Friday, November 26, 2010

Prayer and Listening to God Part 3: How We Got Here and Why It Matters

(This is Part 3 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1.)

In the previous post in this series, I said I would talk next about how we in the Church came to believe we should listen inwardly for God's voice in prayer; and I said that I would talk about why it matters. So to begin, here's a quick (and incomplete) history on how we got here.

Over fifty years ago, something was happening in the theological academies that most in the pews knew little or nothing about. In many seminaries, including Southern Baptist ones, liberal theology imported from the German schools had taken hold; this theology sought to do away with belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, and sought also to do away with the historical-grammatical method of reading and interpreting Scripture. After all, if the historical-grammatical method could be done away with, then anything in the Bible could be reinterpreted, denied or explained away. And this is just what happened.

Young men trained in these American seminaries became pastors with a more liberal understanding of what the Bible is and how we are to view it, an understanding that was shifting dangerously away from historic Protestant Christianity. The "new understanding" did not necessarily show up in ways that people noticed. There was still preaching from the pulpit that at least gave lip service to the gospel, there were still professions of faith, baptisms, Sunday Schools and training unions. In a way, things seemed much the same. However, much had changed. Slowly, the churches began to forget about some of the important things that had once been widely understood, including a basic knowledge on understanding and interpreting Scripture.

In the 1950's and 60's a charismatic "renewal" with roots in an earlier Pentecostalism and mysticism began to influence the beliefs of churches. The combination of the liberal views on Scripture and the highly subjective tendencies of the Charismatic/mystical movement resulted in sea changes that left much of the Church more vulnerable to new doctrinal ideas. The way was paved for acceptance of the idea, among many other new ideas, that Christians were supposed to seek to know God's specific will for their lives (what job to take, who to marry, and other specifics of everyday life) by listening inwardly for God's voice. This new teaching (new, at least, since the Reformation) was supported by its proponents with misinterpreted biblical texts, often with isolated verses lifted out of their contexts. And now the idea that we are to seek to know God's will for our lives by listening inwardly for God's voice has become widely accepted as normal and Scriptural.

(You may be thinking by this point that if all this is true, how did people 'discern' God's will for their lives 100 years ago, before all these doctrinal changes took place? The answer is, basically, that Christians did not generally seek to find that out. They understood that the Bible tells the believer everything he needs to know about God's will for him. As far as the specifics of God's plan for their lives, Christians of stouter times widely understood the doctrine of God's providence, which is His "governing and preserving of all his creatures and all their actions", as taught and illustrated in Scripture. They also understood that the Bible teaches us to make our own wise decisions like a grownup! For more on this, you could do worse than start here.)

At stake in this issue of whether or not we are to listen for God's voice in prayer is the sufficiency of Scripture for our thinking and for our practice. It may take some patient pondering and study to see why this is true, and to see what it means that the Bible makes this claim of sufficiency. For instance, the Bible claims to be the only source of revelation of God's will, and that its pages contain all we need to know of his will for his people (Psalm 19:7-11, 2 Peter 1:16-21). The Bible claims, as well, that many things are for God alone to know (Deuteronomy 29:29). For making life choices in regard to these unrevealed things (what jobs we will take, who we will marry), the Bible claims to provide abundant wisdom from its own pages. The Bible holds the place of honor in our lives for teaching us the wisdom we need to make life's decisions (Proverbs 1).

All this hopefully raises good questions: "What about Paul--what about the Old Testament prophets? They heard God's voice and were directly guided by him. So were others in the Bible. Are you saying that in those narratives, the Bible isn't teaching us to expect such guidance ourselves?" Those are exactly the sorts of things we'll look at in my next post. In it, I'll offer a few quick guidelines for interpreting Scripture, and then look at some Scripture passages that have been used as "proof" that we should expect God to speak directly to us.

The  news that we aren't told in Scripture to listen inwardly for God's voice-- or to find out his specific, day-to-day will for us-- is actually very good news for God's people. There is a "God's will for us" that is far better than anything contrary we may have believed. Proverbs 25:25 says, "Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country." The good news of how we may know what God wills for us, and how we are to think about guidance and decision-making, brings relief and freedom from the anxieties of wondering whether we've missed God's will, or if we've "heard" him right. It offers a cure for the hyper-individualism of our culture that is so contrary to peace and well-being. This good news offers the hope of greater freedom in Christ, and the hope of a wisdom that "adorns the doctrine of God our Savior" (Titus 2:1-10). Oh, yes, and and the right knowledge of this good news can bring great benefits to your spouse, your children and your church as well.
(Click here for Part 4).


Tami said...

This article is instructive! Can you elaborate on Romans 8:26-27? Maybe in a future topic on prayer or "our weakness in prayer".

Jeri Tanner said...

That's a very important aspect. I actually wrote on that as part of this series and will touch on it briefly in these blog posts, maybe I can elaborate on it more later. God through the Holy Spirit is very involved with us in our prayers, helping us to pray, supporting us in prayer, interceding for us, communing with us. We have rich fellowship with God in prayer. All those things are true but must be understood in light of how the Spirit works and what he came to do. Thanks Tami, that's a great point.

Carol Shadix Short said...

I think that it is vitally important to hold all things up to scripture for proving. If it is not scriptural, it is not God, but I do believe that there is a work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to convict and convince us of sin. This is a personal conversation that we hold with the Holy Spirit that is very personal to us, as we all have our own leanings in our personalities and nature that draw us to weakness and sin. This interior conversation goes on constantly during the day and night as the Holy Spirit walks through life with us. Of course, once again, those of us with an overactive conscience must hold these convictions up to scripture always, because some of us are very hard on ourselves, and this robs the joy that God promises will flow through our lives. I think we are made with gifts and abilities that draw us to specific works and ministries, and this could be called a leading of God in our lives. The tradgedies of life also direct our lives, in that once we have walked through and overcome great grief we are uniquely equipped to help others walk through those very difficult times. This is a way that God leads and directs. He is as active and vital in our lives as we allow Him to be, and because of our sin nature we must always be careful to hold what we do and what we say, how we think and even feel up to the white hot light of God's Word. I love you Jeri, and I love your Blog!!!!

Jeri Tanner said...

Great points Carol, and so true. In trying to speak to wrong teaching there's always the danger of overstating on the one hand or understating on the other. I dread to appear to give short shrift to the warm and vital ministry of the Spirit in our daily lives, including convicting us of our sins. I posted a little bit on the Spirit's work about an hour ago, and will say more as I go along.

The error I'm hoping to speak to, immersed as we are in it(especially maybe here in the South) calls for a bracing tonic of truth and lots of words. :) Love you too dear friend.

Carol Shadix Short said...

I agree. I know someone who thinks God is talking to him if the same number pops up more than once in a day. He sees God leading in the way the wind blows on a certain day. The trouble with that is that it leads to a very unstable life. God's word is our bedrock upon which we must build our lives.