Hearing God is Dangerous

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.

But so is not hearing God.

Courage and Cowardice

The worst riot in Detroit’s history broke out the summer of 1967: forty-three people were killed and over eleven hundred injured. As the violence escalated, my father packed us kids into the station wagon and drove us in to the center of the action (every other car was headed out). Police tried to wave us away while we witnessed looting, fights, arrests, and arson.

Courage and Cowardice

My father was fearless and he passed that recklessness on to us kids.

We grew up with a daredevil streak. By the time I graduated from high school, I had broken my left leg twice (and my nose once), cracked multiple ribs, had the tip of a finger chopped off in a lawnmower (don’t ask), fractured my kneecap, and my many stitches give me a Frankenstein look. We knew all the names of the ER nurses, their kids, second cousins, and pet goldfish.

My father could have driven us to our doctor blindfolded. Though he never tried.

The Greatest Risk I Ever Took

Ten years ago, I went scuba diving during a shark-feed with two of my kids. We descended sixty feet to the ocean floor and knelt in a large circle. A scuba pro (in chain mail) followed us down with a basket of fish heads. Scores of sharks slammed into us on the way to their feast.

I couldn’t resist buying a few professional photographs (even though they cost me an arm and a leg), and I posted my new favorite photo to my computer’s desktop.


(The hungry-looking big fish are sharks; the tasty-looking humanoids are my kids and me.)

About a year later, I opened my laptop on a business trip, and the man next to me asked about the shark picture. I told him about our shark dive. He then shared his own story of risk.

He once took a chance in a business venture, but the venture failed, costing him money, prestige, and self-respect. He decided never again to take a risk. And that’s how he has lived ever since.

Now, twenty years later, his wife just filed for divorce, he hates his job, and his kids despise him. He ended his story with a line that has haunted me. “Sam,” he said,

“The greatest risk I ever took was the decision never to risk again.”

The Hidden Side of Paying Off Church Mortgages Early—We Can’t Take It With Us

A really good church (whose leaders I once met on a trip out west) recently kicked off a Capital Campaign to pay off their building mortgage early. Their motivational tagline is, Financial Freedom-Missional Freedom. I just don’t buy it. The order seems out of line with the gospel.

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It reminds me of the Parable of the Rich Fool who stores up his wealth for the future. He says to himself, “Soul, You’ve stored up plenty of good things for many years. Take it easy” (Luke 12:19). Then God comes along and says, “Tonight your soul is required of you.”

What if God were to return the day their mortgage is fully paid. I think he’d say, “You have seven million dollars buried in your building; of what use is that now?

Because where we are going, we can’t take it with us.

Daily Bread

My own church—like that Capital-Campaign-Church—began by meeting in local school buildings. We had enough resources to cover missions, salaries, and building rental. And God provided our daily bread.

There is great mental value in a monthly rental model; we ask God for resources to cover our daily expenses. Even if we own our church building, the mental model of a monthly mortgage helps. We haven’t built up treasures on earth. We can’t say to our collective soul, “Take it easy, our building is paid for.”

When the children of Israel were in the wilderness, God provided daily bread in the form of manna. Any manna collected for “tomorrow” bred maggots and stank.

God gives enough for today. We can’t take it with us.

The misplaced priorities of today and tomorrow

Their argument goes like this. If we work extra hard today to pay off our three and a half million dollar mortgage, then tomorrow we’ll have an extra three hundred thousand dollars a year for mission and outreach.

I know the argument, but it doesn’t work. Who knows what tomorrow brings? We only have today.

Why not campaign today to increase mission funding and tomorrow we pay off our building? In fact, why not take a second mortgage on the church—a type of selling all we have—to serve other missions? Or use it to pay off the mortgage of a poorer church?

The thirty year-old church above is the daughter another church that was only twelve years-old when it planted them. That “mother” church itself was the daughter church of yet another church plant.

This church has church planting in its DNA. Why not raise capital to start another church in a poor neighborhood or another city? I think they bury their talents in a building today for Missional Freedom tomorrow.

The mental model of monthly needs

Let’s go back to our mental model of monthly needs. There is great value in asking God for our monthly needs. It forces us to rely on God’s moment-by-moment provision.

Many churches begin by renting schools. They ask God to supply their daily needs.

Eventually, the human-resources required for weekly setup becomes a burden. We want to use our time (as well as our money) for outward services of mission, not just inward services of chair and sound system setup. So we buy a building.

But that building mortgage still fits in our mental model of asking for monthly needs.

That church with the new capital campaign has a monthly mortgage of less than fifteen percent of its monthly budget. That seems about right. Probably too low. There’s got to be a reasonable percentage; too big a monthly percentage makes us church-poor and too little of a percentage is a treasure on earth that moth and rust destroys.

