Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Hearing the voice of God

Atheist or agnostic friends frequently tell me: "Prove to me your claim that God exists. If I could see him, hear his voice, see a true miracle, I would believe."

They are in good company: The Apostle we know as Doubting Thomas didn't believe his best friends when they testified that Christ had risen from the dead. "If I could stick my fingers in the nail scars in his hands," he told them, "I would believe."

I have one very sincere friend (I'm honored that he reads my blogs and I'm certain he will respond to this column) who has said, "If I could see a severed limb, miraculously regrown by the power of God, then I would believe."

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times recently, titled, "Is that God talking?" The writer explored the gamut of people who claim to have heard (audibly) the voice of God. The reports range from those which seem to have a certain degree of credulity, to those which are fairly incredible. (I laughed about the one where the person heard God say: "Vote for Bush." She replied: "But I don't like George Bush!" And God [supposedly] responded: "I didn't ask you to like him ... just vote for him.")

I don't doubt God speaks, occasionally, in a voice audibly perceived. But I don't think this is the experience of a vast majority of Christians, and it's certainly not mine. (Yet, anyway.) I certainly believe I have heard God speak, but I don't mean it that way.

I have heard Him "speak" powerfully to my heart, convicted of my sin by a Scripture or a song or a word of truth spoken by a friend. I have heard Him "speak" by gazing up into the awe-inspiring night sky in rural Zimbabwe, where our galaxy was displayed in all its glory. (Well, in reality in only a very small fraction of its glory! But it was breathtaking nonetheless.) And I have heard Him "speak" through indescribable impressions upon my spirit, which ended up (in hindsight) to be important timely insights I really couldn't have known any other way.

For example, read this blog post about the time just such an impression very dramatically prevented me from reversing my truck down a driveway with a toddler sitting (unbeknownst to me) on my rear bumper.

But the truth is, these things all can (and will) be explained by the skeptic. And, taken alone, these are not why I believe in the reality of God and His presence in my life. My faith is not (solely) mystical. It is fundamentally (though not solely) rational -- I believe in God because it makes sense. He has left (in the Bible) a very compelling historical record of His mark on humankind. In so many ways our world revolves around the advent of Jesus Christ, that humble carpenter from Nazareth, who claimed all the way up to His crucifixion to be God. The counterintuitive story of His love and grace and mercy which any holistic reading of the Bible provides drives the final rivets into the bridge of my faith.

And to mix my metaphors for good measure, hearing His voice in this daily walk of life is icing on the cake.

New York Times readers are not known for their embrace of Christianity, so I wasn't shocked to read the incredulous replies to the article. One castigates those who claim to have heard the voice of God for "their inability to distinguish between sensory experience and reality."

So, what if my atheist friend did indeed witness a severed limb, miraculously regenerated? What would prevent these atheistic observers from castigating HIM for his "inability to distinguish between sensory experience and reality?"

Jesus Himself, while demonstrating through many miraculous proofs the power of God, dealt quite neatly with this tendency of ours to say, "If you would only show us more proof, we would believe!" In Luke 16 he shares the story (He doesn't say it's a parable) of an unnamed rich man, and a miserable beggar named Lazarus, who dies of hunger on his doorstep. The selfish corporate suit then goes the way of all the earth, only to discover to his chagrin and horror that eternal life and the judgment of God are very real. In his place of torment he sees Lazarus walking with Abraham afar off and calls out to them for relief. After being told that there was nothing they could do any longer to bridge the chasm and bring him help, he then cries out:
"Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
 And those words were, of course, prophetic ... Jesus Himself later rose from the dead. Did those who were not already inclined to do so, believe in His words as a result?

Scripture holds a different view of faith than we often do (in our lack of it). We seem to think faith will be easy and automatic if only we had "more proof." But we have too much (unwarranted) faith in ourselves. The truth is that faith is never easy and automatic, no matter how much proof is at hand. Jesus taught that faith grows slowly and inexorably, like a mustard seed, only when it is invested, or planted. That faith should have a rational basis, but it will nonetheless be faith. We may not "feel" like believing, but we all should know already that our feelings are not the ultimate judge of reality. (When did you last "feel" like going to the dentist ... even though you know it's good for you?) When true faith is called for, we must take a risk, stake a claim on it.

Our faith will then grow. Jesus said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). Unfortunately it doesn't work the other way around.

