Recently, I was deeply impressed with Phillip Cary’s incisive Brazos commentary on the Book of Jonah. I decided, as a result, to check out other things he’s written. I’m currently reading Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do.
Or maybe what I just wrote isn’t quite right. What if, instead of saying, “I decided to check out another book of his,” I said, “God told me to check out another book of his”? What would you think?
If you think that sounds ridiculous—that I’m reading Cary’s book not merely because I thought it was a good idea, but because I sensed in my heart that God was calling me to read this book—then you and Cary are on the same wavelength. If, however, you thought it was perfectly normal that I heard the voice of God tell me to read it, then you’re apparently like me and most evangelical Christians today. And, in Cary’s view, this is a major problem.
He says that over the past few generations a novel idea has entered the mainstream of evangelical Christian thought: that the primary means by which we hear God speak to us is not through studying the scriptures, reflecting on them, and letting them guide our decisions, but by discerning a “voice” or intuition inside our heart—a process that used to be called “guidance,” but which we now pretend counts as revelation.
The practice of listening for God’s voice in your heart has only recently displaced Scripture as the most important way, in the view of most evangelicals, that God reveals himself to us… The idea… was that when you have a big decision to make—say, about marriage or your career—then you are supposed to seek guidance from God (good idea!) and the key way to do that is by listening to how he’s speaking in your heart (bad idea!).
Not that listening to your heart is a bad idea, he says: it’s good to discern your own thoughts and feelings when making an important decision, and listening to your heart enables you do that. But listening to our heart is listening to ourselves, not God. To know God, by contrast, “you have to listen to God, not to yourself, and that means listening to a word which comes from outside yourself—the external word of Scripture.”
I’ll be honest: his words feel like a punch in the gut. I have preached about the importance of hearing God’s voice in our hearts. Hearing this voice in our hearts is the “listening” part of prayer, isn’t it? It’s what (we hope) emerges from meditating on scripture, right?
Cary doesn’t think so. He believes that we ought to listen to our own voice—and make scripturally informed decisions on that basis—without having to resort to “God told me to do this.”
He describes a not-very-hypothetical scenario in which a young woman in college is thinking about how unhappy she is dating her overly controlling boyfriend of many years. “I don’t feel right about this relationship,” she thinks to herself. This is no doubt the voice of wisdom speaking to her—urging her to do the right thing and break up with him. And she does so.
Only she can’t trust that she possesses the wisdom to dump this loser. So she credits God with the decision.
The sad thing is not that she listens to this quiet little voice, but that she can’t admit it’s her own. She has to label it God’s voice in order to take it seriously. Apparently she’s never thought of her own voice as something worth listening to… She can’t admit it’s her own voice because that would make it unimportant. Who’s she to say her boyfriend’s not good for her?
So she says, “God told me to do this.” And how often do we say, “God told me to do this”?
What God “told us,” Cary says, is in the Bible. That’s God’s revelation. At the very least, we must all admit (assuming we are in any sense orthodox Christians, not to mention Protestants) that the Bible is far more reliable revelation than anything that we intuit in our hearts.
I don’t quite disagree with Cary. To my surprise and discomfort, I don’t quite disagree. And yet, the extent to which I agree goes against a lot of sloppy United Methodist thinking. After all, I spent about eight years being required to appear before boards and committees defending my “call” into this very specific ministry as an ordained “elder in full connection” in the United Methodist Church.
By Cary’s way of thinking, what I should have told these boards and committees is that, based on what I discern about my own gifts, talents, and aptitudes, here is what I believe would be my best career decision.
If I had said this, however, would I have passed?
I have more to say on the subject. In the meantime, what do you think?
1. Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 2-3.
2. Ibid., 3.
3. Ibid., 5.