If “God told you,” then who am I to disagree with God?

goodnews1I blogged a couple of weeks ago about theologian Phillip Cary’s Good News for Anxious Christians. You may recall that I said that Cary rejects the idea that God speaks to us in our hearts—as an intuition. He argues that the only voice we hear “in our hearts” is our own. Listening to our own voice is good and necessary when it comes to making decisions, but that voice, he says, shouldn’t be mistaken for God.

If this idea bothers you like it bothers me, he would say it’s only because we’ve been influenced by a few generations’ worth of bad theology—that even 50 years ago, most evangelical Christians would say that the way that we hear God’s voice is through God’s revealed word, the Bible. By all means, we study, meditate on, and apply God’s Word to help make our own decisions—not find out what God’s decision is for us, if you know what I mean.

By this logic, therefore, there are any number of decisions that we can make that would be fully in harmony with God’s will for us.

You might be ready to throw your laptop, smartphone, tablet, or PC against the wall at this point, but bear with me long enough to consider the virtue of Cary’s viewpoint. For example, I’ve talked to plenty of parishioners and others over the years who have explained decisions they’ve made by saying something like, “God told me to do it.”

They never mean that God spoke to them in an audible voice. Rather, they always mean that they had a gut feeling, an intuition, a voice in their hearts, which they’ve identified as God’s voice. How do they know it’s God’s voice? They just know. O.K., but haven’t they had other gut feelings, other intuitions, other “voices in their hearts” that they didn’t identify as God’s voice? How do they distinguish one from the other?

It’s easy to see—and this is Cary’s main point—how easily this discernment process can be a source of anxiety and stress, right?

When I was in the ordination process, a well-meaning pastor was giving a group of us future ordinands a pep talk. He described how stressful being a pastor can sometimes be. He said, “No matter how bad things get, no matter what bad things happen to you, no matter how badly people mistreat you, just remember: You’ve still got your call from God, and no one can take that away.”

Many people said, “Amen!” I wanted to say, “Oh, brother!”

I thought, “Well, that’s no comfort at all! Because what we perceive as a call from God didn’t exactly come to any of us as a blinding flash of light on the road to Damascus. We didn’t hear Jesus speak to us. And if things go as badly as he suggests, then who’s to say we didn’t misunderstand our call?” See what I mean?

At the very least, we must admit that people in the Bible encountered God in a much less ambiguous way.

I’m not even saying I completely agree with Cary. I’m pretty sure I don’t: for example, I’m worried he doesn’t leave enough room for the work of the Holy Spirit. But we Methodist preachers, at least, often speak a lot of hot air about “God’s call.”

What if, instead, God has spoken to us through scripture, given us amazing brains with which to think things through, instilled wisdom within us, and put trustworthy people in our lives (especially in church!) to guide us, so that we can make our own decisions?

We still might make bad decisions this way, by all means. But God has a nice way of redeeming even bad decisions. And here’s where the Holy Spirit comes in: he’s involved in every part of the process—not determining our decisions, but working through them, good or bad.

Finally (and this is my point, not Cary’s): Are these people who “hear God’s voice” in this way willing to say that their revelation from God is as equally binding on them as the Bible, which all Christians accept—to some extent, at least—as God’s revealed Word? Does their intuition carry the same weight as holy scripture?

If so, then there’s no arguing with them, is there? They say that God told them to do something. If I happen to think that what they say “God told them to do” is actually a foolish course of action, then I’m clearly wrong, aren’t I? I’m outside of God’s will. I’m disobeying the very voice of God!

Do you see the great potential for abuse here? God help congregations whose pastors are always doing what God told them to do, rather than relying on scripture, and reason, and the wisdom and guidance of people who know more than they do!

This is the very theme of a great Daniel Amos song, “Big Warm Sweet Interior Glowing,” posted below. Here’s one verse:

He will always trust his own vision
Could be a dangerous man
He’s guided by no one
Attracted to the sound
Of the interior voices
He will not listen hard enough
To any other man

He gets a big warm sweet interior glowing
He gets a grand elitist superior knowing
This convinces us he’s infallible—yeah

7 thoughts on “If “God told you,” then who am I to disagree with God?”

