In the message last night, I told a couple of brief stories about a man named John – a man I had the privilege of working with in Pennsylvania. He was a man that had those direct promptings of the Spirit much more often than I. So, that leaves me wondering, “Why?”
If I’m honest, there have been times when I thought that he was more spiritual than I was and felt a guilt for not being more like John. As I’ve grown up a little, and as I’ve studied more, I have more answers – or one answer in many parts (whichever you prefer).
First, I think part of it was his age and experience. He had walked with God for three or four decades more than I had. It makes sense that he would be more a tune to the voice of God.
Second, I think he listened more than I do. This goes hand in hand with number one, but not entirely the same thought. Through the years, he developed his gift and ability to hear the Spirit. I think we can begin to develop that at a younger age.
Third, I think he had the gift of prophecy (though, due to his theological paradigm, he would never have called it that). I think this is an incredibly important point, but one that no one seems to be making. The debate about guidance seems to be two sided: either God directly leads people through promptings, revelation, etc, or he doesn’t. Maybe there’s a third option – maybe he leads some people in those direct ways more than others.
Remember how we defined the New Testament gift of prophecy. Grudem broke it down into two parts: first there is some direct revelation to the believer through the Spirit, and then, secondly, there is the report of this communication. When we talk about direct guidance by the Spirit, we’re talking about the first part of that gift called prophecy. And Paul goes to great lengths in 1 Corinthians 12-14 to establish the truth that while every believer has a spiritual gift, there is no one gift we all posses. That would include prophecy and the direct promptings of the Spirit. Not everyone is a prophet and not everyone gets those direct promptings – nor should everyone expect to.
This thought will be not be compelling to those who reject that the gift of prophecy is for today, but may help temper the fervor of those that do. Please feel free to comment, especially as I’m just offering this as my thoughts, still unrefined and in process…
13 thoughts on “Why some people hear the Spirit more often”
Dan I want to say again, thanks for everything you invest in preparing for teaching at Connexion. I am appreciating more and more the difficulty you bravely face in addressing 100+ “reformed-ish” 20 somethings who will hold varied positions on spiritual gifts and their relevance today. Not easy; points for intention and diligence.
I liked your “trying to stay on the horse and not fall off to either extreme” analogy from earlier this year a lot. I think it helps a lot to keep a hold of that when we think and explore spiritual gifts… and exploring I think should be encouraged, we shouldn’t draw back from developing a healthy spiritual curiosity.
So with my trusty Waugh steed firmly in hand, and a tongue-in-cheek respect for a new found friend, here are some of my thoughts for you to ponder…
(Sorry for the length of this, I don’t have the same opportunities to teach that I did back in Scotland and I find to easy to get carried away)
I by and large agree with your definition of the purpose of spiritual gifts. I would say:
1. Spiritual gifts strengthen the church’s fellowship.
2. Spiritual gifts extend the church’s witness and ministry.
The gift of the Holy Spirit led to the birth of the church and Peter’s Spirit-filled preaching brought three thousand people to faith the very same day (Acts 2). The regular wonders and signs ministered through the apostles (Acts 2:43) meant that day by day the Lord added to the church those who were being saved (Acts 2:47). The healing of the lame man at the Gate Beautiful and subsequent preaching by Peter brought the number of Christians in Jerusalem to about five thousand (Acts 4:4). Peter’s exercise of the gift of knowledge enabling him to expose the deception of Ananias and Sapphira resulted in more believers than ever being added to the Lord (Acts 5:14). The martyrdom (a spiritual gift too) of Stephen led to evangelism in Samaria, and, a little later, to the conversion of Paul. The connection continued and because so many members of the early church were keen to exercise all the gifts that were available to them, the church grew and was strong.
Different figures of speech are used in Scripture to describe the new community, the church; a common one is “body”.
“In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” – Romans 12:5
The church was divinely established on the day of Pentecost through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and a consistent pattern can be traced from the book of Acts through the letters of the New Testament. The church is described as a diverse community of love and oneness. A normal expression of this oneness is the unrestricted involvement of all believers in the ministry of the community. Since this ministry is carried out with each individual contributing his or her spiritual gifts, the expectation is for all to use their gifts to the fullest.
I don’t think the Bible presents us with a fixed list of spiritual gifts, instead any gift, task or benefit to the whole church that a Christian has been enabled by God to practise can legitimately be termed a “spiritual gift”. Some of the Spirit’s gifts are supernatural in operation, while others may be natural abilities or talents enabled or enhanced by the Holy Spirit, e.g., supernatural abilities such as prophecy, healing, tongues; and enhanced natural abilities like administration, teaching, caring for the needs of others. Just as the church itself is a body of diverse part that should exist in oneness, so the gifts to build it up are diverse in allocation and expression but one in purpose.
