More about direct revelations from God

More about direct revelations from God December 2, 2011

I have a long list of theological topics I want to address here, but they will have to wait. I am enjoying the conversation here about unmediated, direct experiences of God. When I was growing up I often heard that “a person with an experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument.” Well, I have come to doubt the validity of that statement if taken to an extreme of gullibility toward all claims of immediate experiences of God–especially insofar as they claim to bear “new truths” everyone should accept and believe and act on. Then I think argument (using my five criteria) is necessary.

But I think SOME people here may misunderstand what kinds of direct, unmediated experiences of God I believe in and think our evangelical churches need to be more open to.

First, there’s the inward experience of God in conviction and conversion. It may or may not be mediated through Word and/or sacrament. But even when reading of scripture provokes it (as in Wesley’s case) there can be and often is a sense of immediacy of God to the soul that is individual and intuitive (i.e., not amenable to proof or argument).

Second, there’s what I call “conversional piety”–the personal relationship with Jesus Christ in which God may speak directly to a Christian’s heart/mind giving guidance and direction beyond scripture.

Third, there are “power encounters” such as healings, exorcisms, miracles. I have been in places where these are manufactured and, in my opinion, spurious. But I don’t discount them entirely. I’m sure God can still do these things and somewhere does. For the most part we evangelicals have simply relegated these things to the past or to other societies.

Fourth, there are prophecies and words of wisdom and knowledge (no, I don’t know how to distinguish those and I would place “interpretation of tongues” in this same category)–divinely inspired messages directly from God to a person or group that transcend inward guidance for an individual. Many sermons have this character–or at least parts of them.  I have known people who have heard God speak directly to them (and probably others in the listening audience/congregation) through a sermon with powerful, life-changing results.

Let me give two examples of the fourth category above. My wife and I were members of a moderate, evangelical Baptist church (not where we attend now). The church was going through a crisis after the departure of a beloved pastor who resigned under pressure from a minority of the congregation.  The deacons held a special service of waiting on God for guidance and direction for the church’s future. We sang, prayed and sat in silence, waiting on God. It was very unusual–no planned sermon. As we sat and prayed quietly (mostly silently) a woman spoke out rather forcefully beginning with “Thus says the Lord.” What followed was the most appropriate message for our situation I could imagine. The message was thoroughly biblical, but did not just quote scripture. It was full of correction and exhortation. I could tell the woman was overcome with emotion; it was not something she had planned or prepared. It had probably never happened in that church before and I doubt it has happened since. After the service I asked some deacons what they thought about it and they called it a “testimony.” But I could tell they did not consider it a message from God to them or the congregation. I did. Because the church did not heed it, we left that church soon after as it sank into chaos and confusion. The chaos and confusion did not result from the prophecy, in my estimation, but from the leaders’ refusal to recognize it as such and obey it.

The second example comes from an earlier time and the setting was a Christian college chapel service. The speaker was a good friend of mine, a dear colleague, who I knew to be a profoundly spiritual man. During his sermon he pulled out a piece of paper and read to the gathered students, faculty and staff a message from God. It was written in the form of one of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation (viz., “To the church at…[the name of the college].” It was beautiful, appropriate, challenging and biblical (i.e., not in any way conflicting with scripture). My colleague (an Episcopalian Benedictine oblate) said he received this message for the college directly from God while praying and meditating. I don’t know if anyone acted on it; it didn’t actually call for any specific response. It rather addressed the direction of the college–away from its first love and toward concern with prestige and reputation.

Both messages happened OUTSIDE the context of any whipped up emotional fervor or charismatic enthusiasm. Both were unexpected and appropriate to the context. Both passed all five of my criteria. Both were unmediated in the sense that they did not arise out of or depend on scripture or anything else outside the person’s own experience of God. Neither one contained any “new truth” of a doctrinal nature to be believed.

Unfortunately, both also happened in evangelical contexts relatively closed to such experiences and messages. Both contexts–the church and the college–operated on the assumption that God only speaks to groups through the Bible and exposition of the Bible. I’m sure many in both audiences considered both bordering on fanaticism. There was no attempt in either case to discern whether the messages were indeed, as claimed, from God. It was simply left to each individual to decide. But the messages were to the communities, not to individuals.

Many evangelicals outside the Pentecostal and charismatic movements have come to embrace these kinds of unmediated experiences of God.  The difference is that in the Pentecostalism I grew up in, too often, they were received uncritically with no discernment process–IF the person having and reporting them was a “spiritual giant.” Otherwise, they were usually ignored. Evangelical scholars like Grudem and Moreland and others (often touched in some way by the Vineyard Fellowship or some other “Third Wave” ministry) argue that evangelicals should be open to such experiences and messages within a clear discernment process.

I think that, for the most part, evangelicals have taken the easy way and chosen to chase the Holy Spirit into the Bible.

