Willard Hears God; Aids Dialogue, Part 2

Willard_review_08172015Dallas Willard.  2012.  Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.  Downers Drove:  IVP Book. (Goto Part 1)

Reviewed By Stephen W. Hiemstra

If God exists, the idea that God speaks to us is unremarkable.

In the back of our minds, however, as postmodern people is the critique of Marx and Freud. Marx called faith in God the “opiate of the masses” while Freud characterized it as an “illusion”. Today they might have suggested that believers were “on drugs” or engaging in “wishful thinking”. While neither critique rises above simple slander—no evidence is presented—such innuendo has weakened the faith of many Christians.

But the Bible itself says that we should expect that God speaks to us every day.  For example, King David writes:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:1-3 ESV; 164-166)

Jesus said:

“For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment– what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” (John 12:49-50 ESV)

The first example is often referred to as “general revelation” (revealed to everyone) while the second is referred to as “special revelation” (revealed only to believers).

In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard offers an interesting starting point for his work: “God has created us for intimate friendship with himself” (12)[1].  What kind of relationship would it be if only of the parties to this relationship did all the talking?  He then writes:

“My strategy has been to take as a model the highest and best type of communication that I know of from human affairs and then place this model in the even brighter light of the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.” (12).

The most intimate form of communication is dialog which presumes a relationship of trust.  Willard writes:

“Our failure to hear God has its deepest roots in a failure to understand, accept, and grow into a conversational relationship with God”. (35)

While we may lie to ourselves, a practice known as denial, those that know us well see (and hopefully accept) the good and bad in our personalities and offer us feedback.  Our friends and family love us and want what is best for us. Such is also our relationship with God.  But what friend would spend their day telling us how to improve ourselves?  Willard writes:

“In such conversations [with God] we also talk about other things besides what God wants done today. We talk about what is happening, what is interesting, or what is sad. Most conversations between God and humans is to help us understand things.” (39).

Dialogue between us and God is an important part of our relationship. What exactly does that look like?

Willard offers voluminous advice on recognizing God’s voice in the context of a mature, Christian relationship. One of my favorites is his discussion of the Parable of the Talents.  In this parable, Jesus starts out:

“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.” (Matt. 25:14-18 ESV)

The question is, how does the master evaluate the work of his servants when he returns? In part, the answer depends on the relationship of each servant has with the master, not on his allocation or the outcome of his stewardship. Note, for example, that the master’s accounting does not include a return of the talents or the profits! Note also that the master rewards risk taking and considers hoarding as sloth. Which of us truly knows the mind of God and rejoices in it? God is generous as assuming by the faithful servants, not a harsh taskmaster as the lazy (or risk adverse) servant assumes. (40-41)

Willards instructs his reader on the spiritual discipline known as lectio divina (Latin for divine reading) which is used to experience scripture in new ways. Lectio divina consists of 4 parts:

  1. Lectio (read)—read the passage. The purpose here is not to analyze the passage, but simply read and sit with it.
  1. Mediatio (mediate)—read the passage again taking note of any words that stand out to you. Some people read and re-read the passage placing emphasis on a different word each time. What brought these words to your attention? What were you thinking about God?
  1. Oratio (pray)—After reading the passage again, take it to the Lord in prayer. Ask God what the Spirit may have said to you here.
  1. Contemplatio (contemplation)—Do as you are led. Sit with God and this passage. What does it invite you to do? (48-51)

Willard returns to lectio divina at least 6 times throughout the book[2] suggesting that he considers it is an important tool for developing a dialogue with God[3].

Much more could be said about Dallas Willard’s Hearing GodHearing God is likely to become a devotional classic.  It reads well and refreshes the soul.



[1] He cites among other things, Psalm 23 as evidence of this relationship.  What is the relationship between a shepherd and sheep if not to live together 24-7?

[2] See:  48, 103, 131, 164, 207, 247.

