You’ve probably heard a teacher, pastor or preacher say something to the effect “and then God told me.” What’s up with that? What role does personal experience and/or personal revelation play in Bible study?
For me, the bottom line is: Scripture takes precedence over emotions and experience; and teachers ought to strive for accuracy and precision in their language. Here are the guidelines I use when teaching:
Only say “God told me” if you are so certain the voice is from the Lord that you would sacrifice your first born if that voice commanded it.
The command to sacrifice Isaac must have struck Abraham as wrong on face value. Everything he knew about the Lord to that point suggested that the Lord abhorred the child sacrifices practiced by the pagan religions of the day. Yet, Abraham was so certain that command to offer Issac came from the Lord, that he obeyed up to the point of the Lord stopping his hand (Genesis 22).
So far, I’ve never “heard” a voice that came with that kind of certainty. Further, no teacher I’ve met who claims “and then God told me” has claimed the kind of certainty that Abraham had. Instead, they have talked (rightly) about applying some kind of discernment to evaluate whether their personal revelation is actually a word from God.
Scripture trumps experience, desires, emotions, the counsel of fellow believers and “voices.”
In 1 Samuel 24, we see David spare Saul’s life because David knows Scripture.
David is hiding and resting with his band of men in a cave when Saul comes in to relieve himself. Temporarily blinded by the contrast between the brilliant sunlight outside and the darkness of the cave, Saul is alone and extremely vulnerable.
How many times have you heard it taught that the way you determine God’s will is a combination of desire, circumstances and the counsel of godly people? If you want to do something, you have the opportunity to do it and godly people tell you to do it, it must be God’s will for you, right?
That’s exactly the situation David faced in the cave. David surely has the desire to kill Saul so he can end this deadly game of cat and mouse. He now has a golden opportunity to do so. He’s caught Saul literally with his pants down. And he has the counsel of his trusted men saying, go for it.
Instead of striking Saul down, David cuts off the edge of the king’s robe. Why did David do this? Because he knows God’s word, and God’s word prohibits striking the Lord’s anointed one.
Desire, opportunity and godly counsel fail in comparison to the word of God. You can want sin, have the opportunity to sin and godly people can unwittingly encourage you to chose it, but knowing God’s word will stop you. God’s word trumps everything else.
The same goes for claims of personal revelation. God’s written Word as revealed in the Scriptures trumps everything else.
Students should leave knowing more about Scripture than the speaker
As I wrote in a previous post,
The goal of bible study and sermons must always be to convey the essential meaning of a set number of verses to the listeners. To convey that meaning, we explain the concepts of Scripture in language modern ears will understand.
All stories, illustrations and explanations ought to serve that goal. Without explaining meaning, no real bible study has taken place — only pious observations, emotional exhortations and some interesting but pointless stories
In my experience, the teachers claiming they a received direct, divine personal revelation have often (consciously or not) made the message all about them. “They received a message and God is going to do great things through them.” The message they hear rarely seems to further an understanding of Scripture or increase our knowledge of the character of God. Rather the message tends to concern a movement, a program or a ministry the particular teacher is spearheading. To me, that’s a red flag.
Avoid phrases like “God told me”.
We often resort to the language of “and then God showed me” to describe that “aha!” moment where suddenly a passage becomes clear. One moment you are confused, the next moment you understand. Theologically speaking, that “aha” moment is the work of the Spirit opening our eyes and hearts to the truth. We understand because He has given us understanding. In many cases, teachers and preachers use language like “and then God told me” to describe that moment of clarity.
While I would not rebuke a teacher for such a figure of speech, I would recommend against it to avoid confusion. Any language which suggests that more is going on creates confusion.
“Personal revelation” can be an excuse for sloppy exegesis. Sometimes we teachers are tempted to use phrases like “God told me” or “I felt led” to avoid facing challenges or questions. We believe we are in the right, but we cannot back it up from our exegesis. Yet, if I claim “God told me,” how could you possibly question me? You would sound like a skeptic or heretic if you did.
Ideally, I should put the necessary study and time to be sure. If I can’t prove it, then I ought to think twice before saying it and at least admit it is speculation.
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.