In our group's discussions on "Missional Imagination" (part of my DMin project)an issue was raised that I think is appropriate to respond to publicly.
The question came in response to several disturbing passages of scripture - most notably the story of Abraham's call and willing response to sacrifice his son Isaac. Initially the question was, "what would you do if God asked you to kill your child?"
Another passage, the story of God speaking to Moses through a burning bush, brought up the comment that if one of us experienced such an event, we and everyone else would think we were crazy. So, after some discussion on both passages the follow-up question was (I'm actually paraphrasing a couple questions here) "If you claim to hear from God, people will say you're crazy. But who is to say that the crazy lady who kills her children and says God told her to, DIDN'T hear from God?...after all he told Abraham to kill his child."
Here are versions of my responses to the questions raised (with a little editing to keep confidentiality in our group) I'm basically addressing 3 questions:
1) Are you "crazy" if you claim to hear God?
2) How do we know that God didn't tell someone to kill their children?
3) How can we know who is and isn't hearing from God?
First, there is a difference between someone being CONSIDERED crazy and someone BEING crazy. The difference, in this situation, is whether or not the event being described actually took place. If someone, like Moses, actually did see a talking bush, they wouldn’t be crazy. If they imagined it, and believed it to be real, they would be crazy. So the question is whether or not it actually happened. Since this is outside the parameters of “normal” experience (especially today), we would immediately suspect they imagined it until evidence was provided to prove otherwise. But just because we consider them crazy doesn’t make it so.
Another issue is how we define and determine “normal.” Norms are typically determined culturally, not universally. For our highly modernized society there are any number of things which are considered superstition or even “crazy” which, even today in other parts of the world - or in certain segments of American society - are considered normal.
In parts of Africa, it is “common” to see demons. In Pentecostal churches it is common to “speak in tongues.” Who determines whether these things are crazy? Well... “we” do. (We being the people who live in that place; participants in that culture.) The collective community decides what is and isn’t normal. That does not necessarily mean that someone operating outside those boundaries is actually crazy.
In Moses’ time people were more likely to believe in “magical” or supernatural appearances than your typical 21st century American. But even then, remember, Moses wanted God to help him know what to say to people who most likely wouldn’t take his word about the appearance of God. Even if it may seem that way to us, theophanies (an appearance of or conversation with God) were not common even in Moses' day.
I was asked by a friend (who first raised several of these questions) what I would do if God appeared and asked me to kill one of my children. My first response was that it is hard to know what we would do if God showed up in front of us and said to do something. Maybe we’d be so overcome with fear we wouldn’t know what to do. I start with this because I think its foolish to confidently declare what we would or would not do if we were talking to God face-to-face.
It is also important to remember that, with the Abraham/Isaac story in particular, we only have a small picture of this story. What was the context? Did God show up in front of Abraham unannounced and say, “Hey, remember your son Isaac? Well...I’ve got an idea...”
Or, did Abraham look around at the other religious cultures of the area, notice that most of them engaged in child sacrifice and become convinced God was calling him to do the same? Did he then find a ram in the bushes where he was about to sacrifice Isaac and determine that God had been testing his faith and had provided an alternative based on his faithfulness? (*Some will say that this scenario isn’t possible because the Bible says “God said to Abraham” – but consider two things: 1) These early stories were transmitted orally for many years before being written down. 2) We have scriptural evidence that the details of the stories were sometimes changed to make specific statements – compare Exodus 18:17-26 to Deuteronomy 1:9-18 / Numbers 13:1-6 to Deuteronomy 1:19-24 / Numbers 13:26-33 to Deuteronomy 1:25-28 / Numbers 20:1-12 to Deuteronomy 1:37…in one speech Moses changes several major details. I’m not saying Abraham did this, just saying, we don’t know.)
Did God call Abraham to perform such an action and then stop it as foreshadowing for the very act to which Jesus would willingly submit in the future? Was this a way of showing humanity that God is going to greater lengths to redeem us than that we could imagine?
Or was it something else? We don’t know.
What we DO know is that God did NOT require Abraham to sacrifice his son and has never required any of us to offer child sacrifices. Beyond that, we know that Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross did away with the sacrificial system...and from the words of the prophets we can wonder whether the sacrificial system was ever what God desired in the first place.
