To be in the world but not of it – that is the question.

My grandfather was a missionary in China from 1917 to 1936. He once told me of some early Pentecostal missionaries to China. They decided it was unnecessary to study Chinese before traveling because they “spoke in tongues.” But when they disembarked in Hong Kong, their abysmal language skills made them a laughing stock.

My grandfather (who was also a Pentecostal missionary) said to me, “They refused to be of the world, which was good, but they completely forgot that they still must live in the world.”

Discouraged but determined, they took language classes. One man learned quickly, so they paid for him to study the advanced art of Chinese oratory. He would be their primary preacher.

After months of preparation, the missionaries organized their inaugural evangelistic event in a local town square. They shook their tambourines, sang several songs, and soon a crowd gathered. Their confident preacher began to speak.

To hear a foreigner speak such grand rhetorical Chinese was a novelty, and the crowd grew, but soon the yawns began, hecklers laughed, and the crowd shrunk. A less fluent missionary stood up and urged the crowd to listen. He bumbled his way through his own conversion history, and he stumbled through his story of hearing God for the first time. The crowd listened in silence.

Those missionaries traced their first convert to that botched-up-Chinese testimony.

“After learning to be in the world,” my grandfather reflected, “they forgot not to trust in it.”

Their Struggle Is My Struggle

I completely sympathize with those naïve Pentecostal missionaries to China. I sometimes feel like a drunken man trying to mount his horse. I climb up one side only to fall over on the other. I then scramble up from that side only to slip back to where I began. I just can’t find my balance.

My problem lies in marketing my book, Hearing God in Conversation. I wrote it to help all of us (including me) grow in personal intimacy with God: to know him. I believe it can help Christians and non-Christians meet God personally.

And I want that to happen.

It means I must learn Chinese, but I don’t want to rest on my Chinese-eloquence either. I neither want to self-promote (over-promote or annoy) but I mustn’t ignore promotion completely. (Besides, that marketing stuff is Greek to me anyway.)

The job of believers is to do the work God calls us to. And to leave the results up to him. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). For me, I think that means mostly to write as God inspires, but it probably also means I must occasionally publicize my book as well.

Latest March 22 2016

So here is my bungling attempt at marketing:

But mostly, let’s help each other to live in this world while not living of it.


I’ve always disliked waiting. As a kid, Christmas Eve was torture. Being on hold with Comcast feels endless (the same sappy song repeating every ninety seconds). Last August Kregel Publications offered to publish my book on Hearing God, but their schedule meant it’s release would be delayed ten interminable months.

I think God is teaching me to wait. On him. Of all God’s lessons, his command “to wait” bewilders me most. Let him direct me to mow a friend’s lawn, or to donate to Doctors Without Borders, or even to repent to my wife. Something—anything!—I can do.

Normal waiting simply requires stomaching the excruciating, unending, intervening passage of time. Tedious monotony, like standing behind a novice in the grocery self-checkout line. You want to yell, “The barcode’s right there!” Dreariness. Only thirteen bags of cat litter to go.

Waiting on God is far worse. I have no clue when he’ll act or (worse) what he’ll do. Moses waited eighty years to lead God’s people out of slavery. And when he began, the life of every person he wanted to help spiraled downhill; and not even Moses imagined a parted Red Sea.

Waiting on God requires the inner certainty that his way is best, and that his hiddenness is not absence and that his silence is not impotence.

I’m Tempted to Go-it Alone

When God fails to act in the manner or timetable I think best, I grab for the wheel. He’s had his chance and clearly isn’t getting it right. I’m tempted to do God’s job, after all, I know exactly what should happen and God isn’t producing. Maybe I’ll just go-it alone.

But Elisabeth Elliot (whose life really didn’t go as she planned) once wrote:

God is God, and since He is God He is worthy of my worship and my service. I will find rest nowhere else but in His will, and that will is necessarily infinitely, immeasurably, and unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.

Textbooks Don’t Help

Waiting on God isn’t learned in the lecture hall but the laboratory. The lump of clay doesn’t write a PhD. thesis on The Art of Goblet-Making. It lets the skillful fingers of the potter shape it into a chalice.

But along the way, the potter also puts that chalice into the fires of his kiln. It’s in the fleeting flames of that forge that I usually reach for my “better way.”

This morning I read a passage in which God tells the Israelites not to go to Egypt for military help, that the protection of Pharaoh will be their shame and the shadow of Egypt their humiliation. Like me, the Israelites thought they knew better than God.

But he continues with an invitation,

The Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. (Is. 30:18)

I think those words are the tender fingers of a loving artist on a hot summer day. I never before dreamt of God waiting for me. It always seemed the other way around.

