Friday, June 24, 2011

Part three of the new series just went up on Mockingbird

the value of scripture as a constraint on prophetic imagination

He who trusts in his own heart is a fool but he who walks wisely will be delivered.
Proverbs 28:26 (NAS)
He who trusts his own instinct is a dullard, but he who lives by wisdom shall escape.
Proverbs 28:26 (JPS)
Something I want to get to before I round off this series is to attempt to discuss a spectrum in which we may consider the statements of those who call themselves prophets. I wrote earlier that the scriptures are valuable for making these assessments. I believe it is necessary to discuss this as a subject in itself with respect to would-be prophets.
A few simple, perhaps troublingly simple, guidelines may be proposed. The first is that the scriptures are the common gift of all the Lord's people and this means that we must be informed by the scriptures first before we attempt to convince ourselves we play any kind of prophetic or corrective role toward other Christians. We must be sufficiently immersed in the scriptures that we reflexively think in terms of what they say.
This is not something where I advocate rote memorization of Bible passages. In fact a person apt to memorize isolated biblical passages is probably more rather than less likely to be apt to both abuse scripture and to, dare I say it, fancy himself or herself a prophet without cause. It is far better to know the scriptures not like a series of salient proof texts or life verses that can be memorized like schematics for a building or checklists. It is better to know the scriptures the way you know the lyrics and guitar riffs and chord changes to one of your favorite songs. Have you ever spent time with someone who is not a musician but loves a song utterly? He can sing all the words, knows all the melodies, can even vocally replicate parts of drum fills and bass lines and, if you are a musician yourself, you can hear how he imitates the tiniest gestures on the high hat or even changes in the tone of the guitar or bass line. Though he may not be a musician himself this person knows the song intimately. In the same way, whether or not you or I know all the ins and outs of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and the like we are urged by the scriptures themselves to know them like a favorite song.
This immersion will do two things, it will imprint within us the Lord to whom the scriptures point and will shape our imaginations to think and feel within the categories of scripture. Of course false prophets have an ability to misinterpret and distort scripture so even here this is no certainty that things won't go awry. My opening with a passage from proverbs is strategic because the more I have reflected on proverbs and seen how Christians use Proverbs the more I have realized that proverbs are emblematic of how scripture can be abused. It is easy to cite a proverb as a "rule for life" as though the proverb is a law or a promise/law that ensures that if you follow it then God will give this, that or the other thing you want.
One of the things that we Protestants can "sometimes" be embarrassed about, depending on our roots (yeah, yeah, savor the irony and all that those of you who get the irony) is that there are schools of thought about interpreting scripture that can go unexamined. I have made it clear here that I am not a dispensationalist/futurist in my approach to scripture. I also have concluded that it is wisest to reject both premillenialism and postmillenialism. Why? Well, I could get into various complex reasons as to why but the simplest reason is that these are interpretive grids which lead to a particular generational temptation that is present in almost nay generation, the temptation to, however you splice it, to see in the scriptures a secret message for me that, thanks to my wisdom, allows me to interpret the signs of the times.
What do I mean? Well, I would hope it would be obvious but I will say, briefly, that Hal Lindsey types fall prey to this mistake. Harold Camping falls prey to this mistake. What is given as a gift to all Christians across space and time is transformed into a Bible code book that allows a man to make a profit off of religion in a way that lets him part people with their money on codes and timelines that warn of doom for those who don't subscribe to the timeline. But that is a systemic thing. Theoretically if one bears in mind that the scriptures are God's gift through the inspiration of the Spirit for all of us then we should be humble enough to recognize that the mystery of our faith has been given to all who put their faith in Christ. There is no special code or special insert in my Bible compared to the Bible received by Luther or Augustine or Jerome or Athanasius or Wesley.
Clearly even I don't have time to discuss all the details of how one ought to interpret scripture at every single point with respect to understanding prophetic activity. I do suggest that the more we let scripture inform us and submit our understanding to the scriptures (rather than the other way around) the less likely we may be to stray.
And one of the ways in which we may be tempted to stray is in the over-interpretation of dreams. A person once told me without batting an eye lash that the Holy Spirit visited her in the form of a spider. Now the scriptures, which I just mentioned we should let shape our imaginations (more or less) do not anywhere attest to the Spirit taking the form of a spider. The Spirit is described as being like a rushing wind whose movements we cannot perceive or contain. The Spirit is described as descending on the Lord Jesus in the form of a dove. The Spirit is also described as descending in what appeared to be divided tongues of fire.
This is to point out the obvious, that where the scriptures speak to the manner and likeness of how the Lord may appear it should serve as a hedge against dreams in which we might suppose the Lord appears in some way that has no testimony in scripture. A person who declares the Spirit came to him in a dream in the form of a spider will be completely convinced he has been visited by God but if this person has really saturated himself in the scriptures he will bear in mind that this is not normative imagery. The renewal of the mind we are admonished to by scriptures would, I suggest, preclude the possibility of taking seriously that the Spirit would visit me in the form of a spider. Feeling great spiritual experiences or having dreams that "feel" like spiritually significant dreams will not make those experiences so.
Now I have not at any point said spiritual dreams don't happen. I know a fellow who had a dream of being in a demon infested house at the age of eleven, At the end of the dream he heard a voice that assured him of God's love despite where he was. At the age of sixteen the boy ended up in the house that he dreamed about at the age of eleven and it was not a pleasant experience but he got through it. As I mentioned earlier in this series, dreams that are really from the Lord do not necessarily give us the power to avert the disaster or trial warned about in the dream but they do allow us to face the trial with an understanding that this, too, is from the Lord. So the person I know who had this dream could at least tentatively say that the nature and role of the dream, though perhaps not automatically one we should presume was given by God, did not, at any rate, flatly contradict the nature of dreams given by the Lord in scripture either in nature or use with respect to the conduct of an individual believer. What the dream revealed came to pass.
