Overspiritualized Decision Making

Overspiritualized Decision Making

The question came to me after I had been talking about intercessory prayer and hearing God’s voice, but it came as a surprise.

“What should I do about sharing knowledge I get from God about other people? Can I tell other people so that we can pray more specifically?”

I had not been talking about getting information about people from words of knowledge or whatever other means one might think of doing so. Considering the number of people I have heard claim to get special knowledge from God, and the number of cases in which I have found this information to be incorrect, my first concern was that someone would consider an unverified thing they heard to be safe to share with anyone.

But the questioner had a different concern. Somehow, this person thought that if the information came from God, sharing it would not be gossip. The “spiritually acquired” information was somehow special, and would absolve one of gossip.

As an aside, I would say that whether you believe you got your information straight from God, picked it up by being a good reader of people, heard it from a gossip in your church, or put it together from clues that lead you to a conclusion, sharing it with someone else inappropriately is gossip.

I begin with this story to illustrate a basic problem. People give themselves a special category for spiritual things. They say things and do things in a “spiritual” context that they might never do in real life.

Whether you hurt someone through physical action or through some sort of spiritual activity, they are still hurt. In fact, by giving extra spiritual weight, such as by saying “God told me” or “this came to me during my prayer time” can increase the emotional damage that you can do.

I’d go so far as to say that I have heard this phrase many more times as spiritual manipulation than as genuine spiritual counsel and help.

Think about it! If you tell something that you think the church should undertake a particular project, they can easily object and discuss the merits of the case. If you say, “God told me we should do it,” they have to not only challenge your ideas, but call you a false prophet, speaking the word of the LORD when the LORD has not spoken. When you say you came to your conclusion in your prayer time, you can combine both elements, by giving yourself an extra spiritual aura and at the same time suggesting that your suggestion should be seen as coming from God.

Outside of the realm of decision making, and with people who will hear it as I intend it, I may say that I have heard this or that from God. I will note here, however, that what I hear from God invariably is about me, not anyone else. Actions I take based on that hearing may impact you, but I rarely hear something for someone else. The exception is often with prayer partners where we help one another confirm a course of action.

So how can one be sure that one knows the will of God? Surely I can suggest a way in which you can be certain and thus can act on what you hear from the Lord without further consideration.

No, I don’t. I do not have a checklist that will make certain. I find the tests in Deuteronomy very interesting. In Deuteronomy 18 we are told that if a prophet’s word is not fulfilled, their word is false. I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because by the time you know whether the prophet spoke truly, you’re dead. Try the story in 1 Kings 22 as an example.

But in Deuteronomy 13, we’re told that even if a prophet’s word comes true, if they tell us to worship other gods, we are to reject them as false. This is a live test, but it kind of leaves us with a serious question. How do you know what God is saying? How do you know God’s will?

Now let me detour to those who think they will get all answers from scripture, for example. Some of the craziest decisions I have ever heard of came from people who thought they were following scripture. They also didn’t know God’s will.

So is there a problem there with scripture?

Well, you can call it a problem, but it’s really a problem with everything. I am a human. I’m finite. I’m imperfect, subject to error. Whether I’m interpreting scripture, following tradition, doing my best scientific calculation, or listening to the voice of God (as I perceive it), I’m still imperfect.

Consider a laser measuring device. Suppose it is capable of measuring the distance to a point to 1/16″, such as this one I found on Amazon.com. Now supposing we have a readout that will only read measurements accurate to an inch. We cannot actually get the correct measurement of which the device is capable because we can’t actually read that result.

Similarly, while God is entirely accurate, I am not. I cannot make a 100% claim of correctness no matter what. Any 100% correctness would have to be accomplished by God, and then in turn, the message is likely to be misunderstood by the next person down the chain.

So does that leave us unable to make any decisions? Not at all! We live with ambiguity all the time. We make mistakes all the time. Just because you make a mistake in church doesn’t make it incredibly devastating.

Unless, that is, you try to make the claim that you are, in fact, a prophet who is without error. You can make your claims more destructive by the claim of perfection for yourself. A good approach is whether it’s just your opinion or whether it’s what you believe you heard from God, present it as yourself. That’s not arrogant. That allows for God speaking to the other person. A number of times I have said something which someone else says was precisely what they needed to hear, generally when I didn’t even have the slightest notion that I was giving someone God’s word. The hearer identified it as something they needed without my saying so.

