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The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

A friend’s post on Facebook got me thinking about this verse:

I said to them, “If anyone has items made of gold, bring them. And they gave them to me, and I threw them in the fire, and out came this calf.”

(Exodus 32:24, my translation from the LXX)

I can’t help but think that Aaron is hoping that a claim of miraculous activity will somehow justify his action. Moses wasn’t buying it, as his actions show.

We laugh, but how often to we make Aaron’s appeal?

Appeal to Blessings and Curses

In fact, I think we do this from both directions. If someone is blessed, we often say they must be following God’s will because look at all the blessings! On the other hand, if someone is suffering hardship, we say, “They must be doing God’s work, otherwise the devil wouldn’t be after them that way!”

Depending on how we feel about the people, we might just reverse those things. “Look at how their worldly behavior is resulting in increased worldly good! Must not be very spiritual with all that money!” Or, “If you were truly doing God’s will, you wouldn’t be having all those hardships.”

The Bible story presents many examples that stand in opposition, no matter which of these options you take. In preparing for my Sunday School lesson tomorrow, I read Isaiah 53, which is one of background passages:

He was despised, rejected by humanity,
Beaten, experiencing disease.
We turned and looked away from him,
We despised him and accounted him nothing.

Isaiah 53:3 (my translation)

Whether you apply this to Israel as God’s servant, or to the remnant of exiled Israel whom God would restore, or to Jesus as the suffering servant, it still refers to someone who is suffering, even though they are in the process of carrying out God’s plan.

In Philippians (chapter 2 was the reading, but I refer back to chapter 1 as well), we find Paul in prison. He is suffering. There are those who proclaim the gospel in a way intended to give him pain. It’s possible these were people who thought their view and presentation of the gospel was superior to Paul’s, and were using his suffering as a basis for asserting that superiority. Surely God would free Paul if his teaching was so good!

Yet in the key reading for today’s lesson, we have the note that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or hung onto (Philippians 2:6), yet clearly it is not Paul’s intent to suggest Jesus, in giving up everything, was not following God’s plan.

The Case of Prophecy

In discussing prophecy, many make frequent reference to Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If a prophet makes a prediction and that word does not come true, God has not spoken. This test of a prophet is both simple and deadly.

Consider Jonah. He made a prediction, and that prediction did not come true. He was really annoyed, because he wanted Nineveh destroyed. I’m sure he was also annoyed, because now he was a false prophet.

Turn that around and think of the Ninevites. Suppose they have their version of Deuteronomy 18:21-22. They say, “Well, if he’s a true prophet, the city will be destroyed in 40 days and we can be certain.”

I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because by the time you’ve completed your test and made a determination, you’re likely dead. Not an optimum strategy, I would say. Of course, if you’re not dead, find that prophet and a pile of rocks.

Too bad for Jonah.

Another Example: 1 Kings 22

In 1 Kings 22 we have a lovely story in which Jehoshaphat of Judah, by all accounts a good king, is visiting the king of Israel. While there, they get the idea to go to war. Jehoshaphat, good king that he was, wanted to consult the LORD. The king of Israel gets 400 prophets who tell the two kings to do what they want to do.

Jehoshaphat is not satisfied and looks for one more prophet. Micaiah is brought in, and he prophesies something quite different. The day isn’t going to go well. (You can get out your Bible and read the details.)

So if you’re one of the two kings, how do you make a decision? If Micaiah is prophesying falsely, you can ignore him, but by the time you know that, you will also have lost the battle. Not so helpful!

The Other Test

Deuteronomy has another test, however, and it’s an important one.

If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 (NRSV)

In this case your test is one that can be done immediately. Is this person telling us to worship other gods? I wonder if that was not the reason Jehoshaphat doubted the word of the 400 prophets. Unfortunately, even though he was wise enough to ask for one more prophet, he was apparently unwilling to go with the advice of the prophet he requested.