In the same way that being “filled with the Spirit” is not a one time only deal (instead we should be continually filled with the Spirit), so is my understanding of how the Spirit gives gifts. Certain gifts I like to describe metaphorically (without intending any disrespect from potential connotations) as “disposable”, tbey are given for a specific time and purpose until that purpose has been achieved i.e. instances of prophecy, gifts of healing, words of knowledge, while others are, in a sense, “on tap” are in a sense always there or always available, i.e. gifts we hold in stewardship such as tongues, teaching or leadership. I would argue that individual Christians receive both “disposable” and “on tap” endowments. We are neither specialists with only one operation of the Spirit, nor participants in some endless heavenly game of musical chairs with a different allocation of types of manifestation of the Spirit each time the assembly meets. The Spirit is sovereign in his distribution – but this is not fatalistic – it’s not independent of our humble prayerful seeking. But no one receives them all.
People can also be gifts given to the church for edification – apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists, administrators etc. They have a nexus of gifts that function with an element of permanency, are recognised by the church, are authorised by some formal commissioning, and maybe be commended by others or renumerated.
With all of this in mind, I think every Christian should ideally be knowledgeable about all spiritual gifts: their different forms, how to recognise them and what to do when the Spirit chooses to give them. This should also extend to include an understanding that just because you haven’t be given a specific gift in the past that doesn’t mean the Spirit wont choose to give you one down the line, especially as our circumstances and ministry evolve.
At the risk of rambling on even longer, in answer to your question on “why some people hear the Spirit more often than others”, I would say theer are three essential characteristics for hearing the voice of God speak to us: availability, willingness, and humility.
Jesus had “unreserved availability for God”. When I look at the life of Jesus, I never really see him “finding time for God”. Rather, I see a Son whose time belongs completely to the Father. Jesus was never in a hurry. He never needed more time. This is because he looked on his time as his Father’s time. Also, he was completely available for his Father’s desires. He only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19). And he was always in the right place at the right time in order to fulfil the desires of his heavenly Father.
• It is not about quiet times.
It is possible to have a quiet time every morning and never be available to God. Unlike people who “find time” for God, who get their quiet time out of the way in the morning so they can go on with their real lives and forget God the rest of the day, people who are truly available to God see God as owning their day. He is free to reorder it at anytime he chooses. Their satisfaction comes from experiencing his presence throughout the day and knowing they are pleasing to him.
Friends can call at anytime of the night. Availability is one of the primary characteristics of friendship. Friends are available to their friends. Just as we have differing levels of friendship, so there are differing levels of availability. Our closest friends can call at anytime without causing us irritation and will be genuinely welcomed. In a real friendship, availability is reciprocal. The people who have unrestricted access to me also have unrestricted access to them. It works the same way with out heavenly Father. He is most available to those who are most available to him.
• Does that sound fair? Why is God not equally available to us all?
God doesn’t throw his pearls before swine. The ones who find him are those who seek him with all their hearts (Deut 4:29).
It is important to cultivate a state of mind where we view all of our time as God’s time, a state of mind where we are totally available to him. It is necessary to do this because God speaks to us at the most inconvenient times. He delights in it, in order to test our availability.
• Read Mark 3:13-15.
Before the disciples were to have the privilege or the power of preaching and ministering in the name of Jesus, they were to be with him. Availability to God, intimacy with Jesus is the practical foundation for all ministry.
• Availability to God is the first priority in ministry and the first requirement for hearing his voice.
There are both passive and active aspects to availability. There are times when we are simply to wait on the Lord (Jer 42:1-7; Isa 40:31). On the other hand, people who are available to God actively seek him (Matt 6:33). For how long…? We are to seek him until he comes (Hos 10:12). The attitude of the person available to the Lord is, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). If we make ourselves available to God, he will make himself available to us (James 4:8).
Willing to do God’s will…
• Read John 7:16-17.
Jesus gave the second prerequisite for hearing the voice of God. In effect, he was saying that spiritual discernment is based on out willingness to do the will of God. God speaks to those who are willing to do whatever he says to them.
One of the reasons that Jesus heard the Father’s voice better than anyone else was his utter obedience to this principle. He said, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30). When God sees that in our heart of hearts we are truly willing to do whatever he says, he will speak to us. Why should he speak to us if he knows that we will not do what he asks?
Humility and the ability to hear God’s voice go hand in hand. Every person in the Bible who had a great ability to hear God’s voice was also a person of great humility.
