How can I know that God is telling me something?

In a post Using Reason to Judge Revelation Henry Neufeld asks an interesting question:

The problem is that if God reveals something to you that you cannot know in any other way, by what means do you determine that it is true?

The following is the main part of a comment I made on that post, addressed to Henry:

But the way you answer [this question] shows a lot about how you think. You seem to assume that the truth of a statement about God, or at least about the Bible being inerrantly inspired by God, can and should be demonstrated by human methods and reason. This is a fundamental presupposition of Enlightenment liberalism, but not of biblical Christianity. The biblical or at least pre-Enlightenment approach to such questions is rather that they should accepted by faith. I understand the objections to that approach taken on its own.

But to me there is another basic aspect to this which you do not mention, and that is the link between knowledge and relationship. If your wife tells you something, I hope that you don’t require that she demonstrates the truth of it to you, but that you accept it on trust because you know her and trust her. And if you get a message which purports to be from her, you can very often recognise whether it really is from her or not from the language and tone – and if it is not [clear] you can call her and ask. On the same basis, I have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Because of this I am in a good position to recognise whether any message purporting to be from him actually is, from whether it ties up with his character. And if I am unsure I can ask him in prayer and trust him to guide me by his Holy Spirit about whether it is true or not. So I don’t need any external demonstration of whether the message is genuine or not.

This does not completely resolve the issue of “how can one possibly tell the difference between divine and demonic?” But it does imply a consistency: either I have a genuine relationship with God and can know the truth about what he says from him; or (as some people have suggested in response to my defence of Todd Bentley) my relationship is really entirely with demons which are deceiving me. At this point I have to go back either to the Bible or to general revelation about morality, and appeal to them to argue that the good things that come out of my relationship show that it is with God and not demons.

I thought it was worth turning this into a post here because I think it illustrates a basic difference between my approach to Todd Bentley and that of most of the critics of Todd that I have been interacting with on this blog and elsewhere. No, this is not another post about Todd (and I will not allow comments here which are just about Todd and his ministry), but it is about how Christians can discern what is from God and what is not – in matters both of personal guidance and of whether to endorse or criticise ministries like Todd’s.

As I see it, the majority of the critics of Todd who claim to be applying “discernment” to him are in fact using Enlightenment principles of rationalism to reason for themselves an answer to this question. Now I don’t want to discount human reason and Enlightenment principles. They have led to major advances in understanding of this world and great scientific and technological discoveries which have mostly benefited humanity. But I do not consider Enlightenment rationalism to be helpful in discerning the ways of God.

The Enlightenment has given rise to two diverging streams of Christian thinking about God, both of which I consider to be fundamentally wrong.

The first, the more consistently based in Enlightenment thinking, rejected all kinds of appeals to authority including that of the Bible in favour of a thorough-going rationalism in enquiry about the divine, and about the events recorded in the Bible. This is basically theological liberalism. I understand this approach because I used to share its underlying worldview, but I have moved away from it.

In a second stream of theological thinking based on the Enlightenment all authorities were rejected, at least in principle, except for one, that of the Bible. The Bible was taken to be authoritative and inerrant, not really on any rational grounds (although sometimes rather weak rationalistic defences of it are put forward) but essentially as an axiom, something which cannot be proved but has to be assumed. The Bible was also read as a set of propositions about God and what he does. From these propostions were developed, using Enlightenment principles of reason, the system of theological thought labelled as “evangelical” and “fundamentalist”.

I prefer the label “fundamentalist” here because, it seems to me, all Christian fundamentalists think like this, whereas this is only one of a range of approaches taken by people who call themselves evangelical. OK, maybe it is also because I want to use a slightly pejorative label for a way of thinking I reject, rather than a label which I accept for myself. These are more or less the same people who I have called Bible deists and whose approach to studying the Bible I have previously criticised.