The Case of Gifts

I’ve seen this used in connection with spiritual gifts. People look for a manifestation of miraculous gifts, sometimes a specific gift, or one off of a list Paul provides. But Paul is never intending to provide exhaustive lists of the spiritual gifts. That’s why his lists don’t match. He’s just giving us examples. In each case, he’s providing a different test, not one that appeals to miraculous (or at least obviously miraculous) activity.

In 1 Corinthians 12, we are given a view of the real test in verses 4-7, as the example list is introduced. There are varieties of gifts, but one Spirit, one Lord, one God. It is by looking at the One in whose service the gifts are used that we can discern their nature.

No Simple Answer

Scripture doesn’t provide us with a single, simple answer. It leaves us with the task of discernment. Are your troubles due to the devil trying to stop your carrying out of God’s work, or are they God closing doors? Is your wealth God’s blessing in response to your following God’s will, or is it the devil rewarding a servant?

You find this out through prayer, thinking, discernment, study, and good counsel. The result may be miraculous!

(Theme image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Hearing the Word: Testing the Claim

Hearing the Word: Testing the Claim

1893729389I’ve had a rather intense week and haven’t done any blogging, so as I use the extra hour I got as we switched to standard time, I’m going to talk about Sunday School.

Last week we discussed considerations of hearing. I’m going to include an extract below, with the subheading “Testing the Claim” from that chapter in my book When People Speak for God. But first, I’m going to include some additional comments.

One of the things that I hear from non-charismatic evangelicals about charismatics is that we tend to get blown about by the “winds” of the various “words from the Lord” that we receive, either directly or through other people. There is a certain validity to this criticism. It’s very easy to claim that God told you something, especially when God told you that someone else should do what you want them to do. It’s amazing how many sides God is on! So it’s important to remind charismatics (and I count myself as one) that we need to test everything. Not everything—in fact, I would suggest very little—of what people claim is coming from God actually does.

Evangelical Christians, however, have a similar problem with various wild interpretations of scripture. People are people, no matter how they claim to get their authority. So someone can claim to have found a new interpretation of scripture and make every bit as large of changes in the church as someone who claims to have heard from the Lord. This is what I emphasize in my book and in my class: Every claim of divine authority needs to be corporately and individually tested. It doesn’t matter if it’s an announcement that one has heard directly from God or a claim that one has found the one true meaning of a passage of scripture. Test it. In my book I say that the last person who must hear from God is you. None of these sources relieve you personally or your congregation corporately from the search for truth.

Liberals may be thinking that they are left out of this. (I frequently use charismatic-liberal-evangelical as a sort of triangle. Like any abbreviation it misses a lot, but it can be helpful.) I think the liberal tendency is to find new ideas by reason and then manipulate people by being the most reasonable person in the room.  I have nothing against reason. In fact, I call myself a liberal charismatic. I don’t use that label because I hate labels and want to be confusing, but because first, I believe that God is still speaking, as much as He ever spoke and I believe in testing, and testing involves reason. I think we seek God’s Word whenever we search for truth in whatever field. The physicist studying the laws of the universe using his or her mind and the best tools of science is studying God’s Word. So I’m liberal in the sense that while I believe God is speaking, I also believe that human reason is a way to discover truth and is always involved in testing claims. (I comment further on these labels here.)

So no matter where you start, test any claim to truth. Here’s the extract:

I will discuss how one tests such things in more detail later, but there are some key things to look at immediately. It is quite possible for a sincere person to use the claim that God has spoken manipulatively. One warning sign is when someone has argued for a particular course of action and consistently been losing the argument, and then suddenly receives a word from God that they were absolutely right all along, and that the only way the church can receive a blessing is if they will do as that person desires. But there are some other warning signs:

The proposed course of action violates ethical or moral
standards.

