Last month, Dr. Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California and author of In Search of Guidance (Regal Books), identified three commonly held misconceptions that hinder Christians from receiving God’s guidance. This month, he continues his discussion on knowing the will of God by looking at how we can learn to recognize His voice.
To receive God’s guidance, we must seek that total walk with Him within which it makes sense and ceases to be a spiritual gimmick. A personal relationship with God is constantly held up in the Old and New Testaments as the redemptive context within which human life can become what it was meant to be. Such a relationship is realized only as God speaks to us individually and as we individually respond to Him.
Thus, guidance takes the form of teaching. We are not to be drive as if we were animals (Ps. 32:9; Prov. 26:3) but are called to “ . . . be understanding of the will of the Lord” (Eph. 5:17).
Understanding is an active process that requires our participation. Although generally reliable, guidance does not make us in fallible, even though he who speaks to us is.
As to the general guidelines of the Christian’s life, the final word is the Word: Jesus Himself. Who He was and what He taught about the nature of God, about redemption and about life in the Kingdom of God was made available by Him at His coming and was secured in the Scriptures as a witness for all subsequent generations. To know His will, we must know Him.
But how does God speak to us individually, and how do we know that it is He who is speaking?
God speaks to us by causing certain thoughts to occur in our minds. Concerning specific matters in the individual disciple’s life and work, the “inner voice”—as distinguished from brute force, signs and astonishing experiences or phenomena—is the customary mode of divine guidance.
This “inner voice” is God’s preferred method of communicating with man. It is not a passive experience; rather, it brings our faculties of will, thought and character into play, maximizing the personal element in our relationship with our Father and most calling us to be like Him.
God does not have to use external means, such as spoken or written words, or strange phenomena, such as the burning bush in front of Moses or Peter’s vision on the rooftop. His anointing lives in the harts of His disciples, teaching us all things (1 John 2:27).
Indeed, He has direct access to the minds of all men, “for in Him we live and move and have our being . . .” (Acts 17:28). He can and does act directly; communicating thoughts—to teach, to console and to guide us.
This is the usual way in which He shows Himself, as He promised, to those who “ . . . love Him and keep His words . . .” (John 14:21-23).
But how are we to know which thoughts are communications from God and which are from other sources? The answer is: We know from experience.
Sheep know their master’s voice form experience alone. We, as rational beings, are able to pinpoint certain signs or “trademarks” of our Lord’s voice.
For example, the content of the message will not contradict the principles of His teachings as found in Scripture. Also, our Lord’s voice will have a distinct weight of authority to it, and it will come with a spirit of goodness and love, even when it rebukes.
In the final analysis, no arguments or doctrines will take the place of the experience of God speaking to us personally though they may help clarify that experience. We must “taste and see that the Lord is good . . . “ (Ps. 34:8).
Once we have done so, John Wesley’s comments on “The Witness of the Spirit” will make perfect sense to us: “There is an inherent, essential difference between spiritual lights and spiritual darkness; and between the light wherewith the Sun of righteousness shines upon our hearts, and that glimmering light which arises only from sparks of our own kindling’: and this difference also is immediately and directly perceived if our spiritual senses are rightly disposed.”
At first, we may need help in recognizing who is speaking, as young Samuel did when he sought guidance from the priest Eli (1 Sam. 3:9). But this need will quickly pass as we learn to know and to obey God’s words to us.
Those who have learned through experience find that they can depends on His guiding voice to accompany careful study of the Scriptures and of their circumstances when carried out with a readiness to hear.
Since they have learned to recognize His voice, they know what it means to trust Him and not depend upon their own cleverness (Prov. 3:6-7). And they have learned to distinguish His voice from all others.
Trusting the Lord does not mean to do nothing and to think nothing until lightning strikes. It means to learn from our conversational relationship with God as we study, think, pray and work. It means not thwarting the voice of the Lord by choosing our own imaginings and conjectures in place of it. We can have this trust only if we, as His sheep, are experienced in recognizing His voice and are prepared to obey it.
If we wish to know whether we should undertake training and change jobs, whether we should join a certain religious group or enterprise or whether we should send our children to private school, we must make a specific point of asking God to tell us what to do.
It is surprising how few people who claim to be seeking God’s will actually do this. Some even confuse stewing over what to do with seeking God’s direction. We must be clear and direct in our approach to God. Then we wait for those special thoughts bearing the Lord’s imprint that we have learned to know.
Sometimes, His voice does not come. But this alone does not stop us from being perfectly in His will. Being guided by God and being in the will of God are not the same thing. Hence, we learn not to try to force guidance out of God, as Saul did in desperation (1 Sam. 28).
The ideal of discipleship is not to always be told what to do and only do as we are told. Our Lord made it plain that the servant who merely does as he is commanded remains unprofitable (Luke 17:7-10). Character develops and deepens and character is revealed when we are left to our own initiative to follow and obey Him.
Those who have learned how to recognize the voice of God can count on Him to give clear instructions when He wishes to give instructions at all. You would not give garbled communications to someone under your direction or fail to give them whatever instructions are necessary. If you then, “being evil,” would not do such a thing, can you suppose that God would? (Luke 11:13).
If we have learned to hear the voice of God, and if our hearts are intent upon doing all of His will, we can be sure that guidance will be given when appropriate and withheld when He knows that it is better to make decisions on our own.
In our walk with God, there will be many times when more than one course of action will be perfectly in His will for us, though He has not dictated any one of them. But even when we do not receive clear directions for specific decisions, we can still trust our Father to lead us to people and into circumstances that are best for us and glorifying to Him. And He will gladly give us wisdom if we ask for it sincerely (Jas. 1:5).
We then go forward with faith in Him who is always with us, even though we do not have special guidance from Him. If we have experienced His love and His leadership, we can have great faith that He will always lead us.