To be fair to at least some of the evangelicals and fundamentalists who think like this, they might be arriving at their axiom that the Bible is authoritative by the kinds of method that I outlined in my comment quoted above. This is basically the “Reformed” position as I understand it. It is also the fundamental reason why I find myself believing that the Bible is authoritative, although not inerrant on matters e.g. of science and history which it does not intend to address. But I would differ from fundamentalists in applying the principle of knowing what is true through a relationship with God much more widely than to the axiom of biblical authority.

I had written most of the above when I came across Nick Norelli’s review of what Roger Olson has to say about conservative and post-conservative evangelicalism. I think Olson is trying to make the same kinds of distinctions that I am, and he follows McGrath in showing how conservative evangelicalism, basically what I have called fundamentalism, is dependent on the Enlightenment. I’m not sure whether my own position, in Olson’s categories, is more pietistic or more post-conservative. I accept Nick’s criticisms of some directions in which post-conservatism might go, especially into anti-intellectualism, and I certainly don’t want to go there.

Some of the criticisms of Todd Bentley which I have read have come from the theologically liberal camp; I would put Doug Chaplin‘s and Jim West‘s critiques in this category. These are people who are fundamentally sceptical about claims of miraculous healing because this does not fit within their essentially rationalistic and materialistic worldview. I have some sympathy with their position because I too struggle with accepting the place of the miraculous in my worldview – but I know that I have to because I have seen with my own eyes (quite apart from Todd Bentley’s ministry) the evidence that prayers are answered and miraculous healing takes place today.

But most of the criticisms of Todd I have seen have come from people apparently following the fundamentalist way of thinking, that is, applying Enlightenment methods of reasoning, although often rather incompetently, to the Bible understood as a set of propositional truths. To this many critics add another axiom, or perhaps they claim to deduce this from the biblical text, that God cannot do anything which is not explicitly described in the Bible. So when they find Todd saying or doing things which are not exactly in line with the scheme they have deduced from the Bible text, they denounce him as a heretic and false teacher. They absolutise their own rationalistic theological system and don’t allow even God to do anything which does not fit within it.

Sometimes these people ask me how, when I defend Todd against certain charges, I can be so sure that I am correct. They expect me to answer them according to their own principles of Enlightenment rationalism. Well, sometimes I am able to do so, by appealing to the basic principle of Enlightenment scholarship that one argues from the facts – and unlike many of them I make some efforts to get the facts right, whether about what is written in the Bible or about what Todd has said or done.

But very often the only answer I can give to these critics is one which they seem unable to understand, because within their thoroughly Enlightenment worldview they have no concept of how God can communicate with people today – even while in principle believing that he did so in Bible times. My answer is that I have a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit, made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that it is because of that relationship that I am able to recognise when God is at work, even in apparently unlikely places. To that I could also add that I have a relationship with others, such as my pastor and his wife, who have a closer relationship with God than I do and help me to recognise when God is at work. In this way, and not through reasoning from Bible verses, I have been able to discern that, despite some less than perfect teaching and practices, God is indeed at work in and through Todd Bentley. And, gradually and always provisionally, I am able to discern what else God is saying to his church, and in particular to me.

NOTE: I repeat that I will not allow comments on this post which are just about Todd Bentley and his ministry without addressing the main issues of this post.

24 thoughts on “How can I know that God is telling me something?

  1. Pingback: MetaCatholic » Kirk and Bentley, dog and bone

  2. Peter, it seems in your response to Henry you’re not going back as far as you think. Instead it seems you’re adopting a very modern individualistic approach to discernment. You ask God about Todd Bentley and God tells you it is good, another asks God about Todd Bentley and it God tells them he is not good. How do you reason with ‘God told me’?
    I would suggest that the Bible very much encourages ‘external demonstration of whether the message is genuine or not’ – for example for prophets it is whether their prophecies come to pass, for genuine fruit of the Spirit, consistent with the revealed nature of God. The rabbis came asking Jesus for a sign and he gave them one, he offered external evidence to John the Baptist and the early church offered the resurrection as an example par excellence of the genuine nature of their message. Where gifts of the Spirit are tkaing place we are to weigh and test. There is a collective nature to discernment in the Bible that your response to Henry misses out. Yes we take things at faith but necessarilty at face value.

