Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Does God Speak To People?

We frequently hear Christians say things like, "God spoke to me" or "I sensed God saying to me . . ." or "I'm learning to hear God's voice" or "We need to listen to God." We often pray for an answer to a specific question, expecting that God will, in some way, give us a specific answer. Are these ways of talking based on bad theology?

What would it mean for God to speak to me? In cases of human communication, a simple model involves four parts: sender, message, medium and receiver. On this simple model, God is the sender, the message is various and I am the receiver. But what is the medium? There seem to be several possible answers to this question.

If God does "speak" to humans, there are several means or mediums by which God might do so. First, we see in the Bible cases where it appears that God spoke in an audible voice with human language. For instance, the prophen Habakkuk writes that "the LORD answered me and said, 'Record the vision and inscribe it on tablets . . .'" Of course, it is possible that God spoke directly to his mind and bypassed the ears altogether. I'm not sure it matters, though. The important thing to note is that the "speaking" was linguistic and readily understandable. I would also include dreams and visions in this category. The instances I am referring to are not just vague "feelings" or "senses" that God was saying something, but clear linguistic communication.

Second, God speaks through the medium of written language. Certainly God's Word is, indirectly, God speaking. God has brought it about that his intentions, commands, thoughts, etc. are communicated to us by means of written language. This is perhaps the easiest medium to accept.

Third, I think God speaks to believers intuitively. By this I mean to capture things like impressions during prayer, or when God speaks personally through the Word. When we experience intuitive communication, we sometimes say that we have a sense of God's leading or his direction on a matter. We don't hear or see any language, but we just know. Sometimes this is called tacit knowing. You may not know how you know, but you just know. Perhaps an example of this is in Acts when the elders of the church said that "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . ."

Fourth, God can speak to us through other people. This one is akin to the first, since it generally involves hearing an audible voice, but not God's voice. It is a linguistic and propositional form of communication. The prophets are good examples of this type, as are angels. God once got his message across to Balam by means of a donkey! Recall, though, that it was the donkey's words, not God being "channeled" through the donkey.

Fifth, I think God can speak to us through circumstances or through creation. "Dat to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge." (Ps. 19) This is metaphorical, but the idea is that God is attempting to say something by means of creation. There is content. They tell of the glory of God. My favorite example is Jonah and the vine. God causes the vine to grow and perish overnight in order to get a message across to Jonah. The vine was not the message, but it was meant to get his attention and reveal to him the dark places in his soul. God may also "close a door" or cause some other event that is meant to signal his desire for us.

So, all these examples are well and good, but does God still speak to us today, as he did in the Bible? I think the answer has to be "yes," but with one caveat. The content of God's message in the act of communication is almost always going to be of a certain sort. Let's distinguish between two kinds of information or message-content that God might transmit to us. I will call the first "gnostic" information and the second "biblical" (you can see where this is going). Most people are wary of "speaking" talk because of abuses that generally involve gnostic information. What I mean by "gnostic" is secret, privileged information that God gives to a very limited number of persons. Gnostic information consists of propositions that are not contained in, nor can be inferred from the Bible. In fact, they may even be contrary to the Bible. Moreover, gnostic information is allegedly given to one person or a small group of people. I do not believe that God speaks in this way, with very few exceptions.

Biblical information, on the other hand, is intended to be public, consistent with and very often echoing Scripture. Paul's conclusion in the dispute over the communicative gifts is this: "Let all things be done for edification." God's speaking to a person should not be considered strictly a private matter, but ultimately for the building up of the body as a whole community. I am extremely skeptical of any alleged "divine message," the content of which is something that no Christian could ever have known or discerned apart from the revelation of the message. That is, I believe that when God speaks, he will simply be recapitulating what he has already said, in one way or another. This is what the entire ministry of the Old Testament prophets consisted in. They simply recapitulated or rehashed the Mosaic law and covenant, with all its promises and warnings.

So, I probably have not said enough here to draw a sound conclusion. More distinctions need to be drawn, more terms defined, more Scriptures explored. That will be for a later post. Of course, if I get absolutely no comments on this, I won't be terribly motivated to write more. I'll let the "free market" decide.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Brent said...

Hey Chris, good thoughts. Maybe you could address the "God told me..." language that we her so frequently in a future post? Please? :)

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Curtis said...

Hey Chris, interesting topic.

I agree with most of what you wrote, but I would say to be careful in dismissing something in saying that God does not do something based on your own understanding and experiences when the position is not explicitly seen in scripture. I’ve learned this general lesson over time and try to be more careful to keep an open mind in matters not explicitly discounted in scripture.

I guess I'm pointing specifically toward what you called 'gnostic' knowledge. I do believe that God does in some instances reveal to people things that pertain to them and not to the general church. I've heard many accounts of this, some from people I in whom I put a great deal of trust. Typically, I've heard these revelations to be some sort of guidance or encouragement. A particular instance I remember is from a pastor who struggled with meager beginnings when starting his church. God showed in a dream both him and his wife the church building that they currently are in (long before being built) as an encouragement that they would have a fruitful ministry. They both kept it a secret until the church grew and the building was needed. Only then did they even reveal to each other the dream, let alone anyone else. I tell that story to show how God may use 'gnostic' knowledge to encourage the recipient and not the general church, and it's to the recipient’s benefit to keep it to himself so as not to face discouragement from those who might find it ridiculous.

