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How God really speaks today

February 23, 2015 One Comment


Editor’s Note: From time to time we run across other publications that reflect the high value we place on Scripture as God’s revelation. The following article is such a publication, highlighting the dangers of “just following your heart” when it comes to faith.

by Phillip Cary

The first time I realized how seriously anxious the new evangelical theology can make people, I was reading a student’s paper and trying to figure out just what she was talking about. It was the first course I was teaching at an evangelical Christian college where I had recently been hired as a philosophy professor. We were studying the concept of revelation in a class on the philosophy of religion, and I assumed that when we used the word “revelation” in a Christian context, we all knew that meant the Bible. But I was wrong.

The paper I was reading criticized the concept of revelation, and behind the criticism was anguish. The problem with revelation, my student wrote, was that you can never tell if it’s the voice of God. For how do you know which voice you’re hearing is really God’s voice? And if you can’t tell it’s God’s voice, then how can God reveal anything? I realized pretty soon that she wasn’t talking about the Word of God in Holy Scripture. That’s just not what the term “revelation” meant for her. It meant a voice she was supposed to listen for in her own heart. And her anguish was: how can you tell whether you’re listening to the right voice? How can you be sure you’re not mistaking your own voice for God’s voice? How do you know?

How can you tell whether you’re listening to the right voice? How can you be sure you’re not mistaking your own voice for God’s voice? How do you know?

You have to admire this student’s honesty, not to mention the courage it took to write such a paper for her Christian philosophy professor. The sad thing was that her honesty was the source of her anguish. She was too honest to succeed in persuading herself that she really knew which of the voices in her heart was God. It’s as if there were a kind of psychological trick she was supposed to pull on herself, and she was too self-aware to believe the trick as she was doing it. And since for her, hearing God in her heart was what it meant for God to reveal himself she was left without any concept of revelation or how to know God.

The comments I wrote at the end of this courageous student’s paper were the first step I took toward writing this book. What I wrote went something like this: “I have good news for you: the voices in your heart are all your own. So you don’t have to get all anxious about figuring out which one of your voices is God. None of them is. The revelation of God comes in another way, through the word of God in the Bible, and this is something you can find outside your heart.”

What I discovered as I continued to teach evangelical students is that most of them have the same deeply unevangelical view of revelation as this anguished student, and that they learned it from their evangelical churches and youth groups and other Christian ministries. It’s the standard teaching in American evangelical circles today—the new evangelical theology.

From “Guidance” to Hearing God

And this is a very new development. The practice of listening for God’s voice in your heart has only recently displaced Scripture as the most important way, in the view of most evangelicals, that God reveals himself to us. When I was a kid this practice was called “guidance,” and it was not nearly so central to the life and piety of evangelical Christians as it is today—though it was already prevalent enough to cause many young people a great deal of anxiety. The idea, as it was taught to me back in my college days, was that when you have a big decision to make—say, about marriage or your career—then you are supposed to seek guidance from God (good idea!) and the key way to do that is by listening to how he’s speaking in your heart (bad idea!).

The bad idea, let me hasten to say, was not that you should listen to your heart. That’s something you have to do if you want to know your own thoughts and feelings, which you need to know if you want to make good decisions—not to mention if you want to have self-knowledge. But listening to your heart contributes to self-knowledge, not knowledge of God. The bad idea was that listening to a voice in your own heart was how you could hear God. For to know God you have to listen to God, not to yourself, and that means listening to a word which comes from outside yourself—the external Word of Scripture.

The bottom line here is that God speaks to us as a person. And you can’t listen to another person just by hearing what’s in your heart. Other persons live outside your heart, and that’s where you have to listen for them. That’s even how they get into your heart. So Scripture says Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17) but directs our attention outside ourselves to find what we should put our faith in: “Faith comes by hearing,” says Paul, “and hearing comes by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The Word of Christ that’s he’s talking about is not a voice in our hearts but the preaching of the Gospel in external words that we can hear with our ears, announcing the good news of Jesus Christ (Romans 10:15). So Christ gets into our hearts precisely as we put our faith in the Word of Christ that we hear preached to us. He is a person who is inside us because we find Him outside us. That’s how it always goes with persons.

