A Feature Review of
Hearing God: Developing A Conversational Relationship With God.
Reviewed by Tom Farr.
If Christianity is primarily about a restored relationship with God, then it would only make sense for that relationship to be characterized by one of the most foundational aspects of relationships that we know—conversation. For example, my relationship with my wife is built upon and cultivated by the back-and-forth conversations that we have. But people don’t typically think of a relationship with God that way. Though we read story after story in the Bible of people experiencing an audible voice of God, we somehow understand that if God speaks to anyone audibly at all, it’s very rare. We understand that we’re supposed to pray, but we likely don’t expect to hear anything in return other than what we read in the Bible.
But what if God wants to have that kind of a conversational relationship with us? What if God wants to give us guidance in the specifics of lives? Dallas Willard, a respected voice in the area of spiritual formation, tackles the questions of a conversational relationship with God in his book Hearing God, which was recently released in an updated and expanded edition from InterVarsity Press.
Hearing God is about having a conversational relationship with God in which we go to God for guidance for very specific circumstances in our lives. The Bible is full of the wisdom of God and all the principles by which God wants us to live, but you won’t be able to go to the Bible to find a specific answer on who you should marry, where you should go to college, how many kids to have, what kind of career to pursue, and a host of other areas where we could use guidance.
Willard relates how most people find the idea of God speaking specifically to us strange. Some even find the idea uncomfortable, and this may be partly because so many people have abused the claim of hearing God’s voice to justify some very unChristianlike actions. But Willard suggests that the Bible is given to us as the record of God’s interaction with man, and because we are human beings just Elijah and David, for example, then we should expect to be able to interact with God in some of the common ways that God interacted with people in the Bible. A healthy relationship is nurtured by conversational interaction, and Willard makes the case that this kind of interaction should be normative for the faithful believer in Christ.
Furthermore, Willard makes the case that we live in a communicative cosmos. Words are foundational to our existence. God created the universe by his word. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. The Bible is the Word of God. All of creation is even sustained by God’s word. If we understand that God wants to communicate with us, then our hearts are more likely to be drawn toward him. So Willard presents to us why we should expect a conversational relationship with God and why we should pursue it. But that leaves us with the important question of how to hear from God.
Covering all the various ways that God communicated with people in the Bible, Willard gives special attention to the “still small voice” that Elijah experienced, and he connects this still small voice with an inner voice located inside of us. Remarkably, Willard points out that while people have to communicate through physical means (i.e. voices transmitted through a telephone, received by the eardrum and translated as words by the brain), God doesn’t need to communicate through physical means. Willard describes the still small voice as God speaking through the human spirit, through our own inner voice. This idea is taken not only from Elijah’s encounter with the still small voice, but from Paul’s writings as well. In 2 Corinthians chapter 2, Paul talks about no one knowing God’s thoughts but the Spirit of God. Then Paul proclaims that believers have the Spirit of God indwelling inside of them. It is the idea that God communicates to us by his indwelling Spirit through our spirit. This, of course, means that we have the opportunity to hear clearly from God because he is speaking through our inner voice, skipping our ears completely. But anyone who has experienced hearing God through the inner voice would probably admit that hearing an audible voice of God would still be preferable and much clearer. After all, when listening to a still small voice that exists inside of us, it can be hard to discern when it is our own thoughts speaking or the voice of God speaking. But Willard will go on to explain how to recognize the still small voice of God in a later chapter.
What is the Bible’s role in all of this? Willard’s discussion of the Bible’s role may initially make some people uncomfortable. It’s important to realize that he isn’t setting out to make the Bible less than it is, but he is also trying to avoid making the Bible more than what it is. Is the Bible the Word of God? Yes, and the Bible frequently affirms that. But is Word of God only the Bible? This is something the Bible doesn’t affirm, and this is where it gets uncomfortable. Did God stop speaking once the canon of Scripture was closed? The whole idea behind Hearing God is that he did not stop speaking. God still communicates, and his communication to anyone is important. But, while God’s words to anyone are important, the Bible is set above all as the revelation of God’s desire for the kind of life we are to live. What that means, Willard points out, is that any communication God makes with us will not contradict what God has given us in the Bible. Furthermore, the messages we receive from God are not to be understood as inspired Word of God for all people on the same level as the Bible, though it is still the words of God. The Bible contains all the principles for righteous living that God wanted to communicate to us, and it is vitally important for believers to live out the teachings of the Bible. Our communication with God begins with understanding God’s desires as revealed in the Bible. Then we turn to God for more specific guidance.
There’s no question that there is a clear difference between a conversational relationship between two people and a conversation relationship between us and God. That difference lies in our need to constantly try to discern exactly what it is God is trying to say to us. While this can be frustrating, it is the nature of who we are as broken people to misunderstand or mishear what God is trying to say to us. Interpretation is important. Willard discusses “three lights” that work interdependently to point us in the direction of God’s intention for us. These are circumstances, impressions of the Spirit, and passages from the Bible. He also discusses three factors we need to keep in mind that help us to recognize God’s voice: quality, spirit, and content. After reading Willard’s presentation of why we need to have a conversational relationship with God, the chapter on actually recognizing God’s voice will undoubtedly be one that readers will be tempted to skip to because this is where it gets practical.
Dallas Willard is a respected voice on spiritual formation, and Hearing God is a much-needed resource for developing a relationship with God that is built on two-way communication. Readers should read carefully, with an open mind and an open Bible, and a humble willingness to pursue a conversational relationship with God.