In a society marked by hyper-individuality, a lack of real connection that leaves us lonely, and what feels like insurmountable division, we need Shannan’s words. Through her storytelling, she paints a picture of what our lives together as communities and a society can be. And through her practical wisdom, she gives us a path for how we can move in that direction. (One way she does that is by ending each chapter with “One Simple Way to Move toward Each Other.”)
She ends with “A Neighbor’s Blessing.” If any part of this blessing resonates with you, then this book is for you:
“May you go out into this bewildering world warmed by the fire of possibility. May you come to see walking shoes, soup spoons, minivans, and wrinkled hands as worthy tools for connection. May your heart stay tender, your hands stay open, and your door stay easy on its hinges. May you find comfort in the moon, art in the clouds, and goodness in the faces around you. May you gather, listen, and hope relentlessly. And May you never give up on the living light if belonging, right where you are. Grace and peace and gumption be with you.”
One more thing about this book stands out: In addition to people who resemble herself as a white woman, Shannan Martin gleans wisdom from diverse voices—including men and women who are Black, Asian, Latine, and Indigenous. This book is a demonstration of how learning from diverse voices makes our lived theology more robust.
A few weeks ago I started something on Instagram called, “Good Conversations.” The goal is to pursue good. Not easy answers, not destruction, not an echo chamber. And even when we talk about hard things and the conversation gets messy, it’s so we can pursue good.
Also, I want the name “Good Conversations” to define our rules of engagement. These aren’t debates with winners and losers. We’re in this together. And this is a space where we treat others—even those with whom we disagree—with love, respect, empathy, compassion, etc. In other words, this is a space where we practice goodness. The feeling I have after a good conversation—the feeling of being seen, heard, loved, encouraged, energized, challenged in a good way—that’s what I want this to be for everyone.
If you’re on Instagram, you can participate in these conversations simply by responding to my weekly polls and questions. (To follow me, click here.) I’ll be saving each conversation in a highlight reel. For those who aren’t on Instagram, I’ll share some of these conversations here on my blog.
The topic of the first Good Conversation was a big one—our feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade (which became official just a few days before this conversation). Here it is:
I went out for sushi with a friend. She’s the kind of friend I love talking with and who always leaves me feeling encouraged. During this particular conversation, I noticed something interesting:
Whenever she’d say, “I know I should…,” what followed would sound spiritual and “Christian”—like things I grew up hearing at church. But strangely, it wouldn’t sound like anything I’ve read about Jesus’ life in the Gospels. And when she’d apologetically say, “But I decided to…,” I’d be reminded of passages throughout Scripture and I’d see parallels between her life choices and the life Jesus modeled for us.
My friend is following Jesus. And in order to do that, she has to reject the patterns of this world—including ways the Church has adopted and spiritualized these patterns.
Isn’t that weird? At least, shouldn’t it be? And shouldn’t this be cause for alarm?
We’re followers / disciples / apprentices of Jesus. Whatever terminology you like to use, we’re to strive to look more and more like Him. But sometimes we confuse the way of Jesus with church culture. Church culture doesn’t always look and sound like Jesus. In fact, sometimes it’s conforming to church culture that prevents us from becoming more like Jesus. (What a brilliant way for the enemy to keep the Church from actually living like the Body of Christ! “Make it sound spiritual and put Jesus’ name on it, then they’ll accept it without question!”)
I want my heart to be aligned with Jesus’ heart, to look and sound like Him, to reflect Him every way I can. Unfortunately, that means there are times when I must make choices that go against the culture of the Church (or at least the American Church). And that means people who know church culture better than actual Jesus will accuse me of things that sound a lot like the things Jesus was accused of.
• What if we accepted Jesus’ invitation to learn from Him, diving deep into Scripture with humility in the fact that we don’t always get everything right and we still have more to learn?
• What if we investigated whether or not each supposed truth we label “biblical” is actually in the Bible and in alignment with the heart of God?
• What if we chose to follow Jesus—actually follow the words He spoke and the way He lived as it’s revealed in Scripture rather than what some people or our church culture tells us is “biblical”?
So here’s my challenge to you: The next time you find yourself thinking, “I feel like as a Christian I should…,” ask these two questions:
1. Does this thing I feel I should believe/think/do/be resemble what Jesus lived and taught? (If you can’t find it in Jesus’ life and teachings or anywhere else in Scripture, that’s a big red flag. So be specific. Where is it in Scripture? And if you find a verse, zoom out and look at the context of the chapter, book, and whole of Scripture. Is that really what that passage is saying? Or has it been misunderstood or taken out of context?)
2. What is the Spirit saying to me? Could it be that what the Spirit is saying to me contradicts something I’ve been taught but is actually in alignment with the way of Jesus as revealed in Scripture?
One more thing: Live this out in community. Find people who will ask these questions with you, lovingly call you out when you don’t live them, and aggressively encourage you when you do.
A couple weeks ago, I received an email from one of the pastors in my local church. He asked if I could lead a prayer at our upcoming evening worship and prayer service. (We have one of these every month.) The area he asked me to pray for is one I’m passionate about: the racial issues in our country. I was honored to be asked. But the overwhelming feeling I had when I responded with my “yes” was fear and dread. Our church is predominantly white; the demographics of our congregation reflects the demographics of our city (which is statistically one of the whitest cities in America). Let me be clear: I LOVE my church! It’s a great church with wonderful people. But what was being asked of me was still terrifying. I voiced my fears to my husband:
“How on earth am I supposed to lead a congregation to pray as one about something in which we’re so divided?”
“How do I—a woman of color in a predominantly white space—lead a prayer about racial issues in a way that won’t get labeled ‘divisive,’ but is still honest and genuine?”
“What happens if this doesn’t go well?” (This was my biggest question/worry. Did I mention that my husband’s on pastoral staff at this church?)
I labored over the words I’d pray, crafting the words while whispering again and again, “God, I can’t do this. Please help me!” He gave me words. And I prayed them on my own each day leading up to the service. Alone in my living room, I felt the weight of the words. This is not a safe prayer, I thought. I felt something else, too. Something beautiful was happening.
Last night, as I walked up the steps of the platform to lead our congregation in prayer, my heart raced and I unsuccessfully fought to stop shaking. In my fear—yes, I did it scared!—I kept my head down and my eyes on my iPad. As I prayed, I heard something I hoped for but didn’t expect: voices rising in agreement. There were only a couple times when I felt the crowd get quiet. My husband prepared me for this: “There will be moments when they’ll get quiet because they don’t know yet how to pray about some of these things. They’ll get quiet so they can listen and learn. It’s a good thing. Just keep going.” I remembered his words and kept going all the way to the “amen.” Something indeed happened last night. It felt as though something hard that needed to be broken was beginning to break. This is just a beginning. I wrote in my journal after I got home, “I feel it—really feel it. Hope.”
After the service, a number of people asked if I could send them a copy of what I prayed. This morning, I got more messages with the same request. So here it is. What follows are the words I spoke and prayed (including a couple notes to myself to breathe) at Central Assembly in Springfield, Missouri on the evening of Sunday, February 6, 2022. May we continue to pray these words. And as we do, may we learn to live them.
We’re going to pray about the racial issues in our country. [Take a breath.] And I know that as soon as I said those words, every single one of us felt something and our minds got loud with ideas and beliefs. And the range of thoughts is so wide that it can seem too insurmountable for us to be able to pray as one.
So here’s what we’re going to do:
Everyone, hold out your hands in front of you, and clench your fists. (No hitting! We’re not about to fight each other!) Prayerfully imagine that in your fists are all the things you think and feel when you hear the words, “racial issues”…because we’re not going to be able to pray as a unified voice until we deal with what we’re holding in our fists.
As I begin, I want you to pray, “God, here’s all my stuff. I want to give You access to all of it.” And when You’re ready, I invite you to open your hands in surrender to Jesus. If you need more time before you’re ready, that’s okay. The important thing is that we all move a little closer to God in this moment.
God, we’re symbolically holding in our fists
ways we believe we’re right and others are wrong,
ways we’ve allowed ideologies to hinder us from loving well,
maybe feelings of apathy or annoyance,
or a desire for things to be better and exhaustion by the weight of it all,
maybe disillusionment, anger, or disappointment in our brothers and sisters in Christ,
maybe pain or even trauma.
Some of the things we’re holding are right in Your eyes and some are not. For most, what we’re holding is complicated. And all of it needs to be surrendered to You—whether for repentance, or so You can sanctify it to be used for Your glory, or so You can do Your miraculous healing work.
So God, here’s all our stuff. Help us surrender it all to You.
If you feel ready, go ahead and open your hands and pray with me:
Jesus, we surrender it all to You. We give You access to all of it. Align our hearts to Yours and let Your will be done in and through us.
So now we lift up our church, our community, and our nation.
God, we lift up the Black community.
We lift up the Native American community.
We lift up the Latino community.
We lift up the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
We lift up everyone who’s part of the majority culture.
The needs are many.
We pray for demonic strongholds to be destroyed. Break the strongholds of racism and white supremacy in our country and even our churches. Disturb what needs to be disturbed and change hearts.
We pray for repentance to continue and to be thorough. We’ve come a long way, but still have far to go. Help us to repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance. As Daniel, Nehemiah, and others repented for the communal sins of Israel, we repent of our nation’s sins as well as our own.
In commenting on MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” Mrs. Coretta King said: “At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.” God, there was a moment when it felt like we were on the brink of racial healing, but it only lasted for a moment, and too many returned to business as usual.
We repent of our prejudices, the ways we’ve wrongly judged, painted groups of people with broad strokes, or turned people into demeaning caricatures. We repent of the actions and inaction that flowed from these ways of thinking.
We repent of disobeying your command to care for the foreigner and the ways we’ve treated ethnic minorities like they are “other” and do not belong.
We repent of the ways we’ve upheld or been complicit with unjust systems.
We repent of choosing to be colorblind when the dream of Your Kingdom is not one of ethnic erasure but one that envisions every nation, tribe, and language worshiping together before Your throne. Give us eyes to be color brave, to see the beauty of our ethnicities and the ways they reflect the image of God.
We repent of choosing comfort over bravery.
We repent of participating in racial jokes or degrading comments, whether we were the one speaking the words or were complicit with our laughter or silence.
We repent of being silent when we should have spoken up in either correction or encouragement.
We repent of getting so caught up in ideologies and partisan talking points that we’ve allowed ourselves to treat people—fellow bearers of the image of God—as though they’re the enemy.
We repent of getting so caught up in debate that we fail to listen, show empathy, compassion, and love.
We repent of treating racial issues as though they’re problems “out there” and neglecting to care for those among us who are hurting.
We repent of the times we’ve prayed without action and the times we’ve acted without prayer.
I pray for us to not settle for superficial peace, but to be agents of healing and justice.
Give our lawmakers the wisdom to correct unjust laws and systems.
Raise up more Christians like Bryan Stevenson to advocate for the victims of our unjust laws and systems and work towards equity.
I pray for the violence against Black and brown bodies to stop. Oh, God, we denounce violence in all its forms. We denounce violence that’s inflicted on anyone. This week, with the start of Black History Month, at least 13 Historically Black Colleges and Universities were forced to close due to bomb threats. Oh God, we cry out for true peace in our land. As we often pray for a shield of protection when we travel, we pray for a shield of protection around ethnic minorities.
In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King lamented, “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” Oh God, may we be a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice! Give Your Church—here at Central and throughout our country—the wisdom and anointing to be brave in calling out unjust attitudes and systems, to be brave in doing the work of racial reconciliation, and to be brave in praying for and working towards shalom in our land. Holy Spirit, lead us and help us lead the way.
[Take a breath.]
Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a drastic rise in Anti-Asian violence. Asian Americans have been bombarded with videos of people who look like us and our parents being attacked and murdered. A couple months ago, there was news of an Asian man who was shot multiple times. He was about my father’s age and was killed in Chicago’s Chinatown, a place my father frequents. So when I saw the news headline, without thinking, I instinctually looked up the details of the story to make sure it wasn’t my father. This is a glimpse of what racial trauma looks like.
Jesus, we lift up those who are hurting and suffering racial trauma.
We’re hurting. And sometimes the pain is too heavy and hope feels impossible. Oh Jesus, You understand wounds. So we welcome You into our pain and we bring You our lament. We bring You all our anger and frustration, all our why-s and how longs.
We pray for every BIPOC person who is carrying trauma in their bodies and their spirit. God of all comfort, I beg You to heal us.
Help us as we absorb yet another insensitive comment, dirty look, or hurtful action. Keep our hearts soft and our armors strong. May we forgive and, at the same time, not internalize the racism we experience.
Help us when the news of another assault or murder triggers our trauma and fear.
Our Father, there’s so much brokenness. But You are the Lord of righteousness and justice, God of miracles and infinite possibility. Heal our land. Amen.
On September 10, 2021, I spoke at an event at Central Assembly in Springfield, MO. These are the words I shared that day.
I’m going talk to you about something that’s a lot bigger than what I can give you in 10 minutes. So I want to whet your appetite and stir in you a holy curiosity that I pray will shift the way you read the Bible and interact with God, the way you see yourselves, and the way you love others.
Sometime ago, I was watching a Netflix documentary about American Christianity. In it, someone said, “In our essence, we are sinful.” That sounds spiritual, but is it true? Is our essence, who we are at our core, our sinfulness? Is that how God sees us? And as Christians, is that how God wants us to see ourselves and others?
To answer that, let’s go to the Bible. And let’s start at the beginning.
Genesis 1:1, the opening line of Scripture, says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Right away, we meet the main character of the Bible, the hero of the story: God. And this chapter proceeds to tell us how God created everything in the cosmos. Light, land and sky, day and night, sun and moon, seasons and years, the plant and animal kingdoms—He spoke it all into being. And as He created, He declared His creation good.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
With these verses, we read the beginning of our story. And the very first thing that’s said about humanity is that we’re created in the image of God. God didn’t speak humanity into being. He formed the first human from dust and breathed life into Him.
If you ask a lot of Christians about their theology, what they believe, many would begin in chapter 3 with the fall of man. This is how many of us were taught to share the Gospel. But when we do this, we miss out on the theological richness in the first two chapters of Genesis where we’re introduced to threads that are woven throughout the entire Bible, threads that are important for understanding who God is and who we are. And one of those threads is the idea of the imago Dei, the image of God.
What is the imago Dei? What does it mean to be “created in the image of God”?
When we read the story of creation, God creates a lot of amazing, awe-inspiring things that reflect God’s glory. But not everything is created in God’s likeness. God chose humankind to be the bearers of His image.
The idea of the imago Dei flies in the face of a culture that gives people worth based on things like appearance, platform, productivity, and status. Dr. Jemar Tisby wrote, “…the Christian doctrine of the image of God teaches that all people have inherent worth and dignity simply because they are God’s creation.”
So what are ways we see the image of God in us?
We see it in our capacity…
to think and reason,
to forge relationships and emotionally connect with God and others,
to have authority and responsibility over the earth through our vocation, care for our health and wellness, and stewardship of our resources,
to become more and more like Jesus until we meet Him face to face. (from Christian Spiritual Formation, by Diane Chandler)
Every single one of us is a bearer of the imago Dei, created in the image of God. THAT is our essence. We reflect God’s image in the ways we’re similar and also in the ways we’re different. Our different stories and backgrounds, the different generations we were born to be part of, our different gifts and passions, even our different races, ethnicities, and nationalities—they all come together to make a beautiful mosaic that reflects God.
At this point, you may be thinking, But what about original sin? In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, sin entered the world. Did that change our essence? Did sin erase the image of God in us?
Well, what does the Bible have to say about the imago Dei after the fall?
Genesis 5:1 says, “This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them.”
When talking about why murder is wrong, in Genesis 9:6, God said, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.”
In the New Testament, when talking about how difficult it is to control the tongue, James 3:9 says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”
Sin fractured our identities, marred the imago Dei in us, but it did not erase it. Even in our brokenness, we still bear the image of God!
This is the tension we live with: In our essence, we are bearers of the image of God. And at the same time, we live in a fallen world, impacted by sin. And because of that, Romans 3:23 says “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” We don’t live up to our potential as image bearers.
But God has not given up on us. He invites us to follow Him and partner with the Holy Spirit in His transformative work in our lives.
And like a masterpiece painting that has become cracked, weathered, and faded, we’re still a masterpiece. And God, the master Creator and artist who loves His creation deeply, can restore what has been marred to once again look like the image He created us to bear.
Before I continue, I’d like to speak from my heart. The past 18 months have been difficult for all of us. In many ways we deeply feel the pain of living in a fallen world. One way is in the racial divisions that have been brought into the light. Some of you in this room may feel like your dignity and worth or the dignity and worth of your children have been torn down. Maybe you’re carrying the wounds of trauma and you feel emotionally exhausted this evening. If that’s you, I invite you to find me later—or message me—and I’d like to personally take the time to give space for what you’re experiencing.
And for all of us in this room—or everyone reading this blog—I exhort you: Let us practice and model to a hurting and broken world what it looks like to see and value the imago Dei in ourselves and in others.
Now, let’s talk about Jesus.
There is only one person in all the world and history who has ever completely and perfectly borne the image of God. His name is Jesus.
Diane Chandler wrote, “…Jesus is the perfect image that humankind lost during the fall but through whom humankind now is alive with potential for restoration through redemption and is capable of holistic growth into the image of Christ.” (from Christian Spiritual Formation)
Romans 8:29 talks about how we’re to be “conformed to the image of [God’s] son.”
And 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory…”
In other words, what’s the goal? To look more and more like Jesus!
And how do we do that? Through Jesus!
Let’s take this one step further: On this road of spiritual formation, we need Jesus…and we need each other.
God’s character and nature, His personality, His passions, the way He expresses Himself and interacts with His creation and with us—He’s so much bigger than what any one of us can reflect. So it’s vital that on the road of spiritual formation, we not try to do it all on our own, but that we do it together in community. And that means it might get a little messy because people are messy. But even in the messiness, and many times, through the messiness, God’s transformative work happens and we begin to look more like Jesus and better reflect the imago Dei, both individually and corporately.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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…”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.“
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.”
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.“
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…”
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.
I know it doesn’t sound very spiritual to have a favorite book of the Bible, but the Psalms are my favorite. This ancient hymnbook connects me to the generations who came before me: the Israelites, Jesus and the apostles, the early Church…Though the languages differ, the words are the same. And oh, it’s beautiful! Not a pristine beauty—a raw, messy, and wild kind of beauty.
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I see the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn me forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Selah
(Psalm 77:1-9, ESV)
These aren’t pretty words with which to adorn your house or sing in a peppy worship song. These are words of deep suffering. They articulate tough, theological questions about God, the kind of questions that feel too irreverent to ask, but unrelentingly nag at our souls when we’re in the thick of desperation.
God, where are You?
Can You hear me?
Have You forgotten me?
Did You stop loving me?
Have you stopped being the gracious and compassionate God I thought You were?
Seeking God doesn’t mean you’ll be shielded from suffering or that you’ll feel optimistic in dark times. In fact, sometimes the struggle of seeking the Lord is a kind of suffering in itself—those moments when no matter how much we seek Him, He still feels distant and His silence is overwhelming. So how did the writer of this Psalm, Asaph, get through this dark place?
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search…
Then I said, “I will appeal to this,
to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all you work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
(Psalm 77:6, 10-12, ESV)
When we’re desperate for a shift in the midst of our suffering and darkness, remember. And remember with intentionality and diligence. Ponder. Meditate.
Asaph remembered how God helped Israel in the past. In the exodus, when the Egyptians were coming after them on one side and they were blocked by the Red Sea on the other side, it looked like their situation was hopeless. There was no good option in sight. But what did God do? He parted the sea so they could walk through it!
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
(Psalm 77:19, ESV)
In Scripture, the sea is a recurring image of danger. The Great Shepherd’s way isn’t always beside still waters; sometimes it’s through the sea. I wish God would just stick to the still waters, but still waters aren’t always as safe as we’d like them to be. It’s far too easy to forget that it was God who led us there, to start believing that His presence is superfluous, and to start placing our trust in the water itself. It’s safer to go through the sea while clinging to God than to lie beside still waters and forget He’s there. Waters change. Still waters don’t always stay still; rough waters don’t stay rough. I’ll stake my life on the One who can navigate them both.
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
(Psalm 77:19, ESV)
Your road led through the sea,
your pathway through the mighty waters—
a pathway no one knew was there!
(Psalm 77:19, NLT)
“Yet your footprints were unseen.”
“A pathway no one knew was there.”
Sometimes God—or the path He has for us—is hidden. Hidden doesn’t mean “not there.” We don’t seek God because He’s not with us. We seek Him so He can help us see what we couldn’t see before.
So when you can’t see any good in your situation, no hint of God’s goodness, take the time to remember what He has done in the past. You can even pull out a notebook or journal and write out ways He’s been there for you, come through for you, and surprised you in the past. And if you find that after 10 minutes you’re staring at a blank page, ask God to help you see what you couldn’t see before.
Whether God is leading us beside still waters or through the dangerous sea, whether or not we see Him, we have this hope: He is with us. And He can navigate these waters.
Lord, when Your footprints are unseen,
when You are leading me on a path no one knows is there,
help me to diligently seek You.
And whether Your way is beside still waters or through the sea,
Advent is a time of expectation and hope, but the beauty of this season gets overshadowed by busyness, rush, and consumerism. Art has a way of quieting the noise and helping us be attentive to the profound things of life.
May this piece of poetry open for you a small space when the noise of your life gets a little softer and the whisper of God gets a little louder.