This way of finding Christ through the Word of God used to be obvious to all evangelical Christians, but not anymore. The practice of seeking “guidance,” which they tried to foist on me when I was a college student, is now the reigning view among today’s evangelical college students about how God speaks. It’s very revealing that one of the best and most important books advocating this practice, written by Dallas Willard, was originally titled In Search of Guidance, but in a more recent edition has been re-titled Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.

It’s one of the best books on the subject because it includes so many warnings and safeguards about how this practice of “hearing God” can go wrong. But even with the safeguards, I still think the practice is inherently bad for your faith. You can begin to see why just by noticing the title change, which reflects the way this practice has spread and taken over evangelical piety. What used to be described as “guidance” is now described as having a relationship with God. In fact, for many evangelicals nowadays “having a personal relationship with God” means hearing God speak in your heart. This would have astonished most evangelicals a couple of generations ago, who thought of a personal relationship with God as based on God’s Word, which they found in Scripture alone.

The Many Voices in Our Hearts

“Hearing God speak in our hearts” is not only a bad way to learn who God is, it’s also bad for our hearts. It prevents us from recognizing the thoughts of our own hearts and dealing responsibly with them. The good news here is that it’s okay that the thoughts of your heart are your own. They don’t have to be God’s voice to be something worth listening to.

But we do have to listen carefully, even critically, because we have many different voices in our hearts and some are better than others. Some in fact are pretty dumb—thoughtless and conventional, easily manipulated and willing to join whatever party is going on. Those are usually the loudest voices, trying to drown out the others. It’s usually the quiet voices that are the most perceptive, because they come from a part of ourselves that’s afraid to speak up at the party, but that knows what we really have to live with inside—knows how we really feel and how it hurts. This is where we often find the voice of our own integrity—a voice that’s unsure of itself because it tells us about feelings we’re not quite ready to admit we have, or thoughts that on some level we don’t want to think about even though we need to. But the voice is there because it comes from the part of ourselves that the party can’t drown out—the part that notices how our heart isn’t quite in it.

We have to listen carefully, even critically, because we have many different voices in our hearts and some are better than others. Some in fact are pretty dumb—thoughtless and conventional, easily manipulated and willing to join whatever party is going on.

Self-knowledge means knowing the voices in your own heart, both thoughts and feelings. They’re not always right, but they’re yours and if you don’t know them, you don’t know yourself. The good news here is that it’s okay to know yourself. The voices in your heart don’t have to be God’s voice to be worth listening to. They’re not infallible, but they are often perceptive, telling you a lot of things you need to know.

And as our moral character develops and the Spirit works within us, the voices of our own heart can even grow into voices of wisdom. This is not a wisdom we should trust as if it were the word of God (for there is nothing more foolish than people who are wise in their own eyes), but it is a wisdom God commands us to seek: the wisdom to discern good from bad, to make responsible adult choices, to live with moral integrity.

Attaining self-knowledge is part of the process of growing up. In commanding us to seek wisdom (Proverbs 4:7), God is commanding us to seek knowledge of ourselves, as well as knowledge of Him—and an awareness of the difference. That’s why the new evangelical practice of “hearing God speak” is doubly bad for us. By trying to identify which voice in our hearts is God’s, we not only misidentify God, we fail to know ourselves for who we really are.

Doubly Good News

It is good news that God does not speak in our hearts. It’s doubly good news, having to do with both God and ourselves. On the one hand, this means it’s okay that the voices of our hearts are our own. And on the other hand, it means that when God does speak we can hear Him the way we hear people we love, who are real and therefore exist outside our own hearts. We hear them speak by turning our attention away from our own hearts and listening to voices that come from outside us.