Decision making involves lots of sources and finally your own reasoning.

Yes, Proverbs says to “lean not on your own insight” (Proverbs 3:5). But even your understanding of what God has said goes through your own mind. You’re eventually going to have to decide, and your mind will be involved in doing it. Hopefully, it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to you (cf. Acts 15:28), and so it is not purely your own understanding, but you are going to have to make the decision, no matter what input goes in.

Personally, I take everything in, test it as best I can, hold what is good, and make my decision (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22).

(Theme Image Credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

The Danger of Making Things Tougher

The Danger of Making Things Tougher

I don’t spend a great deal of time talking about it, but following my MA in Biblical and cognate languages, I took one quarter in a MA in Theoretical Linguistics program. I had a full ride fellowship with a stipend, but after one quarter I resigned the fellowship and headed for more interesting places and activities.

In my introduction to linguistics course, the midterm test was made up of a short set of essay questions. I believe we had to answer three of four, though I can’t remember precisely. One of them had to do with comparative linguistics—right up my alley! So I filled it with examples from multiple languages and just plain had fun. More fun, in fact, than I’d had in the class up to then.

I hadn’t realized that the professor would choose to read what he thought were the best answers to the questions to the entire class. He chose mine. I wasn’t embarrassed by my content, but the context was totally wrong. The university had a strong TESOL program, and the vast majority of the students were in that. They were not pursuing theoretical linguistics. As a general rule, they probably had at most a minor in one foreign language.

One student responded immediately afterward with a question: “How are we supposed to write something like that when we don’t know all those languages?”

Her question was absolutely valid. My particular skill set was not that relevant to them. One can be superior at TESOL without knowing, say, Ugaritic. By presenting something not relevant, the professor had actually done something to discourage other students. If they had to do that, well, they couldn’t.

It wasn’t because I was superior to them. It was because my skill set was different.

Now let’s make a completely bogus argument. Why not? People do it all the time. Here it is. Knowing more is better. If those students learned more languages, they would have more sources of examples. Why should they not be required to learn all those languages? They’re probably just too lazy.

A parallel argument might be made about my high school education. Why not require him to take more credits in science and math? Why not require Algebra II, Trigonometry, maybe some Calculus? After all, he will know more!

Well, in response. I’ll go ahead an be lazy. In fact, I’m a high school dropout. It wasn’t for the normal reasons. I was overseas and enjoying running around the country. But the thing is that I was able to succeed without all those credits, including not having the credits normally required in English. In fact, I have just 2.5 high school credits, and one of those is in typing.

Yet we make this kind of argument all the time. For the things I find easy, it’s also easy to suggest that others should have to fulfill those requirements. Why not? It’s good knowledge and they might need it. I recall the surprise of some people trying to develop a two year ministry program when I suggested that requiring Greek was not a good idea. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that in a two year program you can’t learn enough Greek to be that useful unless you steal time from other necessary activities.

But let’s look at the church. We often operate on the same basis. Why not suggest people do it? Why not make the standard higher? We even talk this way in churches that hardly have any standards at all, because as members we want some.

Whether it’s modest dress, giving, mission work, church activities, or other moral issues in our lives, the solution is generally to suggest doing more. And yes, again, I realize that we rarely enforce those standards, but that makes it even worse. We push people to higher performance and assume they won’t make it, but we figure if we just push a bit harder—you’re giving one percent, how about two?—we’ll get a bit more out of people. When they don’t live up to the implied standard, well, we tried!

And they may have tried and failed, and added to whatever else they may have been dealing with, they now feel that they are not living up to what their pastor, Sunday School teacher, small group leader, deacon, elder, or generally picky person round the church expects of them.

It’s like telling (or rather, implying that) those people who were learning how to teach English to speakers of other languages ought to get down to it and learn a few more languages like the theoretical linguist down the row. (Or rather, the guy who had learned a number of ancient languages. I never did get a degree in linguistics!) It won’t help them do their job, but one can hope it will make them feel smarter.

Actually it won’t. Setting up higher standards doesn’t help one to fulfill those standards, whether or not they’re relevant.

But there’s another problem in church. When we require those “higher” standards, we also imply that the standards are what church is about, and we can suggest that other people, those who don’t accomplish those standards are not good enough.