  3. Brief comment as I need to go out.

    As an aside, I see similarities to the concepts of the regulative and normative principles of worship in some of your post.

    I regard myself as a charismatic evangelical. My view is that God is at work in the world today and this includes doing supernatural acts such as miracles of healing. I also believe that God still speaks to people today.

    And I do believe that God can work in ways beyond what a strict reading of scripture would suggest. For example I know someone whose car went far further than it should have when she was virtually out of petrol. You could relate that to the feeding of the 5,000 (!) but it’s obviously not the same (it could also be similar to the chanukah miracle).

    But I also believe that the Bible tells us everything necessary for salvation and the life of faith. Scriptural revelation has ceased. Anything we feel that God is saying or doing needs to be tested against the principles we find in the Bible.

    We also mustn’t throw our brains out of the window. If we strike a match and it lights, that’s not some miracle, it’s the way God has made an element called phosphorous (very simplified chemistry lesson!). That’s not supernatural (ie a miracle), it’s natural.

    Looking at Todd, I have two points to make:

    Firstly, Todd’s angelic dreams and revelations are not just extra-biblical, they are unbiblical.

    Secondly, something that looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, is a duck. What is going on at Lakeland looks (and walks and quacks!) like hypnotism, not just to me but to people with experience and training in this field. So why should we deny it?

    Peter, do me a favour and read Mark Haville’s story here: – it’s not very long. He lives in England and I’d be glad to put you in touch with him if you’d like to speak with him in person.

    A general point to finish: virtually every cult or heresy has begun by someone believing that they have a special revelation from God that goes beyond the bible and cannot be supported by the bible.

    Sorry this isn’t particularly coherent – got to finish now.

  4. I guess you won’t allow this, but I think you’re misrepresenting most of the posts I’ve seen disagreeing with you about Bentley. You seem to be characterising people as saying that he wasn’t doing healing miraculously because we don’t believe in miraculous healings. Whereas most people seemed to be saying that they were worried about his use of violence; there are most definitely biblical discernment principles that suggest that this is worrying.

    What you say about Bentley seems completely at odds with what you say your biblical principles of discernment are. It seems to me that your main argument with Bentley is that God does miracles and if this guy is claiming miracles, then he must be telling the truth about actually having caused them. In what way is this good biblical discernment?

  5. Phil, I made the point that this is not individualistic when I mentioned that I confirm my position with others including my pastor. But I am not claiming to go back to a pre-modern or pre-Enlightenment position, but to move forward towards what is in some ways post-modern. The critics of Todd rarely say anything like “God told me”, but more often things like “the Bible says” which is a giveaway for the fundamentalist approach. I could argue that the test that prophecies must come to pass is an Old Testament one, and that Jesus refused to give any sign except that of his resurrection. But I certainly do not entirely reject going to Scripture for confirmation, as any ministry must conform to the basic morality etc revealed there.

    Pam, I accept that some people (a minority of those I have interacted with) were worried about Todd primarily because of the violence issue, and that many of this group do not fall neatly into either the fundamentalist or the liberal camp. But to the extent that they base their position on the lack of biblical examples of violence in healing they are taking the fundamentalist approach. Meanwhile any Christian who accepts that miraculous healing does occur today will surely allow that at least some such healings have probably taken place at Lakeland. In your last paragraph, I entirely fail to recognise your description of my argument; my point is, to put it simply, that God has shown me that genuine miracles are happening around Todd.

    CharismaticSceptic, you are making a new charge against Todd, hypnotism, which I do not want to discuss here. See this post concerning his teaching about angels. As for Mark Haville, he seems to have been a genuine minister of God who was deceived by fundamentalists (probably) into believing he had previously been deceived. That is not to say that everything he was doing was right, or to justify the lack of integrity in his church. But despite some abuses he was really ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit, as is Todd.

  6. Pingback: Threads from Henry’s Web » Discernment and Revelation

  7. Peter,

    I do not know if this is helpful but I think it can generally quite difficult to be sure if God is telling you something!

