Dallas Willard in Hearing God lists three common mistakes for understanding how God speaks to us.
- A message a minute. This view says that God is telling you what to do for every decision and you could know if only you paid good attention. But there is no evidence in Scripture that anyone was constantly receiving communication from God. God did not tell Jesus “Now go do this,” and then “Go do that.” Too much intrusion in a person’s life actually keeps them from growing. Like parents who hover over their children never give them the freedom to make mistakes and learn for themselves, if God was constantly trying to instruct us, we would never become His real friends.
- It’s all in the Bible. This view intends to honor the Bible but with a misguided zeal. The Bible does give direct instructions for many situations in our lives—be holy as I am holy, honor your mother and father, honor the Sabbath. It does not get specific as to how we need to apply the principles it contains, and it is here that Christians begin to disagree. It is not a matter of having a low view of the Bible.
“Nearly every faction in Christendom claims the Bible as its basis but then goes on to disagree as to what the Bible says. An exalted view of the Bible does not free us from the responsibility of learning to talk with God and to hear him in the many ways he speaks to humankind.” -Dallas Willard
- Whatever comes is God’s will. This view takes communication with God out of the equation. It’s fatalistic and places everything in your hands. The fact that something happens does not mean it is God’s will. If Moses had accepted this view, then there would be no nation of Israel. He would have let Pharaoh enslave the people; He certainly would not have expected God to speak to Him in a burning bush.
If God does not communicate like this, how does He?
Christians live with the conviction that God speaks to us and that He is really present with us at all times by His Spirit. We are never alone. God is with us and desires to communicate with us in a conversational manner, speaking to our individual needs and in ways that we can understand. Romans 8:14 says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
Dallas Willard writes, “Being ‘led by the Spirit of God’ is neither blind, robot-style obedience nor feeling stuck interpreting vague impressions and signs.” Sometimes we wrongly think that God is opaque and makes us guess at whether or not that was Him speaking. This is not true.
Instead, God chooses to speak to us through language we can understand!—the written words of the Bible, through words in a dream, the wisdom of a friend, a sermon, a book we’re reading, or even audibly, as He did with the people of the Bible. Another way he speaks to us is through shared immersion in His work. When we participate in what God is doing in the world, we begin to have the mind of Christ.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:15-16, “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” Psalm 32:8 says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.”
It is like how you can sense what your spouse is thinking just by looking at them. You know by their facial expressions—they don’t have to say a word and you know if the day has been stressful, productive, peaceful, enjoyable, satisfying, draining, etc. As we become closer with God, we simply do what He has asked; we do not need to wait to hear Him speak again.
When we need to ask God what to do, it reveals our lack of closeness to Him and how little we are engaged in His work. Friends understand one another, and as friends of God, we do what God commands (John 15:14).
So, both in verbal communication and in participation in God’s work God speaks to us. What does this mean about prayer and hearing God? It means that there is definitely a role in asking God for direction, but that this is not a “wait and see” approach. We don’t have to be hesitant to act. Often times, God gives us the freedom to go one of two directions, both being equally within His will.
(*I cannot recommend highly enough Hearing God by Dallas Willard. This post draws from chapter 3, “Never Alone.”)
As I have taught this ordo salutis at my church, we have exposed ourselves to the spiritual disciplines. Evangelicals regularly emphasize such disciplines as Bible reading and prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and community. They may even encourage other forms of spiritual discipline without labeling them. As far as I know, it is only since Richard Foster’s release of The Celebration of Discipline several decades ago that evangelicals have started to embrace the broad spectrum of spiritual disciplines as valuable.
Spiritual disciplines are a means of grace. They are part of the “path of disciplined grace” as Foster says. This does not mean they are the sole means of grace, but any discussion of the avenues God has appointed to distribute His grace to us would be severely lacking without mention of them. They are, as Dallas Willard says, wisdom not righteousness. In the disciplines, we do not earn righteousness but become wise toward the ways of God.
Galatians 6:8 says, “Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Richard Foster comments, “A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines–they are a way of sowing to the Spirit…. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 7).
G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy something to the effect that we falsely assume that something consistent does not have life in it, such as a clock. We are wrong. Consistency is actually a sign of life. He gives the example of children who say, “Do it again,” to parents who get tired quickly and then says God may be much younger than we. Our inconsistency gives away the death within us. The spiritual disciplines are, if anything, the consistent way to let God breathe life into us.
Inward disciplines are those that one does in solitary that no one knows about. These are those Jesus speaks about in Matthew 6 where we must be careful not to get our reward from people observing our deeds of righteousness. Outward disciplines are ones that one does where there is evidence of the act. They are not necessarily done alone—in fact, some of them seem to require a relationship with others. But they are not done intentionally with others. And corporate disciplines are those done together with a consistent group of other Christians. The adjectives describe a person’s relationship to those around him while practicing the disciplines.
