I am sure most readers know the joke about a person who hears voices in their head. Either they are mentally disturbed or an Evangelical Christian. While I don’t think that Evangelicals are mentally disturbed, I do find their belief that God speaks to them disturbing and, at times, dangerous.
Generally speaking, Evangelicals believe that God speaks to them:
- Through the Word of God as it is read and/or preached
- Through their conscience, as the Holy Spirit teaches, guides, leads, and corrects them
Some Evangelicals take God speaking to them a bit farther. They think God speaks to them:
- Through visions
- Through dreams
- Through speaking in tongues and prophecies
Some Evangelicals are so God saturated that God is speaking to them almost every moment of every day. These super-Christians have God on speed dial, and when they need a on-on-one with God, they press 1, YES GOD IS NUMBER ONE IN MY LIFE, PRAISE JESUS, and they are immediately connected to God. For these kind of Evangelicals, no task is too small for God to take time out of his busy day to talk to them about it. God tells them where their car keys are, which exit on the interstate to take, who to witness to, who to marry, what consumer goods to buy, and how much money to give to the church. For them, God is the ultimate micro-manager. (and people wonder where Evangelical preachers get it)
Most of us former Evangelicals can tell stories about God speaking to us. In a previous post, God Spoke to Me, I wrote:
We all have stories we could tell about emotional experiences we had as a Christian. I had many emotional experiences when I was a Christian. I remember “God” coming upon me and leading me to preach a particular sermon or “God” leading me to have the church do this or that. I have sat in countless services and “felt” the presence of God. I just KNEW God was in our midst. I have been in services where it was evident that the room was thick with God’s presence. I have preached sermons that God used in mighty ways, with countless people professing faith in Christ or getting right with God.
I now know that the many God spoke me moments in my life were emotional experiences that were very real. It doesn’t matter whether God exists or whether God was “really” speaking to me, These experiences FELT real and I emotionally and intellectually accepted them as such. These experiences were very much a part of the religious culture I was a part of. It was not uncommon to hear preachers and church members alike say that God spoke to them or that God was leading them. Most of the time these pronouncements were taken at face value. Occasionally, especially at church business meetings, there would be conflicts over what God was saying. As I look back on it now, I wonder, why did God tell different people different things? One would think that the One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism God would convey the same message to everyone. But, he didn’t, and the How Good it is for Brethren to Dwell in Unity Church, continues to this day to fragment because God is saying one thing to person A and another thing to person B.
How do you know it wasn’t God, an Evangelical is sure to ask? I don’t. I can’t be certain that it was or wasn’t God speaking to me. But, if I can’t be certain, neither can the Evangelical. There is no way to KNOW that a voice you hear in your head is God or not. Saying God spoke to you is a subjective experience beyond verification. This is why I look at God speaking to people from a sociological and cultural perspective.
Every sect and church has its own normal. Thus, in a church were tongues speaking is a normal, every day occurrence, most people speak in tongues. In the Baptist churches I was raised in and later pastored, we had our own normal. There were certain emotional expressions that were OK, and the congregants tended to express themselves emotionally based on what was considered normal. Baptist churches in the North are less outwardly emotional than Baptist churches in the South. In the Christian Union denomination I was a part of, some of their prayer meetings were quite bizarre. Everyone started praying out loud at the same time. This would go on for some time until one by one the pray-ers would stop praying and the last person praying would be the pastor. Every sect and church would say that what goes on in their church is of God. I found the Christian Union prayer meetings to be quite disconcerting. More than once I found myself thinking, how does God even hear their prayers with all this confusion? I am sure that these churches would say that they pray this way because this is how God wants them to pray. (in one accord) However, the real reason they pray this way is because of their sect/ church’s culture. They pray this way because they have always prayed this way. So it is with God speaking to people. People who are part of a church culture that believes God speaks to people generally believe God speaks to them.