Some people who like the newfangled way of “hearing God” say it’s more personal. But that’s not how we get to know and love other persons! On the other hand, I don’t agree with the critics who say “hearing God in your heart” is self-centered. When I look at my students, what I see instead is that it prevents self-awareness and self-knowledge. It reinforces the sense so many of them have that their own feelings don’t really matter and aren’t worth listening to. It also undermines the genuine kind of self-assurance that goes along with real moral responsibility, where you know what you believe and why you think it’s true, even when others try to manipulate and control you. Trying to hear God within yourself does not strengthen the self but undermines it. It makes you easier to manipulate, like a girl who doesn’t know what to say when a guy tells her, “I think God’s telling us we should get together. Don’t you feel him saying that too?”

“What’s Wrong with Me?”

Listening to God in our hearts is a way to avoid thinking critically; it prevents us from thinking for ourselves like a good steward or a responsible adult. That’s why I don’t think it arises from individual selfishness. It’s not something that any of us came up with on our own; it’s something we were taught. I’m calling it a practice, because it’s not something that just happens to us—like one day God suddenly starts talking to us. It’s something we’re taught to do on a regular basis, in church or youth group or on weekend retreats. We are told how to listen to God in our hearts and make it an ongoing part of our lives. And we are made to feel guilty if we don’t put it into practice.

In a sense, however, you can’t really say we’re taught to do this, because if there were any real teaching going on, it would be easier to think critically about it. It’s more accurate to say that what we’re dealing with here is the power of group dynamics. Have you ever been in a room full of people doing something together that doesn’t feel quite right to you? Despite your discomfort, you’re likely to feel all sorts of pressure to give in and join the group. And the pressure is not just external. Because everyone else in the room seems to be on the same page, you end up listening in your heart to a persistent, worried voice asking why you’re the only one who’s not getting it. It all seems so right, so obvious, to everybody else. Why can’t you see it? What’s wrong with you?

I think this is one of those loud voices trying to drown out the quieter, more perceptive voices in your heart. It’s a kind of socially induced guilt that takes the form of that voice in your heart eating away at you, nagging at you, saying: “What’s wrong with you?” It’s reinforced when people smile at you really nicely and say, “We can see you’re struggling with this. We’ll pray for you.” When people treat you like that, then you really know there must be something wrong with you—at least they think so. This is the way many groups make it hard for people to be very thoughtful or critical, or to say things that disturb the consensus of the group. It’s really the group maintaining its own comfort zone—by making you feel uncomfortable that you’re not in it.

And it all happens with the best of intentions. Nobody’s being mean or judgmental; they’re all just trying to help. They’re perfectly sincere about that. But the assumption is that you need help because there’s something wrong you—you don’t really fit in, you aren’t experiencing what everyone else is experiencing or you aren’t thinking the same way they are. This is one of the most powerful secrets of manipulation: people do it without even meaning to—and with the best of intentions, because all they want to do is help. And it has a potent effect on you, making you wonder what’s wrong with you if you’re not on board with everyone else. If it didn’t work like this, then groups wouldn’t wield such enormous social power. Group dynamics is powerful—powerful enough to give social cohesion to a crowd by getting everybody in it to suppress their own criticisms, doubts, and hesitations. People keep their anxieties to themselves, and nobody speaks up to raise any concerns about where it’s all going.

This situation is very different from sound Christian teaching. It’s not really teaching or preaching at all, but more like a kind of peer pressure. The technology of manipulation in our society harnesses peer pressure all the time, as you can see by watching how advertising works to recruit our youngsters for consumerism. And yes, adults are subject to peer pressure too. I’m convinced this pressure is how most people have learned to listen for God in their hearts. They do it because it makes them feel anxious if they don’t. They wonder what’s wrong with them if they can’t hear God’s voice. “Am I not really a Christian,” they ask, or “Have I somehow missed out on a real relationship with God?” So instead of being taught the Word of God in Holy Scripture (which does not require them to do any such thing) they are left anxiously trying to figure out which of the voices in their hearts is God—because that’s what everybody else is doing.

