A life more than guidance by Dallas Willard
If you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures- then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. PROVERBS 2:3-5
The question that we will deal with in this final chapter is, therefore, essentially a how-to question:
~ How may we come to live confidently and sensibly with God as a conversational presence in our lives? This leads on to subordinate questions such as…..
~How much can we count on hearing God?
~What does it mean when we don’t hear his voice?
~What are we to do then?
The Framework for Our Answers
Let us set out toward the answers to such questions from a brief summary of the fundamental points presented in the course of this book. Repetition counteracts our powerful habits and misconceptions about hearing God that are buried deeply in customary religious behavior and thought patterns.
While God’s communications, including those intended to guide our specific choices, come through experiences of many kinds, the content or meaning of his detailed and individualized commnications to us always finally takes the form of the inner voice, a characteristic type of thought or perception. Without this the accompanying events, appearances or biblical passages remain puzzling, mystifying and open to conjecture.
God may of course direct us mechanically without speaking to us and guiding us through our own understandinngs and choices. He can guide us just as we guide our car, without speaking. But whenever he guides us in our conscious cooperation with him as friends and collaborators, he does so by speaking to us, by giving to us thoughts and perceptions that bear within themselves the marks of their divine origination.
His speaking most commonly occurs in conjunction with study of and reflection on the Bible, the written Word of God, wherever the Bible is available. Less commonly, though still often, it comes in conjunction with a human being who is speaking to us. But it may come in any of the other ways God chooses.
Our ability to recognize God’s voice in our souls and to distinguish it with practical certainty from other competing voices is acquired by effort and experimentation – both on God’s part and ours. It does not come automatically by divine imposition and command.
Those who really want to live under God’s guidance and who by proper teaching or other special provision made by God become convinced that he will speak and perhaps is speaking to them can proceed to learn through experience the particular quality, spirit and content of God’s voice. They will then distinguish and understand the voice of God; their discernment will not be infallible, but they will discern his voice as clearly and with as much accuracy as they discern the voice of any other person with whom they are on intimate terms.
I emphasize once again that this does not mean that they will always correctly understand what God says to them or even that it will be easy for them to get his message straight. One great cause of confusion is that people make infallibility a condition of hearing God. It helps, I believe and hope, to understand that God’s word is communication and that communication occurs constantly in contexts where infallibility is completely out of the question.
The infallibility of the speaker – as is the case when God is the speaker – does not and need not guarantee infallibility of the hearer. But fortunately, as we all know, speakers who are not even close to being perfect still commuicate reliably and regularly. I know my children’s voices well and would recognize them under a very wide range of circumstances. Generally I understand what they say. But I would know it was one of them speaking even if I could not understand what was said. (This has actually happened on numerous occasions!)
Indeed careful study of personal relationships shows that recognition of a certain voice is often the cue for someone to stop listening or even to distort the message in particular ways that are relevant to the specific nature of the relationship between the people involved. I am convinced that this often happens in the divine-human conversation, and it almost always happens when God speaks to those who are in covert rebellion against him.
One of Jesus’ deepest teachings concerned the manner in which we hear. This is so important that it cannot be emphasized enough. Specifically, Jesus alerted his hearers to the fact that they might not be using their ears simply for hearing but for other purposes as well – such as to filter and manage the message so it fits better their own lives and purpose. “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them,”Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Mk 4:23-25). Listening is an active process that may select or omit from, as well as reshape, the message intended by the speaker. Both listening and our other ways of perceiving turn out to be fundamental displays of our character, our freedom and our bondages.
Those who do not want to hear what God has to say – no matter what they may say to the contrary – will position themselves before God in such a way “that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven”(Mk 4:12). If we do not want to be converted from our chosen and habitual ways, if we really want to run our own lives without any interference from God, our very perceptual mechanisms will filter out his voice or twist it to our own purposes.
The doleful reality is that very few human beings really do concretely desire to hear what God has to say to them. This is shown by how rarely we listen for his voice when we are not in trouble or when we are not being faced with a decision that we do not know how to handle. People who understand and warmly desire to hear God’s voice will, by contrast, want to hear it when life is uneventlful just as much as they want to hear it when they are facing trouble or big decisions. This is a test that we should all apply to ourselves as we go in search of God’s word: do we seek it only under uncomfortable circumstances? Our answer may reveal that our failure to hear his voice when we want to is due to the fact that we do not in general want to hear it, that we want it only when we think we need it.
