I’m going to make a case for something that might make some folks angry. Others may just shake their heads and say I’ve lost it. Maybe, however, a few will say, ‘Clark may be on to something here.’ And if I cause you to think about these issues then I will have not wasted my time with this.
The Serpent asked Eve, “Did God actually say don’t eat of every tree?” The Serpent was not calling in to question, at first anyway, whether every tree was good for food, but what God actually said. Later he totally dismissed what God said and contradicted Him. But the initial question was concerned with what God actually said.
Don’t you think that’s a good question? Do we want to obey what God said, or what we 'think' He said. Is what we “assume” He said good enough for obedience sake? Does it help us live better lives if we go with what He ‘probably’ said? Or is getting as close as translation will allow to what He actually said more important? I hope you agree with the latter. Or the Word of God as an entity holds no great standing in your life. If that’s the case, so be it, but for those who claim to love God’s Word, for those who claim it authoritative, and perhaps infallible and even inerrant, then the question, “Did God actually say…?” is a question that ought to be answered accurately. (Eve may not have answered so well it seems.)
Why do I make this point? Simply this, I have used the phrase “God told me” or “the Lord told me” or other similar phrases in my life and I hope never to do so again. And, I suggest, neither should you. Really, I think we should STOP putting Words in God’s mouth. I wouldn't put words in your mouth, and if I did misquote you and misrepresent you, you should quickly set me straight.
Let me give you one biblical reason I say this. (Though I believe there are others.) Listen to the “Word of God” in Hebrews 1:1 “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”. Do you see an important implication there? The implication is God no longer speaks to us, in these last days (which started with the first Coming of Christ) as he did to prophets of old. God revealed things to the prophet’s minds, with Moses he spoke ‘face to face’, He called Abram out of Ur in some personal revelatory way. Abram had no Bible to act upon so God spoke to him.
But God doesn't do that anymore! That’s what this teaches as plain as the small, pig-like nose on my face! Look at it again, “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but…”! We now have the revelation of Jesus Christ - in the actual person of Christ, who came to earth and walked among humanity; in the gospels that record to us the life and works of Christ; and in the writings of the apostles and some close to the apostles that were authorized by Christ. Then the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ closed the door on the scriptures. If we hold the scriptures in high regard we should be first to admit that God doesn't speak to us today like He did to the prophets! Because that’s what God said!
Actually, we have it better than the prophets and the fathers. With the New Covenant initiated and purchased by Christ, those who are redeemed have the indwelling Spirit of God; the Comforter, Counselor and Helper who comes to us with divine aid. He enlightens us to what God has said. He gives wisdom, he communicates to us the assurance of our faith, He empowers us to live for Christ and on and on it goes. But, nowhere does it say He will give us New Revelation, or speak to us as God did to the prophets of old. God has spoken to us through His Son and we have His Son’s Word written for us in scripture.
Let’s take a look at why we say things like “God told me.”
It may be innocent enough as to motive. I have had thoughts come to mind in such a powerful way, thoughts that are noble, that seem like a good idea and seem to be in keeping with scripture. It’s easy to think, I don’t want to take credit for something God has said so I will give God credit. I agree, don’t ever take credit for anything God has said. But “has God actually said”: “Call your old friend up and see how he’s doing.” “Take a meal to that family that just lost their mom.” “Ask the person next to you if they know Jesus.” I don’t think so. Why? Because Hebrews 1:1-2.
Those are all fine thoughts. Those are thoughts that can bring glory to God. Maybe God has so redeemed your mind that you are beginning to think like Christ (occasionally). But you don’t have to couch it in “God told me too” language. What if it wasn’t God? (And it wasn’t) You are putting words in His mouth, words He didn't speak, and then lying about it! God is pleased if you have a good idea to show His love to someone and then just do it! God wants men to see your good works and glorify Him! He never said, “Be sure to tell everybody that it was my idea.”
So why do we say that? As I said, it may be simple enough as wanting to give God credit. I knew a fellow once who said God told him to go stand outside a diner and when a person comes out wearing a certain thing – like a green scarf or something – that person needs to know that I love them. So they went and stood outside the diner. Right then, in obedience to God! And they waited and waited and soon the breakfast rush was over, the diner was empty and not a single green scarf was seen. This person felt foolish. This person wondered, “How can I ever know if I’m hearing from God if I thought this was God’s voice and it wasn’t?” Excellent Question! It obviously wasn’t God both by what happened and because of Hebrews 1:1-2.