    There are plenty of instances in the Bible where God has gone to great lengths to get his message across to individuals. I suppose that we would all like a totally unambiguous communications channel to God. Like say, every time we prayed God would answer in fire on our bedroom wall.

    Many people claim to have visions and words but the NT is clear that they have to be tested. If I have people who come up to me in church and say ‘God told me ..’ who am I to argue with them? Yet I also have a responsibility to check whether what they are saying is true (I am a leader in my church). If I then remind such people that they are claiming to speak as the Oracle of God then they may qualify it by saying “I believe God has said… ” which is making an altogether different statement.

    I think an important key to know if God is telling you something is how much of God you know yourself. As well as not contradicting scripture it is also about the quality of the fellowship that you have with God. One gets to know what God is saying by experience.

    Having been married a good few years now, I have gradually understood more of what my wife is saying to me not just directly but by nuances, jabs in the ribs, and by the experience of our shared fellowship over the years – yet I still get it wrong!

    (after all I’m only a man…)

  8. Henry Neufeld’s latest post, and this one from yesterday, are helpful in taking this discussion forward.

    Iconoclast, my understanding is that God has to take extreme methods to speak to people, like writing on the wall, only if they have refused to listen to more subtle and gentle communications. I guess your wife uses similar methods! But then in other cases if someone refuses to listen, God bypasses them and uses someone else, to the first person’s disadvantage. So it is worth listening to him carefully!

    I agree that when someone claims that God has spoken to them that needs to be tested – at least if it is of any significance. (If for example someone told me that God had told them to go to the beach yesterday, I wouldn’t feel the need to challenge them, certainly if they didn’t use it as an excuse to skip church, as that is a decision they had the right to make and has no apparent spiritual consequences.) I fully agree that “One gets to know what God is saying by experience”, and that experience comes from an ongoing relationship with God.

  9. I too believe that miracles can and do occur — just to confirm that we are in part epistemological allies. It also seems rather obvious, however, that a person who claims to be performing medical miracles can be checked by scientific criteria. In other words, you can’t have the pros (“I’m performing medical miracles!”) without the potential cons (“actually, you have no scientific evidence”).

    It’s rather inconsistent to claim medical miracles as a proof for legitimacy, and then, when questioned on scientific grounds, claim that you are epistemologically opposed to an “Enlightenment rationalism” (i.e. science). If scientific inquiry is legitimate then you are stuck with the critiques on those grounds. If it is not legitimate, then you must find a different way of proving your ministry.

  10. I’m not a cessationist either, and have no problems believing in miracles, but a few comments on your post.

    I do think that the language surrounding ‘inerrancy’ is not particularly helpful – though again if you take something like the Chicago Statement it doesn’t really lend itself to the excesses you claim are necessarily associated with the concept.

    Secondly, there is a subtle difference between your stated position and that of Olson:

    But I do not consider Enlightenment rationalism to be helpful in discerning the ways of God.

    Though it seems that your complaint is with rationalism rather than anything particularly associated with the Enlightenment itself (whatever happened to renewal of minds). I get the same feeling when reading Olson’s book – partly because I think he make an unconscious and automatic association between Enlightenment and a particular strain of Calvinism. What he actually ends up saying about this issue and ‘post-conservaties’ is an extension of this Stanley Grenz quote:

    “To be truly evangelical, right doctrine, is not enough. The truth of the Christian faith must be personally experienced”

    Couched with the right caveats about the dangers of how this could put the cart before the horse, I don’t really think it’s something that an evangelical would argue with in essence. Though again, your position is slightly different.

    most of the criticisms of Todd I have seen have come from people apparently following the fundamentalist way of thinking

    I think you are in some cases confusing beliefs and motivations here. There is the possibility that other people also believe that have heard from God, but are trying to argue what they believe based on scripture, rather than just saying that ‘God told them’ whatever.

