The past few weeks have been filled with conversations regarding the SBC Leadership Conference. This article is a response addressing some of the concerns and support expressed regarding the conference. This article is not intended to exhaustively address the issue. Authors have written many books on the topic. This will not be a book, but a short overview.
There are few things that bring a bigger smile to my face than when people earnestly seek after God. It is one of the greatest joys that I have as President of Steinbach Bible College to see students grapple with faith issues. One of those faith issues that has recently garnered much attention is in the area of hearing from God.
Two Diverse Approaches
As I listen to people talk about this faith issue, I sometimes hear two diverse approaches. The first approach says that all I have to do is become quiet, listen for God’s voice for a few minutes and then whatever impressions I receive must be what God is telling me to do. The formula is simple: become quiet for a short time, and then God will give me an impression that is absolute.
The second approach says that God doesn’t speak to me personally, but only through the written Word. This formula says that for every decision I need to make, God will automatically give me a verse and somehow that verse will fit my situation. So, what happens is that I read a verse for my devotions and somehow try to manipulate that verse to fit my personal situation.
Both perspectives have components that I need to incorporate into my life as I hear from God, and both have cause for concern. To throw out either perspective would short-change the process while seeking to hear from God. I believe that a better alternative would be to incorporate both and seek a more balanced approach to hear from God.
How Do We Hear From God?
I believe that there are many ways that God speaks to us today. We typically have our “go-to” methods. Subsequently, it can be easy to assume that the way God speaks to me is the only way or ways that God speaks to all of us today.
As I think of a list of ways God speaks to us, I realize that some of these methods I have experienced personally, while others I have not experienced at all. However, just because I have experienced them, or not experienced them, does not make them right or wrong, or the only way to hear God. The reality is that God speaks to his children in a variety of ways.
There are three characteristics that I personally have experienced as I have sought to hear God. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. This is simply sharing my experience.
Time Seeking God
The first characteristic deals with the amount of time I spend in seeking God (1 Cor. 2:9-16). There seems to be a direct correlation between the amount of time I wait on God, and how well I hear from God. When I only spend a few minutes or a short amount of time listening to God, I tend to “mishear” Him. Maybe it is just me, but that has been my experience.
However, when I dedicate myself to prayer and wait patiently on Him for direction and discernment, I tend to “get it right” more often than not.
Have you ever wondered why that seems to be the case? I think the answer lies in the fact that a big part of hearing from God is simply the process. God wants us to spend time in communion and fellowship with him. Our goal for hearing from God is more about the relationship that we have with him than simply getting an answer on what to do next.
God seeks a deep and vibrant relationship, not a vending machine approach to answered prayer. When we become silent for 10 minutes and expect to hear a word from God, we risk turning this relationship into a formula. That does not mean that spending 10 minutes in silence is a waste of time; far from it. However, I believe a better way is to focus on building our relationship with God over a lifetime. Then we will be amazed at how God continually speaks to us.
The Body of Believers
A second characteristic involves the body of believers (Col. 3:16). My experience has been that I tend to hear God better when I do it in the context of other believers. That is not to say that God only speaks to me when I am with others. I do sense God’s leading when I am alone.
However, for the key decisions of life, I find that I hear God better when other believers are involved. I ask them to join me in prayer. I share how I feel God leading me and ask for their input as they join me in prayer. I invite them to pray with me over a period of days and weeks, not only for 10 minutes.
My home church is in the process of setting direction for the future. As a whole church we are committing to 10 weeks of prayer. We are encouraged to write down our thoughts over this 10-week period. Then we will look at these thoughts and see where the Holy Spirit is leading. I really believe this is a healthy way of listening to God. We are working at building our relationship with God and with each other as we join together in hearing from God (Matt. 22:34-40).
The Use of Scripture
A third characteristic involves the use of Scripture (Romans 10:17). My personal experience has been that when I immerse myself in Scripture, it has a profound impact on my hearing from God. To immerse requires more than reading a chapter and pulling out one verse that seems to stand out. It means reading large portions of Scripture in one sitting. It means reading passages repeatedly.
As a former pastor, one of the most profound challenges I gave to the congregation was to read through an Epistle or Gospel every week for a seven-week period. It was not uncommon for individuals to tell me that Scripture came alive for them, and that God spoke to them in powerful ways. Hearing from God involves reading Scripture, lots of Scripture.
So, how do we hear from God? I believe a biblical approach is to put less focus and emphasis on a formula, and more on relationships. Let’s commit to spending a significant amount of time developing our relationship with God. Let’s involve others who are godly and mature believers. Let’s immerse ourselves in Scripture. If this becomes our emphasis, I truly believe that we will be better “hearers” of God.