But there are other reasons people say, “The Lord told me” or even “Thus saith the Lord.” I’ve heard people ‘prophesy’ in church meetings and end their prophecies with “Thus saith the Lord.” Sometimes they just enjoy the glory of others seeing them as someone who hears from God. It exists! Not everyone has that motive, by any means, but it’s out there! We are fallen humans with impure motives. Sometimes we want people to think more highly of us, so we play the “God told me” card.Some people say God told me in order to shut down argument. They want to do what they want to do and you aren’t going to talk them out of it because God told me! Now there are times we can show people playing that card that what they claim to be revealed by God contradicts His word so they are imagining things. The person who thinks God has told them to get a divorce for no good reason, we can say, “yeah, that guy’s nuts.” Or the one who says, God told me to leave my wife and kids and go to Africa as a missionary. Nope, Sorry. Your argument is invalid. But what about the mom who says, “God told me not to immunize my kids.” I don’t care where you stand on that issue, Did God actually say that? Nope. I can say with utter confidence.
Related to that motive is the Truth/Power claim. If a person has the "truth" they have some authoritative "power." I’ve talked to so many ladies who said, at some point in their youth, some guy told them, that, after praying about it, God had told him they were to be married. This is the “God told me so you need to comply” motive. Invariably the ladies did not marry the young men in question. (Smart ladies!) What is worse is to see this played out by pastors and congregations. God told me we need to build this 10 million dollar building and that you all can pay for it. God will bless you abundantly if you double your giving so we can build this tribute to my, er, um, God’s name! These are the people who play the “God spoke” card to get what they want from you!
Using the “God told me” phrase is ultimately selfish, even in the most benign uses. We want to know what God has said even if we have to make it up. Sometimes we use it just to embolden ourselves to do something God has actually told us in the Bible, like “be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks.” You don’t have to wait for God to tell you when to witness, when to call an old friend, when to bake a cake. Just look for opportunities God is providing.
Now if you think I am saying there are things God cannot do. No. God can do anything He pleases. But God is telling us in scripture what He does and is going to do. Part of what He is going to do is transform our minds, empower us, lead us in truth, and guide our steps. I truly believe all good and perfect gifts come down from the Father… (James 1:17). I believe the good ideas we have and act upon that bring glory to God are a gift of God. But I have too high a regard for the True Word of God to claim I received a ‘special’ word from God. Enough with the “special” words from God! You have one, the Bible!
I’m sure there are other motives behind this practice, but let me entertain an objection or two to my reasoning here.
I have been told I am ignoring the prophecy of Joel, repeated in Acts 2 about visions and dreams by young men and women in the last days. I am not ignoring that. It came true right there in Acts 2. Those were the beginnings of the last days. But now we have the complete New Testament that shows us everything we need, from now through the return of Christ. We no longer need these visions because Hebrews 1:1-2.
I had, when I was a young man, something that sure seemed to be a vision. Actually, I think I nodded off and dreamed during an early morning prayer meeting while I was sitting on a very comfortable couch. It was an interesting dream and an inspiring dream. No wonder, since I fell asleep amid thoughts of God’s goodness. I told about it often and still have vague memories of it today. IF, and I make that a big IF, it was from God, I do not suggest that it was revelatory in any way, but simply an illustration of what the scriptures teach in that we are saved through the cross, because that was the gist of the dream. Nothing revelatory here, move along. I did not hear God’s voice, I did not receive instruction, I only marveled at the love of God seen on Jesus dying for me on the cross.
Others say, “You’re just a cessationist that doesn’t believe God does miracle today.” Au Contraire! God still does miracle today. The greatest of course is Salvation! When God takes a dead man and makes him alive again. But people are healed, prayers are answered, and the whole universe holds together by the power Christ! I may be a cessationist to your way of thinking because what I don’t believe is that God is continuing in Revelation. Because Hebrews 1:1-2.
God gives people gifts. But no longer speaks to us through prophets etc. with new revelations. God gives wisdom beyond our human means, God gives direction and opens doors and shuts doors. God even gives some people the ability to bring greater understanding to scripture, understanding in applying scripture and motivation to obey scripture (And I hope as a pastor I have some modicum of this gift.) But God isn’t giving any New Scripture. And every time someone says, “God told me” or “Thus saith the Lord” they are adding to scripture! That is simply a given! That is what Scripture is – What God Has Said!
Finally, I am reminded of a passage in Act 15 where James sums up the decision of the Jerusalem council. At a time when precedent for the church is being established and there is apostolic authority represented on the council, James simply said, 28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things…”
He didn’t say, “Hear my People the Word of the Lord; thou shalt lay no great burden… etc.” He just said, It seems what the Lord would have us do at a time like this is…. Do we need more than that? Is our faith so weak that we need “the handwriting on the wall?” That didn’t work out to well for the guy who got that message did it? Is our self-confidence so weak we need someone to pat us on the back for having heard from God? Are we so consumed with ourselves we need to invoke God’s voice as a power play? God forbid.