Like prayer, prophecy isn’t complicated. It’s just our doubts—and our own voices—get in the way.
There are two misconceptions about the word “prophet.” One’s a minor problem; the other’s huge. Small problem first: What a prophet actually is.
Loads of people assume prophets are the same thing as prognosticators: People who know the future, or who can predict it really well. Pagans think this, which is why they treat prophecy like psychic phenomena. And cessationists think this: “Prophecy,” to them, is all about being able to interpret the End Times. It’s why all their “prophecy conferences” are all End Times goofiness instead of actual prophets talking shop.
True, God talks about the future quite a lot. Be fair; so do we all. “That’s on my schedule for tomorrow,” or “I’ll do that in the morning,” or “Can’t wait till Saturday.” Like us, God either talks about what he’s gonna do in the near future, or the soon-coming consequences of poor choices: “Stop doing that; you’ll go blind.” Since the future comes up so often, people, including Christians, assume prophecy is mostly about foretelling the future.
In fact one of the ways we test a prophet is by making sure any statements about the future do come true.
A prophet is not a prognosticator. A
When you pray—you do pray, right?—and God speaks back to you, usually it’s information for you. Sometimes it’s information for others. “Remind your husband I love him.” Or “Warn your daughter her so-called friend is gossiping about her.” Or “See that guy at the bus stop? Wave hi.” Or “I have just one word for your father-in-law: Plastics.” Whatever messages God wants us to pass along to others, that’s a prophecy. When you pass ’em, you’re a prophet.
Thought you needed some Isaiah-style vision, with seraphs and thrones and God calling you to the job? Nah. It’s been known to happen. But it’s far more common God’ll just tell you something, and see how you do with it. And if you do well, he’ll do it more often. And if you don’t, he won’t.
The huge misconception: Prophecy is rare.
I did mention there’s a huge problem, right? Here it is: The common belief hearing God is a rare gift, sharing what we’ve heard is a rare talent, and prophecy is a rare calling. (Or an abolished one. I’ll get to that.)
It’s crap. It’s popular crap, spread in order to get Christians to dismiss, avoid, and even reject God’s voice.
Loads of people would love to hear from God. And loads of people are scared to death of the idea:
- Hypocrites, afraid God’ll tell on them. ’Cause he’s been known to.
- Doctrinaires, afraid they’re actually wrong, afraid God’ll correct them.
- Bibilolaters, who’ve made a god of their bible (a nice passive god, which never, ever contradicts their loopy interpretations), and really don’t want the real God showing up to compete.
- Victims of dark Christians, who’ve been told God is very angry with them, and will shout at them and take away everything which brings them joy.
- Doubters who don’t wanna give up their doubts.
- Sinners who don’t wanna give up their sins.
For all sorts of reasons, many prefer a distant, otherworldly, future, imaginary, silent God. A living God will only get in their way. So they discourage prophecy. Any time they hear of prophets, they look for reasons to discredit and dismiss them. Any time they hear a prophet, they try to “expose” them as frauds or self-deluded.
Or they’ve adopted the belief God stopped giving prophecy. They take this passage—
1 Corinthians 13.8-10 KJV
- 8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
—and claim it’s about how prophecies, tongues, and any other forms of supernatural knowledge, have ceased to be. When Paul and Sosthenes wrote this letter, the bible wasn’t complete yet. Obviously they were still writing it. But once Revelation was fully put to papyrus, “that which is perfect is come”—the bible was finished!—and “that which is in part,” by which they mean prophetic revelation, “shall be done away.” God is done revealing stuff. Prophets are no longer necessary. Nor tongues, nor special knowledge. No more prophets.
That, or they redefine “prophet” as anyone who serves as a mouthpiece for God, regardless of whether God directly told ’em anything. Fr’instance if you read your bible, and you read Jesus say, “Repent! Believe in the gospel!”
(No, because repeating other prophets, like Jesus or Mark, doesn’t make you a prophet; any more than repeating someone else’s poem makes you a poet.)
So yeah, loads of Christians have chosen to believe prophecy—and miracles, and really anything supernatural God might do—has ceased to be.
And loads of Christians, who really don’t wanna be prophets—who are afraid of all the hassle which comes with the duty, who are afraid of getting lumped in with all the cranks who’re involved with prophetic ministry—are quick to adopt these arguments for why they can’t possibly be prophets. Why they can’t possibly have heard God: Better sit on those messages and pretend they never heard a thing.