Now one could equally propose, perhaps, that the dream was a kind of deja vu created in a stressful moment and that the dream was a confused false memory. Well, I grant that might be possible. I can't entirely rule it out. A more compelling reason to wonder if the dream had any spiritual or prophetic role is simply that the person who had the dream is of no particular significance to any local or regional church. It may well have been from the Lord but it is still, even if it were such a dream, not so important that detailing everything about the man who had itor what it might have meant is of any significance. I mention it only because I know of at least one possible case in which the Lord may have given a person a dream that helped him remember to trust in God's providence despite some discouraging and unpleasant circumstances. So far as that goes I would propose that though it may not be confirmed as from the Lord it is at least not antithetical in content or purpose to those dreams described in scripture.
I have not attempted to be exhaustive here in describing how scripture can be a check as well as a guide for the imagination of someone who proposes to be a prophet or have spiritual insight. I concluded after my last entry in this project that I needed to at least share some anecdotal but not entirely useless examples of what I'm trying to get at. I disagree with John MacArthur's overall handling of Pentecostal and charismatic teaching with respect to the activity of the Spirit. Many cessationists are as self-serving in imagining that they are the spiritual varsity for their cessationism as charismatic/Pentecostals imagine they are spiritual varsity for speaking in tongues or getting slain in the Spirit. These reactionary poles are not, I propose, what we as Christians are actually called to where life in the Spirit is concerned. As I am not a professional theologian or biblical scholar I can't provide more than a tentative outline as to what a healthy, scripturally informed and historically Christian path may be. I have had just enough first-hand and second-hand experience with what it is not that I feel I can at least broach the subject of how Christians distort and misuse what is considered a "prophetic" role in a Christian community.
Per chris e.'s earlier comment, yes, I agree that there is a spectrum rather than a polarity to consider. This is why I consider Carl Trueman's thoughts about the nature of pastoral calling to be parallel to and intertwined with concerns about the nature of prophecy and spiritual discernment among Christians. We do not have to deny that it is possible the Lord will speak to us but it is problematic if we insist that God must speak to us.
At the risk of grossly simplifying a topic over against those who claim prophetic gifts we should remember that Paul wrote that spiritual gifts and offices are for the edification of God's people, not those who hold the offices. Scripture widely attests the Lord's disapproval and judgment of those who use spiritual offices and gifts merely to bless themselves and not also serve the Lord's people. One of the gravest misconceptions we can have is that these two aims are mutually exclusive, just as it is a grave misconception to imagine that merely one or the other is all there is to such a role. David clearly benefited and prospered while the appointed messiah for God's people. It would be wrong to suppose David did not benefit from his role or that it was wrong from him to seek prosperity within that role. A starving king cannot adjudicate issues among the people anymore than a starving prophet can be much focused on speaking of God's will to His people.
Perhaps by way of closing this series I can refer to the prophet Jeremiah. The prophet said things from the Lord regarding judgment. There were those who were outraged at this activity and sought to stone him. Some of the older nobles of the land remembered, however, that there was a prophet who spoke earlier and in a similar way and that those things came to pass. They urged the people of Judah to consider that perhaps there was something to this.
This is not to say that every time someone claims "fresh fire" we should pay attention to them, far from it. This is to suggest that when there is a real possibility that the Lord is providentially speaking through someone in a prophetic role the Spirit attesting within the hearts of God's people (and not just formal leadership, though ideally that, too, will happen) will speak to its reliability. If you think you have a prophetic gift and spiritual insights and not a single Christian who confesses Father, Son and Spirit and Christ risen from the dead who forgives sins agrees with your spiritual observations you may be on a wrong path.
People commenting on the internet don't count. People who are in some way under your authority don't count. A parent who conceives himself or herself to have a spiritual gift can't expect to get any backup from children because children can't vet one's spiritual authority since they are enjoined to submit and honor parents. A kid might question your spiritual discernment or authority with cause for all we know. People who are entirely in your camp on eschatology should not be counted, either. Why, well because you don't know that your prophet, even if a real prophet, doesn't have some unexamined sin in his or her heart. Jonah was still a sinner despite his eventual obedience to the Lord. Jonah's success lay in his failure, as he saw it. He predicted the devastation of Ninevah and yet God spared the city within Jonah's life. God also spared Ahab. If a person appointed as a prophet forgets that the Lord's goal is to inspire repentance and not justify the destruction of others merely so a prophet can look good then one has gone down the wrong path even if one is genuinely appointed by the Lord to a prophetic role.
So let me get specific, perhaps specific in ways some folks may not enjoy. People can be considered prophets by certain Christians selectively and with certain agendas in hand. R. L. Dabney can be called a prophet by home-schoolers who say he reliably predicted the inevitable secularization of the United States through public schools. They are much less apt to cite Dabney's objection that public schools would turn Negro children into more skilled criminals, which was about all Negro children were good for anyway. Premillenialists who think that Obama is the Obamination of Desolation won't want to hear even the name Antiochus Epiphanes because that would mess with their prophetic mojo. People busy assuming that number of the beast must refer to someone alive today won't want to hear how all the variant renderings of the number add up to Nero.
In all of these cases the error is relatively simple to distill, national and cultural agendas got conflated with the will of God in ways that distorted the character of the Lord. As many American Christians have asked, what is America's role in the end times? To that we can answer with Psalm 2. Rather than subject the scriptures to our individual "prophetic" imaginations we must continually challenge ourselves with the testimony of scripture and the lives of saints before us to consider both how we and they err. As Jesus warned his adversaries, they searched the scriptures and failed to see the scriptures pointed to Him. We can err completely in understanding what the scriptures point to if we go it alone. I don't want to digress on to the subject of the Christian amidst God's people at this point and will save that for some other post.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Carl Trueman: Some Questions and Thoughts on Ministerial Calls