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  • Your examples show that such revelations often are (but do not have to be) connected to the traditional means of grace and disciplines of the Christian faith. Of course one must wary of using the means of grace in a formulaic way. Methodological approaches can put God in a box or make God the end product of some formula. God is like Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia – he is not a tamed lion. But when he does show up (or when people allege that he has shown up) the right discernment needs to be in place.

    God is still God – thankfully he has not been tamed. The true voice of God can defy the manufactured hype of some Pentecostal circles and it can penetrate communities that are traditionally closed to such revelations.

    Your first story is such a great example of a church community gathering as a body and using the means of grace – and guess what God showed up! It’s like Zechariah going into the Temple to do ministry (and carrying the burden of a longtime prayer request for his wife’s fertility) and guess what God showed up! He does show up, but almost always in ways that we do not anticipate. I love those grace awakened moments in life where you say to yourself, ‘Wow! God really answered that prayer! God really spoke on this issue! God really revealed himself here!’

    An interesting note is that almost all traditions (those traditionally opened to direct revelation from God and those more traditionally closed to direct revelation from God) affirm the need for their pastor’s and leaders to have truly discerned a ‘call’ to the ministry. If God can clearly call someone to be a pastor or a missionary or a Sunday School teacher – why cannot God call a church to be a missionary station, or a discipleship institute, or a mercy center?

    • rogereolson

      Quite right. We (evangelicals and mainline Christians) have by-and-large relegated “experience of God” to certain corners where it can be safe–such as God’s call on someone’s life to be a minister or missionary, etc. But the moment someone says “God spoke to me and said this…” and the message breaks out of those safe corners where we’ve relegated the Holy Spirit we get very nervous and even react against it in knee-jerk fashion.

  • Marc

    Dr. Olson,

    This made me think a bit. Not about the general legitimacy of unmediated experiences such as prophesies and words of knowledge. I think you’ve hit it spot on there. My question is about the experience of one who many consider to be a “spiritual giant.”

    Francis of Assisi was the first to experience the phenomenon of stigmata. I’ve always been skeptical of this phenomenon, for what is its purpose? However, applying your criteria means I have a hard time categorically dismissing it.

    I understand that people can abuse gifts, signs, and experiences. I am not trying to promote stigmata, but I just don’t know if I can dismiss it since Francis did not abuse it, nor did he make it into something other than his identification with Christ.

    I am not well-versed with stigmata literature or Francis of Assisi, so bear with me if these questions and remarks lack insight.

    1) The Christ Touchstone.
    As far as I can read Francis did not promote himself in this. His humility even made him attempt to hide this from most people. He felt a deeper intimacy and connection with Christ because of it.

    2) The Apostolic Norm.
    The only fitting scripture would be Luke 22:44 where Jesus, under intense duress, prays intensely and sweats blood. This, as I have understood, is often part of a stigmata experience. Essentially being so engulfed by Jesus, so identifying with him, that one may produce varying wounds, scars, blood, etc.

    3) The Unity Criterion.
    Did Francis become a spiritual elitists? He did not according to my knowledge.

    4) The Sanity Check.
    This is where I have trouble. I mean, it does seem weird, although not impossible.

    5) The Messiah Test.
    Francis did not exalt himself, yet he did become extremely venerated. Not really his own fault though, in my understanding.

    • rogereolson

      I have no problem believing in St. Francis’s experiences of stigmata. I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do, if anything, as a result. If someone said that I should seek the same experience I’d ask why–given that the Bible does not even mention it as a gift of the Spirit to the church or anything similar. It’s the same with being “slain in the Spirit” (an experience in some ways analogous to stigmata). When I was Pentecostal and then served as assistant pastor in a charismatic church during my seminary years many people chided me for not traveling to some place where being were being slain in the Spirit so that I could also experience it. My thought was then and is now that IF that happens unexpectedly (and it did to me once) where it’s not expected or routinized, fine. But I don’t see anything in the Bible that encourages Christians to seek it or make a routine out of it (as some TV evangelists do).

      • Marc

        What does one say to people who do have problems with phenomena that’s not in Scripture? Their criteria is; where does it say so in the text?

        • rogereolson

          Ah, but even they ALWAYS do some things (as part of their Christianity) that aren’t found anywhere in the Bible–such as build church buildings and put pipe organs in them.

