“Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.” – The Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article VIII, 10
As a church musician I am occasionally called upon to substitute for organists at other congregations. I recently did a Sunday afternoon service at a nearby Lutheran church who was having their confirmation on Pentecost. The graduating class was the largest I have ever seen, and it was a long service. When the Pastor got up to speak, he spent the entire homily talking about “listening to the Holy Spirit.” He told us stories of a few times that God had spoken to him personally, including what He said, and promised that God would speak to us too if we would simply apply his listening techniques.
I sat in that sanctuary, whose air conditioning has conveniently broken down right before a warm pre-Summer afternoon’s 2.5 hour service, and thought to myself as my blood begin to boil, “Well congratulations, you bungling magpie, you’ve just confirmed a sizable batch of atheists.”
Here’s how this plays out. For those who seek such immediate, personal divine revelation, there are four likely outcomes:
- They will listen and listen for this affirming, comforting voice from God that was promised them. And then, when nothing happens, they will begin to wonder… “Does God hate me?” “Is it because of some sin in my life that he won’t speak to me?” …and their view of God gradually becomes very sadistic and warped, as His silence causes them to question their status as His children. Surely His children should receive assuring communication from their heavenly Father just like the preacher, right? The despair this leads to will result in giving up on the faith. “It isn’t worth the heartache, and even if it is true, it isn’t possible, so it’s definitely irrelevant.”
- Despite hearing nothing, they will pretend to have heard something anyway to fit in. When they get tired of lying to themselves and to everyone else, they will leave the church for the sake of their intellectual integrity. “Pastor says that God speaks to us, and if this doesn’t happen, it’s probably because God isn’t real.”
- Being psychologically unequipped to confront the despair of divine rejection and too afraid to leave the faith, they will begin to manufacture the voice of God in their heads. They will begin to imagine things He said to them out of desperation for some tangible manifestation of the presence of God, to assure them of their acceptance in His sight. Intuitions, epiphanies, and coincidences start to be twisted into a web of personal revelation that is more superstitious than Christian. Desperation to hear the voice of God leads to guessing games such as “I feel like God is leading me to…” The focus of their faith is continually directed towards subjective phenomena and away from the cross of Christ until they find themselves wondering why they even bother getting up on Sunday morning. “I can commune with God just fine wherever I am, the church gathering is just for the weak and un-spiritual.”
- At some point, they will cease to care whether or not they’ve actually heard anything, but the lack of actual spiritual experience isn’t about to prevent them from demonstrating it. So they fake it till they make it, putting on a public show of false piety in order to show their righteousness before men. “Of course I’m not one of those people who can’t hear God.” At this point, reality cease to matter, because perception is influence. And thus we’ve fostered a spirituality of Pharisaism.
This is where enthusiasm leads. Of course there are always other possibilities, but for those who take this teaching to heart, these are very common outcomes.
“Oh, but can’t God do whatever he pleases? What if he does indeed speak to any of these students? What if they claim to have heard His voice? Are you going to tell them that their experiences are not real? Who are you to judge someone else’s experience?”
Many people have told me with as much seriousness as conceivably possible that they have heard God speak to them. How could I be so heartless as to tell them that their experiences, which to them seem so pivotal in life, are imaginary at best, likely contrived, or even from the Devil himself?
A man with an experience is never at the mercy an argument. Nevertheless, the Scriptures teach:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” – Hebrews 1:1-2a
Stories from the Old Testament about God speaking to the prophets are not normative examples for your life. God did not speak to the vast majority of the faithful in this way. They understood this, and gladly accepted to hear from God through the mediation of the prophets because they feared God (Exodus 20:19).
In these days, God speaks to us through Jesus. On the mount of transfiguration He says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him!” This doesn’t mean that the voice in your heart is Jesus. It means that as the prophets were to Israel, Jesus is to the church. The voice of Christ is heard in preaching and His Word, just as He has promised: “The one who hears you hears me,” (Luke 10:16). In His means of grace we have all we could ever ask for from a Holy God, before Whom none could stand and live (Exodus 33:20). These are life giving words— literally.
For those who are certain of having heard “the voice,” there are a variety of possible explanations that can reconcile experience with Scripture, ranging from an over-spiritualized epiphany or imagination to mental illness. But we shouldn’t confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with personal revelation. Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth and remind us of His teaching. Those moments when a Biblical passage or teaching we’ve struggled with suddenly makes sense to us, those times we struggle with a decision and Biblical teaching on the matter is brought to memory or made clear: this is the work of the Holy Spirit through the written Word. If it cannot be traced back to the written Word, it is not of God. God is not a liar. He speaks only where He has promised to speak, through preaching and His Word. Hmmmmm, who could it be, who could it be, that is urgently desiring to distract our focus from the Bible and direct it towards terminal introspection, seeking to find some inner light from within?
Lutherans have such a robust, tangible, mystical, and beautiful pneumatology. That any of our preachers would exchange this priceless treasure for the imaginary trinkets of enthusiast snake oil salesmen is a travesty. It robs people of the true joy of genuine Gospel comfort that can be found in the very real voice of God that IS speaking to us, not to give us secret information like some sort of voodoo psychic, but to comfort and assure us that we are genuinely loved, absolutely His, fully forgiven and accepted into His family, for Jesus’ sake. The Jesus who is God speaking to us says, “This is my body, which is given for you.” “Your sins are forgiven.” “Surely I am with you always.” This voice is the only one we need to hear, it is the only one that gives hope, and any Lutheran pastor or congregation worth their salt will make this voice the heart and soul of their spirituality. To do otherwise is to take Jesus from the people with one hand, and leave them with the traditions of man, certain preparations of our own invention. Damned sinners don’t have time for such presumptuous games! Which part of “from the devil” don’t you understand?
After the service I hung my head and shuffled back home, thanking God for the faithfulness of my own pastor. He had just taught us earlier that the events of the original day of Pentecost (Acts 2) were singular occurrences in the manner of the incarnation and resurrection. Today, the Holy Spirit comes to us through His means of grace. “In this Christian Church [the Holy Spirit] daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers,” (Creed:III). The Holy Spirit and His gifts are ours. Let us cling to them.