The Gates Are Open

Hearing God

The Scarcity of Accurate Prophetic People

In a Patheos online article last year, a self-proclaimed Wicca witch wrote about her visit to a well-known California church where many people were prophesying over each other. Remember, this woman actively invites spirits to work in her soul. Two of the church members asked permission to pray over her. After she gave them permission, these two women gave a prophetic word which endorsed the way she was practicing her faith. They confirmed that the spiritual track she was on was a good one, and that the people she was being taught by were genuine and helpful.
She had a good laugh over that one. Of course, as followers of King Jesus, we realize these two were both wrong in their prophetic utterances. It’s not a big deal; we’re human and we get things wrong. If this was an isolated incident, I could and would overlook it. But it’s not isolated. These days, it is more than the norm than anything.
I believe in the spiritual gift of prophecy. I believe it is the ability to hear God’s voice and then speak it out. There is supernatural power in this gift and I believe it is still for God’s church today. It is more than just good preaching and teaching. God still speaks through his people today.
However, I also know there is an explosion of people encouraging Christians to prophesy without giving them enough good teaching on how to do it accurately and consistently. As a result, I have found that most of the prophetic words I hear are unhelpful at best and misleading/wrong at the worst. In other words, there are very few prophetic people around even though so many are prophesying.
These days, if you believed all the prophetic “words” spoken, everyone is going to be healed, every one of us is going to win thousands to the Lord, every one of our visionary goals is going to succeed, every future spouse is already picked out, and every bill will be paid even though we have spent foolishly. It is all good.
Except it isn’t. I have despaired at the state of the prophetic in America today. But not quite. I think we can all learn to prophesy more accurately if we correct some bad habits. I believe there are at least a dozen reasons we hear very few accurate prophecies. Let me take a few moments to go through them.
1. Too Much Social Interaction: If you want to be an accurate prophetic person, you must get away and spend time with God. When Jesus was called to choose twelve apostles, he spent the entire night all alone with God before choosing them . Elijah spent over three years hiding with God in a ravine. Paul went away for several years, purposefully avoiding other apostles. All of these prophets did this to hear more of God’s heart for this world. Today, there are few people who are not glued to their phones, tablets and computers. There is constant interaction with other people. This might seem like a good thing. But it leaves very little room to hear God and to learn to hear God. The prophetic takes work and it takes accuracy. None of that comes easily. If you want to be accurate in the prophetic, it will mean many weeks and months with limited conversation other than with God. I am serious.
2. The Wrong Attitudes: If you want to hear God in order to share it with others, you must approach it with the right attitude. There are many wrong attitudes which really prevent us from getting to the heart of God for others. Here are the most common ones:
a. To Impress Others: We have to admit there are times we would love for God to speak through us so it will validate our ministry and our walk with God. The problem with this is we would be tempted always to say things which would be impressive. We would avoid a word which is unimpressive. Who wants to share with another person, “you’re going to struggle in your current job, but God wants you to gut it out.” Yet, those are more the norm of what you hear if you listen to the Spirit of God.
b. To Prove God is Real: We often have these nagging doubts about God’s reality in our lives. We would love to have those moments where God gives us a message for someone which is accurate and outstanding. We hope He will do this so we can know for sure God is there and is real. The warning should be clear: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. He is real even if He never speaks to you.
c. To Control Others: One of my prophetic mentors told me once: “If someone prays over you and says ‘you’re going to move to Texas and marry a tall blonde with a large fortune’ forget Texas, forget a blonde and forget the fortune”. What he was saying is that these kind of prophetic words where we are directed to go to a place or be involved with people are desires to control. This is what they were doing with Paul when he was heading to Jerusalem to be arrested. The disciples all had “words” for him that he wasn’t supposed to go. They wanted to control and direct his life. If you give a prophetic word, it is to strengthen them to make their own decisions.