Think of it like raising a child. A child, as he grows up, learns new things that will prepare him for life. He learns how to set an alarm clock and wake up early, how to manage his money, how to behave around the opposite sex, how to respect his elders. All of these practices are new at one time but, in time, become a part of who he is. Eventually, he is one who wakes up early, one who can manage his money, etc. And, in time, he becomes a person who wakes up because it makes him a better businessman. He manages his money because it enables financial freedom.
We practice the spiritual disciplines not only so we can be people of prayer, etc. but people for whom prayer provides an avenue for God to change us. If we want to be people of character, of virtue, prepared and ready to rule and reign as people reflecting God’s image in the world, then we must subject ourselves to this path of disciplined grace. And we must remember that change will take time.
Dallas Willard gives correction to those who would complain about the difficulty of the disciplines, as if following Jesus were simple and easy. “Ironically, in our efforts to avoid the necessary pains of discipline we miss the easy yoke and light burden [that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11]. We then fall into the rending frustration of trying to do and be the Christian we know we ought to be without the necessary insight and strength that only discipline can provide. We become unbalanced and are unable to handle our lives” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 7).
Here is a list of some of the basic spiritual disciplines taken from Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.
Now we turn to a transformation of the will. The will is something that God gives humans so that they might create new things. The will is what makes each person unique. It is our capacity to create new things, concepts, events. It comes from us alone. It is part of being made in God’s image for us to have a will. It is the nature of the spiritual to be self-determined. Without elevating our will to the sinful place Americans give it–freedom being the ultimate right–we must recognize that God created us to have free will, un-coerced by outside wills to some extent.
N.T. Wright says that people tend to focus on outward behavior rather than on the will. In doing this, they opt for one of two things:
- Obey rules imposed from the outside
- Discover the deepest longings of your heart and try to be true to them.
Neither of these is a valid approach to life. The will must be shaped and aligned with God’s will. Both of those options are shortcuts to a life of character and virtue. They want what virtue offers without the hard work–yes, I said hard work–required to become a person of character.
For example, the person with a rules-based mentality knows what to do but does not have the power to follow through. Wright says, “We must search for the larger framework within which appropriate rules may play their proper, though ultimately subordinate, part” (After You Believe, p. 45). Maybe the rules are only signposts pointing us to a larger purpose, a grander end, that God wants for us. Maybe we need them but not in the way we’ve been taught to need them.
For those who choose option 2, the problem becomes when the longings of one’s heart are wicked and cruel. What if one’s “true self” really just wants to steal? To have an affair? What then? The more they choose to be “authentic” in this way, the more they will become this person in habitual ways and their wills will indeed be shaped inwardly. The heart cannot transform itself by looking inwardly; the answers to life’s deep questions about purpose and meaning are never found by simple meditation and authenticity, no matter how well-intentioned the thought.
“Certainly the will of a spiritual being is the one thing in his creation that God chooses not to override and force to take on a specific character…. It has its choice–though it does not have its choice of the consequences of choosing what it wants. And one of the consequences of choosing what one wants without regard to God’s will is enslavement to one’s own self-conflicted will. On the path of self-will people eventually come to the place where they cannot choose what God wants and cannot want God” (Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 146).
Willard is saying that the effects of habitual choice of what you want are only being able to choose what you want. You eventually lose sight of God and are unable to do what He wants.
Before this happens though, most of us live lives of duplicity. Our wills are fragmented. If we think about the choices we make in a given day, we have varied motives and thought processes that go into making them. Our duplicity begins to manifest itself in deception, where we pretend to feel and think something when we really don’t. We do what we want to do but hide it because we’re afraid of being found out.
We don’t exercise our wills unless we’ve first used our minds. The mind and will are connected. The will or heart can change the thoughts and feelings that are available in our future choices. But we must first have those new thoughts and feelings through new information.
In John 8:28-29, Jesus says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”
Jesus’ will was aligned with His Father’s will. It was not that He did not have His own will–Jesus could have sinned against God just like any one of us. But He did what pleased His Father. “Single-minded and joyous devotion to God and his will, to what God wants for us–and to service to him and to others because of him–is what the will transformed into Christlikeness looks like” (Willard, p. 143).
But how do we go from self-will or duplicity to being aligned with God’s will? According to Willard, it means…
- Surrender. We begin by surrendering our will to God’s will, telling God that we really want Him to be God. We stop asking God to bless us while still living life as we wish.
- Abandonment. We move beyond surrender to abandonment when we not only want God to be God, but surrender to every circumstance of life as happening within God’s permission. We do not gripe and complain when bad things happen to us, but remember that there is no suffering that God cannot use for our good. We choose not to fight against God when we suffer but embrace God (and even the suffering) for we know He is working in it for our good.
- Contentment. We are grateful and rejoice in our “lot in life.” We are content with surrendering to God, and so duplicity becomes a thing of the past.
- Participation. Somewhere along the line, we choose (or we have chosen) to participate with God to see His will played out in the world. “The strongest human will is always the one that is surrendered to God’s will and acts with it” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 152).
What do you think?