    Personally, I feel that God has spoken to me, I believe that what we see at Lakeland are a mixture of genuine healings and other causes – some of which others have alluded to. I believe that what we *hear* from Lakeland and what people are taking away is something close to a gnostic-style theology of glory where Christ is purely our example for approaching God and ‘dealing with Power’ rather than our mediator to approach God. I believe that this is one of the central heresies of the Church in our age and one which we will see more of in the 21st Century (a la Philips Jenkins).

    That more people don’t speak out against this is, I think, partly a function of unfamiliarity and partly a fear of being seen to be racist. Having experienced both dry intellectualism and charismatic excesses consume the church in my own country of origin I have no problem speaking out against either, always taking care to try to take note of the good and mark the bad.

  11. Chris, I have not read Olson’s book and so make no claim to agree with Olson. I entirely agree with the Grenz quote. If people believe that they are hearing from God on this matter, why don’t they say so? Well, I can guess that they don’t want people to think they are crazy, but with me their strategy has failed! However, I strongly suspect based on what some have written that many of them value reason far above hearing from God as the basis of discernment.

    I agree that not all purported healings at Lakeland are genuine, but that very many are. I haven’t seen any evidence of anyone associated with Lakeland denying that Jesus is our mediator to approach God, and would be very interested to see any such denial – but maybe this doctrine has not been put forward as positively as it should be.

    I have never heard of Philips Jenkins. Who are your referring to? Do you mean Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity? Does he teach this error? Or has he identified it in others, and if so, who?

  12. If people believe that they are hearing from God on this matter, why don’t they say so?

    In some cases because their silence is a form of epistemic humility. Additionally, if they believe that what they see is clearly un-scriptural that would tend to take precedence over the initial ‘word from God’ that alerts them to the possibility that something is wrong.

    I entirely agree with the Grenz quote.

    The problem with the Grenz quote is not its incorrectness but its incompleteness. Whilst right doctrine should be experienced, its truth does not depend on the extent to which it is experienced, nor is it validated by experience.

    I haven’t seen any evidence of anyone associated with Lakeland denying that Jesus is our mediator to approach God, and would be very interested to see any such denial

    When intimacy with God is preached apart from Jesus as a mediator then the end result is equivalent to outright denial – it may even be more dangerous. It’s not for nothing that the second commandment regulates right worship.

    The Philip Jenkins remark was a reference to his book “The Next Christendom”, where he charts the rise of Christianity in the Global South. In pointing out cultural differences he shows how the new movements tend to be characterised by syncretism, extreme forms of charismaticism, Marian devotion (in the case of Roman Catholicism) and an emphasis on personal spirituality and individual experience over objective truth.

  13. Thanks, Chris. Indeed it is wrong to expect intimacy with God without Jesus as mediator. Do you think anyone is actually preaching this? But you, and Jenkins, may be right that more needs to be made of this in some circles.

  14. Do you think anyone is actually preaching this?

    Yes, in many ways; Every time a sermon is preached that reduces the message of Christ as X steps to a better whatever, thus preaching pure Law rather than Gospel. Every time a sermon is preached on sanctification which doesn’t mention the Cross as the power by which we are not just justified but sanctified. Every time the anointing of the Holy Spirit is mentioned without mentioning the one who sent him and the one to whom he bears witness, or worse when the means of anointing is some device of the mind of man. Every time, in other words, the Glory Story is preached – that we can use God to get what we want, or that we can approach God on our own merits or satisfy his requirements on our own, or that we can have the glory now that God actually promised to us after a life of suffering for Christ.

    I think it’s pretty pervasive. As Calvin said, our minds our idol factories, and unless we keep our focus on the cross we end up creating a God in our own image to worship rather than Christ – the image of the everlasting God.

  15. Chris, I see your point. I am entirely against preaching sanctification by works, and against trying to manipulate God. But we can have tastes of glory now, among our trials, as Peter, James and John did on the Mount of Transfiguration, as others did when they saw the risen Christ and were filled with the Holy Spirit.