What’s so bad about considering our monthly mortgage just like our old monthly rental? We use our today’s money for today’s needs. Why build up treasures here on earth?

Why the big push to pay it off, delaying (yet again) their built-in DNA to church plant?

These are really good folk

I know that this is a gospel-centered church, really good folk. I once met with  its staff and I respected every single one. I would recommend their church to  newcomers to their city. I don’t mean to pick on them. I wish all churches were led half as well.

And I suspect they’ve considered everything I raise here.

But their new campaign stirred this question that haunts me every time I hear of other churches doing the same thing. Why invest all this energy in an earthly asset? Ask me to invest in souls, yes. Ask me to invest in a building? Yuck! We can’t take it with us.

How much better it would be if some of our business-folk formed companies to purchase our churches and simply lease them back. Our churches would be free of earthly possessions; we could pray, “Give us this month our monthly lease payment.”

On the other hand

But maybe I’m wrong. Yet again. And maybe the “worldly wisdom” of other churches is right. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced. Let’s pay off our mortgages today, so that tomorrow—when there is surplus—we can support missions.

So here is my idea. I’m going to quit tithing for the next five years. I’ll bury that money to pay off my mortgage and prepay all of my future property taxes. Maybe it’ll take ten years.

Once paid, I’ll have lots of extra money to help with my church’s Capital Campaign. I’ll give out of my surplus. Of course, that means the church’s mission work won’t get funded for twenty years. I’ll first pay my mortgage then help the church pay theirs. And then we’ll do mission together.

Who knows, maybe in twenty years or so, we’ll be able to start that new church plant or help that inner city church pay their expenses.

Although in twenty years I’ll probably be dead. And I can’t take it with me.



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What My Train Set Taught Me About Transcendence

My kids and I used to have a small Lionel train set in a corner of my tool room. Ten years ago we dismantled the small set with dreams of a bigger and better train set in a newly created basement room called the Train Room.

We dreamed of the perfect train layout with switches, freight yards, and realistic scenery; with a moving crane, sawmill, draw-bridge, and coal dump; and with cities, tunnels, mountains, and farms. It would fill the new 15 by 18 foot Train Room.

Our quest for perfection derailed us. We dreamt of glory, and for ten years we did nothing. We ran out of steam. The Train Room became the junk room, a closet in which to hide things that belonged nowhere else.

Dad - train setIt also stored the dusty train set that we dismantled ten years ago.

The day before Christmas, my kids suggested we re-assemble the train set in the new Train Room. We cleared the “closet” out (never mind where all that junk went), we put the table up, we rewired the accessories, and we set the trains back on track once again.

It was a blast. Doing something adequately was far better than doing nothing perfectly.

Avoiding Avoidance

Deathbed advice offers impact which no other advice provides.

My father died of cancer sixteen years ago. A few weeks before his death, knowing he would die soon, my father offered me advice.

As a long term pastor, my father counseled hundreds of men and women. He said that many of them lived their lives being controlled by their parents. They spent their lives avoiding their parents’ bad behavior.

My father was not an angel; he had an anger problem. He lost his temper over little events, like when he lost his keys (which he seemed to lose all the time!). He was concerned that his kids might waste their lives trying to avoid his anger issue. He advised me instead to spend my energy imitating the good things I saw in my parents and teachers and friends.

Then he said this: “If you spend your life trying not to be somebody you will spend your life not being somebody.”

We will never become ourselves by running from; we will only become our true selves by running to. If we turn our inner life into a vacuum—always removing things—our inner life will never become a thing of substance. It will always be empty.

Pursuing an Inner Life

The two pictures below show Mt. St. Helens. One was taken on May 17, 1980, and the other was taken several days later.

Beneath the calm exterior of a majestic mountain boiled an inner life that would erupt with 20,000 times more power than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Each of us has an inner and an outer life. We sense this intuitively. We say of others, “They don’t know me, the true me.” A popular book on the Myers Briggs personality test is entitled, Please Understand Me.

While we vaguely sense an inner self, we primarily invest in our outer life. We dedicate hours in running on treadmills; we devour the latest tabloid diet; we pour out our hearts on career advancement; we spend hours in shopping for shoes or for shotguns.

These external activities are like mowing the lawn of Mt. St. Helens, on May 17, 1980.

Our truest self is our inner self. We are the same person the day before we are fired as the day after. A friend recently lost most of her right arm in a freak accident, but she lost not a single strand of hair of who she truly is.

The person we are inside is our truest person. But we’ve barely begun to know that person because we fail to know our inner life. And we certainly don’t invest in it.