In my book When People Speak for God, I discuss testing messages that people claim are from God. There is a passage in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 that is commonly used in connection with this. In that passage the message is tested by whether the word from God comes to pass. There are some interesting questions this leaves, such as the fact that you don’t know the validity of the word before the predicted event.
But there’s another passage, often ignored, that I think is more critical. It comes from Deuteronomy 13.
Should a prophet or a pedlar of dreams appear among you and offer you a sign or a portent, 2 and call on you to go after other gods whom you have not known and to worship them, even if the sign or portent should come true 3 do not heed the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to discover whether you love him with all your heart and soul. 4 It is the Lord your God you must follow and him you must fear; you must keep his commandments and obey him, serve him and hold fast to him.Deuteronomy 13:1-4 (Revised English Bible)
Now there are those who may think this is about the election. It’s not. Depending on one’s attitude, it might apply, but I’m interested in those everyday questions that we have about whether something that is proclaimed as God’s will is actually from God
My less charismatic friends sometimes think they can avoid this question because they don’t believe in modern prophecy. I disagree. Whether one claims to hear directly from the Holy Spirit or one applies scripture to a particular situation, one is proclaiming something as God’s Word and the message should be tested.
In fact, we are much more likely, I believe, to be led astray by proclamation of scripture than by a claim of a direct word from God. The claim that something is “just what the Bible says” is both intimdating and properly open to question. More people are likely to believe “just what the Bible says” than are likely to accept the word of someone who claims to speak directly for God. But the interpretation of scripture can fall as far from God’s will as something pulled from thin air.
I suggest very strongly that those of us who teach from scripture, and make claims about the meaning of passages, should take responsibility for our interpretations and invite study and testing.
For me, Deuteronomy 13 is the most critical passage. What does it mean to call for someone to worship other gods? I like to use language that I have derived from Paul Tillich. (Note that I may be using some of his language in a slightly different way than he does.) He describes idolatry as making our ultimate concern something that is not ultimate. I think this goes along well with the message of the Torah on worship of God.
Worship is a process of placing our trust in and our dependence on the one worshiped. In the ancient near east, one might worship multiple gods, offering sacrifices to different ones at different times for different reasons. Israel was called to place all of their trust in all circumstances on God. Jesus proclaims something very similar in the Sermon on the Mount when he calls on us to not even take thought for tomorrow.
It’s easy to proclaim this for broad movements, such as we should not put our ultimate trust or ultimate concern in a political figure. Most of us don’t think we do. At least we don’t realize it, so we can point to people on the other side, whichever that is, and suggest they are the ones who are putting their ultimate trust in something other than God.
This isn’t necessarily about a particular candidate. We can easily make the political system itself our ultimate concern, and be limited to the things that the political system can accomplish.
Do you see the detour in the last two paragraphs? I’m talking about big, generic movments. I don’t think I said anything wrong. But I will not personally be primarily tempted by political activities in my life.
Let’s get personal.
Tomorrow I will go to my office and work. I believe I’m doing what God wants me to do. If I do, indeed believe that I am doing what God wants me to do, what is my proclamation going about my ultimate concern?
If I head forth under my own limited strength, placing my trust in myself to accomplish all of my goals, I am guilty of the wrong ultimate concern. My proclamation of God’s will in this instance fails the Deuteronomy 13 test. This doesn’t mean I don’t do my work. This is not about activity, but about trust. It’s about what is most important.
Whether I make plans for myself, for my family, for my business, or for my church, in all cases if I claim to follow God’s will, but call for trust in something else, I am guilty of this idolatry. This applies whether my trust is in a person, an organization (such as my conference or denomination), or a well-planned program.
I don’t know about you, but I often get this in reverse. When something is done and I receive congratulations on it, I say it’s all about God. But when tension is building as I do the task, I constantly forget that. I forget that whatever happens, I am in God’s hands. By my actions I can ask people to worship other gods, gods of arrogance and self-sufficiency.
Remember this: When we place our ultimate concern in something that is not ultimate, our potential is limited by the size and scope of the not-ultimate thing that we have made ultimate.