I recently had a conversation with a man about hearing from God. He referenced Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God. I’ve benefited greatly from some of Willard’s teaching, but this is one of his books that causes me serious concern. It’s certainly a more thoughtful book on the topic, so if you’re interested in looking at all sides, definitely read it. But here is my primary objection: Willard’s biblical case for the normative discipline of hearing the voice of God is very weak. Now let me just make something very explicit. I certainly think people can experience hearing God’s voice. However, my concern is with the teaching that such experiences should be a regular, normal part of the Christian life, and that your walk with Christ is somehow defective if they are not. So let’s look at some of Willard’s biblical case for this.
First, Willard appeals to the “ministry of Eli,” referencing I Samuel 3:8–9, that he was offered by various Christian writers of the past, stating, “They helped me to identify and respond to experiences of God’s speaking, just as Eli helped Samuel in the biblical story” (p. 17). But this seems to be a misuse of the text. Here a few quick observations:
- Willard assumes that Eli had developed the skill of hearing God and was able to teach others.
- A reading of the first four chapters of I Samuel indicate Eli may have not even been a believer and that Samuel “did not know God.”
- Eli does not even recognize the fact God is speaking to Samuel the first two times.
- Eli does not teach Samuel any skills of recognition, just how Samuel should respond.
The biblical text simply does not support the idea that Eli was someone who had developed the skill of hearing God's voice and was able to help others recognize it too.
Second, Willard offers the idea that the experiences of those in the Bible are not meant to be exceptional (p. 18); rather, we must assume they are the kinds of experiences we should expect today (p. 35). This seems to be a difficult position to justify, without further argument, in light of the historical context of those events and their unique place in the historical narrative of God’s plan to bless the peoples of the world. And does this apply to every single experience recorded in scripture? For example, given this line of reasoning, should I also expect God to regularly communicate to me through a donkey, like Balaam experienced (Numbers 22:21-29)? If not, why not? Just because the biblical narrative describes particular experiences with God, why should we assume they are prescribed for us today and should be a normative part of our Christian experience?
Third, Willard points to I Kings 19:11-12 to support the idea of God’s “still small voice.” However, this is the only reference in the entire Bible where you will find this phrase. If God’s “still small voice” is to play a central role in our daily walk with Him, wouldn’t you expect more than a single Old Testament passage? In addition, even biblical translators seem to be unclear on how to translate the Hebrew here. A check of different translations renders the King James version of “still small voice” very differently:
- Revised Standard Version: “sound of sheer silence”
- New American Standard Version: “sound of gentle blowing”
- New International Version: “a gentle whisper”
And again, I cannot see how this passage commends the discipline of hearing God in a normative sense.
This is a good reminder that we must always go back to the objective word of God to see how various ideas, whether they are related to spiritual formation, or philosophy, or any topic, comport with the Scriptures.