"God said to me..."
I once worked with a woman who, several years ago, was single and dating men occasionally. She was interested in marrying one day as most people do. Another woman came up to her one day and said with such conviction: “I was having my devotional this morning and God told me that you should give up trying to marry because you’ll never get married. God wants you to stay single for the rest of your life.” How do you think the single woman felt after that?
In case you wondered, that single woman is no longer single. She’s been married for a few years now. So much for hearing the voice God during that woman’s devotional time!
I’m sure you would agree that it’s not uncommon to hear Christians say how “God spoke to them.” Have you said it before? I say it myself from time to time. Yet, if asked to defend that concept, would you explain exactly what it means? Is it really based on the Bible or a practice in the early Church? What prevents any person from saying any crazy thing and baptizing the message with a “God-told-me-it” stamp? Unfortunately, I bet you could think for a few seconds and list some cult leaders who have claimed to “hear from God.”
Throughout the church, there have been four major sources of receiving God’s direction, will, or knowledge: (1) Inspiration, (2) Miracles, (3) Other People, (4) Scripture. Let’s think about each one. (I’ve deliberately cut back on citing too many Scripture references to conserve space.)
Inspiration: This is one of the earliest and most predominate ways God communicates to humans. Boy, if only the Bible explained how this worked! However, when you read the Old Testament prophets, what seems clear enough is that God introduced thoughts into the minds of the prophets to speak. There is no reason to assume that Yahweh only speaks four languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or Latin (the languages used in the Bible). No. Yahweh seems to have used the prophets like a hand uses a glove. Exactly how much the prophets were “controlled” is unclear (e.g., 1 Sam 10:6; 2 Sam 23:2; Is 59:21; Ez 11:5).
We hear similar language in the New Testament concerning inspiration; except, in the New Testament, being enabled by the Spirit is related to the public proclamation of the gospel. Whenever a person publicly proclaimed the saving gospel of Jesus, it was called the “Word of God” or “God’s Word.” [Christians never referred to the Bible/Scripture as “God’s Word” since that was written. The “word of God” was spoken aloud. E.g., Lk 8:11; Acts 4:31; 6:7; et al.] When the gospel was spoken, early Christians believed that the Spirit was right in their midst, inspiring what they said and helping them stay faithful to what they had learned from Jesus (e.g., Jn 14:26; Acts 2:4; 4:31; 1 Cor 2:13; 14:6).
Hearing from God was a very big deal. It was special revelation. However, some “inspiration” was driven by evil (1 Tim 4:1). The message had to match with the apostolic teaching already passed down. This is why John told his congregation to “test the Spirits” to see if they’re true (1 Jn 4:1).
Miracles: This one’s easy enough to understand. This category would include any time an angel gives a message (e.g., Ex 3:2; Matt 1:20; Lk 1:19; 2:9; Rev 22:6), a person receives a vision (e.g., Gen 46:2; Jer 25:15; Ez 8:3; 2 Cor 12:2-4), or receives a dream to interpret (e.g., Gen 20:3; 28:11-15; Judges 7:13-14). These are quite rare in the Bible.
Other People: God speaks through other humans (e.g., Exod 7:16; Judges 13:6; Acts 9:17; 1 Cor 4:17; 2 Cor 1:4). And of course, we must remember that once God even spoke through a donkey (Numb 22:28).
Scripture: Once all of the narratives, prophecies, poems, psalms, and other genres were written down to comprise what we call the Old Testament, Jews and Christians used it to discern God’s direction in life. It was not uncommon early on to use specialists--we might say, "Bible scholars"--in understanding Scripture (e.g., 2 Chron. 17:9; Neh 8:7-8).
The same thing occurred with the composing of the New Testament: when the various Gospels, letters, poems, narratives, and other genres were collected, Christians used it to discern God’s direction in life. The entire Bible is a library: a collection of various types of literature used to teach us about God and His dealings with humans.
The early Church used the Bible as a guide. For example, Clement of Alexandria, an influential theologian (ca. 195), said, “To those who ask questions, there is given from the Scriptures the gift of the God-given knowledge.” Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage (ca. 250) said, “Be constant in both prayer and reading. Now speak with God; then let God speak with you. Let Him instruct you in His teachings, let Him direct you.”
So, there you have it. The four major sources for knowing what God wants in life: inspiration, miracles, other people, and Scripture.
So what? A few reflections.
First, throughout the history of the church, Scripture has been considered the primary means of understanding what God wants. And so it should be. God has revealed so much of who He is to us in Scripture that we should get very good at understanding how to read it and apply it well. Yet, in my experience, Christians aren’t good at this at all. Our churches are full of kindergarten-level Christians. If you’re a new convert, that’s certainly acceptable. That’s where you should be. Yet, most churches are full of people who have grown up in Church! The author of Hebrews shared the same frustration: he wanted to teach “solid foods” but they were limited to “milk” (Heb 5:11-14). On the other hand, far too many Christians think that “old so-and-so was such a strong Christian…she really knew her Bible facts.” Knowing Bible facts is good. Knowing how Bible facts should be used in Christian decision making is best. The devil knows the Bible; the devil doesn’t apply the Bible.
Second, in my experience, most Christians don’t receive instruction from Other People. I know of so many Christians who merely have superficial, acquaintance-level relationships with other Christians. How many people really know you? To whom do you confess your sins (James 5:16)? Who builds you up and who do you build up (1 Thess 5:11)? Instead of using one of God’s most vital and precious sources of guidance, too many Christians are nearly completely unconnected to other mature Christians. We get lost in a sea of smiling, well-dressed people who don’t really know each other, keep each other accountable, or know how to encourage.
Third, in my experience, so many Christians think God directs them (or they want God to direct them) by Inspiration the most, while they really beg for Miracles. That is, they expect to hear a special message from God, while they really want a special sign. I’ve heard it so many times: “Please send me a sign…” That’s a miracle. That’s asking God for a special revelation of Himself just to know what to do.
Is that bad? No, of course not. But here’s my concern: in our experience-driven age, where we typically seek an emotional experience with God, we seek after special things to evoke awe and wonder, rather than God’s instruction. That is, we chase an experience and not guidance. When’s the last time someone said to you, “I received a message from God! He said to sell my house and give the proceeds to the poor! Yeah!” Or, “I received a sign! Jesus told me to deny all of my ambitions, go confess my sins to those I’ve hurt, and seek out reconciliation. Yeah!” For some reason, when someone “hears from God” or receives a vision, it usually confirms a wish they’ve had. Not all the time, of course. But, I’ve seen this pattern all my life in the Church. And in so doing, their “god” becomes a cosmic Santa Claus, who just needs to be asked “for a blessing.”
I encourage you: think carefully for a moment. Where do you receive God’s instruction? I don’t mean where you think you ought to receive it. I mean, where, really, when you want God’s wisdom, do you receive it? Why there? If anything, what can you do to be more in line with what the Bible exemplifies?
Don’t give up. Don’t despair. Get to work in the grace of God and in the authentic relationships of other Christians, knowing that He’s waiting on you. It starts today.