d. So Others Will Like Us: The true words from God rarely cause others to like us more. They often contain sharp words which are designed to get others out of their doldrums. Can you imagine Nathan the Prophet wanting King David to like him when God came and told him to confront David in his adultery and murder? If Nathan had given in to this attitude, he would never have approached the King.
3. The Quick Prophetic is Too Difficult: Many of you reading this have heard me teach on hearing God’s voice. I used to do exercises where we get a quick word from God over other people. I don’t do that any more and here is the reason. I believe it is very difficult to get accurate words from God if all you have is a few seconds. Though it can happen, this is only after you have established a regimen of spending a lot of time with God and have learned how to sense small differences in how your soul is reacting to God. For most people, it takes a lot of time and practice to hear what God is saying. See point #1 for why this is not happening all that often.
4. Our Agendas Are in the Way: During last year’s election, a number of prominent Christian leaders claimed God had showed them why the Church was to support Donald J. Trump. Very few voices in evangelicalism were disagreeing. Even some of the most prominent people in the prayer movement and the prophetic movement were on board with this. I kept a file of the prophetic words which were claimed over his first six months in office. Almost all of them have been completely wrong. Remember, you will know a prophetic word by its accuracy. But I want you to know, there is a reason for this. Most of these people didn’t realize they had attached their own agenda to these words. What happens when we want something so badly is we re-interpret what God is saying to fit into the word. This can happen when we’re looking for a job, need money, desire a spouse, are seeking a ministry or a church, engage in a conflict, etc. The way to overcome this is to empty that agenda completely and to come to God with an idea which says “I will accept anything you give me”. Read 1 Samuel chapter 3 and see the attitude of Eli. God told him that both his sons would die because of their sin and Eli’s reaction is that God is good and his word is acceptable. I want that attitude. It is the only way to be accurate in hearing God.
5. We Forget That Exhortation is Part of Encouragement: In 1 Corinthians 14 we are told that the prophetic is for the purpose of encouraging, strengthening and edifying. We look at the word encouragement and think “this is for making people feel better about life so they can keep growing.” And that is the meaning of the word encourage in English. But, 1 Corinthians was written in Greek. The Greek word translated “encourage” means “to exhort”. This is more than encouragement; this means to prod, to push, and to coach. The picture is of the coach who drives the players to go beyond what they think they can endure in the game. Of course, it also includes coming alongside that person who feels defeated and to lift them up. But at times, it means to say the tough thing. Recently, God had me approach a friend and tell them they were putting a half-hearted effort into their calling. God showed me a picture of a sports car engine and the person driving it was only pushing the gas pedal down a half inch. This person was initially offended. But later they came back and thanked me for this word. Three weeks ago, a friend told me bluntly I had dishonored a mutual friend and that this would be a hindrance to my life. I hated hearing it, but it was an accurate prophetic word. It saved me from a terrible attack of the enemy. We need to have much more than encouragement; we need exhortation.
6. We Listen too Much to Other Prophets: Several times in the Old Testament, groups of prophets gathered together and just echoed each other’s false prophesies. This happens among prophetic groups. Once the word gets out, others echo it as if it were their own. I saw this in recent years as people get on Internet mailing lists of certain prophetic people. It is amazing how I can read about a prophesy on one of those lists and then weeks later it seems like every second person is getting the same prophetic word. As I mentioned above, the prophets who spoke over Paul had the same problem. They kept repeating the same thing. The prophetic is often a one-off proposition, meaning that God speaks one time to one individual and rarely speaks exactly the same thing to others. The best advice I can give is to pay only moderate attention to what other prophets are saying and just listen to the Holy Spirit.
7. It’s a Game: Hear me: Some of you are treating this like a game. Everyone is doing the prophetic thing and you want “in”. Stop it. This is serious business. God does want to speak today and unless you’re going to be serious about spending the hours necessary to learn to hear God accurately, don’t bother being involved until you are willing to pay the price.
