Too many people profess to be prophets. To borrow from the soul singer James Brown, they are talking loud but saying nothing. In some cases, their “nothing” proves dangerous. Lives shatter because spiritual leaders demand vulnerable people submit to abusive spouses and authorities as if God required it. Christian leaders bolster oppressive structures rather than helping to dismantle them. So-called prophets seek to profit off desperate followers by exploiting their trust for financial gain. A sure way to identify a false prophet is by their claim that they alone speak for God.
I affirm that God still speaks prophetically. We witness the beauty and power of timely pronouncements that zero in on particular wrongs needing to be righted. At times, prophetic words come from unlikely sources, as well as from faithful pastors and Christian leaders. As Jesus made clear, you can tell a tree by its fruit, and likewise a true prophet: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matt. 7:18).
False prophets have long circulated among God’s people. This was true in ancient Israel, in first-century Christianity, through reformations and revivals. We must not become jaded by their proliferation. Jesus promised they would abound and try to deceive, “if possible, even the elect” who should know better (Matt. 24:24). God still speaks, and we can hear if our spiritual ears attune and our hearts soften to respond.
There is much to muffle God’s voice. Our conveniences and agendas clog our ears. The quest for power, significance, popularity, or other markers of success distorts our hearing. We apprehend only what we want. Pain, grief, or injustice exacerbate what seems like silence, making us feel like God doesn’t care.
When we do hear God speak, we must act. We must not resist the Spirit. But at the same time, the apostle Paul cautioned that our ears and our actions must be seasoned by the salt of discernment: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:19–22).
Discernment is a discipline practiced in the context of vibrant Christian community and serves the common good of the church. Just as a lone person cannot claim prophetic power on their own, none of us holds the power to discern by ourselves. We need one another to understand together, as God’s people, what the Lord is saying to us as individuals, families, churches, and the larger Christian community.
Years ago, when I was a chemical engineering intern in Charleston, West Virginia, a trusted and prayerful Presbyterian pastor looked me in the eyes and boldly told me, “God wants you to give up engineering and go into ministry.” My ears were open to that prophetic word, but my heart was hardly soft enough to change my career plans.
Even so, I held that pastor’s words from the Lord in my heart and over time watched God straighten my path as others engaged in my life. Through their prayers and input, I moved into ministry, and fruit visibly sprang forth—I became a pastor and church planter, serving churches in Chicago, New York, the District of Columbia, and Minneapolis. God speaks for the benefit of his people, pushing us onward to live out the great commandments to love God and our neighbors.
My life as a pastor, scholar, professor, writer, husband, father, and grandfather has taught me that spiritual discernment requires at least a few behaviors:
Humbly examine the Scriptures. My personal journey led me to earn a PhD in biblical studies (sorry biblical scholars, this is no entryway to fame and fortune). The more I study, the more I realize how much more I have to learn.
Attend to life and ministry experience. My years serving God’s people emboldened me to rely on the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform lives and address social issues. My service also made me a better listener—to God and to people. God speaks to us as we serve.
Center on love. I hope to do my part to promote Christian unity. Love rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6) and is the nature of God (1 John 4:8). Love calls out what is evil for the good of God’s people.
Christians have let self-promotion, the preservation of power, and fear of losing influence motivate the practice of false prophecy. However, “people do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers” (Luke 6:44). Fidelity to the Bible, honest assessment of experiences, and commitment to love will fertilize our roots and condition our ears to hear and obey what the Holy Spirit speaks to the church today.
Dennis R. Edwards is associate professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary and a columnist at Christianity Today.
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