In the final video session on Hearing God, Dallas Willard told the story of the Bible – from Genesis to Revelation – as the story of the “With-God Life.” Before we get to that, let’s first take a step back and say that it is important – for a variety of reasons – for us to have some understanding of the story of the Bible. Different people have different ways of summarizing the Bible’s story – most of them have great similarities, but sometimes emphasize a particular idea or focus over another. One way of summarizing the story comes from Scot McKnight in his (excellent) book The Blue Parakeet:
- Created for Oneness (Genesis 1-2)
- Otherness Introduced (Genesis 3-11)
- Otherness Expands (Genesis 12-Malachi)
- Oneness in Christ (Matthew-Revelation 20)
- Perfectly One (Revelation 21-22)
Another even simpler way of telling the story of the Bible as a five-act play comes from N.T. Wright from his (also excellent) book Scripture and the Authority of God:
A third way that I picked up somewhere modifies Wright’s five-act play slightly:
All of these ways of summarizing the story of the Bible have their strengths, and which one you choose really depends on what you are trying to emphasize. In this session, Willard does something different than what I’ve encountered before. He tells the story of the Bible as the story of the “With-God Life” – that is, as the story of how God interacts with humankind throughout history. I’ll summarize his approach:
- Adam & Eve – Prior to the fall, God walks with them in the garden
- Cain, Enoch, Noah – After the fall, the Bible shows God interacting with a few individuals
- Abraham & Israel – Beginning with the covenant in Genesis 12:1-3, God meets first with Abraham’s family, and then the nation of Israel
- Tabernacle & Solomon’s Temple – God’s shekinah glory settles on the Tabernacle and Temple. God lived in these structures in the presence of his people. (Exo 40:34-38; 2 Chron 7:1-3)
- Judges – God is present with the people through the Judges
- Monarchy – The people reject God but God does not reject them (1 Samuel 8:7).
- Exile – The Temple is destroyed in 587 B.C. and the people are taken into exile in Babylon. The Temple, the place where God lived, was destroyed – and the Israelites began to learn that God was still present with them, even in a foreign land.
- Jesus – The shekinah glory of God in person. The incarnation – God becomes man and lives among us.
- The Church – The continuing incarnation – God sends his spirit to live within his people. No longer does God live in the Temple – now God lives inside each one of us. We are the Temple (1 Cor 6:19-20).
Willard’s way of telling the story of the Bible shows the remarkable development of God’s interaction with humankind – from dwelling in the Temple, to dwelling among us (Jesus), to dwelling within us. The video session closes with Richard Foster observing that throughout the Bible, God continually says these words: I’m with you. I’m with you. I’m with you. And all along the question is asked…Are you willing to be with me? The With-God Life is available to each one of us – God desires a real, authentic relationship with us. He invites us into the kind of life where hearing God is a normal occurrence. Our first step is simply to answer that question: Are you willing to be with me?
“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33; NLT)
In the most recent session of Hearing God, Dallas Willard and John Ortberg discussed the importance of sleep to the kind of life in which we learn to hear God. But then the discussion turns to the Kingdom of God, and the passage quoted above. It is a well-known passage, but perhaps not discussed and unpacked quite as often as it should be. We know that we are supposed to seek the Kingdom of God – but what exactly does that mean? What does it look like?
To start with, we need to understand what Jesus is referring to when he speaks of the Kingdom of God – that way we’ll know what we are supposed to be seeking in the first place. Often when we think of the Kingdom of God, we think (rightly so) of heaven, Jesus’ second coming, and eternity – those things must be what Jesus is talking about, right? And they are – but this view of the Kingdom of God as a future reality misses something very important. Consider these words from Jesus:
“But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you.” (Matthew 12:28; NLT)
“The Kingdom of God has arrived among you.” It doesn’t sound very “future-ish,” does it? This passage (and others like it in the gospels) help us understand something very important about the Kingdom of God: it is not just a future reality. It is present right now. The Kingdom of God is a present reality – it is the reality in which God has his say. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10) – we pray this prayer because we understand that heaven is the place where God’s will is always done. On earth, God has chosen to allow us free will, and Satan still has influence – but God is still at work, primarily (though not exclusively) through the Holy Spirit and through his people. You and I can be a part of the Kingdom of God right now – we are a part of the Kingdom of God every time we choose to live as if God is king.
So what does it mean to seek the Kingdom of God? Willard suggests that it simply means to seek what God is doing in the world. Seeking the Kingdom means that I am looking – actively looking, all the time, everywhere I can – to see where God is active in the world, and then considering how I can be a part of God’s work.
