Why I’m uncomfortable with personal prophecy

Having grown up in the Pentecostal world and heard all sorts of prophecies, this feels very strange (if not blasphemous) to say.  But I just don’t feel comfortable with personal prophecy.  It’s not the concept that bothers me… I understand that God can and will use people to intentionally speak something to someone else.  It’s what is usually said and how it’s often received that bothers me.

I first started putting the building blocks of this together when I went to Africa.  While I was there, I went with a couple women to go to see a “tourist” witch doctor.  I joked that he wasn’t a real witch doctor but he plays one on TV.  I had no idea what to expect so my reasons for going was curiosity and to video what he said to the two women.  His ritual was to take a bunch of bones and put them in a cloth then shake them up and scatter them everywhere.  This was hilarious to me… it’s like rolling the dice and then looking up the resulting number in a book and telling you what your fortune is.  And at least with dice, you know what number was rolled.  These were BONES.

While I listened, I realized how easy it was to get sucked into this because you naturally want to hear about what someone “sees” for your life.  I didn’t want him speaking over my life so I resisted him saying anything about me, but peer pressure won out.  I recorded the video, but I’ve refused to rewatch it.  Even though I don’t think he’s truly a witch doctor, I don’t want him speaking anything into my life.

And the fortune itself was basically the same thing all 3 times… You’ve been blessed with good travels and good health, and you’re very smart and blah blah blah.  Then he ended it with a hook to do something like take something and sleep with it under your pillow or whatever or the fortune won’t come true.  I realized at that moment that if we did follow through with that, then we were being syncretistic in our religion — mixing Jesus with whatever sounds good that might work out for us (which was the Israelites’ problem throughout the OT).

The one thing about what was said was how much it felt like personal prophecy.  Not that it was “reading my mail” or anything like that but that it was just so vague as to be interpretable however you want.  And nothing bad was ever said or anything of correction.  It was just to make you feel good… nothing more, nothing less.

Compare that to the most common messages of prophecy that I hear:

  1. Hang in there, and God will carry you through.
  2. God is going to do “something great” in your life.  You are going to be a leader (spoken over probably 80% of youth)
  3. Your time is coming to do _something_ (rarely specified).
  4. God has been using you whether you know it or not.

So basically, either what is said is what everyone else hears or it’s what anyone would say when someone looks down (Hang in there), and it’s pretty much always so vague that it can be interpreted however you want.  Not only that, but it is entirely you-centric and always to the upside.  And if you are REALLY lucky, you’re going to get all 4 of these spoken to you in the same prophecy (the rare quadruple hat trick).

A few years ago in Kansas, a traveling evangelist spoke a personal prophecy to me and recorded it with a tape recorder.  When he was done, he handed it to me.  I’ve never listened to it again… until now.  I decided to make it publicly available so that those of you who don’t go to churches that experience personal prophecy can get a taste for what it’s like.

MP3 of my personal prophecy (You may need to turn your volume up)

Contrast that to some personal prophecy in the Bible:

  1. “You are the man [who killed the only lamb a man owned]” – Nathan to David in 2 Samuel 12
  2. “Do you know the Lord will take away your master from you today?” – prophets to Elisha regarding Elijah in II Kings 2
  3. “You are going to be bound and delivered by the Jews into the hands of the Gentiles [if you go to Jerusalem]” – Agabus to Paul in Acts 21: 10-14
  4. “You are going to die” … “I have seen your tears and I will add 15 years to your life” – Isaiah to Hezekiah in Isaiah 38
  5. “Because you have not listened to the voice of the Lord, you will be killed by a lion” – prophet to random guy in 1 Kings 20
  6. “Josiah shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places… and the sign will be that the altar is split open and ashes poured out” – prophet to Jereboam’s altar in 1 Kings 13
  7. “For I have seen your salvation … the light of revelation to the Gentiles” – Anna about Jesus in Luke 2:25-38

I have yet to recall a single personal prophecy that matches up with any of those (and there are dozens if not hundreds more in the Bible just like them).  That’s what bothers me most… today’s prophecies sound more like a witch doctor’s fortunes than the Bible’s prophetic utterances.  It seems no wonder to me that so many people want to hear God’s word for them… they basically want some sort of knowledge of the future, and having someone pick them out of a crowd makes them feel like God really has his eye on them.