I want to invite you to join me in further study and dialogue as we earnestly seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in becoming more attuned to hearing from God.
Rob Reimer, MDiv, DMin, is the president of Steinbach Bible College.
In light of the controversy around Dr. Phillip Cary’s article Hearing From God (Jan. 2018), the Board of Church Ministries asked Kevin Wiebe to adapt his essay from Theodidaktos (July 2016); the full version is available online. This is not a direct response to Dr. Cary’s article, but, amid “many tense relationships and troubled hearts, I humbly offer some thoughts.” More discussion on hearing from God will occur in the next Theodidaktos.
By Pastor Kevin Wiebe
If we as Christians have a kind of spiritual experience, we may wonder whether it is a prompting from the Holy Spirit and how to process that experience. If it was God speaking to us, how do we know it was truly Him? Jesus figuratively describes his disciples as sheep who follow his voice (John 10).
For believers, the question is not whether or not God exists or still leads us today. That much is presupposed. The question is rather how. How does God speak to us today? Only in the Bible? Through the whims of our imagination? If we have some kind of spiritual experience, how do we know if we are hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, or if we are simply fabricating our own spiritual experience based on subjective personal desires?
Two Sides of the Coin
I used to have a pastor named Peter Fehr that would rarely answer my polarized questions directly. Instead, he would often wisely answer me by offering “two sides of the coin” for me to consider. I would like to follow in footsteps of Pastor Fehr and offer you “two sides of the coin,” or two extremes that I believe are important to avoid as we contemplate this topic together.
One Extreme: Lifeless Religion
One extreme in responding to work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our world is to deny the Spirit’s work altogether. While this extreme will typically acknowledge the Bible as important, the work of the Spirit can be blatantly ignored or totally denied.
In the Bible we see that fear is a typical response to an encounter with God and in some cases this resulted in people distancing themselves from God. In Exodus 20:18-21 we see the Israelites responding to an encounter with God by demanding that Moses should talk to God on their behalf because they were afraid. They made human barriers to keep the Lord at arm’s length. Sometimes we likewise create rules and forms of lifeless religion to help us do the same thing, insulating us from God.
Confuses Relationships with Formulas
What this extreme does is confuse living relationships with concepts and formulas. Instead of worshipping the living God, we end up worshipping systems, rules, and a lifeless religion of our own making. While rituals and religious systems can be tremendously helpful for us in our worship of the Lord, utilizing them to worship God is much different than falling into a worship of the rituals themselves.
If we only know about God without actually knowing and experiencing God, our faith is essentially worthless. Jesus talks about the future day of judgment where people will come to him who only appear to be his disciples (Matt. 7:21-23). His response to these individuals is sobering. He will say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
These individuals apparently never had a relationship with Jesus. It seems that it takes more than religion or outward action; it takes a relationship with Jesus, which will require some sort of personal encounter with the Lord.
This Doesn’t Mean
This does not mean that if we become a bit legalistic that we are somehow no longer Christians. Nor does it mean that we are unsaved because we don’t dramatically “hear God’s voice” as claimed by other people.
What this passage does, however, is provide a stark warning against relying on our own religious systems to get us into heaven. It is a warning to people in both extremes to come back to Jesus. We must not settle for a religion that worships rules and formulas—keeping a true relationship with God at bay. But neither should we settle for a religion that worships subjective or even manufactured experiences. Encounters with Jesus are necessary for this relationship, but the nature of that encounter, and the extremes we may see around us, are the point of this discussion.
Another Extreme: Endless Subjectivity
The other extreme is one that has little regard for the truths found in the Bible, and attaches an authoritative, “Thus saith the Lord” to anything one wants. It conflates and confuses one’s individual thoughts or feelings with the very voice of God, leading to endless subjectivity about the will, word, and work of the Holy Spirit.
For people caught in this extreme, the truths of the Bible are often denied in favour of fanciful visions and dreams. Interestingly, this extreme is also prone to idolatry. Rather than worshipping systems and rules, it worships dramatic and emotional experiences in place of the Lord, exchanging objective truth for subjective interpretations of experience.
Consider an example from the world news of 2016 of a man who was touring a South African national park with his church group when they came upon a pride of lions feeding on an impala. He got out of the vehicle and attempted to use the Holy Spirit to miraculously control the wild animals.