Usually those who want a word from God when they are in trouble cannot find it. Or at least they have no assurance that they have found it. That is, I think, because they do not first and foremost simply want to hear God speaking in their lives in general. At heart they only want to get out of trouble or to make the decisions that will be best for them. I have spoken with many who think of divine communication only as something to help them avoid trouble.
That we lack the desire to receive God’s word merely for what it is, just because we believe it is the best way to live, is also shown by a disregard of the plain directives in the Scriptures. Sanctification from sexual uncleanness(1 Thess 4:3) and a continuously thankful heart(1 Thess 5:18) are among the many specific things clearly set forth in god’s general instructions to all people. It is not wise to disregard these plain directives and then expect to hear a special message from God when we want it.
I do not mean to say that God absolutely will not, in his mercy, communicate and instruct those who have departed from the general guidance, the Word, he has given. Contrary to the well-meaning words of the blind man whom Jesus healed (Jn 9:31), God does on occasion “listen to sinners,” and he speaks to them as well. But this cannot be counted on as part of a regular and intelligible plan for living in a conversational relationship with God. Anyone who rejects the general counsels of Scripture is in fact planning not to be guided by God and cannot then rely on being able to be delivered from their difficulties by obtaining God’s input on particular occasions.
Many people, however, honestly desire God’s word both in its own right and because God knows it is best for us. As a part of their total plan for living in harmony with God, these believers adopt the general counsels of Scripture as the framework within which they are to know his daily graces. These people will most assuredly receive God’s specific, conscious words through the inner voice to the extent that it truly is appropriate in helping them become more like Christ. There is a limit to which such guidance is appropriate, and we will return to this point later. But it is true in general as G. Campbell Morgan has written, that “wherever there are hearts waiting for the Voice of God, that Voice is to be heard.”
With this summary of what we have learned so far before us, we turn now to deal with some final practical questions.
Listening for God
James Dobson has given some of the best practical advice I have ever heard on how someone who really wants the will of God and who has a basically correct understanding of it should proceed. Describing how he does it himself, he says, “I get down on my knees and say, ‘Lord, I need to know what yo want me to do, and I am listening. Please speak to me through my friends, boos, magazines I pick up and read, and through circumstances.’”
The simplicity of this should not mislead us. When we are in a proper, well-functioning relationship with God, this is exactly what we are to do. And then we are, as Dobson says, to listen. This means that we should pay a special kind of attention both to what is going on within us and to our surrounding circumstances.
We are talking about practicalities now, so it might be a good thing, until it becomes a habit, to write down Dobson’s simple prayer for guidance and put it somewhere – on the bathroom mirror, for example – where you can see and use it often. In conjunction with doing that it is important to oberve regular times for listening with respect to the matters that especially concern you.
Frederick B. Meyer is once again helpful at this practical level:m“Be still each day for a short time, sitting before God in meditation, and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you the truth of Christ’s indwelling. Ask God to be pleased to make known to you what is the riches of the glory of this mystery (Colossians 1.27).”
If we maintain this general habit, then when we are aware of a need for a particular word from God, we will be able to listen for it with greater patience, confidence and acuteness.
Personally I find it works best if after I ask for God to speak to me in this way, I devote the next hour or so to some kind of activity that neither engrosses my attention with other things nor allows me to be intensely focused on the matter in question. Housework, gardening, driving about on errands or payng bills will generally do. I have learnednot to worry about whether or not this is going to work. I know that it does not have to work, but I am sure of how great and good he is.
Often by the end of an hour or so there has stood forth within my consciousness an idea or thought with that peculiar quality, spirit and content that I have come to associate with God’s voice. If so, I may write it down for further study. I may also decide to discuss the matter with others, usually without informing them that “God has told me…..” Or I may decide to reconsider the matter by repeating the same process after a short period of time. Remember Gideon (Judg 6:11-40). Remember too that scientists check their results by rerunning experiments. We should be so humble.
