God told me to get up and tie my shoes this morning.”
With these words, my wife once described to me a kind of spirituality which baffled her. I must admit it baffles me, too, though I’ve had more exposure to it than she has.
And what does it refer to?
This 2008 post from fellow Antiochian priest Fr. Gregory Hallam in the UK (whom I visited in 2001) discusses the way some people talk about spiritual life:
To hear some Christians talk you would think they had a “hot-line to God.” They are so convinced that God is in daily, direct communication with them, to suggest otherwise would be to compromise on the glorious intimacy that faith and grace bestow. So overweening is this confidence that rarely do they stop to ask: “Am I hearing right? Is this God or Satan? Is this perhaps me talking to myself?” There is no room for such doubts on the hotline.
This way of speaking about faith is common among some American Christians, even among Christians raised outside the part of Evangelicalism which is the home of this sort of language—generally the Pentecostal/Charismatic world, but also throughout low-church Evangelicalism, including Southern Baptists, mega-church-goers and others. I’ve lived in the South several times, and while there I even heard both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians speak this way, that “God was really showing me ________,” “The Lord laid on my heart that I should ________,” or “God told me that ________.”
God, it would seem, is something of a micromanager.
As Fr. Gregory points out, there is something a bit awry with this manner of speaking. To be sure, one cannot doubt the spiritual sincerity of people who speak this way, but in all honesty, how can we really be sure that it’s God talking to us and not ourselves—or even, God forbid, one of the dark powers? One rarely finds this sort of language in the Scriptures, except coming from the prophets and apostles. Even then, especially with the apostles, one does not see any indication that they believe that God is directing them in such a detailed way most of the time, and they certainly don’t say that they “feel” God is leading them in such-and-such a direction. How they feel about it almost never enters into the picture.
Even though I was raised with such language, being from an Evangelical Protestant background, hearing it these days always makes me a bit uncomfortable and even a little suspicious. As a priest, I sometimes get asked about what God’s will for someone’s life is, usually in terms of whether they should change jobs, relocate, buy a certain house, get married, etc. My response is almost always the same and based on St. Augustine’s famous dictum: “Love, and do what thou wilt!”
Really, we cannot make spiritual mistakes if we are genuinely living in repentance and self-sacrificial love. (And what does it really matter if we make earthly mistakes?) God’s will for us is that we turn away from sin and embrace holiness. The particular details of our earthly circumstances are relatively trivial.
This is not to say that we don’t have experiences of the mystical and the divine, but most mystical experience is really rather “mundane” compared to what most of us wish it were. In looking for “experiences,” however, we are falling into the error St. Paul points out to the Corinthians:
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock (Gr., scandalon), and unto the Greeks foolishness (I Cor. 1:22-23).
Sometimes the scandalon and foolishness of our Christian life is precisely that it is so unspectacular. Seek not for fireworks in the heavens and voices from on high. Seek ye rather the kingdom and all God’s righteousness (Matt. 6:33). This involves crucifixion.
When I hear an Orthodox Christian speaking in this manner, that God is “leading” and “speaking” to them in minute and detailed ways, I don’t try to shut them down. Usually, this is the only language they have thus far learned to express such things. My experience has been, however, that over time as people delve more deeply into authentic Orthodox spiritual life, humility eventually teaches them that they’re really not prophets and that our own free will is what governs what we do. As Fr. Gregory says:
With this in mind we should not say that we have a “hotline to God” that rather that we have “an ordinary connection.” True, God speaks to us. He does answer our prayers, although not always in ways we would like. However, in this life our sin and laziness always generate “noise on the line.” Repentance deals with this interference progressively. We should therefore have a more measured sense of what we and others are able to hear. Sometimes it is the “Word of the Lord.” Sometimes it is not. Discernment is called for.
The example of the saints is that they would prefer to say that God never spoke to them and thus accidentally ignore an angelic voice than to mistake a voice that is not God’s for the true divine word.
Trust me: If you’re ever chosen to be a prophet, it will be spectacularly apparent not only to you but by the confirmation of the Church. It’s best that you do your best to refuse it, though, and accept that recognition of authentic prophecy usually only comes after death and is typically accompanied by persecution in life. Prophecy almost never comes to the comfortable.
Don’t get me wrong—all Christians are called to speak prophetically, but not all of us are called to be prophets in the sense that God speaks directly to us in detailed ways about everyday life and asks us to speak on His behalf. Even the Old Testament prophets didn’t hear from God as often as I think some people believe regarding themselves.
I try find more wisdom in the ordinary. Live life. Don’t assume you’re getting messages from God. Don’t think you’re special. Try to be holy. Confess your sins regularly. Receive Holy Communion frequently. Pray frequently. Give up some of your unnecessary possessions. Come to church frequently. Labor without seeking recognition. Do all this with thanksgiving to God, and the rest will take care of itself.