Humility is being small in our own eyes. See 1 Sam 15:17. It doesn’t mean we think we are worthless or that we have no abilities or good qualities. It does mean that we have a profound distrust of our own abilities or goodness. Humble people know that neither physical strength (Prov 21:31), nor intelligence (Prov 16:9), nor luck (Prov 16:23) is decisive – instead, it is the Lord who will determine the outcome. Humility is a profound confidence in the mercy of God rather than in man’s intentions or efforts (Rom 9:15-16). A truly humble person knows that no matter how great their abilities or their character, they can do nothing apart from Christ (John15:6). So humble people put their confidence in the Holy Spirit’s ability to speak, not in their ability to hear, and in Christ’s ability to lead, not in their ability to follow.
Another characteristic of humble people is that they are willing to associate with and serve people of lower position than themselves (Rom 12:10; Gal 5:13; Phil 2:3-4). No one was better at this than Christ (Phil 2:5-11). God the Father is intrinsically humble. He loves to associate with the lowly (Isa 57:15; 66:2).
Psalm 138:6 “Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar.” God is intimate with the humble, but keeps the arrogant at a distance.
If we are ever going to hear the voice we must embrace humility. Jesus was humble in heart (Matt 11:29)
In summary…if we make ourselves available to God, are willing to do whatever he tells us, and set our hearts to pursue humility, he will speak to us.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this stuff, when you have time. We can always talk it through next time we grab lunch/coffee instead of typing it out.
Thanks Doug (especially for considering me a friend). I like what you’re saying, especially about the lack of a fixed list of gifts. I find all the list’s in those ‘inventories’ a little to wooden.
I am more and more convince, almost daily, about the role the gifts play, especially, but not only the miraculous gifts, in the church’s witness – Wimber’s ‘power evangelism’.
I would take slight exception to the statement that the church was established at Pentacost. I think, rightly defined, the church existed long before that and consists of all the saints from all ages. That is, admittedly, nit picky.
With regards to the essential characteristics for hearing God speak, I whole heartedly agree; yet I don’t know if it is necessarily true that someone who is available, humble and willing to listen will necessarily ‘hear God’ in the same way that someone else marked by those same three qualities might. I think it’s possible, and even likely and probable to hear God speak through his written word, and in those direct promptings.
Talk to you soon.
I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on what you consider the Church to be…
I agree that humble, available and willing Christians will “hear” God in different ways. I didn’t intend to come across that way, sorry. I would say by and large that God “speaks” to his people through the Bible, through experience, by natural means and by supernatural means. The extent to which we “hear” God by each means is dependent upon what God is trying to say us and his purpose in doing so.
The most common way the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus and speaks to us today is through the Bible. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the men of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
The Bible teaches that God often speaks to us in our experiences, that is, through the events and circumstances of our lives. God may use an illness, a tragedy, or some other kind of trial to get our attention and bring correction to us. Sometimes God may speak to us through circumstances or events that have nothing to do with trials or suffering. That said we should not make our experience a higher standard of truth than Scripture, nor are experience and Scripture equal standards of authority. The words of Scripture must remain our only absolute standard. But the Holy Spirit often speaks through our experiences in ways consistent with Scripture, and even in ways that may challenge us to correct our wrong interpretations of Scripture.
When it comes to natural means, I am referring to: dreams, visions and trances; sentence fragments and single words (your “shame” example would come in here); impressions (the Spirit influencing our feelings, physical senses, minds); and human messengers (including preachers, teachers, family members, friends, aquaintances).
The audible voice of God, the internal audible voice, the voice of angels – these are the most overtly supernatural ways that God speaks to his children. I would say they are the most infrequent of all but perhaps the most clear. When God deems it necessary to speak to you so clearly, it usually means you are going to go through such a difficult experience that later you will need to be absolutely certain that God had spoken to you. In fact, the clarity of the voice may be the main thing that gives you the power to endure the subsequent testing.
Again with respect to natural and supernatural communication, the words of Scripture remain our only absolute standard so we should test what we perceive to be hearing. If it is God that is speaking to us he will always be consistent with Scripture.
Regardless of how often we “hear” by any or all of the above ways, we as disciples should at least be conversant and knowledgable about them or we risk missing out on what God may be saying to us.
Dan, I like your idea that we might not all have the same experience with God. That seems to be the case in the Bible. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more skeptical of the notion that if we were just more “spiritual”, God would nudge us here and there all day long. And almost without exception, the people I’ve met who suggest that God nudges them all day long I have not found particularly compelling. They are just very emotion-driven people who mistake their feelings for God’s guidance, perhaps. I cannot judge that, ultimately, of course.
