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