I’m passing this work on to you, my son Timothy. The prophetic word that was directed to you prepared us for this. All those prayers are coming together now so you will do this well, fearless in your struggle, keeping a firm grip on your faith and on yourself. – 1 Timothy 1:18 (Message)
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good
– 1 Thessalonians 5: 19-21
I was writing a letter to a friend the other morning about a devastating development in her family. I didn’t get to finish the letter so I put it on hold. A couple of days later I was watching the film The Minority Report (2002 with Tom Cruise) and had an epiphany.
In the film, Cruise’s character kidnaps a women who has cognitive abilities (pre-cog) to anticipate and ‘see’ the future. At one point he is smuggling her through a mall and she says to him “The women in the brown sweater will recognize you” just seconds before it happens. Then she stops another women (a stranger) and warns her, “He knows – don’t go home.”
It was jarring to me because that is how many people wish that God worked. I come from a charismatic background and in the past I have participated ‘prophetic words’ where secrets were revealed and the hidden was brought out into the light. I always enjoyed those unique occasions where something like this occurred. An openness to God was my general posture … but I was never quite comfortable with forming lines at the alter after every service with people lining up every week to ‘hear from God’. That seemed too forced, or too rote or too presumptuous.
I have talked before about my progressive take on pentecostal stuff (after the Leif Hetland interview) and getting my mind around miracles. But personal prophecy seems to be an even bigger issue. For those who run in charismatic circles, words of personal prophecy (or ‘reading someone’s mail’) are something that they come to lean on. That is what makes me so nervous.
Let me be clear: I take the passages in the Bible where Jesus talks about hearing the ‘voice’ of the Father very seriously. I have taught hundreds of folks how to ‘listen to God’ in the past. I am neither apologizing for that nor am I explaining it away.
What I am wanting to address is when people
- expect it
- come to rely on it
- abandon other ways of ‘knowing’ because of a dependance on it.
I’m not talking about folks who pray about trivial stuff like prime parking spots or who try to discern which color to paint their fingernails (both are common). I am talking about real people who have said sentences like the following over the past decade of ministry:
- Why didn’t God tell me it was cancer?
- Why didn’t God warn us not to let her take the car?
- Why didn’t God alert us our that child was being abused?
- Why didn’t God direct us and help us find the body?
- Why didn’t God tell me that my spouse was cheating?
- Why didn’t God expose the treasurer’s embezzling?
- Why didn’t God say the Doctor’s diagnosis was wrong?
I am not making these up. These are real sentences I have been asked. (and I have many more examples)
I want to say two things:
That is not how God works. It’s just not. Look, I get the power of personal prophecy! I have called out things that I wouldn’t know in my own capability. I am not a doubter. I am just saying that if we come to rely on this way of knowing we could really endanger ourselves and those around us. We need accountability with our church’s finances because we can’t trust that the Holy Spirit would tell us if something was up.
Process has given me a framework to explain how this kind of prophecy works. I don’t want to quench the Spirit, or hold prophecy with contempt, or lose what is good and explain away some of the miraculous stuff I have seen over the years. I know that some will dispute that personal prophecy is what is meant when the New Testament speaks of prophecy – and it is illustrative to my about the contemporary church that many have NO frame of reference for this activity (it seems like voodoo to them) and yet for others it is their MAIN connection to God and they know of no other type of definition for prophecy.
Tomorrow I will post ‘The Process of Prophecy’ – but for now I just wanted to say that The Minority Report is fiction. That is not how God works. Yes, I think it is cool that we can know stuff we normally don’t have access to. BUT we have to be really careful that we don’t turn off other systems of navigation because we like playing with this one. People are getting hurt (by others) and are discouraged with God because we are playing with a toy that was never meant to be a real steering wheel or compass.
Personal prophecy is not a guide to life. It can be a sign (like in the Gospel of John) that points to a greater level of trust and awareness and creates a desire. However, it can not be our main go-to mechanism for making our way in the world. Prophetic words need to be integrated into a web-of-meaning that incorporates scripture, community, and reason.
Why didn’t God tell you? Because that is not how God designed it to work.
if you have never encountered this type of thing before: check out this instructive blog about maximizing the impact your prophetic word.
Then you may want to check out my post “what has changed since I was your pastor”.