I think Christians end up feeling a lot of guilt because they think they should be having a different experience of God than they do. And that different experience is often derived from reading biographies of people like George Mueller or Hudson Taylor. Or by taking as normative unique experiences had by people in the Bible who have been given special roles to play in God’s redemptive plan. Yes, God sometimes spoke to Paul from the sky or in a dream. But often–perhaps most often–Paul simply had to make up his mind about what he wanted to do. And that’s okay. Paul does not speak of being directed by nudge-like experiences all day long (that I can recall).
The primary nudging role of the Holy Spirit is moral, isn’t it? But even that is not typically a voice whose words can be recorded verbatim. Just a bringing to mind of something we know to be true.
I get particularly concerned when people think that God speaks to them from the Bible in a way that is not connected with the actual meaning of the passage. This is treating the Bible as some sort of 8-ball or magic book. That’s not its proper, normal use.
Regarding the assertion by Doug that those who are available, willing, and humble will hear the voice of God–I can’t agree (depending, of course, on what we mean by hearing the voice of God). In many cases in the Bible, those who heard the voice of God were none of these three things. The essential requirement is that God has something to say to someone, so he speaks! If he wants to speak, he will be heard, and we won’t have to sit around and wonder whether it was really him or was indigestion or our subconscious.
Against what I just wrote are passages like Ps. 95:7, quoted in Hebrews 3, “Today, if you would hear His voice, do not harden your heart…”. The question is, what did the psalmist mean by “hear His voice”? Was it a reference to the priest’s ability to get an answer via Urim and Thummim? Or an answer from a prophet? I don’t see why we should conclude it was a nudge.
I don’t claim to have all the answers on this topic, so I appreciate your being willing to think about it here.
I saw the link and read this article yesterday. I think its awesome and would love to hear what you think.
The Morning I Heard the Voice of God
I like it! That’s really good. Thanks for posting the link.
Mark, thanks for your thoughts and comments. I welcome your input.
To clear something up first of all, neither Dan nor I were advocating that if someone were just more “spiritual” they would be “nudged” (which is a fairly ambiguous term) by God here and there all day long. Dan originally wondered why some Christians experience direct promptings of the Holy Spirit in the context of ministry more than others. My comments were also in the context of hearing in order to serve. I hope you can see that I wasn’t suggesting that God is some heavenly ATM, and if we punch the right spiritual key sequence he will dispense x, y and z. C. S. Lewis wrote “Knowledge of God proceeds in an entirely different manner. Every encounter is unique and individual, just like any meeting between two persons.” God is personal and highly invested in redemptive relationships with his adopted children. Which is why I suggested that those who make themselves humble, willing and available tend to hear direct promptings in relation to ministry more than those who are arrogant, unwilling and unavailable. Furthermore, as God is personal he is perfectly capable of choosing to speak to people who embody none of those qualities, and at times he graciously does as you rightly pointed out. However, haven’t you observed times when God is prompting you with regard to something, perhaps an opportunity to witness to someone or convicting you of a sin that you know you are wilfully engaging in? Haven’t you noticed that if you consistently choose to ignore him, if you are unwilling or consider yourself unavailable for some reason to witness at that moment, or you don’t want to stop doing whatever the sin is, we become less aware of such promptings in the future?
Granted there are unfortunately misguided individuals who attribute God’s voice to almost everything and anything – to an often ridiculous degree. But largely they are failing to use scripture as their absolute standard to guide and test their practice. It is a mistake to predict or limit how the Spirit will choose to act or speak based on observations of misrepresentative experiences.
I get the impression we probably have different conclusions regarding what is normative in terms of ministry in the NT.
The way I see it: it was normal for Jesus to hear from his Father before he did or said things. Jesus said his ministry was guided by this great principle: He did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19). John repeatedly emphasises this theme in his gospel. In his humanity, Jesus claims he can do nothing of himself, so he judges as he hears his Father judge (John 5:30). His teaching does not originate with himself but with his Father (John 8:28, 12:49-50; 14:10,24). In short, he does exactly what the Father commands him (John 14:31). In every instance, he presents himself as a servant under orders in unbroken communion with his Father. And he does all of these things – judges, teaches, speaks, obeys – not out of his deity but by the Spirit who rests upon him without limit (John 3:34). Even the Holy Spirit himself conforms to this pattern. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit “will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13). Jesus listened to God, and then as one empowered by the Holy Spirit, he spoke and acted. He passed this same method of ministry on to his apostles, promising them he would send the Holy Spirit to empower them. The Holy Spirit would speak to them, teach them all things, bring all the words of Jesus to their remembrance, testify to Jesus, guide them into truth, and reveal the future to them (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13). Jesus was their model for ministry. I think the NT evidence is clear: Jesus heard his Father’s voice both within and outside the Scriptures. So did the apostles and 1st century Christians. I am convinced that hearing in order to serve is the New Testament pattern for Christians then and for Christians now. Do we need to hear God any less? Do we not also have a role in God’s redemptive plan?
