Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Hearing from God, Speaking for God

The Introduction

Eight years ago this month I asked the readers of this blog what types of criteria they had for choosing a church. Rereading that short post and the comments put me back in the mindset of that time when we had just moved to the Research Triangle Park of NC. Here’s me in the comments of that post: “We are pretty much only looking at PCA churches. Not because we think those are the only good churches, but because we both really agree with their doctrinal foundations.” We ended up doing just that. We chose what turned out to be a great church with great doctrine and stayed there for about 3 years. However, when we decided to move back to our hometown and start the church search over again, I had similar criteria, but a much different order of importance. Back in Greenville we ended up going to a great church with great community. For the last four years we’ve been involved in what is essentially of church of a dozen people (connected to a larger church gathering).

As you can imagine, choosing a church based on organizational structure and size does not always create a community of like minded individuals. That’s led to some difficult, but beneficial conversations. We’ve baptized our two infants in a church that believes that sacrament is for those with a profession of faith. We’ve worked through church leadership and discipleship differences. Wrestling through those types of disagreements with a group of kindhearted friends has been wonderful. However, one issue that’s long been difficult to come to a place of mutual acceptance is the issue of God’s literal voice in our life. It’s deeply personal and obviously supernatural which makes the conversation complicated. I warn you, the rest of this post is painfully insider baseball. I’ll also assume that scripture is the authoritative source on the issue. Whether you believe that’s true or not, it’s certainly reasonable to say that for those who do submit to scripture as “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), that it should also be useful for useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. So if you’re not actively involved in a church, this will likely feel like long meaningless minutiae (and I’m not 100% that you’d be wrong).

The Point

Before the Fall of Mankind, God had regular interactions with Adam and Eve, but immediately after sin entered the world, God’s presence causes fear (Genesis 3:8-9). From then on, even into the New Testament with John the Baptist, there is a trend of God slowly but surely directing the world to the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God’s voice takes many forms, but they are overwhelmingly fantastical. Whether it’s a blinding light from heaven (Acts 9:1-7), voice from the storm (Job 38), burning bush that didn’t burn (Exodus 3), the sound of many waters (Ezekiel 43:2, Revelation 1:15), harps in the background (Revelation 14:2), dense cloud of thunder and lightning with an increasingly loud trumpet blast (Exodus 19), or even the visual that heaven is being torn open (Mark 1:9-11). There are also mysterious dreams of an unbeliever (Genesis 41:1-57) interpreted by Joseph and even overwhelming day dreams, or visions (Numbers 24:4). Even when angels arrive, they often have to tell people to not to be afraid. When Moses returned from Mount Sinai after receiving the Ten Commandments, his own face was so bright it scared everyone and he had to put a veil over it (Exodus 34:29-35). In fact, the people of Israel actually requested that God stop speaking directly to them because it felt like they are going to die (Deuteronomy 18:16).

There are also times where the hearer doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed, but in all those they are eventually certain it’s God (1 Samuel 3). The only example I could find of God speaking and not everyone understanding was when his voice was mistaken by some for loud thunder (John 12:23-29). Even in the well known example of God speaking in a “still small voice”, it was only after a strong wind blows apart rocks, an earthquake, and a fire (1 Kings 19:11-13). In fact, that verse seems to show that there are exceptions to the rule of fantastical presentations of God’s voice, but that it’s still a pretty good general rule. It seems there was some truth to Alanis Morissette as God in the obviously not canonical movie Dogma. God’s voice can be mind blowing.

I do believe that gift of the Holy Spirit does make all Christians today kind of like prophets (Acts 4:25), but even prophets didn’t have a direct line of God. Think of David, who is one of the central figures of the Old Testament, had the Spirit speak through him, and was a man after God’s own heart. Yet God sent another prophet, Nathan, to give him a message (2 Samuel 7). Even to the major prophets there doesn’t seem to be a regular back and forth conversation: Noah (5), Abraham (8), Isaac (2), Rebekah (1), Jacob (7). The reason you knows those names is that they were so noteworthy. That they heard from God. In fact in the Complete Red Letter Edition of the Bible has, “the direct spoken words of God are indicated in red on both the Old and New Testaments”. Like Jesus’ time on Earth, God’s interactions are numerable. God created everything, but God isn’t everything. He can be present in a specific place and time to have a large supernatural impact. How often that’s happened would be impossible to determine. It’s not obvious what is not seen or recorded in scripture (or since scripture), but there are definitely times of radio silence (1 Samuel 3). It’s also worth mentioning that although God definitely cares about the individual, his plans has always been for His people. When he gave a message to a follower, whether Old Testament or New, it was rarely if ever about personal issues that would only impact their lives.

