“Prophets” who only share encouraging words.

There’s a rather loaded word we Christians use on a frequent basis: “Word.” It refers to Jesus. It can also refer to the bible, either as a whole, or to specific statements of God in the scriptures. It can refer to the gospel, Mt 13.19 the “good word.” It can refer to any message or lesson, really: A Sunday school class, a sermon, or a prayer where the petitioner slipped a lesson into it, passive-aggressive or not.

Or it can just be a short, positive saying. An “encouraging word.” A T-shirt slogan, easily short enough for text messages and Twitter.

All my life I’ve heard these little sayings. Had a pastor who’d like to start each Sunday morning service with one of them: “Church, I have a word for you.” Then he’d share it. Might be a popular saying; might be a clever saying; might be a bible verse. Might expound on it a little, but it’d take him no more than 30 seconds, ’cause he was gonna pray, and then we were gonna sing. “Church, be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.” It’d be short.

Christians like to encourage each other with such things. We’ll make memes of them and scatter them all over the internet. We teach ’em to newbies and children. Most are good, and consistent with the scriptures. Some are bunk. But I tend to call them generic Christian truth. Stuff like:

  • Jesus loves you. (This I know, for the bible tells me so.)
  • Be of good cheer!
  • God considers you valuable. You’re not irrelevant.
  • It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you his kingdom.
  • Jesus is the way, truth, and life.
  • Heaven is real, and someday you get to see it.
  • God wants to help, so don’t forget to pray.
  • Stop fixating on the world’s chaos. It’s passing away.
  • Jesus is returning!

And so on. We put ’em on T-shirts and bumper stickers, put ’em into Christian pop songs, and use ’em to encourage one another. Anybody can do it.

And it takes no prophetic ability whatsoever. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have to tell me, “Hey, go tell that stranger I love her.” You already know God loves her; you can tell her without any prompting from him. We can tell anyone, at any time, “Hey, God loves you!” ’Cause it’s true.

Although sometimes the Spirit does have to give us a little kick in the pants. But that little kick doesn’t count as prophecy; it’s not always because these strangers have to hear God loves them. Yeah, sometimes they do… but a lot of times the Spirit gives us that kick because we suck at encouraging others. So if you ever thought to yourself, “Why’d the Spirit make me go say something to that stranger? He looked so unimpressed”—it’s not because that person needed to hear anything, but because the Spirit’s teaching you to obey. Good Christian. Keep it up.

But let’s get off that tangent and get to those Christians who specialize in sharing generic Christian truths… and think it’s their prophetic ministry.

Yeah. There are such creatures. I know plenty. And I’m not knocking the encouragement! Christians need to encourage one another; probably more than we already do.

The catch is these people think what they’re doing is prophetic, and it’s really not. Like I said, encouragement takes no prophetic ability whatsoever. You don’t need to personally hear God say, “Tell this person these words” before you can share a generic Christian truth with ’em. Plenty of cessationists, who are dead certain God doesn’t talk to people anymore, tweet encouragement at one another. (As they should: Since they think God abandoned us, they especially need the encouragement!) You can slap a bumper sticker on your car, park it, and leave it there… and it’ll encourage every Christian who sees it, including the one who finally tows your car away. And you won’t have done anything more.

But you know how some people would really like to become prophets, and are willing to call anything prophetic if it means they’re prophets. So yeah, they’ll consider encouraging words to be “prophecies.” Even though they’re not. Even when they misinterpret scripture (“God knows the plans he has for you!”) or aren’t even scriptural at all (“Everything happens for a reason!”). You know, stuff the Holy Spirit doesn’t do.

“Prophets” of generic Christian truth.

Years ago I attended a conference where the organizers claimed they could show us “how to activate the prophetic.” In other words, how to get the Holy Spirit to tell us cool, profound, secret stuff—which we could then share with others, and wow them with our newfound powers. It’s a conference for people who wanna be prophets so bad, anything will do.

So they taught us a lot of mentalism tricks, and claimed they were prophetic. We were taught cold reading—how to look a person over, deduce basic things about them, and state ’em out loud. Our deductions were so accurate it stunned people. “You’re stunned because it’s prophecy,” the organizers claimed; it triggers strong emotion, so it must be spiritual, right? But fake psychics do this sort of thing all the time.

Anyway after we made these deductions, we were instructed to “speak life into them.” This means to make grand Christian declarations which happen to coincide with our deductions. Fr’instance, say you’ve got a man who likes to work with his hands. Know any generic Christian truths which might apply to this guy? Sure you do.