The renewing of the mind means a renewing of both thoughts and feelings. Dallas Willard says that our mind is composed not only of our thoughts, but also of our feelings. Feelings have been neglected by many segments of Christianity as irrelevant. I think of Bill Bright’s pamphlet on the Spirit-filled life that reminds us that feelings are always at the “caboose” while our faith is built on facts. And there is a partial truth there: Our faith in Jesus Christi is built on a “fact,” but the way we react to and engage the fact of Jesus happens at the level of emotions. Our feelings are what motivate us to action or inaction.
Proverbs has several verses that speak about the good and evil of feelings.
- Proverbs 10:12 Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.
- Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
- Proverbs 12:25 Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.
- Proverbs 15:15 All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.
- Proverbs 17:22 A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
- Proverbs 21:17 Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich.
- Proverbs 22:4 Humility is the fear of the LORD; its wages are riches and honor and life.
- Proverbs 23:21 …for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
- Proverbs 29:25 To fear anyone will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.
Feelings can only be transformed as we recognize that a feeling is derived from an inward heart condition. Willard says,
“When we confuse the condition with the accompanying feeling–peace, for example, with the feeling of peacefulness–we very likely try to manage the feelings and disregard or deny the reality of the conditions…. The person who wants the feeling of peacefulness will be unable to do the things that make for peace–especially doing what is right and confronting evil. So, as far as our planning for spiritual formation is concerned, we must choose and act with regard to the condition, good or bad, and allow the feelings to take care of themselves, as they certainly will” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 123).
Therefore, emotions are not simply a matter of the renewal of the mind, but of the renewal of the heart! Willard identifies major feelings that will characterize the person who has been transformed by the renewing of the mind. They are love, joy, and peace, the first three fruit of the Spirit. The first three fruit are inseparable from the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and love.
“Practically speaking, the renovation of the heart in the dimension of feeling is a matter of opening ourselves to and carefully cultivating love, joy, and peace: first by receiving them from God and from those already living in him, and then as we grow, extending love, joy and peace to others and everything around us in attitude, prayer, and action” (Willard, Renovation of the Heart, pp. 136-137).
Feelings are what leads to action, and therefore the road to spiritual formation here is critical. They must not, however, be taken as the basis for action or character change. Christians today who make decisions prompted by feelings of need over insight and understanding of how things are with God and their soul get into trouble. It is why churches make bad decisions and why Christians even with good intentions get things wrong. Satan can use our emotions to captivate us, to guilt us over what we do and do not feel, and to lead us into action or inaction in wrong directions because of them.
The mind is where we begin. Before our conversion, our thoughts were directed by sinful hearts. Now they are directed by a regenerated heart, capable of loving God…and yet our minds need “renewed.”
Our thoughts involve four things, according to Dallas Willard:
1. Ideas: Patterns of interpreting reality. They may involve beliefs. They are shared by those who know. Examples are freedom, education, happiness, the American dream, progress, death, home, government, church, fairness, God, etc. We all have ideas of what these things are and should be. We cannot precisely define ideas: they are hard to pinpoint and yet we try to define them as a way to control them. For example, whoever can define “marriage” in our country can control who is allowed to be married. We are largely blind to our ideas; but exploring what we think of as “natural” or “obvious” shows us just where our ideas lie. Our idea systems need to be transformed. For example, if we once thought of “blacks” as people inferior to “whites,” this is something God must work on in us.
2. Images: Images are tied to ideas but are not abstract. They are concrete. Images evoke emotions. When we think of an idea, we have an image that runs through our head. Jesus chose one image–the cross–and made it the most powerful image in the world. Again, our images must be transformed.
Dallas Willard says, “When [Satan] undertook to draw Eve away from God, he did not hit her with a stick, but with an idea. It was the idea that God could not be trusted and that she must act on her own to secure her own well-being” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 100).
Part of spiritual formation is rewiring our minds to have new ideas and images of God too. The other two areas of thought help us to break the power of our toxic ideas and images.
3. Information: The first task of Jesus in the gospels, in his public ministry, was to proclaim to people the availability of entrance into God’s kingdom, to give them new information about eternal life in God. Jesus had to combat false information about God in his teaching and proclaiming. Just as Jesus gave us information about God, so we need to know who God is.
4. Ability to think: Dallas Willard defines thinking as “the activity of searching out what must be true, or cannot be true, in the light of given facts or assumptions” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 104). He says, “The prospering of God’s cause on earth depends upon his people thinking well” (p. 105). Today, we easily dismiss those who think about God as people disconnected from real life. But perhaps this is because we have not taken the time to think about how we think. We all think. And our minds are no less important than any other parts of us. Those who think this way are like the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia who produced the “killing fields,” where anyone with any sign of education, even those who simply wore glasses, were killed in the late 1970s.
Scripture uses the phrase “renewing of the mind” when it speaks of our mind’s transformation.
Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Ephesians 4:20-24: That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Note that in both passages, the renewing of the mind is contrasted with the sinful thought patterns of this world. It is combined with other acts of putting off the old self and putting on the new self. The renewing of the mind, then, can be thought of practically as changing our ideas and images with new information and the ability to think (with the assistance of the Holy Spirit).