Driscoll used to say that this reflects the mentality of calling those who are trained where as he advocates training the called. What this distinction still fails to establish is on what basis a calling may be considered legitimate among those who claim, without training, to be called.

If any ambitious 20-something guy declares God told him to plant a church then on what basis does one make certain the Lord, and not the man's own ego, has brought this about? The answer is that there isn't much of an answer, is there? Arguably no man in his 20s is even fit to be a pastor but it's certainly too late for Driscoll to go back and re-live his life. He can't go back and choose to be the breadwinner and sacrifice his church plant so that Grace isn't the breadwinner. He can't go back and apprentice with older pastors in a church setting or submit in membership to other elders.

By the same measure, it becomes impossible to say of a pastor present or former that the person is qualified to be a pastor simply due to an internal call. A man could be elevated to a pastoral position because, official reasoning goes, he is "humble" and therefore gets exalted. But what if "humble" simply means "agrees with the executive leadership?" I'm not saying real humility wouldn't be involved on the part of the candidate, just that it would be immaterial to the decision of a leadership team that define humility in terms of agreement. There are some parents who consider "honor your father and mother" to mean total agreement with them on any given subject of conversation. A pastor might say this is an abuse of parental authority and then blithely turn around and say that due to God's appointment of him as an authority in one's life ... . Thus the pastor who criticizes the perceived abuses of the parental relationship and parental authority ends up doing precisely what he criticized. And here we are back at Romans 2 all over again, aren't we?

Of course I have written elsewhere about the conundrum as it applies to a specific church, if a church trains the called and the called are self-appointed then of necessity the self-appointeds all agree on their self-appointment. What becomes the methodological basis upon which one's self-defined internal calling becomes questioned by others who have been called in precisely, for the sake of argument, the same way? If God told pastor X to be a pastor and God laid it on pastor Y's heart does pastor X get to pull rank on pastor Y because pastor Y used more passive language about the nature of God's calling? I don't have answers and I'm not so post-modernist as to do that stupid thing where "just asking some questions" is rhetorically considered to be answering the questions by reflexively asking them. I may not be at Mars Hill anymore but I've never been into that other Mars Hill.

Mockingbird: Suicide Paradoxes and the role of expectation

One of the things Roy Baumeister said several years ago I have been wanting to write about for some time is that the paradoxical necessity of men in the creation and transmission of culture is their disposability. He bluntly put it this way, if half the men of a generation died there would still be enough penises left to impregnate the rest of the female population and ensure another generation. If half of the wombs in a generation died the human race in a region is in considerably greater peril. Men, he pointed out, are historically likely to form broad but shallow social networks and to commit to unusually high risk/high payoff ventures, most of which fail. Males, broadly speaking, band together in the constant and often unsuccessful contest to obtain glory.

As noted over at the Freakonomics website

... For men and women, being unmarried, widowed, or divorced increases the risk. The most typical suicide is a man 75 or older. But in that age bracket, where a lot of people are dying from a lot of things, suicide isn’t even a top 10 cause of death. For people from ages 25 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. And it’s in the top five for all Americans from ages 15 to 54. In terms of timing, suicide peaks on Mondays

The beginning of the work week, right?

WRAY: So, yes the inner mountain west is a place that is disproportionately populated by middle-aged and aging white men, single, unattached, often unemployed with access to guns. This may turn out to be a very powerful explanation and explain a lot of the variance that we observe. It’s backed up by the fact that the one state that is on par with what we see in the suicide belt is Alaska.

DUBNER: All right, so now you can get a picture of the American who’s most likely to kill himself: an older, white male who owns a gun, probably unmarried and maybe unemployed, living somewhere out west, probably in a rural area. Now, don’t you want to know: where aren’t people killing themselves?

These are men who have discovered, if I may hazard a guess, that they are disposable to society. An answer to this crisis of meaning would not be solved by a self-help statement, or even an affirmation of one's great value in the abstract. Christians who propose to such men "You are loved by God" will be saying something meaningless if it is not backed up by the flesh and blood love that gives proof to the abstraction affirmation of the value of the person.

