Each year I pray for God to give me a word. A word to internalize, grow into, and live out. A word that can bring me focus as I navigate the challenges the year will bring. What was the word God gave me for 2020? Prophesy.
Seriously, God? It seemed too weird. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I saw a lot of false prophets and predictions. (Anyone remember all the prophesies about how the world would end and Jesus would come back at Y2K?) Even though I believe some prophets and prophecies are real and biblical, I’ve seen enough falsehood, abuses of Scripture, and weirdness to have a skeptical view of people who proclaim themselves to be prophets or to have “a word from the Lord.” And let’s not forget the fact that the Bible has some harsh words for false prophets!
“But the prophet who presumes to speak a message in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods — that prophet must die.’ You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a message the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the Lord’s name, and the message does not come true or is not fulfilled, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”Deuteronomy 18:20-22
Suffice it to say, when I sensed God speaking the word “prophesy” to me, I said, “Thanks, God, but no thanks! Can you give me a different word? One that isn’t so weird or scary?”
God didn’t answer this last request. He didn’t need to; He knew what I would need. More than that, He knew how this year would unfold and that the people in my sphere of influence would need a prophetic voice. So He continued to whisper the same word in my heart again and again. And He pointed me to a passage of Scripture that felt like fire every time I came across it. Sermons, books, wherever I looked—it felt like I couldn’t get away from it!
“Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For the person who speaks in a tongue is not speaking to people but to God, since no one understands him; he speaks mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the person who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. The person who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish all of you spoke in tongues, but even more that you prophesied. The person who prophesies is greater than the person who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be built up.”1 Corinthians 14:1-5
“Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”
In my resisting, God was relentless. (That’s one of the ways I know I’m not just making stuff up and God’s really speaking to me.) I came to a point where I couldn’t shake His voice—I didn’t want to—and I gave in. My giving in to God was part reluctance, but bigger part expectation that God knew what He was doing and had something in store.
Prophesy. Not “prophet.” Not “prophecy.” The word He gave me was a verb, an action word. And shortly after I gave in to God, March 2020 happened. The world was reeling from a global pandemic and America went into lockdown. And in the following months, America began to reel even more as racial injustice was recorded for all to see and people cried out in the streets. All of this and so much more in a crazy election year. And in the midst of everything, God didn’t want me to be a passive observer; He wanted me to do something.
You may be thinking, “If God gave you the word “prophesy” for the year of 2020, shouldn’t you have seen everything coming?” When you read the prophetic books in the Bible, you find that even though part of their message included predicting future events, the bulk of their messages consisted of critique and hope.
Did I see the crazy before it all happened? Not quite. But at every turn this year, I’ve felt ready. Not just ready to go through each challenge with a peace and purpose, but also ready to care for and appropriately speak into the lives of the people God has called me to love and lead.
“The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are instructed
to know how to sustain the weary with a word.
He awakens me each morning;
he awakens my ear to listen like those being instructed.”Isaiah 50:4
In June of this year (the month when racial injustice was brought into the light and couldn’t be ignored any longer), I was reading the book of Jeremiah. That was a difficult month for me. I was heartbroken and angry about all of the injustice. I felt disillusioned as a large number of Christians (including leaders) said things that completely contradicted what I was reading in the Bible. And then I’d see other Christians who had the courage to speak up, only to get torn down by their Christian brothers and sisters. And each day as I continued to wade through the long book of Jeremiah, I found myself feeling more disillusioned—not by God, but by people who violated His word in His name. And all I could do was lament.
Looking through the lens of the word “prophesy”—along with diligent study of what the Bible has to say and taking the time to hear God’s voice on the matter—has given me a unique perspective of this year. At times, it has allowed me to see with expectation (even excitement) during times when many have felt anxious and afraid. At other times, it has caused me to have caution when some have declared, “Everything’s looking up now!” And when there has been a rise of people declaring to have had prophecies or dreams of what is to come, I’m finding it easier to discern when it’s time to listen, when something needs to be put on a shelf for later, or when something needs to be corrected or discarded. Most importantly, in the midst of a difficult year, it has helped me to hold the tension of both lament and hope.
What follows are passages from the Bible that talk about prophets and prophesying. This isn’t exhaustive by any means. These are simply some of the passages that have stuck out to me this year as I’ve explored what it means (and what it doesn’t mean) to prophesy.
The entire book of Jeremiah is a great starting point. It’s like a narrative textbook on what it means to be a prophet. There’s way too much gold in this book to put in a single blog post, so I’ll just share some highlights.
The life of the prophet isn’t easy. These words from God to Jeremiah give insight into one of the challenges that comes with being a prophet:
“When you speak all these things to them, they will not listen to you. When you call to them, they will not answer you. Therefore, declare to them…”Jeremiah 7:27-28a
The words God gave Jeremiah to preach weren’t easy for people to digest. (He foretold of invasion and exile and preached a message of repentance from idolatry, oppression, and injustice.) On the other hand, Judah’s leaders were saying things that seemed more optimistic or faith-filled. But the words of these leaders didn’t come from God and weren’t rooted in the truth.
“They have treated the brokenness
of my dear people superficially,
claiming, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.”Jeremiah 8:11
And notice what God said about people who were falsely “prophesying” in Jeremiah’s day:
“This is what the Lord of Armies says: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They are deluding you. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the Lord’s mouth. They keep on saying to those who despise me, “The Lord has spoken: You will have peace.” They have said to everyone who follows the stubbornness of his heart, “No harm will come to you.”
For who has stood in the council of the Lord
to see and hear his word?
Who has paid attention to his word and obeyed?’”Jeremiah 23:16-18
God goes on to say what the effect a true prophet, someone who has stood in the council of the Lord, would have on people:
“If they had really stood in my council,
they would have enabled my people to her my words
and would have turned them from their evil ways
and their evil deeds.”Jeremiah 23:22
Moving beyond the book of Jeremiah…For all those who think they have a prophecy from God because, like Michael Scott, they declared it:
“Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”2 Peter 1:20-21
Jesus warned his followers about false prophets and told them how they could recognize them:
“Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.“Matthew 7:15-20
You’ll recognize them by their fruit. There are a lot of places in the Bible that talk about fruit. The most famous of these passages is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. When it comes to prophets, pay attention to the fruit:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”Galatians 5:22-23
Earlier I quoted 1 Corinthians 14:1 where Paul wrote, “Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” God gives some people the gift of prophecy to build up the Church. But we shouldn’t be naive and listen to everyone who claims to be a prophet with a “word from the Lord.” So what should we do when someone has a message?
“Don’t stifle the Spirit. Don’t despise prophecies, but test all things. Hold on to what is good.“1 Thessalonians 5:19-21
Test all things—every prophecy—and take note: Does this line up with the heart of Scripture? What kind of fruit do I observe? If it includes a prediction, did it come true? And when you test all things, hold on to what is good. Speaking of holding on to what is good, as Paul writes to Timothy, a young minister he mentored, he gave a glimpse of the good that prophecies hold:
“Timothy, my son, I am giving you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies previously made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the good fight…”1 Timothy 1:18
One last thing…
If you feel like God is asking you to prophesy, first pray for God to give you discernment so you can know the difference between His voice and your own. (Double check to make sure that word that’s burning in your heart actually came from Him.) And then, if you still feel God has given you a prophetic word to share, courageously obey His voice. And as you prophesy, trust God to deal with the hearts of others while paying attention to the fruit that flows from your own.