The Human Tendency to Self-Deception
The human capacity for self-deception is practically endless. One of the most pervasive ways self-deception is fostered is by the tendency to see reality through the filter of words. This filter blinds us repeatedly to how things actually are, as opposed to how we say they are.
Let me give an example. Everybody says that exercise is very important to health and well-being. However, many of us exercise seldom or never. How well do we then actually understand the importance of exercise? We may say we support a certain cause, such as democracy or freedom of speech, but then we may never vote and try to shut down voices that are not to our liking. We may argue with a fellow church member about whether obedience or mercy is more important—while that very conversation shows neither obedience to God’s law nor kindness to our neighbor.
What is happening in all of those cases is that we believe that the naming of reality is accurate when it isn’t. Let’s give a couple of real examples. The first example is from Scripture: The Pharisees “built the tombs of the prophets and decorated the monuments of the righteous, saying: ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets,’” (Matthew 23:29–30, ESV), and yet they were conspiring to murder the Prophet from Galilee.
The prophets of the past had already been verified by history as prophets. Their status was secure and official. But when a new prophet came, his claims had to be evaluated. It had to be decided whether his teaching was in harmony with the writings of former prophets. Here it would be revealed whether people actually understood and followed the former prophets, for if so, they would discern a new prophet for who he was. But if their reverence for the prophets past was in fact reverence of the lofty status that the heroes of the past now enjoyed, of course they would not like a person who had not yet gained that status, for to them this was something totally different.
They failed to see that such was the history of the prophets they claimed to revere: they too had all been unrecognized by their contemporaries, and had only gained fame and respect after death. Thus the rejection of Christ showed that many in his time were deceived, confusing words and reality.
The second example is from the writings of Ellen White. She describes how blind slave owners were to their own actions:
These professed Christians read of the sufferings of the martyrs, and tears course down their cheeks. They wonder that men could ever become so hardened as to practice such cruelty toward their fellow men. Yet those who think and speak thus are at the same time holding human beings in slavery. And this is not all; they sever the ties of nature and cruelly oppress their fellow men. They can inflict most inhuman torture…. (Early Writings, pg. 275)
It is easy to accept reality the way it is named. It is much harder to discern it for what it really is. The human tendency to analyze reality inaccurately, often to the point of surprising distortion, is universal. This is why Christ in practically every parable warns against this tendency. False discipleship is a recurring theme in his teachings, to his very own disciples. If Christ could tell such parables to John “the beloved”, surely the dangers of self-deception should be taken seriously by any Christian.
In this article, I’m not going to discuss the error of the Pharisees and the slave-owners. Instead, I’m going to look at another form of self-deception. I believe the majority of Christians are susceptible to thinking they are communicating with God when they actually aren’t. This error often goes unnoticed, because if something is called communication with God and is done through the designated channels—you’re following your conscience, reading the Bible, praying, and keeping an open eye for providential indications—then you’re communicating with God, right? But just because something is named, doesn’t mean that it actually is so. The reality may be something totally different than what it is called.
Stating the Problem: How Can Communion with God Be Ascertained to be Genuine?
I think most Christians can name instances when they’ve heard other Christians talk about their relationship and communication with God in a way that made the listeners skeptical of it. A Bible text may be read in a light which seems stretched. Someone may tell us about a dream in which we just don’t see the guidance the other person claims. Or we may see their point but doubt the divine origin of the dream. A fellow believer may explain how God spoke to them through their surroundings. But when we look at the story we are puzzled. Where our friend saw heavenly messages we see coincidences, where he saw meaningful patterns all we see is creative and random connecting of dots which in reality are not connected into anything. There are also the stories about how God “spoke” to people’s heart or their mind. They were impressed or convicted to take up the phone and call someone, or turn this corner, or to do any other everyday action. Some of this sounds like thought processes that would be going on inside anybody’s head without any necessary interference from God.
Sometimes the stories are more serious. One person believes, based on dreams and visions, that they are commissioned to be the Lord’s messengers to others. Another quits their job because God called them to renounce the world and join the ministry. A third decides to break up with someone because God told them to do so. A fourth gets married because God told them this was the right person for them. A fifth spends his life without making any major life decisions, always waiting for God to signal what to do, and the signs never come.
The difficulty here is that though we find ourselves questioning some claimed communication with God, as believers we cannot dismiss the idea of communication entirely, for what is left of Christianity if God speaks to no one personally? Some people indeed choose that route. Finding much of people’s claims of communion with God to be a misnomer for other things—like coincidence, your own thoughts, etc.—with consequences that range from the harmless to the disastrous, they decide upon a safer path for themselves. They will study the Bible and say their prayers. As for the communication the other way, they expect God to be silent most of the time, except that He might perhaps vaguely express His like or dislike by shining his light or casting a shadow over their lives in general. Perhaps he may stay completely silent, and perhaps that is alright. Perhaps we just have to use our own minds and move on with our lives and see God in heaven. This line of reasoning is practically atheism, but it is hard to dismiss the concern that leads to such thinking.
Communion with God, knowing God’s will, is at the heart of Christianity. How, then, is deception or confusion even possible in this realm? God does communicate with people, and He does so through channels which He himself has designated. Where does the error then lie? And how can it be avoided? To understand this better, let’s look at these modes of communication between God and the human.
