Hearing God was the first of Dallas Willard’s books that I ventured into. I say ventured because, if you’ve ever read one of Dallas’s books, you know that it’s not something you can just dive right into! Now after reading it thoroughly a few times and listening to Dallas teach on it countless times, I thought I’d share what I found to be the most impactful and life changing. Primarily this helps me better absorb and articulate what I’ve learned, but I hope you’ll find it helpful to see these gems as well.
THE BIG PICTURE
The main purpose of hearing God is not primarily guidance. Instead, we are meant to live in an ongoing conversational relationship with God. The primary purpose of that with-God life is the development of our character. It is much less about doing and very much about becoming. What God gets out of our life is the person we become.
“Our primary goal must not be just to hear God’s voice, but to be mature people in a loving relationship with him.” ~ Dallas Willard
“Obviously God must guide us in a way that will develop spontaneity in us. The development of character, rather than direction in this, that, and the other matter, must be the primary purpose of the Father. He will guide us, but he won’t override us. That fact should make us use caution with the method of sitting down with a pencil and blank sheet of paper to write down the instructions dictated by God for the day. Suppose a parent would dictate to the child minutely everything he is to do during the day. The child would be stunted under that regime. The parent must guide in such a matter and to the degree that autonomous character capable of making right decisions for itself is produced. God does the same.” ~ E. Stanley Jones
EXPECTATIONS, OBSTACLES, MOTIVE
The purpose of living a with-God life, in ongoing conversation about what we’re doing together in God’s Kingdom, is to become the kind of person God created us to be. Our life now is one of initiative and responsibility for good, with God. There are some common misconceptions that get in our way of understanding and living in this reality:
Why do you want to hear?
“Our purpose in seeking to hear God is not to be for our own safety, comfort, or sense of being righteous.” (p33)
“God’s purposes are not merely to support us or make us look and feel secure in our roles, or to make sure we’re right.” (p53)
“The word of God doesn’t come just to lead us out of trouble or to make sure we have it easy and that everything goes our way.” (p235)
“We are going to go through the mill of life like everyone else. We as disciples are different because we also have a higher or additional life – a different quality of life – not because we are spared the ordinary troubles that befall ordinary human beings.”
Where do you locate God? Many people will make the comment that it feels as though their prayers don’t get above the ceiling. But God is not way up high and far away. God is not distant! He is nearer to us than our breath. He is everywhere.
“God inhabits space like we inhabit our bodies.” (p102)
Are you a puppet or minion? No! One of the flawed ways of hearing God is seeking a message every minute, asking God for every tiny step you make. While I am certain God cares about every little thing (Jesus says so in Luke 12:6), it is logical that his intention isn’t that we consult him for specific direction on every little thing. The earlier quote from E. Stanley Jones speaks to this, and Dallas goes into this in greater detail in chapter three of the book. It comes back to our purpose.
God is preparing us for a life of initiative. We are his intimate friends, co-workers, and children. Friends and co-workers have shared understanding (page 73).
Dallas discusses Jesus’s parable of the unprofitable servant (Luke 17:7-10) on page 14, and in greater detail in this video. Who is a profitable servant? One who doesn’t have to be told what to do.
“We demean God immeasurably by casting him in the role of cosmic boss who orders humans around, notes their failures, and takes pleasure in seeing them jump at his command.” (p41)
“Things are as they should be when we don’t have to be told what to do.” (p73)
“We cannot be groveling robots or minions and also be children of God.” (p268) He expects and trusts us to choose, and he goes with us in our choice.
“The union Christ had with the Father was the greatest that we can conceive of in this life -if indeed we can conceive of it. Yet we have no indication that even Jesus was constantly awash with revelations as to what he should do. His union with the Father was so great that he was at all times obedient. This obedience was something that rested in his mature will and understanding of his life before God, not on always being told, ‘Now do this’ and ‘Now do that’ with regard to every detail of his life or work.” Hearing God, p77
God is not a mumbling trickster. “If he wants us to know something he will be able and willing to communicate it to us plainly, as long as we are open and prepared by our experiences to hear and obey." (p250) "God will not play games of hide and seek with us!” (p260) (That said, we do have to learn how to recognize his voice, which we’ll touch on in a moment.)
God’s perfect plan. Seeking to discover God’s “perfect plan” for your life can lead to a very damaging perspective of God. It may have more to do with one’s understanding of evil and the world we’re in, but it also impacts the way one listens for and hears God. In this viewpoint, whatever comes is God’s will. I have been following a story of a person battling Covid, on a ventilator in the ICU, while his friends and family pray diligently for his healing. In another situation, a very young child is fighting a brain tumor. (There exist many similar stories in both aspects, I know). What breaks my heart, in addition to the very difficult time these individuals and their families are experiencing, is the view of God that I see represented in the related conversations. The common thread is that somehow this is “part of God’s plan.” Seriously now….
Do we recognize what a horrible depiction of God that is, if he planned for a little girl to get a brain tumor? Do we really think that in order to accomplish good, he must first inflict evil? Do we see how twisted and cruel God would be to cause a person to have a lengthy and potentially losing fight with any sort of injury or illness…just so that God could “accomplish his purposes?” NO! These things are not part of God’s grand plan. They are a result of our broken world and the evil therewithin, and it break God’s heart as much (more!) as they break ours. The hope that we have is that regardless of how terrible it may be, God can and will work it for good for those who love him. We cannot put responsibility for these tragedies on God.
