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Self-Deception, Self-Negation, and the Voice of the Living God

February 14, 2012

How do you know you are hearing from God? Because it “rings true” for you? Because the Bible tells you so? In a recent book of essays offering New Perspectives for Evangelical Theology there is a chapter by Simeon Zahl which examines the question of how evangelicals differentiate between the voice of the Holy Spirit and their own – particularly in the area of personal spirituality. Here I would briefly like to highlight his perceptive analysis of the problems involved, but also call into question his conclusion. In the process I hope to raise our awareness of the ways we can get things backward in worship and in devotion and to gesture in the direction of a more rounded – if less self-secure – alternative to his answer.

In this short essay Zahl takes us on a quick walk through Post-Reformational history to make some important observations. Beginning with Martin Luther’s challenge to the authority of the Church on one side and spiritual “enthusiasm” run amok on the other, he explains how Luther tried to solve “the problem of spiritual self-deception” by pointing to the authority of the preached Scriptures. Following this he uses the realities of the Pietist movement to show that the reading of the Bible itself one is not immune to enthusiastic self-deception, and looks to John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards to see how they “tested the spirits” (1 John 4:1) in this regard. With Wesley and Edwards, then, he notes the addition of the criterion of sanctification, which suggests that by discerning whether one is holy or unholy one can discern whether they are being deceived.

For similar reasons, Zahl finds that neither of these criteria fully suffice: The “holiness” criterion is open to self-deception on both the personal and the corporate level. History has shown that one can be right about the Scriptures and yet not be commonly perceived as holy according to wrongly perceived or disproportionately weighted moral standards. With it, the “Scripture principle” criterion is called into question as well: “Feuerbach, Marx and Freud would all critique Wesley and Edwards’ basic hermeneutical optimism in a similar manner. They would argue that although we think we are reading the Word [not to mention our own lives] objectively, really our conclusions are being determined unconsciously by projection, by issues of class and power, or by subterranean neurotic desires and mechanisms” (87).  Zahl doesn’t think we are hopeless against these critiques, however. Instead he rightly points to the faithfulness of God to His Word, namely in the presence of the Holy Spirit who secures the truth and guide us toward it. But how exactly?

Having pinpointed the above problems Zahl opts for a third criterion, which I’ll call the criterion of conviction. For this he borrows from Christoph Blumhardt, who said: “God’s primary way of [guiding people] is through “negative” experiences, in which our guilt and the true limits of our supposed autonomy are made manifest” (89).  The idea is beasically that negative “experiences are less susceptible to deception and co-option than are ‘positive’ personalistic experiences, because they contradict rather than conform to our wills and desires. We are not likely to make them up, to be forging them in our unconscious to meet some secret need, because the Spirit works against the forces unknown to us as well as those that are known” (89). The rule of thumb is that if it sets us in “a comfortable category or pattern of control” then true conviction will confront rather than affirm. The pithy catch-phrase is borrowed from Blumhardt: “Die, so that Jesus may live!”

There is great truth in there, but as a criterion it raises a few questions. For one, doesn’t it assume that we will only deceive ourselves positively, and never negatively? What about the observable realities of our own evangelical experiences where in both our personal devotions and pulpit altar calls we have become experts at conjuring up guilty and fearful self-negations in order to contrive our own positive results? Zahl acknowledges that there is such a thing as a “masochistic appreciation of negativity” which uses a negative self-assessment as “a veiled or indirect” route to a “‘positive’ experience” of our own making (89), but he wants to be clear that he is talking about “negative experiences of the Spirit” and not about mere self-negation. But that’s the thing: Doesn’t that beg the question he started with? How do we tell the difference?

The problem with an approach like this (which I think is rather common), is that it throws us back into introspection precisely where it proposes to transcend it. In order to tell if we are hearing from God we have to be able to discern if it goes against our will. Thus everything hinges on how well we know ourselves; on whether we can tell our corrupted will from our better inclinations. But we’re right back where we started! We have to figure out where we are self-deceived so we can hear God confronting our self-deception with the truth. We can even develop a kind of need for self-negation which itself can distort reality and become a self-help tool in our hands. Not only that, but with those hands we can also distort God’s self-revelation. After all, if God’s glory is seen in our negation, our picture of God begins to take the form of a film-negative. Good starts to mean little more than not bad. And to top it off we suggest that we need our sin and guilt to know this diminished god.

