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Hearing God 6: 3 Factors for Recognizing God’s Voice

May 8, 2013

Hearing God by Dallas WillardDallas 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.

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