If, on the other hand, nothing emerges by te end of an hour or so, I am not alarmed. I set myself to hold the matter before God as I go about my business and confidently get on with my life. Of course I make it a point to keep listening. Very often, within a day something happens through which God’s voice, recognizably distinct, is heard.
If this does not happen, I generally cease specifically to seek God’s word on the matter in question. I do not cease my general attitude of listening. But I am neither disappointed nor alarmed, nor even concerned, as a rule, and I shall explain why as we proceed further.(I am not speaking here of prayer generally, where a different approach of greater persistence and tenacity is often called for.)
I have followed this simple method of listening for God’s voice in many situations – in university teaching, research and administration; in family and business affairsl in writing and conducting sessions in conferences and seminars. It is the furthest thing from a legalism or formality for me, and God also takes ample occasion to slip up on me by speaking to me words that I am not seeking in this way. Generally it is much more important to cultivate the quiet, inward space of a constant listening than to always be approaching God for specific direction.
From my own experience, then, and from what I have been able to learn from the Scriptures and from others who live in a working relationship with God’s voice, I am led to the following conclusion: Direction will always be made available to the mature disciple if without it serious harm would befall people concerned in the matter or the cause of Christ.
If I am right, the obedient, listening heart, mature in the things of God, will in such a case find the voice plain and the message clear, as with the experiences of the friends of God recorded in the Bible. This is a claim that must be tested by experience, and anyone willing to meet the conditions and learn from failures as well as successes can put it to the test. In every congregation we need a group of people who in front of everyone are explicitly learning and teaching about life in dialogue with God.
This Is Not a Gimmick
God often speaks without our initiating any such procedure of seeking his individualized word as I have just described. We must also not be misled into thinking that there is some sure-fire technique for squeezing what we want to know out of God. A life surrendered to God, a humble openness to his direction even when it is contrary to our wants and assumptions, experience with the way his word comes to us and fervent but patient requests for guidance- these do not constitute a method for getting an answer from him.
Hearing from God is not a gimmick. Talk of method is, strictly speaking, out of place here, although it is possible and helpful to lay down general, practical guidelines. After all God is not someone we “work up” for a result, even though certain behaviors before him are more or less appropriate. Above all we must beware of trying to force God to speak. This is especially true just when we are most likely to attempt it – that is, when we are not in peaceful union with him.
King Saul Forcing a Word
A scene from the life of Saul, the first king of Israel, poignantly illustrates the folly of such attemptes. Saul certainly did not have waiting upon God to see his will done as his highest priority. To keep control over his armies in the face of the Philistines, he sacrificed without waiting as he should have for Samuel, the priest, to arrive. He blundered ahead on his own, even though it was not his place. and made peace offerings and burnt offerings(1 Sam 13:5-10).
When Samuel arrived at last, he asked Saul why he had sacrificed without him. Saul’s reply goes to the very heart of his character: ” When I saw that the people were slipping away from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines were mustering at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the LORD’; so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering” (1 Sam 13:11-12.
Samuel immediately announced that Saul would lose his kingdom(1Sam 13:13,14), for he clearly saw that Saul was a man who would take things into his own hands to get his way and that he would also find a “good reason” for doing so. Samuel knew that God would not stand by such a man.
A little later Saul disobeyed again- when he did not utterly destroy Amalek (1Sam 15) – and once more he found a “good reason.” He even pretended to Samuel that he had obeyed (v.13), and when his deceit was uncovered he again blamed his disobedience on the people(v.24). And again Samuel announced that the kingdom would be taken from him(v.26).
Finally Saul came to his extremity, facing death (1Sam28). Samuel himself was dead by that time, and when Saul inquired of the Lord, “the LORD did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets”(v.6). Now, as was his way, Saul tried to force the knowledge he sought. Even though he himself had banned witches from Israel, he sought out a witch and compelled her to call up the spirit of Samuel (vv.7-11) to tell him what to do. Samuel arose “up out of the ground”(v.13) and said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”(v.15)
Saul poured out his tale of woe: “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams; so I have summoned you to tell me what I should do” (v.15). How sadly typical this is of the human view of God and his guidance! We treat him like a celestial aspirin that will cure headaches brought on by the steady, willful tendency of our lives away from and even against him. We treat him as a cosmic butler who is to clean up our messes. To compel him to serve us we seek gimmicks and tricks suited only to idols.
