That’s Not God
According to Williams, there are four ways you can tell you are not hearing God’s voice:
- God never says anything that contradicts Scripture
- God’s voice is not the voice of anxiety, unsettledness or exhaustion
- God’s voice is not the voice of obscurity – “Clear trumpet”
- God’s corrective voice is not one of guilt or condemnation, but loving discipline and conviction of sin
Let’s have a look at the first one: God never says anything that contradicts Scripture.
American Experiment: Protestantism in the 1700s and 1800s (an excerpt from The Bible: The Book that Bridges the Millennia) describes how Protestant Christians, believing they were hearing the voice of God, found biblical justification for the Trial of Tears and slavery:
…native peoples of North America found themselves forced off their tribal lands as U.S. national boundaries expanded further westward. Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Eastern tribes of Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Creek were force-marched along the “Trail of Tears” to the Oklahoma territory. Eventually most Indian nations were forcibly relocated as the U.S. government broke every treaty it made with native peoples. Millions died from disease and genocidal* war. Survivors were confined to “reservations” on the worst lands.
Protestant Christians used the Bible to defend and justify these realities. Slavery was rationalized because Africans were not Christian, therefore labeled “heathens” and considered sub-human. The Promised Land theology of the book of Joshua with its model of military conquest was used to justify the wars against indigenous peoples, the “Canaanites” of the New World. The Puritans who came to the New World saw themselves as God’s elect, called to establish the New Israel. Frontier individualism and the optimism of progress through expansion and wealth led to the political slogan “Manifest Destiny,” which reflected Christian triumphalism, a biblical interpretation that encouraged an attitude of the moral and economic superiority of white Christians over all others, and justified the taking of land.
The oppressors assumed they heard the voice of God. They turned to scripture to validate that assumption, and they found what they were looking for within the writings. We must either conclude that scripture can contradict the voice of God or that using scripture as a means to test whether one is hearing God is, at best, subjective evidence (an oxymoronic word combination), because the concepts contained within its pages become distorted as they pass through the filters of both translation and interpretation.
I propose that we view scripture the way Jesus (“…the Word became human and made his home among us”) taught us. Take, for example, a conversation Jesus had with an expert in scripture. He doesn’t simply ask the man what is written there. He also asks, “How read you?” Our simple English words don’t fully encompass what Jesus asked, but when one examines the Greek, the full meaning becomes clear. Jesus essentially asked, “What is written in the law? In what manner or by what means do you know with certainty?” After some discussion about loving God and loving your neighbor, Jesus told this story:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
The reason the priest and Levite treated the injured man like roadkill was that commandments in scripture about ritual contamination made handling a half-dead man a personal risk. Should the man die, then they, having touched the man, would not be permitted to perform temple services. Samaritans, in the eyes of Jews and Levites, were heathens to be compared with pigs or dogs. They rejected all of the Old Testament books except the first five. Yet, in Jesus’ story, the Samaritan is the one who heard and obeyed the voice of God. All three of them saw the man, yet only one acted with compassion. Why?
Perhaps the priest and Levite did as most Christians are doing today, that is, using scripture to decide whether they are hearing God, instead of hearing God to decide whether they should use scripture. Jesus not only drew a clear distinction between the word (message) of God and the scriptures (writings) but also associated Himself with the word (message):
Nor have you His word dwelling within you, for you refuse to believe Him whom He has sent. You search the Scriptures, because you suppose that in them you will find the Life of the Ages; and it is those Scriptures that yield testimony concerning me, and yet you are unwilling to come to me that you may have Life.
When I was a kid, I cheated on a test, and I felt so full of shame and guilt that I vomited. During that time, my understanding of the voice of God was continuously filtered through misinterpreted scripture. I not only felt like the sheep that had wandered off but also like the sheep that was being thrown to the wolves by an angry Shepherd. That overused scripture-filter continued to distort much of what I heard from God into adulthood. I loved Jesus, but I didn’t really trust Him the way a sheep trusts a good shepherd. A few years ago, I realized that sometimes hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and following Him meant rejecting orthodox interpretations of scripture. What a difference that has made in knowing, really knowing Him, and in realizing how He knows me better than I know myself. Of course, I still wander off, I still say or do things that make me feel ashamed of myself. The difference is that I charge with reckless abandon toward the Good Shepherd to rescue me from myself. And as someone who is secure in the knowledge of His boundless grace and love, not just for me, but for everyone, I spend very little time focusing on my failures and a lot more time rejoicing in His victorious message of hope.
(Numbers 2-4 will be covered in upcoming blog posts.)
Read the other blogs in this series here.