“The sovereignty of God does not come in the form of inflicting evil actions and bad things on people. It comes in His capacity to work things out for good no matter what happens.” ~Dallas Willard
Instead of clinging to hope because this is somehow “part of God’s plan,” let’s shift the narrative and confidently hold onto hope because God works all things together for good for those who love him. (Romans 8:28)
This leads us into further review of what God’s will really involves.
What is God’s purpose for your life? To become the person he created you to be, so that you can rule and reign with him for eternity (Genesis 1:26, Psalm 8, Revelation 22:5). The focus is on who you are becoming. Within that, will he have certain assignments for us? Based on experience and history, we can say that yes, there will be specific things he asks us to do. But there is not a blueprint. We have a guide. God is not a sheepdog, he’s a shepherd. (p107)
“My extreme preoccupation with knowing God’s will for me may only indicate, contrary to what is often thought, that I am overly concerned with myself, not a Christlike interest in the well-being of others or in the glory of God.” (p33)
"God is preparing us for a life of initiative! A child cannot develop into a responsible, competent, human being if she is always told what to do…. What a child does when not told what to do is the final indicator of who and what that child is.” (p267)
“God does not have an ideal, detailed life-plan uniquely designed for each believer that must be discovered in order to make correct decisions…” (p270)
“Generally, we are in God’s will whenever we are leading the kind of life that he wants for us.” (p13)
HOW WE HEAR
Perhaps most helpful was the understanding that Dallas brings about how we hear. I am certainly still working to “cultivate the quiet inward space of constant listening” as Dallas guides, and to get better about recognizing when it is God’s voice speaking to me, but this has helped significantly:
“All the words we’re going to receive from God will ultimately pass through the form of our own thoughts and perceptions.” (p237)
“We may mistakenly think that if God spoke to us, we would automatically know who is speaking, without having to learn, but that is simply a mistake…(p220)
Recognizing God’s voice requires effort and experimentation. It doesn’t come automatically. We must learn to recognize his voice, just as we have to learn to recognize anyone’s voice.”
“It is much more important to cultivate the quiet inward space of constant listening than to always be approaching God for specific direction.” (p262)
WHAT IS LIFE? OUR NEW LIFE FROM ABOVE
One of the most fascinating parts of this book, which relates more to our life and salvation overall than just hearing God, is Dallas’s explanation on our new “life from above.”
Dallas defines life as the “power to act and respond in specific kinds of relations.” (p193) He then explains how a cabbage has life; it draws nutrients from the dirt and energy from sunshine, which causes it to grow. Cats, however, have a different kind of life. They eat food, drink water, can play with string or catch a mouse…all things that a cabbage, while it does have life, cannot do because it doesn’t have the kind of life that a cat has. In the same way, humans have a physical life that is different from a cabbage and a cat. When we are born, we are biologically alive but dead to God. When we receive the new life from above, we receive a new kind of life, a spiritual life.
“It is an additional kind of birth, whereby we become aware of and enter into the spiritual kingdom of God…. Those born of the Spirit manifest a different kind of life…The spiritually born exhibit a life deriving from an invisible spiritual realm and its powers.” (p193-194)
In this teaching, recorded on video, Dallas goes on to explain: “If you don’t have a kind of life in you that is resurrection life, Trinitarian life, then it’s not possible to share in that life.”
…a dog can’t really share the life of a human being. They can be a part of it, but they can’t share it. The life that is in a dog or a kitten is a certain kind of life.
It’s so important to understand this matter of sharing a kind of life.
We were dead in trespasses and sin, just like the kitten is dead to a chess game.
It’s a different form of life.
Genesis 1:26. We’re given responsibilities to care for what is good and to produce it under God, sharing his life.
ONE LAST OBSTACLE
Dallas concludes the book with one last obstacle, a great barrier, that often hinders our efforts to make this conversational life with God a reality. It is:
“The seeming unreality of the spiritual life…the overwhelming presence of the visible world…. The visible world daily bludgeons us with its things and events. They pinch and pull and hammer away at our bodies. Few people rise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs. But instead of shouting and shoving, the spiritual world whispers at us ever so gently…” Hearing God, p282-283
“To be obsessed and rule by the visible is death but to give one’s life over to the spiritual is life and peace.” Romans 8:6 (p283)
“We are required to ‘bet our life’ that the visible world, while real, is not reality itself." Hearing God, p284
“Even though our outer person gradually wears out, our inner being is renewed every single day… we don’t focus our attention on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but the unseen realm is eternal.” “2 Corinthians 4:16-18 TPT
“Spiritual people are not those who engage in certain spiritual practices; they are those who draw their life from a conversational relationship with God. They do not live their lives merely in terms of the human order in the visible world; they have “a life beyond.” Hearing God, p288-289
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
Page numbers referenced are from this edition of Hearing God by Dallas Willard; the April 20, 2012 publication by InterVarsity Press. For further study, check out Hearing God Through the Year, a daily devotional, or Dallas teaching captured by video on the Dallas Willard Ministries YouTube channel: the Hearing God Retreat series and Living in Divine Conversation and Character.