Introductory 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).

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.

Text First Published December 1998 · Last Featured on June 2021

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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