Sunday, January 8, 2012

Did God Really Tell You So?

Late one afternoon, a few months ago, an apparently well-heeled young woman showed up at my church. She was neatly dressed, drove a nice car, and spoke with authority and confidence. I didn’t know her. She told me that while driving west along Highway 2, God told her to stop at our church because God told her we would provide a place for her to stay for the evening.

This presented me with a theological problem. You see I don’t believe that God speaks to people about where to spend the night. So, after making sure she wasn’t in trouble, I told her so. She wasn’t pleased. I offered to connect with the Salvation Army, which has provision for emergency shelter. She refused, but asked if she could use my phone to call another church. I wonder if she also told them that God had informed her that they would provide her lodging?

Does God tell you things? Put things on your heart? Give you dreams? Maybe, for example, God is telling you that it is time to change jobs or vote for the Conservatives. Or stop cheating on your wife? Or get a divorce?

I hear people say these sorts of things all the time. It is as if some people think they have their own personal pipeline to God . . . like this year’s group of Republicans running for President of the USA. One of the best tweets of 2011 came from comedian Kelly Oxford. She tweeted, “Cain, Perry, Bachmann all claimed God told them to run for president and all are out of the race. God is hilarious.” According to Rick Santorum’s wife, God also told him to run. She may even be right, because he still has an outside chance. But surely, they can’t all be right. Ironically, the candidate most likely to win is Mitt Romney, who most Evangelicals claim isn’t even a Christian, because of his Mormon faith. I wonder what God is telling him?

I’d be impressed with such claims except, as I’ve said, I just don’t believe them. Never have. Why not? Well, for starters, if there is one thing all pastors learn sooner rather than later, it is that the human heart—and mind—is deceitful above all things. And so we all have a tendency, when we believe in God, to want to believe that just about any intuition or hope or dream we have is from God.

Of course, this approach to faith is very dangerous because it adds up to giving our intuitions, hopes and dreams divine authority. When someone says, “God put it on my heart,” who is going to argue? Until, of course, the hollowness of such claims is too obvious to ignore, as when five or six Republicans all claim that God told them to run for president.

I recently read Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking Fast and Slow. In it, he describes ten or twenty ways in which the human brain easily believes things it shouldn’t, makes up “just so,” stories to confirm its biases, and often makes quick intuitive judgments based on far too little evidence. To make matters worse, the slower, rational, deeply informed part of the brain that is supposed to keep odd beliefs and intutions in line is usually far too slow and lazy to do so. So people will say, “God told me so” and believe it long before the more thoughtful part of the brain ever has a chance to ask, “really?”

Is there an alternative to believing that you have a direct line to God when it comes to decisions, hopes, and dreams? Sure—though this is a more difficult—and truer—path. Use the values that God’s Word in scripture (as opposed to a private pipeline) are all about, values such as love, justice, mercy, and humility, to guide your decision making. And then use your brain to weigh the decision, thoughtfully and carefully. Because that is exactly what God gave us brains, rather than pipelines, for.


  1. John, I will be honest in telling you, this post made me quite cranky so I'm praying you'll be open and gracious, even though I'm starting off with that attitude.

    I've rediscovered "listening" prayer in the last several years, and it has been one of the most profound changes in my relationship with God, growing closer to Him. One of the "side effects" has been a hunger for His logos Word. but also an increased sensitivity, a better understanding of His "rhema" Word, as well as a number of other "benefits".

    I don't know where you are in your walk, I saw the title of your book sometime at the end of last year, and it raised a significant red flag. I don't want to make assumptions about your faith, so maybe I'll watch your interviews and see what the Holy Spirit "tells me" =)

    oh, that the ears and eyes of our hearts (as well as our brains) would be open to know Him more

    and can our hearts never be renewed, ie new hearts of flesh (Ez. 36:26), are we not given new hearts that we are to guard as the well spring of life? I'm sorry, but this also makes me cranky when spiritual leaders pull out this verse and ignore all the others about our new hearts in Christ Jesus, that we are a new creation in Him, and by the power and leading of the Holy Spirit we can walk in alignment with Him.

    I will say from my experience, the Holy Spirit trumps my intellect every time… here’s a quote I discovered last Nov. from Michael Green in his book, I believe in the Holy Spirit. I got a huge kick out of it, but probably because I can relate to being considered the “mad, enthusiast with religious mania“ ;)

    A Challenge to intellectualism in the Church.

    …the charismatic movement is a challenge to intellectualism in the Church. As we have seen, the movement is often weak on the importance of the intellect, and has undervalued it. That is a serious error and is hopefully being corrected. But the traditional churches are guilty of an even more serious error. They have so intellectualized the Christian faith that it seems largely beyond the reach of ordinary people. The theologians are largely out of touch with the people in the pew, and seem to live independent lives rather than seeing their work as serving God’s people in understanding and applying the faith. Christianity seems all too often to be a matter of intellectual assent (or doubt) , of churchgoing, and of middle class mores. It makes very little difference to life, and to those who go to church are not readily distinguishable by their lifestyle from those who do not. But nobody could say that about the charismatics. You could call them mad, enthusiasts with religious mania, and the like. But they embody something different. And the Ruach Adonai, the Spirit of the Lord is something different. He is not to be intellectualized or tamed. The charismatics know this. They give the impression of having found something life changing, and that is a quality which authentic Christianity always needs to have. (Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, p 296, 1985, Eerdmans Publishing)

    John, you know what I find really interesting, is every time I read the "doubt" in that paragraph, I specifically thought of your book from Faith to doubt, go figure, never imagining I might be commenting to you.