The secret of finding God lies in the earnestness and honesty of the seeking. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33). "But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut. 4:29).

Occasionally the rule has its exception. My favorite writer, C. S. Lewis, launched an honest skeptic's search for God. He assumed that in such a search the existence of God would be disproven, but God had other plans, and he was brought full circle to the point where he was confronted with the undeniable reality of God's existence and love.

In a more modern day, Chicago journalist Lee Strobel tells a very similar story, as detailed in The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.

But, as far as writers (or at least journalists) go, these men are unfortunately in the minority. I wonder if most journalists today have the fundamental motivation, energy, and integrity for just such an honest search (in addition to the courage to embrace its very uncomfortable conclusions). In my line of work I have met a number of journalists who have shared that, in their profession, there is indeed a cost to loving Jesus out loud.

I would love to convince everyone I know of the existence and love of the Creator God I know and love. But I long ago realized the truth that I am ill-equipped to do so. This is God's problem (not mine), and there's nothing I can do or say, absent His inspiring power working through me, to make a difference in this regard. Even if I had the power to invoke miraculous regeneration of severed limbs, I'm not sure how much real good that would do. (Honesty, I have trouble just darning my socks, let alone regenerating limbs ... actually I'm not even sure I know exactly what it means to "darn" a sock, gul darn it!)

So, once again, I simply need to trust. It all comes back to trust!


Dave said...

Hey Larry its your Atheist friend that you like to call out from time to time. I am glad that you have the faith necessary to believe that a supreme all powerful all loving God exists. I am sorry but I do not have such a faith, I need tangible evidence. It is quite funny though that every Christian that I talk to about the severed limb thing eventually comes to the same conclusion that you do. And believe me this is no small amount of Christians. They all, and I mean all, finally state to me that if a limb was miraculously healed that I still would not believe. That I would come up with some kind of rationalization that would somehow get me off the hook for conceding that yes there is a God.

What a laughable cop out. What a hilariously disingenuous way of saying that you, and all of your Christian brothers and sisters, don’t really care about other people. Because you aren’t even willing to try! As I stated before, you know down in your heart that your God will not perform a bonafide miracle. I think it is because he does not exist but you Christians laughingly put him in a box and tell everyone what he will and will not do. What a safe way to live.

As far a the child sitting on your bumper and you not backing up and hurting or possibly killing the child I would say that is great, that on this particular occasion you were alerted to this fact somehow. Was it a miracle or the voice of God telling you not to back up? I don’t know, and I would not presume to know. But I would ask you one question. What about all the other kids who were run over by a car? Was God sleeping on those occasions? Did he not care about those children? I think my answer is best that there is no God and that you were just damn lucky you did not kill someone.

But I digress, getting back to the original question of healing a severed limb. I know that I would believe. I have stated this publicly to a vast amount of people, that if a limb was miraculously healed over night, fully functional as if it had always existed, I would get on my knees ask God for forgiveness of my prior disbelief and acknowledge publicly that your God does truly exist. If I backed out and made some lame excuse then I would be subject to public humiliation, shame and ridicule. I am putting my reputation on the line.

But lets look beyond this to what I find so fascinating about you and your Christian brothers and sisters. If you did pray for an amputee to be healed, and miraculously they were healed, the sole benefit would be to God for the healing and to the amputee who now has a working limb. I would not benefit in any way except for my prior unbelief. That is what I find so fascinating, you claim that God works miracles daily, that he is the great physician and that he heals the sick and afflicted. You give him all the credit for the mundane little things in life that can easily be explained through the body’s own immune system but when it comes to praying for a real miraculous healing you run away crying foul and state that even if your God did heal an amputee that I would find some excuse to not believe.

Well I am tired of debating the issue with cowards. If you can state that I would never believe then I can state that you are to cowardly to even try.

Anonymous said...

God bless you Dave. I will pray for you always.

Larry Short said...

After Dave's comment above, I had a great ongoing conversation on Facebook, and he gave me permission to post it here, so I am going to do my best to cut and paste it into this space ... stand by ...

Larry Short said...

Larry (May 8 at 9:57pm) Good, I'm glad you read it!

Actually, I don't think I ever said I wouldn't try. If I were confronted with someone with a severed limb who wanted prayer, I certainly would be willing to pray. Do you have anyone in mind?

