Posts Tagged ‘Phillip Cary’

Does God speak to us “in our hearts”? (Part 3)

August 26, 2013

goodnews1As I’ve written about in two previous blog posts, here and here, Phillip Cary’s book Good News for Anxious Christians challenged me to rethink my understanding of how God speaks to us. Or should I say “speaks” to us in quotation marks? Because I’ve never met a Christian who claims that God spoke in an audible voice, only as a strong intuition in their heart.

And that’s exactly the kind of anxiety to which Cary is addressing his book: How do we know? How do we discern God’s voice from our own? According to people who believe that God has spoken to them, there aren’t many criteria for deciding: One criterion would obviously be, “Does this ‘voice’ contradict what God has revealed in scripture?'” That doesn’t seem especially helpful to me, since many choices we make in life won’t contradict scripture, yet we wouldn’t say, therefore, that “God told me” to do this thing.

Another criterion seems to be that God’s “voice” is a really, really strong intuition. It’s a gut feeling. How else do we interpret, for example, what Baptist pastor Charles Stanley says about “hearing”  God’s voice in this interview from earlier this year in Christianity Today?

You often say in your books and preaching that God speaks to you, tells you things, and gives you messages. What is that like for you? Is it a thought? Is it a voice you hear?

For me, I get this strong sense of feeling that’s so clear, so direct to me. Like this week, something happened and I thought, Well, I could do thus and such, and God said, “Don’t do that.” I don’t hear a voice, but it’s so crystal sharp and clear to me, I know not to disobey that.

I think that comes from early in life as you learn to listen. You make mistakes; after a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn’t turn out right.

Did you catch that? “[A]fter a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn’t turn out right.” So God’s voice is something we discern over time, through trial and error. We make a decision based on an intuition that we think represents “God’s voice.” It turns out poorly. So we decide that wasn’t God’s voice. Then we make another decision based on an intuition. It turns out well. So we decide that must have been God’s voice.

Am I misinterpreting what Stanley is saying here? I don’t think so.

If Cary were reading this, he would say that what Stanley is really doing—which is what all of us Christians should do—is learning to make wise decisions. Over time, often through bitter experience, making wise decisions becomes easier (I hope!). Maybe it even becomes automatic, something we’re not even conscious of. The Bible exhorts us not to ask God to tell us what to do in every situation, but to ask God to give us wisdom. With wisdom, we can often make the right decision no matter what life throws our way.

So perhaps Stanley isn’t obeying the voice of God so much as the voice of wisdom? Who knows?

Regardless, I’m guessing that most of the time the difference isn’t that important.

But I believe the way we speak about our decision-making is. Look at the Stanley quote again: for him, making a bad decision means disobeying God. That’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of opportunity to feel guilty! Why can’t we just say we made a bad decision, but in good faith, and that making a bad decision isn’t necessarily a character flaw or a sin? That it isn’t necessarily the result of not praying hard enough?

Someone asked me if I (or Cary) wasn’t limiting God’s role in our lives by suggesting that God doesn’t speak to us nearly as often as the “evangelical mystics” among us think. On the contrary: if I’m right, then God will work to bring good out of any decision we make and any circumstance we face. It’s just that some decisions are better than others.

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

August 14, 2013

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

“If we were as much like Christ as Jonah”

July 5, 2013
Phillip Cary wrote a razor-sharp commentary on Jonah. You should read it!

Phillip Cary wrote a razor-sharp commentary on Jonah. You should read it!

The usual way we read Jonah—the subject of my next sermon—is to stand in judgment of him, but on what basis can we possibly do that? Because you and I have never heard the word of the Lord and then done exactly opposite of what that word said? I agree that at his worst Jonah is pretty bad (again, who among us isn’t?), but at his best he’s not bad at all. In fact, he’s positively Christ-like. Jesus thought so, too.

Phillip Cary, in his amazingly good Brazos Theological Commentary, agrees. He says that Jonah’s despair is much like Job’s, who wished he had never been born.

And yet in handing himself over to God in this way, Jonah is also at his most Christlike. He gives up his life so that others might live. He propitiates the wrath of God by submitting to it himself so that others may be freed. We would all be doing well if we were as much like Christ as Jonah is. Though Jonah may give himself up in despair, he does have his priorities straight: he treats the lives of these good sailors as more valuable than his own. There is enough real love in this to be the beginning of good things, including Jonah’s own obedience. In Jonah 2 he turns to God in heartfelt prayer and trust—but only after he has given himself up to death for the sake of these people he hardly knows. Greater love has no man (John 15:13).[†]

For my many fellow Christians who think it’s inappropriate to talk about propitiating—or doing something to satisfy—God’s wrath (assuming they believe that God even has wrath), please notice that this is exactly what’s happening here. Jonah’s sacrifice foreshadows the cross. It’s more evidence for the central place of substitutionary atonement in our understanding of the cross.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 66.