I agree that many of the experiences had by people in the Bible are unique. Unique to them as individuals, and unique to the particular circumstances of when they lived and what God was doing through them. We are equally unique in all those regards. It is the Spirit’s sovereign choice whether he speaks to us or calls us to serve in overtly supernatural ways or not. The format of “hearing” is not of primary importance for ministry, rather serving God as faithfully as we can is. I outlined in the above posts the different ways and means that I see God “speaking” in the Bible and said that the extent to which we “hear” God by each means is dependent upon what God is trying to say to us, and his purpose in doing so. Whether he chooses to speak to us with the clarity of the audible voice, or in the precise language of the Scriptures, or in the ambiguities of a mysterious dream, the words of Scripture must remain our only absolute standard.
I stand by my assertion that Christians who seek to serve God and the Kingdom, in a humble, willing and available manner will hear God speak to them in response to their desire. But, those three characteristics are not related to how God will choose to speak, that depends ultimately on God himself. And because he is who he is, he lovingly takes into consideration the circumstances and people involved before he determines how he will “speak”.
Mark you also said that “The essential requirement is that God has something to say to someone, so he speaks! If he wants to speak, he will be heard, and we won’t have to sit around and wonder whether it was really him or was indigestion or our subconscious.” Looking at scripture this is simply not true: Some have failed to recognise angels (Hebrews 13:2). Samuel thought the voice of God came from Eli. A further example comes from the life of Jesus. Just before Jesus’ crucifixion, God spoke audibly once more to his Son in the presence of witnesses (John 12:27-33). Jesus was speaking to a crowd. The voice brought honour to Jesus. He prayed, and his Father answered him audibly in public before a crowd. Jesus specifically said that the real purpose of that voice was not for his sake but for the benefit of the people there. The principle in scripture appears to be, “the clearer the revelation, the more difficult the task.” Jesus was about to die on a cross, a form of capital punishment reserved for the dregs of society. How difficult it would be for anyone to believe he was the Messiah. So God spoke audibly to him – with a crowd as witnesses – to show that the honour of God rested on Jesus, that he was set apart in divine favour from all men. This was the mercy of God. The voice was clear and audible. He spoke audibly so that the people might believe in Jesus as the Son of God when everything was about to indicate otherwise. Yet John records the strangest thing. He says some people there did not understand the audible voice of God. In fact, some heard no voice at all. They simply said to the ones who did hear, “You’re wrong, it only thundered.” God was speaking distinctly, audibly, and all they heard was thunder.
Doug, thanks for your thoughtful reply. Yes, I think we probably do disagree regarding what is normative. There are many, many ways in which Jesus’ behavior is not normative for me. For instance, I’ve never healed anyone. I’ve never cast out a demon. I’ve never done a miracle.
I agree that the apostles did sometimes hear directly from God. For example, Paul had a dream of a man from Macedonia. However, other times, he simply says, “It seemed good” to do such and such. And that’s quite okay, as I believe it is for me (for example) to decide to teach on one topic in a class at church rather than another topic–without “hearing from God”. Actually, I believe he wants us to develop spiritually mature, biblically informed desires and follow them. Should he choose to direct my topic choice or other ministry decision via a dream, vision, or audible voice, I will thank him profusely, but he has not done so in my 35 years of knowing him. (Not to say that he couldn’t tomorrow.) That’s okay by me.
What I do reject (though this may not be what you’re saying) is the notion that my ministry decisions MUST be based on some regular, ongoing direction from God, and that this direction is most often accomplished by my “feeling led” or sensing some kind of inner prompting or peace. This notion of God’s leading is largely absent from the Bible but has unfortunately been very popular among Christians. It has led to a lot of unnecessary guilt and confusion. There is an excellent book on this topic by Gary Friesen, called Decision Making and the Will of God. He handles the various scriptures people often (ab)use quite well.
Regarding your post script, I don’t disagree–I perhaps wrote too quickly. Yes, there are many who have failed to hear God speak. I was thinking of it in the context of a serious believer who meets your criteria of being available, willing, and humble–when we are walking in the light.
Anyhow, I do appreciate your heart on this topic, and I imagine that, in practical terms, our views may not be far apart at all, even if I don’t experience the promptings that you do.