Samuel than read Saul’s sentence to him: “Why then do you ask me, since the LORD has turned from you and become your enemy? ….Tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the LORD will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines”(vv.16,19). At these words Saul fell flat on the ground, weakened by hunger and terror- a tragic picture. God refused to be used by him any longer.
Deciding “On Your Own”
With all ot this clear in our minds, we turn to what surely is one of the greatest problems in the devout person’s attempt to receive God’s word. Even if we are not in disobedience to
God, even if our hearts are attuned to his will, there will be many times in which God does not send a particularized word. What then are we to do?
We must not automatically assume that if God does not communicate with us on a particular matter we are displeasing to him. If that is the cause- which of course remains possible and should always be considered- there are ways of finding this out. it will be something that can be discovered and clearly known if we seek it out through honest examination of our lives, through counsel with Christian friends and ministers and through asking the Lord to reveal it to us.
It is crucial to remember that God will not play little games of hide-and-seek with us. As I emphasized earlier, it is very important that we beliee God is the kind of person Jesus revealed him to be. such a person will show us what the problem is and if there is a problem, provided that we sincerely and with an open mind pray and seek to be shown. He is not frivolous or coy; he will not tease or torture us. In out relationship with him there is no mysterious catch to receiving his word for us, no riddle to solve, no incantation to get just right-not with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! We must make a point of not thinking of him in terms of human beings(relatives, supervizors, authorities and others) who may have enjoyed tricking us by not explaining what we were supposed to do.
There are reasons other than his displeasure why a specific word may not be forthcoming to us in a particular case. One of the major other reasons is that in general, it is God’ will taht we ourselves should have a great part in determining our path through life. This does not mean that he is not with us. Far from it. God both develops and, for our good, tests our character by leaving us to decide. He calls us to responsible citizenship in his kingdom by saying-in effect or in reality- as often as possible, “My will for you in this case is that you decide on your own.”
In his profound chapter titled”The Will of God,” John Wood Oman gives us an excellent statement on this point: “We can only be absolutely dependent upon God as we are absolutely independent in our own souls, and only absolutely independent in our own souls as we are absolutely dependent on God. A saved soul, in other words, is a soul true to itself because, with its mind on God’s will of love and not on itself, it stands in God’s world unbribable and undismayed, having freedom as it has piety and piety as it is free.”
From the apostle Paul and the saints through the ages rings out the full meaning of that robust and powerful saying, “I live! Yet not I, but Christ lives in me!”(see GAl 2:20).In this way human personality is not obliterated, but rather it is given its fullest expression.
We are dealing here with the essence of human personality as God has ordained it. A child cannot develop into a responsible, competent human being if he or she is always told what to do. Personality and character are in their very essence inner directness. This inner directedness is perfected in redemption. That is Oman’s point. Morover a child’s character cannot be known- even to himself- until he is turned loose to do what he wants. It is precisely what he wants and how he handles those wants that both reveal and make him the person he is.
What we want, what we think, what we decide to do when the word of God does not come or when we have so immersed ourselves in him that his voice within us is not held in distinction from our own thoughts and perceptions- these show who we are: either we are God’s mature children, friends and coworkers, or we are something less.
There is also, after all, a neurotic, faithless and irresponsible seeking of God’s will: a kind of spiritual hypochondria, which is always taking its own spiritual temperature, which is far more concerned with being righteous than with loving God and others and doing and enjoying what is good. Pne can be over-righteous(Eccles 7:16). We may insist on having Gpd tell us what to do because we live in fear or are obsessed with being right as a strategy for being safe. But we ma also do it because we do not really have a hearty faith in his gracious goodwill toward us. If so, we need to grow up to Christlikeness, and nothing short of that will solve our problem.Certainly more words from God will not!
We may in our hearts of hearts suspect that God is mean and tyrannical, and therefore we may be agraid to make a move without dictation from him. We may even have the idea that if we can get God to tell us what to do, we will no longer be responsible for our decisions. Far from honoring God, such an attitude is blasphemous, idolatrous and certain to prevent us from ever entering int that conversational relationship with God in which sensible words, clearly revealed and reliably understood, are given as appropriate. How much would you have to do with a person who harbored such low opinions about you?
