A friend, whom I’ve known off and on since childhood, recently met with me to discuss my book, Hearing God in Conversation. She said, “Frankly, any kind of hearing God apart from Scripture is dangerous. I’m open, but suspicious.”
She recounted numerous abuses of people “hearing” God:
During college, two different women told her future husband that God said that he should marry them. My friend observed, “People too often ‘hear’ from God only what they want to hear.”
She recently attended a conference that included a session on hearing God. The speaker promised they would hear God’s voice if they followed his three steps: (a) Turn off your critical mind, (b) Pick up and pen and paper, and (c) Write down whatever intuitive thoughts come to you. She said, “I don’t believe God follows our formulas.”
A member of her church once told its board of elders that they should delay the start time of their service so that more young people would attend, and that “God said this in a prayer time of mine.” My friend pointed out the common misuse of “hearing God” to manipulate people into adopting our agendas.
What do we say? I completely agree that thousands of believers—probably hundreds of thousands—frequently abuse “senses” from God. Hearing God is dangerous.
A couple years ago, I experienced a growing concern for a friend of mine. Something in his ministry approach seemed discordant with its purpose. I waited a few months before talking with him. (Who knows? Maybe my observations were wrong.) When a perfect example finally arose, I shared my unease.
But to say I “shared it” exaggerates my graciousness.
Instead, I bluntly confronted him. When he resisted, I pressed harder. Something inside me shouted “Stop!” while something else inside me desperately wanted to express my convictions, no matter the consequences.
I bulldozed aside objections, I plowed under every denial, and I railroaded home my points. And of course, the message was lost in its offensive delivery.
Two years later, I’m still working on repairing that relationship.
In 1983 I landed my first job in the computer industry. I applied for an open position, sent in my resume, endured a few interviews, and attended one final meeting.
In that meeting, my soon-to-be boss said, “I have chosen you for the position, but let me explain why:”
“I didn’t choose you because of your education” (I had studied 17th Century European Intellectual History, not exactly Computer Science);
“And I didn’t choose you because your grades were better” (when I say I “studied history” I don’t mean to imply I studied real hard);
“And I didn’t choose you because of your great business experience” (three years of mission work didn’t qualify as a practical MBA).
His care for my self-esteem was underwhelming; I began to wonder if the job was really mine.
He continued, “I chose you because you answered my questions differently than I would have. I didn’t agree with every answer, but your answers gave me an outlook I hadn’t considered. I don’t need more people who think like me—I already think like me—I need people who offer different perspectives.” He concluded,
“The curse of the computer industry is conformity; never lose your non-conformity.”
I hate the presidential election season, the rhetoric, emotional responses, hushed conversations, and mud-slinging candidates. I especially hate those damned, political phone polls! Don’t worry, this is not about the election. It’s about when good Christians do bad things.
And yet, weeks after the elections, the rhetoric is still meteoric and the mudslinging has not abated. Friends of mine from both political camps willingly participate in this mud bath. And it gets nasty. Winners ooze smugness and losers dribble bitterness. We all get spattered.
And both believers and non-believers, from the right and the left, hurl slurs. Their opponents are racist or communist, uncaring or unthinking, dumb or dumber.
This absence of distinction bothered me. I had hoped Christians would handle their victory or defeat with better grace. But we didn’t. Just this morning a thought raced through my mind:
A “good” Christian knows that our atheist neighbors are often better people than us.
A business owner I barely knew once phoned to see if we could meet. He was an aggressive entrepreneur, a roaring lion among his peers. Yet on the phone, he seemed different, hesitant, a bit humbler, perhaps broken. He certainly choked up a few times in our short conversation.
We met the following Friday, which happened to be his fortieth birthday. He appeared vulnerable and exhausted, and something in my heart went out to him.
He said he had been struggling the last few months. Nothing he did relieved him of the pain. His restless nights were endless, every discussion with his wife ended up in a fight, and he had even lost interest in helping his son play soccer. As he shared, tears silently rolled down his cheeks.
His voice finally broke and he began to sob right there in the restaurant. I was still unsure what his problem was, but I felt sympathy. It hurts to watch someone suffer.
Eventually he gathered himself and explained. Ever since he was a young boy, he had aspired to run a successful business. He set a goal of having ten million dollars in the bank by the age of forty.
“Sam,” he moaned, “Including savings in my 401k, I barely have six million dollars to my name.”
[This conversation happened. As I re-read it here, I shake my head in disbelief. But it happened.]
I was ten years old the first time I heard God speak. It was autumn, a new school year had just begun, and a new fad was spreading among my adolescent classmates.
I was raised in a conservative Christian church where Sunday school teachers taught us the Ten Commandments. The teachers were vague about adultery, and I wasn’t concerned. They were also unclear about coveting, and I felt safe.
They made up for their ambiguity when it came to cussing. Instead of an elusive “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain,” they precisely taught, “Don’t swear.” And when they said, “Don’t swear,” they meant, “Don’t cuss.”
For us, cussing was a sin on the order of mass genocide.
One day while playing school-yard tag, I tagged my girlfriend, Diane, and she shouted, “Shit!” I felt a shockwave race through my body, as though I’d been hit in the gut with a sledgehammer. Forty-five years later, I still feel that visceral punch, and I can exactly picture the playground gate where Diane cussed. I gasped for air but nothing came.
Looking back, it seems silly that a cuss word could cause such a shock, but it did. I expected God to cast down a lightning bolt and burn Diane to ash. The thought almost paralyzed me.
But not quite. I leaped back seven feet in case the bolt went wide.
My grandfather was a missionary in China from 1917 to 1936. He once told me of some early Pentecostal missionaries to China. They decided it was unnecessary to study Chinese before traveling because they “spoke in tongues.” But when they disembarked in Hong Kong, their abysmal language skills made them a laughing stock.
My grandfather (who was also a Pentecostal missionary) said to me,
“They refused to be of the world, which was good, but they completely forgot that they still must live in the world.”
Discouraged but determined, they took language classes. One man learned quickly, so they paid for him to study the advanced art of Chinese oratory. He would be their primary preacher.
After months of preparation, the missionaries organized their inaugural evangelistic event in a local town square. They shook their tambourines, sang several songs, and soon a crowd gathered. Their confident preacher began to speak.
To hear a foreigner speak such grand rhetorical Chinese was a novelty, and the crowd grew, but soon the yawns began, hecklers laughed, and the crowd shrunk. A less fluent missionary stood up and urged the crowd to listen. He bumbled his way through his own conversion history, and he stumbled through his story of hearing God for the first time. The crowd listened in silence.
Those missionaries traced their first convert to that botched-up-Chinese testimony.
“After learning to be in the world,” my grandfather reflected, “they forgot not to trust in it.”