How do Christians hear, recognise and respond to God’s voice? This question lays at the heart of my doctoral research which was officially approved this week. After two sketchy Skype appointments (wi-fi is not always great between Sydney and the farthest ends of southern New Zealand) between myself and a panel of academics, I received final approval to commence my candidature as a doctoral student (Read here about why I chose to do my Doctor of Ministry). Time to break out the bubbly!
It’s been a wonderful first year back to study – at least most of the time. During the year I’ve oscillated between This is awesome! to What on earth were you thinking? The introduction to the higher echelons of the academic world has been both stretching and humbling. I imagine it’s not so different to becoming a new parent with a whole new language; new set of rules and a baffling array of equipment. At times you feel the delight of it all and other times, you want to bury your head in the sand. There’s been words like ‘ubiquity’, ‘orthopraxy’, ‘dialectic’, ‘reductionism’ and others that even my spell-checker doesn’t understand. There’s technical gear like Google books, Ebsco (journal search) and Zotero (referencing software). Then there’s rules like ‘avoid metaphors’ and ‘write impersonally’ and principles like the need to ‘complexify’ the topic (so much for keeping it simple…)
So what has it all amounted to apart from an increased number of headaches, the diminishment of my movie watchlist on long-haul flights and the need for new reading glasses?
The Research Question
My first year involved forming the research question. Not as easy as it sounds! To become a ‘doctor’, it is considered that you are the expert in the field (for a brief moment at least before someone else takes your place). That means reading everything out there that is available on your topic and building on it. In the area of hearing God’s voice, Pentecostals and Charismatic Christians have long practised the experience, but have not always reflected on it theologically. So academic work by practitioners in this area can be a little scarce, although there has been more published recently.
With your reading as a foundation, it’s then time to develop a question that you’re interested in and that builds on the current thinking. From there you design a methodology that clearly addresses your topic and that upholds certain academic and ethical standards. The proposal is then written up and presented to external committees who have the authority of the Australian educational system to approve them.
So to the question! Mine sounds fairly straightforward: How do Pentecostal Christians hear, recognise and respond to God’s voice? The answer not so much! Experiences range from the weird and wacky to downright frightening at one end to the spectacular at the other.
There are generally two issues of concern. The first is theological. How does the claim to hearing God’s voice today impact on our understanding of the Scriptures? In other words, if we say “God told me” now, what does this mean for the times when God spoke to the biblical characters? This is an important question! Throughout history, people have actually responded to it by saying that hearing God’s voice today is an attack on the authority and integrity of the Canon. Therefore God can no longer speak – in fact he stopped talking when the last Bible writer dropped his pen (eg. John MacArthur)! Others say that yes, God can speak, but the experience has little authority in my life since it’s not possible to know unequivocally that God was the source (eg. Wayne Grudem).
The second concern is more practical. It is particularly important for pastors who have to deal with the people’s everyday claims to hearing God’s voice. Prophetic experiences can be risky and unsafe if not managed well. Just last week it was reported in the UK news that a 35-year-old man claimed God told him to attack and strangle a woman in a hotel room in Lancaster. A number of false religions and cults have arisen from claims to divine revelation. At a more local level, poorly handled experiences have been the source of major conflict in churches to the point where communities have been split, lives severely damaged and people’s faith shipwrecked. While God’s revelation is pure, our ability to hear and discern it is not!
My research project aims to address both of these concerns. So for the next 12 months, along with my normal ministry, I will be studying the experiences of people in three different Australian churches to see how they experience the voice of God in their lives. The goal is twofold – to help people understand that God still does speak today just as he did in biblical times and to help pastors and leaders safely manage the process! It’s an exciting project and I believe it is part of what God wants to do in the church worldwide as people seek to know him personally and to see his plan unfold in their lives.
For the Thinkers
If you’d like to know more, watch the presentation below that I gave recently at the 2016 Harvest Bible College Research conference. The sound in the first few minutes is a bit sketchy, but it is worth persevering. The presentation explains a little of my own journey in hearing God’s voice and the questions it raised. I also talk about three possible answers to those questions and why I think a Pentecostal understanding that sees our contemporary experiences as consistent with the biblical characters is the most helpful.
What are your thoughts on some of the concerns raised by hearing God’s voice? We’d love to hear them here!