Where the Spirit Really Speaks

The good news about self-knowledge is that it’s okay for your feelings and thoughts to be your own, not the voice of God. For the good news about God is that He makes Himself known the way a real person does, by speaking to us from outside our hearts. And precisely that external speaking, when we take it in by faith, gives a new shape to our hearts, conforming us to the image of his Son. That’s how our thoughts and feelings and inner voices become a new thing.

bible-heartThe Bible instructs us that this external speaking of God’s Word is the work of His Spirit. Just imagine what it was like hearing God’s Word in Old Testament times. You didn’t go listening to your own heart; you listened to the words of the prophets. For the Spirit of the Lord is the Spirit who speaks through the prophets. “Thus says the Lord!” the prophet would cry aloud, and what you heard next was God’s Word given to his people Israel. Things have not changed much since then. The Word of God still comes out of human mouths and resounds in the ears and hearts of his people. That’s where you go to hear God—you dwell in the community of His people, because that is where His Word is.

And because His Word is spoken among His people, it gets into their hearts. They learn it by heart, and thus it dwells within them and changes their lives. Think how this works, inwardly and outwardly: the Word of the Lord comes to people in the human voices of the prophets, then is repeated by the voices of those who hear and believe, and in the end is repeated even in the voice of our own hearts.

The Word of the Lord comes to people in the human voices of the prophets, then is repeated by the voices of those who hear and believe, and in the end is repeated even in the voice of our own hearts.

It is just like today, when we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name.” The words are God’s, coming from our Lord Jesus himself, but the voices are our own. So also when we learn these words by heart and repeat them silently: it’s the voice of our own hearts (we don’t have to pretend it’s God’s voice) but the words are God’s, right there in our hearts. And this Word in our hearts shapes us, like a favorite piece of music that you sing to yourself to give you hope when you are tired, discouraged, or needy.

It is God’s Word, but your own voice. That’s how it is even in your heart: with your own voice, the voice of your heart, you can remember, repeat, even sing the Word of God. (Think of how many good hymns and spiritual songs are really just ways of singing words taken from the Bible.) That’s how it works, because the place to look for God’s Word is not in your heart but in the gathering of God’s people for worship, praying, preaching, and teaching.

That is why the apostle says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). And in a parallel passage, he says, “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:18). From the parallel between these two passages we can see what being filled with the Spirit means: it means for the Word of Christ to dwell richly among us. This happens when the people of God gather together as a congregation in the name of Christ, teaching and admonishing and singing God’s Word to one another.

In both passages, the verbs and pronouns are plural. To translate the Greek literally, you’d have to say something like, “Let the word of Christ dwell richly in you guys,” and “Be filled with the Spirit, you guys!” In both cases, you find what you’re looking for—the Word and Spirit of Christ—in His church, the Body of Christ. And because it’s there in the church, the gathered Body, it’s in our hearts as well—as the apostle proceeds to say: “singing… with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16) and “singing and making melody in your hearts to God” (Ephesians 5:19). (Again, the “your” in both passages is plural.) The alternative to the consumerist church is thus the truly Spirit-filled church, which means the church gathered to hear the Word of Christ spoken and sung externally by human voices, so that hearts may be formed inwardly in joy and thanksgiving and the knowledge of God.

So  nothing has changed in this regard since biblical times. The Spirit has always spoken through external words. Biblical prophets, for instance, never talk about hearing God in their own hearts. That’s just not what they say about their own experience. They often tell us about their dreams and visions, but they know nothing of the practice we have been taught today where you try to quiet yourself and hear God’s voice in your heart.

That’s not how the Spirit speaks, because that’s not why the Spirit speaks. He does not come to give people private instruction—that’s not what prophecy was ever for—but to join them to the community of God’s people. So the best place to hear Him now is in a gathered congregation of the Body of Christ, where He is present to teach, comfort, warn, and guide all who believe. His speaking is not an inner experience but a shared event, just like the teaching and admonishing that happened when the New Testament church was filled with the Spirit.

