Book Review: Hearing God, by Dallas Willard

Review
07.02.2002

Dallas Willard approaches the topic of divine guidance from a different angle than any of the other books I have recently read on the subject, but in probably the way that most evangelical Christians today approach it.  My guess is that the majority of evangelical Christians in America today would agree with Willard in most of what he says, even if they would not articulate or explain the ideas in exactly the same ways he does.  Willard’s book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God,  hopes to prove that “as with all close personal relationships, we can surely count on God to speak to each of us when and as it is appropriate,” (10).  That speaking may come in a variety of forms, but it is Willard’s opinion that above all, what must hold pride of place is the “still small voice.”  To be frank, the book is not well-written.  While the sentences are well-structured and sometimes thought-provoking, the organization is haphazard and often confusing.  The arguments range from biblical exegesis to personal stories to long, involved, and intricate analogies with nature or physics or human relationships.

I’m not sure that I could do much justice to the argument of the book if I tried to put it in summary form.  The argument doesn’t really move in any easily detectable linear trajectory.  Instead, the argument is more a series of snapshots of extremely detailed studies of concepts like “The Word of God” or “The Rule of God” or “Redemption and the Word of God.”  Those are not necessarily exegetical studies, but more an open-house of Willard’s mind concerning those concepts.  Several times as I read the book, I found myself wondering, “By what authority do you say that?”  For example, I am not quite sure what to do with the assertion that, “The mental or spiritual side of reality does not traverse space to have its effects, any more than one of our own thoughts has to traverse space to influence another person . . .” (76).  I’m not sure that’s much of a basis for discussing how Christians are to be guided by God.

Odds are that many people who read this review will agree with Willard’s basic thesis—that God speaks directly and personally to his people through a “still small voice” in their spirits.  Whether or not that describes you, you should be wary of some of the ways that Willard argues his case.  First of all, one of the major legs of his argument is that the Bible is a kind of sourcebook for learning how God has spoken to His people in the past, and we should read with the expectation that He might speak to us in the same way.  “It is worth reminding ourselves to read the biblical accounts as if what is described is happening to us.  We must make the conscious effort to think that such things might happen to us and to imagine what it would be like if they were to happen.”  In that way, we will learn to recognize God’s voice.  Willard believes that when the Bible says that Paul, Elijah, and Barnabas were human beings like us, and even when it says that Jesus was tested as we are, “it means that their experience was substantially like our own,” (36).  In many ways, I can agree with that statement.  Paul, Elijah, and Barnabas were all humans, but the Bible does not point that out to show us that we may expect what happened to them to happen to us.  In fact, I think it is more likely pointed out that these men were human to show us that there was nothing inherently outstanding about these people that would make God choose them for such unprecedented, unrepeated, and redemptive-historically significant events.  Just because we know that Moses was a human being does not mean that we should all expect to see a burning bush sometime in our lives.  There’s an interesting point to be made here about the “still small voice,” as important a concept as that is in modern evangelicalism.  How many of you reading this review actually knew where that phrase came from?  I admit, I have heard it used all my life and never given a second thought to it, but when I finally stopped to consider it, I realized I had no idea where in the Bible it’s to be found.  As Willard informed me, though, it is from the book of I Kings, and it is the way that God chose to spoke to the prophet Elijah.  My question, though, is this—why do we assume that God will so speak to us in that same way?  Why not assume that he will also send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifices on our own personal Mount Carmels?  He did that, too, for Elijah.  The reason we don’t assume such is that when God spoke specially to His prophets, there were very special, salvation-historical reasons for His doing so.  That, in fact, is why they were recorded in the Bible.  The Bible is not simply a compendium of various ways that God might speak to us.  It is the story of how He supernaturally worked to save His people, and it is an error for Willard to teach that we should look for those same kinds of experiences in our own lives.

It is also troubling that Willard puts such a great deal of emphasis on human experience in his book.  The book is peppered with stories of people who have “encountered” God, or “heard” God’s voice, and Willard uses these stories as data from which to build a theology of “hearing God.”  I am not sure that is a wise or sound way of going about the task of theology.  Of course, I don’t have any basis for questioning a person’s experience.  Who am I to say that Rosalind Rinker didn’t hear a voice telling her to include God in the conversation instead of making “prayer-speeches” to Him? (104)  Maybe she did.  I am not one to judge.  What I can say, though, is that I question Rosalind Rinker’s interpretation of that experience.  Maybe that was not, in fact, the voice of God telling her that, but rather her own thoughts, her own desires and ideas.  Isn’t that just as possible?  It seems that Willard understands that problem, which ultimately leads him to end his book, I think, in just as much confusion as it begins.

How is one to determine whether or not a recurring thought or an impression is really from God?  Willard answers with two words:  “By experience.”  In other words, the longer we live and the more familiar we become with God’s voice, the more readily we will recognize it.  That, honestly, is not much help.  Willard tries to untangle the mess by pointing out what he calls “the three lights”—circumstances, impressions of the Spirit and passages from the Bible, but that only leaves him having to determine the voice of God by something akin to the scientific method of hypothesis and experiment:  “Often by the end of the 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. . . . Or I may decide to reconsider the matter by repeating the same process after a short period of time,” (200).  That, to me, makes the whole enterprise immediately suspect.  If God speaks clearly to His children, are we really to expect that discovering His voice will require such a long and involved process, a period of uncertainty, and even “checking the results by rerunning experiments?”  It seems much more likely to me that God would give us an infallible word, one that was utterly unmistakable.  That he has done, and it is His Word, the Bible, and all we need to know for life and godliness and even the most particular decisions in our lives is to be found there.  There’s no need here to go through the entire argument of how decision-making according to the Bible works.  That is to be found easily enough in any of the other books reviewed on this site.  But when compared with the confusing and cloudy method that Willard proposes, coming to a decision based on Biblical injunction and wisdom seems much more solid and realistic.

Finally, I think a warning should be sounded that Willard comes perilously close to the camp of open theism and the likes of Greg Boyd and Clark Pinnock.  Boyd tells the story of a young woman who was convinced that God was telling her to marry a certain man.  When that man divorced her, she came to Boyd for advice.  Now, one would think that the best way to handle such a situation would not be to question God’s knowledge of the events, but rather to question that girl’s certainty that it was God speaking to her.  That would seem to be the more vulnerable spot.  Boyd, though, never raises the question of her own discernment, but instead tells her that God had simply given her the best advice He could at the time, but had unfortunately been mistaken.  I am not sure that Willard is far from that position.  He writes, “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,” (209).  Let me get this straight—God tells me He is going to bring something to pass, but because all the ducks don’t fall into line, His plans are thwarted and the still, small voice ends up crawling back to me with an embarrassed “Oops” and a blushing shrug of the shoulders.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that perhaps Willard is simply mistaken in thinking that what was “given” to him as a “word from God” really wasn’t in fact a word from God?  It seems like it would make more sense to question his own interpretation of the firings of his mind than it would to question the power of God to bring His purposes to effect.

I think there are probably better, more biblically careful books that hold at least some portion of what Willard is arguing.  In fact, I am sure that many people believe that God speaks personally and directly to His people without making any of the errors that are shot through Willard’s book.  In the end, though, I think it is much safer ground to put our reliance utterly and wholly in the inspired Word of God—the Bible—and not worry ourselves with trying to determine which of our vanishing thoughts is a supernatural “word” from God.  If you want to know what God says, go to the Scriptures.

By:
Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.