|Woman praying in the Church of the Nativity, Jerusalem|
I have long admired Dallas Willard as a philosopher, Jesus-follower, and excellent writer. Willard is professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. A brilliant philosopher, Willard's writings on Christian spirituality have deeply influenced me, especially The Spirit of the Disciplines, The Divine Conspiracy, and Renovation of the Heart.
Here are some of Willard's thoughts from his book Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God. What a beautiful book! This is good reading for anyone wondering just what it means to hear God's voice, to them, today.
“Those who operate on the wrong information are likely never to know the reality of God’s presence in the decisions which shape their lives and will miss the constant divine companionship for which their souls were made.” (10)
“Today there is a desperate need for large numbers of people throughout our various social groupings who are competent and confident in their own practice of life in Christ and in hearing his voice.” (12)
Willard quotes Brother Lawrence – “There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because God would have us.” (From Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God)
John Calvin and William Law assured Willard “that the same Spirit who delivered the Scriptures to holy men of old speaks today in the hearts of those who gather around the written word to minister and be ministered to. And they warned me that only if this happened could I avoid being just another more or less clever letter-learned scribe – trying to nourish the souls of my hearers out of the contents of my own brain, giving them only what I was able to work up through my own efforts from the Bible or elsewhere.” (17; I pray this for myself, too.)
Many Christians seem to treat God’s will as nothing more than “fate,” (17)... and that everything that happens is caused by God. Willard calls this idea “faith-destroying.” (19) It's faith-destroying because it takes away the biblical idea that we are co-laborers with God.
“Israel’s experience led the prophet Isaiah – who also had firsthand experience of conversing with God (Isa 6) – to describe conditions of the faithful this way: “Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am… The LORD will guide you continually” (Isa 58:9, 11).
“In the last analysis nothing is more central to the practical life of the Christian than confidence in God’s individual dealings with each person.” (22)
The old hymn with the lines “He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own” is about “conversational communion” with God. (25) Remember Jesus, who said in John 10:4 – “My sheep follow me because they know my voice.”
A guideline for hearing from God: “Only our communion with God provides the appropriate context for communications between us and him.” (33) In other words - spend time, and much of it, with God.
Another guideline is: read the Bible realistically. Assume that the experiences recorded there are basically of the same kind as ours would have been if we have been there… “Unless this comes home to us, the things that happened to the people in the Bible will remain unreal to us. We will not genuinely be able to believe the Bible or find its contents to be real, because it will have no experiential substance for us.” (35)
The Bible is not just a book of doctrine and abstract truth about God… something that a person can study endlessly without actually encountering God himself or hearing his voice. (35)
Willard cites A.W. Tozer:
“It is altogether possible to be instructed in the rudiments of the faith and still have no real understanding of the whole thing. And it is possible to go on to become expert in Bible doctrine and not have spiritual illumination, with the result that a veil remains over the mind, preventing it from apprehending the truth in its spiritual essence.” (35-36)
“When God speaks to us, it does not prove we are righteous or even right. It does not even prove that we have correctly understood what he said. The infallibility of the messenger and the message does not guarantee the infallibility of our reception. Humility is always in order.” (39)
A corporate sensing of God is sometimes needed. “Experienced ministers and laypeople frequently find they have synchronized their activities unerringly in a meeting or other form of service through their sense of God’s presence and intent for the particular occasion. It is something they come to expect and rely upon.” (47)
Finally, D.L. Moody had many years of successful ministry, when one day he had a powerful experience with God. Moody writes:
"I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it, it is almost too sacred an experience to name… I can only say God revealed Himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand. I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths; and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world; it would be as small dust in the balance.” (49)