Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Did the Lord Really Tell You That? - How Can You Be Sure?

My article from this week's newspapers about things "The Lord Told Me..." and other such claims to direct revelation:

Q:  If I feel like God has spoken a message to me personally, is that possible?  How can I know if that message is genuine and whether or not to trust it?

Extraordinary revelations, personal experiences, and spiritual perceptions have been a topic of debate among Christians for centuries.  Some of these are more extraordinary than others, varying from reports of an audible voice from heaven complete with bleeding or crying statues to the simple feeling within the Christian that God desires them to take a certain course of action or beware of certain dangers. 

Some of these instances have been heeded while others have been ignored, and some have been understood as accurate while others have failed to play out.  With this sort of inconsistency, direct, personal revelation is a topic to be handled with great care. 

To begin with, we have to ask whether it is possible.  Since God has directly revealed Himself to people, such as Peter, Paul, and numerous Old Testament prophets, we would have to conclude that God is capable of revealing Himself directly to individuals.  At the same time, we also have to note that He has never promised that He will reveal Himself directly to all believers, nor did He ever instruct us in the New Testament writings to seek such revelations.

On some instances, we can rule such revelations as certainly inauthentic because they contradict a known fact about Christian doctrine or God’s character – for example, if a revelation encouraged murder or directed one to trust in other gods.  Even for those that do not fail on those grounds, we still lack positive verification of their origin.  So, for any particular instance of suspected direct revelation, the most positive answer we could possibly give is, “Maybe.”

Another question that must arise from this is what warrant is there for anyone else to believe the revelation or act according to it.  In this case also, unless there can be positive verification of the revelation, others would be unwise to accept its validity, lest they be deceived.  So here it would be limited, at best, to only the person who received it. 

Even if such revelations prove to be accurate, their accuracy does not necessarily equate to authenticity.  For example, since the demonic world possesses great knowledge (although not perfect knowledge, like God) of events in the world, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that a personal revelation, even when accurate, is a deception intended to distract a person from God’s promised means of revelation or to open the door for them to later accept a deceptions which threaten to undermine faith. 

In contrast to these uncertainties, we do have promises that God will reveal Himself in certain ways and instruction on where to seek Him.  The most explicit and detailed of these is the Bible.  God has promised that the words we find there will prove authentic, and directed us there to seek Him. 

Even the authors of the New Testament directed their readers back to the Old Testament, and not to their own experiences, to authenticate their claims about Jesus.  And even the Holy Spirit, who often receives credit in cases of direct revelation is inseparably connected to the written Word of Scripture, as in the Gospel of John, where Jesus most detailed teaching on the Spirit describes the Spirit’s work as reminding the Apostles of the things that Jesus has already said – and not in revealing anything new. 

God also reveals Himself as He washes away sin through Holy Baptism and feeds believers with His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins and to sustain faith in the Lord’s Supper.  When we seek Him where He has promised to be, we can have confidence that it is Him we have found and His gifts we have received, rather than being left to wonder about feelings and intuitions which we have no assurance are authentic.

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