Often we just do not think through the things we say about God. A well-known american minister of some decades ago, Bud Robinson, was called by a parishioner whose husband had recently died. The lady informed the minister that God had told her to give the husband’s suits to him. Would he please come over, she asked, to see if the suits would fit? Pastor Robinson very sensibly replied, “If God told you to give tham to me, they’ll fit.” How refreshing it is to hear from someone who actually believes in a competent God!
The Perfect Will of God
We cannot be groveling robots or obsequious, cringing sycophants and aslo be the children of God! Such creatures could never bear the family resemblance. A son or daughter is not their father’s toady, and toadying does not come from either humility or worship before the God and Father of Jesus Christ. To suppose so is to live within a morbid and anti-Christian view of who God is. “The humility that cringes in order that reproof may be escaped or favor obtained is as unchristian as it is profoundly immoral.”
In this context I must say something about being in the perfect will of God. If our lives conform to the general counsels of God for his people as given to us in the written Word as a whole, then we are perfectly within God’s general as well as moral will. If, in addition, we have received and obeyed a specific word of God to us concerning a particular matter, then we are perfectly in God’s specific will for us, relevant to that matter.
But suppose that no such specific word has come to us on some matter of great importance to our lives. (For example, Should we enter this school or that? Should we live here or there? Should we change employment?) Does this mean that in the matter at hand we cannot be in God’s perfect will or that we can be so only by chance, following some anxiety-ridden guessing game about what God wants us to do?
Most assuredly it does not! We must resolutely resist the tendency to blame the absence of a word from God automatically on our own wrongness. And we must equally resist the idea that it means we must be somewhat off the track and living in something less than God’s perfect will. If we are living in sincere devotion to the fulfillment of God’s purposes in us, we can be sure that the God who came to us in Jesus Christ will not mumble and tease and trick us regarding any specific matter he wants done. I cannot emphasize this point too much since the tendency to think otherwise is obviously so strong and ever present.
Think of it this way: no decent parents would obscure their intentions for their children. A general principle for interpreting God’s behavior toward us is provided in Jesus’ words, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’(Lk 11:13).How much more will our heavenly Father give clear instructions to those who sincerely ask him- in those cases where he has any to give? Where he has none to give, we may be sure that is because it is best that he does not. Then whatever lies within his moral will and whatever is undertaken in faith is his perfect will. It is no less perfect because it was not specifically dictated by him. Indeed it is perhaps more perfect precisely because he saw no need for precise dictation. He expects and trusts us to choose, and he goes with us in our choice.
Several different courses of action may, then, each be God’s perfect will in a given circumstance. We should assume that this is so in all cases where we are walking in his general will, are experienced in hearing his voice and on seeking, find no specific direction given. In these cases there are usually various things that would equally please God, though he directs none of them in particular to be done. All are perfectly in his will because none is better than the others so far as he is concerned, and all are good. He would not have you do other than you are doing. (Of course, being in his perfect will does not mean you are quite flawless yet! You can be in his perfect will without being a perfect human being.)
In his book Decision Making and the Will of God, Garry Friesen has done a masterful job of critiquing the view that God always has one particular thing for you to do in a given case, that correct decision-making depends on your finding out what that thing is and that if you miss it, you will only be in God’s permissive will at best , and a second-class citizen in the kingdom of God. Arguing against this extremely harmful view, Friesen remarks,
The major point is this: God does not have an ideal, detailed life-plan uniquely designed for each believer that must be discovered in order to make correct decisions. The concept of an “individual will of God” [in that sense] cannot be established by reason, experience, biblical example or biblical teaching.
So the perfect will of God may allow, for a particular person, a number of different alternatives. For most people, for example, a number of different choices in selecting a partner(or none at all), various vocations, educational institutions or places of residence may all equally be God’s perfect will- none being in themselves better or preferred by God in relation to the ultimate outcome desired by him.
The sincere seeker should assume that this is so and should move forward with faith in God if no specific word comes on the matter concerned after a reasonable period of time. All of this is consistent with there sometimes being only one choice that would perfectly fit God’s will for us. Our choices must be approached on a case-by-case basis, just as life is lived one day at a time, trusting God.