I have prayed for people to be healed before. Some for less serious things, some for more serious things (like terminal cancer), but less dramatic. Sometimes they have been healed, sometimes they have not. And this is completely consistent with Scripture. God certainly has the ability to heal or to raise the dead. Does he always choose to do so when someone prays? No. This is obvious not only from personal practice, but from a reading of Scripture.

All that says about God is that He has the power and He makes the choice. Why pray then? Because He asks us to. And I would happily pray for your severed limb, assuming you wanted me to. I don't necessarily think He would regenerate it just to prove a point to you, though. As I alluded in what I wrote, that's not the nature of faith, and I don't think he's inclined to enable you in your lack of it.

Is this cowardice on my part? I don't think that's a fair or accurate assertion, and it seems to me a bit of an ad hominem cop-out that you are leveling it. But it doesn't really bother me, and if you believe that, so be it.

By the way, I do hope you get your miracle (and recognize it for what it is when it comes). One quick question, though ... if I understand you correctly, the regeneration of a severed limb is the ONLY miracle that would suffice. It seems (to me) to be hubris that you would not accept any other miracle. You are therefore "dictating terms" to the creator of the universe. It's sort of like you saying it would be "good for God" if he healed an amputee, and good for the amputee. You may feel confident that you are in the position to judge these things. But, that kind of makes you ... well, God. And I'm not so sure I buy that. Personally, I would make a lousy God, and I honestly don't think a whole lot more of you than I do of myself. (No offense, mind you!)

Anyway, I'm enjoying the dialogue, and looking forward to the day when heat turns to light, my friend!

Larry Short said...

Larry (May 9 at 8:38am) - OK, David, now you've done it.

I have to confess I lay awake for awhile last night (after writing the response I did above) and wrestled with some of the things you said. I realized my conscience was objecting to the fact that I probably wasn't as honest with you as I should have been.

Had I been honest, I would have admitted, yes, to a certain extent you are right -- I am a coward. Though not (I think) precisely in the way and for the reason you said.

The truth is that I do (frequently) experience failures of faith, or inadequate faith. I have doubts. I struggle with whether or not God will come through for me in a pinch. These aren't justified, logically, on what I know, but I do frequently wonder about the human capacity (my capacity) for self-deception, and whether this creeps at all into my view of who God is and who I am in relation to him.

Mostly this happens when I am struggling with some habitual temptation or sin among the many that I struggle with. My conscience is accused: "You say that you believe, and yet look at how you behave. Hypocrite!"

Logically, I know that I am forgiven and these accusations come from outside, from one who doesn't want me to know that I am forgiven or to grasp the power of this fact. But, I succumb to frequent failures of faith, nonetheless, simply because I better than anyone else know how weak my faith really is and how dark my heart is.

So, I confess that you touched a nerve when you said I was a coward. I will try and be more honest with you in the future and 'fess up to my failings.

Larry Short said...

David (May 9 at 6:16pm) - Larry there is no offense taken by me when we banter back and forth, as I have told you before I very much enjoy it. As to whether I know of anyone who has a severed limb, yes I do but I would not give out any names because this is a public forum. But that does not really matter because if you alone or with several friends united in one spirit prayed for anyone to be healed at it came to pass then I guarantee you that it would be all over the news and the medical and scientific community would be publicizing it and researching it and doing everything in their power to understand it. That would be sufficient for me and probably a whole host of individuals that previously did not believe.

As to whether or not I would accept a different miracle or that me demanding God do this one thing is like me dictating terms. I would point you back to your original post on shblog and your second paragraph. It seems that Doubting Thomas made a similar demand about believing that Jesus truly rose from the dead and Jesus told Doubting Thomas that God does not stand for a mere human dictating terms to the supreme creator of the universe. Oh wait that is not what Jesus said was it? So as far as my criteria being an “ad hominem” cop out, I guess I am in good company with one of your bible characters. Good for one person but not good for the rest of us? Well like you said so be it.

A different miracle huh? All I can say is that it would have to be something scientifically verifiable. But let me ask you a question Larry, I have been open an honest with you. In all the time that I have know you I have, to the best of my knowledge, never tried to mislead you in any way and as you know I was once a believer just like you. You may doubt me and say that I was not a true believer but I know in my heart that I was. I had no doubts that the same God that you believe in right now really exists and that he sent his son to die for us so that we might have eternal life in heaven with him. I did believe all of this. I did not stop believing because I am some how mad at God, as you know from reading my posts I stopped believing because I took a cold hard look at the bible itself. Once I realized that the bible was just a bunch of stories and that the miraculous portions of the bible and quite frankly a lot of the historical portions, were just myths it was impossible for me to continue believing it. In the same way that if I asked you to start believing in Santa Claus you could not, because without some form of physical evidence you could not truly believe.

