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Can one determine the will of God through prayer?

Does God communicate with
humanity? If so, how?

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A personal note:

The author of this essay is an Agnostic, and thus is uncertain whether a personal God actually exists. The author is also unclear that if a deity exists, whether Co 7 would actually communicate with believers. For example, Co might be the type of deity viewed by Deists: one who created the universe and its laws, started it up, left, and hasn't been involved since.

God, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), seems to have gradually lessened his contact with humans over time. This occurred in stages over the centuries between the story of creation in Genesis --the first book in the Bible -- and the second century CE, when the Bible was completed. God is described as strolling with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Later, he appeared in the distance as a pillar of smoke or flame. Then he stopped contacting the ancient Hebrews directly, except on special occasions. Finally, God's messages were only conveyed through prophets.

The author prayed regularly during his childhood and early adolescence, but never felt that he had heard a response of any sort. He never felt the presence of God. So, this essay cannot be based on first-hand experience. It will have to describe what others have reported as a result of their prayer life.

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People's reports on how God communicated with them:

The author has found a number of communication methods by which members of religious groups believe that God has respond to them. They have been described on the Internet, in religious books, in E-mails, and during personal conversations:

bullet Some may "actually claim to hear a literal voice." 1 Many teleministers report that they were talking to God or that God spoke to them. But it is not clear whether they are referring to an actual voice.

bullet Others do not experience an actual voice, but look for an idea which suddenly pops into their consciousness. They believe that this idea was injected into their mind by God.

bullet Some pray about a problem, and ask God for an answer. Then, they do what is sometimes called a "lucky dip." They open a Bible, and randomly pick a page, chapter, and verse. They read it, and attempt to interpret the text as a response to their quandary.

bullet

A panel discussion during 2018-FEB-13 on ABC's "The View" discussed a comment by former White House staff member Omarosa Manigault Newman. She had discussed Vice President Mike Pence's faith, saying:

"I am Christian; I love Jesus, but he thinks Jesus tells him to say things."

On the panel, Joy Behar commented:

"It's one think to talk to Jesus. It's another think when Jesus talks to you. That's called mental illness, if I'm not correct, hearing voices.

VP Mike Pence responded later on another TV show:

"I actually heard that ABC has a program that compared my Christianity to mental illness. And I'd like to laugh about it, but I really can't.

It's just wrong. And it's an insult not to me, but to the vast majority of the American people who, like me, cherish their faith. My Christianity is the most important thing in my life.

I try to start every day by opening the Good Book. My wife and I try to have a prayer together before I leave every morning. I can honestly tell you my faith sustains me in all that I do and it's just a regular part of our lives. But I'm not unusual. I think I'm a very typical American, whatever your faith tradition, people understand that.

But I just think it demonstrates just how out of touch some in the mainstream media are with the faith and values of the American people that you could have a major network like ABC permit a forum for invective against religion like that. And I call them out on it. Not because of what was said about me. But it's just simply wrong for ABC to have a television program that expresses that kind of religious intolerance.

We're better than that. Our country's better than that. I'd like to be light about it, but I really can't. Not for my sake, but for the tens of millions of Americans who cherish their faith, I can't be silent."


bullet Plain Truth Ministries described an incident in which a youth was trying to determine which college he should attend. He entered his academic interests into the Google search engine, and trusted that God would make influence the search engine to make certain that the college he should attend would be the first listing on the first page of hits. 2

bullet A woman in a disintegrating marriage was trying to decide whether to work harder on her marriage, or separate from her husband. She saw an airline billboard which said "Fly Away." She interpreted it as a sign from God that she was to separate. However, the sign had probably been in position for months and seen by many thousands of people before and after her.

bullet Some believers actually ask God to provide a sign from nature: a cloud of a specific shape or a certain timing of a shooting star. The Biblical passage at Judges 6:36 describes how Gideon asked God for a similar sign from nature.

bullet Some use a divination technique (e.g. laying out Tarot cards, casting runes, reading tea leaves). The Bible has a mixed message concerning this route to determine the will of God:

bullet Genesis 44:5 discusses a silver drinking cup that Joseph used as a divination tool.

bullet Numbers 27:21 and 1 Samuel 28:6 discuss the Urim and Thummim which were two objects that might have been flat stones, that the high priest used as a divination tool.

bullet Daniel 5:11 discusses how Daniel the prophet was employed for many years in Babylon as the chief occultist to the king. He was supervisor "of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans and soothsayers".

However Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 19:26-26; 19:31; 20:6; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; Isaiah 8:19 and Malachai 3:5 condemn various techniques of divination.


bullet Some seek the will of God through visions or dreams. The interpretation of dreams is mentioned in many books of the Bible, involving Daniel, Jacob, Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar, etc.

bullet Some seek a theophany -- a direct encounter with God, as Moses was described as experiencing on Mount Sinai or Isaiah in Isaiah 6, and as Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the LDS or Mormon church -- reported.

bullet Some seek the opinion of their religious leaders, and accept their ruling.