  • Steve

    I have had these kinds of experiences as well. I have basically been in two fellowships over the past 30 years. I have just moved to a new area and am still finding my way. The first group were pentecostals/charismatic. Quite simply they lost the plot. The Pastor became the only vehicle through whom the Holy Spirit spoke (so they said) and it ‘trickled’ down to the rest if us. In short it became a means to say and do just about anything. Then, of course, if you voiced opposition or problems to the latest ‘vision’ you were out of step with God or worse. Finally the ‘Toronto blessing’ came through (it was a stage managed version after the pastor had travelled there to see it ‘first hand’. If ever anything just did not fit it was this. My young son (13) looked at me and said ‘That was interesting dad’. I left the following week (after 15 years). I moved to a church which is like your example in number 4. They resolutely withstood anything to do with the Holy Spirit. They would skip difficult passages etc etc. They are robbing themselves of the joy of God speaking to them from within the Body.
    Anyway, I have grown through it all I think and continue on toward the goals so to speak.
    To be honest I have had to find my way through all this and today I think I have crystallised my Christian walk down to what I think are the essentials. Thats why if I hear what I consider to be ‘strange stuff’ I simply put it to one side or confront the person (in love) and ‘quizz’ them a little more. Particulalry if younger Christians are being impacted by it.
    But again for me, it is the fruit that I look for. What is the fruit that comes form it. I had a pastor who said that God had given him a ‘word’ that our church would have 1000 people in it within 12 months. That was 20 years ago and they have maybe 250 there and have never had any more than that. I ask 2 questions here. Firstly was he really hearing from God (obviously not) and secondly what was the motivation behind this ‘word’?
    The balance is always somehwere in between.

    • rogereolson

      Good points; I agree with all of it.

  • “a person with an experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument”

    Everything is experiential. Even arguments. It’s just that many people camouflage their experience with an exegetical covering, and insist they are presenting an unassailable perspective based completely upon Scriptural fact and untouched by human dilution. But in the end, we are all creatures of experience.

    Mental process is based upon the experiences of the five senses. Faith itself is an experience of the spirit. He who thinks he eschews all experience is just enjoying a different experience.

    • rogereolson

      True, but people do sometimes have delusions based on “personal experience.” They need therapy. So just because all belief is based on some kind of experience does not mean all experiences are equally valid. A particular kind of experience, critical thinking, must come into play in cases where someone demands that I believe their experience to be veridical, not delusional, and where I have an experience that seems extraordinary and could possibly have deleterious effects on me and other people.

      • This is why other criteria can be helpful, if not indespensible, for arriving at truth. The Scriptures of course, but also the wisdom of tested elders, as well as an objective view of orthodox church history. How does one test the spirits except with a comparison to Scripture?

        Elders, preferably a collective.

  • Steve Rogers

    While I wholeheartedly agree that one may “receive” and offer to those assembled such messages as you described, I consider it unwise to attach statements such as “thus saith the Lord” or “the Spirit says” when delivering them. When that is attached the hearers are cornered. If God is the source what need is there for critical assessment or discernment? If God is not and the speaker claims he is, why would I want to subject myself to such falsehood and foolishness? Time to head for the exit. Better, in my opinion, to say something like “here’s what I’m sensing (thinking or feeling) needs to be said, does it ring true to you all?”

    • rogereolson

      True enough. But, on the other hand, when someone says that (viz., “here’s what I’m sensing…”) people rarely take it very seriously. And IF it really IS God speaking through a person prophetically, might he (God) not say “Thus says the Lord?” Having said that, I’m probably where you are, but a bit less comfortably, perhaps. I have a tendency to run for the exit when I hear “Thus says the Lord” or anything similar. But I realize that’s based largely on two factors that are not strictly theological: my own numerous bad experiences of this kind of thing (I taught at a large charismatic university for 2 years where the president often declared that God told him something that everyone else perceived to be quite crazy) and my own brain wiring which is skeptical–always has been as long as I can remember way back into childhood.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    A very elderly member of the church who feebly walked with a cane was finally fed up, and said, “Thus saith the Lord, I’m sick and tired of standing up for at least an hour during the worship time and singing the words to each chorus a dozen times!”

    • rogereolson

      We will both remember the denominational meeting where we were voting on whether to allow divorced ministers to keep their credentials and an older minister (I won’t say his name but he pastored in Sioux City) gave a “prophecy” that he hoped would stop the discussion and settle the question (in favor of the traditional view). As I recall, the moderator (Frank Smith, I think) went on with the meeting as if nothing had happened. We voted to amend the by laws to allow divorced ministers to keep their credentials. So “words from the Lord” aren’t always heeded even among Pentecostals. It can just be a way of expressing one’s own opinion forcefully. It’s like in many Baptist church meetings where a long time member gets up and says “I’ve been a member of this church for 50 years….” (so listen to me and do what I say).

  • Ricky Leung

    Dr. Olson,

    “There was no attempt in either case to discern whether the messages were indeed, as claimed, from God. It was simply left to each individual to decide. But the messages were to the communities, not to individuals.”

    Individualism has been held as one of the highest value in our Christian walk these day. Faith is seen as a private matter. Combined with our dependence on reason, system and strategy for church growth, it is natural that this kind of situation happens frequently. Obeying the messages in the two examples that you quoted requires the acceptance of authority, but it is quite difficult for people, even Christians to accept authority when it is not from an institutionalized source.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, but even I don’t think the messages had to be heeded as authoritative. I just wish some kind of discernment process had been followed to decide IF they should be heeded and, if so, what should be done. Instead, they were simply ignored.