    I will not keep my focus on the cross and make that into an idol, as really happens in some churches. I will keep my focus on the One who was crucified on it and then rose again and now reigns on high.

  16. But we can have tastes of glory now, among our trials, as Peter, James and John did on the Mount of Transfiguration, as others did when they saw the risen Christ and were filled with the Holy Spirit.

    Yes, and when John – the beloved disciple – who had seen the transfiguration saw the risen Christ he fell down as if dead – a far cry from those who talk glibly about ‘ascending into the throne room of God and receiving the Glory’.

    I will not keep my focus on the cross and make that into an idol, as really happens in some churches.

    Peter – I think you are demonstrating an incredibly ability to see heresy everywhere except where it really lies – I can’t think of a more charitable explanation for your deliberate mis-representation of what I said.

  17. No, Chris, as you quoted Calvin saying, our minds are idol factories, and the cross, or the works of Calvin, or the “Reformed” theological system – and similarly my own theological system – can very easily become idols which take our hearts and minds away from Christ himself. That is why I cringe when I read words like “unless we keep our focus on the cross” with no mention of the One who died on it. That is just the same kind of error as preaching intimacy with God with no mention of that same One. Who or what does the Bible say we should fix our eyes on? Only Jesus.

  18. That is why I cringe when I read words like “unless we keep our focus on the cross” with no mention of the One who died on it

    Right, and in this case I meant “unless we keep our eyes on the life and finished work of Christ on our behalf .. “.

    It’s interesting though; someone mentions the cross and immediately you are alerted to the possibility of idolatry. Someone mentions an angel who had worked with William Branham as the source of his blessing, and all seems to be well.

  19. Chris, when this angel Emma business came up I spent some time investigating it before concluding, not that “all seems to be well” but that there was no basic heresy, only some lack of balance and unfortunate expressions. I have now come to the same conclusion about your words “unless we keep our focus on the cross”, that your underlying meaning is good but your wording could be misleading.

  20. I was an atheist for over 50 years. I could not believe that God could tell different people different things and that they all were right. The name of God was also being used by earthly leaders to back up their own powers “Do this because God says so.” And look at the wars of religion that get worse.

    But then I started getting epileptic fits, and during recovery periods, while the brain rebooted after crashing, as it were, God grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and said here I am, and this is the message. He did the same to Moses, Mohammed, Guru Nanak, Jesus, St Paul, Buddha, and loads of other people, because it is the same message. And it is dead simple and it doesn’t need churches.

    The message is:
    God is everywhere.
    God is Life.
    God is Good.

    We are here to look after the planet and each other.
    We should put into life what we can, and take out only what we need.
    If we put more into life than we take out, life gets better for everyone.
    If we take out more than we need, life gets worse for everyone, and the excess is wasted.
    We are made of matter, plus a bit of life. When we die, the matter goes back to earth, and the life goes back to God. Both are recycled. At death, our bit of life will be judged according to its behaviour during life.

    And that is basically it. All the differences between religions arise from the need for those who get the message to explain it in terms that can be understood by the other people living at their particular time and place, and the need for churches to stand out as being the good guys and build up their power on earth.

    I can explain now that we are linked to God like computers to the Internet, but how would that have gone down in Judea 33 AD ?

    After getting the basic message, church bureaucracies arise. Unnecessary rituals proliferate. The laws of the time get treated as the word of god, as that makes it easier to enforce them. Top priests expect more money to cover their expenses. People build up their power by claiming to understand the basic rules of life more than others. They cling to the letter of the book rather than the spirit of the basic message. Consider Oak Hill College’s intention of being “radically biblical”. But like the stock-market, every now and then churches need bringing down to earth. Jesus came to put the Sadducees and Pharisees right, to remove all the trimmings and holier-than-thou nonsense. Mohammed came to remove the barriers between man and God, one bit of life and all of it, but at his death they were already squabbling about who should take over his power on earth. We don’t need all these rules and rituals. The holy books largely consist of advice on how to live a good life according to the customs of the timme and place. It wasn’t a good idea to eat pork in a hot country without refrigerators. It was a good idea for ladies to cover their hair in deserts without water and shampoo. Polygamy made sense at times and places when most menfolk went away to war, and few came back, but not now.

