It appears to me that there is a good deal of attention on and confusion about the gift of prophecy in the church today. The movies depict prophecy as an ancient prediction that is coming true through the appearance of the specially gifted hero who has now arrived to save the day. Many people see prophecy as predicting major events of the future in the form of Nostradamus or some mystical “seer”. Charismatic practice in the church over the last 50 years or so has shaped the function of prophets and prophesying almost exclusively into giving or getting a “personal word from God.” I was at a Christmas party for a bunch of foster care children a couple years ago, and after being introduced as a pastor to a twenty-something year old guy, the first question that came out of his mouth was, “Do you have a word from God for me?” I told him, “Yes, He wants you to read your Bible more.” Prophecy, in my opinion, should not be restricted to the individualized “word” we find a lot of Christians running here or there to receive. I love that God speaks in that way, but I find we are much more receptive to these individual words which are usually packed with a good amount of predicted benefits, than we are to the larger occurrence of prophecy that is regularly being spoken into whole communities of people. In last week’s message at the City Church, I talked about rebellion… a lot. I really had not planned to drill down on that word and preach the message the way that it ended up. It was surprising to me in the moment of preaching how strongly the Holy Spirit sought to call out that sin and warn the church about relabeling rebellion as a quirk or personal preference.
I generally consider the act of preaching a prophetic practice, although I have come to recognize specific times where the confrontational tone or the urgency of hope and promise in a particular sermon elevates my awareness that this was not the communication of doctrine; it was prophecy that is imposing a new perspective into the way that we are seeing the world or God’s work in it. We need this imposition. Did you ever build or help your children build a diorama? You know those shoebox projects where cutout items are glued in place creating a 3-D image of animals in a field, a family working in the yard or perhaps an underwater scene? The truth is: you and I are creating our own personal diorama every day. We collect the data from our life experiences and this data informs how we view our world. By extension, these experiences also are informing the way we think about and understand God (our theology) too.
If you are a believer you have heard that God is active in our world and that there are blessings to obeying Him and consequences to disobedience. But our diorama is not built primarily on what we hear; it is constructed from what we see and experience. So here’s how that works. We watch selfish, rude and arrogant people succeed; getting what they want out of the world. We also watch humble, devoted and caring people get walked on, overlooked and sometimes even wrongly punished. In our eyes this is unjust and if God is active, interested or wanted things to turn out differently, He really has an odd way of demonstrating it. If life experience is the shaping factor in our diorama, we are left to conclude that either God is not as active as we have been told, or perhaps He is not overly concerned about right and wrong, justice or injustice.
It has happened a number of times in the church where a married couple breaks up and within days they are involved in romantic relationships with other people. Besides the fact that he or she is still legally married to their spouse, they demonstrate to their children and others that human comfort and personal happiness is all that matters even if you have to ignore or break some boundaries to get it. I know that often there are significant issues like infidelity, drug relapses or abuse that one spouse does to bring great chaos into their home and marriage. While their husband or wife is not to blame for the actions of the other, the Scripture does hold them accountable for the way they respond to this chaos. As I try to pastor these folks who are running out into new relationships to ease their pain or find their slice of happiness I often find that his or her diorama is clearly fixed around the image of “my life, my choice, I’m happy, Jesus loves me, butt out”. And by all outside appearances, they do seem to be happy, people are celebrating that they have now found the “right one,” and no negative consequences are befalling them.
For many people watching these situations, this data would have them taking the cross or whatever image they would use to identify God in their diorama and move it behind the backdrop and out of sight. Others would paint a big smile in one of the clouds indicating that God is happy as long as you are happy. God’s mercy and the judgment-absorbing sacrifice of Jesus on the cross provide for the fact that we do not live in a one-for-one, immediate-consequence environment. We are all grateful for that, but we can also assume from the absence of consequence that God has removed any expectation of holiness from His sons and daughters. That’s not necessarily what we have read and heard about God, but remember it is our experience that primarily shapes our view of the world and the God behind it all.