That’s not to say God doesn’t use these “words” to speak to people, and my experience is certainly not indicative of all Christian spirituality.  However, I can’t help but wonder… if this is what prophecy is, do I really want it… as a giver or receiver?

I don’t know.

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9 thoughts on “Why I’m uncomfortable with personal prophecy

  1. I think that in Pentecostal circles (and elsewhere), oftentimes people are so eager to have the Spirit move that they try to manufacture it. Of course, you don’t want to be labeled as a false prophet, so if you’re general enough in your message, you’re safe. I think these people genuinely believe that it’s the Spirit speaking through them, but their eagerness has blinded them to what is truly of the Spirit. In general, I think Pentecostals should reexamine why they are so eager for the Spirit to move in these contrived ways, and they should open their eyes and ears to the Spirit (you think you are rich [in the Spirit], but you really are poor–Revelation 3). Of course, that’s a little more difficult than waiting in line to have someone speak “a word from God” for you. It might mean opening your Bible or fasting or waiting patiently for the real deal…

  2. I generally hesitate to declare that people are trying to manufacture what the Spirit wants to do. I simply don’t know. However, it does bother me that I haven’t heard of Biblical style prophecy except at least second- and usually third-hand.

  3. I think that’s the struggle w/Spirit-things. They are often so nebulous that everyone is afraid to judge them as from God or not from God. If you say it’s not from God, but it really is, well–we know what Jesus said about that. And the same is true vice versa.

    Meanwhile, while we continue to not be sensitive enough to the Spirit to make these kinds of calls…we’ll keep turning to personal prophecies in hopes of a cheap version of “God speaking” to us.

    Just to make things interesting–what if I told you that God spoke this word to me, and He told me to speak it to you and everyone else who reads this blog (i.e. the countless masses)? And He told me to tell everyone to confront those who speak these prophecies and call them on the carpet for trying to manufacture what only He can do? If you believe this is from God, wouldn’t you do it? The question is: is this from God or not? 🙂

    So it seems that it ought to matter to us whether these things are from God or not. If anything, for the sake of unbelievers who would also question why God seems to always be so vague and unimpressive with such “prophecies.” If this isn’t the real deal, it shouldn’t be paraded as such. I want unbelievers to truly encounter God, not turn away and laugh because they see through the facade too.

  4. I know of only one person who has spoken prophetically straightforward-no general stuff here- AND they came to pass. He told a friend who she was going to marry–not by name but detailed physical characteristics about him. We met him @ their wedding shower. Every detail was there–except he now wore contacts instead of glasses.
    He also prophesied that a man would give a truck to a brother-in-law who needed it for his business. One detail was the color of the truck (I don’t remember other details as they didn’t stick in my mind.) My brother-in-law called to tell us that the truck wasn’t orange, it was white. We went to see it and realized that the truck had recently been painted white as some orange was evident under the hood and elsewhere.
    He also has given out other prophesies to individuals and they came to pass.
    Sometimes prophesy is not clear to the person giving it, (like Paul & Daniel), but hopefully will be clear to the receiver.
    I am just waiting on the same prophecies that were spoken over him -not once, not twice, but 3 times, by at least two individuals who do not know one another and really didn’t know him at all- to come to pass. They also were not general in nature but detailed. Will follow up when it happens.

  5. I think there are people who think they are prophesying, but they aren’t. I don’t know what percentage of people who prophesy that is, though.

    Another passage for you of a prophesy unlike I’ve heard in real life (John 21:18-19). Not one that I would enjoy hearing.

    “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

  6. I’ve found that recently, I want to hear what the Bible says. In my small group a few weeks ago, my favorite part was when we did nothing but read Revelation 4 out loud and it entered my mind just what Heaven will be like with all the masses around the throne speaking of God’s Holiness and worthiness of our praise.