You might be amazed at how frequently this occurs, and how easy it is to rationalize immoral behavior when someone is forcefully claiming that God has ordered it. Some people have claimed that God sanctioned adultery for them on some basis. I know of cases in which someone decided that God had ordered them to spend their rent money on a mission trip, and not pay their rent. If done without the permission of their landlord, that is at least unethical, and should cause one to consider carefully whether God is speaking. Don’t be led into immoral or unethical actions by a voice.

✔ “God’s words” come to a person in the course of debate.

God’s command should generally be complete and straightforward, and shouldn’t require amendment. If “God” keeps coming up with new arguments over the course of the debate, just as an ordinary person would, think again.

✔ “God’s words” are presented in a divisive way, or introduce an element of divisiveness.

Make no mistake, God’s words through prophets do produce negative reactions in those who do not want to obey God. Where divisiveness comes into the discussion is something that also requires discernment and testing. We would not want to reject God’s word on the basis that it made the devil angry! “Words from the Lord” that involve gossip, criticism, a judgmental spirit,
or cruelty should be rejected.

✔ The person who presents God’s word reacts angrily to having that word tested by others.

When someone is sure that God has spoken and others reject that word, it is appropriate for them to be grieved at that event, but they should welcome discernment and sincere testing, and they should be prepared to live with differences of opinion.

✔ “God’s words” deny established scriptural standards.

Continuing revelation should not reverse what God has already said. The Bible has been tested and accepted by the church, so if you reverse major principles of scriptures, you are likely off track. This doesn’t mean that interpretations cannot be corrected, but soundly interpreted scripture should be upheld.

How does one respond to a claim to speak for God? It depends on the particular circumstances. If you are in a church where testing is regularly practiced, you already have a path to follow. Hopefully this will end either with acceptance of the word, or a gracious—and I emphasize gracious—rejection with explanation and correction provided to the person who made the claim in the first place. If you cannot graciously respond, even when you reject the word, you likely need to examine yourself. Outside of that atmosphere, when I am not sure that what someone has claimed as a word from God actually is such a word, I will often choose to say simply, “God is going to have to tell me that,” or “That is not what I hear.” If you are not in a congregational setting where there is a commonality of beliefs, responding appropriately to a false word is not so easy. (pp. 87-89, emphasis added)

I would note that regarding my comment on “denying established scriptural standards” I do not mean that the church cannot change. What I mean is that one person’s word from the Lord can’t turn everything on its head. Acts 15 provides a sort of model, I think, for this kind of change. Changing through corporate discernment may be a much longer process, but until it seems “good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28 NRSV) conversation needs to proceed.

Prophecy and All Believers

Prophecy and All Believers

We had an interesting discussion today in Sunday School. We were discussing the 3rd chapter of my book When People Speak for God,  titled Messengers – God and Prophet. The questions at hand were just what is prophecy, who are God’s messengers (with a side-order of how can you tell) and how does getting a message from God work.

I started by repeating an important point, I  believe, that prophecy in a biblical sense is not the same as prediction.  I do not deny prediction as a part of prophecy,  but thinking of prophecy as primarily about prediction will provide a distorted view of prophecy. Denying all prediction will distort one’s view as well.

Further, discernment is always a requirement. A key passage in considering discernment is 1 Kings 22. What lessons one might draw from that story might be quite interesting. But that discernment was needed is quite clear.

Combining the result of that story with  Jeremiah 42 & 43 and my own observations of life I think that we have a greater problem with doing what should be done after we know what it is, than ever we do with actually discerning what is right and wrong.  The most common question I hear (and ask,  for that matter) is “how do I know what God’s will is?” when the real question should be “how can I put into action what I already know is right?”

This led us to the question of naming prophets.  Who in the church today might be called a  prophet?

In the church I think we should be much less about who is in the office of prophet than was the case in Old Testament times,  and much more about all God’s people being prophets, perhaps a fulfillment of Moses’ wish: “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29).

I think that this goes well with the idea of the priesthhood of all believers. It is not about finding people to occupy an office of prophet, but rather to recognize this gift when it is received and exercised.