Whites are more likely to commit suicide than blacks. Quite a bit more, it seems. White men from relatively affluent backgrounds are more likely to kill themselves than women from comparable backgrounds. The crisis, to hazard a guess, is an existential one in which a man discovers how disposable he really is to the society he has tried to be part of. If one lives in a much poorer region or society in which infant mortality is high or death is simply a normal risk of life there is no commensurate crisis of personal meaning or value in society because, well, you could kick off at any time due to an illness or a war or starvation.

DUBNER: “As soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to him life.”
HAMERMESH: Exactly. Well, that’s just an economic statement. You’re weighing the benefits on one side of the equation, the costs of the other. If the costs exceed the benefits, you chop off the investment.

This is not to say i'm endorsing suicide or that any of the above are but it is an interesting proposal and it seems to have a ring of truth to it. When i consider the suicides in Scripture, most particularly those of Samson, King Saul, Ahithophel, and Judas I see men who rose to a particular level within their culture, frequently to the top or very near the top of their social unit. Then they made a mistake, a huge mistake which could be described as either an irreversible decision or as an irremediable character flaw or both. Samson's dim-witted horniness led him to marry a Phillistine and compromise the national security of the people he was pledged to protect. King Saul was forsaken by the Lord for attempting to conflate kingly and priestly roles and chose suicide over death at the hands of the Phillistines who defeated him. Ahithophel sided with an insurrection against king David as retaliation for what David had done to his descendent Bathsheba and to Uriah the Hittite, one of his in-laws. Judas, well, we don't really have to get too detailed about the same of betraying Jesus now, do we?

What is a common thread in each of these suicides described in scripture is that men who had a substantial role or at least the potential for a substantial role in society failed. They saw that their own lives did not measure up to what they either expected of themselves or what they realized was expected of them. Death before dishonor. But at another level these men could see that they had through their decisions rendered themselves disposable. Samson's hope in the end was that with his own death hundreds or thousands of Phillistines might still die with him. Saul killed himself knowing that Samuel had annointed another man king. He was utterly forsaken by God and left to die on the battlefield. For a man in despair about his circumstances and having seen his sons die he saw at the bitterest level that he was disposable. God had appointed someone else to rule in his place and at that point Saul decided that ending his life was the only decision to be made if the alternatives were death at the hands of the Phillistines or life deposed from the throne and with David on the throne. Ahithophel saw his advice was not followed by Absalom and went and killed himself. At that moment he knew what Absalom's fate would be and realizing he had betrayed king David and that Absalom had no chance of success ended his life.

Obviously for thousands of years people have discussed suicide, its motives, its reasons, its effects and the like. Christians generally have agreed that suicide is wrong. I agree with all the reasons you would suspect would be brought forth. And yet Samson was considered a hero of the faith. Some even go so far as to insist that we cannot even say that Samson killed himself. Samson's suicide/genocidal gesture at the end of his life is recast as an act of war and not just a suicide. Why? Because we want to insist that Samson's act not be viewed as a suicide due to a theological preconception that suicide is, say, an unpardonable sin. If it were, however, then how could the author of Hebrews say Samson was a hero of the faith in Hebrews 11? Samson could have and should have chosen to not commit suicide but to go out like a man killing as many Phillistines as possible before they killed him, not taking the sissy route of killing himself. If you don't catch which sorts of theological positions I'm making sarcastic quips about never mind them.

My main point here is that if we try to sidestep Samson's suicide we are deliberately ignoring the prayer "Let me die with the Phillistines" to ensure our systematic theological ducks are all in a row. We could say that in the annals of scripture those who commit suicide have come under disciplinary action by the Lord without necessarily assuming, as some are want to do, that this indicates the person who commits suicide cannot possibly have been a real Christian.

What is more by making such a move the risk we make may not be worth it--we may decide or presume that the man or woman who kills himself has done so out of selfishness when the decision may be based on a sense of failure and a realization of the disposability of one's own life. If it is always wrong for a man to make a decision in which the outcome of death is better than a dishonor then what do we say of those who chose martyrdom rather than renounce Christ?

There was a man who committed suicide at Mars Hill years ago. I never really knew him well but he seemed on the few occasions that I had spent time with him to be rather withdrawn, even morose. People were shocked at his decision and dismayed and this I can understand, but I also got the impression that when the death was done that lives were going to go on. As sad as it is to make this observation, in a megachurch that has talked a lot about community the man's suicide left hardly more than a few ripples.

If suicide can be said to be motivated by a man's realization of his disposability within a society then, unfortunately, it would appear that the suicide was undertaken with an accurate realization. This is the part we can object to but must concede is unfortunately true, those who kill themselves are taking themselves out of a society which will forget them. Let us not forget the grim observation of Koholeth in Ecclesiastes that even the great men who accomplish great things and do much good will be forgotten within a generation after his death. How much more the man who is considered for a short time only after he has chosen to end his life?

Though I stand by my observation that in scripture those who commit suicide were under disciplinary actions from the Lord I do not wish to presume this indicated damnation automatically in every case. But today I go a bit further and suggest that the suicides in scripture were committed, as I have been saying, by men confronted with a combination of the shame of their own failures as they perceive them coupled with the realization of their disposability within the community in which they lived.