    I think the same is true for me of personal prophecy. I’d rather have someone come to me and say, “This reminds me of X in the Bible. Here, let me read it.” Then let the Bible do the talking.

  7. Drew, a few months ago that passage and the verses following it grabbed my attention, and they still haven’t let go. I too wonder what Peter must have thought at that point.

    Joel, I don’t know if this is the same thing you’re talking about, but sometimes when I hear preaching, I feel similarly. When I take the time to inspect what’s being said, it seems often that preachers have the points they want to say, and then use Scripture to back it up here and there. I find myself doing this as well. But sometimes, I just get tired of that and just want to hear Scripture, and then hear someone talk about what they hear God speaking through it.

  8. Good stuff, Joel! I really enjoy reading your blogs, but I confess, I don’t get to do so very often. Because…well, you know! That reminded me of the book of Jeremiah 28-29, which I am reading now in my devotional time. The prophet Hananiah kept telling the people that God would restore Judah and bring everything back into the Temple from Babylon within two years. He actually had the gall to basically call Jeremiah a liar to his face. And we all know what happened with that…Hananiah died within the year and the Israelites were in exile for quite a bit more than 2 years! Not everything done in “God’s” name is from God. We must be careful and very prayerful about what we say and allow the Holy Spirit to speak through us, not just claim the Holy Spirit speaking when it’s our own flesh. That’s when it becomes extremely dangerous!

  9. Joel, there have always been true and false prophets, and there will be until the true Prophet of prophets, Jesus Christ, sits personally on his throne and fills his place as the “light of the world.”
    Any time God’s people gather, it is possible that the gifts of the Spirit may operate, given the administration of the gathering and the faith of the people to speak for/hear from God. Paul’s instructions about such operations give clear guidelines, and the situations you describe fall into those guidelines, whether the “prophet” is speaking truthfully or falsely. The function of New Testament prophecy, in a congregational setting, is for encouragement, upbuilding and consolation (1 Cor. 14:13) of the group as a whole. The ministerial office of a prophet, on the other hand, may function more along the lines of the old testament prophets you mention as examples, with specific words given to specific people, for specific purposes. I have been the recipient of words in the past on both ends of this spectrum, some generally applicable to my life as part of a growing church, and some very specific to my own calling, purpose and immediate need. What is necessary on the part of both the speaker and hearer in either case is faith that the word is from God and is applicable to life, either as a general encouragement or as a specific correction or instruction. Congregational prophecy, personal words, is along the lines of congregational preaching of the word: there is one interpretation, and myriad applications of the word given. The same sermon will be fitted to the needs of different people in different ways, although the truth expounded is one for all. The salvation message in the simple preaching of John 3:16, for example, is at the same time applicable to all (“the world”) and to one (“whosoever.”) For this reason, a word given publicly is by definition general, vague, and non-specific to any particular situation. The application is given by the same Spirit, who ministers the gene
    ral word to the individual hearer’s specific hearing, and thus offers a personal quickening of the word.
    When on the other hand a prophet speaks to me a word in private, I look for something specific to my situation, a confirmation of what the Lord has already been dealing with me about, and weigh specific instructions against the “more sure word” of the Bible’s general instruction.
    What I’m getting at is the process is the same: we receive the word by faith. If a prophecy is general, and fits, and is encouraging, uplifting and consoling, and exalts Jesus and his work in redeeming us, then whether the speaker is speaking by inspiration or by pretense, we may rejoice, as Paul did. (Philippians 1:18.)
    It appears that your experience with the counterfeit has worked to erode your confidence in the genuine, which is a primary work of the adversary: if he can’t deceive you with the false word, he will use the fact of their existence to chip away at your confidence in the Word of God.
    Paul’s instruction to us is in 1Thessalonians 5:20-21: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.”
    Your blog, by the way, is awesome. I would just encourage you to keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and not to allow your discomfort with personal prophecy to rob you of what blessings God may have in store for you in that form.
    A brother in Christ,
    Robert Libey

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