  • God created us Christians to do good works. (And now this guy oughta be able to do some of those good works with his hands.)
  • Jesus used to work with his hands. Ain’t no shame in good hard manual labor.

Throw in some bible verses, cap it off with how God loves him… and you got yourself something which sounds like a prophecy.

Any of this stuff come directly from the Holy Spirit? Nope. Not at all.

But for folks who know nothing about mentalism, it sure feels like they just heard a message from the Holy Spirit. When they got read, it felt like the Spirit unlocked their secrets to this “prophet.” When the “prophet” attached generic Christian truths to their particular situation, it felt like the Spirit had a word specifically for them. Sure sounded prophetic. And they really can’t argue with any of the generic Christian truths.

But it’s as much prophecy, as the guy at the carnivals who guesses my age and weight.

Hence there are a lot of carnival-barker “prophets” in Christendom who specialize in encouragement and generic Christian truths. They never engage in legitimate prophetic activity. Not that they can’t; not that God might not actually tell ’em something, then tell ’em to go share it. But that’s not their specialty. Their whole deal is good guesses and generic encouragement.

And in playing it safe. I can tell you from experience: If it came from God, it’s nothing anyone can deduce. The stuff God knows about you, which he shares through legitimate prophets, are not things anyone can deduce with a cold reading. (Or even a backstage Google search.) God knows all the deep dark secrets, and if these “prophets” ever stumble across anything like them, I guarantee you they’re lucky guesses.

Likewise these “prophets” will only offer encouragement. Never discouragement. They even make it a rule: Don’t tell people to stop doing as they’re doing (even if it’s obviously sin!); don’t say anything that’ll make people feel bad or guilty. Because unlike the Holy Spirit, they don’t have total control over the situation; they can’t predict how people are gonna respond, and don’t wanna deal with any negative fallout. Whereas the Spirit totally knows what’s gonna happen, and will make his prophets make risky statements—and we gotta trust him.

“Prophets” without risk.

For encouragement-only “prophets,” generic Christian truths are the safest kind of “prophecy” there is. For they’re true for everyone. So no one can ever accuse the “prophets” of declaring anything bad or wrong. (Well, unless they quote scripture out of context, which they do regularly—which is how you know they’re frauds. The Spirit doesn’t misquote his own bible!) Such “prophets” can proclaim nothing but happy-talk and encouragement, and get everyone to love them. Just like Ahab’s prophets.

2 Chronicles 18.4-7 NRSV
But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the LORD.” 5 Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, four hundred of them, and said to them, “Shall we go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” They said, “Go up; for God will give it into the hand of the king.” 6 But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there no other prophet of the LORD here of whom we may inquire?” 7 The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the LORD, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.” Jehoshaphat said, “Let the king not say such a thing.”

Jehoshaphat ben Asaph of Jerusalem was used to real prophets. Ahab’s prophets didn’t sound right at all. Didn’t matter if they all confirmed one another; he knew the difference, and asked for one more… and Ahab ben Omri’s complaint was the one other guy was such a downer.

We have churches full of Ahab’s favorite prophets: They only tell us what we want to hear. Not what God wants us to hear. Not that God necessarily has anything bad or discouraging to tell us. He may be entirely pleased with us! But we won’t know one way or the other, for all we ever hear from these guys is shiny happy platitudes.

So how do we recognize these fakes? I find it pretty simple: If they’re big on generic Christian truths, all they’ll do is regurgitate all the things popular Christian culture teaches them. Including all the false things popular Christian culture teaches. Once you learn which “Christian truths” are bunk, you’ll always catch ’em repeating them. Once you’ve learned which scriptures get regularly taken out of context, you’ll always catch them too. And now that you know what cold reading is, you’ll recognize when someone’s scanning you for clues instead of asking God for revelation.

Bear in mind: At the conference I went to, these Christians were taught it’s okay to do as they’re doing! Most of these phony prophets honestly don’t know what they’re doing isn’t prophecy. So don’t tear into them as con artists: Give ’em the benefit of your doubts… till something they say reveals they know they’re doing it wrong, and pulling a con.

Meanwhile be kind and gracious. Gently correct the “truths” they get wrong. Just the fact you have to correct them, should plant the Spirit’s seeds of healthy doubt in everyone else’s minds, and they’ll recognize there’s something a little off, a little untrustworthy, about these so-called “prophets.” And maybe we oughta remember to test them. 1Th 5.20-21, 1Jn 4.1 Right?