Zahl doesn’t mean to recommend this, of course. He himself notes that too often “preachers and pastors believe it is their role to be the “convictor” of sin,” and thus usurp most dangerously the role of the Spirit.” But I would argue that this is exactly where we end up when we turn to a negative criteria for hearing the voice of God. We rightly counter cheap grace with a focus on the cross, but in the process forget that Jesus rose triumphant over sin and death. So we say things like: “God is present personally and affectively in our life, but first and foremost in our darkness and our difficulties, because of the degree of our basic opposition to him and interest in ourselves that persists (to whatever degree) in the Christian life” (90, emphasis mine). There is truth there, but we get it twisted backwards. We make the darkness definitive for seeing the light when what we need (and what Zahl actually intends to recommend) is for the light to penetrate our darkness. Unfortunately, the imposition of a criterion for hearing God – even a negative one – dilutes the freedom and sovereignty of God’s Word in this regard.

So do I have a better answer? How do we differentiate the Spirit’s voice from our own? I think the problem with this article – besides that it looks for a criterion where only an ever-reforming faith will do – is that it stays on the level of the personal, and so throws out the “Scripture” criterion with the bathwater of individualism and delusional excitability. I would argue that a firmer location of Scripture reading and discernment in the life of the Church might be a way of re-harnassing the Bible’s proper mode of authority. History has certainly shown that a fixed institutional authority is as hazardous a criterion as any other, but that’s not the only option here. What we need is to render ourselves open and attentive to the living and active Word of God which is intent on being heard in the community. We need to come together to “test the spirits”, reform our readings, and commit to one another for the humble road of both discerning and obeying the voice of God in the day to day life of this world. Perhaps in this there is less personal certainty, but is that such a bad thing? Actually, one might argue that if this dynamic of mutual discipleship is allowed to settle into self-made criteria of any kind it might make us feel more secure in our convictions precisely at the expense of the Lord we aim to follow.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2012 11:27 am

    These are good insights, Jon. I have met many “martyrs” who chase after negative experiences for their own glory. Communities can be flawed, but they do provide a check to individualism. The only thing I would add is that it is important to seek God’s will without obsessing over it. People start to get to a point where they are worshipping a god (called God’ will) rather than the living Spirit. God wants us to act, but only in a way that is congruent with being in relationship.

  2. Blayne Banting permalink
    February 14, 2012 1:16 pm

    I hear your concern for spiritually couched wish fulfillment as discernment. There is room for both Scriptural direction and for the challenging of self deception within community, but it has to be true community and not pseudo-community where we try to outdo each other with encouragement. There are self-deceived communities too. True community requires great courage – the courage to receive the truth before which (or Whom) we are all naked, and the courage to speak the truth when it may challenge popular perceptions.

  3. Bill Erlenbach permalink
    February 14, 2012 4:26 pm

    I share the same concerns. I would add to the pot a large dash of questionable expectations. It seems to me that through out Scripture, it was God who sent a messenger or showed up in the middle of our ordinariness. Yes there were times of seeking and God answering, but Moses didn’t exactly ask God to show up in a burning bush. Life was just fine thank you. Sometimes we are looking for something from God that amounts to lighting a bush on fire and expecting God to be in it.

    On a practical level, I have a few tests that I use. They aren’t conclusive, exclusive or any other -ive. They are merely a collection of seemingly wise things I have heard over the years.

    #1 – Not my idea. If it is my idea it can be mere wish fulfillment. If it is contrary to the “ordinariness” of my life or an interruption of my best laid plans, I take note.

    #2 – Unsolicited agreement. If God is telling you something, that is nice. If God tells someone else too, that’s even better. This of course ventures into the realm of community, but sometimes it comes from unexpected people.

    #3 – Solicited discernment. Talk to people you trust, but avoid those who would agree to anything. A naysayer can be a good friend.

    #4 – Limited agreement. If everyone thinks it is a good idea, there is probably something wrong (consider Paul heading to Jerusalem and the voices of “don’t go”).

    #5 – Biblical permission. If you feel lead to go share the gospel, just do it! If you feel lead to commit adultery…no. It isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t take a degree in Biblical Studies. (Perhaps this should have been #1 but when we end up in the gray zone, this needs to be in community and that is not always as easy as it sounds. Some of the above can help here.)

    #6 – The rule of “one anothers.” Not rule by others, but concerning others. Will others benefit? Gifts are given for the benefit of the church, not mere personal hedonism. This may be the most important test. If it is mere wish fulfillment, chances are it is “all about me.”

    #7 – Nineveh. Not everything we might feel “called” to do takes us to places we don’t want to go, but even the promised land would come at a price. We know the story, “there are giants in the land.” If the way looks too easy, it probably the wrong way.