8. We Over-do the Application side of it: As I have spent months going through all the prophetic words of the Bible looking for a pattern, here is one I noticed. The prophets often are given the word and the interpretation, but they do not always give people the application. I find it is often in the application of a word that we get it wrong. Why is this? Let me give the prophet Jonah as an example. His word to Nineveh was clear: 40 days and this city will be destroyed by Jahweh. That’s it. It’s a clear word of warning. He personally was hoping God would destroy the city. But he stopped short of giving them an application. He left it up to them, because often the prophetic requires that people exercise their faith to respond to it. When John the Baptist told King Herod that he was wrong to kill his brother and take his brother’s wife, all he did was give him a warning. He didn’t tell him how to respond. Just be careful to allow the person room to respond to the word without directing them; unless God shows you to give the application as well. This is what Paul does in 1 Corinthians 5 where he tells the church to exact discipline on the man having an affair with his step-mother.
9. People Try to Read Other People Instead of Listening to the Spirit: If you are an emotionally sensitive person, you can sometimes pick up on what is going on inside of others. Sometimes we are reading non-verbal cues and other times we are sensitive to their wants and desires. I believe this is what the girls who prayed over the witch were experiencing. We may foolishly believe that this means we are hearing God when it may mean nothing of the sort. I have made this mistake many times and congratulated myself when the person confirmed what I prayed was exactly what they were thinking themselves. Now, if a person reacts too quickly and positively to what I speak over them, I often question if I have “read” them instead of hearing God. This takes discernment and a discipline to just listen to what God is saying and not what we’re sensing from them.
10. We are Way Too Busy: This one is more than just an over-reliance on social media. We are filling up our lives with so many things these days in a fear of missing out that we have so little time for God. In the words of Eric Liddell’s sister in the movie “Chariots of Fire”: “All you do is run, run, run…you have no time for standing still.” She is right. When you are this busy, how can you cultivate the discipline of sensing the subtle tones of God’s voice? It is impossible. Only the truly unhurried can hone the skills necessary to minister in the prophetic. Jesus himself spent many, many hours getting alone. I think it takes an unusual soul to do this. I admire people like Rick Joyner who spends 5-6 hours every morning communing with Father God. This is why the quality of the prophetic which comes from him is consistently high.
11. People Ignore Prophetic Acts: In the Bible, God often called people to do the prophetic as much as speak it. From Agabus tying his hands with Paul’s belt to King Ahab being told to beat the ground with his arrows, from Ezekiel told to lie on his side for 70 days and eat food cooked over cattle dung to Hosea being told to marry a prostitute, the prophetic people are often called to do things as the visual message from God. I don’t see the prophetic being done much any more. Too many words and not enough actions.
12. The Goal is Not Comfort, it is Truth: One final word. If you want to minister in the prophetic, your goal must be to speak/do the Truth. You are not called to comfort others as your main goal. The Truth indeed will comfort the afflicted at times. But it will also afflict the comfortable. A friend of mine who moves in the prophetic came to me at a conference one time. He mentioned a mutual friend of ours who was also at the conference. He invited me to go talk to this person. He had a word of God for him. I went along, but I had a feeling of great sorrow come over me. This was not going to be fun. My prophetic friend asked our mutual friend if he would do something for him. Would he empty his pockets on the table? Our mutual friend refused to do it. When he did not empty his pockets, my prophetic friend told him what was in his pocket. It was definitely something he didn’t want others to know about. He broke down and admitted a fairly heinous sin. The two of us ministered to him for several weeks. But a month later, God gave me a word that our ministry had not changed anything. His heart had become hardened. I phoned him up and warned him about this. He swore viciously at me over the phone. Two months later, he left his wife and his ministry and took off with another woman. For twelve years he was gone. Then, out of the blue, my prophetic friend called me up. He told me our mutual friend was about to repent and come back. The two of us arranged to meet with him and God used us to help bring him back to God. I share that story to get to this: You are not called to comfort everyone. But you are called to bring truth to everyone you prophesy over.
Hopefully this will not discourage you. It is an article meant to show you the price of the prophetic. But, in the words of the Apostle Paul, it is my desire that you all prophesy. As long as you do it well and correctly.

