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 régime. 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 December 1998