I agree that we are probably of the same heart and desire, even if we differ in some aspects of practical experience. I apologise if any of my previous comments we a little rough.
I would say that we SHOULD seek direction from God for all of our decisions, be they primarily concerned with ministry or life in general (rather than primarily doing whatever we think it best). I am not saying at all that direction given us by God must be regular, ongoing or accomplished by a feeling or a sensation or other esoteric prompting. I am also not saying that God doesn’t often allow us to make decisions based on our biblically informed knowledge of him. Let me try to be as explicit as I can about what I consider my view of this stuff to be:
I consider that God is a God who revealed himself to humanity, whom he created in his own image to exist in right relationship with himself, each other and the rest of creation. It is a testament to his everlasting glory that he continued to reveal more of himself after the Fall, and that he graciously provided Scripture as a Spirit-inspired and true written account of his redemptive purpose and his interaction with fallen humanity until we get to Jesus. I consider Jesus himself to be the greatest and best revelation of the truth about God. I would say that the Spirit inspired the NT writers to record as Scripture what God considered sufficient of the life and ministry of Jesus, as well as the life and ministry of the early Church, for those who would follow after to faithfully live and serve him until his redemptive purpose is fully realized. I am convinced that the biblical canon is closed and although God continues to reveal truth about himself to his followers it is not equal to Scripture. Scripture is our absolute standard and is the most often method that God reveals himself and directs the life and ministry of his followers today, due to the fact that is it in the form of precise language.
I also see, in Scripture and in my own experience, that God also chooses to reveal to and direct his followers by extra-biblical means – at times and in situations that merit him communicating to us in a format other than the precise written language of Scripture. I am not saying that all Christians should expect this all of the time. Nor that those who do experience extra-biblical communication are in any way more spiritual or superior to any other Christian. Paul teaches us clearly that the Church is a body composed of many parts, each with a role to play in the great commission and God will communicate and direct us accordingly.
I have found that God uses extra-biblical communication to “fine-tune” (if you’ll allow me to use that expression) our biblically formed desires and efforts in ministry. To alert us to opportunities to witness or serve in someway in a specific set of circumstances.
Let me illustrate with a personal example: years ago when I was in my late teens I woke up one night and couldn’t get back to sleep. Which is pretty unusual for me. Don’t get me wrong, I do have sleepless nights but very rarely and really only when I am worried or overly concerned with something. But this night wasn’t one of those times, all things considered it was just an average night for me. As I lay in my bed trying in vain to go back to sleep, the idea of drawing crossed my mind. I didn’t think much of it, but after a few minutes I thought about it again. Shortly it was all that I could think about. So, as I wasn’t succeeding in getting back to sleep – I gave in to the urge to draw something. I grabbed a pencil and some paper then pondered what I felt like drawing a picture of. The first thing I thought of was a mountain. I thought why not, and began to sketch a mountain (I’m Scottish, so have plenty of good mountains to choose from). After maybe 10-15 minutes I was done, and as I was looking at it trying to decide if it needed anymore work, a verse of Scripture that had the word mountain in it crossed my mind. It was a verse that I had read and heard before but not intentionally memorized. I reached for my Bible and looked it up in the concordance and wrote it down on the piece of paper with the mountain drawing on it. Then other “mountain” verses popped into my head, one at a time. Maybe 5 or 6 in total – again I had read or heard them all before but they weren’t particularly special or favourites. I looked them up and wrote them down on the piece of paper. I sat there in bed wondering if I should draw something else or whether I should give sleep another attempt, when the idea of giving it to someone occurred to me. I considered which of my friends from church might like it before instead settling on one of my friend’s mothers (Iris). I didn’t know why she has even come to mind but she had and I opted for her. I wrote a quick note explaining that I had woken up …etc., hoping that she would understand and at least get a smile out of it. As I was signing the note a verse from Philippians crossed my mind, so I jotted that down as a P.S. I placed the drawing with the verses and the note in an envelope, sealed it, addressed it. Then decided to try to fall asleep, which I promptly did. The following morning I posted it and it wasn’t until the following Sunday I had the chance to see Iris in person. Anyway, she made a beeline for me after the service, hugged me with tears in her eyes and gave me a letter. It in she explained that she was due in hospital this week for a hysterectomy and was pretty much freaking out about it. She is a nurse, so knew the full extent of what the operation entailed and had been really struggling with fear and worry about the whole thing – to the extent that she was finding it hard to trust God with it all. She felt her prayers were futile and she wasn’t finding any comfort in reading the Bible or in the words of family and friends. She said that she didn’t really think much of my drawing. It wasn’t until she read the P.S. of my note that she broke down in tears. The verse from Philippians was one she always had used when sharing her testimony, she felt it summoned up what God was at work doing in her life and ministry. She said that seeing that was like a watershed event. She attributed my whole experience to the work of the Spirit and because she saw that God had gone out of the way to communicate his love for her, she could finally let go of the angst and worry of the hospital op, and take in the promises of trust and faithfulness depicted by the mountain and the verses – as well as those already given to her by family and friends. I hadn’t known any of that – she didn’t wanted to tell many people because it was a hysterectomy – so only a handful of church people knew – I was just a college kid that was friends with her son. We were both members of a Church that pretty much ascribed to a cessationist theology.
