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).
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.
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.
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)
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.
Tacky title, eh? I don’t apologize. I had fun constructing it.
The other day someone asked me whether there were any scriptures I liked to go to when I was having problems. I gave the answer immediately and then explained, but I’m going to do the opposite here. I’m going to explain and then tell you the most helpful passage of scripture for me when life varies from irritating to frightening.
Well, I lied. I’ll give you part of the answer. There aren’t any “nice” passages of scripture that I use to give me comfort. In fact, when people quote those at me, I get annoyed. I already know them. If they were going to help me, they would have already.
What good does it do me to be reminded that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Send some of those annoying animals to market and pass the money on to me!
What good does it do me to be reminded that God heals all my diseases when I have a headache and stuffy head and can’t concentrate on my work? Heal my disease, and do it now!
Besides, it’s likely I can give you sound exegetical arguments for why those passages don’t apply to my situation.
It isn’t that I don’t believe in prayer, or God’s healing, or God’s provision. I can cite plenty of examples.
My father was healed in a manner I regard as miraculous. One day in 1971 he was told he would never work again, and would be dead in 10 years. Two weeks later, after he called for the elders of the church and they anointed him with oil and prayer, he was back at work, and was the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital, on call 24/7 for a year. He lived another 35+ years.
Then there was the time when a friend of his had a heart attack. Despite his prayers and his best efforts as a physician, he was unable to revive and stabilize the man. It was the longest and hardest he had ever worked on anyone. He didn’t want to give in. But the man still died.
A friend asked me to pray with him for $1500 to pay his mortgage so he wouldn’t lose his house. I did so gladly. The next day $1500 arrived in his mailbox.
My thoughts? Where is my rent money for my mobile home? I’m honestly not resentful that people have bigger houses. (I do sin through jealousy and resentment about other things, but I like my mobile home.) But I was having a hard time coming up with the rent at the same time as, apparently in answer to my prayer, my friend got his mortgage payment.
I was asked to go on a mission trip to do some teaching. I’d just gotten back from a month overseas, and had nothing with which to pay for a trip. I flippantly said, well, the Lord has to provide, because I’m tapped out, but I’ll go of God provides. Within the week the trip was paid for. As I was preparing to leave I found that I had no spending money. I figured I’d survive. God had, after all, provided the cost of the trip. A friend drove up in my driveway and said, “You’re going to need some spending money on your trip.” He handed me two $100 bills.
No, no negative “balance” story this time.
Sometimes I’m just whining and crying, but sometimes God doesn’t make it easy. God doesn’t intend to. What I never appreciate is a platitude I memorized a long time ago.
Yes, a passage of scripture can be a platitude under the right set of circumstances.
In scripture, one can balance great promises of good things with times of trouble, times that are ordained by God. We do ourselves and everyone else a disservice by reading the nice stuff and skipping over the bad.
In Sunday school, we hear the story of Peter being freed from prison (Acts 12:3ff). We rarely mention that this comes right after James is beheaded (Acts 12:1-2). We like Samuel and Kings and the message that if we do what is right, God will bless, but we’re less happy with Job, in which a person identified as righteous suffers substantially. Or we have Ecclesiastes 9:11 which seems to tell us that our efforts don’t matter, and instead of proposing an alternative of God’s will, says “time and chance happens to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
In fact, to some extent we are promised trouble, particularly persecution. Perhaps when life is going too well we should ask ourselves whether we are doing what we should!
The problem is one I’ve observed regarding Hallmark movies. The boy doesn’t always get the girl (or the girl the boy), your parents don’t always reconcile at the last minute, your business isn’t always rescued from bankruptcy by a helpful crusader, and no, your child doesn’t always get better. It’s nice to have a movie that says so, but it’s not always our experience.
I remember standing at Disney and listening to them singing about wishes coming true. I was standing there crying while everyone laughed, because I knew that my wish was not coming true. I was fighting that knowledge, but it was still there. My son was not going to be staying with us; he’d be going on to glory. I hated that song in that moment.
In our dealings with others, we need to be prepared to recognize the nature of life and not to say or to imply that God will always solve every problem immediately and according to our preferences.
So what do I find is the most encouraging passage?
Yes, that one.
You see, I know that I’m darkening counsel by words without knowledge. I know that I’m pretty ignorant. I know that God knows much more.
But what it also tells me is that while I’m thinking I’m alone, while I’m thinking there is nothing left, God is there. God doesn’t promise that you will not have troubles, but God does promise to be there. I can get that.
God’s promises are quite valuable, but like everything else they need to be taken in context—in the context of life, in the context of the passage of scripture, and in the context of the overall story.
I have two friends who suffer from health issues that many of us would consider overwhelming. Both of them, to the contrary, see God working through their situation. Their prayer is not for healing, but for God to use them in the situation they’re in. I would imagine they would be happy if God decided to heal them at some point, but that is not their focus in life.