He was attacked and was taken to hospital for emergency surgery. He said, “I do not know what came over me…I thought the Lord wanted to use me to show his power over animals.” Obviously he misunderstood, which led to a physical injury, though perhaps his ego may have been hurt more than his body.
In a book called Holy Hunches, Bruce Main writes, “Sincere, pious, churchgoing people have acted on hunches that have brought scores of people destruction and ill will. Hunches have burned innocent people at the stake, sparked crusades, and led to genocide—all justified by someone’s interpretation of God’s calling.”
Because of the great danger of us getting things wrong, but inspired by the possibility of us getting it right, Main refers to listening for nudges of God as a “holy hunch,” a term both hopeful and humble. Main is open to God’s leading but also desires people to be cognizant of the damage that is possible.
It can be dangerous to brazenly declare that we have heard a message from God. This is not a new phenomenon; it also occurred in ancient Israel. Jeremiah 23:38-40 addresses false prophets when it says, “Although you claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ this is what the Lord says: You used the words, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ even though I told you that you must not claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord.’”
Oracles of severe punishment follow this statement for these false prophets. Just because one thinks that something is from the Lord does not necessarily make it so. Given the danger of misunderstanding spiritual experiences, one would be wise to be careful about how or if we claim something was from God.
All Kinds of Ways
In our response to what we suspect to be an encounter with God, we have the capacity to follow God’s leading to become His hands and feet in the world. There are many examples in the Old and New Testaments of God somehow communicating things to people in all kinds of ways leading to powerful ministry. If we are not careful, however, we could also become conduits of destruction because we let our own ideas get in the way of God’s.
Possible Ways Forward
In an article from The Gospel Coalition, Andrew Wilson offers several practical suggestions for better discerning what is and is not the voice of the Lord. To summarize, Wilson says we must check these experiences against the teaching of the Scriptures, against the character of Jesus as revealed in the Bible, that we should consult with our own spiritual leaders, church communities and on top of that examine the fruit of the experience.
Each of those points could be elaborated upon greatly. Suffice it to say, however, that these measures help prevent believers from being entirely subjective, providing some helpful safeguards against misinterpreting the voice of the Lord, and discerning if something is or is not from God. These measures also encourage believers to actively listen for the voice of God, in our experiences, church tradition and community, and especially in the Scriptures.
Continue Seeking The Lord
So how do we respond to what seems to be an encounter with God? Ignoring it out of fear is not a helpful option. Neither is blindly assuming that all such experiences are actually from God. In reference to 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, Francis Chan writes in Forgotten God, “Some conservatives may quench the Spirit by ignoring His working, but surely putting unbiblical words into the mouth of God is a form of quenching the Spirit as well.”
I believe that we must live in the tension created by these two extremes: refusing to ignore the authority of the Scripture on the one hand, and on the other hand refusing to ignore the voice of the Good Shepherd when he does, in fact, speak.
For some, moving forward might mean living more humbly, recognizing that God’s will is often drastically different from our own and submitting our experiences to the authority of the Bible. For others moving forward might mean to live more boldly, stepping out in faith when the Holy Spirit leads.
For all believers, this means responding to God’s voice when He calls, however he calls—responding and discerning not just as individuals, but as parts of a larger Christian community. So, by all means, listen for the voice of God both in the Bible and through the “holy hunches” given by the Spirit of God. Be bold, but also be humble that our lives may be truly obedient to the Lord and avoid the idolatry of both extremes.
Kevin Wiebe, BA, is the pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship (Tilbury/Stevenson, Ont.), a member of the BCM, and assistant editor of Theodidaktos, Journal for EMC theology and education.
Responding to “Silence Needed in the Sanctuary” by Jake K. Friesen (Sept. 2017).
Over the years the culture of church has changed. Some churches have stayed in the ways of the past, and others have adapted to the culture of society. The proper way to worship has been hotly debated in the late past, and now more concerns are coming up from respectable people from churches everywhere. I believe that the church is a place to worship Jesus, and have community with all the members. If your pastor knows you well enough to crack a joke, I’d say that is good sign that there is community.
However, I also believe that our society is losing that ability to commit to a belief. In the past, members of churches were wholly committed to their church and all the members in it. The newer churches are so focused on including and adapting to everyone’s needs that they forget about the “devout and sanctified” part of church, which I do believe is a problem. So maybe we do need to have a bit more respect for why we’re there, but if there is only silence in the church, where are the people?
If we read the Old Testament promises to Israel in the way Don Plett has encouraged us to in the last issue [Oct. 2016] of The Messenger,we also need to read the Old Testament passages where God gave very specific directives as to how the people of Israel were to treat the foreigners in their land.