What does all this have to do with hearing God? We hear God within the context of a certain kind of life – a life lived in the Kingdom of God. As I seek to place myself more and more within God’s will, and seek his action in the world – striving to be a part of what he is doing – I am better able to hear when he is speaking to me. And the reverse is true as well. The more I learn to hear God when he speaks to me – by paying attention to the 3 factors that help us recognize his voice, and by experience – the easier it is for me to live within the Kingdom of God.
The fifth session of the Hearing God DVD curriculum starts out a bit strangely. The topic of the session is Hearing God in the Context of the Kingdom of God (more on the Kingdom of God in my next post). It is about hearing God in the context of a certain kind of life – a life lived in the Kingdom of God. But the first 10 minutes of the video is about sleep, and the epidemic of sleeplessness in our society today.
At first glance this seems a bit odd – why spend so much time talking about sleep in a class about hearing God’s voice? In fact, after the first 10 minutes of the video I stop it and ask the class participants the same question. “Why is this discussion of sleep relevant to our topic of hearing God.” After a bit of discussion, most classes come up with two responses:
- First, it is relevant because the amount of rest we get influences everything we do in life. Sleep is a necessity for us – we are finite creatures and we need rest to function well. When we are not well-rested, everything gets harder – focusing at work, being civil to the people around us, our ability to process information, and so on. Sleep is necessary for virtually everything we do. And this is certainly true when it comes to hearing God as well. In Hearing God 6, we noted Willard’s belief that the primary way God seems to speak to us is the “still, small voice.” It is not always a booming voice that is impossible to miss. We have to pay attention. And paying attention requires us to be rested.
- Second, it is relevant because – as we stated above – hearing God happens best in the context of a certain kind of life. Life lived in the Kingdom of God – which means life lived as if God is king. It involves a recognition that God is in control (and I am not). Few things in life more clearly demonstrate our need to release control of our lives than sleep, when we spend approximately 1/3 of our day unconscious and unaware of what is happening around us. When I sleep, I have to trust that God is in control and will take care of me at my most vulnerable. Halfway through Psalm 121 we find this line: “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psa 121:4). God does not sleep – so we can sleep.
During this session, Dallas Willard and John Ortberg have an interesting discussion of the times when we can’t sleep – when something is bothering us and just can’t seem to let go of it and rest. Willard makes an interesting and (I think) very astute observation – he says that “sometimes turning loose [letting go] means taking hold of something else.” Often we have difficulty “letting go” of a problem or a worry – we may want to do so, but we aren’t sure how. Willard rightly points out that in order to let go, we may have to grab onto something else. So, for example, when I am laying in bed turning a problem over and over in my mind, and unable to sleep because of it, it is helpful for me to try and “let go” of that problem by “taking hold” of God’s goodness. Instead of focusing on the problem, I have found it helpful to pray – first, to pray about the problem and attempt to release it to God, at least for the night. But then I try and thank God for the good things in my life – my wife and newborn daughter, a roof over our heads, a warm bed to sleep in, etc. Instead of focusing on the few things going wrong in my life, this helps me to see and focus on the many things going right. And it often helps to calm me and allow me to relax enough that I can sleep.
In my next post, we’ll talk about the Kingdom of God – what it is, what it means to seek after it, and what that has to do with hearing God.
Dallas Willard suggests that there are 3 factors that help us to recognize God’s voice when he speaks to us: tone, spirit and content. Before elaborating on these three factors, I want to take a moment to note what Willard is, and is not, talking about when he speaks of hearing God’s “voice.” He is not talking about the audible voice of God – what we usually think of when we speak of someone’s voice. God can speak to us audibly if he so desires – there are a couple examples of him doing so in the Bible (1 Samuel 3 provides one of the better known examples; see also God’s interaction with Abraham in Genesis 22 when he is about to sacrifice his son, Isaac). Most of the time, however, when someone claims God spoke to them audibly, our reaction is to find them a good counselor! Sometimes this is due to our skepticism that God still speaks to us today in any form – and that skepticism should be resisted. But it is also a recognition that speaking in an audible voice does not seem to be God’s primary way of speaking to us.
The Bible also speaks of the “still, small voice” of God (1 Kings 19:12). While recognizing that God can speak to us in a variety of ways, Willard suggests that the still, small voice of God should be seen as God’s primary and preferred method of communication with us. Near the beginning of the study, John Ortberg made an observation that speaks to this question of how God communicates with us – and what forms the “still, small voice” of God may take. He noted that communication is simply guiding someone’s thoughts. Human beings are finite creatures, so we have to use finite means to communicate – sounds, written images, gestures – that cause other people to have thoughts they might not otherwise have had. But God is infinite, and he is not limited to finite means of communication. He can guide our thoughts in a more direct manner. So when we speak of hearing God’s voice, we’re primarily talking about how he communicates with us through our thoughts – though it can also refer to God speaking to us through another person, or a written text.
