As I blogged about last year, theologian Phillip Cary, an evangelical, would say that the only way we hear God’s voice is through scripture. How we apply this word from God to our lives is a matter of God-given wisdom, not any kind of divine revelation. I appreciate what Cary is saying: among other things, it guards against believing that the Spirit will reveal to us something that contradicts God’s Word, which is near the heart of my disagreement with fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger Jason Micheli. Moreover, whatever word we “hear” from God will never be as authoritative as the word that he’s given us in scripture.
All that to say, like Cary, I’m suspicious of Christians who speak with great confidence about what God “told” them. How do they know for sure that they’re hearing the voice of God, rather than their own intuition? If what God tells us, by contrast, is written in black and white (and sometimes red) in the Bible, then at least the answer is clear.
My friend Tom Harkins shares my concern. In the comments sections of this blog, he’s described an experience in which he heard a Christian singer-songwriter say, “The Lord gave me this next song.” Upon hearing it, Tom thought, “If that were true, then the Lord must be a really bad songwriter!”
Nevertheless, I can’t agree completely with Cary. I think all of us Christians have a sense from time to time of being “led” by God or “spoken to” by God. (The scare quotes indicate that, as far as I can tell, God rarely speaks to us in an audible voice.) I certainly have had that sense! I don’t see anything wrong with that. In my own Methodist tradition, all of us clergy have had to defend our “call” from God to the Board of Ordained Ministry. We believe that God does tell certain individuals that he wants them to go into ministry. This call seems more personal than merely saying that, given this combination of gifts, talents, and interests that I possess, going into ministry would be a wise thing to do. (As best I can tell, that’s Phillip Cary’s position.)
So I would say that the Bible is the primary means by which we hear God’s voice. I would also say that when we read scripture, we may have a supernatural encounter with God—and that the Holy Spirit may speak a personal word to our lives and situations.
But what is that experience like? How do we discern God’s voice speaking directly to us and and the situations we face through scripture? As I said in my sermon yesterday, N.T. Wright offers some helpful words from his commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16-17. He says that when Paul talks about the Bible’s “rebuking” us,
It means, clearly, that as we read scripture it will from time to time inform us in no uncertain terms that something we’ve been doing is out of line with God’s will. Sometimes this will lie plainly on the surface of the text; other times, as we read a passage, we will begin to hear the voice of God gently, or perhaps not so gently, telling us that this story applies to this area of our lives, or perhaps that one. When that happens—as it may often do for those who read the Bible prayerfully—we do well to pay attention.
This seems exactly right to me. Do any of you disagree?
†N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 121-2.