I 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