Most striking of all, of course, is what happened on the day of Pentecost. Notice that the Bible tells us nothing about the experience of the people who spoke in tongues on that day, but instead dwells at length on the experience of those who heard them speaking in their own languages—languages from all over the world (Acts 2:6-13). That’s the Pentecostal experience: the experience of hearing the Word of Christ taught and sung and preached and prayed, hearing it in human voices speaking words you can understand, so you can put your faith in it and take it into your heart.

Two Questions

When I talk about this biblical view of the Spirit with my students, they often ask, “But are you saying God doesn’t speak today?” Now you know my answer. Of course God speaks today! His speaking today in the Word of Christ is what saves us and makes us Christians, and that is what the Holy Spirit is all about. He speaks when the words of the prophets and apostles found in Scripture are preached and taught and sung and prayed, especially in the gathering of His people for worship. He speaks whenever the gospel of Jesus Christ dwells in us richly.

What my students’ question shows is that they have never thought of this as God speaking. For them, the only way God can speak today is in the privacy of their own hearts. That’s the only way they have ever heard of God speaking—the only way they have ever heard it talked about, even in church. They have literally not been taught to hear the Gospel as God’s word. Presumably they’ve been taught that they have to believe it to be saved, but evidently after they get their “fire insurance,” their free ticket out of hell, they think the Gospel of Christ has nothing more to say to them about their Christian lives. I figure this cannot be their fault—it must be how they’re taught in church. This is going to have dire consequences for the future of the evangelical churches in America, I think.

Another question my students ask is: “Are you saying God can’t speak in our hearts?” It’s like they want to make sure a door is left open for this other way for God to speak, even after they’ve been persuaded that the Bible doesn’t impose on them the practice of listening for God in their hearts. Maybe it’s not how they’re supposed to hear God all the time, they’re thinking, but perhaps it’s something God does now and then, on special occasions. And of course, you can’t deny that God can do whatever he wants.

But the real question is about what God in fact does want to do—how He has actually chosen, in His wisdom, to speak—and to answer that question we have to look at what we know about how and why God actually does do things. We have to ask: why in the Bible and the history of His people does He keep speaking to us in external words, in the voices of prophets and apostles, preachers and teachers, and even in our own songs and the prayers He gives us to pray? God could speak in some other way, we may suppose. But whenever we hear of Him speaking in Scripture He seems quite intent on speaking this way, giving His own Word to us in external human voices. Why?

God could speak in some other way, we may suppose. But whenever we hear of Him speaking in Scripture He seems quite intent on speaking this way, giving His own Word to us in external human voices.

As I put it earlier, God speaks to us like any real person, as someone outside our own hearts whom we love. There are deep and wonderful mysteries here, all of which center on Jesus Christ. The place to find real people is not in our hearts but in their own flesh: surely that is why God came to us in the flesh, in His own Son, Jesus our Lord, who is God from God, the eternally begotten of the Father. The great mystery—which means the wonder and the glory—is that this flesh in which He comes to us is our own. It is human flesh, so that he can meet us and speak to us like any other person we know. It is a human face that we long to see as we await the coming of our Beloved, the Bridegroom—and the Spirit and the Bride say, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:17, 20).

Our Lord’s face is a human face, and His voice is a human voice. That’s why it’s okay that our voices, too, are human voices. For He speaks to us in human voices, the voices of prophets and apostles, preachers and teachers, in song and prayer—and in His own voice, which is a human voice, the voice of His human flesh, born of a woman. So it’s okay that our voices, too, are our own human voices—even the voices of our heart. They don’t have to be God’s voice to be worth listening to, or even to speak the Word of God.


good-news-for-anxious-christiansDr. Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The above article is selected from the first chapter of his 2010 book Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do, published by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.

One Comment »

  • Hearing God Speak | A Grace-Filled Life said:

    […] God is speaking to me?” and Dr. Philipp Cary of Eastern University provides a good answer. You can read what Dr. Cary wrote here from the Canadian Lutheran online […]

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