Few people I have spoken to claim to hear the voice of God in the ways previously listed. Instead they have heard the voice of God stir inside them. Like the prophets, it’s an internal truth that they verbalize. This was in fact the primary means of communication God has used throughout the Bible all the way to and including his Son (Hebrews 1). If you count the Bible as God’s word then God has been pretty much using humans as his almost exclusive means of communication throughout history. For that reason, He doesn’t take the title of prophet lightly. If someone claims to speak for God and directs others those to disobey Him then they are obviously not a prophet from God and there is a death sentence (Deuteronomy 13). Another danger is one who predicts a future outcome, but that does not come true (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). God says they will be revealed to be true or false in time and if it turns out to be not from God he also puts out a warrant for their death. Even Jesus’ Apostles in the New Testament were specifically given the ability to do the supernatural and “confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it” (Mark 16:20).

The Conclusion

There was a time when I was concerned that a lot of people I knew were teetering on the edge of false prophecy. Claiming the voice of God where the evidence did not seem to support it. However, like is true in many prejudices, the more you get to know someone the better you understand the nuance of their perspective. I’ve come to much more benign conclusion. I actually don’t think many people claim this kind of experience with God. I think what they mean is that they feel led in a direction that doesn’t feel of their of their own mind. That’s great. I believe that. Say that. I experience that regularly. Just this morning I felt an external push to get up early to help my wife get the kids going. I’m confident the Spirit plays a role in this un-Harrison-like service, even if it’s just the lessons I’ve learned speaking to me from the past. And like David needing to hear from Samuel, it seems clear that sin can make this support from the Spirit more difficult. My concern is in placing an extra religious significance on personal decisions especially in placing these kinds of supernatural experiences above the day to day interaction with God’s word, His people, and His world. No one in the Bible ever says “I think God said this”. We live in the already Jesus, but not yet return of Jesus (Revelation 21:1). We won’t get the Garden of Eden back until the New Garden arrives. God has spoken to mankind and he has used mankind to speak for him. I’m also not discounting that he could speak today. After all, the kingdom is here (Matthew 3).

What I propose is to be more cautious with our vocabulary. I can think of few things more dangerous than claiming to speak for God. Simply say “I believe this or that”. Or say “I have the Holy Spirit and I believe this”. Let your yes be yes and your no be no, but don’t claim more than you have a right to (Matthew 5:37). The Holy Spirit does give you a taste of heaven, but it doesn’t give us the right to speak for heaven. I’m hesitant to even say the spirit is leading me, because that does happen, but it’s not for us to know exactly how and when (Ecclesiastes 11:5). And finally use scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17) or the by a group of Christians (Matthew 18:16) to back of claims.

I want to clear. I do not want anything here to close anyone off to the influence of God. I’m not sure I could even if I wanted to. My hope is the opposite. This study has helped me appreciate the times in my life where I did feel the leading of God (if only retroactively). The best decisions I’ve made thus far in my life (teaching career, marriage, improv, kids, etc) were made with the oversight and influence of the Almighty. God has never spoken to me directly, but I’m not opposed to the possibility that it will happen. However, I expect to be confident if I do hear it.

I should state the obvious. This post is not truth from the mouth of God. Speaking so decisively on this issue was very difficult for me as I want to be sure I am not overreaching. I’ve tried to use scripture as a source, but it’s always dangerous to go looking into the word of God to prove your own predetermined point. I’d point you to read 1 Kings 13. It’s a fairly unknown story about the dangers of misspeaking for God and how they can negatively impact even innocent bystanders. I hope to use all of this as a starting point for further conversation. I started this story with a reference to old church searches. Well, we are on the search again. To be clear, our moving on has nothing to do with this conversation. I’m certainly not convinced this difference in emphasis is one worth splitting over. In fact, the success of my house church proves that few things are. Our small house church has slowly changed geographically and we now live about a half an hour away from everyone. We are once again looking for a new church and I’m confident God will direct our steps (Proverbs 16:9).