They have the promise that God will be with them no matter what the problem.
That is a message I can truly appreciate and appropriate.
(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)
Isaiah 40:22 speaks of God sitting on the circle of the earth and the inhabitants are as grasshoppers.
There is an interesting twist on idolatry that I think happens very frequently, and it makes a problem for people in understanding and accepting the doctrine that we, as humans, cannot do good of ourselves.
Normally we think of idolatry as setting something other than God up for worship. We sometimes don’t think of the way that we can do this to people. Many of the problems of Christianity today stem from Christian leaders who have been placed on a pedestal from which they were certain to fall.
There are also those leaders who expect to be seen on a pedestal. They believe in the doctrine of total depravity, i.e., the total depravity of other people. While they might affirm it of themselves, they really believe they are above the swarming hoard.
In their own eyes they are not, to quote Isaiah, grasshoppers. But from God’s perspective, they are.
God’s view equalizes us and puts us in our place. We are not independently powerful beings. We are not God, or somehow God’s rivals. Yet God loves us. But when this is used as a weapon to put people down, when it is spoken from above, down to lesser mortals, it is a sure sign that the speaker is setting him or herself up as an idol.
When you see that, don’t bow down.
Beware grasshoppers seated pretentiously above the earth!
The quote above comes from chapter 1 of S. J. Hill’s book, What’s God Really Like?, and I’d like to spend some time with this, looking at it from different angles. The first angle is one of worship.
I was in a church committee meeting some years back where a room full of people were discussing young people and the worship service of the church. The question under consideration was why young people weren’t attending our worship services.
After about 45 minutes of (fruitless, in my opinion) discussion, I asked the question: Might we instead discuss whether we can think of any reasons why the young people would attend our worship service?
I, and every other person in that meeting, attend church out of ingrained habit. We have done it for years, it’s what we do, and come Sunday morning, come hell, high water, or several feet of snow, we’re going to find a church service and attend it.
I don’t mean that that’s the only reason I go to church, but it is something I tend to do. If I don’t like one worship service, I’m going to attend another.
But many people, oddly enough (!), require a reason to get up on Sunday morning and go to church. They want to accomplish something.
At this point some of my friends start talking about “dumbing down” the worship service, or want something “relevant.” The tone indicates that “relevant” is some sort of weak effort to replace “real worship” which will involve actual pain and require grit and determination.
“I barely stayed awake through that service,” says the parishioner, looking and sounding holy. Going through a boring worship service is a test of our commitment to God.
Well, perhaps not.
As I read passages like 1 Corinthians 14, I see the word “edify,” which is just a churchy sounding word for “build up” or something similar. The worship services at Corinth sound a bit chaotic, and, well, interesting. Paul encouraged them toward order, but in the end, if you apply all his rules, you still have something very different from what we do today.
Our problem with 1 Corinthians 14 is that we try to apply the solution without having the same problem. We put a straight-jacket on a corpse. The corpse, in case you missed it, is our time of worship.
Now a morbid, boring, and unattractive Christianity is not just about the worship service, but I think we might start there. You see, I think all those complaints about young people wanting relevant service are just whining. Whining because the young people don’t like what we did all our lives.
But if you look at the state of Christianity in America today, I think you’ll see evidence that was we did all our lives—and I’m talking to my generation (I’m 61)—hasn’t worked all that well. Perhaps we need worship that is actually relevant.
Relevant in several ways:
- In expressing our relationship with God. (Subtext here — we might need to have a relationship with God and not just a set of theological reflections.)
- In preparing us for actual service. (We tend to use the word “ministry” a lot. I think that allows us to separate ourselves from the word. How about “every member serving others” instead of “every member in ministry”?
- In help us to build our relationship to God.
- In helping us learn to relate to one another. (Hint: sitting in pews listening to a preacher, then heading out to beat the Baptists [or whoever] to lunch doesn’t build your relationships with other people.)
- In encouraging us in our lives as they are in this world.
- In helping us realize that “worship” doesn’t occur in a “service,” nor does it follow an “order of service,” but is a lifestyle. In fact, it is our lives (Romans 12:1-2).
- In helping us learn new and useful things.
Is that what happens when you go to church?
This just barely touches on this question. I’d like to discuss it some more. S. J. Hill is definitely right about one thing: The way we think about God is going to impact everything. If we think of God as interesting, involved, and yes, cool, we will thing that interesting and exciting things are part of worshiping God. If we think God is vindictive, we’re going to look for the right set of rituals to appease him.
If we’ve really forgotten, as I think many of us have, to think about God seriously (serious and joyful are not contradictory!) at all, that’s also going to impact the way we worship.
If God showed up on Sunday morning, would God enjoy what was going on?