Yet God too sits in a furnace, the fires of my determination to go my own way.

Imagine God patiently waiting (like, for eternity) for me to stop grasping for false solutions—my trips to Egypt—for what only he can provide. He waits for the day his Parted-Red-Sea in me will be the obvious outcome of his grace and not the result of my feverish plotting and planning.

So God, what do you think should happen next? I can hardly wait.


P. S. Please consider buying my new book, Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice EverywhereHuman beings long for nothing more than to hear God. I believe it will help you hear his voice

Latest March 22 2016

I’ve included most everything I know about how to hear God. Topics include:

  • Learning to recognize the sound of God’s voice
  • Hearing God in his silence
  • How to Brainstorm with God
  • Hearing God in Scripture
  • Hearing God for guidance

Eugene Peterson said:

I picked it up and our curiosity and I couldn’t put it down.

Pastor Gary Wilkerson (son of David Wilkerson) said:

Sam Williamson has written a remarkable book that teaches both how to hear God’s voice in Scripture, and then to hear his voice in every avenue of life. It’s filled with humor, insight, practical tips, and sound theology. I can’t recommend a better guide than Hearing God in Conversation.

Don Schwager (author of hugely popular website, said:

This book is a rare gem full of spiritual wisdom, practical insight, and personal examples of how God converses with us in our daily lives.  I was captivated from the first to the last page.

Humanity was designed to hear God. It’s in our DNA. So why don’t we hear God’s voice? Why is his voice so rare? Scripture says, “God speaks in many and diverse ways, but nobody notices (Job 33:14). We miss his voice because he’s not a paint-by-number God. He speaks in ways we don’t expect.

We often hear well-meaning people describe conversations with God in ways that mislead. Their exchanges with God sound like dialogues written by Oscar Wilde:

I asked God: What should I do with my life?
God answered: Are you willing to take a risk?
I replied: Yes, but I don’t know what to do.
God said: Move to Timbuktu.

When people tell these stories, we think, I never hear God so clearly.

Let me tell you a secret: neither do they. At least almost never. Those stories are usually shorthand summaries of hours spent reading Scripture, reflecting, praying, getting Godly nudges, and recognizing God’s voice in circumstances and through friends.

Because God speaks through his infinitely imaginative, artistic mix of methods and moments.

His Many Methods

Let’s not put God in a box. He “speaks” in “many and diverse ways.” If we limit his voice to the scripted dialogue or heavenly visions, we will miss his voice when he paints his words with different brushstrokes. Below are several common methods in which God speaks.

Responsive Resonance: God’s Spirit often resonates in our spirits as a response to external events. Perhaps it’s a burning in our heart or a sense that God has something significant for us in this moment: a Scripture passage leaps out at us in prayer, or we overhear a “chance” comment in the coffee shop. God awakens our hearts to pay attention.

For example, “While waiting in Athens, Paul’s spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was full of idols” (Act 17:16). Now, think with me: idols filled every city Paul visited, but something stirred in him in Athens.

Spontaneous Nudging: Sometimes God nudges our heart out of the blue: to pray for a friend or to act on an issue. It comes more as a sense on the heart than as a dialogue.

I once got a sense to pray for a friend, so I phoned him. He had been let go from his job just hours before. We prayed on the phone and he thanked me for my concern. Only I hadn’t been concerned—I hadn’t even known—it was a concerned God who spontaneously nudged me.

Direct words: Sometimes God speaks direct words—usually just a sentence or two, or perhaps just a phrase. The first time I heard God speak, I had just become a ten-year-old atheist. He simply said, “Sam, I am real and you don’t understand.”

Unbidden Memories: Sometimes God simply brings back a memory. Ten years ago I remembered my twelve-year old self criticizing a neighborhood kid. Weeks after remembering, I bumped into that kid, now grown. I reminded him of the story and repented. He too remembered and wept when I repented. I admit to a tear or two myself. Just don’t tell anyone.

Planted Images: Around 1915, my grandfather received a mental picture in which the letters KWANGSI were spelled in red letters across the sky. In the local library he discovered that the letters spelled a province of China (now spelled GuangXi). He spent the next two decades living in that very province, founding four churches.

God isn’t limited to nudges and words. Sometimes he even paints pictures.

Recalled Passages: Once while talking with a man—and when I had zero wise words to say—a verse popped to mind: We comfort others with the comfort we’ve been given (2 Cor. 1:4). I told him of a comforting word God had recently given me. Nothing wise, just comfort. It answered an unspoken question of his. Since my Bible memorization is abysmal, it simply had to be God.

