Part 24 of series:
How Does God Guide Us?
In response to my recent series “How Does God Guide Us?” I received a thoughtful email from a man I’ll call EH. He asks the question: What if the Lord does not speak?
EH explains his question by noting “the famous gap between Malachi and John the Baptist for the nation of Israel,” a time when God did not speak prophetically as he had in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah. “What if an individual experiences something similar?” EH wonders.
“This seems to be a vacant field of discussion in Christian circles,” EH notes. It is an easy target for disdain in a lot of Christendom, i.e., “If God seems far away, GUESS WHO MOVED?” Indeed, it’s not uncommon for Christians who suggest that if you don’t feel God’s presence in your life, if you aren’t receiving his guidance in an unmistakable way, then the problem is yours. You are just not listening to God.
Here is one reason for EH’s concern: “The reason I see this all as so problematic is that if God does not speak, it is easy to fall prey to ‘hearing’ something that is actually not there.” In our desperation to hear from God, we might very well invent divine guidance when it’s not there.
In this post, I’m going to begin to respond to EH. I’m grateful for EH’s question and the way he lays out the problem. (I took only a few excerpts from his much longer email.)
What If the Lord Does Not Speak?
Throughout my series on divine guidance, I have shown that God does guide Christians in a variety of ways, through circumstances, Scripture, community, reason, dreams and visions, divine whispering, and spiritual direction. This is not a definitive list, by the way. There are surely other ways by which God guides us. But I have tried to cover many of the major means of divine guidance as revealed in Scripture.
Some of the ways God guides us are easily identified as “supernatural,” though I think this label is lacking in many ways. Nevertheless, there are times when circumstances are so utterly “coincidental” or we “hear” God’s voice so loudly that we cannot but conclude both that God is “speaking” to us in an unusual and striking way.
I did not grow up in a Christian tradition that was particular open to such “supernatural” guidance from God. For the most part, we expected God to guide us through more “ordinary” means, such as Bible study or preaching. But, in my college years and beyond, I became aware of Christians who had a much greater expectation of immediate guidance through the Spirit. Some expected God to “whisper” in their hearts. Others actually claimed to hear God’s voice audibly. Others found divine guidance in disciples of silence and prayer. Others believed that the Holy Spirit spoke through gifts of knowledge and prophecy. As I examined the claims made by those who expected God to “speak” in these ways, I found plenty of nonsense and wishful thinking, plenty of projection of selfish desire upon God. But I also found wise Christians whose experience of God’s guidance was fully consistent with what I found in Scripture. Thus, I became open to ways of divine guidance besides that which I considered ordinary. I came to believe that God can guide us in extraordinary ways, through circumstances, dreams, visions, spiritual gifts, “whispering,” and the like.
But I also became aware of some of the pitfalls associated with a heightened expectation of extraordinary divine guidance. Some Christians, it seemed to me, were so dependent on supposedly divine revelations that they stopped using the discernment God had given them. Others seemed to downplay the ways God speaks through Scripture. Others seemed to invent extraordinary guidance when it wasn’t there.
Consider, for example, the famous (or infamous) case concerned the evangelist and healer, Peter Popoff. In the 1970s and 80s, Popoff gathered a huge following (and plenty of money) because of his apparently miraculous healings gifts. Most impressive of all was his ability to receive “words of knowledge” from God. In giant gatherings, Popoff would describe in detail the ailments of people God was going to heal. Sometime he would actually mention details of their lives, such as their addresses, that demonstrated the utterly miraculous nature of knowledge. Unfortunately for Popoff, it was discovered that his “words of knowledge” were delivered to him by his wife using radio transmission and an in-ear receiver. Popoff was disgraced. He declared bankruptcy and disappeared. (Popoff’s ministry has been resurrected, focusing on persecuted Christians. The “Ministry History” page of his website says nothing about miraculous healings, though it does point to the launch of a “free medical outpatient children’s hospital [in Africa] staffed by doctors who are believers.”)
When God did not speak to Popoff, he filled in the blanks, or his wife did, at any rate. Most of us will not do this sort of thing so brazenly, but if we belief that God speaks to us in extraordinary ways, then we do have a problem when God appears not to speak. Popoff shows us one way not to deal with this problem: by pretending as if human guidance comes from God. His peculiar story highlights one of the dangers associated with expecting extraordinary guidance from God.
What should we do if the Lord doesn’t speak?
We shouldn’t speak for God ourselves, confusing our voice with the voice of the Lord.
But, you might wonder, is there biblical evidence for the claim that God doesn’t speak sometimes? Or is God always speaking and we’re just failing to hear? I’ll talk about this tomorrow.