Does God Still “Speak” to Individuals and Groups?
This is a question rarely pondered or discussed by mainstream theologians. And “ordinary Christians” hold different opinions about it. I suspect most theologians and most ordinary Christians would prefer not to examine it in too much detail. The question, if taken seriously, opens a can of worms.
When I was a Pentecostal Christian—from birth until about age 25—I believed, together with all Pentecostals, that God does speak today. Historically and theologically that’s a given for Pentecostals which is probably why non-Pentecostal Christians tend to avoid the question. Since becoming a Baptist (which was at the same time I shed my Pentecostal identity) I have continued to believe that God still speaks, but I find myself almost alone. I should say that most Baptists (and evangelical Christians in general) pay lip service to God’s speaking outside of Scripture, but they rarely if ever “testify” to it or even admit experiencing it.
What do I mean by “God speaking outside of Scripture today?” First, I do NOT mean “with the same inspiration and authority as in Scripture.” Second, I DO mean—sending messages to individuals and groups for comfort, correction and guidance.
Occasionally throughout my life I have had experiences that I interpret as that—namely, God sending me a message. I know that non-Christians, especially naturalists (atheists), will call that “magical thinking.” (Not meaning to be snarky, but I consider their belief in objective morality without transcendence magical thinking.) But what shocks me is that many Christians also consider it that. That is, they will affirm, play lip service, to God’s contemporary “speaking” but immediately turn around and, when confronted with an example, call it magical thinking.
I have never been able to understand Christians who believe God spoke to people “back then—in ‘Bible time’,” but not anymore. Why would that be the case? Oh, yes, I’ve heard the answer that “Once the Bible was written and canonized we don’t need God to speak anymore.” Personally, I find that absurd. If God was gracious enough to give personal guidance, comfort and correction to individuals and groups “back then,” why would he stop?
So, another approach I have heard, especially among my wonderful fellow Baptists, is this: “Now, today, God only speaks through preaching of his Word.” In other words, God uses preachers to speak messages of guidance, comfort and correction based on the Bible, but does not speak directly to individuals. But this is hardly consistent with Baptist belief in the “priesthood of believers.” It’s a form of clericalism.
I do not believe God’s contemporary, extra-biblical, personal messages carry any authority for others. In other words, if a message claimed to be from God is also claimed to have authority for me—that I ought to believe it and live by it—it MUST have biblical grounding. It cannot be completely extra-biblical. On the other hand, I do believe that sometimes God wants to get my (or your) attention by sending a message directly to me (or you). It may come through another person, but the authority, the weight, of the message must be grounded in Scripture for it to have authority in that case. Of course, it might come to me through another person but be confirmed by God “in me”—that is, “in my spirit.” That is what I would expect. (I realize I am using pietist terminology here and not everyone, not even all Christians, are going to recognize or understand it.)
So what might a contemporary extra-biblical message from God to me (or you) “look like?” I believe there are numerous forms it might take. I’ll testify of one that recently (maybe) happened to me. I am not interested in what you think; you may very well think I’m “off my rocker” and deep into “magical thinking.” That’s your business and I don’t even care. There are only a few people whose opinion about it I care about and I have checked with them and they confirm my feeling that it may have been from God.
A few weeks ago I went to my medical specialist for a routine checkup. He found something troubling about the progress, in spite of medical treatment, of a chronic condition I have had for many years. I ended up unexpectedly spending two hours in his clinic shuttling from one testing area to another. After multiple tests and consultations my specialist confronted me with the possibility of surgery—without any guarantee that it would help. For now he put me on a new medicine and left the question of surgery “in the air”—to think about.
Naturally, I left the clinic deeply troubled, even discouraged. The condition has been under control and well managed for many years. Now, probably due to aging, it has become serious—which both my doctor and I knew could happen. But I had pushed that possibility to the back of my mind and tried not to think about it.
Beginning the very next day a very old hymn began “running” through my mind—a hymn I have not sung or even heard since I was a child. Most of the words were suddenly just “there” in my mind and kept “playing” like a broken record. It’s a hymn of comfort and assurance—of God’s presence whatever happens. Being a good Baptist I simply thought it was my own mind’s way of handling the emotional distress I was experiencing. The hymn was there in my mind like “background noise” all week.
Sunday morning I went to church with my wife. (We are adherents of different churches. I go with her two Sundays a month and she goes with me two Sundays a month. This was normally her turn to go to church with me but there was a special reason for her to be at her church so I went with her—somewhat reluctantly.) The first hymn stated in the “worship folder” was #220 “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” So I reached for the hymnal from the hymnal rack in front of me and turned to #220. It was the hymn that had been running through my mind all week—not “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Then I noticed that the hymnal I grabbed was not the church’s hymnal (which doesn’t even contain that hymn). It was an older one that even had a different church’s name embossed in gold letters on the front. I have never seen that hymnal before; it didn’t “belong” there. We’ve never used that hymnal at that church. (Later I went back and looked and it is the only one of its kind in the whole sanctuary. I “just happened” to sit down with it in front of me. I have no idea how it got there.)
So what to make of that? Sheer coincidence? Possibly. Is it simply magical thinking to think this was God sending me a message that the hymn that had been obsessing my mind all week was “from him?” Possibly. But I know this. The Pentecostals I grew up with would have said “It’s a God thing. Accept it.” If there is a God who cares not only about us but for us, why wouldn’t he do such things?
My Baptist half says “It’s just a coincidence; don’t make more of it.” My Pentecostal half says “That’s unbelief; accept it as from God.” Now, there’s nothing in Baptist doctrine as such that requires dismissing it as mere coincidence, but my experience is that, by and large, American Baptists have tended to shy away from such “spiritual immediacy”—probably largely because of the abuses it has suffered at the hands of some super spiritual people.
I remain torn. I don’t want to be caught up in magical thinking, but I am a Christian and not a deist. I strongly feel the need to have a community of Christian believers who would gladly hear such a story and affirm it as a “God thing.” And where others in the community would fearlessly share similar stories of signals from God, experiences of “God’s still small voice” (1 Kings 19) heard in their lives. And pray for my healing and then leave it there—up to God’s uncontrollable wisdom and sovereignty—without mealy-mouthed clichés like “If it be thy will…” On the other hand, I don’t want to be in a community of Christians that elevates such experiences to idols and invest them with high authority.
I can’t state with certainty that what happened to me was truly a “God thing.” Maybe it was; maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just a very strange coincidence. I believe coincidences happen, but some are just too coincidental not to stop and consider whether they are more—especially if you’re a true Christian like I try to be by God’s grace.