I could see in her eyes that she was sincere. There was an authentic desire to impart spiritual truth written there. But there was something else, too – a kind of fanatical vehemence that I have come to distrust. Perhaps because I have been there, I know that the zealous are almost always inflated by a sense of self-importance that often belies the humility they profess – indeed, even desire. I find fervour pretentious, zeal a form of self-deceit. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that she genuinely believed that God had given her a message for me. In tones that brooked no doubt, she passionately spoke about how God would bless me and what a powerful instrument I would be for Him, if I only remained faithful. A few decontextualised Bible verses and a handful of vague insights into what my future would hold later, she had fulfilled her obligation to the Divine and we parted. A few years ago I may have argued, I reflected. I may have tried to compel her to see the flaws in her supposition that she was God’s messenger, and become frustrated when I failed. I probably would have lost my composure somewhat, and in the process inadvertently vindicated her unconscious sense of her own spiritual superiority.
But I didn’t. I listened with at least an outward appearance of patience. I am not sure that I should have. The question has been perplexing me: if somebody comes up to me and tells me that she has a word from God for me, how ought I to respond?
They are treacherous waters to navigate because, after all, it is God we are talking about. Strictly speaking, He could choose anybody to be His mouthpiece. Being omnipotent allows for that. Even if, for unfathomable reasons, the Divine chose for His mouthpiece the improbable and even vaguely comic form of a well-meaning but slightly psychotic, middle-aged woman, the fact remains that – in theory, at least – God could speak in whatever way He deemed fit. I just find it odd that He would persist in picking the lonely and slightly demented.
I am being cruelly flippant, I know. But I need to raise the question, because I think modern Christianity has been too loathe to confront this issue, which is increasingly prevalent, in any meaningful way, and the ramifications of allowing this practice to go unchallenged are devastating to the blossoming faiths of many. Too many churches nowadays are only too happy to let congregation members walk up to the front and share what is on God’s mind. There is not nearly enough control or discernment being practised.
If the said “prophet” is indeed speaking God’s words, then we would be foolish not to listen. Their words would have to be considered to carry the same weight as the Bible; they would speak with the same authority as Jesus or Paul or Isaiah or Moses: whether in textual or spoken form, God’s words would remain God’s words – that is, irrefutable, irresistible, unignorable. God’s word demands a response. If we consider a person to genuinely be a messenger for God, we would need to do more than smile politely or nod sincerely when they speak, we would be compelled to take action. We would be under an obligation to obey their instructions as if Jesus himself had spoken them, because they would come from the same source.
If we were not convinced that they were from God, we (Christians) would be irresponsible to allow these people to speak on behalf of us. Paul, throughout his epistles, is very quick to denounce those who claim to speak on behalf of the church but whose teachings the church does not recognise as doctrinally sound. And he is correct to do so. If somebody who professes to operate under the banner of your organisation insists on making public declarations that run contrary to what your organisation stands for, you cannot simply ignore it. There is an ethical obligation to challenge them. Not to do so threatens the credibility of your organisation.
Yet I see so many professed prophets operating in the name of Christianity while the church at large remains ostensibly silent. Why? Are we afraid to hurt their feelings? Surely chastisement always hurts? Hurt is not necessarily bad. Sometimes hurt is the unavoidable if unintended result of hearing truth, even when that truth is spoken in love. If the hurt is not linked to being shamed but rather to feeling ashamed of problematic behaviour, surely that is acceptable? Alternatively, are we silent because we don’t regard it as important? In that case, are we choosing to blind ourselves to the immense damage to the reputation of Christ that such people cause? Many will look at these prophets and argue that because this person is deluded and calls herself Christian, Christianity is delusional. I know that the argument is illogical, but it is prevalent nonetheless, and our silence only gives it greater legitimacy. Another possible reason for our ignoring it ought to terrify us equally: we have become so immersed in the pseudo-Christian pop-culture of “me, my Bible and Jesus”, caught up in chasing the thrills of worship experiences and spiritual highs it promises, that we are content to ignore these “prophets” as essentially harmless, if a little misguided. It’s between them and God, after all, and none of our business. The last possibility scares me most of all: that we believe they have legitimacy.
Surely we ought to demand some sort of verification that they do indeed speak on behalf of God? Jesus had the miracles to back him up (I think that is the primary reason God gave him that ability – He needed to distinguish him from the myriad lunatics who also claimed to be God). Moses performed miracles, Elijah and Peter and Paul performed miracles. When God chooses a mouthpiece, He gives them more than words. He gives them undeniable authority to speak those words. And I am not talking about the con-artists that populate Christian evangelical television shows. I mean undeniable, incontrovertible miracles – calming the storm and fire-from-heaven stuff, not some peanut who claims to suddenly have had his arthritis cured by an oily televangelist. As far as I am concerned, if you are claiming to deliver messages from God, you had better be walking on water while doing so, otherwise I must regard you either as a con-artist or as a well-meaning lunatic.
I am not normally so heartless. It may not seem like it, but I am regarded as a fairly good counsellor. And I am completely sympathetic to the kind of loneliness that might drive a person to believe that God had chosen her; I appreciate that this would lend her a sense of purpose and importance that life’s circumstances might have stripped from her in so many cruel ways. And maybe that ability to sympathise is what kept me from demanding a miracle that day. Next time, though, I think I will.