    God’s rules can be found in all religions – except those that put man at the top, like Thatcherism. No real religion tells people to harm each other or harm the earth. No religion tells people to build up power and wealth on earth, and sod everyone else. Every religion tells people to live a useful life, don’t harm others, and don’t be greedy. Everything else is a mixture of advice that is useful at particular times in particular places, and rituals designed to build up the power of churches on earth.

    It is time for all churches to get together and trim off the trimmings. If there is any point of dispute between one church and another, it is something that they have created, and not anything god wants. It’s the same god, and it should be the same church.

    If churches are in dispute with each other, it is the will of their leaders, and not the will of God. No church can take out a copyright on God.

  21. PSJ, thank you for your interesting comment and testimony. I am glad you found God after so many years of atheism. I agree with a lot of what you write. See my recent posts about Reimagining Church which address some similar issues.

    But I do find one thing missing in your ideas, which is any mention of sin or evil. Sadly people need more than to be told “live a useful life, don’t harm others, and don’t be greedy”. They are trapped in a system of personal and corporate evil, and they need not just instructions or advice but help. I don’t see in most religious systems any offers of help to live a good life, other than lists of rules to be kept. But Jesus does offer help to people in need, to release them from the power of sin and evil and give them the power to live good lives. This is the basis of how the Christian faith is different from any other religion.

    I would advise you to look into this more carefully. Perhaps I can recommend to you “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren.

  22. One has to be careful in using words like good and evil. All too often, “good” is used simply to describe “our lot”, and “evil” to describe “the other lot”. In joining churches, there is a risk of concluding “As we’re the good guys, whatever we do is good, and it’s quite in order to kill the bad guys.” We see this in revenge cultures. But nobody sets out to do evil. Even Hitler, in his mad way, thought he was making the world a better place.

    Good is furthering the cause of Life/God. It is good to help,rather than harm, others and help the planet. It is evil to obtain personal benefit at the expense of others. If you only listen to the voice of your ego, you aren’t likely to do that much good. The ego is useful in small children. They don’t understand the big picture but know that they need food and that if they scream they get their nappy changed. But over the years they should obtain a better picture of how life is for other people, and in the process gain wisdom. The ego wants good things now. It takes wisdom to plan for the future.

    Jesus gave advice about how people could live a good life at the time and place in which he lived. He was at odds with the priests of the time because their advice was based on books and traditions of earlier times. Times change. You need different rules for times of unemployment and those of labour scarcity. Solving one problem can sow the seeds of another that arises in the next generation. The baby boomers were worried about overpopulation, the Pill arrived, and now we’re looking towards a time of many pensioners and few workers. Each problem is usually solved in its time, but the rules need to change for this to happen.

    A ban on polygamy is a good idea when there are equal numbers of men and women, but can have its disadvantages at times when a war has significantly reduced the number of men – especially if another law introduced at a time of unemployment bans women from working. At another time a virus may attack women in childbirth, and polyandry may make sense. So many rules may make sense at one time and place, but not another. This is why it is dangerous to fix on one set of rules from one time and see them as holy writ, and apply them at other places and times. Indeed, there is a case for all laws to be prefixed with the reasons why they were brought into effect, so that they can be revised when the reasons for their existence have gone.

    “Do this because I say so.” is rarely a good justification for a rule. It works with small children because they don’t yet have the knowledge to understand the likely effects of their disobedience. But “Do this because God says so” is likewise not enough. For most of human history most knowledge, certainly that involving reading, was restricted to priests and the noble class. They could treat the ignorant like children. All books could be seen as books of magic. Priests could point to texts and say “It is written…” and that would be the end of the dispute. But those days have gone.