Just as character is revealed only when we are permitted or required to do as we want, so also the degree and maturity of our faith are manifested only in cases where no specific command is given. It is not a great and mature faith that merely does what it is told. Rather , in the words of William Carey as he went out to India as a pioneer missionary , such a faith is one that “attempts great things for God and expects great things from God.” It actively gets on with the work to be done, the life to be lived, confident in the good-hearted companionship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Human initiative is not canceled by redemption; it is heightened by immersion in the flow of God’s life. People with a mature vision of God and extensive experience in his ways have no need to be obsessively anxious about doing the right thing. For the most part they will simply know what is right. But their confidence is finally not in a word from the Lord but in the Lord who is with us.
Caught in Cosmic Conflict
Sometimes it is not because our Father wishes us to decide that we find ourselves without his specific communication. There are also times when we are face to face with the powers of darkness that inhabit our universe alon with us. Many people have fallen under some sffliction and have cast about desperately to find out what they did wrong; but often it was nothing, or whatever wrong they may have done was not what was responsible for their problem.
A battle is going on in the universe in which we live, As we live in this universe and share in God’s activity both of creation and redemption, there are moments when we stand alone. Jesus knew what that was like. You will remember how he speaks in Luke 22:53 of the time when his hour would come- the hour of darkness, the hour of the powers of evil. In that hour he cried out,”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mt 27:46).
You and I are going to face these hours too; though, I believe, we will never be actually forsaken and alone. As that magnificent little giant John Wesley said at his death, “Best of all, God is with us!” But words from God, no matter how well we know his voice, willnot spare us the times of grief and pain, as Jesus was not spared. Our confidence remains that these times also “work together for good” for those who love God and are called accordingto his purposes(Rom 8:28). In that we can rest and refuse to harass ourselves with doubt and blame.
It is a similar situation when we are given a word from God and are sure of it, but the events indicated do not come to pass. Others may be involved, and they may not know or may not do the will of God. And God may not override them. Our world is the crucible of soul making, in which we can still remain always certain of inevitable triumph, “more than conquerors.” The will of God made plain to us is sometimes not fulfilled because of the choices of other people. We must not because of that lose confidence in God’s guiding words.
Greater Than a Word from God
There is something even greater than always knowing what is the right thing to do and always being directed by the present hand of God. Paul brought this out very clearly in 1 Corinthians 13. In this passage he writes of knowledge, prophecy and many other great things that we might find desirable. But he says that all of these are only partial and in complete goods. The tharee greatest things-truly inseparable from each other, when properly understood- are faith, hope and love.
Even in the hour of darkness these three- fiath, hope and love- remained with Christ. They will remain with us. The great height of our development as disciples of Christ is not that we should always be hearing God’s voice but that we should have been trained under the hand of God – which includes hearing God as he speaks and guides- in such a way that we are able to stand at our appointed time and places in faith, hope and love even without a word from God: “and having done everything, to stand firm.”(Eph 6:13).
I can be assured at a certain point in my progression towad spiritual maturity simply that “the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone’(Jn8:29). It should be the hope and plan of every disciple of Christ to come, by gracious assistance, to this place of rest in God’s companionship and service. We will then, as Brother Lawrence advises, “not always scrupuloulsly confine ourselves to certain rules, or particular forms of devotion, but act with a general confidence in God, with love and humility.” We will simply “stand fast ….in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free”(Gal 5:1 KJV). The liberty is not an opportunity to indulge the flesh; it should be instead the arena within which we “serve one another in love” (Gal 5:13 NIV), precisely because “the one who sent me is with me.” The branch thus abides in the vine. The branch and the vine share a common life and together produce abundant fruit for God (Jn 15:1-8).
But Never Beyond Risk
It is absolutely essential to the nature of our personal development toward maturity that we venture and be placed at risk, for only risk produces character. This truth is intensifies when it comes to our walk with God. In this matter I find myself disagreeing wity certain very wise people, such as A.T.Pierson, whod regard God’s guidance as precluding risk:
One great law for all who would be truly led by God’s pillar of cloud and fire, is to take no step at the bidding of self-will or without the clear moving of the heavenly guide. Though the direction be new and the way seem beset with difficulty, there is never any risk providede we are obly led of God. Each new advance needs separate and special authority from Him, and yesterday’s guidance is not sufficient for today.