    I do respectfully submit this, because my heart and prayer is that all believers will "hear" God's voice now one way, and then another. It is amazing and profound, and it is God's gift to us to use to build up and edify His Bride.

    Bev Sterk

  2. Hardly know where to start on this. My book is actually a critique of faith as assent to intellectual propositions, for example. And my article does not suggest that there is no place for hearing God's voice--I hear it in scripture, for example, which is God's Word, after all. However, the article does make the point, nicely illustrated by our Republican candidates, that many who claim to hear God's voice are obviously fooling themselves. And the article points out that many who claim to hear God's voice seem to make such claims in the interest of getting what they want, rather than what scripture usually asks of us (like carrying crosses). This is, as it turns out, very dangerous ground. Much of the literature you cite (I'm familiar with it) is long on appreciating these voices and very short on the many obvious ways we can kid ourselves about them, or misuse the perception of hearing such voices to get what we want.
    In the end, I think that if I ever really heard God's voice, my reaction would be more along the lines of Gideon's, or Mary's than the off-hand familiarity that is a mark of much popular culture piety.

    1. The Holy Spirit speaks to me all the time. Sometimes about big things, sometimes about 'small' things. And Oh that it would be my pleasure to provide someone a bed for the night.

  3. smiles... I didn't know where to start either and left a lot out (re left out something about the dangerous thing, which you bring up again)!! and still don't know where to start as there is so much...

    I watched your interview as well... lots of thoughts...

    So, what is your understanding then of the gift of prophecy aka listening prayer aka hearing God aka thus saith the LORD aka God told me...? (I Cor. 14) we are not to despise this gift but to test it. Since our denomination has a cessationist history (refuted by the 1973 synod), we are a little short on our understanding, training, and use of some of the more "unusual" gifts of the Spirit. I believe one of the reasons that what people hear is not God, or is just one piece and they aren't getting all the pieces, is because we have no forum to listen, test, discern and confirm with other believers. the danger is that there is no prophetic table for testing (I Cor. 14:29), believers have not been trained in how to test and confirm. The danger is that through fear, we will quench this gift of prophecy instead of using it to build up and edify His Church.

    Quite often, when God gives "insight" it is to several people and He expects them to work together (sounds like something God would want, right!?!?! =)

    Also, just because the candidates are out of the race, doesn't mean God didn't tell them to run. His purpose in having them run might have been something entirely different then to become president. just saying that's a possibility.

    Several times the Holy Spirit has convicted me, (I would say God put on my heart, but since that language is in question, I will use the Holy Spirit powerfully convicted me)... with "Do not limit Him/God." It is a long story, dealing with some of the same questions you bring up in your interview... why is there so much brokenness and darkness in the world, making fun of what I call "organ recital" prayers, praying for peoples kidneys, gall bladders, organs, etc... a key scripture He highlighted for me which prompted/compelled me to pray into how we are limiting Him was Ps. 78:41 NKJV... and they limited the Holy One of Israel... we are the reason, there is so much darkness, we are limiting Him in a number of ways. He gave me 3, the big, the little and the middle...if you are interested I will share, as it's kind of lengthy and I will probably go over the character limit =)...

    as for the organ recital prayers aka parking spot prayers, He gave me several thoughts and scriptures... Zech. 4:10 do not despise the day of small things... those prayers are precious to Him...

    He cares about every hair on our head, how insignificant is that?!?!? I have come across this attitude that we should not "bother God" with things like that, that those "little" prayers "trivializes"/"cheapens" God, from mature believers within the crc... "how dare we pray for our heartburn, when believers are being persecuted and killed for their faith in China". These are actual statements I have heard, and we limit Him in the "little" ways, when that's what we believe.

    John, I will fight for the gift of prophecy, because the Word says, above all/especially, eagerly desire this gift. It is the one that builds up and edifies His Bride... we can safely walk in that gift, when we follow His Word on how to do so.

    Have you ever read "Is that really You, God?" By Loren Cunningham, founder of YWAM?

    1. Hi John, I don't know you at all and I haven't read much of what you have written, but did read this blog.

      First, of all, I think, based on Scripture and its teachings and examples, that men and women can "hear" from God.

      Are your six Republican candidates all necessarily wrong? No. They may have heard from God that he wanted them to run. Sure, maybe he wanted all six of them to run. But none of them, as far as I am aware, said that God said they were going to win! Perhaps he just wanted to give them the humbling experience of losing!

      Blessings as you listen for God's voice in your life and ministry.

      Jon DeBruyn

  4. Hmm.. we must be worshipping a different God and following a different Jesus and being guided by a different Holy Spirit. I'd let the woman stay, in my home, and I'd give her a new set of clothes if she needed it. But seeing as you don't believe Jesus is the only way tonour Father I am going to be radically politically incorrect and state that your ability to believe in the absolute devine power of the Holy Spirit would be considerably diminished. This woman was probably sent to you, by God, to open your eyes and wake up to which does inspire us to do, say, create and be more than we are and what we'd ordinarily confine ourselves to. Painful cynicism is all that I can hear in this piece.

  5. Proverbs 3:5-6New International Version (NIV)

    5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
    6 in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

  6. It was reported that both George Bush and Tony Blair fervently prayed and asked for God's guidance before invading Iraq. Apparently both felt God's guidance in their subsequent decisions. That ought to give us serious pause.

  7. I so agree with your article! Great read, when we have right doctrine, we have right belief which leads to right living/action. It's as simple as being practically useful, no need to allegorize to have this personal pipeline. Besides where does it say "God will place things on your heart" I feel that is man centered. Great article


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