A Bible study leader will often say “in order to understand this verse I need to tell you about the background to this passage.” The leader then describes pagan religion in Ephesus, or farming practices in Palestine, or shame and honour in the Roman empire, and everyone comes to a better understanding of the passage. This is important. If I am reading the apostle John as if he were some white guy sitting in a cubicle in Saskatoon, I am going to seriously misunderstand his gospel. Continue reading The Limits of Bible Background→
Have we perhaps tamed Christ’s teaching on leadership? Christ is a member of the Triune God, the One by whom and for whom all things were made. Yet in a surprising move he decided that the best way display of that divine glory in human life was a slave, destined for a slave’s execution. Continue reading Following a Slave to Heaven→
We often hear that the Bible divides the Church. Christians around the world can’t agree on when to baptize their children, on whether Christians should go to war, on women in ministry, on divine sovereignty, on the place of the pope, on what the Lord’s Supper means, or on how sinful we are actually. We can’t even quite agree on what books should be in the Bible. Continue reading What It Means to Read the Bible like the Apostles→
Praise God for the Bible, the very Word and words of God! At the core of being simply Christian is the ancient Christian experience that in the Bible we meet our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. All the Church wants to do, ever, is see Jesus. Continue reading Reading a Hard Bible for Signs of Jesus→
Among evangelical Christians today, a great many people are anxious about how to hear God speak. Christians of an earlier era would have found this odd.
They assumed that when you wanted to hear God speak, you listened to his Word. You studied Scripture, heard the Gospel preached, and joined in Bible-based worship, singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” as the apostle says (Col. 3:16).
That is what happens when the word of Christ dwells among us richly, which is the same thing as saying that a congregation is “filled with the Spirit” (compare Eph. 5:18-19). When the biblical word is spoken and sung and taught among us, then we are hearing what God has to say to us.
And yet many Christians have recently been taught quite different ideas about hearing God speak—and a quite different practice of the Christian life. It is presented, in fact, as a set of practical ideas we are supposed to apply to our lives. We’re supposed to listen for the voice of God in our hearts, rather than in an external word like the Bible or Christian preaching and teaching.
We’re told that this is how we find God’s will for our life. Again, Christians of an earlier era would have found this very puzzling, back when children memorized the ten commandments and a great deal of preaching was devoted to the sermon on the Mount, all in order to know what is God’s will for how we should live.
The new way of hearing God’s voice and learning God’s will has severe drawbacks. Above all, it’s new. Christians have only been trying to apply these ideas for a few decades, going back at most to the 19th century, which is not very far back in the Christian tradition as a whole. These are not practices you can find in the Bible, where no prophet is described as listening for God’s voice in his heart.
Overlooks the God Who Speaks
And these supposedly “practical” ideas are, frankly, bad for us. First of all, they get us used to thinking of an imaginary God, not the God who speaks to us in Holy Scripture, in the witness of prophets and apostles and Christ himself, all of whom address us in external words.
I can learn the words of Scripture by heart, take them in and make them part of myself, but they originate outside my heart, like the words of every real person who is other than me. To try to hear God’s voice as if it came from within me is thus to treat him as if he were not real. Think of the real people you love: if you want to know them, you have to listen to their words, which you don’t find by looking inside yourself.
Undermines Moral Responsibility
Secondly, these ideas are bad for us because they undermine moral responsibility. The new way of “finding God’s will for your life” assumes that God is supposed to make your decisions for you. It’s as if important decisions about career, marriage, and family were not really your responsibility but God’s. If this were so, then Jesus would have told a story about servants who wisely buried their talents in the ground until they received instructions for each investment decision they had to make. The Bible would have warned us against seeking wisdom and learning good judgment, as if that were a form of disobedience.
The truth is that the decisions really are our own, which is why we are responsible for them, and why learning wisdom and good judgment are important moral responsibilities (see Prov. 4:5-9).
Thirdly, these ideas are bad for us because they are psychologically unhealthy. In order to listen for an imaginary God we have to practice self-deception and get good at it. We are forbidden to recognize our own voices for what they are. Whereas the truth is that the voices in our hearts are our own, and that’s okay.
We should get to know our own voices, not because they are God speaking, but because self-knowledge is an important aim of the moral life and an important component of psychological health. It’s okay that the voices in our hearts are merely human; they don’t have to be God to be worth listening to.
We experience this every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: it is God’s Word we’re praying, but with our own voice. This happens also when we learn God’s Word by heart and pray it silently. The Word is God’s, but the inner voice is our own.