This is a beautiful and helpful statement, except for what it seems to be saying about risk. In this respect it is not a completely accurate account of what it means to live with God’s words in our lives. The immaturity of many Christians today is due to their adopting the attitude toward risk expressed in this statement as the whole truth about hearing from God.
Having adopted this attitude, we then try to use our ability to hear God as a device for securing a life without risk. When it does not work – as it certainly will not- we begin attacking ourselves, someone else or even God for being a failure. Such a response partly explains why God remains humanity’s greatest disappointment. Who does not have a grievance against him? In truth, we need not seek risk, but we will never be without it, at least in this world. Nor should we try to be.
With Guidance and Beyond….Life and RestÂ
The key concept underlying all the themes I have raised in this book is this: Hearing God’s word will never make sense except when it is set within a larger life of a certain kind.
To try to locate divine communication within human existence alienated from God is to return to idolatry, where God is there for our use. To try to solveall our life’s problems by getting a word from the Lord is to hide from life and from the dignity of the role God intendedus to have in creation. As John Boykin remarks, “God does not exist to solve our problems.” We exist to stand up with God and count for something in his world.
We must ultimately move beyond the question of hearing God and into a life greater than our own- that of the kingdom of God. Our concern for discerning God’s voice must be overwhelmed by and lost in our worship and adoration of him and in our delight with his creation and his provision for our whole life. Our aim in such a life is to identify all that we are and all that we do with God’s purposes in creating us and our world. Thus we learn how to do all things to the glory of God(1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17). That is, we come in all things to think and act so that his goodness, greatness and beauty will be as obvious as possible- not just to ourselves, but to all those around us.
God’s speaking will always be an essential part of this, to the extent and in the manner God deems suitable. It will come without threat to the full participation of the redeemed self, as a unique individual, in the work of God. For those who come to this point, their life will be theirs- irreducibly, preciously so- and yet also God’s; and through them will flow God’s life, which is also theirs. This is the life beyond, and yet inclusive of , his guiding word. It is the life that has its beginning in the additional birth and its culmination in the everlasting, glorious society of heaven.
With this life in view John Wesley answered an intelligent and serious man who said to him, “I hear that you preach to a great number of people every nhight and morning. Pray what would you do with them? Wither would you lead them? What religion do you preach? What is it good for?” Honest and searching questions which no minister shoul allow out of his mind. Wesley replied,
I do preach to as many as desire to hear, every night and morning. You ask, what I would do with them: I would make them virtuous and happy, easy in themselves and useful to others. Whither would I lead them? To heaven; to God the Judge, the lover of all, and to Jesus the mediator of the HNew Covenant. What religion do I preach? The religion of love; the low of kindness brought to light by the gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves: to make them all like God; lovers of all; contented in their lives; and cryingout at their death, in calm assurance, “O grave, where is thy victory! Thanks be unto God, who giveth me the victory, through my Lord Jesus Christ.”
While I was teaching at a ministers’ conference, one minister asked me what was the human issue, irrespective of church life or religion, that Jesus came to address. This is the question facing the Christian church today. My answer was this: Jesus came to respond to the universal human need to know how to live well. He came to show us how tharouh reliance on him we can best live in the universe as it really is. That is why he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”(Jn 10:10). His supremacy lies in the greatness of the life he gives to us. Putting Jesus Christ into a worldwide wompetition with all known alternatives is the only way we can give our faith a chance to prove his power over the whole of life.
A Formula for Living with God’s Voice
Within such a life as Wesley described to his inquisitor, God’s word is to be reliably and safely sought and found- free of mystification, gimmickry, hysteria, self-righteousness, self-exaltation, self-obsession and dogmatism. On the presupposition of such a life we can lay down something close to a formula for living with God’s guiding voice.
Note, however, that it is not a formuyla for getting God to speak to us on matters that may concern us.Any such formula is ruled out by the very nature of God and our relationship with him. This mych should be clear by now. It is instead a formula for living with God’s voice, for hearing his word in a life surrendered and brought to maturity by him.
