Have you ever spoken with other Christians and been amazed at their ability to converse with God? Phrases like “God told me…” are spoken naturally, like they’ve been chatting with their neighbour. They seem to have a direct line to God. I have to confess I’ve always cringed a little at these statements, wondering if they’re true. The reality is that I’m really wondering why I am not experiencing the same thing.
While thinking and writing through this question, I relied heavily on my reformed background. There’s good, rich theology there. In layman’s terms, it goes something like this:
God generally no longer speaks to us in a physical manner. This applies to audible voices or in visions or in the form of other people. He does not intervene in our daily life to communicate the way he did in the Bible. The stories in the Bible of prophets, or a light on a road to Damascus were for a time when God’s full revelation was not complete. It’s not that he can’t or won’t do this. Instead, he has given us the Bible, his Word, and that is sufficient. It is our standard, our guide and it is infallible. All personal experiences with Him must be weighed against it because there is too much opportunity for us to twist or outright hijack a NEW revelation. We simply CANNOT trust ourselves completely and always need a benchmark (scripture) to test it’s truthfulness.
This is a sound theology in that it points us to the Bible, of which we can trust completely because we know it’s from him. When we grapple with specific scenarios that are not outrightly dealt with in the Bible, we interpret based on the principles in the Word, and we pray for guidance and wisdom.When those prayers are answered, and we come to a decision or an understanding, that is how God speaks to us. The key is that conversation with God must be grounded in Scripture. God speaking to us through his word and spirit is not so much about new revelation as it is about communion. The more we “listen” to his word, the more it guides us in our thinking. The more our thinking is in tune with God’s will, the more God speaks to us through his spirit.
I know that the Bible doesn’t work as a magic eight ball, allowing us to close our eyes, flip it open and randomly find the answers. But finding answers there takes work. If I’m honest, it’s work I don’t always feel like doing. I’d rather God just spoke the answers to me. Reading the Word, along with prayer is about obedience and trust BEFORE I hear any voices or sense the spirit moving. It’s a discipline that has great benefits.
With that understanding as a foundation, I’d like to ruminate a little about culture and judging others. Because believing all that, I can still feel that my conversation with him can be sterile. Hollow. Communication with God becomes a head game, not a heart game. My cringing when others speak about conversing with God is not just a healthy skepticism, but also an unhealthy one that questions whether God speaks to us at all. I’d love to blame how I’ve been taught for this lack of connection, but as I stated before, I’ve been taught well.
While there are people who take this too far, abandoning the Bible for personal revelation, I do believe how we speak about our faith is influenced heavily by our faith culture. Solid Biblical doctrine aside, our churches are also made up of people, who grew up in different environments, with different traditions. We’ve been taught in a way that is impacted by the unique small worlds we live in. Sometimes we may believe the same things but articulate them in radically different ways. On this particular topic, the problem I think, lies in how people explain something that is perhaps unexplainable.
Think about it. Without personnifying the Spirit, how do we describe it’s guidance? How do we explain that because of the spirit, we are able to accept Christ, and seek to honour him? Does the spirit “tell” us these things? I find it near impossible to articulate how God communes with us without saying something along the lines of “God told me” even if I append it with “through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit”. Avoiding the “God told me” language, judging it immature or superficial, has twisted my thinking. My wariness for being too “touchy-feely” has sometimes shut the door completely to listening to what God has to say, or what the answers to my prayers are.
What I’m learning is to stop pushing away intimacy with intellectualism. I have to stop getting hung up on conversational language, and I encourage any other skeptics out there to go easy on those who describe their personal conversations with God freely and easily. Better yet, listen to them, test what they have to say, but also learn from them. Whether I use language like “God told me…” or not, I can truly say I have felt God leading, urging, guiding. At the very least, God’s presence and intimate involvement in my life is seen in hindsight. Not all of us are comfortable describing it as a conversation, but maybe that is a failing of language and tradition, not a misunderstanding about how God works.
The takeaway here is that there’s a distinction between sensory revelation and communion with God. But what about those who DO claim a physical presence, voice or dream?
I’ll be honest, I don’t have a story of a literal two-way conversation with God, nor have I seen a vision or physically heard his voice. Revelation in these forms has NOT been my experience. Even as I learn to accept the way others speak about their faith, (and even try it out myself), I believe in studying God’s Word, prayer and obedience over seeking new experiences with the creator. Still, that doesn’t mean they can’t happen.
First, it’s incorrect to debate whether it’s possible or not, for how can I put God into a box (or a book) and say that there is no other way he could communicate? I am just not able to rule it out completely. Second, I have to place the story in the category of personal revelation. Personal revelation is exactly that, personal. It’s not necessarily meant for everyone, and it’s not going to be something”new” for everyone, but rather a confirmation of a biblical principle.
I have heard stories and spoken with Christians living and/or working in the mission field that sound similar to the workings of the God of the Bible. From what I can discern, they do not contradict scripture. As I view them as a whole, common in many of these stories is a noticeable push towards Scripture. We can’t imagine never having heard the story of Jesus, or ever laying eyes on a Bible, but there are many who have lived that existence. I believe God still intervenes in some of these cases physically. The pattern in many of these stories is that the personal revelation leads that person to the living Word. It may lead them to a missionary who can teach scripture, or a non-profit with Bibles in their language, and it may even take years to connect the two, but the Word is always what seals the deal.
My conclusion is that revelation that doesn’t lead us to the Word is suspect at best. Also, when we already have the word, it’s also likely that God will not appear or speak in a very physical way. He can – it’s possible – but I don’t need to chase that experience. He speaks to me every day, even though I am often too distracted to hear it. Regularly putting myself in a place to hear him – with the Word, in prayer, without distraction – is the best bet I’ll hear from him more often.
God does speak to us outside of reading the Bible. He does it daily. It’s called the Holy Spirit. And he’s pointing us back to the Bible so he can speak to us more.