God told me

My friend Jim Samra has written a provocative new book, God Told Me:  who to marry, where to work, which car to buy…and I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy. The book is endorsed by Kevin VanHoozer and Darrell Bock, so it’s a safe bet it’s not crazy. I don’t happen to agree with the premise of the book, but I still enjoyed reading it and was challenged again to think how I know God’s will and whether I am a functional deist (p. 23). The book is filled with first person accounts that both inspire and move the book along.

They are also why I remain unconvinced. Jim has remarkable stories about God telling him who he would marry (before he met her) and to wait on buying a car, a faith that was rewarded when someone from his church gave him a new one. It was a only Chevy, so God didn’t exert all of his power in answering this prayer, but still.

I don’t want to deny Jim’s experience—I’ll even affirm it—but I have two outstanding questions:

1. How can he know for sure that God was speaking to him? Jim says that the first time he heard his wife’s name “at that moment God gave me the strangest, most indescribably subjective impression that this mystery person was his choice for my spouse!” (p. 21). My question is how someone knows that this strange, subjective impression is God talking. Our minds are powerful things, and it seems possible that they would have the ability to leave a strong impression that we mistakenly suppose is coming from a higher source.

Jim raised this issue of certainty but I’m not sure he answered it, at least to my satisfaction. He includes an entire chapter on distinguishing God’s voice, but none of his helpful tips enable someone to know for sure, as God’s revelation is impossibly difficult to prove. Jim might say that when God speaks you’ll just know, and if you have to ask whether it’s God then that’s a sign it’s not. Fair enough, but that still doesn’t help the rest of us who, for whatever reason, don’t regularly hear God speaking. So maybe what we have is dueling experiences. Which brings me to my second question.

2. Is it fair to generalize one’s experience onto others? Even if God is speaking to Jim—and I’m not here to say he isn’t—what does that mean for the rest of us? Is this an experience that we all should seek? Are we spiritually deficient if we don’t?

I’ll be honest, I don’t ever remember asking God what car I should buy. I just read Consumer Reports, talked to knowledgeable friends, and looked for deals. I’ve driven the same 1990 Honda Civic CRX for 19 years, so I doubt I would have done better had I received a special word from the Lord. My wife tells me it’s time to replace it, but I’d like to make it one more year to an even twenty, partially from a perverse form of backwards pride. The next time an Emergent Christian challenges my standard of living, I’ll point them to my car and remind them that their hero lives on Marco Island.

Jim has a great story about a church member giving him a car. That’s great, but it’s also not unusual for pastors of large churches with at least some wealthy members. I worry that readers who aren’t as well connected may not get the same results, and may be discouraged as they continue to drive their old beaters and wait. Jim does include lots of hedges—sometimes God’s will is hard and long—but most readers will think that hearing God’s voice will lead to more answered prayer. It’s good to remember that prayers are like mpg ratings:  individual results may vary.

I have one final observation. Jim describes a situation growing up where his father heard a surprising word from the Lord (p. 114). That made me think that perhaps our views on this question are formed in part by our childhood experience. If we had parents who claimed to hear God speak, then we may be more inclined that way. If we didn’t then we probably aren’t. Whether or not we think we hear God speak extra-biblically may say more about us than about the question itself.

In sum, I recommend the book because it will force you to ask important questions about how God speaks today. I wasn’t convinced by its argument but I was inspired to pray more. And any book that does that is probably worth having.

10 Comments

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  1. Mike, as you know, one of the premises in introductory philosophy about making claims about reality is that “things are not always as they appear to be.” The stories and claims I heard Samra pronounce when attending Calvary were part of this subjective domain that defies validation. The pattern of decision making that Samra suggested is far from the norm presented to believers in Scripture to order their lives. Sure…one can find supernatural voices in Scripture, but to extrapolate these to our normative experience ignores the dominant pattern of Scripture that puts decision-making into a matrix of biblical worldview and values clarification.

    How one unpacks the stories/occurrences of life is dependent upon one’s paradigm to explain how life works. Samra is deep seated in his self-validating subjectivism. One advantage is that no one can really argue with him since God has told him he is right. I wonder how this works when church members sit across from him and make claims based on the same way of thinking.