God speaks to humanity in two ways: He speaks to mankind in general, outlining His great purposes, such as the universal rules of His kingdom or the Law, and the plan of salvation. He also speaks to each individual personally, drawing them to accept salvation and to enter into personal communion with Him. In conservative Christianity, knowing these purposes of God—His purpose for mankind in general and for oneself in particular—and appropriating them personally is often summarized with the phrase “knowing God’s will.”
The channels by which God communicates to mankind in general and to a specific individual are the same. They are nature, the Bible, providence, the voice of the Holy Spirit (referred to as “impression”, “prompting”, or “conviction”), dreams, and visions. These channels of communication encompass all of reality, for nature is the entire physical world, providence is at work throughout the interplay of events all around us, and the voice of the Holy Spirit speaks among the thoughts and feelings of the soul. A door of communication can potentially be opened anywhere. The question of “How can I communicate with God” is now clarified to some extent. It can be stated as follows: How can we discern our thoughts from impressions, divine dreams from natural dreams, and providential situations from events in general? How do we separate actual communication with God from “noise”?
Stating the Solution: Why Does God Want to Communicate?
To discern God’s genuine communication, it helps to know why he would want to communicate in the first place. As it is so often, the cliché is a hindrance to further understanding and a signpost pointing to the well-trod path of that same further knowledge. The cliché here is: “Because he loves us.”
Imagine that you’re in heaven. This is sometime in the future and evils of this earthly life are over. There is now nothing that hinders God’s purposes for mankind as a whole or for His wishes for any given individual. The last curtain between humanity and God has been rent asunder. You stand face to face with God. What will he say? What will you say?
I’ve had no visions of heaven, so I’m not going to venture to describe it. But I still think this example serves the purpose of bringing something important into focus. For I think I know of at least two things that God will not say.
First, I don’t think that God will give you a detailed list of your daily duties. I don’t think God will issue you commands throughout the day about your every movement and action. I don’t think God is interested in micromanaging your life. It would defeat the very purpose of you.
I once worked in a kindergarten and during some days the kids would have time to draw. They were at the age where drawing is fun for everybody, whether you’re drawing a pony or making pure crayon chaos. And most would start drawing whatever came to their mind. But there was one girl who would look sadly at the paper, then at me, and ask, “Jón, what should I draw?” “Whatever you want!” I would say. When she insisted, I would say, “I don’t know, what about a house?” to get her started. But then she would ask about what kind of house, whether it should be yellow, and if there should be many windows. She was so indecisive that making her own decisions with no prescription was uncomfortable to her.
All children need guidance, but they don’t need to be controlled down to the smallest detail. That is not parenting. That is abuse. One of the most beautiful things about children is their individuality. Already when they’re tiny, their distinct personality is manifest. “Look at her, she’s pretending to play the piano!” “He’s trying to feed the cat!” We observe their individuality with curiosity and delight. Parenting is about protecting and caring for children while they grow, so that they can mature into independent grown-ups and live on their own. And is our Father in heaven fundamentally different from that?
If God desired absolute control, He wouldn’t have created humans with free will. This is an Adventist refrain that is often heard when we explain the origin of evil, the Fall, and the plan of redemption. “God didn’t want to create humans with no free will, for that would have been to make live robots which can’t actually love. God gave mankind free will so that they could truly love.” And yet many Adventists then turn around and expect God to make them one of these mindless robots, believing that he wants to make all decisions for them, who they marry, what their job should be, where they should go to school, what they should do today, and even what they should do minute from minute. This expectation of micromanagement is nothing less than believing that God’s rule does not involve freedom, and that he’s the very tyrant Satan has made him out to be. This false view of God is so deeply ingrained into human thinking that often it is thought to be rebellious or heretical to think that God might actually leave our decisions up to us and not have any preference in regards to most of them.
The second thing I think God wouldn’t do when speaking to you in heaven is to speak only in fragmentary riddles. I am sure that God is very wise and he may say things to us in heaven that we do not understand entirely. But I don’t think he will only communicate in terms reminiscent of the Greek Oracles, leaving it up to the listener to figure out the meaning of his cryptic utterances: “Three degrees south of Andromeda. They come with horses! Follow the stringed angel quarter. See the inner corner. Streams of pink and purple.”
The reason why I know God won’t talk like this is because the whole point of saving people and bringing them into God’s presence is to make the communion with God direct, clear, and intimate. What parent would speak to their children like that? And isn’t it enjoyable to see how your own child grows so that you can have deeper and deeper conversation with them? The apostle Paul contrasted the way we communicate with God with the way we shall do in the Great Hereafter:
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophecy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:8–12, ESV)
God wants to communicate with us because He loves us. And because He loves us, He’s not interested in micromanaging our affairs or speaking in constant code to engage us in puzzle solving. It is true that God is Sovereign, and He desires obedience. It is also true that, as the infinite God, He will always be shrouded in mystery to the human mind. And yet we are His children. The obedience He desires is that of the heart, and the communion He desires is for us to know Him and for Him, so to speak, to know us—like we love to hear children explain what they’re doing even when we know what it is. Though we are like mere children compared to Omniscience, God treats us as the intelligent, rational beings that we are.
This is the why and what of communication with God and it sheds light on the how. Once we know what we’re looking for, it will be easier to find. How can God’s genuine communication to us be discerned from other things and voices? We will return to this question in the second part.