    You mention a system of personal and corporate evil. This month we are seeing the results of a political and economic system that started from the basic premise that people are 100% ego. Instead of paying staff enough to feed, clothe, and house themselves, the employers, and the politicians representing them, decided to encourage people without money to believe that they still had the right to buy, while allowing people to borrow money far beyond the amount that they were likely to be able to repay. As well as borrowing money for luxuries that they didn’t need, such as designer clothing, people started using borrowed money to pay for basic things that they would normally have paid for out of their salary. Because they had plenty of credit, they didn’t notice that they weren’t earning enough to live on any more. The country needed an educated workforce, but once people were used to borrowing money, it became a simple matter to shift from paying students loans for living expenses to expecting them to pay for their tuition as well as living costs. On top of this, employers were able to exchange a system by which they paid for new employees to attend night school and day release courses at technical colleges and polytechnics with one where they expect new arrivals to turn up fully trained after a job -based “university” course at their own expense. It’s an interesting shift of lifestyle, with employers thinking of short-term interests while expecting employees to think of their long-term interests. There’s evil enough about. But the dangling of the short-term carrot of “loans now” and the use of the long-term stick of “no university – no job” had its effect. People had to think of their own survival.
    At the same time there was the encouragement of the misuse of shares and property. The original purpose of shares in a company was to enable a group of people to invest in property or equipment that could subsequently be used to earn money later on. Say a boat that could be sent to the Spice Islands and come back with saffron and rare fruits that could be sold at a good price. Often investors were people who had spare money now but wouldn’t need it until later in life, and wanted a pension that allowed for a bit of inflation. But in recent years we’ve had the glorification of the day traders, people who buy and sell shares, with no concept of what they represent, in the same day, distorting the prices and often using other people’s money. And they’ve been a pretty egoistic bunch.

    Meanwhile, while all this sin has being going on, the Anglican church has been more concerned with female and homosexual vicars. The Americans have been going berserk about abortions without considering what life is going to be like for children whose mothers see them as the point where their lives went wrong. But if you took political polls after church services you’d probably find a large majority in favour of the politicians who gave us “the right to buy” and unlimited credit at high costs. Extreme wings are taking over churches because people with a sense of proportion can’t take them seriously any more. An external God throwing thunderbolts no longer makes sense in a world where science can make lightning an a laboratory.

    Jesus came into a world where the Pharisees and Saducees were making a big industry out of religion, but were quibbling over unimportant – but compulsory – details and had forgotten what they were there for. Churches should be there to help people to live a good and useful life at difficult times, but, although usually sparked off in imitation of someone who tried to put things right, they end up buried in meaningless rituals and rules which serve as excuses for struggles for earthly power between career churchmen.

    A united church spreading a message of honesty, usefulness and fair play could be a useful counterweight to the apostles of greed who run the world, but at present churches, bickering over trivial details to the extent of encouraging wars in the name of peace, are making a rather unpleasant joke of themselves. The bulk of the followers of all religions are good people living good and useful lives, but those who speak for them and run the churches are failing miserably, far happier fighting each other than the real Enemy.

    I fear that we’ve wandered a bit off the “How do I know when God is telling me something” theme, but I do feel that the Pharisees and Sadducees in all religions need to be warned that their Last Judgement may not go the way they expect. Jesus and the other prophets came with simple messages of help and hope; it is the bureaucracies that came after them that have gone astray. Five years ago, I’d have thought I would have gone stark staring bonkers if I imagined myself spending time sending messages like this on subjects like this. Perhaps I have. But religions operate in the areas where knowledge has not yet reached. As knowledge spreads, one would expect religions to come closer to each other in filling the gaps, all working together. Instead they seem to be moving further apart.

  23. Just noticed that in my earlier note just now I referred to student loans. I meant, of course, student grants. In those days it was possible to leave university and get through life without owing anybody anything.

  24. PSJ, thanks for your interesting comment. Perhaps you should start your own blog to make points like this. I agree with you that churches have become over-obsessed with certain sexual misdemeanours while tending to ignore the general selfishness of humanity and the huge problems this has led to. But then some of us Christians have been prophesying that the system is unstable and likely to collapse for a long time now.

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