    I am sure there are other things that could be added here,

  4. February 14, 2012 4:32 pm

    thanks for those excellent additional thoughts/amendments, they are right on.

    Michael: The point about obsessing over a thing called “God’s will” is a very intriguing one. I know what you mean, and want to think about that more.

    Blayne: I wish I had more time to go into the area of community self-deception. You are right. I think this kind of pseudo-community can happen both in the form of “outdoing each other with encouragement” (great line) and in the form of what I’ll call conjuring up the usual guilt according to party lines. In either case, over time, there really isn’t that regular gathering to come under the Word afresh.

    I’m intrigued about where we are to find the courage for true community. Or maybe I wonder what else is needed besides that. For instance, it seems that often times even the pastors (let alone the laity) who have a vision for this true community will have a tough time going there -not always for a lack of courage but moreso for a lack of, I don’t know, trust and mutuality? To illustrate: Sometimes I have noticed that when a person in the small group or behind a pulpit really takes steps to at least personally receive the truth “naked” and speak the truth that may unsettle, then that person is immediately looked upon by the rest as a person to help and pity rather than join in a new kind of accountable listening to God. In other words, though they may shift the ecclesial paradigm, they are still heard according to the old one, and are looked at in a patronizing way – as if they are faltering in the face of the “holiness” criterion or losing their firm grasp on the “Scripture principle” criterion.

    Anyway, lots more to think about along these lines I’m sure. Thanks for the comments.

  5. February 14, 2012 10:00 pm

    I found this discussion intriguing and thought-provoking, Jon. I’ve been taught to align the following elements for clarity/confirmation on God’s will – The Word, The Spirit’s compelling witness, sanctified common sense, the witness of other godly believers, circumstances – kind of like a pilot lining up instruments, lights, instructions, etc. before landing. At the same time God speaks (as was already referred to) in unusual, unexpected ways. I think sometimes we make to much of knowing God’s will – that there’s a modern expectation that God should speak to me defining His will every day. Yet I’m not sure that it’s such an ‘external’ occurrence. If the Spirit of God indwells me imparting the life of Christ to me, then the Will of God should be lived in and through me as it was in Christ. (vine – branches – fruit)

    Re: ‘true community’ – I think of Romans 15: 5 – 7 – “receiving one another as Christ also received us to the glory of God, etc”. As humans we seem to always want to have things defined in boxes – (like “God’s will, “worship”, etc.), so that we can ‘discern/judge’ whether something fits the box. Perhaps to attain true community we just need to commit to “being with” one another, no matter what – just as “God is with us”. To remain present because of the Presence with us.

    Just some sketchy thoughts.

    ~ Judy

  6. February 15, 2012 7:09 pm

    Thanks Bill and Judy for those insights and very practical applications regarding the particular ways that we can make the community a part of our discernment of the Spirit and the Word. One thing this has me thinking about is whether we should consider including our church as a provisionally authoritative voice in such things. For instance, not to pick on you Bill but just to use your list illustratively, what if we added the questions “How would my current church leadership advise me on this” and “how does this jive with the goals of the church of which I am a covenanted member”?

    On another note, to go back to something Blayne triggered: As it regards the possibility of whole church communities practicing habits of self-deception, I think this is why each church needs to see itself in a relationship of mutual accountability within its denomination (if it has one) and within the larger stream of Christianity past and present. The voices from other cultures and times and interpretive emphases not only help us to see our blind spots but may help us to hear Christ aright when we face unforseen situations or newly opening paradigms. The access points for this are pretty clear: A local ministerial provides a connection to other traditions. Denominational polity and networking gives access to real accountability and sounding boards. And of course, deep engagement by church leaders with the rich and expansive world of theological literature and academia is something way too often far too undervalued in this regard.

  7. February 15, 2012 9:52 pm

    I think the role of the early church ‘elders’ was to teach the Word which was ” profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness”. Seems like that would help an individual and the collective believers know the will of God. Unfortunately, church leadership today seems to be much more taken up with the administration of an organization which has led to trying to determine the most effective model of organization, and leadership styles, etc. etc. (Seems we humans have a propensity to get our finger in the pie, or our hand on the ‘apple’. :-).)

    I support your last comments about accountability on a wider level than just the local church, as long as there actually exists “access to real accountability and sounding boards”. If hierarchy doesn’t give opportunity for two-way discussion, then its a farce on any level – e.g. elders not actually meeting with a person, or district leadership not actually spending time with a worker on an issue.

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