Consider Saul, his male heirs were dead. His daughter could not inherit the throne, could she? His appointed successor had even gone off to the land of the Phillistines and was, so far as Saul could perceive, preparing to take down Israel and claim the throne for himself. God Himself had rejected him at every turn. If you were in Saul's position would you have considered suicide to be the lesser failure than being killed by Phillistines in battle? Would you have considered a platitude such as "repent and God will restore you?" Restore you to what?

It is here useful to borrow an observation from Adolph Schlatter regarding the Christian message presented through Paul. Paul observes that the human heart is incapable in itself of repentance and that Paul's good news was not to be seen strictly in terms of his being a "preacher of repentance". Preachers and theologians who insist on a preaching of repentance are not, I suggest, necessarily all wrong to preach this but there is another sense in which if you insist from the pulpit that people do what they are unable to do then what have you achieved?

A peson who struggles with the question of whether or not to continue living who is told that those who commit suicide are selfish and will incur the Lord's judgment are not likely to take from this declaration the observation that they should just not kill themselves because they have a chance to repent. They likely already see themselves both as failures and as those in some sense forsaken by God. If you tell a man contemplating suicide that if he goes through with it that he will incur God's judgment he may internally reply by way of his attempt that he considers himself stricken by God already. And doesn't Ecclesiastes warn us that it is possible God may bless a man with immense possessions but not give him the capacity to enjoy those things? As Koholeth put it, there is nothing new under the sun.

I've already been putting this all in potentially polemically terms. You or I could say that the man who commits suicide has selfishly decided his life doesn't measure up to the greatness he expected for it and would rather end life on his own terms than go through shame and failure. But could it not be also said in reply that the man who commits suicide feels a judgment within himself from you and I that nothing he does will matter enough to make us miss him when he is gone or to make him anything less than a disposable man to us even while he lives? Our judgment that he is a failure for having taken his life may be as much a part of his decision as our belief that he undertook this destruction of self out of a selfish sense of unrealized entitlement. It may not simply be his own wish for more meaning that spurs his action.

Remember that those men who killed themselves in the Scriptures were those who faced the prospect of living with a shame for which society would never forgive them. We should be careful to avoid a judgment on the man who kills himself as thinking too much of himself when it may also be our propensity to deem him superfluous that his act of suicide paradoxically recognizes. It may not be his own dreams of meaning and greatness thwarted that leads him to this but his realization that he ultimately cannot ever fulfill those things required of him. The judgment is internal, yes, but the criteria can be as external as internal.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

