A couple of years ago I heard myself say, in my usual arm waving hyperbolic way, “There I was, leaning over the church kitchen sink, watching the blood pour out of my finger, scrubbing a huge pot, raging bitterly to God, and God literally said, ‘Stop It’.”
The person I was talking to laughed, because the moment I was describing was pretty funny, and she understood what I was trying to say. The ordinary out-workings and frustrations of life are not beyond the providential hand of God. Whatever you are doing or feeling, you can always turn to him and he will be there to comfort, in my case to convict, and to guide.
But when I heard myself say, “God said” I had a deep moment of pause. It’s an expression I might have used ten times in the whole course of my Christian life. I had also said things like, “I feel like God is telling me to” and “God led me to…” I am not extraordinary. It’s the way Evangelicals, that coveted and yet despised voting demographic, talk. The believer’s relationship with Jesus is personal and intimate, so close that God speaks directly to each one, to guide, to comfort, and sometimes to convict and restore.
It all seems innocuous until you stop to listen really carefully to the kinds of things that God is saying to individual people. I had a roundly good time over it yesterday. It’s not that Jesus can’t guide Trump, but he’s not going to right now because Trump isn’t a Christian. I know he says he is, and in general I believe in taking a body at his word, but Trump isn’t making it too difficult to see that his Christianity is of a pandering kind. Which is fine. But none of us should expect that God will guide him to do anything in a personal way.
Nevertheless, God, apparently, has been a Chatty Cathy all over the American church. He is leading and guiding Kreflo Dollar to buy another airplane. He has led Beth Moore over to that bastion of orthodoxy, TBN. He gave words to all the mega pastors for the new year–Crossover, Breakthrough, I can’t remember any of the others. And, in some other directions, he has revealed to the Episcopalians that he no longer cares about his once quite firm understanding of marriage. After millennia of it being just for a man together with a woman, now he’s very happy for anyone to be in love. God’s word to the episcopal church is Love.
A decent ordinary Christian who isn’t trying to commit heresy, but is trying to articulate the deep abiding experience of God’s presence, might be forgiven for using the same way of speaking as Steven Furtick or anyone like that. Obviously my experience of conviction, so real that it felt as though God had spoken audibly to me at the kitchen sink, is not the same as me duping hundreds of people to give me their life savings for my second air plane. I don’t even have my first airplane…yet.
Nevertheless, I refuse to talk that way any more.
It’s a principled, theological choice, and it’s been very hard to carry forward. First of all, it has forced me to see where I haven’t really believed scripture to be sufficient. Has God spoken? Why, yes he has. In the scriptures. They were written a long time ago, but God uses them to work on the insides of each Christian in an intimate, personal way. I read the bible all the time, and God uses those words to cut open my heart of stone. Often, it feels like he’s leaping out of the page in bodily form. But he isn’t speaking audibly to me. He isn’t using impressions and feelings. He is speaking to me, through the scriptures. I don’t really always enjoy that process. It is often painful and difficult. I would like something extra and something more than the bible. But the bible itself says it is enough. The scriptures are sufficient to make me complete for every good work.
Second, it has forced me to exercise my mind and will in the making of decisions. I pray differently now than I did before. When I could say, ‘God called me’ or ‘God led me’, the onus was on God not to screw up. And when I did something foolish, I was quick to blame him for my error. Conflating my sinful desires with the leading of God himself was the easy comfortable way. But also, dare I say it, the ugly way. God, of course leads and guides me, but it’s not me sitting around waiting for the word. I don’t get a special Holy Spirit download of words and impressions. I have to read the bible, pray, look at my actual circumstances, act, beg God to stop me if I’m doing the wrong thing, and keep inching forward in what feels like the darkness. But all the time, the more mature I become as a Christian, God is building wisdom in my inner parts, opening and closing the vistas that surround me, providentially moving me in the direction he wants me to go. I don’t need that special word. The scripture is sufficient especially with the Holy Spirit wielding it deftly at the mind and heart.
When I first arrived here, at the lovely Patheos, I took a wild swing at Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling. There she would sit, notebook open, waiting for God to speak, writing down whatever she heard, attributing it all to the Holy Spirit himself. It’s what we all want, sure, but consider the fractured, broken voice of God in a theology like that. We are supposed to be bound together as Christ’s own body. We are supposed to be slowly made over in the image of the Son, who is The Word, whose words never come back to him empty. He isn’t saying lots of different things to different people. He’s not wasting his breath on the emptiness of a word like ‘breakthrough’, he doesn’t need to use the vagaries of the heart’s impressions and feelings to get his point across. The word that he already spoke is so sharp, so real, so deep, so high, so vast, so perfect that it can cut through to your heart this moment, to bring you out of the darkness and in to the light filled kingdom where everyone else has been transformed by that same Word.