Most of the time, God speaking to people, is of no importance to anyone but the person God is allegedly speaking to. But, as a pastor for 25 years, I told the churches I pastored numerous times that God spoke to me and we need to do _____________ or God is leading me to do _________________. Based on God speaking or leading me, the churches I pastored bought buildings, sold property, bought copy machines and computers, started ministries, and stopped ministries. God speaking to me had a real world effect on the people I pastored. Sometimes, as moderator of the church business meeting, I would “lead” church members to hear the exact same message from God that I did. Surely, as the man of God, I have a direct line to God, right? (the answer is NO)
I now know that God speaking to me generally coincided with my wants, desires, and needs. So was God really speaking to me, or was Bruce speaking to Bruce? Again, I can’t know for certain, but what is more likely; a God I have never seen and I see little existence for speaks to me or the voice I hear in my head is my own? (or that I am schizophrenic)
Sometimes, an Evangelical believing God speaks to them can cause serious, tragic consequences. Just this past week, the Rolling Stone magazine published a feature story about the murder of Beth Deaton. Beth was married to a man who was associated with the International House of Prayer (IHOP), an Evangelical ministry that many people think is a cult. Central to the story is God speaking to people. In this case, God speaking to people led to the murder of a young woman. Here is a short blurb from the Rolling Stone article:
During the summer of 2007, (Tyler) Deaton had traveled to Pakistan as a missionary, where he had a number of “supernatural” experiences. A boy with one leg, he told friends, had miraculously acquired another. During a visit to a children’s home, he had heard the words “The leader of this place is committing sexual sin with young boys.” Deaton informed the trip’s leaders, and learned that two boys had been caught performing sexual acts with each other. They and the home’s leader were removed.
Since his return, Deaton had been wondering how to access the supernatural in America. The answer came outside the Barnes & Noble. “What you just did in Pakistan,” God told him, “you are going to do at Southwestern.” The names of three friends “erupted” from Deaton’s mouth: “June,” “Justin” and “Bethany Leidlein.” In Deaton’s vision, their collective worship would “shift the spiritual atmosphere” on campus and catalyze a revival. Angels would descend and demons would flee, and Christians across the university would rush to join the group. Even nonbelievers would succumb. The “spirit of intellectualism” that held so many in bondage would be dispelled for good.
Tyler Deaton was certain God was speaking to him and he attracted other college-age adults who thought God was speaking to Tyler. What started out as a group of devoted Evangelical young people desiring to know more of God, turned into a cult, and as a result Bethany Deaton lost her life. (murdered by a man who says Tyler Deaton told him to kill Bethany)
This story is hardly unique. Every few months we read news stories about people committing murders or drowning or shooting their children because they believed God was telling them to. Bruce, these people are mentally ill, the Evangelical says. Sure, but how do we determine one circumstance is God speaking and a different circumstance is mental illness? Tens of thousands of people lost their life in the last Iraqi War because George W. Bush thought God spoke to him. Was he mentally ill? (for some, I know that is a rhetorical question) More than a few American political leaders are certain God speaks to them. They are certain God wants America to stand on the side of Israel even if it leads to Word War III. I am sure most readers of this blog would agree, God speaking has no place in the American political process. ( and this includes God telling people to run for office)
I make a distinction between hearing God speaking and feeling the presence of God. In America, it is primarily Evangelicals who say that God speaks to them. Many other religious people would never say God spoke to them. Through worship, nature, and the things they experience in life, many religious people sense the presence of God. While I don’t think they are actually sensing God, how could I since I don’t think God exists, I realize these kind of religious people are harmless. (and I don’t mean harmless in a negative way) They would never suggest that God told them to do _______________ and that God is telling them to tell me __________________. They value reason and rational thought, yet they believe in transcendence. This transcendence is personal and they would never push their experience on to others. Both of us can look at the stars and planets in the sky and have a sense of awe and wonder. They sense the presence of God in the universe, I do not.
Were you once part of a sect/church where God spoke to people? If you are still a Christian, do you think God speaks to you? Are you a liberal Christian? Do you think God speaks to you or is God just a presence you feel? Whatever your experience, please share your thoughts in the comment section.