On the other hand, when you have made difficult choices because of what you have heard and believed, you can find yourself wondering if there will ever be a happier resolution. I’ve watched people choose to remain faithful and stick it out in a bad marriage for years while their spouse did whatever they pleased because of the understanding that this is what God had called right and good. Will God come through? Will this sacrifice and suffering be worth anything in the end? We have all seen people live in that sacrifice and place of suffering for a lot longer than we thought necessary. How do those experiences shape our diorama? Do God’s promises really relate to the here and now, or does His reward only exist in a completely other shoebox scene filled with angels, golden streets and puffy white clouds?
Reading the Bible has some corrective effect on our diorama, but the reminders of Bible stories and doctrines about God face a difficult battle. The images that indicate God’s slowness to act or His lack of concern are cemented into their place in our diorama with generous amounts of doubt and fortified with a lot of experiential evidence to keep them fixed right where they are. Private Bible study is particularly susceptible to getting stuck in this same glue. We need a strong word coming from the outside-in to break our God-weak, God-slow, God-absent dioramas apart. This is where prophecy functions and shines. I heard someone once say that “Fear is a form of prophecy; it predicts a future absent of God’s actions, love and power”. God’s prophetic voice imposes a correction to our experience-created view of Him and the world around us. Walter Brueggemann in an article on prophetic leadership says it this way, “…the prophetic task was to re-utter Yahweh as a living, decisive agent in a world that largely assumed that [He] was an irrelevant memory”.
The Old Testament is filled with these prophetic impositions. They contain warnings of destruction, occupation by enemy nations, and captivity so it is easy to dismiss this function of prophecy as something only connected to the Law and Old Covenant, but we cannot miss that through prophecy, God was imposing Himself into Israel’s diorama. You may conclude by your experience that the world is arranged one way, God through a prophetic word, will reinforce His conclusion that it is arranged in a completely other way. You may conclude by your experience that right and wrong are not being monitored and that God seems not to notice or care what you do, but God through a prophetic word will insist that every idle word will be accounted for one day (Matthew 12:36). You may conclude by your experience that you have been forgotten in your pain or that God is only intending to reward those who are faithful to Him with blessings in eternity, but God through a prophetic word will impose hope into your diorama that mercy and justice are on the way and cannot be stopped (Luke 18:6-8).
So where are these prophetic impositions spoken? Psalm 73 can nearly be divided in half. The first half contains the reflections of a man whose diorama is confused and worldly. He sees no point in suffering or piety and envies the prosperity of people who intentionally snub their nose at God and chase wickedness. The second half contains the reflections of a man who sees as God sees and lifts His voice in confident praise to the God who is active, faithful and powerful. Both halves are written by the same man; so what changed? The verse that stands between these halves (v. 17) says, “… I went into the sanctuary of God, then I understood…” There is no other suitable place, forum or environment for the delivery of prophecy than the gathered body of believers. Inside of this gathering you may receive a personal word of edification, exhortation or comfort by the function of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:3). Evaluate it, thank God for it and receive its Holy Spirit-intended benefits. However, as the Scripture is being faithfully communicated in these gatherings there exists the possibility that the Holy Spirit will speak urgently, directly and confrontationally bringing a prophetic word to the whole church calling for a reimagining of the diorama of the world in which God is present, powerfully active and faithful to every promise.
You will have to decide if and how you will receive this prophecy. If you imagine that the preacher or any other prophetically inspired person is angry, uptight, legalistic, exaggerating or overly dramatic you will forfeit the chance to see as God sees, to receive and repent, to open and be flooded with hope. If you are waiting for someone to communicate something individual, personal and specific to you, you will wait much longer and likely not end up hearing a word that calls for repentance. This is either as the result of God’s grace to not uncover the secrets of your heart to another individual, or that relational cautions will keep people from sharing particularly hard or confrontational prophetic words with you. Either way, you end up with a diorama that is managed and arranged by a God-weak, God-slow or God-absent future. You must put yourself regularly in settings where prophetic words of correction or comfort are being spoken into the life of the Christian community. God is seeking to rearrange your diorama. Are you where you need to be and humble as you must be to receive what He is speaking currently by the Holy Spirit?