    I always wondered as I listened if some of his experiencial approach is grounded in accepting third wave perspective. He was at Dallas during that period.

    If you need shelf space…send the book to me for my next round of publishing on this subject 😉

  2. Great review, Mike, and comment by Dr. Meadors! (I had a strong impression that he might respond as he did.) ;p

  3. If I were to list the things I thought God told me, I could count to 3. So I narrowly escape the functional deist label. Back when my husband and I were dating he gave me Friesen’s “Decision Making and the Will of God,” which is a very clever way to get a girl to marry you. But I will admit, I think I may have boxed God up when I read that book. Have I created for myself an expectation that I won’t hear God?

  4. Mike, I have to agree that the argument “when God speaks you’ll just know it” does not help as much as it seems to on the surface. I agree that IF God were speaking to you, He could do so in a way that could not be doubted. However, even if we grant that as true, it doesn’t address the times when someone thinks that God is speaking to them but He is not. The impossibility of a false negative does not imply the impossibility of a false positive.

  5. Nate: that last sentence is a mind bender, but true.

    Terri: just because God’s will isn’t as narrow as a dot doesn’t mean it’s large enough to include your husband!! I personally wouldn’t worry that you’ve boxed God up, or in, or whichever preposition you prefer. If you’re attentively reading the Bible, I don’t think you’ll be blamed for not listening to his voice.

  6. This is an issue that comes up frequently for me since God regularly speaks to my coworkers and never speaks to me. They look so sad for me when I tell them that to my knowledge God has never spoken to me outside of Scripture. It is very awkward to be in situations where the speaker begins, “I’ve barely prepared anything because I know what I have to say today comes straight from the Holy Spirit.” Kind of makes critical thinking hard, because now I’m criticizing God, and that’s never a good idea.

    I have started to pull out a clincher proof-text though. I explain that I cannot be sure and do not care to deny that God is speaking to them. But, Deut 18:20 is clear that if you say God said something He did not say, you’ve committed a capital offense (in the old covenant community). The principle clearly applies today, don’t say God said stuff He didn’t say.

    On that note, if the canon just isn’t cutting it for you, grab a copy of “Jesus Calling” to get a new word from God every day of the year (just like the author did, in such a compact, affirming, fits-in-your-hand-and-fills-your-heart kind of way).

  7. Self-authenticating religious experiences are like great conspiracy theories. No one can prove them untrue. I may be wrong, but doesn’t God always speak with a voice to individuals who hear Him with their ears in the Scriptures (visions and dreams of excepted)?

    On a personal note, I would like it if the author included all the occasions when he thought God told him something, but then concluded that it hadn’t been God some time later. I had a family in our church for a while who was sure God was sending them from Michigan to Alaska. The Lord’s leading was even confirmed when each of the parents saw cars during their morning commute from Alaska on the same day. But, alas, after announcing God’s word of direction to them, they never moved but don’t consider that they defied God in their decision-making process.

    It seems that this kind of thinking is paralleled in many churches by Christians who have learned how to “tune in” to the spiritual station on which God broadcasts. They learn to hear the voice of God. They are “led” to make decisions. The notion that God is always speaking to us through the Spirit and that we are just not listening is folk theology. Of course, I’m sure my granny (who is now an angel) is looking down from heaven on me right now and shaking her head😉

  8. I think this speaks to a deep desire in the heart of every Christian to have a tangible connection to that which we have not seen or experienced. The Israelites had the temple and the prophets. The apostles experienced the first advent of Christ. We have scripture. While I would argue that this is more than enough we have to admit it is not exactly the same. That doesn’t make scripture inferior by any means. However, it at least explains why people may wish to believe that God does still tangibly speak. Though I am largely undecided on this matter it does us well to, remember as we think about this, that people who claim to “hear the voice of God” are well intentioned for the most part.

  9. I was able to download a free Kindle edition of this book from Amazon, but in checking this morning, I see the free offer is no longer available. I am just starting to get into this book and even from the title my antennae was emitting warning singles. Is that God telling me something about the book? I appreciate the review and the discussion here.

  10. Mike, you have been a little too soft. Gary has been a little more direct and I really like that. Not sure what “self-validating subjectivism” is but it sounds right or maybe I should say that I reallly feel peace when I say it.

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