Should we say ‘God told me . . .’?

How do we know what God is saying? People often say, ‘God told me such-and-such.’ Decisions about which job to take, which person to speak to, whether to go to Panera or Lakota—these are all occasions for God to speak to us. Usually people don’t mean that they heard an audible voice, but that they had a thought, a distinct impression, which didn’t seem to come from them. They have a strong sense of being guided by God, step-by-step, through their days and their lives. God is intimate and real to them, interacting with them regularly.

*I heard this claim far less in the UK than I do in the States, which is interesting.

Last week I looked at the story of Carlton Pearson, formerly a pastor in Tulsa, specifically the question of what happens when someone thinks God has spoken to them in a way that contradicts Scripture. This week I want to look at a version of the question which I suspect is closer to home: What does it mean to say ‘God spoke to me’, when it doesn’t disagree with Scripture?

One of the chief claims of the Christian faith is that God does speak. We believe that he has spoken ‘through the prophets at many times and in various ways’, that is, the OT, but then he has spoken definitively ‘in these last days . . . by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he also made the universe’ (Heb 1:1-2). That’s a potent, yet fundamental claim. God is not silent. He has communicated with us, and we find that in Scripture.

But here we’re considering something different. It’s the idea that God didn’t just speak Scripture and then shut up. In this world, God continues to speak to his people on a regular basis.

There’s a plausibility to such claims. God is no less in control and at work today than he was 2,500 years ago when the OT was being finished, or 2,000 years ago as Jesus was growing up. If he spoke to people then, sometimes in miraculous ways, and he remains active today to guide the world, answer prayers, save people, and everything else that an omnipotent, sovereign God does, then it seems almost weird to deny that God still speaks.

What are we doing when we say that God told us something? I think we’re legitimating what we’re doing. We are saying that this is the right thing to do, or to say, or to feel, because it’s directed by God.

But that is a tricky thing. I want to affirm that God still speaks in a direct way to people, but I want to caution us to be very, very careful about ever claiming that, to other people, and even in some ways to ourselves. When we start saying, ‘God told me x . . .’ we are creating minefields.

Why? Because if I tell you that God told me something, then I’ve backed you into a corner. How can you disagree with me? I have divine sanction for what I’m saying or doing. Who are you to disagree? You’re putting yourself in opposition to the Almighty. Richard Rorty famously claimed that religion is a ‘conversation-stopper’; well, ‘God said to me’ is a conversation-stopper on steroids. Or to put it another way, it’s spiritual hostage-taking.

Consider your options if I say God has spoken to me, and you suspect that actually he hasn’t. You’re either calling me: (1) mistaken; (2) or a liar; or (3) you yourself are disagreeing with God. I dare say none of those are very palatable options.

That’s why the Bible counsels caution when it comes to understanding what God says to us. We’re told not to treat prophecies with contempt but instead to test them and hold on to what is good (1 Thess 5:20-21). God can still speak, so we’re not to dismiss it out of hand, but we’re also to test what is said. That weighing up is doing by the church (1 Cor 14:29-33).

The clear implication from these passages is that people can be wrong. A prophet in the NT sense* doesn’t always get it right, and may say something that they think God has said, but in reality they’re mistaken. So we test it on the basis of what else we know God has said: i.e., how does it match up with Scripture.

*An important qualification: see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology pp.1049-61 for difference between prophets in the OT and NT.

But even more, Paul puts up some warning signs for the whole mindset that prioritizes personal, inner spiritual experience. He was clearly a person to whom God spoke, most famously, in the Damascus Road conversion experience (Acts 9). But that was a public event; the people with him saw the light too, and heard a sound, even if they didn’t understand the voice.

But he also had private spiritual experiences, where ‘God spoke to him’. Yet he’s very reluctant even to admit to them. We hear nothing of them in his letters, except in one place, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Paul is battling against false apostles who seem to have made private spiritual experience a mark of maturity and leadership. They’re probably going around asking, ‘What about Paul? Where are his experiences? Some apostle he is without them’. So Paul feels compelled to respond. Although he says there’s nothing to be gained by talking about visions and revelations, he feels like there’s even more to lose by not talking about them. His relationship with the Corinthian church – and their own relationship with God – is at stake.

So Paul reluctantly plays their own game and reveals how he had an ecstatic vision 14 years earlier (around AD 40) where he was caught up into heaven, into God’s very throne room. But what he saw, and even whether it was bodily or out of body he can’t say. More importantly, he doesn’t want to say.

Now if this happened to one of us today, I suspect we’d take a whole different approach. There would be the bestseller My Vision: A Personal Account of My Trip to Heaven and Back. We’d get a special on Oprah, or at least TBN. Seminars on ‘5 Steps to Your Own Vision’ would be sold out. We’d become a guru to celebrities. But that’s not how Paul handles it.

Why doesn’t Paul want to talk about his experiences? He says it’s ‘so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say’ (v.6). What does he mean by that? Paul wants to be judged only on what he says and does publicly. Private spiritual experience is irrelevant. What ‘God said’ to him doesn’t matter. The mark of leadership and maturity is what he does and says that everyone else can observe, not what God may privately say to him that no one else is privy to.

Paul is then setting up a different paradigm. It’s not that God is silent, that he doesn’t speak. I think God still does, and that he can do that in a variety of ways, including inner impressions and thoughts. But the model from Paul is that we don’t bring those to the table for other people. We may personally be guided by them, provided that we use discernment and aren’t gullible. (How often does God say to us exactly what we wanted to hear anyway?) But we don’t make them binding on other people, or maybe even talk about them. Because if we do, we’re putting other people in a difficult position. We’re binding their consciences and dictating how they have to respond to us.

Perhaps an example can help. One time in Cambridge, Erin and I had a friend over for dinner. He had been asked for that coming year to be the head of a theology committee for his denomination. He was excitedly telling us about his vision for it, and he said at one point, ‘The Lord gave me an idea for a project for the committee’.

Now, based on the paradigm from 2 Cor 12, that’s questionable language: ‘The Lord gave me’. Paul’s saying that personal spiritual experiences don’t count for measuring spiritual maturity or leadership. So to tell someone, ‘I have this idea, and the Lord gave it to me’ is dangerous. It may be that the Lord gave it to him, but is that relevant in this context? It’s taking the spiritual high ground. If the committee members had criticisms of the plan, or didn’t agree with it, did that imply they were opposing God? That’s not what my friend meant—in fact, I think he’d be horrified at that possibility. But those are the consequences of his language. It would be far better for him to allow the committee members to judge the proposal on its merits and test whether it’s of the Lord. He could say, ‘Here’s an idea I think is good based on these reasons’. That’s the idea that maturity and ministry should be evaluated on publicly observable grounds, not on private experience.

We need a model of God leading us that is far more wisdom based than mystical. Wisdom is about developing the mind of Christ, being shaped by Scripture, and especially growing in godly character. From that foundation and context, we pray and think carefully, seek outside wisdom, and make our decisions. We need to move away from a mystical mindset that looks for direct divine guidance and then finds it and makes it inviolable, or plays it as the trump card that overrules any other considerations.

Perhaps I’ve set the cat amidst the pigeons with this post. I’m aware of how prevalent ‘God said to me’ language is. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, and I don’t mean to reject or dismiss that God does speak to us. But I think our conversation can be more edifying, more in line with what God certainly does say, if we are a lot more careful about how often we say, ‘God said to me . . .’

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