Yesterday I was listening to the radio in my car and heard a woman caller inform the host that God had told her who to vote for in the election. She hadn’t been sure, and she had been inclined differently herself, but the good Lord told her to vote for Obama, and she trusted God above all, so that’s what she was going to do.
It should shock nobody that it only took a song and a commercial break for another caller to inform the host that she had heard from God as well, who had told her to vote for McCain. I would be willing to bet it was faster than that, in fact, and that she was on hold through that song and commercial! (It was a DJ exchanging views with listeners, not a talk show.)
Now neither of these women stated that they felt someone should regard them as “speaking for God” and commanding everyone to vote, though I suspect most would assume they thought they had found the right and godly think to do. On the other hand, I have received at least one e-mail telling me that someone had seen parts of God’s plan in vision and that McCain being president was part of it. For unknown reasons, the implication was that I should diligently go out and vote for McCain so that God’s plans would not be thwarted rather than that God could make sure his choice was elected. (God may have more than one vote, assuming he wants one. I’m not so sure.)
Now I would distinguish all of these incidents from the many advocacy e-mails I get from friends and from political lists in that it’s very different to say that you regard certain things as righteous, and that those correspond best with a particular candidate than it is to say that God specifically gave you the right name. It’s a favorite topic of mine. In fact, I wrote a book about it, When People Speak for God. (Potential readers of this blog be aware that about 1/3 of the 246 pages of text was adapted from here.) In that book I dedicated a chapter to dealing with the manipulative claim that God told you something.
Now I’m not trying to make fun of all people who hear from God. I will confess to believing that I hear from God as well. What concerns me is statements such as “God told me to tell you . . .” or the obvious implication. I have had people claim that what I told them came from God, i.e. that it was so on target for their situation that it must have.
There are three explanations I can think of. First, I might be exceedingly insightful. Second, I might actually be speaking for God without knowing it. Third, it might be random chance. I would vote for the third option. If I were actually to consider all lines of advice I have ever given, considering uncertain items, items that were just plain bad, items that were good but pretty obvious, and finally items that were unusually on target, I’m certain you would find it would be very dangerous to equate my words with God’s will. My own decision making, while perhaps not truly horrible, is certainly no example of what I hope God’s wisdom would reflect!
In ancient Israel, false prophecy was taken rather seriously. Deuteronomy 18:15-22 provides that the prophet who makes a false prediction should be put to death. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 suggests that even if he’s right, if his theology is too far (preaching rebellion against God), he must be put to death as well. My point here is not to present a theology of prophecy, but rather to point out that under those circumstances, it would be likely that far less people would want to proclaim something that they claimed God had said.
The Biblical prophets actually make a fairly small number of predictions, and only a small percentage of those are very specific and unconditional. Most are more like warnings. “If you do X God will do Y to you.” It’s interesting, however, that a key element of prophetic speech is rebuking and challenging the cultural mainstream of their time. For some reason we do not have the writings of prophets who preached that everything was going well all the time. Second Isaiah (40-55) is one of the most positive and there is still a good deal of rebuke.
I recall one pastor who, after hearing me discuss the nature of prophecy with a group of his parishioners, informed me that in their church they preferred “positive” and “encouraging” prophecy and were not so much into rebuke. But in the Bible one of the strong characteristics of the prophets is that they do not come to encourage us to stay as we are. They come to persuade us to change.
Since I have both claimed that there is a great deal of “speaking for God” that is clearly false (it’s unlikely both the callers on the radio show heard from God), what is the point of “hearing from God” in the first place?
Personally I find that those times I identify as hearing from God are ones that challenge the way I’m thinking and that provide the greatest insights. I have to sift them, because, as I said in my book and here on this blog, a telephone cord has two ends. There’s a speaker and a listener. I tendency when someone claims they heard from God is to focus on the word “God.” God is omniscient and won’t lie, though one should remember that he might send a strong delusion (2 Thessalonians 2:11). So what we hear must be true, right?
Hardly! Even if one admits, as I do, that God speaks, there is always the listener. I confess that my biases get into what I hear other people say. If I’m getting loose impressions of divine things, things I understand much less clearly that the topics of human conversation, how accurately will I understand and report those things? Thus hearing from God is a good way for me to push the envelope in my understanding, but everything must be tested.
This is also scriptural. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21ff to test everything, hold onto what is good and keep away from every kind of evil. This doesn’t tell us to go back to stoning prophets, but it does tell us to take consideration, testing, and discernment seriously. I think this passage is misread in many ways, or at least it would seem so based on actions.
- Test everything, keep what is good, but don’t say anything about what is bad.
- Test everything, hold onto what is culturally acceptable and discard the rest.
- Test everything, accept everything as generally valid because you don’t want to be arrogant and tell someone they’re wrong.
- Discard everything because it’s not possible they heard from God in any case.
- Test everything, keep what you like, discard what you don’t like.
Bottom line here, however, is to take responsibility for what you think and say, and also for what you hear, whether or not someone claims it comes from God. Try to find ways to find out if it’s true, moral, and useful (not moral or useful, the and is intentional).
I really don’t suggest we stone false prophets. I simply suggest we should be more careful invoking the name of God. Personally, I’m prepared not to do so, but rather to let others decide if something I say is of that profound a nature, and to live happily in that vast number of times when they are saying, “Not so much.”