I think this is a good part of what Paul is talking about in Romans 12-14, especially 14. It’s possible to read Paul’s toleration as an acceptance of just anything. I think Paul’s focus is on the message of the gospel. He’s giving up disagreements and minor points of behavior in favor of the message of the gospel.

I’m not going to do this verse by verse, but try reading those three chapters with this in mind. No, that’s not the only theme, but I think it is uppermost in Paul’s mind. How are we going to witness best to the message of the gospel? So then, “Don’t destroy God’s work over food” (Romans 14:20) the point is to put one’s focus back on the gospel. Forcing one’s detailed rules doesn’t make people better. It detracts from the gospel.

Being stricter, always trying to be better, will not necessarily make you better. It is often, instead, the road to more complete failure.

(Please check out the article FROM DOBE TO BEDO by Pat Badstibner on Energion Direct’s From Our Authors.

Generations!

Generations!

My theme text for ministry is Psalm 78:1-8, particularly verses 5 & 6 which talk about passing the message down through generations.

Some see this as a simple passing on of the data of faith, but the passage is talking about relating the experience of the community with God from generation to generation. In other words, the teaching here would be less focused on “here is what I believe” and more on “here is what has happened in my life.” Yes, the focus is on that life with God, but it is still on the action rather than the framework.

It’s the “generation” idea that I have in mind here. On Thursday night (May 2, 2019) I had the privilege of watching my wife, retired RN, pin my daughter, graduating nurse. “Pinning” is a tradition amongst nurses, and that pinning ceremony is to them much more the moment of becoming a nurse than is the more academic commencement. I commented to Jody after the commencement that while Friday morning was my world, Thursday night had been hers.

Watching mother pin her daughter brought to my mind generations. I sensed the presence of my mother, who died last year just short of her 100th birthday. She too was an RN. And then I thought about another generation.

Martha Giles Blabey was my grandmother, and for some time at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, she was district nurse. She wasn’t educated as a nurse, but she had the skills, and was officially named to the post. I don’t know if there were any actual RNs around that area (Daughin, Manitoba, Canada) at the time. Certainly there can’t have been many.

That makes my daughter, Janet Lister, the fourth generation.

It’s not just four generations of a job, a profession, or even an avocation. It’s four generations of service. Four generations of people who have carried their faith, their experience of God, their integrity, their skills, and all the benefits of an education in their art and the science that lies behind it to those who need their help.

It’s a legacy.

There are those who might have a couple of objections.

The first is that my mother, a Seventh-day Adventist, believed in soul sleep. Her Adventist colleagues might be wondering how I might think of “feeling her presence” at an event.

I have come to see the soul sleep vs immortality argument as a distinction without a difference. You go from the finite from the infinite, from time to eternity, and what does the “when” of your death mean on the other side? In eternity, I suspect, our time distinctions won’t matter.

Others might comment on the presence of someone who has gone on to glory here. Protestants don’t like the idea of the “saints” praying with or for us. Why can’t we just pray to God ourselves?

Indeed we can. But I got an explanation from a member of the Episcopal church that has stuck with me. He asked me whether we wouldn’t ask other members of our church to pray for us and to pray with us. If so, why limit it? Why not all the church in all times?

While I continue to object (I think justly) to the making of “saints” or particular people—all God’s people are saints—I don’t object to inviting the body of Christ throughout time to join in prayer.

Second, one might note that Janet is my stepdaughter, and thus not genetically related to my mother or grandmother. I find that objection annoying. I regard generations as both spiritual and physical. I do understand DNA, but that’s not all that’s involved.

I think a few people might be confused listening to an extended conversation in which both Janet and I are involved. She calls me dad, and references me as “my dad” in the conversation. She can suddenly, however, reference “my dad” in reference to her birth dad who passed away.

I like this. I see my daughter as a gift passed on to me. I see other people as spiritual children and spiritual parents. None of this detracts from Janet’s birth dad. None of my own spiritual parents detract from my real parents.

DNA says a great deal scientifically, but there is a spiritual, intellectual, and emotional process that also forms us and through which we form others. There are things we can pass on to others that are much more important than our genes.

A couple of years ago I heard about a church that did multi-generational confirmation classes. Their goal was to include people from three physical generations and three spiritual generations in each group. This might be a child, parent, and grandparent and the person who first invited one to church, or who taught one confirmation, and the person who taught that person.