With that in mind, let’s unpack these three factors Willard provides to help us recognize God’s voice:
- Tone – Willard suggests that the voice of God will always have a certain tone – a weightiness to it. It is a voice that impresses us – it comes with confidence, and we recognize it as something that we didn’t think up on our own. In fact, it often surprises us – both by it showing up in the first place, and by what it says.
- Spirit – The spirit of God’s voice is one of peacefulness and joy – it is a warm presence of goodwill in our lives. It is not the voice of a bully – it will not run over us by imposing itself upon us. Willard points to James 3:17‘s description of “the wisdom from above” as a description of the spirit of God’s voice.
- Content – There are things that we know God will not say to us. If the voice we are hearing contradicts what we find in the Bible, then we can be certain it is not the voice of God.
Willard emphasizes that we learn to recognize the voice of God by experience. We don’t always know immediately that God is speaking to us – the story of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3 demonstrates this to be true. But as with any human voice, we learn to recognize it by experience. After 14 years of marriage, I know my wife’s voice very well when I hear it. After only 2 months, I can recognize my daughter’s cry when I hear it in a crowded room – I’ve heard it plenty of times! The same is true when it comes to hearing God’s voice. Over time, if we are paying attention to these 3 factors and desiring to hear God’s voice, we will learn to recognize it by experience.
In this week’s session, Dallas Willard moves into the practical side of hearing God. He discusses what some people call the 3 Lights. The 3 Lights are three points of reference that help us to discern God’s guidance: circumstances, impressions of the Spirit, and passages from the Bible.
- Circumstances refers to the things happening around us. Sometimes Christians speak of God “opening” or “closing” doors – a job offer or rejection, the beginning or end of a relationship, and so on. When they speak in this way, they are referring to circumstances – the things happening around them that sometimes indicate God may be encouraging us to move in a particular direction.
- Impressions of the Spirit refers to the guidance given by God’s Spirit. The Holy Spirit is real and active in the lives of Christians, and he does provide guidance. But – as with the entire discussion in this class about hearing God’s voice – we know that getting the Spirit’s promptings right can be a tricky business. We are only able to correctly discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance and direction within the context of a certain kind of life – a life lived in relationship with God.
- Passages from the Bible refers to the guidance the Bible provides to us. If what we are considering somehow contradicts what God tells us in the Bible, then what we are considering is clearly not a result of God’s guidance.
Willard is clear that these three lights are important – they are factors that help us as we are making decisions and trying to listen to God’s voice. But they are not, in and of themselves, God’s voice in the sense that we have been talking about in this class. God can and often does work through each of them – but they are a supplement to, not a substitute for, an actual relationship with God in which we hear God’s voice.
In our next post, we’ll discuss 3 factors that help us to recognize God’s voice.
Last week’s Hearing God class session (which talked primarily about the Trinity as a model for our relationship with God) had enough in it that I wanted to do two posts. Towards the end of the video, Dallas discussed Brother Lawrence, a monk who wrote a spiritual classic called The Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence developed an amazing sense of intimacy with God – and he did it while washing pots and pans in the kitchen. He shared his life with God right where he was, by not allowing what he was doing present an obstacle to his being with God.
Is your work an avenue for growing closer to God, or an obstacle?
We spend a large part of our lives at work. For most of us, at least 40 hours a week, if not more. If we assume that most people sleep about 8 hours a night, that means about 1/3 of our waking lives is spent at work. That’s a lot of time! And the story of Brother Lawrence raises a question for us – how do we use that time to grow closer to God? How do we make work an avenue for growth, and not a hindrance? Because it is probably one or the other. Rarely do we stand still when it comes to life with God. At any given moment, we are drawing closer to God or moving further away – based primarily on the decisions we make.
I spoke with someone recently who talked about how he used his work as an opportunity to develop patience and cultivate peace. He has a fast-paced job, and is intentional about remaining calm in the midst of the craziness. His work has become a spiritual discipline – a chance to develop peace and patience, both characteristics of people who live by God’s spirit (Gal 5:22).
I have been fortunate over the past 6 years to work as a pastor, where most people would assume it is easy to use your work to grow closer to God. But statistically speaking, pastors are often the most spiritually-starved people you’ll meet. Richard Foster, who has written a number of great books on spiritual formation, says that as a pastor, he was very frustrated because he wanted to learn how to pray, and couldn’t seem to find the time. Hospital visitations particularly seemed to get in the way – until one day he realized that his visits to people in the hospital were the opportunities God was giving him to learn how to pray. In my own job I love to teach people about the Bible – and the act of preparing those classes has been an integral part of my own efforts to grow closer to God.
Everyone’s job is different, so how your job can be an avenue for you to grow closer to God will likely be unique. But if Brother Lawrence could use washing pots and pans to grow closer to God, then I’m confident the rest of us can do so as well. How might your job provide opportunities for you to draw closer to God?