You can read my take on Sam’s book here, but today I’m delighted to delve into this topic and more with Sam himself.
Sam is the founding director of Beliefs of the Heart and the author of Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids? He and his wife Carla live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Connect with him at beliefsoftheheart.com.
What word of encouragement would you give the woman who doubts her ability to discern God’s voice?
Two counterfeits form the most common reasons people don’t hear God: false humility and false expectations.
Most believers instinctively think that God primarily speaks with the spiritual elite (Mother Theresa or Corrie ten Boom). We humbly believe we aren’t good enough to hear God in our daily lives, “That kind of stuff is reserved for the deserving.”
But we miss the point of grace. Just as we are converted because of God’s goodness not ours, so God speaks to us because of his greatness not ours. It’s always been that way:
- God spoke to Abraham, the man who put his wife into two other men’s harems;
- God spoke to Moses, the man who bludgeoned an Egyptian to death;
- God spoke to racist, bigoted Jonah, and then spoke through him to bring Nineveh to repentance.
Examples like these are not spiritual aberrations, they are spiritual revelations. They uncover the heart of the God who calls to us, “Walk with me.” Admitting our unworthiness is a great place to start but a terrible place to end. It ignores the greatness of a loving God.
But we still have a problem: our false expectations. In Scripture, we see God speak from a fiery bush, booming from the clouds, or writing on palace walls. We want more of that. When these astounding signs are absent, we wonder if God is speaking.
God says he has a better way.
When Elijah faced the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, God did an extraordinary miracle through him: fire that burnt the sacrifice, wood, stones, water, and earth. He expected Ahab and Jezebel to convert. When that didn’t happen, Elijah fled to Mt. Sinai in deep depression. There God went out of his way (if we can say that about God) to show the real way He works: first God sent fire, earthquake, and whirlwind, but Scripture says, “God was not in [them].”
Then God spoke in a still, small voice. A whisper (1 Kings 19:11-12).
And that is the way God still speaks today; he sends nudges on the hearts, suddenly remembered Scripture passages, memories from the past, a resonance in the heart, and mysterious words that often send us back in prayer as we ask their meaning.
It’s not that God can’t use astonishing signs, it’s that their very nature distracts us from a daily conversational relationship with him.
[Yes, of course, sin can also hinder us from hearing God’s voice, but God gives us a cure for that: repentance. In fact, even our repentance requires God to speak to our heart and convict us. When we sin, let’s repent; but let’s also remember that God speaks to us out of His mercy not out of our perfection.]
What is the “secret law of the soul” and why does it matter?
A.W. Tozer wrote,
“What comes into the mind when we think of God is the most important thing about us. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”
Our backgrounds, personalities, and biases affect our image of God. Some think he is harsh or condemning, some think he is an impotent Santa Claus, and others simply think he is too busy to bother with our daily needs. We paint pictures of God in our minds.
And our hearts are drawn to those images; we cower in fear of the harsh god, or ignore the impotent god, or feel abandoned by the busy god. As Tozer claims, there is a secret spiritual law that moves us toward our mental images of God.
The answer to our false mental images of God is to meet the real God. We meet him in Scripture, prayer, and a daily conversation with him.
When C. S. Lewis read Tozer’s quote, he responded,
“I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important.”
Yes, we are handcuffed by our mental images of God, but our shackles do not form a life sentence. How God thinks about us is infinitely more important, and his thoughts are to woo us, call us out from slavery, and to marry us. It seems incredible, yet these are his thoughts toward us.
(And did you notice? All his wooing rests on God himself speaking to us, just like any good marriage.)
[Tweet “Long to hear God’s voice in everyday convo? @HeartBeliefs engaging book shows you how”]
As we’re learning to recognize God’s voice everywhere, we long for certainty that it’s really His voice. But you write, “we cannot have the certainty we want. As Paul wrote, ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly’ (1 Cor. 13:12).” I find this oddly freeing, and by the tenor of your book, I gather you do too. Why do you suppose we can be comforted by this truth rather than afraid of it?
The answer to all our fears—over and over again—is grace. When our future reward rests on our present perfection, we tremble in fear (at least when we are honest with ourselves). We know our thoughts, inactions, and judgments. Hope springs from grace.
So also with God speaking. Our hope never rests in our perfect ability to hear his voice, our hope rests in his perfect ability to bring about exactly what we need.
When I get a “sense” from God, it almost always turns me more to God. Because it’s a “sense” for which I want more understanding. If I heard it perfectly, I would probably head out and “just do it” instead of clinging to God more closely.
The Lord wants intimacy with us. Part of his call to intimacy is to speak conversationally, with nudges, senses, short words, and spiritual insights through Scripture.
This “seeing in a mirror dimly” has always been God’s way. Did Isaiah imagine the literal Messiah on a cross when he wrote, “Like a lamb led to the slaughter … he opened not his mouth”?
Our imperfect hearing draws us closer to the one who loves to speak with us.
In your book, I greatly enjoyed the glimpses you give of the number-one woman in your life, your wife. I’d like to know more. Will you tell us a bit about how she fits into the story of your life?
My wife Carla and I share an independent streak. Months before we met, friends told each of us separately that we would make a perfect couple. In fits of individuality, we both determined not to like the other person.
Despite our stubbornness, friends finagled us onto a date. And over a glass of wine, Carla told me of a secret longing, and I fell in love. Apparently I wasn’t the ogre she expected either, for seven months and six days later, we both said “I do.” Like Rudolph and Hermey (from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer), we decided to be “independent together.”
Carla has always had a deep love for the marginalized. After an undergrad in psychology she got a Master’s in social work. But her dream of transformed lives didn’t transform into reality. She felt she pushed more paper than helped people. With the birth of our firstborn, she left social work to be a stay-at-home mom.
But her passion for the outsider didn’t abate. She got a second Masters, this one in TESOL (teaching English as a second language). After our kids went to college, she began to teach English to international woman who come to Ann Arbor, Michigan. She befriends them, brings them to our house, and helps them survive in a foreign land.
And she’s my best friend.
Tell us the story of a typical Day in the Life of Sam Williamson. What does having your ear tuned toward hearing God in conversation look like in the day-to-day?
I grew up in a tradition that encouraged personal prayer times. I practiced them for years, but mostly out of duty. It was especially difficult when I worked in a demanding software company. But over the past ten years, I’ve come to love morning prayer. I’m finding prayer (and study) more of a conversation with God, a time I hear him most clearly.
Years ago, I found I disliked most Bible study programs (you can read the story here), so I created a study that covered the entire Scriptures but allowed me to go at my own pace. (And I love it! Don’t tell anyone.)
My typical day begins with that Scripture study (you can download my plan here), biblical meditation, and prayer. As I look for God’s voice in Scripture, I find it awakens my soul to look for his voice everywhere.
The rest of the morning is dedicated to writing, but even in my writing—especially in my writing—I’m looking for God’s voice. I used to “think” of the right ideas and words, I now find I can “pray” those thoughts. Instead of, “What’s a better word?” I say, “God, what’s a better word?” That one little word is amazing. My writing is extended prayer.
In the afternoons and weekends, I talk one-on-one with men and women in need of counsel (though I’m not a professional counselor), speak at retreats on hearing God or how to find your calling, and I’m very active in my church.
My wife and I have four kids and seven grandkids (at least the last time I counted). My hobbies are mostly active: sailing, scuba diving, golfing, and snow skiing.
Thank you, Sam! It’s been a pleasure.
Friends, how have you recently heard God in conversation?