The taking of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements is one example of what has been happening in recent years that does not fit well with the Old Testament’s focus on how to treat the poor, the oppressed, and the foreigner with love, mercy, and justice. We know God had strong words for the His people about failing on that.
Another question I have is can we apply what the Old Testament says about the people of Israel in the Old Testament to the secular state of Israel today? Maybe some Bible scholar can help clarify that for us.
– Irma Janzen, Winnipeg, Man.
A Great Article!
I have just read Paul Walker’s article titled: Resurrecting Our Belief in the Resurrection of the Body [Nov.-Dec. 2016]. How encouraging to find an article like this in The Messenger! He hit it right on when he says that the point is not “going to heaven when we die,” but the resurrection of the body after heaven, whenJesus comes back.
This is the promise of the Father to all who believe in his Son, Jesus. I think that for a long time we’ve largely missed it when we thought he meant eternal life in heaven. That was, at least, what I was taught growing up, and what I also taught our children.
From the very beginning in the garden, Adam was not told that he would go to hell if he ate of the fruit of the tree, but that he would die! His physical body would die. And we’ve been dying ever since.
Eating of the fruit was, I believe, when he took into himself—or fell into the doctrine of—the serpent, the belief that he could have life by his own works, knowing good from evil, and choosing the good, instead of continuing in the life freely given by God, lived in innocence of both good and evil!
Jesus repeatedly said that he came to bring life. Could it be that that life is best lived with the knowledge of our innocence restored, in the death of Jesus, where all sin and death died with him! That that life is not by the law, which is the platform from which knowledge of good and evil operates.
Glory! Thanks for a great article, Pastor Walker.
– Helen Teichroeb, Grande Prairie, Alta.
What To Do With Our Dead Bodies?
I enjoyed the article in the November/December issue [Resurrecting Our Belief…]. I secretly hoped that the author would comment on what to do with our dead bodies. As I anticipate my own demise I wonder if I should opt for economy (very Mennonite) by cremation, or burial without preservation (not pretty or suitable for viewing), which is what a large portion of the world does by necessity and Jews do by custom/faith. The most expensive form is the embalming and casket route.
Does the disposition of my body affect my resurrection? I hope not. The skeletal remains of those in the catacombs I suspect would echo my query.
Great questions to discuss and explore. My first job was at a cemetery, which led me to want to avoid what I saw as excess (cement vaults, carved walnut caskets, large headstones, etc.).
I have yet to decide on options for myself. My family reminds me that my preferences may have no impact on what happens to my body anyway. The topic remains intriguing.
I agree with Don Plett (An Ill-Advised Resolution Against Israel, October 2016) that Scripture tells us that Israel is a nation chosen and loved by God. I disagree with Don Plett about how to bless Israel. God has spent all of history loving and drawing unfaithful Israel back to Himself through correction and discipline, often getting very angry! I do not feel that blessing the nation of Israel means turning a blind eye to the atrocities taking place in Palestine.
Scripture is clear about how Israel is expected to behave toward the alien and stranger. Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Exodus 22:21: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him….” Deut. 10:19: “So show your love for the alien….”
I don’t know if sanctions on Israel are the appropriate Mennonite response to the oppression being wrought on Palestine. But I certainly feel that Mennonites can despise the ungodly actions of the Israeli Defense Force and ought to support some form of non-violent response to illegal settlements and brutality.
– Jen Kornelsen, Winnipeg, Man.
Conflict and Friends
I appreciate the balanced approach featuring a column by Senator Don Plett and a response from Dan Dyck, representing Mennonite Church Canada.
I agree with brother Plett that as Christians we have a connection with the Jews and are called to seek the blessing of Israel and pray for her peace.I certainly affirm her right to exist as a sovereign people in the land.With brother Dyck, I deplore the violence that has been perpetrated against Israel by groups such as Hamas.
While brother Plett warns that the resolution affirmed by Mennonite Church Canada delegates is “an extreme position against Israel,” he offers no alternative solution to address the ongoing conflict. Granted, no simple solution exists.But I believe that as Christians seeking to be peacemakers, we have an opportunity and an obligation to start somewhere.
The resolution in question may in the long run achieve very limited results. But it is a way of responding to the pleas of our Christian Palestinian brothers and sisters, and can raise awareness of the issues.To do this does not mean that you are anti-Semitic or against Israel.
I would hope that to be a friend of Israel includes being willing to challenge her on current destructive policies, and encourage her to take steps that make for peace and dignity for all within her borders.True friends tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear.
