Over the last 16 years I have known a few pastors who regularly invoked the assertion “God told me” or “God gave me a sense that . . . (you fill in the blank).” Before going any further, I need to make it clear that God does indeed communicate to his people. I’ve experienced divine communication myself, albeit mostly directed at my bad attitudes, sins, and assorted shortcomings that God wanted to change in my life. And I’ve no doubt more such fun dispatches from above will be forthcoming in the future. Fortunately God has also graciously affirmed his love for me on numerous occasions. Yet I worry about an unhealthy trend coming from some pulpits these days. It’s the God-told-me-what-we-are-supposed-to-do-so-the-discussion-is-over message coming from some pastors. This worries me because at worst it feels like an abuse of power bordering on the edge of cult-like behavior, or at best an effort to avoid the hard work of convincing hardheaded people (aka congregations that disagree, criticize, and debate everything down to the soul-sucking minutia of the mundane) about the correctness of the vision and direction of a church that is set by our pastor and church leaders. It could also indicate that something has gone awry in the mind and heart of the pastor who drops God’s name in an effort to gain concession without much protest. Who, after all, would dare to challenge God’s will?
But what happens when the pastor says God told him that the church needs to do X and the chairman of the board of elders says God told him that the church needs to do Y? It’s a sticky situation. When a spiritual leader, such as a pastor, claims that God told him that the church needs to do X, even if X seems outrageous, the mere invoking of God’s will creates doubt in the minds of those who might otherwise disagree with the plan to do X. The doubt goes like this: what if God really DID tell the pastor we need to do X and I just don’t have enough faith or spiritual savvy to comprehend God’s will? This seed of doubt in the congregant’s heart gives the pastor more power and authority. Is it too much power? Certainly knowing God’s will helps his people accomplish great things, but it is also an aspect of church life that can be abused.
So what can be done to make sure our clergy do not abuse this power? Having a strong and theologically astute board of elders or a governing board can help hold pastors accountable. In addition, we would be wise to follow, as much as possible, the format for making crucial decisions in the church found in Acts 1:12-26 where the disciples set about to select a replacement for Judas. The process used by the disciples involved much prayer, and probably some discussion about the qualifications of the candidates. They narrowed the field to two qualified candidates, but they left the final decision up to God by casting lots. Perhaps the church should reintroduce the practice of casting lots. In any case, I am struck by what is missing in this scene where the disciples chose a replacement: nobody stood up and said God told them who should replace Judas. It was a group effort with God making the final decision. Well, you say, we don’t do things that way anymore because we hire professional clergy and church administrators to make decisions. And that’s my point: we have given pastors and church leaders a lot of autonomy, and we expect them to hear from God when it comes to crucial church decisions. But should we?
Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ get very accustomed to hearing God’s voice in their lives. And who am I to say they are wrong? But the human heart is deceitful. I’ve watched fellow Christians face crisis and bewilderment when the voice they thought was God turned out to be something else, or God was silent and life took them in an unexpected and painful direction. Perhaps we are wise to proceed with more caution when we think we have heard from God, especially before we claim to know his will in much of our earthly matters. A little mystery about God and life isn’t a bad thing.
There is news circulating in the world of Christianity that a significant number of young people leave the church because of doubts about their faith. Some experts point the finger of blame at the church for failing to tackle tough philosophical questions about our faith. Their argument goes that the church offers too many trite answers and a simplistic Christianity. Others blame secular culture and academics for tearing down religion by claiming that faith is incompatible with reasoned thought and science.
One common question that incites some people to abandon or reject faith is this: How can a loving God permit such terrible events and suffering in the world? This question is used by many as evidence that God does not exist. For some people this question is an escape mechanism to avoid God because a relationship with God will change who they are and, often, the way they live. Others have sincere doubts.
Christians and would-be Christians can get a better understanding of why terrible things happen in this world of green grass and sunshine by reading Genesis 3:1 through 6:5. In these chapters it is clear something has gone awry with the way God originally designed the world. Even today, just look around and you can see imperfections in everything. Even our DNA has flaws.