The first two steps in the formula may be described as foundational, since they provide the basis for hearing God’s individual word to us but do not exclusively and specifically concern it as the rest do.
1. We have entered into the additional life by the additional birth, and so far as it lies within our understanding and conscious will, we plan and make provision to do what we know to be morally rigtht and what we know to be explicitly commanded by God. This commitment includes the intention to find out what may be morally right or commanded by God and hence to grow in our knowledge.
2. We seek the fullness of the new life in Christ at the impulse of the Spirit of God in service to the good wherever it may appear, venturing beyond our merely natural powers in reliance on God’s upholding power. Thus we move from faith to more faith(Rom 1.17) as we find him faithful. Above all we venture in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his kingdom as presented in the New Testament Gospels.
3. We meditate constantly on God’s principles for life as set forth in the Scriptures, always striving to penetrate more deeply into their meaning and into their application for our own lives.
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.(Ps 1:1-3)
4. We are alert and attentive to what is happening in our life, in our mind and in our heart. For here is where God’s communications come and identify themselves, whatever the external occasion may be. It was said of the prodigal son thatÂ he came to himself (Lk 15:17) and then he found the truth and repentance that saved him from his plight.
When God came to Adam after he had sinned, he did not ask “Adam, where is God?” but “Adam, where are you?”(Gen 3.9). We must purposefully, humbly and intelligently cultivate the ability to listen and see what is happening in our own souls and to recognize therein the movements of God.
5. We pray and speak to God constantly and specifically about the matters that concern us. This is essential to our part of the conversation with God. You would not continue to speak to someone who did not talk to you; and you could not carry on a coherent conversation with someone who spoke to you only rarely and on odd occasions. In general the same is true of God.
Nothing is too insignificant or too hopeless to bring before God. Share all things with God by lifting them to him in prayer, and ask for his guidance even- or perhaps especially- in those things that you think you already understand.
6. Using a regular plan, such as the one described earlier in the section, Listening For God, listen, carefully and deliberately, for God.Â When God does speak to you, pay attention and receive it with thanks. It is a good habit to write such things down, at least until you become so adept at the conversational relationship that you no longer need to. If he gives you an insight into truth, meditate on it until you have thoroughly assimilated it. If the word he has given concerns action, carry it out in a suitable manner. God does not speak to us to amuse or entertain us but to make some real difference in out lives.
7. In those cases where God does not speak to you on the matter concerned, take the following steps:
a. Ask God to inform you, in whatever way he chooses, if some hindrance is within you. Be quiet and listen in the inner forum of your mind for any indication that you are blocking his word. But do not endlessly pursue this. In prayer set a specific length of time for the inquiry about hindrances; normally no more than three days. Believe that if a problem exists, God will make it clear to you. Share the robust confidence of Abraham Lincoln, who said, “I am satisfied that, when the Almighty wants me to do k, or not to do, a particular thing, he finds a way of letting me know it.”
b. Take counsel from at least two people whose relationship with God you respect, preferably those who are not your buddies. This may be done in a group setting if it does not concern an inherently private matter.
c. If you find a cause for why God’s word could not come, correct it. Mercilessly. Whatever it is. Just do it.
d. If you cannot find such a cause, then act on what seems best to you after considering the itemized details of each alternative. If certain alternatives seem equally desirable, then select one as you wish. This will rarely be necessary, but your confidence, remember, is in the Lord who goes with you, who is with his trusting children even if they blunder and flounder. In this instance you may not know God in his specific word to you, but you will know him in his faithfulness. “His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”(Lam 3:22-23). These words were written bu the prophet Jeremiah in a time of utter failure, when the guiding hand of God was totally hidden from Israel and his punishing hand was raised against them.
If we proceed in this way, we will come to know God’s voice as a familiar personal fact, which we can both comfortably live with and effectively introduce others to. We will know what to do when God speaks, but we will also know what to do when he does not speak. We will know how to find and remove any hindrance if there is one and how to move firmly but restfully onward in loving peacefulness when there is none.We will know that God is inviting us to move forward to greater maturity, relying on his faithfulness alone. We will know, in short, how to live in our world within a conversational relationship with our Father who is always there for us.
(This extract is taken from pgs 193-215 of “Hearing God” by Dallas Willard, Inter Varsity Press.)