“Do not believe every spirit” (1 John 4)

“Do not believe every spirit” (1 John 4) January 8, 2014

At the basilica’s Monday mass, the epistle reading was from 1 John 4, which includes: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” It was a sobering reminder to me that not all the “inspiring” voices in my head are from God. Even if I have had legitimate prophetic convictions before, that doesn’t mean that my compulsive urge to weigh in on the latest drama in our world is “God-breathed.” One way in which I’m testing the spirits that speak to me is to wrestle with the question of how God speaks to us through His word.

Every morning before I read the Daily Office lectionary scripture readings, I ask God to speak to me through His word. I read the readings assuming that at least one verse in them will speak something directly into my life. In a recent season of my life, this really was happening, and the scriptures were connecting to my life in amazing uncanny ways. Lately, those connections haven’t been happening as readily. And I’ve started to wonder whether I have an overly “mystical” set of expectations for how the Bible actually works.

I read a book once that was written by a pastor who felt called to debunk some of the prevailing assumptions ingrained into popular evangelical culture about how God speaks to us. He would probably say, no, God didn’t specially plan it so that you would read verse 5 of Psalm 43 on November 10th, 2013 or whenever. God inspired the psalmist to write psalm 43 for a particular purpose in Israelite worship, and the community at large can learn from what that psalm teaches but it doesn’t “speak” to us as individuals beyond being part of the handed down, inspired word of God.

I really didn’t like that book. To me, it’s a very wooden way of viewing things. I suppose if you assume that the Bible is mostly reducible to a bunch of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” that tell you what to do, then there’s no reason for any of it to say anything special to us as individuals. I want to believe that it’s a living poem which reshapes our thoughts into poetry that harmonizes with it in different tones according to how we are gifted and what we have experienced.

In any case, I have a lot easier time trusting that the Bible is addressing me directly when God says something that convicts or rebukes me. I don’t know how to explain why, but there’s almost a strange set of comfort when that happens. I guess it’s kind of like when you misbehave and your dad doesn’t say anything but just looks at you, and you’re like oh man, I’m going to get it later. I feel very nervous when I’ve gone for a long time without being corrected by God.

So lately, I’ve been wringing my hands about whether to move forward on this book I’ve been dragging my heels on starting to write for the past several years. I’m nervous because I want it to really be God-inspired truth, not the cleverness I’m so easily taken in by that the false prophets of snark and cynicism plant into my brain. I’ve lately come to the sense that it’s supposed to be a book about holiness, which utterly terrifies me.

What terrifies me is that what I think I’m supposed to say about holiness are claims that push in a very different direction from the mainstream evangelical message. I contradict the evangelical gospel all the time, but it feels sometimes like being the teenager who texts his friends during the sermon saying, “OMG this is lame” (but keeps on going to church and deep down believes the preacher is right even though he pretends not to). It’s one thing to make a bold (and perhaps irresponsible) claim like when I write a blog theorizing that popular evangelical culture is best understand as the values and anxieties of American suburbia channeled into a religion. But you can’t play postmodern truthiness games with God’s holiness.

A parishioner gave me a bunch of books because she was downsizing. Among them is R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God. I’m frightened to open it, because I know Sproul is in the pantheon of names the fundamentalists like to throw around. I suspect this book may be a primary source of how evangelical culture in general has come to understand holiness. I’m anxious that he’ll make a bunch of points that make me want to vomit, but which I can’t refute Biblically. I’ve got Mark Driscoll’s Doctrine at home, and a couple of John MacArthur books I was given, but I’ve been afraid to open them for the same reason.

In any case, what really scared me was the verse that came up after I prayed for God to speak to me through His word on Monday — Isaiah 60:1: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” I’m so hesitant to claim that as a word that says arise and move forward with your book, Morgan. Like Gideon, I want the fleece to be all wet one morning and all the ground around it dry and the opposite the next morning.

It’s so much easier to trust that God is speaking when the Bible says sinner repent! Words of affirmation sound too much like fake, dangerous Joel Osteen flattery. So I tweeted something about this, and someone wrote back “God has more than just correction in his hand for you.” It jolted me because it was spoken with authority. And it caused me to reflect that I ought to be able to trust at least what I read in the Bible even if it seems to validate and affirm me instead of rebuking me.

God is not going to give me a snake when I ask for an egg. If expecting the Bible to speak to me “mystically” is the wrong way of reading it, He will show me because I really am seeking Him as wholeheartedly as I can amidst all the dross and filth and mess that clutters my soul. So I will try to be faithful to what God seems to be sending me forth to do. One of my podcast preachers agreed to look over an outline of my book, so I sent him an email last night. As I was writing it, supporting scriptures and other elements started to fall into place, and the chapters actually made sense and didn’t seem hopelessly redundant the way they had before. I’m still terrified but I don’t think I have any more of a choice than Jeremiah had when he tried to say, “Ah, sovereign Lord… I am only a child.”

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