Anyway, in the years since I’ve seen and personally experienced enough to be confident that God does indeed “speak” to his followers outwith Scripture when it is appropriate. I’ve tried to learn, grow in understanding and seek out all of what God has to say to me in terms of life and ministry. It is not a daily occurrence that I hear God outside of Scripture and of course you are correct that God often leaves it up to us to make ministry or life decisions without any extra-biblical means. It makes sense to me that God does this, it is more glorifying to him if we behave righteously or make God-honouring decisions without any direct promptings from him.
But extra-biblical communication does have its place in appropriate situations or circumstances. When it does happen to me, sometimes it is apparent that the Spirit is prompting me and at others it is not. Regardless if I suspect that God is “speaking” to me outwith Scripture, the correct thing to do it to test and examine what I think I have “heard” according to the precise language of Scripture; to submit it to God in prayer or ask for wisdom from other biblically mature Christians. As I said previously, it is sad but true that some Christians misunderstand the role and place God has for “speaking” to us in these ways. They lose perspective on Scripture as final authority or regard themselves as special or more spiritual than other believers. Even worse they can claim direction or having “heard” from God when it is (as you hinted at) just over-zealous emotions or the desire to be part of something special. This is just plain wrong and part of the reason God-honouring believers shy away or are skeptical of this. But for all the people who misuse or abuse extra-biblical communication that are just as many people who misuse or abuse Scripture – those who preach a health & wealth gospel for instance or those who are just plain judgmental and legalistic in their application.
Some folks just don’t have a theology that includes God speaking to us outside of Scripture. While I might disagree with them, I am still called to love them as Jesus loved them. They are still my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I’d rather work alongside them as much as they will allow me to for the sake of the gospel. I personally think it is better for all believers to be knowledgable about all the ways God can “speak” to us, to be biblically informed about the role and place of extra-biblical communication, and the manner in which it should be handled if encountered – as you say, and as I found out that night, God might decide it is prudent to “speak” to you in a dream or with an inner prompting tomorrow. It would be a shame to miss out on opportunities to serve through lack of ignorance or unwillingness to be open to something unexpected – at least I think so.
If you are up for continuing the discussion:
Practically speaking, how does God inform your ministry or life decisions? Would you say you had encountered any extra-biblical communication? Do your emotions or feelings play any part in your recognition of God using your reading of Scripture to teach, rebuke, correct or train you in righteousness?
P.S. Chip in your thoughts Dan!
Doug–thanks for taking the time to spell out your thoughts. A few comments:
I would say that we SHOULD seek direction from God — if you substitute “wisdom” for “direction”, I’m 100% with you.
If I wasn’t clear earlier, let me be so now–I am not a cessationist (didn’t know that term until you used it and Wikipedia came to my rescure!). God can speak any way at any time he chooses. But I don’t see a lot of nudging in the Bible, nor do I see the seeking of nudging enjoined. I do, however, see the seeking of wisdom enjoined, so I do that earnestly. If I think I’ve learned something, is that the voice of God? Perhaps I’m too timid to call it that, because I mistrust my own understanding. I don’t want to say “God told me X” even if it’s something I’m very excited about figuring out. But if it isn’t plain as day in the Bible, I have to leave room for the future improvement of my understanding.
That said, I like your story about Iris and the mountain, and I will not be the one to say God didn’t wake you up, or didn’t bring verses to mind, or bring Iris to mind. Yet if I were to explain something similar, I’d be reluctant to call it “communication” and more likely to describe it as God in his wonderful sovereignty bringing about blessings in his own way. I’m not saying my explanation is the correct one–I’m just telling you how I’d describe it according to my present understanding.
Practically speaking, how does God inform your ministry or life decisions? Would you say you had encountered any extra-biblical communication? Do your emotions or feelings play any part in your recognition of God using your reading of Scripture to teach, rebuke, correct or train you in righteousness?