A Young Woman at Risk
Think of what happens when young people, who often don’t know themselves very well, try putting these ideas into practice. Imagine a young woman coming back to her dorm room after a long night, saying to herself in a loud, excited voice: “Oh, I love my boyfriend so much! He always takes care of me. He never wants to leave me alone. He never lets me out of his sight. I can’t ever get away from him. He’s always in control. He controls me so much sometimes I feel like I can never escape.”
And then her enthusiastic monologue trails off and a very different voice comes out of her, a quiet little voice that says, “I really don’t feel good about this.” No doubt that’s the voice of wisdom and responsibility, and probably chastity as well. The loud, excited voice was trying to convince her that she’s got a great thing going. But the quiet little voice comes from deeper in her heart, where she feels there’s something wrong before she knows what it is.
The sad thing is not that she listens to the quiet little voice, but that she can’t admit it’s her own. She has to label it God’s voice in order to take it seriously. Apparently she’s never thought of her own voice as something worth listening to.
Maybe she’s used to thinking her own feelings and thoughts don’t matter because no one has ever seriously listened to her. At any rate, in order to heed the wisest and most perceptive voice in her own heart, she feels it has to to come direct from God. She can’t admit it’s her own voice because that would make it unimportant. And that’s a shame.
The new practice of “hearing God” prevents her from developing moral and spiritual maturity, and it puts her in harm’s way. Trying to apply it to her life makes it harder for her to know herself, to recognize the wisdom that has already been given to her. It makes it hard to stand up to manipulative people like her boyfriend, who will no doubt assure her that it was God who wanted them to get together. (There are boys who actually do this at my university.)
Instead of this, the Church should be teaching her moral responsibility and the pursuit of wisdom, which includes self-knowledge. And it should direct her to find the truth of who God really is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not in the thoughts of her own heart.
Dr. Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University in St. David’s, near Philadelphia, PA. He also works as the Scholar-in-Residence at the Templeton Honors College where he focuses on the history of Christian thought, particularly on Augustine and Luther. He is the speaker at SBC’s Leadership Conference on March 16-17. Early bird pricing: $60 (ends March 2). For information, contact SBC.
BRAZIL/CANADA–On a recent five-week trip to Brazil to assist our field missionaries with the construction of the first building on our camp, God spoke to me during one of our team’s weekly Bible study. As we sat in our rented office space we read through and discussed a chapter of Beth Moore’s study entitled A Wo(Man)’s Heart: God’s Dwelling Place. We came across the following passage:
The scenario had changed significantly from the time of Adam and Eve. They had been surrounded by purity and splendor. They had been set for spiritual success and “equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Yet, in the midst of all the right circumstances, they made the wrong choices.
Enter Noah who lived is a society of rampant wickedness. Sin ruled. Perversion prevailed. Righteousness was as rare as a perfect gem. People followed every evil inclination without restraint. The only absolute was absolute depravity.
In the midst of all the wrong circumstances, Noah made right choices. How? Noah walked with God. Surrounded by a perverse generation, Noah knew that righteousness could not be attained and could not persist on the basis of a one-time commitment. Scripture does not even say that Noah religiously renewed his commitment every Sunday. He walked with God. He was in a constant state of habitual fellowship—day by day, hour by hour (Italics added).
As I sat there listening to these words being read, I looked out of the front window and saw an image God burned into my mind. What I saw was a typical rough looking brick wall of which the portion visible to the street had been covered with concrete, smoothed out and painted to look appealing to passers-by.
What God showed me was how this is how many churchgoers present themselves. From the outside, they appear to be spiritually beautiful, saying the right things, singing the right songs and looking the right way. Their relationship with Jesus Christ appears to be on track, living out His commands and their obedience to His call on their lives all appear to be well.
However, the appearance they portray is only a thin layer of deceit, “smoothed out and painted,” covering up lives devoted to status and self. People create an appealing facade to hide their true selves and show a false reality they believe will be appealing to others.
Then God impressed this on my heart. To live free and as God created and desires us to, we must have a constant and continuous, living relationship with Him. It must be our life, not only a part of our lives. It must be decided concretely and not an option in life. It must be who we are and not something we do.
Just as Adam and Eve who were surrounded by purity and splendor and still made a choice to disobey or Noah living in a time or rampant wickedness and perversion made a choice to obey, our choices are our responsibility. We cannot put the blame of our choices and consequences of them, on our circumstances. Our choices are a direct reflection of our true heart and relationship with Jesus Christ. Our walk with God.
We need to free ourselves from the facades we hide behind and instead live out God’s vision for our lives.
Dwayne and Shannon Klassen (CBF, Swan River) serve in camp ministry in Brazil with Teach Beyond.
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