I like that idea.

There’s also the legacy here of each class of a profession, in this case nursing, passing on to the next generation of practitioners a standard of care, practice, and integrity. This is the generational glue that makes a profession more than just a way in which one makes money.

In this the faculty and staff of Carolinas College of Health Sciences, those nurses who have cared for and advised each new nurse, all become part of this generational connection.

It’s something we need to celebrate, nurture, and preserve in all our activities, whether we designate them as secular or spiritual.

Authorship of (Pauline) Epistles

Authorship of (Pauline) Epistles

Evangelical Textual Criticism has a post with the following graphic:

Data collected by Paul Foster at the 2011 British New Testament Conference
(Hat Tip to Peter Gurry on Facebook)

While I imagine there might be minor variations in a survey of American scholars, I think the results would be similar.

It’s always fun to see the numbers on Hebrews, since I would describe myself as uncertain (with the nine and not the 100), but also publish the book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul by David Alan Black, which argues forcefully for Pauline authorship.

I remain unconvinced of Pauline authorship, but Dave did more to move the needle for me than anyone, and I believe he argues his case in exemplary fashion, which is why I published the book.

Signs and Guidance

Signs and Guidance

Last night in our Tuesday night group we discussed signs and guidance. How does one get and follow the right guidance from God?

We were reading the Matthew 2:1-12, and following my gospel parallels, I suggested a parallel reading of Luke 2:8-20, which we did. You have various signs, a report of scriptural interpretation, dreams, and angels between the two stories. There are some remarkable parallels of content, along with some substantial differences, fitted to the message of each gospel writer.

But being a person who likes to set off discussion I asked about our individual ability to hear from God. How would we feel about the various means of receiving a message from God? How would we discern whether a message really was from God.

Pretty much everyone had experienced the twin claims about hardships. On the one hand people will claim that you’re obviously getting close to something big, and the devil is trying to prevent you from getting there. On the other, there are those who would say that if you’re on the right path, things will be easy, so you should correct course.

The same sign seems to mean two different things.

We mentioned some responses at the time to the fire at Notre Dame cathedral. Any lover of art and architecture can hardly help but be saddened by that fire. Yet it immediately has become a “sign” for many things.

At Energion, we’re releasing a book titled Ditch the Building on May 17. It’s available for pre-order now. It’s definitely not connected. But in some people’s minds, it could be. The fire has been seen as a sign of the times, of disasters to come for our planet. It’s been seen as a sort of judgment on dead religion. My Facebook feed is littered with lessons being learned with varying degrees of actual connection. Well, really very little connection.

As I said in my book When People Speak for God, the last person who has to hear from God is you.

No matter whether you are listening to a new idea, a message someone claims to have received directly from God, or the interpretation of a passage of scripture, your individual mind, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is the final filter to separate sense from nonsense. The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you. Even the firmest believer in the detailed accuracy of the text of scripture will realize that many interpretations of that scripture are nonsense.

… This is the other end of the telephone cord. Inspiration is not just about God. It is about how God communicates with human beings. Thus it is not just about God’s perfection; it is also about humanity’s imperfection. It is not just about God’s infinite perspective; it is also about humanity’s finite capacity to understand.

The human mind is probably the most neglected part of God’s creation….

Henry Neufeld, When People Speak for God, 4.
What Is the Most Frightening Verse?

What Is the Most Frightening Verse?

Pete Enns writes about what he believes is the most frightening verse in the Bible. His post is well worth reading. His verse should be frightening.

He cites 1 John 4:7-8:

Loved ones, let’s love one another, for love is from God. Everyone who loves has been born from God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

1 John 4:7-8 (my translation)

People often deride “love preachers,” because the message of love is regarded as weak. And there are love preachers whose love is actually weak. But divine love is a very difficult topic, because divine love leads to giving of oneself for others. If that’s easy, you’re probably not doing it right.

Here’s the hard part for me: Loving the person who doesn’t seem to believe in love.

  • The religious person
  • The judgmental person
  • The hateful person
  • The purposefully ignorant person
  • The shallow person
  • The person who thinks my love preaching is weak!