My decisions (my good ones, anyhow) are primarily informed by 1) study of the written Word, 2) wise counsel from others through conversations and books, 3) my own analysis of a situation in accordance with the above, and 4) personal preference. I would not say I have encountered extra-biblical communication from God, but you might. I would not say that, because I feel no compulsion to attribute to God ideas that pop into my mind when I am reading the Bible or doing other things. Some of these ideas may indeed be communication from him, but so far I’ve never seen the return address to be sure. This includes times when I have fasted and prayed extensively and felt I have received strong comfort and encouragement from the Bible. Yes, that strong comfort is from God, and it is His word. But is it extra-biblical communication? I wouldn’t call it that.
My feelings do play a role, but I believe that role to be 1) preparatory to the reception of the Word and 2) a response to the ministry of the Spirit applying the Word to my heart. So I think of my feelings as a response. I do not tend to have the experience where I have an inexplicably strong emotional reaction to a passage but am not sure why, and then when I probe deeper realize what God is saying. Emotion has not been a recognition factor for me. I don’t think I’m opposed to such a thing–it just doesn’t happen to me. I’m okay with that, because I don’t see any command to have those sorts of experiences, nor do I see that as the normative experience of the apostles. But if God wants to communicate with me that way (or any other way–through a donkey or a hand writing on the wall), I am all ears.
I will end by saying that many years ago, on at least two occasions, I thought God was telling me something. Once was about an old girlfriend I didn’t want to lose. The other was a Bible passage that came to mind in a church meeting and I thought I might be being prophetic. The first was, in retrospect, clearly not the voice of God but rather the extreme yearnings of my teenage heart. The second fell flat, and I have no confidence now that it was God speaking to me.
I do appreciate this conversation–your precision of thought and expression are refreshing, and I see a God-loving heart shining through. I also appreciate the conversation because I fear we often impose expectations on one another for what the felt phenomena (or lived experience) of Christianity should be, but we don’t often stop to ask whether those expectations are biblically necessary.
I finally looked at your profile tonight (who is this guy??). We should have lunch sometime since we both work on campus.
Hi Mark. I’ve been swamped with work stuff for the past week or so, and not really had time to reply.
I’m game to get together for coffee or something sometime.
What do you mean when you use the term “nudging” ? It’s a little vague and for that reason it’s hard to comment upon.
Nudging–yes it is a little vague, but that vagueness is perhaps appropriate. I am using the term to collect such expressions as “feeling led”, “having a peace about something”, or “hearing a still small voice”. Only the last of these has any biblical equivalent–and that may be a stretch. But as I said earlier, I am not arguing with the experience of others. I just don’t know what they mean.
It’s been a little while Mark but I’ve not let you off the hook…
I consider ‘nudging’ to be an inappropriate and unfair term for what I’ve referred to in our discussions and experienced in my ongoing walk with God. Expressions such as “feeling led”, “having a peace about something” or “hearing a still small voice” are used by people in an attempt to convey something not easily communicated with words. In general they are referring to the Holy Spirit’s influence upon our feelings, physical senses and our minds. Instances of people being led in such a fashion include Nehemiah, Paul and Jesus. Nehemiah states that God “put it into his heart” to assemble the nobles, the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy (Nehemiah 7:5). Paul fixed his gaze upon a man and “saw” that he had faith to be healed (Acts 14:9). Jesus “knew in his spirit” what the teachers of the law were thinking in their hearts (Mark 2:8).
Correct me if I have picked you up wrong here: by your own admission you struggle with the idea of God ‘speaking” to believers outside of scripture from your own experience and view of the biblical position on this topic. It appears that you fall into the category that if God does these things today, he does so only infrequently and under highly unusual circumstances, and that we should not seek them out.
Many of us have been conditioned to read the Bible in terms of our experience rather than in terms of the experience of the people in the Bible. It is hard to read a book everyday that tells how God supernaturally intervenes in the daily lives of his children, and yet see no practical relevance for these supernatural phenomena in our own lives. But we somehow manage it because our method of reading the Bible has taught us not to expect these things. This leaves us with a moralistic version of Christianity that believes discipline is the key to spiritual life. We reason that the things we read of are not for us today because the Bible is recording the actions of special people under special circumstances; we fail to understand the experience of biblical characters in terms of our own lives. Once the supernatural element is taken out of the Bible, it becomes merely a moralistic life guide. And God becomes a remote God who helps his people, but not very much. James responded to that sort of notion in chapter 5 of his letter. He says that Elijah, one of the OT’s most supernatural prophets, was a man just like us. James is in effect encouraging his readers to read a real Bible and to believe it. Anyone who knows God is a special person living in a special time. Surely it is more biblical to think of Jesus as our supreme example of both how to live and how to minister? “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” – John 14;12.
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