God often brings forgotten passages to mind at just the right moment.

Visions and Dreams: I’ve never had one, but I know people I respect who get them. Unlike still pictures, visions are more akin to short video sketches, like when Paul was sleeping: “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Who’s to say God can’t do this today?

God Shaped Thoughts: Perhaps these are the hardest to recognize because our thoughts feel like our own. Yet how many times have you felt utterly empty, no words to pray, and then a brilliant (and obvious) thought streaks through your mind? C. S. Lewis expressed it like this:

Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The listener’s role and through
My dumb lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.

God speaks in many and various ways. Let’s not put his voice in a box.


Most of my high school friends were obsessed with college-prep, extra-curricular activities, and jobs. Except for one friend. Like a lion, he could sniff out a wounded schoolmate from a thousand yards. And like a lamb, he sat with them in their grief.

One day we heard a lecture on handling pain. Much of the class was indifferent, but this one friend listened with fixed attention. My preppy class asked how to deal with a poor score on a college-entry exam; he asked how to cheer a suicidal sibling.

My friend suffered from cerebral palsy. Everyday his infirmity slapped him in the face, and every night throbbing muscles threatened his sleep. His stumbled awkwardly as he walked, his dialog was often incomprehensible, his body was wracked with pain. All-the-while his mind remained sharp.

Classmates overlooked him for team sports; mid-day waiters insulted him by asking me what “he” wanted for lunch;  and the difficulty of his spastic speech meant few people invited him for an evening dinner. Yet he always sought out others in  in their sorrow.

Oswald Chambers observed that, “Suffering burns up a lot of shallowness in a person.”

We Hate Suffering

We all know a few of our foibles: we are easily offended when corrected, we talk more than we listen, we barely know how to spell “joy” (much less live it), and we are consumed with self-doubts, “If only I had said ‘X’ instead of ‘Y.’”

We wrestle with our anxiety, condescension, and insensitivity. And they pin us to the mat. We chase self-improvement, sure, but mostly to avoid the humiliation of looking stupid, uncaring, and high-maintenance. Failures drive us to avoid sorrow at any cost.

We want healing from suffering; but Scripture says we get healing only throughsuffering.

God uses sorrows as spiritual chemotherapy, poisoning cancerous cells so that healthy cells can thrive. “He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity” (Job 36:15).

We avoid passages like that.

To Live a Dying Life

Jesus was a man of sorrows. To follow Jesus is a walk of sorrows. Through suffering, we meet God. The way of Jesus is the road to Calvary, planting daily our crosses; as little by little the cancerous cells perish, and as little by little his life in us takes root. In our sorrows, we begin to discover true joy.

Each new sunrise screams of brutalities, ethnic cleansing, sexual carnage, heartbreaking divorce, rejection, and loneliness.

What kind of God do we want? A God indifferent to suffering, exempt and untouched? Or a God so moved with compassion at the slaughter of his people that he enters creation to absorb into himself the anguish of a heartbroken world?

The way of Jesus is to live a dying life.

God’s Voice in Our Affliction

Experiences of loneliness and pain leave us feeling barren and empty, joyless and wasted; but it is precisely in times of wounded-ness that God speaks to us:

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone. (Edward Shillito)

Rather than flee agonies, let’s seek his voice in the heartbreaks of our sorrows:

  • If we are rejected, hear him whisper that he was discarded so we can be cherished;
  • In our loneliness, hear his pledge that he was forgotten so we will be treasured;
  • In the aches of our withering bodies, hear his shout that we are nearly home.

The same sun that hardens clay also softens wax. Which will we be? Will the sufferings of life turn us callous and harsh, or will we let the blood-soaked lashes of Jesus speak to our wounds?

Like my high school friend, let us stumble awkwardly into a world of anguish, anointing the griefs of others with the balm of a wounded God. Let us live a dying life.



Human beings long for nothing more than to hear God. Please consider buying my new book, Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice EverywhereI believe it will help you hear his voice

Latest March 22 2016

I’ve included most everything I know about how to hear God. Topics include:

  • Learning to recognize the sound of God’s voice
  • Hearing God in his silence
  • How to Brainstorm with God
  • Hearing God in Scripture
  • Hearing God for guidance

Pastor Gary Wilkerson (son of David Wilkerson) said:

Sam Williamson has written a remarkable book that teaches both how to hear God’s voice in Scripture, and then to hear his voice in every avenue of life. It’s filled with humor, insight, practical tips, and sound theology. I can’t recommend a better guide than Hearing God in Conversation.