My friend Jim Samra has written a provocative new book, God Told Me: who to marry, where to work, which car to buy…and I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy. The book is endorsed by Kevin VanHoozer and Darrell Bock, so it’s a safe bet it’s not crazy. I don’t happen to agree with the premise of the book, but I still enjoyed reading it and was challenged again to think how I know God’s will and whether I am a functional deist (p. 23). The book is filled with first person accounts that both inspire and move the book along.
They are also why I remain unconvinced. Jim has remarkable stories about God telling him who he would marry (before he met her) and to wait on buying a car, a faith that was rewarded when someone from his church gave him a new one. It was a only Chevy, so God didn’t exert all of his power in answering this prayer, but still.
I don’t want to deny Jim’s experience—I’ll even affirm it—but I have two outstanding questions:
1. How can he know for sure that God was speaking to him? Jim says that the first time he heard his wife’s name “at that moment God gave me the strangest, most indescribably subjective impression that this mystery person was his choice for my spouse!” (p. 21). My question is how someone knows that this strange, subjective impression is God talking. Our minds are powerful things, and it seems possible that they would have the ability to leave a strong impression that we mistakenly suppose is coming from a higher source.
Jim raised this issue of certainty but I’m not sure he answered it, at least to my satisfaction. He includes an entire chapter on distinguishing God’s voice, but none of his helpful tips enable someone to know for sure, as God’s revelation is impossibly difficult to prove. Jim might say that when God speaks you’ll just know, and if you have to ask whether it’s God then that’s a sign it’s not. Fair enough, but that still doesn’t help the rest of us who, for whatever reason, don’t regularly hear God speaking. So maybe what we have is dueling experiences. Which brings me to my second question.
2. Is it fair to generalize one’s experience onto others? Even if God is speaking to Jim—and I’m not here to say he isn’t—what does that mean for the rest of us? Is this an experience that we all should seek? Are we spiritually deficient if we don’t?
I’ll be honest, I don’t ever remember asking God what car I should buy. I just read Consumer Reports, talked to knowledgeable friends, and looked for deals. I’ve driven the same 1990 Honda Civic CRX for 19 years, so I doubt I would have done better had I received a special word from the Lord. My wife tells me it’s time to replace it, but I’d like to make it one more year to an even twenty, partially from a perverse form of backwards pride. The next time an Emergent Christian challenges my standard of living, I’ll point them to my car and remind them that their hero lives on Marco Island.
Jim has a great story about a church member giving him a car. That’s great, but it’s also not unusual for pastors of large churches with at least some wealthy members. I worry that readers who aren’t as well connected may not get the same results, and may be discouraged as they continue to drive their old beaters and wait. Jim does include lots of hedges—sometimes God’s will is hard and long—but most readers will think that hearing God’s voice will lead to more answered prayer. It’s good to remember that prayers are like mpg ratings: individual results may vary.
I have one final observation. Jim describes a situation growing up where his father heard a surprising word from the Lord (p. 114). That made me think that perhaps our views on this question are formed in part by our childhood experience. If we had parents who claimed to hear God speak, then we may be more inclined that way. If we didn’t then we probably aren’t. Whether or not we think we hear God speak extra-biblically may say more about us than about the question itself.
In sum, I recommend the book because it will force you to ask important questions about how God speaks today. I wasn’t convinced by its argument but I was inspired to pray more. And any book that does that is probably worth having.