Another point I’d discuss is your mention of God speaking through other people and prophesy. I think it’s important to point out that God speaking through other people can take a variety of forms. The most common, I’d guess, is that as Christians, we are reclaiming the ‘Image of God’ that God originally created us in. As people being recreated in His image, we would naturally interact with people in ways that God would, and I think this spills over into guidance and encouragement that we may offer our brothers and sisters. There’s not necessarily any mystical revelation in this case, just us transmitting God’s word that we’ve learned to other people. Then there’s the form of prophesy. This is discussed particularly in Acts and in Paul’s letters (especially 1 Corinthians). This is different from the first form of us teaching what we’ve learned. This is the Holy Spirit providing words for us to speak (often in a foreign language that must be interpreted with the help of the Holy Spirit). True, usually both of these forms reiterate known information but emphasize the hearers’ attention to the matter.

To discuss briefly Brent’s comment, I would say that I think Christians do use language like ‘God told me…’ too much. I heard an interesting point about how in the 10 Commandments we’re told to not take the Lord’s name in vain. We usually look at that as not saying ‘God [insert 4 letter word].’ But in reality this isn’t the biggest issue that the commandment addresses. Using language like ‘God told me…’ when not absolutely sure that God told me is also using the Lord’s name in vain. Many a time people have been convinced that God was speaking something to them to be proven wrong later. It wasn’t God in error, but the person’s lack of accurate discernment. So, I’m more careful when I think God’s showing me something to be careful to show my lack of trust in my discernment by using language like ‘I think it may be possible that God might have been showing me…’

Well, Chris, you opened a can of worms. Might I suggest that we break this down into individual worms rather than trying to digest the entire can at once?

9:38 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Great comments. Perhaps we can chew on the "private encouragement" worm. I must admit that there are examples of what I have called gnostic information (GI, for short) in the Bible. Daniel's revelation in Dan. 7, for instance. So, perhaps there is a way to define GI that will allow those, but rule out the bad cases.

Here is an additional restriction we could place on "God spoke to me" or "God told me" claims: if it is not subject to confirmation by the Body, then it should not be considered legitimate.

So, by "subject to confirmation" I mean it is shared with the Body in some way and its authenticity examined. The individual should be willing to submit cases of "God speaking" (GS, for short) to the Body and to submit to the Body's judgment.

Can anyone think of an exception to this? Or a reason why this is too restrictive?

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Curtis said...

Well, if we're talking about the revelation that is to build the church, I think some way of sharing it with the Body to have its authenticity examined is necessary.

However, when talking about 'private encouragement,' I don't know that bringing it forth to the church to be examined is real useful. In your example, Daniel kept it to himself, which seems to have been the correct action. At the transfiguration, Jesus instructs Peter, James, and John to keep quite about their revelation. If these folks or the pastor I wrote about in my last post were to share their insight to the church body, the most likely would have been laughed off. Also, the church would have no way of determinining whether it was true or not other than if the Holy Spirit laid it on their hearts in much the same fashion as to the originator.

So, I guess I'm getting to the point that these private encouragement type of revelations have no need to be shared with the church. Nothing is to be gained by the church by their telling. The originator will probably not waver from his position if church members show disapproval.

Unless I'm shown biblically that this type of revelation is somehow illegitamite or must be brought before the church, I think we are left with believing that its entirely possible. But, at the same time, as it is not been subject to the church's examination, cannot in full faith be assured to be God-originating.

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

God speaks however He wills!

That's what I have learned.
We have the entire Bible to discern from and also to "test the spirit". Ultimately, we have His Holy Spirit to teach & guide us. What a Great & powerful gift & privilage!

He's limited our knowledge for our benefit. Even the knowledge of our own wicked hearts...for our benefit...
How can we understand such a great God? For His ways and thoughts are so far above ours!
But, we know enough for now...for this journey.

God shows us He speaks in many different ways throughout the Bible.
Have you considered 2 Samuel 23...David's Last Words...vs. 23*** "The Spirit of the LORD spoke through me; (He used his body)
***His word was on my tongue. (God's word, not David's word was on His tongue)
***The God of Israel spoke, (God spoke using David's body)
***the Rock of Israel said to me:(God spoke to David using David's own tongue)... He spoke off of the tongue of David.
God expressed His intimate love to David using David's own body...one more time...before He took him home to see HIM face to face.

Can you imagine David ready to leave His body...and His beloved Creator using his own body to communicate to him. What a loving, and intimate way to go home.
Try to imagine how David must have felt when God's Holy Spirit made His presence known to him in such an intimate way...using his tongue and mouth?
(Babies put everything in their mouths for a greater understanding and a more intimate physical experience)
God inspired David to share that with us to help us not to limit God and His great intimate love for His children.
God used David's life in great ways, just as He wants to with each of us today (God Never Changes) He has a different plan for everyone and uses everyone in many different ways.
...why can't He use the ones He made "in His own image" to speak through? ...He used a bush with Moses...and clouds to speak through.
Are we not His beloved children in whom He delights... (If we believe and trust in Jesus Christ as our Saviour?)

Satan has used many human bodies to speak through.
Then, why do we limit God and say He can't speak through a human body if He wants to... Or any other way He wills?

He tenderly kisses us with every breath He breathes into us.
He's closer to us than anyone or any thing.
He discerns our every thought and understands every motive...and still He forgives them all.

He always perfectly loves us and He is using every opportunity to show us His love.

I agree, some of the most amazing signs and wonders He shows His children... even today, He wants to keep private... for His reasons...
He also helps His children to understand that, and to understand when it's time to share it and build each other up in His love.

God should never ever be limited...
Why should the clay tell the Potter what, how, when, and where?

God loves you!
God is love.
His great love we cannot even fathom.
In His love,
Gina

1:46 PM  

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