Last night my husband and I attended a meeting in which a friend shared - vulnerably and honestly - his frustration with feeling like "relationship with God" (a term contemporary Christians throw around easily) doesn't work at all like relationship with any other person. Specifically, he meant that he feels no give-and-take, conversational, hearing-back-from-Him dimension to his "relationship" with God.
I'm often amazed at how similar the things he wrestles with spiritually are to the things I wrestle with spiritually. And so this morning I composed an email, offering him excerpts from the preface and first chapter of a book I'm currently reading which is helping me very much in this arena. It is Hearing God by Dallas Willard. We don't get much helpful teaching of this sort in our particular denominational affiliation, as a general rule. But without practical doctrine concerning this issue, we certainly flounder and find ourselves frustrated and confused.
And so, here are a few selected quotes to get you thinking. I highly recommend reading the book itself. You will undoubtedly take issue with some of the things in it, as I do; nevertheless, I have found it extremely helpful in guiding my thinking on this topic. If you will open you mind to the idea 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 (p.17)," I believe He will show you new and wonderful dimensions of what it means to relate to Him.
Chapter One - A Paradox about Hearing God
"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." - Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God
Sunday dinner was finished, but we lingered round the table savoring the good food and reflecting on the morning's service at church. The congregation - where I then served as a very young (and very green) assistant pastor - was excited about its plans for a new sanctuary to replace its old building, which was much loved but long overused and outgrown.
The morning message had focused on the plans for the new building. Our pastor spoke of his vision for the church's increased ministry. He indicated how strongly he felt God's guidance in the way the congregation was going, and he testified that God had spoken to him about things that should be done.
My wife's grandmother, Mrs. Lucy Latimer ("Mema" to us all), seemed deep in thought as we continued to chatter along. Finally she said quietly, "I wonder why God never speaks to me like that."
This simple comment, which came like a bolt out of the blue from the heart of this woman of unshakable faith and complete devotion, forever changed my attitude toward glib talk about God's speaking to us or about divine guidance. Through her words - in a way I came to understand only later - God spoke to me.
I was given a vivid realization, which has never left me, of the extent to which such talk places many sincere Christians on the outside, looking in. It is not necessarily that their experience is lacking, but they do not understand the language or how their experience works.(...)
Mema, in fact, had a richly interactive life with God, as we all knew. But for whatever reasons, she had not been able to relate her experience of God's presence in her life - of which she was completely certain - to the idea of God's speaking with her. This left her at a loss for how to deal with the conversational side of her friendship with God.
Up to that point in my own experience I had rashly assumed that if you were really a Christian, then God spoke to you as a matter of course and you knew it. I was sure that he spoke individually and specifically about what he wanted each believer to do and that he also taught and made real on an individual basis the general truths all must believe in order to enter into life with him.
The Moving of God
Later I came to realize that this confidence was not based on genuine understanding. It came from my experiences of a series of revival meetings in which I was immersed as a young man. During those meetings I became accustomed to interacting with a characteristic type of thought and impulse, which was to me the moving of God upon my mind and heart. It was an experience clearly marked out for me and one that guided my actions, though I held no theory or doctrine about it.(...) Caught up in my own experiences of the workings of God's voice, I really did not understand it at all. I only knew its reality, and I thoughtlessly assumed it was a functioning, intelligible fact in every believer's life. Obviously I had a lot to learn.
So for a long while I was unable to appreciate the huge problems that the very idea of God's speaking to us created for some of the most faithful adherents of the church.(...)
Hearing God? A daring idea, some would say - presumptuous and even dangerous. But what if we are made for it? What if the human system simply will not function properly without it? There are good reasons to think it will not. The fine texture as well as the grand movements of life show the need. Is it not, in fact, more presumptuous and dangerous to undertake human existence without hearing God?
Among our loneliest moments, no doubt, is the time of decision. There the weight of our future life clamps down upon our hearts. Whatever comes from our choice will be our responsibility, our fault. Good things we have set our hearts on become real only as we choose them. But those things, or those as yet undreamed of, may also be irretrievably lost if our choices are misguided. We may find ourselves stuck with failures and dreadful consequences that must be endured for a lifetime.
Then quickly there follows the time of second thoughts - and third, and fourth: Did I do the good and wise thing? Is it what God wanted? Is it even what I wanted? Can I live with the consequences? Will others think I am a fool? Is God still with me? Will he be with me even if it becomes clear that I made the wrong choice?
While we were young, desire, impulse, and personal associations may blithely carry us through choices that would paralyze us ten years later. In the bloom of youth we just do what we have to do or whatever turns us on. How simple it is! Often we are not even conscious of having chosen. After collecting a few disasters, however, and learning that actions are forever, that opportunities seldom return and that consequences are relentless, we hungrily cry, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!" More than reflecting a mere general concern for world affairs to conform to his will, our prayer expresses the burning need for God to be a constant guiding presence in our individual lives.
God has created us for intimate friendship with himself - both now and forever. This is the Christian viewpoint. It is made clear throughout the Bible, especially in such passages as Exodus 29:43-46 and 33:11, Psalm 23, Isaiah 41:8, John 15:14, and Hebrews 13:5-6. As with all close personal relationships, we can surely count on God to speak to each of us when and as it is appropriate. But what does this really mean? And how does it work in practice? I hope in the following pages to give a clear and workable answer to these questions.
There is no avoiding the fact that we live at the mercy of our ideas. This is never more true that with our ideas about God. Meaning well is not enough. 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.(...)
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. Such people would have the effect of concretely redefining Christian spirituality for our times. They would show us an individual and corporate human existence freely and intelligently lived from a hand-in-hand, conversational walk with God. That is the biblical ideal for human life.
In the pages that follow, therefore, I deal with hearing God as it bears upon a whole life in the will of God - upon the question of who God wants us to be as well as (where appropriate) of what he wants us to do. What he wants us to do is very important, of course, and we must be careful to learn how to know it and do it, but it is never enough by itself to allow us to understand and enter the radiant life before the shining face of God that is offered to us in the grace of the gospel - a life pleasing to him, in view of which he can say, "This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased."
Chapter one clarifies the tension in which Christians live, believing that hearing God is very important to our walk with him but at the same time lacking a confident understanding of how it works for the individual in practice. Chapter two removes some common misunderstandings about God's communications with us. Chapter three explains the various ways in which he is with us. Chapter four examines some objections to the very idea of God's communicating with individuals. Chapter five deals with the various ways in which he communicates and explains and defends the centrality of the "still small voice." Chapters six and seven discuss the centrality of God's speaking - God's Word - to his creation and to the process of redemption. The Word of God is not foreign to routine reality; it is at the very heart of it. Chapter eight clarifies how we can be sure that we are hearing God. Finally, chapter nine deals with what to do on those occasions, sure to come, when God is not speaking - or at least when we are not hearing him.
To deal effectively with hearing God as part of a life within his will, it is necessary to consider many deeper issues about his intentions for us and about the nature of the world in which he has placed us. From time to time difficult subjects must be discussed. But my hope is to leave you with a clear sense of how to live confidently in a personal walk that is complemented by an ongoing conversational relationship with God.
For a presentation of the larger picture of life with Jesus Christ in the kingdom of God, of which hearing God is only one part, I would refer readers to my books The Spirit of the Disciplines and The Divine Conspiracy.
*Quotations from Hearing God. Willard, Dallas. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999, pps. 9-17.
I hope those words may give you a glimpse into the book, and that the Lord will use this book in your life as He is in mine to deepen your relationship (yes, relationship) with Him.