The older I get, the more often uncomfortable questions materialize in my noggin. Fortunately, these nagging conundrums seem, somehow, to strengthen my faith. (Yes, I know, it’s a paradox.) Here’s the point: Mystery lends excitement, adventure, and contentment to life. Do you need an example? Here it is—fish. As an amateur ichthyologist (which really means my knowledge of fish is limited to bait and seasoning), I love fishing. All kidding aside, I have acquired some impressive knowledge of certain species of fish. I absolutely love the mystery of fishing. It’s the wonderful anticipation of catching what lurks beneath the surface of the mysterious world of water. An angler could spend a lifetime learning everything that science, lore, and Stan’s Bait Shop staff can teach about fish . . . and it still wouldn’t be everything there is to know about fish. Really, who can know the mind of a fish? The unknown doesn’t diminish my love of fishing. If I figured out how to make a fish bite with every cast, fishing would soon lose its allure.
That’s sort of how it is with God. In this life we will never know the entire mind and purposes of God. Yet it feels right to continue pursuing God. After this life we may know more about God, but even then I doubt we will know everything. I’m okay with that. Much about God is a mystery. A literary mystery is described in the dictionary as: “A novel, short story, play, or film whose plot involves a crime or other event that remains puzzlingly unsettled until the very end.” Well said!
You see, doubt has been with us since the beginning. Eve was enticed to doubt God. Eve wanted more knowledge, to be like God. She wanted answers. She wasn’t content with some mystery about God and her place in God’s designs.
Doubt can be healthy. Doubt can keep us out of cults. It can help us avoid scams. But doubt, to be used effectively, requires a little faith and a good measure of wisdom. I have to be cautious with doubt because it can doom me to the mundane. I might do great things in this world of the mundane, but I would lose something eternal.
Easter gets treated like a second-class holiday. A time for chocolate bunnies, colored eggs, and gorging on ham and all the trimmings. Easter marks the end of Lent and is linked to the Jewish Passover. I could bore you with a lengthy parade of historical facts and customs about Easter. But I won’t. Instead, let’s go directly to the heart of Easter: It’s about the resurrection of Christ from the dead. I have been a Christian for decades and every now and then a tiny doubt enters my noggin. The resurrection of Christ happened so long ago that it can occasionally seem like a fable, even to a dyed-in-the-wool believer like me. After all, rising from the dead can seem preposterous to those of us living in the modern world where the laws of nature and physics dominate our lives. Those with more scientific minds sometimes accuse us of magical thinking or superstition when we talk about Christ rising from the dead. I understand that not everybody can get their head around a resurrected Savior. And yet I feel guilty when I have an occasional doubt about Christ’s resurrection. I tell myself it’s only natural for me—two thousand years after the event—to wonder if it really happened. But I can’t doubt the unmistakable hand of God in my life. And that God is Christ.
Still, I like to think of Thomas when those irksome doubts appear. History has given Thomas a nickname: Doubting Thomas. Here’s the amazing thing about Thomas—He was one of Christ’s disciples and witnessed many of the miracles Christ performed. Thomas spent years with Christ before the resurrection. And Thomas still had doubts. Here’s the post-resurrection scripture that marked Thomas as a doubter:
John 20:24-27, “One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (who was called Didymus), was not with the others when Jesus came. They told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he replied, ‘I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.’
Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. ‘Peace be with you,’ he said. Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!’”
Thomas was indeed a doubter, but he sincerely wanted to know the truth. God has done enough to satisfy those who really want to know. As for those who really don’t want to know; I doubt (pardon the pun) they would believe even if they saw Christ walk out of the tomb and touched the wounds in his hands and feet. They would say it’s an illusion or that he wasn’t really dead. But for those who really want to know, God has done enough to satisfy our doubts. He performed documented miracles. He taught with power and authority in a completely new way. He impacted lives then and now. He changed the course of human history.
Thomas has already gone before us and demanded hard evidence that he could directly feel and experience. The rest is up to us—to believe. If you sincerely want to know the truth, the truth will reveal itself to you.