false prophets and mental illness

Many scholars and commentators over the last few centuries have proposed that King Saul was mentally ill. The parlance of biblical language would say he was not a believer and was also afflicted by a tormenting spirit from the Lord. That "could" be taken up to a certain point, either the part about mental illness or that the tormenting spirit from the Lord must be taken in a most literalistic way. But Paul referred to a messenger from Satan to buffet him and prevent him from being too proud of the revelations he witnessed, and many scholars (as I've noted elsewhere) seem to suggest this was a problem of the eyes. Then there is the book of Job, which reminds us that even Satan is a satan who is constrained by the power and will of God.
Take a stroll through the prophets and the Torah and you'll find a discussion of how false prophets prophecy of themselves or from malign spirits. There is relatively little discussion as to how one may discern this, that, or the other. The assumption on the part of many Christians who have no practical experience with these matters (and who, let's face it, frequently have theological prisms like cessationism that preclude even the possibility of practical experience) is that any false prophet must be an unbeliever or a heretic or speaking through demons.
But notice that the scriptures do not actually say that a false prophet would automatically be an unbeliever. As commonly as we would (and usually should) adduce this it is not a given. False prophecy is, where the name of the Lord is concerned, a sin that is only possible for those who identify themselves as the Lord's. A false prophet who accurately predicts something in the name of Ba'al or in the name of the Lord but suggests also worshipping Ba'al is still a false prphet. Now false prophets may really be idolatrous apostates, schismatics, and all that but let's note for sake of discussion that this propensity to encourage polytheistic worship is a second test. The first test is simply whether or not the predictions said in the name of the Lord come true.
And it is this first test which does not specifiy that the false prophet is an unbeliever or a believer. Having been to a few charismatic or Pentecostal churches over the years I have sometimes run into self-described prophets who have made predictions that have not come to pass. One predicted the demise of the state of California that would occur in 1997 due to its sin, which I have mentioned several times here in the past. Others predicted disaster because of some sin or another. Many of those identified Christians who have made predictions that have not come to pass are easily discussed and researched on the internet or in books. They frequently become the subject of mockery by those Christians or non-Christians who assume that the people are either not Christians at all or who are just promoting snake-oil ideas in the service of particular goals.
But not all people who claim to have spiritual insights are self-described prophets or seers who aspire to some massive national or regional spotlight. Some people who believe they have spiritual insights are simply insane to one degree or another. I have a friend who was once a charismatic Christian who is now an atheist. He told me once that he looks back on the spiritual experiences he had as a charismatic as symptoms of the manic stage of bipolar disorder. He thought he was having riveting spiritual experiences but now considers them to have been signs of an imbalance in his brain's chemistry. While I do not say that spiritual experiences either have no value or merely reflect activity in the brain with respect to what the scriptures say about the self-deluding nature of false prophecy and false prophets I think there is something to the observation that warrants discussion.
I am not interested in merely being abstract here. It is possible for a man or a woman to consider herself to have the gift of discernment of spirits. Such a person may perceive someone who has hurt them as being motivated by a demonic influence, however literally one may wish to define that demonic influence. A person who believes he or she is receiving messages from God may only be perceiving things created in his or her brain. It is possible that a person may be perceiving things due to some kind of demonic influence but at this point Christians must step back and consider a few things.
First and foremost is that if a person claims Jesus is both man and God the Son, sent by the Father, and that God is a Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit then this person making a false prophecy is less likely to be, strictly speaking, a heretic. If the person making a wrong prediction or statement believes Christ is bodily risen from death and reigns at the right hand of the Father we are not talking about someone who is, however delusional he or she may be, a total non-believer. The person may be suffering from a malady of some sort but has not professed views about Christ that put him or her outside the faith altogether.
But what if a person checks off all the doctrines that it is good, proper and necessary to affirm for a Christian faith and still declares that God is telling him that so and so has demons? Well, if the would-be prophet is not even observing in real time the person about whom he is speaking then there is no basis for taking the claims seriously unless there is a way to establish the veracity of the statements.
Now I'm going to get more particular. We live in the era of social media, which means that a Christian who is mentally ill can have a massive double-pronged failure of sanity by way of a confirmation bias and a backfire effect. He looks at the internet, finds whatever may confirm his own ideas about himself as a prophet, and considers any evidence contrary to this confirmation to be a satanic attack. Once a person suppose himself to be a prophet then all the evidence on earth will not dissuade him. Thanks to the internet a self-described prophet can imagine that he or she is able to go on MySpace or Facebook or set up their own website and speak what they believe God is telling them. Any contrary evidence is ignored or co-opted as evidence. What you or I may say is a sign of completely delusional thought and behavior is reflected back within the self of a self-appointed prophet as proof of a spiritual gift or superpower.
To the extent that I have sympathy for cessationists is it because they prefer to assume anyone today who speaks of a prophetic gifting or gift of discernment is probably self-deluded. The reality is that this functionally becomes a double standard in which one is a deist in practical living while claiming that God is there and speaks. The way a double standard can often manifest is to say that God speaks to me while you are making things up out of your own wish fulfillment. For instance, if some crazy person talks about spiritual discernment privately and imagines the ability to discern this or that how is this to be distinguished from some preacher getting up in front of thousands and blithely speaking about how God told him to be a pastor and marry so-and-so and plant a church? What is the litmus test by which that pastor can say he was totally hearing from God while the crazy lady is the crazy lady? You see by the measure of Romans 2 a preacher who claims "God told me to do exactly this" is not necessarily less guilty of using the name of the Lord to justify his activities than the crazy bag lady who imagines God has told her she alone has been appointed to stop nuclear war. As I shall get to after some length, delusions of grandeur and disaffection are sins that even true prophets of the Lord can be very guilty of.
There are those who decide that this question must be answered by saying that both people are self-obsessed lunatics. The trouble with this glib reply is that it is frequently made by the kind of man who is himself as narcissistic as those who would criticize and it becomes the pot calling the kettle black. There is no reason one conviction of personal greatness is more substantial than another. "Bad, bad" says the man in the market but afterward he boasts about his bargain. We consider something to be someone else's trash until we possess it and then we boast about it.
