Monday, April 29, 2013

What Is God Actually Saying to You?

“What is God actually saying to you?”

When I read that question in a blog ( Ben Sternke recently, I thought it must be a trick question. We all know, after all, that the Bible is God’s “Word.” So if we want to know what God is actually saying—as compared to what we wish God was saying or what people would like God to be saying—well, then we probably should read the Bible.

Now, I know that not everyone agrees on how, exactly, the Bible is God’s Word, or what it actually means. Good people in different faith traditions have different ideas. A Fundamentalist Christian will probably say that the Bible is God’s inerrant, all-but-dictated-from-heaven exact Word. A mainline Christian in the Barthian tradition might say the Bible mysteriously becomes God’s Word when God decides it will. There are many more possibilities. In general, however, they share the view that the Bible is, in some manner, God’s Word.

So I think that if we want to know what God is actually saying, we should read the Bible.

What God is actually saying in the Bible is complicated, of course. For many of us, reading the Bible is just plain boring. We can’t attend to it very long. But beyond the trouble we have reading, the Bible is hard to interpret, too. It was written thousands of years ago, in a different language, by people who didn’t have phones or bikinis or even sewers. It is almost as if the Bible comes at us from a different universe. I find it remarkable that, once translated, most of us get its central themes. Still, interpreting what God actually says in the Bible is hard. Maybe that is the least we can expect from a God that some of our theological heroes have described as ineffable, transcendent, and incomprehensible.

There is another class of difficulties we all struggle with when we read the Bible for what God is actually saying. These are very personal and sensitive. But the truth is, we all tend to read into the Bible what we want to hear: that it is for gays or against them, that it insists on silence for women or inspires them to be preachers, that God is against all violence or selectively in favor of some violence. We’ve all been raised in communities that shape how we read the Bible. None of us come to it without presuppositions or prejudices that influence what we hear. Our hearts have scary, devious, cavernous depths that shape what we think (and even what we hear).

But still, as hard as it is to overcome these personal biases, when someone asks me what God is actually saying, I respond with, “well, here’s the Bible. It is God’s Word.”

Anyway, I saw this blog, recently, and its title was, “What Is God Actually Saying to You?” by Ben Sternke. I thought it had to be a trick question because all Christians know that in some manner, shape, or form, the Bible is God’s Word.

But no. Sternke writes that if you want to hear God’s Word, you need to engage in a nine-step process of observation, reflection and discussion. You must pause and quiet your heart and slow down your body. You need to pray and spend a minute simply listening. You should imagine what Jesus would say if he had an arm around you. You need to write down phrases and words that you see. You need to feel that God has spoken to you. You need to check it out with others. That’s what God is actually saying. And then you need to respond with an action.

But not a word in this blog about the Word.

Excuse my rant, but this is really dangerous stuff. God routinized. Here God is subject to our administrative and procedural initiatives in order to achieve our own wishful ends. But worst of all, God saying whatever we think we hear God saying—which is probably what we wish he or she was saying. A hermeneutic of “I feel,” and “my gut tells me,” rather than one of study, and exegesis, and comparing scripture to scripture, and checking what other wise Christians over the past 2000 years have said about this or that text. A method for hearing God that is perfectly aligned with the relativistic and individualistic religious longings of twentieth-century America. A subjective and self-centered approach to truth by people blissfully unaware that such an approach  is even possible. God’s Word determined by the vagaries and whims of my all too often unruly unconscious. An exchange of the Word in scripture for a few words imagined in the course of a little sit-down meditation. A recipe for churning out people so sure that they know what God is saying privately to them that they stop listening to the hard things he actually says in the Bible.

Of course, I’m pretty sure Sternke probably values the Bible highly. And I know that he thinks it wise to check with others to “see if they have anything to add.” I also understand that the notion that we can personally hear God has popped up over and over in Christianity, in people as diverse as Montanus (and Prisca and Maximilla) to Joseph Smith to some modern Pentecostals. Sternke will surely say that I’ve missed his own larger context (which I know nothing about) and put his blog in the worst possible light.

Maybe so. But hearing what God is actually saying in the Bible is hard enough without giving people the idea that they can hear God on their own, at will, according to a schedule that suits them, with a little disciplined attentiveness. It isn’t that I’m against meditation or slowing down or reflection—it is just that I prefer to meditate on the Word of God rather than meditate on purportedly divine words from beyond the ether.


  1. I'm always skeptical of people who think God is talking to them, but isn't the idea of there being some book that is exclusively God's Word similarly problematic, even setting aside all the usual problems of interpretation?

    Here are some of the questions that come to mind.

    Do you think the Biblical authors heard what God was saying? If so, wouldn't that, for many of them, have to occur in some extra-Biblical way? And if they could do it, why couldn't others? If those authors didn't hear God, and just wrote what they thought, then what would prevent, say, something you or I wrote (or thought or felt) from also being God's Word?

    In the Reformed tradition isn't nature itself also called God's Word, the second book of revelation? If that teaching is true, then aren't there other, non-Biblical ways of sensing what God is saying?


  2. Yes. It is hard enough to believe that the Word of God in the Bible is a word from God without complicating this delicate conviction with the notion that, well, God speaks to all sorts of people all the time, person to person.

    At least we all understand that interpreting the Word of God is delicate, difficult, and potentially deadly. The interesting thing about these "words" from God is that they need little or no interpretation at all. Maybe that's because people hear God saying what they really want him to say, anyway?

    God speaks in creation. Sure. The heavens declare his glory. But not everyone hears it or knows how to interpret that either!

    I am not saying that some very significant, very Biblically rooted, very cautious, very spiritual people can't have an epiphany. I'm just thinking you can't count on everyone having one about all sorts of mundane things anytime they want.

  3. Hi John. I have recently been thinking about this topic a lot too, since I have been seeing that same trend of reducing the Bible to whatever God is saying to me. I spent a week with a mission team that had as their devotions a totally subjective, indvidualistic process of reading the Bible. I was very disturbed and had to try really hard not to show it too much! And right now in our church we have a dicussion group as we read "the Bible in one year"; but the leader of the group had as his whole plan have people come and read "their favorite verse" from that week's readings! I was very restrained again but I have worked to change the trend to be more objective.

  4. It is said that Bible can be dangerous in the wrong hands. The reason is, Bible's words are too difficult to understand but easy to be misinterpreted. Keeping that in mind, Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch have written Ignatius Catholic Study Bible which is like a guide. There is nothing left from Bible which is not covered in it, in a more understandable form. It includes commentary, notes and study questions. You can buy it from any church supply store.


What do you think?