So now for my question to you, I have told you exactly what it would take for me to believe, so please tell me what it would take for you not to believe? As a side note here, every Christian that I have posed this question to tells me the same thing. There is nothing that would make them not believe. But if you’re honest with yourself and not delusional then you will know yourself and be able to answer the question. I am not a delusional person, I know what it took for me to stop believing and I know what it would take for me to start believing all over again.

Larry Short said...

Larry (May 10 at 11:42am) - Wow, Dave, that's a great question. Let me give it some thought.

And yes, you have been completely honest (as far as I am aware) and respectful with me. And I really don't doubt that you personally might change your mind if your conditions were met, I think I know you well enough to give you the credit for this. I mainly was writing what I wrote because I think the principle in general applies to most human beings. Jesus taught that, and I saw that the commenters to that NY Times article seemed to be confirming it. I probably shouldn't have "called you out" as I did, but I was reasonably certain (and appreciate this fact very much) you would read and respond. (And it had been awhile since we had one of our little back-and-forths ... we need to put those on the calendar!)

To clarify, I don't think I was really saying that God didn't tolerate us making demands on Him. I was just expressing my discomfort at doing so (Him being God, me being far from it) and at the idea that our demands somehow "obligate" God to act accordingly. If we applied that to any kind of monarchy on the planet that would be a laughable idea. Yet somehow we feel God owes us certain things. Personally I try to limit my demands only to areas that He has made specific promises.

On the other hand, I do think it's really quite a bit harder for us to actually offend God than most people think it is. He seemed to absorb a lot of whining from Job (and others) without getting His feelings hurt.

I will give some thought to your question about what it would take to change my mind.

Larry Short said...

Larry (May 10 at 2:25pm) - OK, David, I gave it some thought over lunch. I think there are two things that would seriously cause me to question my faith (at least the rational aspect of it ... and then I would have to try and figure out the metaphysical aspect of it. I can discuss that more in depth if you'd like.)

In my view, the linchpin of my Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Jesus truly was raised from the dead, as Scripture reports, then the basis for my faith in Him and His Father is very solid. But if he wasn't, it falls apart.

Therefore, if verifiable and trustworthy evidence came to light that the resurrection didn't happen ... if, for instance, his body was found in the grave (and it could be verified to my satisfaction that it was indeed his) ... then the whole thing is up in the air.

Or else, if the entire story of Jesus was verifiably demonstrated to be a myth, if for instance some ancient writings were uncovered that demonstrated that the disciples got together and conspired to create the resurrection as a myth, and if this discovery was sufficiently trustworthy in my view, I would of course really have to question the whole thing.

I think there are a number of other circumstantial things (since I am weak and fallen) that could tempt me to stray. For instance, if I fell prey to some terrible temptation(s) and then in an effort to cover it up and justify myself strayed further and further from the truth, I can see myself chucking it all and adopting the posture of, "Hey, well, I think God really doesn't care or doesn't exist and therefore it doesn't matter." But of course, from my perspective in the here and now, this would be extremely irrational, ill-advised, and dangerous. But I can certainly see it happening. It's happened to other friends of mine, and is very sad in my view when it does. But for the grace of God, there go I.

Does that all make sense? I certainly think it would be arrogant to say "I would never stray, nothing could make me disbelieve." I think my tendency to stray is very real and a hazard I need to be very aware of. But I don't think that's what you are getting at, I think you are more asking about the rational basis for my faith and what sort of evidence would cause me to question it.

Larry Short said...

David (May 10 at 5:22pm) - Hey Larry, Thanks for the responses. Yes I was merely trying to determine if your reasoning was rational or not. I have talked to many religious people, some Christians and others from faiths that you would classify as cults, that have looked me directly in the eyes and told me that no amount of evidence, physical or otherwise, would cause them to even doubt their belief in their God. At which point I have thanked them for their time and wished them well in whatever they did next.

It has become painfully obvious to me that someone who is unwilling to even consider the other side of a debate is simply preaching and not interested in actually having a dialog. So thank you for being an honest and reasonable person.