Pondering the Death of the Emerging Church

In 2006, I wrote six articles on why I was not a part of the Emerging Church. Here is the final one, and all you have to do is read backward to find the rest. At that time, I predicted that the Emerging Church movement would fall apart and cease to exist in the years to come. I didn’t say that out of animosity or a desire to curse them. Unfortunately, the Emerging church movement was decontructionist in nature, and thus subject to the same inertia of all deconstructionist movements: They fall down with their own tendency to self-criticize.

In other words, once you start throwing stones as a group, you inevitably start throwing stones at each other. Decontructionist movements always devolve into bickering.

A few years ago Dan Kimball–who wrote the book “The Emerging Church“– wrote an article where he admitted the movement had splintered and was no longer a viable entity. Others such as Scot McKnight and Andrew Jones (a.k.a The Tall Skinny Kiwi) also have lamented and written about the fragmentation of the movement.

But all three men have one thing in common: They still believe in the principles of the Emerging Church even if they no longer believe the movement is viable. The problem is, every one of them recognizes a significantly different set of principles that embody their view of the Emerging church. Perhaps this is another reason it has come to an end.

But since I was a bellringer for this movement’s demise, perhaps it is time to admit some of the things I learned from reading, meditating and participating with some of the leaders of this movement. This is not an homage to something I didn’t believe in–I’m not Cassius Brutus or his kin–but rather this springs from my desire to acknowledge the good things the Emerging church was trying to do.

1. The Evangelical Church Has Become Shallow: As with any retrospective, my analysis of all things related to churches will be painting with a broad brush. Not all evangelical churches are shallow. But there is a pattern which goes back over twenty years in prominent Evangelical churches of emphasizing style over content. Let me just give a few examples:

  • Dominance of bass boosters, fog machines, expensive lighting systems, electronic keypads etc. in large megachurches.
  • Pastors buying the sermon series of other preachers instead of digging into the Word on their own (thank you Rick Warren for that egregious error).
  • Christian bestsellers are all penned by superstar pastors since these pastors can guarantee that their congregations will buy the first 50,000 copies. Therefore, most Christian books are ghost-written and designed for marketing instead of teaching..
  • Worship services are designed to sound like concerts instead of providing a place for the congregation to have communion with the Holy Spirit.
  • Tendency to mirror conservative political buzz instead of being a prophetic voice.

The Emerging Church desired to have more intimate gatherings of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry the Emerging Church was not able to make more of an impact on these practices.

2. Social Justice: If you look back ten years to the messages preached from Evangelical pulpits, you didn’t hear much talk about climate change, recycling, feeding the poor, sex trafficking, backyard gardens, gender equity, GMO proliferation etc. The Emerging Church dedicated themselves to social justice and their voices convinced many in the Evangelical world that this was true and undefiled religion. Now you can hear them being preached everywhere. I am concerned that as the Emerging Church loses its soapbox, we may forget these critical emphases.

3. Narrative Theology has one great result: Narrative preaching seeks to understand where each book of the Bible can be found in the larger  story of God. That is to say, all Scripture was penned as a partnership between God, the writer and the culture to whom he was writing. Evangelical preachers have sought to understand what God was saying in each passage, keeping in mind the human elements of the writers while not really paying much credence to their personality. For instance, we recognize the difference between the Gospel written by Doctor Luke and the one that comes from the mouth of the peasant John. Their language is different as is their focus. But that’s as far as we go. We rarely, if ever, parse the cultures to whom books were written. This is a serious error and I thank the Emerging church and their emphasis on reading the original culture as well as reading the original language. It helps to know that culture’s views on poverty, slavery, sex, women, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, church leadership etc. before we finish up our study. Evangelicals are too inclined to only look what God might be saying and not enough to the ideas of the author and the contextual culture. I suspect that as the Emerging Church disappears, we may go back to only one side of the Scriptural partnership. Hopefully writers like Tom Wright and Roger Olson can help us stay on a good interpretive track.

4. People Are Leaving Church Because We Are too Institutional: Three years ago, well-known writers such as Rachel Held Evans and Donald Miller admitted they rarely go to church. CNN ran a series of articles suggesting that children who grew up in Evangelical churches are leaving those same churches when they hit their twenties. Everyone has proposed a different reason for this, but I think the Emerging Church identified the reason better than all the rest: The Millennial Generation doesn’t perceive real community in their home church and this is what they yearn for more than anything else.

Recently, I asked a group of Millennials what they value about church? The answer was consistent and overwhelming: People join churches because of its sense of genuine community. We actually know each other. We are involved in each other’s lives.

Today’s Evangelical church  must come to grips with the movement of young people away from the “Show” and the “Celebrity Pastor”. If we are not intimate, genuine, relational and humble, our churches will die just as surely as the Emerging church.

The Messiness of Hearing God

Please take heart.

Some spiritual leaders can make it sound like hearing God is either a piece of cake or impossible. I believe through my teaching I have done both.

Ignore us. Hearing God is neither impossible nor easy. It’s just messy.

For a background and context to this idea, let me show you an example of this from the days of the early church. In the book of Acts 16:6-10 we read:

They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Here is some basic background context so you can see the importance of this journey. The Apostle Paul and his team are heading out on what historically is called his “Second Missionary Journey”. Paul and Barnabas had conducted their first journey several years previous. On that trip, they had established several churches–we’re not clear on how many–and had now decided to return to those churches to see how they were doing.