The crazy person is distinguished from a real prophet by ... what? Making accurate predictions? No, because all kinds of false prophets could do that? By having keen insight into things as they are that normal people could not perceive? No, because non-Christian prophets and false prophets could still have that. That a false prophet will somehow deny that Jesus is Lord? Well ... no because many cults that arose in the last two centuries did not necessarily take place in groups where trinitarianism was rejected. Millenialist views were, however, often a leading indicator of going off the rails in my survey of how different damaging predictions on behalf of the Lord have been made. A false prophet is more likely to be a premillenialist wrongly predicting the Second Coming of Christ or a postmillenialist imagining that a good Christian ought to side with the Confederacy or the Union as the way to promote a Christian society rather than some obviously "pagan" person who just says that in 1945 some evil man will be defeated.
Notice I'm not saying that premillenialist or postmillenialism automatically makes one a false prophet but that the conflation of nationalist or ethnic concerns, let alone individual concerns, with the fate of the whole of God's people is going to be a pretty strong leading indicator that a would-be prophetic statement has some problems in it. An individual who imagines that he or she has a special direct line to the Holy Spirit is in danger of a category mistake from jump. The mistake is that you or I matter so much that all the Christians in our orbit had better listen to us because of the keen spiritual observations and insights we have. That is not and never has been the goal of a real prophet. The prophet was not someone raised up to deliver "new" revelation so much as to call God's people back to the revelation established, to properly interpret it in a given time, and to reveal God's will for God's people as God's people.
The false prophet, whether through genuine spiritual malice or the delusions of mental disorder or some kind or another, will often mistakenly believe that his or her mission consists of having a weighty, glorious responsibility to challenge others with his or her capacity for spiritual insight and judgment. Even Elijah, arguably the greatest of all the prophets, had problems with things needing to be about him.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers."
When Elijah realized he had run in fear from Jezebel, the real power behind the throne, we see him say to the Lord that he wished he were dead. If even a man truly called by the Lord to be a prophet can see a sinful disposition in himself about his divine calling how much more will someone who is not so clearly called by the Lord to a prophetic gifting have a problem with delusions of grandeur? A person who believes he or she is called a prophet may have been told this by other Christians or convinced himself of it over time. To put it in sociologicals, to appoint one's self a prophet or be appointed a prophet is to have a social role within God's people. The false prophet was appointed to this in some way in a way that is not necessarily different from that of a true prophet of the Lord. That this was at least possible, not to say inevitable, can be inferred by the presence of true and false prophets within the circle of the royal court.
I have made no secret that I think many Christians take the Lord's name in ways that constitute a kind of communally sanctified blasphemy. The man who says "I've prayed about it and God told me to marry your daughter" is merely one example. "God is on our side in this conflict" can often be another. Jesus said that those who would kill the apostles would be certain they were doing God a favor. Jesus Himself was killed for not being the kind of messiah many of his followers wanted Him to be. Jesus was a prophet and more than a prophet and He was a prophet who challenged the agendas and convictions of His own people.
Yet another observation should be made with respect to would-be Christian prophets, Caiaphus was high priest and prophesied that it was better for one man to die than the whole nation. This does not mean the high priest was not speaking prophetically through the power of the Spirit working through him. But King Saul, too, prophesied and was ultimately stricken by the Lord. This is something that those who would claim to be the Lord's prophets must remember with a great deal of holy fear.
Even if your spiritual insights are right and you are convinced of your own rightness this does not mean that the Lord may not ultimately lead you into judgment and find you guilty of prophesying rightly without truly knowing the heart of Christ. Christ shall say at the end of days to those who reply, "Lord, did we not cast out demons and heal the sick in your name?", "Depart from me you evil-doers. I never knew you." If it is better to not to aspire to be a teacher because those of us who teach will be judged more strictly how much more is it wise to not aspire or presume to be prophets and so invite judgment from the Lord as men and women who take the Lord's name in vain and make Him out to be a liar through our false prophetic observations?
And yet we must also consider, since mental illness does happen, that not all those who have spiritual delusions are necessarily possessed by a devil. There are points where we should consider compassion and prayer for those who are delusional if they will accept the stern kindness of helping them through their delusions. There are probably few things so humbling as admitting to yourself and others that you are not of sound mind and body; that you are emotionally and mentally unstable.
I have lived long enough that I have seen people I have known spiral down into complete madness and this madness is all the sadder seeing that in their own minds they are keenly insightful Christians who have pierced through the veil of the devil's reality to see things as they are. Nothing of the sort has been true. These Christians believe they are persecuted by false Christians while themselves refusing to confess sin or to concede that perhaps their divine appointment as seer is not as genuine as they want it to be. There are times when there is a temptation to assume other people are crazy rather than to admit to yourself you might be crazy. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
I do not hesitate that there are some Christians for whom the most pernicious temptation may not be sex or drugs or rock and roll but the temptation to say in your heart "God has appointed me to be a prophet!" or even "God has appointed me to be a pastor." Why? Matt Chandler's warning to seminarians applies here, if you aspire to be a next Billy Graham because some old lady told you that you can go there get out of the work now. If you want to be the next Mark Driscoll then for the love of God quit while you're behind.
One of the most important decisions I made was to not waste time or money on seminary once I realized that the Lord had raised up perfectly good men, better men than I, to do the things I had ambitions to do. I grew up in a church setting (Pentecostal) where it was not unheard of to be told you had a spiritual gift like prophecy or spiritual discernment. I am not comfortable saying I have these kinds of gifts now. It is not for me to simply conclude this or that or to wait on nebulous feelings from the Lord about what is or isn't my role within Christ's Church. In fact the further away from myself I can point the better I shall feel I am doing as a disciple of Christ. He, after all, must become greater and greater and I must become less and less.