It’s why Christians regularly ignore our own, varying abilities to hear God. It’s why, to borrow Jesus’s story of the talents,
You have the Holy Spirit. He’s the spirit of prophecy!
Every Christian, without exception, can hear God. Maybe not well, but it’s an ability we can develop.
Meaning every Christian, without exception, can be a prophet. Including you.
It’s why he poured the Holy Spirit upon every Christian. In the Old Testament, only the prophets had the Holy Spirit. Well in the Christian Era, every Christian has the Holy Spirit. And not just because he’s a neat thing to have: He gives us the power to hear God, and share God.
Acts 2.16-20 KWL
- 16 …but this is what the prophet Joel had said: 17 ‘God said this’ll happen in the last days:
- “I’ll pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will give prophecies.
- Your young ones will see visions. Your old ones will will dream dreams.
- 18 In those days I’ll pour out my Spirit even on my slaves, men and women.
- And they’ll give prophecies!
- 19 I’ll show wonderful things in the skies above,
- and signs on the earth below—blood and fire and smoke in the air.
- 20 The sun’ll be turned to darkness,
- the moon to blood before the great Lord’s Day comes,
- 21 and everybody who calls on the Lord’s name will be saved.”’
God gave us his Spirit so we could prophesy and have visions and dreams. He wants us to pursue it. He wants listeners. He wants messengers. He wants prophets.
True, not all of us are gonna find this prophecy stuff easy. We have to work at it, whereas other Christians seem to clearly and effortlessly hear God. It’s ’cause they’re geniuses.
There are prophecy geniuses, like Samuel, who heard God so clearly it’s the same as if anyone else talked to him.
When I wrote on prayer, I explained how God the Holy Spirit talks back: He’s spirit, and speaks to us spiritually. He listens to our “hearts”—our spiritual center, not the cardiac muscle—when we speak to him; he talks back to our hearts as well.
But when he talks back, we don’t always realize it’s the Spirit speaking. Often we assume these ideas and impulses and nudges—which seemed to appear out of nowhere in our heads—are us. We think they’re our ideas. We honestly can’t tell the difference between the Spirit’s ideas and our own.
Well… sometimes we can. “Where’d that idea come from?” is usually a tip-off. God-ideas tend to be significantly different from our ideas. The Spirit will tell us to act against our selfish impulses, or act contrary to our common sense, or give us information we just can’t know—and it turns out to be right, and perfectly timed. These messages get our attention. They’re obviously him. They aren’t the Spirit’s only messages; just the ones which shock us into realizing God is talking—to
Problem is, sometimes it is us. Some of us wanna hear the Spirit so bad, we’ll psyche ourselves into thinking he’s speaking to us. We’ll carry on little conversations with ourselves. One of the “voices” will be God, and the other one’s us, and we’ll “talk with God.” Except we’re not talking with God; we’re talking to ourselves, and leading ourselves astray. ’Cause isn’t it funny how often this “God” we’re speaking to wants exactly the same things we want? How he thinks just like us?
And yeah, the devil can play God too. It’s the devil’s favorite hobby, really: Getting people to follow it, and tempt us to do all sorts of ridiculous stuff. Stuff which’ll shatter other people’s faith and make Christianity look stupid and awful. Devils trick us into all sorts of pious-sounding, but self-serving behavior: “Follow me and I’ll make you famous. I’ll give you the biggest, most successful ministry ever. Everybody will follow you. I’ll make you so rich and powerful. You’ll grow a kingdom; you’ll be so blessed.” Sound familiar?
So how do we learn which ideas are really from the Spirit, and which aren’t?
Read your bible!
First and foremost, we gotta compare the spiritual things we hear, with the spiritual writings we’ve been given. We gotta read our bibles.
Whatever we think we heard God say, we compare with what God authentically said to others in the past. So read Jesus’s teachings. Read the Prophets. Read as many direct quotes from God as you can find. Get familiar with what the Spirit sounds like.
While a lot of Christians do read our bibles, we often make the mistake of only reading our favorite bits. Lots of New Testament; skip the Old Testament. Lots of historical stories (especially the violent ones); skip the Prophets as too obscure, too metaphorical, too hard. And we should especially be reading the Prophets, but you’ll notice your average Christian doesn’t know Zephaniah from Zechariah, and can’t pronounce Haggai /hɔg'gaɪ/ or Habakkuk /hɔ'bɔk.kʊk/ properly.