Asia is a province of the Roman Empire encompassing southern and western Turkey. It is also the location of about half the churches Paul established on his first trip. Mysia, Bithynia and its surrounding region contain all the rest of the churches that Paul founded. Therefore, in Acts 16, they were being prevented from going to do any of the work they had planned on doing!

We all face situations like this in life, even if we are faithful followers of God. You can hear God, be faithful to what you’ve heard, follow every step of his Leading, and still run into insurmountable obstacles. Look back at the passage and note several things:

  1. In verse 6 it says they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” from speaking in Asia. Scripture can be pesky and unhelpful in this respect: We aren’t given any details about how Holy Spirit did this “forbidding”. Did he use circumstances beyond their control? Did Holy Spirit give them dreams and visions about the dangers of Asia ministry, or cautions about what may happen? Did several of the team members throw a fit because they lacked peace about the trip? We have no way of knowing.
  2. In verse 7, it says that they tried to enter Bithynia, but Holy Spirit did not permit them. This is a different Greek verb (permit) than the one used in verse 6 (forbid). It is a much more passive verb, meaning that however Holy Spirit did the non-permitting, it was more subtle than verse 6. What form did this take? We have no way of knowing.
  3. Troas is the port connected to an historical city which had been called “Troy” many years before this first century journey. The road to Troas was the only way you could exit the interior of Turkey and make your way down to the coast.
  4. On the road from Bithynia to Troas, you had to pass by the ancient gate for the road to Troy. At the head of that gate was a 35 foot statue. The statue was a final gift of the Greek cities to Troy at the end of the war. The statue was of a Macedonian man with an outstretched arm, inviting the Trojans over to Greece to fulfill trade promises. William Barclay says it was the antithesis, so to speak, to the Trojan horse, a symbol of treachery and bad faith.
  5. Paul’s vision in verse 9 probably featured that Macedonian Man from the road they had passed during the day. Do all visions work this way? Are all visions simply compilations of things we have seen in real life? I doubt it, but we cannot rule out God using things we have already seen as an opportunistic way of getting truth across to us.

 

There is so much we do not know about this story. At the core, we cannot figure out how Holy Spirit communicated to them. Wouldn’t that have been ideal for Luke to explain to us as he wrote this account? Isn’t this what we need as we seek to emulate how the early followers of Jesus lived out their lives under the influence of the Voice of God?

Perhaps that is the point of not explaining it. We have to live out our lives according to how we experience God. Perhaps there is no normative way of hearing God. Perhaps the patterns that evolved with other people in other times do not work the same today.

Nicholas Carr, in his book, “The Shallows” explains how modern computers and the multitude of screens with their quick and visual information, have reshaped how our brains work. Since the mind is a crucial part of the process of hearing God, isn’t it possible that the way we pick up on God’s voice has changed?

Yet no matter what era a person lives, the experience of God’s voice is messy. Many times in the Bible, people assumed they were hearing God when the evidence suggests they were not. And there were times that people heard God and thought they heard someone other than God. The young boy Samuel, who heard God during the night and assumed it was  his mentor, is an example of this.

If you thought hearing God could be done neatly, tidily and always accurately, then you do not understand how complicated the interface between the ever-existing Spirit of God and the finite, flawed and fallible mind of humans really is. As Steve Thompson, the well-known prophetic voice says “this is as much an art form as a spiritual discipline“. Indeed.

Several years ago, I had a disturbing dream featuring a person I have known for years. I had not seen that person in at least five years, but the dream suggested they were in deep trouble. So I thought about it after waking, and decided it was God telling me that they needed to change some of their relationships to be safe. I contacted my friend and relayed this information. I even let them know who I thought was the most dangerous person to them.

After praying about it for several weeks, my friend contacted me. They concluded I was completely wrong. They told me to ask God about it and see what I could make of this error. So I did. I spent several days pondering the dream and out of that came several deeper insights. But, in the end, I realized that the dream had nothing to do with my friend in danger. It had to do with our friendship and how poorly I had kept up my end of it.

God used my friend, a dream, a book I was reading, the inaction of another friend of mine, pneumonia, a recent teaching I had done on hearing God and another dream much later to get the full message across to me. Since that time, I have been a better friend to this person. And I am even more careful about interpreting dreams.

Hearing God is messy. Take heart: it has always been that way.

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