Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, by Dallas Willard


Here's the thing.  It all comes down to what you mean by 'hearing' God.

Willard argues that our relationship with God should be conversational, that He should (and does) speak to us on a regular basis, if we can just hear Him.  After all, the rest of our relationships are characterized by communication--why would our relationship with God be any different?

And I agree with him . . . up to a point.  See, I believe God does speak to us.  I just think He speaks to us first and foremost through His Word.  Willard is quick to argue that surely this amazing God didn't just speak at one time in history and then just stop.  Surely He speaks today. And I think He does. But again, I think the bulk of that 'speech' is contained in the Bible.  God didn't just speak once and then stop.  He spoke and He continues to imbue those spoken words with His Spirit--Himself--in the present.  After all, non-Christians read the Bible all the time, but is God speaking to them?  Speaking in the same way He speaks to His children when they read His Word?  The Bible is not just words on a page--it is the very Word of an eternal, unchanging God.  His Word is living.  It is active.  In this sense, I think we can say God continues to speak, today, through the Word He spoke in the past.

And of course, the Holy Spirit applies that Word to our lives.  We read about the dangers of being easily angered, and we recall our short words with a co-worker.  We read about the way marriage is a picture of the gospel, and suddenly we realize that our love hasn't been all that sacrificial of late.  We read Paul's words extolling patience, and are struck by our own impatience.  Or perhaps we're going about our day and we happen to notice a flower or a sunset or a friend who extends us grace, and we are reminded of God's mercy to us despite our sin.  There may, of course, be an element of cognition behind these revelations--we are people possessed of working brains, and we can put two and two together, after all.  But on some level, I think the Holy Spirit is working in us and guiding our natural thought processes.  He is, after all, a counselor, a guide, a teacher.

Then, too, the Holy Spirit often speaks through the counsel of others.  Wise, godly friends ask questions and raise concerns that we might never see for ourselves.  Many Christians will share story after story of God 'speaking' to them through the chastisement or encouragement of a friend in Christ.  Praise the Lord that He does not leave us to figure things out all on our own, but gives us His Word, His Spirit, and His people to help us.

Beyond that, well, I find myself torn.  I cannot agree with those who say that God never speaks apart from the Bible--I think He does.  But then, I also see the danger inherent in constantly seeking the 'voice of God' apart from His revealed Word.   For one thing, it can tempt us to see God's Word as insufficient.  This is a big problem.  He has given us everything we need in His Word, and we should have a very high view of it.  The more we study the Word, the more we see just how far it reaches into our lives, just how many situations it speaks to.  Even if God never spoke a word to us outside the Bible, we would have enough.

In addition, this desire to hear from God constantly can cripple us and cause us to succumb to fear and anxiety.  The truth of the matter is, God probably doesn't care which pair of socks you wear today.  Not that He doesn't care about you, but He has given us a certain amount of freedom.  We can choose among non-sinful options.  Sometimes He may speak to us, encouraging us to do a particular thing.  But more often than not, I think we are free to choose for ourselves, using the wisdom He has given us and being guided by the principles of His Word. And since there seems to be some evidence that the vast bulk of heavenly communication takes place either through the Word or through the Holy Spirit working in us in ways we cannot always perceive, I think teaching people that constant extrabiblical communication from God is a prerequisite for a healthy relationship with Him is a recipe for disaster, anxiety, and doubt.

However, assuming we maintain a high view of Scripture and don't spend our lives being paralyzed by fear that God has some secret will He is hiding from us or that we're not really Christians (or 'good' Christians) if God doesn't talk to us every day, I don't have a problem with allowing for the possibility that He may speak to us.

Willard has some deeply practical advice here, that avoids both pitfalls.  When he faces some decision on which he wishes to seek the counsel of God, he prays about it  (no surprise there).  He asks God if He would like to address the issue (note that Willard neither assumes that God wishes to be 'heard' on every issue, nor presumes to tell God when to speak).  He then goes and washes dishes or does some other mundane chore for an hour or so--something that will occupy his hands but not fully occupy his mind.  I think this is a great idea.  He doesn't sit and wait and listen so hard his ears bleed, but he simply goes about his day, being careful not to be so distracted by activity that he effectively drowns out the voice of God.  Then if nothing happens in that hour or so, he just . . . continues with life as usual.  If, after about three days, he has not 'heard' from God on the issue, he assumes that God wishes for him to make the decision on his own, to the best of his ability in light of Scripture and his own intelligence.

Note that there is no angsting here.  No desperation.  No panicked demand that God decide for him.  Just a calm heart that makes space for the Lord to speak if He so chooses.  This is, I think, great advice, and it was by far the high point of the book.

At the end of the day, this was sort of a 'fine' book.  I worry that Willard overemphasizes extrabiblical communication with God.  He uses some faulty logic (i.e., God spoke to the prophets, so God must speak to us in the same way, even though a) we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, so the method of communication may in fact be very different, and b) the prophets were being inspired in an era that predates the completion of the Canon, so God was not just speaking to them as His people but creating His eternal Word).  Still, it's not a bad book, and I don't think Willard is by any means heretical in his teaching. I'm just a little leery of his views on how God speaks to His people.

One final note:  I listened to the audiobook edition, narrated by Grover Gardner--who did a fine job, though I found it a little distracting to hear Louis Wu talking about the voice of God. I realize the world of audiobook narration is a small one, and folks are bound to narrate a wide variety of books over the course of their careers.  But Gardner's voice is so distinctive, I couldn't help but be a little distracted.

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