Read what the L
The more you read your bible in order to get familiar with the Spirit’s voice, the more you’ll notice how often he talks to you.
Naturally if the things we suspect are “God ideas” are inconsistent with what God’s said in the past, it’s likely not him. Although sometimes it is. Y’see, sometimes God deliberately contradicts himself, just to see whether you’ve been paying attention. Like when he told Ezekiel to cook bread over his own poo. Ezekiel rightly objected: Not only is that nasty, it’s ritually unclean.
Now once you’ve absorbed a bunch of bible, your brain is gonna regurgitate it: Bible quotes are gonna pop into your mind. Bible imagery is gonna show up in your dreams. Bear in mind this isn’t necessarily God: That’s your brain. Don’t confuse bible quotes with God’s present-day messages. Immature prophets make this mistake all the time, and start quoting God out of context: “I realize Obadiah was written to ancient Edom, but God’s telling me this message is for you…” No. The Holy Spirit does not quote himself out of context. If it’s not in context, it’s you. Not him. (This, I find, is one of the easiest ways to catch a false prophet.)
Now yes, history repeats itself all the time. What God told the Hebrews or Egyptians or Babylonians or Greeks sounds just as relevant to Americans. But a wise prophet is gonna learn the difference between their subconscious and the Holy Spirit.
Share what he tells you.
Too many of us hear God, know we hear God, yet never share what we hear. That’s the difference between a prophet and a non-prophet: Prophets share. Prophets are willing to step out on the stage and say, “God told me this.” And risk being wrong. Or risk skepticism and criticism. Comes with the job. But a lot of us never do the job. Still, it is just that simple: All you gotta do to be a prophet is share what God told you. That’s it. Nothing more.
I preached on this once. At the end of the sermon, I pulled a stunt: I had the church bunch into smaller groups of two or three, and told ’em to share one thing from the previous week which God had told or shown them. I gave them several minutes to do so. Then I said, “There y’go. Now you’re all prophets. You shared what God told you.”
A few of the older folks responded, “Um… that’s not really a prophet. A prophet is…” followed by the usual clichés about Old Testament-style hairy thunderers like Elijah and John. These misconceptions are deeply embedded in Christian culture, and the older folks couldn’t get beyond them.
But that is all prophecy consists of. Share those ideas. Risk those ideas. Stop clinging so tightly to them, as if they’re divine secrets. They’re not. In fact one of the things you’ll discover as you share them—one of the things that’ll shock you—is how God doesn’t only tell you these things. He told darn near everybody these things. He talks to everybody. Yet only you had the nerve to step forward.
Talk to other prophets.
A lot of Christians have told me, “I don’t know who the prophets are in my church.” Watch: Once you start sharing, they come out of the woodwork. Not because they were hiding. They were never hiding. (Well, unless you go to a cessationist church, where they’re kinda forced to hide. But you’ll find them there too.) Once you find the other people who share God with others, get to know them. Support one another.
Bounce your God-ideas off one another. “I think God is telling me this; what do you think?” They’ll either encourage or discourage you, and point you in the right direction. Exhortation also comes with the job, y’know
Some of them are gunshy: They’ve been discouraged so often, judged so harshly, they’re afraid to recognize anything as a God-idea. If that’s the case, find better prophets to hang out with. Maybe talk to Christians from another church which encourages prophecy. Encourage the nervous prophets to find help.
Some of them are jealous. Which turns ’em into bad or fake prophets. True prophets are thrilled to meet new prophets: “Yes! Here’s another one!” There aren’t enough prophets, and so much work to do! True prophets try to foster new colleagues. Whereas fakes try to be the only prophet in their church. Or they demand the rank of senior prophet, and use it to control, or shut down, other prophets. Real prophets encourage: Even if you’re getting everything wrong, they’ll put the time and effort into you, and make a special project of you to help you get it right.
So definitely seek out other prophets. Get that support group.
Get ready for criticism.
As I said, not every Christian wants prophecy, or believes it happens anymore. They’re pleased with the status quo, and don’t want God throwing monkey wrenches into it. They really enjoy their lifestyles, and don’t even want God to tell them to stop. They think they have God all figured out, and the last thing they want to hear is they’re wrong.
Prophecy has always had more foes than fans: People who’d rather die (or rather have you die) than change. So when you share God’s messages with other people, be prepared for pushback.
Again, it comes with the job. But never let it stop you from doing the job. Those of us with ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to his churches.