The biblical record shows that Israel’s occupation of the land was always conditional on her faithfulness to God, including the treatment of the alien and stranger in her midst.
Dr. Plett states at the end of his article that after forgiveness, “reconciliation and renewed relationship should happen” (my emphasis). Layton Friesen similarly states “we have to find more peaceful, humane and effective ways of resolving conflict. For example ‘restorative justice’….” Dr. Klassen also hints at “reconciliation” in his last paragraph.
These statements tantalizingly imply processes that are involved and far from automatic. My concern is that where there is offence, for example, in domestic abuse that there is also a justifiable loss of trust that is not easily repaired (Do we put a thief back in charge of accounts receivable?). The loss of trust often makes it pragmatically impossible for a relationship to be restored to where it once was.
The church has sometimes forced (coerced?) an abused and vulnerable spouse back to a partner who cannot be trusted, and it is predictable that the offence will recur. This puts a double onus on the person wronged—to forgive the abuser again and then to refrain from lawsuit against the church for foreseeable harm done. It is not enough merely to put the couple back together assuming that this is the biblical answer!
Some of us have also experienced cases where the church has intervened to protect the wronged spouse. These actions have at times lead to a healthy and happy remarriage or contented “singleness” opted for while the abuser usually finds little in the way of healing.
We are left with the question, then, “What is the church’s responsibility in bringing about reconciliation and healing?”
Thank you to Senator Don Plett for raising his concerns about justice in Israel and Palestine [An Ill-Advised Resolution Against Israel]. It is important to discuss these matters if—and perhaps especially when—our views do not agree.
It is important for readers to know some background to the resolution that was affirmed by delegates. Mennonite Church Canada has been engaged in understanding the Middle East conflict for decades. We were asked by Christian Palestinians to advocate on their behalf in their plight. In this regard, it is important to know that we are not conflating all Palestinians into one category.
Certainly there is Palestinian violence against Israel that we do not support, but these acts do not represent the Palestinian Christians we know. We would challenge leaders of other Mennonite conferences and churches to also consider how they would respond to such a request from fellow Christians in light of the Bible’s over-arching call to the faithful for justice and mercy.
We are not seeking to deny Israel or its people the right to exist. Rather, we seek to make Israel the best country it can possibly be. Our own Canadian government and the United Nations have called for human rights for Palestinians. Canada’s own policy statement in regards to Israel states, “Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967” (http://tinyurl.com/ygtd6p2).
It is important to not conflate all Israelis, their government, and the Jewish people into one homogenous group acting in unity. There are numerous groups of Israelis and Jewish people who support justice for Palestinians, including Rabbis for Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, and others.
These are undoubtedly complex issues. Readers wishing to learn more about the issue in general and the Mennonite Church Canada resolution specifically (http://tinyurl.com/zrotfxq) have vast resources available to them, such as the Kairos document by Palestinian Christians at http://tinyurl.com/jxz9d7h. Mennonite Church Canada encourages Mennonites belonging to any conference to become deeply acquainted with the subject matter, and to listen with openness.
– Dan Dyck, Director, Church Engagement-Communications Mennonite Church Canada
Do We Love the Whole Church?
Layton Friesen’s article “Is Your Congregation the Real Church?”(July-Aug.) encouraged us to accept para-church partners under the umbrella of “The Church,” thus broadening our idea and practice of Church. I would like to extend his idea a little.
Christ left no blueprint for the Church save His “walk” and command to “love one another.” Differences in visions of the Body of Christ has splintered the Church into Syriac, African, Roman, Eastern Orthodox, and a myriad of Protestant denominations—all who consider themselves the “true” Church.
Even the earliest Church was split into two camps. The early Jewish believers waited in Jerusalem for the imminent return of the Lord. Ready acceptance of the gospel caused the Hellenistic Jews to be received as equals. Philip who loved the Samaritans also reached out to an Ethiopian eunuch. Jewish purity was being eroded!
Saul, the Great Persecutor, was commissioned to preach to the Gentiles of all things—fodder for early schism. Indeed, Paul had to visit Jerusalem 12 years later to counter the Judaisers and address the growing rift. He later returned to fulfill an oath to the Temple knowing that it would lead to his death.
He literally willingly sacrificed his life for the love and unity of the Church. Not just the Gentile Church that he loved, but the whole Church, the True Church.
Do we love the whole Church? How would that affect our prayers, words, and actions? What are we willing to sacrifice for its unity?
– Ray Hill, MacGregor, Man.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference