Tag Archives: god’s will

Experiencing God

Having said (probably at too much length) that the phenomenon of “hearing God’s voice” is problematic because there is no scriptural precedent or teaching to support it, I do want to mention that I’m not completely closed to arguments from experience. If the people who tell me they are hearing God’s voice were getting messages that, in retrospect, were obviously true and beyond human capabilities, then I think I’d be the first (well, maybe the third or fourth) to say that there’s really something divine at work. But I’ve never seen a clear example of that and I’ve seen lots of examples of messages that turned out to be completely false–sometimes in very damaging ways.

In my single days, two different girlfriends told me that God had revealed to them during prayer that his will was for us to get married. Neither of those marriages happened. I broke off the first relationship, and my girlfriend at the time broke off the second one. I guess according to Susan, I stubbornly resisted God’s will for our lives, but I’ve always wondered what Melissa thinks about that situation now? If God told her in June that we should get married, but she dumps me in December, how does she process that? Does she think God changed his mind? I doubt it. Does she believe that she has disobeyed the revealed will of God for her life–that marrying me is a worse fate than being outside of God’s will for her? Probably not. I suspect that she probably decided that, upon further reflection and longer experience in the relationship, she must have misunderstood what God was saying to her. After all, he speaks in such subtle ways that one could think that he is saying “marry this guy!” when he is actually saying “DON’T marry this guy!” Since he speaks through inner impressions in one’s heart, important words like the emphatic “DON’T” can get lost along the way.

If Melissa, a devout Christian woman who sincerely believes in the importance of obeying God’s voice, can completely misunderstand him on a matter as important as whom to marry, it seems to me that we need to look pretty skeptically on these “messages.” It also seems pretty clear to me that in the vast majority of instances, what God seems to tell someone is more or less exactly what that person wanted to hear at the time. In June, she wanted to marry me; in December she didn’t. God’s words in her heart tracked along with that pretty conveniently.

In the greater scheme of things, no harm done, I suppose. But there are instances where the belief that God is speaking and working in imperceptible ways does cause harm. In two situations that I have been close to, a young woman (one in her forties, one just past thirty) fell ill and died after a protracted stay in the hospital (one week; one month.) Both times, friends and family rallied around to “lift the woman up in prayer” and both times, every tiny improvement was taken as a sign that God was responding to prayer and healing the woman. The people close to her went for days or weeks trusting and proclaiming that God was gradually working a healing miracle, right up until the day that the final breath came.

I can tell you, it’s pretty awkward being the only one in the waiting room who doesn’t break out into applause and amens when some dear brother or sister proclaims that God is healing our friend–especially when you are the preacher! But on both occasions, the situation was pretty much what I thought it was–a beloved person was almost certain to die, and the collective response of the church was to ignore reality, clinging to the slim hope of a very unlikely recovery and calling their wishes “God.”

I’m not going to be critical of those people’s reaction in the moment. The were heartbroken and hesitant to accept reality, and I understand that, even though I’m not wired that way. But I am going to be critical of a modern church culture that, rather than emphasizing that because of the coming resurrection, we can face death–our own and that of our friends–with the genuine biblical hope of renewal and restoration, leaves families grasping for signs that God has given their friend a reprieve. And I am not happy when I interact with ministers who encourage such superstition rather than balance it. To me, that’s theological malpractice, if there is such a thing.

I could go on and on, but those examples illustrate them phenomenon well enough. In every case, sincere, devout, prayerful people were completely wrong when they claimed that God was saying or doing a certain thing, and in every case, they assumed he was doing just what they wanted him to do. They put their own hopes on display and called them God. That’s not really idolatry, but it is on the same supermarket aisle.

If I had any countervailing examples–some occasion where a bit of knowledge was given far beyond human wisdom that turned out to be true–I would say so. But I don’t. And I’ve been down this road a lot, as a lifetime church-goer and a minister. People tell me a lot of stories. Whenever someone says “God told me…” it winds up being either irrelevant or harmful.

It is usually regarded as either cruel or unspiritual to try to try to burst to bubble of the God-listeners in this way, which is part of why I’m blogging about it in such clear terms. Church folks who resist the tide are looked down upon or subtly disregarded, so maybe it’s worth it to know that there is at least one random blogger out there who is troubled by this, too. It’s not good for church communities to let the last word go to whoever claims most emphatically to have heard from God. Theological reflection is harder–but more firmly grounded–than that.

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God Can Do A Lot of Different Things

So, if you’ve been tracking this blog, you already know that I get a little grumpy about folks claiming they hear from God all the time. My biggest concerns with the whole “hearing from God” phenomenon are that (1) there’s no biblical precedent for it, (2) it redefines the voice of God as an inner impulse or coincidental sign that is immeasurably tiny and meager compared to the overwhelming kinds of ways in which God is actually depicted as communicating in the scriptures, and (3) it substitutes the firm foundation of a scriptural grounding for an ongoing quest to figure out what God wants of me in a way that smacks of pagan diviners looking for a sign to determine what the capricious spirits want of them each day. I consider that a step backward from the Christian tradition toward the more primitive cults that preceded it.

One of the most frequent responses to my line of thinking is something like “couldn’t God communicate through these subtle means if he wanted to?” That came up in the comments in the previous post, and I’m glad it did. It can from someone who is pretty clearly thinking about these issues in an open and healthy way, and they reminded me that I need to address that question specifically.

It reminds me of when I was a single preacher-wanna be back in seminary. I was good friends with the administrative assistant for the graduate school of theology, and I would drop by her office to chat between classes sometimes. Occasionally the conversation would turn to the latest person I was dating, or whom I wished I was dating (but striking out with), and Lynell would say “Don’t you think that God is big enough to choose your spouse?” My typical response was “God is big enough to pick up this whole building and shake it until we all fall out.” The question isn’t what God is big enough to do, but what he is likely to do, based on what we know of him from the scriptures.

In other words, saying “but couldn’t God do [this thing that I want him to do] if he wanted to?” is a response that could apply to anything, including thousands of things that the person who says that would never agree that God was doing. God could send me messages through the arrangement of letters in my alphabet soup. God could decide what the next step of my life will be based on this week’s “Dora the Explorer” map. God could consider tomatoes an abomination, such that he will damn to hell anyone who willingly eats one, and doubly damn the fast food workers who put tomato slices on my sandwich even though I told them not to. In my crankiest moments, I briefly hope that is true.

Sure, those are absurd examples, but “couldn’t God do that if he wanted to?” supports them just as well as it supports “couldn’t God decide to speak into my heart in subtle ways?” If we’re going to move away from having a Biblical foundation for our practice, it’s going to be hard to know where to draw the line. I understand that for a lot of people, God sending them signs makes a lot of sense, but, again, the Christian tradition says that we aren’t really supposed to relying on what sounds good according to our own reasoning. That’s the whole point of having the mind of God revealed in scriptures. We don’t need to try to work this out for ourselves.

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God Told Me To Tell You To Read This

A classic from Bill MacKinnon: No Voices in My Head

Update– This is my favorite bit, and it hit me like a 2×4 when I first read it a few years back:

It is curious to me that if someone in a typical evangelical church stood up and said an angel spoke to him and told him that God wanted him to be a missionary to Africa, we would be very skeptical at best. Yet if that same person stood up and said that he “just really feel led to go to Africa to be a missionary”, the “amens” and applause would be deafening. Yet the former is biblical and the latter is not.

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The Wrong Definition of Having Faith

I’ve been wanting to comment on a certain strain of American evangelical culture for a while now and haven’t been sure how to get into it, but Mike Cope broached the topic, so I’ll take this as my opportunity to jump in.  He’s commenting on Jason Boyett’s new book O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling, and I’ll re-quote part of the book Mike quoted:

“When you live and work within the American Christian subculture — especially the less liturgical, more conservative, evangelical, megachurch sub-subculture — you hear a lot of people talking casually about the intimacy of their relationship with God. The way they tell it, they get frequent, distinct impressions from the Holy Spirit. They get personal promptings from Jesus. They get very specific answers to prayer and detailed directions about even the most trivial aspects of their lives.

“I’ve heard someone tell a friend, ‘I woke up in the middle of the night and thought of you, and it was definitely the Holy Spirit wanting me to pray for you right then and there.’ I’ve overheard a middle-aged woman say, ‘It was totally a God thing that my flight got cancelled, because I got to share my faith with the lady next to me. Talk about a divine appointment!’

“I’ve heard musicians credit God with having written their song lyrics. I’ve heard businessmen give God credit for finally coming through with the promotions for which they’d been praying. I know a few people who don’t hesitate to reveal that God told them to quit their jobs and go into full-time ministry.

“One Sunday I overheard someone give this breathless recap of a worship service: ‘The Lord totally showed up in church this morning. When we got to that key change in “Breathe,” you just knew God was moving.’

“You’ve heard this kind of talk too, maybe coming out of your own mouth. Please understand me: I’m not telling you — or them — to stop. I’m pretty sure most of those kinds of statements express a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives. That people talk this way is not what bothers me.

Unlike Boyett, I am asking them to stop, and I’m not at all sure those statements reflect a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives.  I think it reflects a sincere and artificial faith that mistakes predictable responses to certain stimuli as the work of God.  Far from being more spiritual, I think that people who are always going on about the latest thing that God has said to them are less spiritual.  One of the keys to authentic life with Yahweh is not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which I take to mean, in part, not acting as though your own thoughts and purposes necessarily have divine approval.  If it’s wrong to falsely proclaim that God has damned something, surely it’s also wrong to falsely proclaim that he has blessed something.  I’m not going to be as generous about this stuff as Boyett is.  We seriously need to knock this stuff off, and we definitely need to stop sending the signal that that real Christians hear from God on a regular basis.

Why does it bother me so much?

1)  It’s unbiblical.

Search the scriptures are closely as you can.  You aren’t going to find any instances of God leading someone through a coincidence, or a gut feeling or an intuition. That never happens. No one ever tries to discern God’s will for their lives. His general will is communicated through the scriptures, and if he has a specific mission for someone, he sends a message that can’t be missed–an audible voice, an angelic visit, something like that. As soon as someone says “God laid a message on my heart” they have departed from all Biblical precedent. You can, of course, argue that not every Christian practice needs to have Biblical precedent, and for some matters, I would agree. But on the central question of “how does God communicate with people?” I’d sure like to see a verse or two that supports our practices.

2) It “defines divinity down.”

Another problem with hearing from God every afternoon is that when your way of hearing from the Lord is completely indistinguishable from the routine products of your own imagination, the experience of God has became so meager and small that the glory of God is inevitably diminished. Frankly, I’d much rather worship a God who communicates clearly through overwhelming personal encounters, but rarely, than a God who works in my life exactly the same way coincidence and personal insights work for atheists.

We’ve gotten used to speaking about the presence of God and the voice of God in casual ways that don’t knock us down to our knees (and that certainly doesn’t line up with the biblical testimony). I’ve often thought about that when I’m in a worship service where they sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord”

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You

To see You high and lifted up
Shinin’ in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy

The sounds great to sing, but do we realize what we are asking for? When someone sees God high and lifted up, it isn’t a fun or casual experience, and you don’t leave feeling good about yourself. Just ask Isaiah.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

One of my big pet peeves is when some human person cleverly designs a worship experience for maximum emotional impact through dramatic lighting and moving song selections, and then, when it is over says something like “God really showed up and showed off tonight!” This bothers me because a) nothing happened here that doesn’t happen in secular concerts or movies every day and b) if God had decided to show up and show off, you wouldn’t be telling me about it over dessert at Chili’s. You’d still be in the sanctuary shaking with fright, and we’d be on our way there to bring you a clean pair of pants.

3) It’s a pagan worldview in Christian language.

In Deuteronomy 30, when Moses has finished passing on to Israel the commandments that God gave him (with an audible voice and written tablets, not a warm feeling in his heart), Moses says:

The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

In other words–I’ve just laid out God’s will for you. It’s really clear, and now you all know it, and there’s no need to worry about how you are going to know what he wants. He’s told you up front.

This is really, really great news, because it means they don’t have to do what the pagans do, which is read tea leaves and animal entrails to try to figure out what the gods want, or search for signs in the heavens, or–worst of all–go to some witch or necromancer to see if the souls of the departed have any insights. One of the incredible plusses of the biblical tradition is that everything we need is set down in print.

Have you ever noticed that when Jesus encounters someone who isn’t hip to God’s agenda, he never says “you need to spend more time seeking God’s will for your life”? Instead he points them to the Bible. “Have you not read….?” This is one area where the Judeo-Christian tradition is in sharp contrast to the surrounding culture of the ancient world. Having written scriptures is better than having to search for signs of the divine will, and it’s a move backward (and one that mystifies me) to leave the assurance of a scriptural grounding for the uncertainties of analyzing your gut feelings.

I once heard someone say “Faith isn’t believing that God will do whatever you want him to do. Faith is believing that God will do what he has already promised to do.” He never promised to pick out your college, or your spouse, or your job, and whisper the answer to you. He didn’t promise “divine appointments” or messages laid on your heart. No matter how much we might want those things or how great we think they are, it doesn’t seem to be the way that God prefers to operate. And it causes all manner of practical problems. But more on that later, maybe.

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