It is better to be a nobody following Christ than to be a great spiritual prophet in your own mind and to be self-deceived. There was a prophet who struck another prophet and said "When did the Spirit of God pass from me to you that you're saying these things?" The terrible reality about false prophets is that in their own self-deluded minds they speak truly. They can even be, by ever normal metric of Christian doctrines, practicing Christians who are on the same team. The reason we must be fearful about false prophecy and false prophets is that any of us could be one of them, you, me, anyone.
I have tentatively observed that those most susceptible to the delusion of grandeur that one is a prophet is often a person who feels marginalized in some way. I don't say this to say that all prophets automatically are this way and that it's a problem. It is true that prophets were often outside the beltway but many of the prophets went from being nomads to royal advisers (Gad, for instance, with David). It is also true that some prophets had substantially important roles in society, like Isaiah. Others, like Amos, were not even identified as prophets by profession. But self-appointed and self-described prophets are often those who, say, have trouble keeping down a job. They can often be people who have had huge ambitions that have gone unrealized in worldly terms. They have wanted things they have not obtained and in some sense their discontent can be transsubstantiated from a desire for worldly things to playing a prophetic role of some kind.
The person who imagines he or she is a prophet needs the gentle correction of a man or woman who is bitter about being unmarried or being in a miserable marriage or waiting for the Lord's return. Godliness with contentment is great gain. Many a false prophet embraces the delusional calling out of dissatisfaction, it seems, with the actual bride of Christ. We embrace a delusion of grandeur out of discontent with the course of our own life. We do not wish to believe, as the scriptures tell us, that it is truly better to be a living dog than a dead lion.
This is why I consider many stories like Mel Gibson's Braveheart to be stories that promote what is ultimately an un-Christian conceit. Now freedom is a great thing to be enjoyed and the scriptures teach us that in Christ we are given freedom but it is not a freedom to be used merely to build ourselves up. It is the failure to perceive this freedom in service to others and not just ourselves that false prophets often forget. A prophet may get caught up in identification of one's own benefit and one's group benefit at the expense of those to whom the Lord has called him. This was, of course, Jonah's mistake. Even a true prophet of the Lord can be mistaken in both his motives and methods in being obedient to the will of God. Jonah obeyed and was angry with God but it was better for Jonah to be angry with God and yet be obedient, eventually, than to be content in what he considered his calling and treasuing his keen spiritual insight and trusting God had truly appointed him to tell Israel everything was going to be fine and no exile would happen.
This is a rambling and unfocused document for a reason. I have seen too much, almost firsthand, of people who could be described as Christians descending into madness while firmly in the belief that they are people with the gift of prophecy. They are convinced of the rightness of their insights no matter how wildly inaccurate their statements are. They hold firm to the rightness of their judgments even when they are revealed time and again to be inaccurate. Even when presented with the reality that they actually have some substantial character issues to work out they consider this not to be warnings from fellow believers about weaknesses to be taken to the Lord and fellow Christians; they instead consider these the persecutions and judgments of those who are not truly in touch with the Spirit.
I trust this far into the series you shall appreciate why I referred to the backfire effect, why I have spoken at such length about the general meaninglessness of dreams and the consistently dismissive tone scriptures take toward dreams as a normally legitimate means of prophetic communicati0n. It is legitimate at some times but in many cases it could merely be a sign of an undiagnosed sleeping disorder that sometimes has spiritual content. I am, of course, not dismissing that God may speak through dreams but certainly after thirty years of untreated sleeping disorders I would now say many dreams I was certain had deep spiritual significance were not as spiritually significance as I imagined.
The word of the Lord, however, remains and this, far from being a humiliating or disastrous discovery for me, is an absolute relief and a source of hope. I am grateful that I do not have to rely on dreams or spiritual insights gleaned by reading between the lines of headlines or articles or random conversations to know that Christ is disposed toward me. I also have no need to consider myself the one silver thread connecting God to His otherwise disobedient people.
When Elijah declared that he alone was serving the Lord what did the Lord say? The Lord revealed that He would leave 7,000 in Israel alive who had not bowed to Ba'al or kissed him. Were these men utterly blameless? No, but neither was Elijah, who had earlier recognized that he was not better than his ancestors. God corrects Elijah's conviction that only he of all Israel had any regard for the Lord. If even Elijah had to be corrected on this point how much more do we who share in the Spirit of Christ now need this correction, to be reminded when we would imagine ourselves to be lonely prophets speaking against all the apostates that there are, in fact, plenty of those who love Christ around us? If I were to describe the temptation of the false prophet, whether by mental illness or by divination or any kind within Christian ranks, the temptation is one of discontent and a desire to be "needed".
When Elijah said he alone regarded the Lord was he not saying that without him the Lord would have no one in all Israel who regarded Him? What is true for a real prophet will not be less true for a false one. We who have ever been tempted to imagine we are prophets or have prophetic gifts of any kind have all been tempted to imagine we are necessary. I am not unaware of the deep need to be needed and have plenty of things to say about that.
Yet what we as Christians need more than being "needed" by God is to recognize that we are loved by God and that this does not necessarily show itself forth in the spiritual super powers we think we have or want to have; it is not necessarily shown forth in the things we yearn for that God has not given us. After all, the Lord is my shepherd and I shall lack no good thing. Christ Himself said the Father knows what we need. We do not need to be prophets, we need the love of God and neighbor. Not an ideologically or theologicall manufactured construct of "community" that is so popular in so many branches of Christianity in America today, the flesh and blood love of flesh and blood brothers and sisters in Christ.
The love of God is frequently shown to us in ways we may well consider too humiliating and it is in so many ways a truly humble life that a person who conceives of himself or herself as a prophet will bristle at. If possible trust in the Lord at all times and do not lean on your own understanding. The heart is deceitful above all things and who can understand it? Paul wrote that the foolishness of God is better than the wisdom of men and for those of us who in our wisdom think we should be able to speak for God we may find the Lord disciplines us in this hour by letting us descend into madness. Jesus is the true prophet so that you do not need to be. and if you consider the greatness of what Christ in His love accomplished for us you will see that, truly, you do not need to be a prophet. You need only point to Father, Son and Spirit and this any Christian can do.

Scotteriology demonstrates that not all of the fish he shoots necessarily swim in the same barrel