In preaching that we need to love people who are addicted to some substance, or are homeless, are poor, or in some way different (faith, race, nationality, sexuality, etc) it is easy to break into condemnation of those who don’t agree and will not join me in loving my people list.

The people I list need our love as much as, or more than, the others. We do not expect condemnation to help people who are struggling with addiction, for example. Indeed, I don’t believe condemnation helps at all. I have to remember my many imperfections and realize that I also am not helped by condemnation.

The challenge, I think, is to love those who hate, to treat respectfully those who are disrespectful. As Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” I suspect it might be a good strategy.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org)

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

A few years ago I heard a story about a Methodist District Superintendent who was visiting a church in his district. The church was conducting an afternoon training event. At the height of this event, the superintendent asks the pastor of the church how many people he thought were in attendance. The pastor looked around and replied, “About 400.” The superintendent said, “Oh, how many does this sanctuary seat?” “250,” responded the pastor, unperturbed.

It makes a great joke, backing up the phrase “clergy estimate,” but it also illustrates a problem that we have with the church. We have a fixation on numbers, and we’re often not quite sure what numbers we’re fixated on. We’re reasonably sure, however, that these numbers are supposed to be large.

Thus the clergy estimate. Let’s make it look like we’re doing well, because the appearance of doing well is all-important. What gets lost in the discussion and the paperwork is just what those numbers mean.

I wrote a post about the characteristics of a living church back in 2006, and I don’t see any reason to change anything I wrote then. What I’m looking at here is our tendency to measure. The health of a living church that I noted back then is not that easy to measure.

So perhaps I prefer a small church? Smaller churches have certain opportunities for community and for ministry that larger churches might not. Smaller churches are sometimes perceived as more faithful, more orthodox in their Christian beliefs.

No, not really. My problem is with our measurements of success. I won’t link to the site, but today I saw posts for ebooks that would tell you how to reach the visitors who come to your Easter service and get them to come back to church.

Inadequately impressed by the resurrection? There’s a program for that!

The same site offers to provide you insight into strategic hires to help grow your church. If you follow the directions and hire the right people, your church will grow. You can sell your church service just like laundry soap or hamburgers.

There are those who will say I’m being unfair. Good business practices are good for a church. Yes, good business practices in finance and management are important for an organization. But is a well-oiled, well-running, constantly expanding machine a sign of a spiritually healthy church?

I’m going to suggest that basing our thinking on numbers is just wrong. I hear this often in comparing various movements in Christianity. We’re losing members because of too liberal, too conservative, or just too dry of theological positions. We’re gaining members because we’re preaching “truth,” however that is defined by the speaker.

Challenge one of these claims by pointing to increasing numbers in groups not on the approved group list (an amorphous thing that changes with the individual), and you’ll hear the counter that Christians shouldn’t follow the crowd, that numbers don’t mean everything, and the way to destruction is wide and straight!

It’s very like my theme picture. We’re measuring things with the wrong tool, in the wrong units. We don’t know where we’re going, but if lots of us get there, we think it’s (probably) a good thing.

The question is this: Are we growing in grace? Are we a healthy community?

Or perhaps more precisely, are we a community at all?

Once we’ve taken that step, we can ask the next question. But once we’re functioning as a real community, we might not really need to ask the question at all. We’ll be too busy being a healthy church to take time to measure the health.

Accuracy of Predictions

Accuracy of Predictions

There’s very little checking done of the accuracy of the prediction of pundits, which is a major reason I avoid even hearing what they have to say.

One exception to this rule is Nate Silver and his crew at FiveThirtyEight.com. They’ve just published an analysis of as many of their predictions as possible. It’s worth reading, just for the demonstration of doing an analysis in the first place.

I suspect most readers/viewers of the news find probability hard to understand, and pundits generally don’t do that. People generally don’t want to hear probabilities; they’d prefer certainty. I have not done one, but I suspect a survey would show that people prefer a certain answer to an accurate-but-uncertain one.

So I like the headline: When We Say 70 Percent, It Really Means 70 Percent. Well, actually 71%. The things they gave a probability of 70% to happened 71% of the time. Not all percentages matched that accuracy, but it’s overall quite good.

More importantly, it tends to demonstrate the nature of prediction and the value of having evaluations. This makes me tend away from TV and radio as news sources and toward written sources in which I can check the sources. And, of course, toward written articles that actually cite sources.

Note: Check my source for this article!