Spiritual guidance is a marketable commodity these days. If you’re willing to fork over a few bucks–sometimes, a few hundred–you can receive personal guidance from people who claim to have a special channel to “the spirit world.” Many of these gurus hock their supernatural wares at expensive conferences and workshops. Others have turned to the Internet. Yes, you can visit websites where, for a fee, you will receive personalized guidance that purportedly comes from some immaterial being. This “spirit guide” may be an angel, or a departed loved one, or a person who lived thousands of years ago. (I’m not going to put up any links because I don’t want to encourage use of such websites. But if you’re curious, you can find them easily through Google.)
Your spirit guide could even be the spirit of a plastic doll! Some years ago, Barbara Bell, an architectural illustrator from northern California (where else?), operated the world’s only Barbie channeling service. For only $3.00, Bell summoned up the spirit of Barbie to solve the problems of those seeking her advice. “I appreciate and understand Barbie,” Bell explains. “She has been forced to be shallow all these years, but underneath she’s a profound person.” And to think I never realized there was anything underneath her slick plastic exterior! (Little known fact: Barbie’s last name is “Roberts,” according to Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler. So Barbie must be one of my distant cousins.)
All of this talk about spiritual guidance from angels, dead people, and even dolls ought to give us pause as we consider the topic of spiritual guidance. Just because somebody claims to be guided by some supernatural being, even if this being is God, we ought not instantly to believe the claim. Spirit guide silliness should make us careful, even if we’re Christians who believe that God actually can and does offer supernatural guidance.
Sadly, however, some Christians have been caught in the current of spiritual silliness, claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit into all sorts of nonsense. I know a man who once claimed that God told him to have an adulterous affair with the wife of one of his best friends. He truly believed this, as did his friend’s wife. For some reason, they just didn’t think the “Thou shalt not commit adultery” part of Scripture applied to them. They ended up acting on their convictions, breaking up a marriage and messing up many lives in the process.
Attributing one’s peculiar behavior to God is nothing new. It’s been going on for centuries. Over thirty years ago, for example, I found myself in Mrs. Poole’s Sunday school class. She was a fine teacher, well-prepared, biblically-literate, and interesting even to a sixth-grade boy. Mrs. Poole’s Bible lessons were almost always succinct and compelling. Almost always, I say, because every now and then Mrs. Poole would claim that the Holy Spirit led her to depart from her notes and launch into the stratosphere of more direct revelation. As she spoke under the impetus of the Spirit, I was struck by how hard she was to follow and, frankly, how boring. If I took Mrs. Poole at her word, then I could only conclude that she was a much better a teacher than the Holy Spirit! Whereas she was succinct, the Spirit was long-winded. Whereas Mrs. Poole had a way of speaking right to the hearts of sixth-graders, the Holy Spirit could hardly keep our attention. Even then I suspected what I now believe to be the truth: Mrs. Poole was confused about the Spirit’s guidance. Her ramblings may have contained grains of genuine inspiration, but they issued more from her exuberant imagination than from the Spirit of God. Though I can’t claim to be the final authority on such matters, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Spirit actually inspired Mrs. Poole’s careful preparation of lessons more than her spontaneous sermons.
These days religious people are claiming divine inspiration for all sorts of behaviors that are, not only nonsensical, but downright horrible. The most obvious case is that of Muslim extremists who kill innocent victims in the name of Allah, something that is contrary to the beliefs of most of the Islamic world. Christian extremism of this sort rears its ugly head every now and then, especially in some conflict-ridden sections of Africa. These examples have led some critics to conclude that all spiritual guidance is nonsense, and even that the idea of God is both wrongheaded and dangerous.
I don’t agree with these conclusions. But I do take seriously the tendency for people, even well-intentioned ones, to misconstrue God’s direction. It’s especially tempting for all of us to project our own desires onto God, reading them back as confirmation of what we ourselves want. We believe God is speaking to us through our experience, when it may just be that our experience is drowning out God’s authentic voice. So, we must approach the subject of divine guidance with due caution. At the same time, we must not shrink back from one of the most precious aspects of the Christian life: divine guidance through the Holy Spirit.