For God to suddenly require me to murder an innocent child flies in the face of how God has always operated; it would not be consistent with the scope of Scripture, with the teachings or life of Jesus, or with what we know to be right. Child sacrifice is an abhorrent practice and to suggest that such a thing would be pleasing to God suggests some very distasteful things about God. As Hosea reminded us, "God desires mercy, not [blood] sacrifice." (Hosea 6:6)
Jesus extended that to say, "If you knew what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent." (Matthew 12:7) So for God to suddenly decide we should randomly murder an innocent child would be an unnatural departure from the very nature God has professed to humanity.
If "God" were to just suddenly say, "I need you to kill your child" then I would first question whether or not this "voice" was truly that of God. But, for the sake of argument, let's say it was. At this point I would begin to question if God has ever been good...and I would consider the possibility that Satan is right, we need to overthrow this tyrant.
BUT (and this is a very significant but), I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think God is an evil tyrant, I don’t think Satan is a noble revolutionary and I don’t think God would ask me to kill my child.
I don’t often make definitive statements about other’s motives or actions, but I will now. Those who claim that God told them to murder their children are either lying or crazy or else the good God we worship is a lie. And again, I don’t think its the latter.
Throughout history, people have used “God” to justify all kinds of craziness, whether it was Christians and Muslims killing each other throughout the middle ages; the extinction of entire groups of people (Germans killing Jews, European Americans killing “Native” Americans, Hutus killing Tutsis in Rwanda, etc); one people group enslaving another; men oppressing women; the rich oppressing the poor - all have claimed divine mandate to do so - and I believe they’re all crazy.
The question that seems logical here is, “How do we know who is and who isn’t hearing from God?” This post is already ridiculously long and it would be book length before we could exhaust this question, but let me suggest 4 important aspects.
1) Community. It is very important to have a community of faith surrounding us; praying and discerning with us whenever we feel we've gotten direction from God - be that in a general sense or a very specific calling. That doesn't HAVE to be your church, it can be a group of close and trusted friends and spiritual advisors - people who are serious about their faith and serious about listening to the voice of God. Community (not a new theme from me, I know) is an important corrective to many of our ills - whether they're overtly religious ills or not. It was to the Community of God the scriptures were entrusted in the first place - not individuals. Which leads to my next point...
2) Scripture. Does what you're hearing fit with the scope and trajectory of scripture? This is not the same as saying, "can you find scriptural permission to do this thing?" Scripture isn't a rule-book meant to give instructions for every event that crops up in our lives. BUT it is the story of God at work with (and in) humanity. In the pages of scripture we find a story of redemption that has progressed and continues into this very time. We turn to the scriptures for wisdom more than instructions - instructions are just information, wisdom is the ability to apply information to a given context. This wisdom comes from Scripture, but we need to remember that Scripture is the story of God at work with the people, so...
3) History. An awareness of the story of Judaism and Christianity - both what is found in scripture and what we can learn from both secular and church historians. This is true both for specific "callings" as well as more general matters - like the formation of a new church or church planting movement. Do you think what we're doing is new or unique? Not even almost. There have been reform movements similar to ours in nearly every generation - including MANY that took place before the Protestant Reformation. Some of these movements have had long lasting positive impacts...others have devolved into very unhealthy expressions of faith. Many of those which have veered into toxic faith have been those who shunned connection to and awareness of the history of Judaism and Christianity. And finally...
4) Theology. When faith lacks reflections on the implications of our theology (whether it is explicitly stated theology, or implicit - what we apparently believe because of how we function, regardless of whether we've thought it through) it is difficult to notice when we're moving in the direction of toxic faith and an improper or false "hearing" of God. I know because the "theologians" and leaders in churches have at times abused power or worked to control rather than serve the church, many people are distrustful...but what is needed isn't LESS theological guidance - it is godly, good, healthy, Christ-like and humble theological service to the church.
There are many voices calling for attention and loyalty. Discerning the voice of God in the midst of the chaos can be difficult - which is why we must be dedicated, as disciples of Jesus, to learning his voice and listening carefully together.