Claims are nothing new, but recent examples stand out
ATLANTA — “God told me …”
The Bible says God speaks in a “still, small voice,” but that voice no longer seems to be still or small if you listen to contemporary pastors. The phrase “God told me” is becoming one of their favorite expressions. So many seem to be on speaking terms with God.
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Turn on the TV or the radio, and one will inevitably encounter a preacher flashing what one pastor calls the “God trump card.” It signals that the holder is the recipient of a steady stream of revelations from God on matters big and small.
It’s invoked so often that few question it, but two recent examples stand out.
In May, the Rev. O’Neal Dozier, pastor of Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach, Fla., told an audience that Jesus had appeared to him in a dream and told him that the next governor of that state would be a Republican.
In March, spiritual guru Neale Donald Walsch published “Home With God” and announced that it would be the final chapter in his best-selling “Conversations With God” trilogy, in which he claims to talk to the Almighty.
Last November, J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, wrote a column complaining about pastors taking their revelations too far. He cited one charismatic pastor who told his congregation that a new revelation from the Bible allowed him to have more than one wife. Another said his “anointing” allowed him to have more than one sexual partner.
Ruth Tucker, author of “God Talk,” says pastors – and ordinary people – often confuse God’s voice with their own.
“The voice of God often corresponds with something they very much want to hear,” Tucker says. “Biblically, God speaks, but God breaks through in a monumental way that’s far beyond giving comfort or advice to any person’s plan or agenda.”
Claims of personal encounters with God are nothing new. Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions are filled with inspiring stories about God communicating with people. People of faith often talk about hearing God’s voice in a dramatic situation or being led by an inner voice or a divine sign.
But what happens when revelation becomes routine? What happens when some preachers talk about God as if they have his cellphone number? God lets them know who to vote for, what sermon to preach and when to start a new building program.
That practice trivializes God, some scholars and preachers say. It also contradicts what history’s greatest prophets and mystics say about hearing from God.
Take the Hebrew prophets, for example. They don’t describe having casual conversations with God. They recall being terrified by God. Isaiah called himself a “ruined” man after he heard God’s voice. Ezekiel was “stunned” and immobilized for seven days after his encounter. Ancient Hebrews thought they would die if they even saw God’s face or said his name aloud.
Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun who’s become a best-selling author about Christianity, Judaism and Islam, says these prophets were shaken because they were confronted by “the experience of transcendence.”
“What they were saying is that what we call God, we can’t even talk about,” she says. “It is indescribable, ineffable. The only reverent attitude is silence.”
Pastors who invoke a chatty God run several other risks.
Tucker, author of “God Talk,” says the practice misrepresents what we call God. She says many modern people can’t conceive of a God of silence and mystery, so they fashion a glib God who becomes just another voice in our busy sonic landscape, along with the TV, the radio, the iPod.
“People have become pals with God like you would with a cellphone partner you have to keep in touch with every half-hour,” Tucker says. “Some people are wondering if – in a talkative world where we have to hear voices all the time – this is how we are also treating God.”
A preacher who claims to hear often from God can use that to manipulate their congregation.
The Rev. James Merritt, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, says the claim, which he calls the “God trump card,” can squelch debate.
It’s easier to criticize someone’s reasoning than their experience.
“If God told you to do something, what can I do? I can’t contradict God,” says Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth. “You played the ‘God trump card.’?”
A preacher’s claim to be a special source of revelations is dangerous in other ways. It contradicts Jewish and Christian scripture, says Thomas Long, an author and authority on preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
Citing a well-known Old Testament passage from the book of Joel that quotes God as saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people,” Long says: “I don’t think its theologically congruent with the Jewish and Christian understanding of community in which the Spirit falls on everybody.”
Claiming to have God’s cellphone number also can lead to self-promotion. When, for example, was the last time someone heard a pastor say that God called him or her to take a smaller salary or move to a smaller church?
Long says he’s heard it but says it’s rare among preachers who routinely hear from God. “God rarely puts us on the down escalator,” Long says.
Claims of speaking to God also can ripen into bizarre, even pathological leadership. The Rev. Jim Jones and the bodies of his followers covering a jungle floor in Guyana in 1978 after drinking punch laced with poison is a prime example.
“Some of the worst atrocities have been committed where people think that God is on their side,” Armstrong says.
If discerning between God’s voice and one’s own desires is so risky, how do pastors do it? Several pastors say they can tell that God is talking to them if it lines up with Scripture.
But the Rev. Scott Wenig, an associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary, says that discernment method is not so simple.
The Bible contains passages that condone brutal behavior. Slavery, for example, is supported in the Old and New Testament.
“In the 19th century, some Southern Christians were making these incredible, detailed and complex biblical defenses of the enslavement of African-Americans,” he says.
He has own method for testing whether a preacher’s vision is from God or his or her own ego.
“What is the fruit that’s coming from the behavior based on ‘God told me?’?” he says. “What are the consequences of the action being taken? If the fruit is good, as Jesus said, the tree is good.”
The Rev. Paul Morton, founder of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, says he can tell when God is speaking to him. He compares it to knowing the voice of a loved one. Morton’s Full Gospel message insists that God communicates with Baptists through the “full’ gifts of the Holy Spirit: speaking in tongues, healing and revelations.
”It’s not a white horse or anything written in the sky,“ Morton says about hearing God’s voice. ”He impresses something in your spirit.“
Morton says God gives him signs to validate his message. He says God recently told him to expand his New Orleans’ megachurch, Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, to
Atlanta. He expects God to reward his move with another sign.
”There’s no vision without provision,“ he says. ”He’s not going to let you down midstream.“
There’s also plenty of growth when pastors claim divine visions. Evangelical and charismatic churches like Morton’s are growing much faster than mainline Protestant denominations.
Critics of mainline church say their membership is declining in part because they drain worship of emotion. They say people want to experience God through ecstatic worship and divine revelations. They also want a pastor who experiences God the same way.
Morton agrees with that thinking. He says modern churches can’t grow unless they pay attention to God’s voice.
”The children of Israel had to move with the cloud,“ he says, referring to the Exodus story. ”If they didn’t move with the cloud, they would have been stuck in the wilderness. Some of the churches of today are getting stuck in the wilderness.“
One popular pastor, though, took a different approach when he was tempted to pull out God’s cellphone number.
After touring New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he was asked by a reporter: How could a loving God allow such a disaster?
”Well, I spoke yesterday to the clergy and I asked myself why. and I told them I don’t know why,“ the pastor told Newsweek. ”There is no way I can know.“
That man was the Rev. Billy Graham.
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