the Bible and the lives of those who have gone before us shows us that God’s communications come to us in many forms. We should expect nothing else, for this variety is appropriate to the complexity of human personality and cultural history. And God in redemption is willing to reach out to humanity in whatever ways are suitable to its fallen and weakened condition. We should look carefully at these many forms to see which ones are most suited to the kind of relationship God intends to have with his people. If we give primacy to forms of communication that God does not on the whole prefer in relation to his children, that will hinder our understanding of and cooperation with his voice—perhaps even totally frustrating his will for us…

Second, we may have the wrong motives for seeking to hear from God. We all in some measure share in the general human anxiety about the future. By nature we live in the future, constantly hurled into it whether we like it or not. Knowing what we will meet there is a condition of our being prepared to deal with it—or so it would seem from the human point of view. Francis Bacon’s saying that knowledge is power is never more vividly realized than in our concern about our own future. So we ceaselessly inquire about events to come. The great businesses and the halls of government are filled today with experts and technocrats, our modern-day magicians and soothsayers. A discipline of “futurology” has emerged within the universities. The age-old trades of palm reading and fortune telling flourish.

Within the Christian community, teaching on the will of God and how to know it continues to be one of the most popular subjects. Russ Johnston draws upon his own wide experience to remark how this continues to be one of the most popular subjects.

A certain church I know has elective Sunday School classes for their adults. Every three months they choose a new topic to study. The pastor tells me that if they can have someone teach on knowing God’s will, they can run that class over and over, and still people sign up for it in droves. 

I’ve spoken at many conferences where part of the afternoons are set aside for workshops on various topics. If you make one of the workshops “Knowing the Will of God,” half the people sign up for it even if there are twenty other choices.

But a self-defeating motive is at work here—one that causes people to take these classes and workshops over and over without coming to peace about their place in the will of God. 

I fear that many people seek to hear God solely as a device for obtaining their own safety, comfort and righteousness. For those who busy themselves to know the will of God, however, it is still true that “those who want to save their life will lose it” (Mt 16:25). My extreme preoccupation with knowing God’s will for me may only indicate, contrary to what is often thought, that I am overconcerned with myself, not a Christlike interest in the well-being of others or in the glory of God… Nothing will go right in our effort to hear God if this false motivation is its foundation. God simply will not cooperate. We must discover a different type of motivation for knowing God’s will and listening to his voice.

Third, our understanding of God’s communication with us is blocked when we misconceive the very nature of our heavenly Father and of his intent for us as his redeemed children and friends. From this then comes a further misunderstanding of what the church, his redemptive community, is to be like and especially of how authority works in the kingdom of the heavens.

God certainly is not a jolly good fellow, nor is he our buddy. But then neither are we intended by him to be robots wired into his instrument panel, puppets on his string or slaves dancing at the end of the whiplash of his command. Such ideas must not serve as the basis for our view of hearing God. As E. Stanley Jones observed,

Obviously God must guide us in a way that will develop spontaneity in us. The development of character, rather than direction in this, that, and the other matter, must be the primary purpose of the Father. He will guide us, but he won’t override us. That fact should make us use with caution the method of sitting down with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper to write down the instructions dictated by God for the day. Suppose a parent would dictate to the child minutely everything he is to do during the day. The child would be stunted under that regime. The parent must guide in such a manner, and to the degree, that autonomous character, capable of making right decisions for itself, is produced. God does the same.

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.

It is within such a relationship that our Lord surely intends us to have and to recognize his voice speaking in our hearts as occasion demands. He has made ample provision for this in order to fulfill his mission as the Good Shepherd, which is to bring us life and life more abundantly. The abundance of life comes in following him, and “the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (Jn 10:4). 

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Willard, Dallas. Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Originally published as In Search of Guidance) (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 26-29. Footnotes omitted.

Originally published January 1999