For several summers I was a salesperson for a Memphis Ace Hardware store. In some ways, the job was easy. We had a slow trickle of customers and at least two salespersons to handle their requests. In other ways, however, the job was challenging. Why? Because I knew nothing about hardware! I was in graduate school studying theology at the time. My part-time job as a campus ministry intern was put on pause each summer because most of the college students we worked with returned home. Thus, I needed a way to earn money in June and July. A friend at the graduate school worked at Ace and asked Ben, the owner, if he’d hire me for the summers. I met with Ben, told him that I didn’t know anything about hardware, but that I was honest and a hard worker. He hired me. For five days a week during two months each year, I spent 8 hours a day telling customers, “I don’t know. Let me go ask Ben.” They’d want to know which wasp spray was best. I didn’t know. So I’d go ask Ben. They’d want to know which rubber washer would fit their leaking faucet. I didn’t know. So I’d go ask Ben. And on days when Ben wasn’t available, I was useless. I depended completely on the ability to go to Ben and listen to his guidance in order to do my job. I couldn’t do my job if I couldn’t listen to Ben.
The question Bill Hybels explores in The Power of a Whisper is this: Is it is possible to experience in our spiritual life what I was experiencing in my work life? It is possible to live in such a way that we do with God what I was doing with Ben? Can we go directly to God and listen for the guidance we need in order to live our lives?
Hybels answers with a definitive “Yes.” His book is part biography, part Bible study, and part spiritual direction. Of the three components, the biography is the most compelling and well-written. Hybels recounts the history of the Willow Creek Community Church which he and a small team planted in 1975. He takes us through each critical milestone in the church’s journey and how he strived to listen to God for wisdom and direction. Hybels also reveals much about his personal life and the role that listening to God played in saving him from major moral and spiritual mistakes. Readers already familiar with the much celebrated (and sometimes critiqued) ministry of Willow and Hybels will likely enjoy this behind-the-scenes look. It is a captivating testimony from someone passionate about trying to hear God.
Readers hoping for a comprehensive study of what the Bible teaches about listening to God, however, will likely be disappointed. Though Hybels has demonstrated his gift at teaching Scripture in other books (e.g., see Too Busy Not to Pray) here he offers only brief morsels of Scripture. The texts he works through are useful and instructive, but they are far too few.
Not only does Hybels play the role of a witness sharing his testimony and a teacher instructing us in Scripture, he also plays the role of a spiritual director. Throughout the book Hybels provides practical principles for listening to God. The best of these are found in two chapters: “How to Know When You’re Hearing from God” and “When God Speaks Through Others.” In the former he provides five questions to ask in order to know if a “prompting” is from God. In the latter he provides several keys for knowing if God is speaking to you through another person.
The greatest strength of the book stems from a theme Hybels returns to repeatedly: the importance of listening to God through Scripture. He testifies to times when he was reading a Scripture prayerfully and discerned God speaking to him through it. He also recounts times when a Scripture he had memorized suddenly came to mind in the midst of a circumstance and provided the needed direction.
Overall the book is an inspiring testimony and a good introduction to the issue of listening to God. Readers looking for a deeper examination of Scripture on the topic and more spiritual direction might consider the following books as supplements to Hybels: Dallas Willard Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God (IVP, 1999); Jan Johnson When the Soul Listens (NavPress, 1999); and Glenn Pemberton When God Calls (21st Century Christian).
The Power of a Whisper: Hearing God, Having the Guts to Respond