  1. I find this to be the problem that all mankind is, has, and will face. The only hope I have the measure of all things, is it for God will God be glorified by it. If not it’s not of God.

  2. This is not a comment on the gist of your post. Just a humorous counter point to the “oh brother” advice you received from the well meaning pastor.

    The wonderful, mournful, very old, Irish poem, Donal Og.


    The last stanza has a differing view of no one taking God from someone, of course it is with the context of the whole poem:

    “You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
    you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
    you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
    and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!”


  3. God told me to, no, God hears my prayers and comforts and re-assures me as a loving father and reminds me he will always be with me in the decision i make, good or bad.

  4. Brent, I am heavily in agreement that God primarily gives us Scripture as our guide, and then our mental capacities, and then learned and experienced Christian friends. But I don’t think we can leave out the “still, small voice,” as it were. You ask, “But what if we are mistaken?” But can we not ask, “But what if I am not interpreting scripture correctly?” Just because we can sometimes mistake “the voice of God” (not “out loud”–I personally doubt such a “manifestation” in our time) does not mean that God may not nonetheless sometimes so “speak.”

    I can think, myself (but no one should “take my word for it”) of a few times where I felt God “prompting” me in some fashion, some I followed and some I did not. The resulting after-effects “confirmed” to me that it was God. Nevertherless, that does not mean that there have never been times when I felt “prompted” and the resulting after-effects suggested “not from God.” I can be mistaken one way or the other. But I don’t think we can just ignore all promptings or assume they came to us “from within.” We just have to “weigh” them, as we do advice from friends or other ways God may “direct” in some “indirect” fashion. And, of course, consistency with scripture is the number one thing to “weigh” against in deciphering the source of such “promptings.”

    As an example, my Dad recounts how he was “called” to be a missionary. Was he right? Subsequent events suggest to me that he was. (Again, take no one else’s word for such things.) Yet, he later felt he got another idea that he thought was from God, but I don’t think so, because I don’t think it was consistent with scripture. Should he just say, “I will ignore any promptings as being my own ideas”? I don’t think so. I just think he should have “weighed things” more carefully.

    1. Since it’s not mostly my argument, and I honestly can’t decide to what extent I agree with Cary (I haven’t finished the book yet), I can tell you what Cary would say: he would say that the “promptings” you experienced were from your own heart or mind—and that’s perfectly good! That’s what God wants for us: for us to make our own decisions, informed by God’s Word and God’s wisdom, not to find out what God’s “decision” is for us and then follow it.

      I know you don’t agree with Cary, but it sounds like you at least see the danger to which his words serve as warning. People use sloppy “God told me” language all the time. It irritates me because there’s no longer opportunity for dialogue or dissent. It stops all conversation. “Well, if God told you then who am I to disagree?” It’s helpful to stand on the bedrock of scripture and say, “Here’s what God ‘tells us.’ Now what are we going to do about it?”

  5. Brent, I totally agree both about “sloppy language” and “stops all conversation.” People say, “God told me” way too often and about things God would be very unlikely to “say.” I like the example I may have shared before about my friend the Christian guitarist who heard someone on a Christian radio station say, “God gave me this song”; which, after my friend heard the song, thought, “God must not be a very good musician!” I think we should always be willing to “second guess” such claims, as I mentioned with respect to my own missionary father (now retired). Perhaps sometimes we should in love and humility and with tact point out that we are doubtful such came from God.

    However, my disagreement with Cary, as noted, is I think the other extreme is also wrong. We can’t just say, “God never speaks,” because I think there is too much evidence that he sometimes does. I certainly think he has on a handful of occasions “prompted” me (but please don’t take my word for it!). So, I think it is a matter of balance–don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Thus, I really believe God “called” my Dad to be a missionary.

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