Dallas Willard’s Hearing God, Updated and Expanded: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God is the most practical, straightforward, and helpful theological resource on communicating with God I have ever encountered. Communicating with God may very well be the most pressing and least understood aspect of the Christian spiritual life today, and too often, I have worked with people who do not expect to hear from God, or who believe hearing from God is a spiritual experience reserved only for select holy men and women. This is despite the fact they have been invited to enter a “personal relationship with God.”
Moving methodically and with precision, Willard introduces the reader to the “paradox in the contemporary experience and understanding of hearing God.” On the one hand, “we have massive testimony to and widespread faith in God’s personal, guiding communication with us,” and on the other we “find a pervasive and often painful uncertainty about how hearing God’s voice actually works.” Willard then gives guidelines for hearing from God, assurance that God is with us, an examination of God’s speaking in the created order, and the nature of God’s voice as “still and small” amidst competing voices. Then, Willard examines God’s Word and God’s rule, the transformation that comes through hearing and believing the gospel about Jesus, the ongoing role of Scripture in furthering that transformation in the life of the disciple, wisdom in how we discern God’s voice, and, lastly, how we listen for God in the everyday, beyond matters of simple guidance, growing in friendship with him. This book is narrowly focused but incredibly deep, laser-like but possessing a unique breadth. It is a treasure.
Willard writes with a pastoral tone, expressing concern for those who have, so often, shared with him their difficulties in hearing God. Very gently, Willard reminds those who believe their prayers do not pass the ceiling that “God is beneath the ceiling.” God is near. God hears you. God has spoken, and his Word still rings out. God wants you to listen, and to discern God’s voice. Countless examples from Scripture, and the testimony of many Christians known and obscure confirm that God is a God who has spoken, and who speaks. God is good, and will teach all who are willing to learn to communicate with him “as a friend.”
Willard is also a Christian philosopher. In my view, this is a strength. The author has given this matter careful thought, and has surveyed a broad range of theological and autobiographical writings on the subject of hearing God. He moves the reader through the finer points of hearing the divine voice, discerning God’s will, and living life before God in “the kingdom of the heavens.” Patient and thoughtful readers will be rewarded in considering the book as a whole, not only in reading those portions considered “practical.” We don’t “get to the point” when learning to hear God, we get to the person. God is a person, not a machine that can be manipulated through our own power. When we meet the Person and are initiated in to the life of the kingdom Jesus announced and enacted, the adventure begins, the conversation broadens, the world takes on a new shape. We do not control God’s speaking by mastering a “hearing technique.” That’s good news.
If God is personal, and we enter a relationship to God, wouldn’t it make sense to communicate with this person who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? As Willard notes, a brief biblical survey of ordinary people like Abraham, Moses, Miriam, David, or Mary reveals that God is certainly an awe-inspiring figure, but near enough to befriend his human creatures. In one of the more profound insights explored in this book, Willard argues God’s greatness is amplified by his lowliness. If God desires to establish friendship with those who seek communion in his presence, he most certainly can bring it to pass.
Once the premise that God can, and does, communicate with us is accepted, all that is left is to establish the ways and means we might experience such communication. That is no small task. How, exactly, does one discern God’s speaking? What role does Scripture play? What pitfalls exist, and how might we avoid them? What about those who abuse others through the claim they have heard from God? To what degree does God communicate his will for our lives, and to what extent do we possess a freedom to choose that which we believe is best? Willard addresses these questions, and others.
A unique feature of the Updated & Expanded edition is the incorporation of lectio divina, or “sacred reading.” A bugaboo for some due to association with Catholic spirituality or mysticism (unfounded, in my opinion), lectio can be helpful when regarded as a means by which to discern God’s voice, and not as a means to some esoteric experience of God. Six familiar passages of Scripture are highlighted, complementing material in six of the chapters. The reader is invited to read, reflect, respond, and rest in the text. The inclusion of this type of Bible reading trains us with regard to how God has spoken in the past, and in hearing God’s voice today.
For those reading this book with others, each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions that review content and broaden the conversation. As noted on the back cover, a companion DVD resource is also available as a separate purchase. Taking on this topic with others isn’t a bad idea; you will find that a community of others learning to communicate with God is an immense help in understanding and applying the truths contained in this book.
Lastly, I have read many books on Christian spiritual formation, and specifically on learning to hear God’s voice. Hearing God is unparalleled. It is a complex, sophisticated book, but it is incredibly clear and direct, immensely edifying for the diligent. Don’t let other reviewers dissuade you by describing this book as one “for seminarians.” I have read this book twice, and missed many key aspects on my first reading.
But great books are worth rereading. They continue to teach us, as we change, grow, and develop. This is just such a book.
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