[3] The morning of the week I was to begin seminary, my morning devotional reading was:

“At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me! So he let him alone. It was then that she said, A bridegroom of blood, because of the circumcision.” (Exod. 4:24-26 ESV)

Confused about the passage, I found that the commentaries linked it the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel who left him crippled the night before he met his brother (Genesis 32:22-31).  Later that day, I was squirming in my chair in the office and by the end of the day I was afflicted with back pain so grievous that I could only lie on my back on the floor and I missed 3 days of work as a consequence. The commentary noted that both Moses and Jacob had responded to God’s call to travel—Moses to Egypt and Jacob to return to his brother—but neither was ready for the task that God had given them. During my 3 days out of work, I could do nothing but read lying on my back so I spent the 3 days preparing for my biblical competency examination.  I passed the exam right on the cutoff point—the pass rate was just 13 percent. Just like Moses and Jacob, I had responded to God’s call, but I was not ready for it.  On that occasion God helped me focus and saved me a year of additional study.


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Willard Hears God; Aids Dialogue, Part 1

Willard_review_08172015Dallas Willard.  2012.  Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.  Downers Drove:  IVP Book. (Goto Part 2)

Reviewed By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Reading a book on hearing God is perhaps motivated by curiosity or guilt or just the idea that we are not always keeping up our end of the conversation. Yet the target audience for such a book is clearly the mature Christian. An immature Christian would look for a book on prayer where implicitly the conversation is unidirectional. And a non-Christian would make that implicit assumption explicit—prayers are nothing more than happy thoughts that we vocalize—incantations meant to be heard by those around us. Me? I came to Willard hoping to improve my listening skills.

In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard asks: “How can you be sure God is speaking to you?” He answers: “we learn by experience” (9). Communicating with God is a dialog. Yet, this dialogue makes sense within the wider: “framework of living in the will of God” (13).

This dialogue is not necessarily easy. In the postmodern context, the dialogue with God is surrounded by fear. Comedian Lily Tomlin asks: “why is it that when we talk to God we are said to be praying, but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?” (22) Good question. Perhaps,  we are afraid of what God might have to say to us.

Willard offers some important advice on humility. To the pastor who remarks–I do not believe that God plans his day around me—he responds: but we are important. God gave his son to die for us. Still, the fact that God speaks to us does not in itself make us important (46-48). Apparently, talking to a janitor should not be confused with offering him a promotion!

The structure of Willard’s book is not entirely obvious. He writes: “my strategy has been to take as a model the highest and best type of communication that I know of human affairs and then place this model in the even brighter light of the person and teaching of Jesus Christ” (12). Sprinkled throughout the book at the end of six chapters are six exercises. Most follow a lectio divina format—reading (lectio), reflecting (mediatatio), responding in prayer (oratio), and resting in contemplation (contemplation) (104-105).

Willard observes that: “few people arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs” (283). I feel that quote. He understands the need to be step out for God, not only in the morning, but during the day. He writes that: “it is absolutely essential to the nature of our personal development towards maturity that we venture and be placed at risk, for only risk produces character” (173). As a former financial economist and current volunteer pastor, I can appreciate the role of risk-taking in improving ones decision skills.

Willard Dallas [1] was longtime Professor of Philosophy at was longtime Professor of Philosophy at The University of Southern California, teaching at the school from 1965 until his death in 2013.  He is also the author of numerous books on Christian spirituality.  Hearing God is written in 9 chapters:

  1. A Paradox about Hearing God.
  2. Guidelines for Hearing from God.
  3. Never Alone.
  4. Out Communicating Cosmos.
  5. The Still, Small Voice, and Its Rivals.
  6. The Word of God and the Rule of God.
  7. Redemption through the Word of God.
  8. Recognizing the Voice of God.
  9. A Life More than Guidance.

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and preface. They are followed by an epilogue, appendix, notes, and a scriptural index.

In some sense, writers on spiritual formation can only be evaluated like spiritual directors–do they walk with you and do you continue to walk with them?  In my case, I have finished a second book by Willard—El espíritu de las disciplinas: ¿Cómo transforma Dios la vida? He is good in both English and Spanish.

In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of the book.  Part 2 will delve into greater depth into some of the issues that Willard raises.


[1] www.dwillard.org/biography. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dallas_Willard.

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