There’s a hip, sort of melancholy, song called “Lost In My Mind” that I listen to now and then. The song feels like therapy in a way. Of course you’d probably like a peek into my addled psyche to understand why. Not a chance! The point is that even sappy sad songs can lift our spirits. Thank God for music and the joy it bestows. And yet many of us often discover that joy, other than ephemeral joy, is elusive because we don’t always perceive our purpose, place, calling, raison d’être, as clearly revealed to us by God. That’s me! Oh don’t feel sorry for me (OK you can send some flowers if you like); I’m simply searching for the truth. Yes, yes, I know the struggles and disappointments to finding joy via purpose are just byproducts of what Christianity calls our fallen world. Don’t get me wrong, there have been times when I felt God touch my life and point me in the right direction. And God can be experienced in other ways, as well. I just returned from four days at Lake Tahoe, California, and let me tell you the greatness of God was clearly evident in the granite mountains surrounding the Lake; granite that took eons to sculpt by the slow grinding pressure of ancient glaciers on enormous mountains populating heights where the air is thin (God is extreeeemely patient, unlike me). But on a personal level, I’ve often heard it said in the church that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Well, with more than two score years under my belt, I’m still waiting to see what the main plan looks like. I know that sounds a bit negative, but it’s honest. The tedium of life can discourage the most stout-hearted soul as the years drag by while it appears God has forgotten us. I envy folks who have the hand of God clearly on their lives, directing them and using them in astounding ways. They often seem full of joy, energy, and a positive spirit. They accomplish extraordinary things. But what about the rest of us, are we doomed to a life without God opening doors or using our skills and passions to help advance his mission? I don’t know! Even I doubt now and then. I occasionally wonder is God real. But anyhow, based on what I’ve read in the Bible and observed in the church, it seems like God’s love and design often work just under the surface as we trudge through the days of our lives (is that soap opera still on TV?). King David was used by God at an early age. Moses was used by God later in life. But they both had a season of preparation when they likely didn’t think much would happen as orchestrated by God. Of course they were selected for leadership. So what about the rest of us, the worker bees? Where do we fit in? Does God really have a plan for each person’s life? I hope so. I hope God uses us even when it doesn’t feel like God is using us. Before uniting with Christ, or at least before taking him seriously, we chase the proverbial pot of gold. After taking him seriously, many of us chase the blessing of knowing his plan for our life. I hope he’s pleased by that desire to be used by him. I hope he has something special for each person, not just a select few, to accomplish in his service. Yep, hope is a wonderful thing.
As a middle-age man, I adore elegant Hawaiian shirts (yes, there is such a thing) because they conceal a lifetime of poor dietary decisions. That’s the thing about appearances, they can deceive. In fact, they can discourage even the most idealistic heart.
In Christianity, it can appear all is well with our prayer life. But I rarely hear fellow supplicants talk about the silence that often comes after prayer. Granted, it would be a mistake to interpret the silence of heaven as indifference. But all my life in the church, I’ve heard that God hears our prayers and knows how we feel because Christ experienced human struggles. Comforting? Yes! But one longs to hear from God now and then. If I’m drowning and screaming in panic for help, it gives me little comfort to know God hears my screams of agony. Yes, yes, I understand God’s love for me does not necessarily mean a guarantee of safety in this world. I get it! We live in a sometimes harsh, bitter, cruel world that is not as God intended. I also get that God answers prayers in ways we don’t perceive. But that doesn’t make the silence less disquieting in my soul.
In the movie Of Gods and Men, a small community of modern Christian monks living in a monastery struggle with a decision: whether or not to leave the monastery because of political turmoil in the surrounding country of Algeria where the monks have lived in peace with their Islamic neighbors. Local people have been killed by militants and the monks find themselves in a grim situation, their lives clearly at risk. The monks, and their neighbors, see themselves as an essential living part of the community. Their neighbors do not want the monks to leave. We connect with the personality of each monk as he wrestles with the decision, praying and discussing options with the others. The tension is palpable. In one poignant scene, a monk tells another monk he prays and prays and all he hears is silence. Shocking! How could a devout monk hear only silence after prayer? And yet I love that monk’s honesty.
Here’s where I’m supposed to tell you something comforting. Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t talk much about unanswered prayer. Even so, the Bible contains at least some references to unanswered prayer and examples of God not listening to prayer, enough to assure us we are not unique when we hear silence from heaven. Still, there’s that nagging feeling, that uncomfortable question that silence sprouts in the heart—if heaven is silent, is there a God?
For me, that question can’t take root and blossom because of other manifestations of God. For instance, I often feel God’s presence in life. Words and phrases in the Bible pierce my soul so intensely the very ink and paper seem to be alive. I have felt God’s hand at various twists and turns in my life. Perhaps you’ve felt similar encounters with God. I know, I know, what about the long dry spells of silence?
Okay then, here are a couple of verses that snap me back into the right attitude whenever I grow anxious about silence from heaven.
Lamentations 3: 7-8 (NLT): “He has walled me in, and I cannot escape. He has bound me in heavy chains: And though I cry and shout, he has shut out my prayers.”
Now skip to Lamentations 3:31 (NLT) for the coup de grace: “For no one is abandoned by the Lord forever.”
Those nine words in verse 31 are some of the most powerful in the entire Bible, and a balm when heaven’s silence overwhelms with doubt. Own them!