August 5, 2011
It is widely believed by Christians (in my view, correctly so) that God still speaks to people. The question many have is how to discern when this happens. A good book here is Dallas Willard’s Hearing God. I would like to add a few reflections to Willard’s excellent treatment.
First, one can learn to discern God’s voice like one learns anyone else’s voice—through practice, trial and error; and in the case of God, with Scripture as one’s guide and as one’s primary way of familiarizing oneself not only with correct propositional boundaries, but also with the tone and texture of God’s speech.
In my own experience, I have paid special attention to times when God seemed to be speaking to or prompting me and, later, something of low probability and special religious significance occurred that was relevant to the divine interaction, e.g., when a prayer was answered. When this happens, I go back in memory to the texture, tone and other features of the original communication and look for those features the next time I am inclined to think God is speaking to me. In this way, I use “miraculous, circumstantial” confirmation of the original communication to authenticate it, and this provides prima facie justification for using that communication as a rough template for future times of divine guidance and so on.
Second, I think we should take heart from the fact that, often, God speaks to us and we are unaware that it is happening because God will at times speak to us in our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in a way that “sounds” like our own.
This happened to me two weeks ago. I went out to lunch with a dear, younger brother while on a ministry trip back East, and he asked me for advice on how to get published. I am often asked that question, and my answer is always the same. I encourage the person to get a set of submission guidelines from the publisher, write a chapter, develop a good table of contents, and follow the submission guidelines carefully. I also suggest that the person try to get someone known in the publishing world to go to bat for the person by calling the publisher ahead of the individual’s submission. This is my typical answer, but not that day at lunch. Instead, almost without thinking, I gave my new friend two—and only two—pieces of advice. I urged him not to worry about not having a Ph.D. or about not having new, original ideas about the content of the book. I elaborated on these two points (e.g., pointing out that his audience---high school students—didn’t need a Ph.D. author and that he would take content borrowed from other books and arrange/illustrate it in a way unique to him). After giving these two pieces of advice, I left it at that. The next day, upon returning home from the trip, I received an email from this brother in which he expressed utter amazement at my advice. According to him, he had been wrestling with the decision of writing for some time and there were exactly two issues central to his struggle. You guessed it. They were precisely the two topics I chose, uncharacteristically, to share with him. It was clear to me on reflection that God’s Spirit had spoken to me, giving me just the right words for my brother even though I did not know it at the time.
In sum, God does still guide, speak to and prompt his children, and while there are general treatments of this topic of great help (Willard’s book), and while there is a specific practice that can be used to learn to discern God’s voice (using as a template a communication that is followed by some sort of divine fulfillment of the communication), we should take great comfort in the fact that, if we make ourselves available to Him, God will speak to and through us in many ways of which we are not aware.