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Dangers of using these methods to assess the will of God:

One cannot be certain that any of the above methods of assessing the will of God are reliable. We suggest caution. Consider:

bullet Is it the voice of God or a hallucination?

bullet Can an idea that pops into your consciousness be from God, or from your own mind, or -- as some Christians believe -- possibly from an evil spirit.

bullet Can a "lucky dip" into the Bible be a simple coincidence?

bullet Does God really rearrange the results of a Google search as a method of communicating with humans?

bullet Could a "fly away" type of billboard be simply an advertising program of an airline, Could it be a message from God to a different person?

bullet Could the shape of a cloud or timing of a shooting star be a mere coincidence?

bullet Do any divinatory techniques really work?

bullet Do visions contain any rational content? Do dreams have meaning?

bullet Might a theophany be a hallucination?

bullet

Seeking a religious leader's opinion might not be particularly useful. There are over 30,000 Christian denominations and para-church organizations in World. They teach a wide range of sometimes conflicting beliefs about the afterlife, apologetics, creation vs. evolution, divorce, eschatology, female ordination, Hell, predestination, the rapture, the book of revelation, salvation, sanctification, eternal security, being homosexual, bisexual, transgender, and many other topics.

One person's truth may be  a second person's heresy. The second person's truth might be the first person's heresy. Neal Griffin, perhaps influenced by the "Sheep and Goats" section of Matthew 25, writes:

"This is the "zombie" mind-set that led the followers of Jim Jones to the cyanide tub. This is the same mentality that characterized the Branch Davidians. It is a blind willingness to place one's faith in the hands of another. We, in the final moment, will be judged on an individual basis. Justification is a very individual matter. Judgment will be based on the deeds that we have done, and not on the conduct of some cult, movement, institution, or organization." 3

An essay on Plain Truth Ministries' web site comments:

"Methods some Christians use to determine God's will are highly subjective -- arising from the individual's own perception and experience. Such messages are subject to personal interpretation. ....And ironically, in many cases, these perceived messages from God seem to affirm what the individual wanted to do in the first place." 2

Ultimately, faith groups generally base their beliefs on four factors:

  1. What the Scriptures say, as interpreted by the groups' theologians and founder(s);

  2. What traditions says: the teachings of the faith group and the traditional beliefs of the religion to which it belongs;

  3. People's personal experiences; and

  4. The findings of science.

More conservative faith groups tend to emphasize criteria 1 and 2; more liberal/progressive groups tend to emphasize 3 and 4. This means that a consensus is often impossible.

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Sponsored link:

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Using reason to determine the will of God:

Rather than looking for a magical solution to assess God's will, some Christian web sites suggest that one use reason and study:

bullet

Author Bruce Waltke writes:

"The New Testament gives no command to 'find God's will,' nor can you find instructions on how to go about finding God's will. There isn't a magic formula offered Christians that will open some mysterious door of wonder, allowing us to get a glimpse of the mind of the Almighty." 4


bullet

Plain Truth Ministries suggests:

"God expects and directs ... [believers] to think, research and seek counsel in order to make wise decisions."


bullet

The Word in Life study Bible states:

"God has clearly and objectively told us what He wants throughout the Bible. For example, the Ten Commandments give straightforward instructions to guide our behavior in numerous areas of life. Likewise, one of the New Testament letters to the Thessalonians says plainly, 'This is the will of God.' (1 Thessalonians 4:3)." 5


bullet

Author George Mueller suggest that one use reason and biblical study to reach a tentative conclusion. If one's mind is at peace with the decision after a number of petitions to God, then he suggests accepting the decision. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormons -- often use this method. Mueller writes:

"Through prayer, the study of the Word and reflection, I come to a deliberate judgment according to the best of my ability and knowledge. If my mind is at peace and continues so after two or three more petitions, I proceed accordingly. I have found this method always effective in [either] trivial or important decisions." 6

Unfortunately, reason, prayer to God, and other techniques do not seem to help individuals and faith groups determine the truth on many dozens of different topics. If there were a technique that worked, then all Christian faith groups would converge on a single truth. Roman Catholics, fundamentalists, liberal and progressive Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, etc. would all teach the same beliefs. There is no sign of this happening, so it may be that there is no mechanism by which the truth can be determined.

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Related essay:

A search at Amazon.com for books about assessing the will of God:

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Sponsored links:

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References used:

  1. "Plain Truth Ministries Update" 'God spoke to me!'," mailing list, 2004-OCT-04.
  2. Monte Wolverton, "In Search of God's Will," Plain Truth Ministries, 2004-SEP/OCT, at: http://www.ptm.org/
  3. Neal Griffin, "Can ordinary Christians determine the will of God?," Truth & Freedom Ministry, Inc., (1993), at: http://www.theexaminer.org/
  4. Bruce Waltke, "Finding the Will of God,"
  5. "Word in Life study Bible" , Logos Library System, Thomas Nelson, Inc., (1997). Online at: http://www.fortclark.org/
  6. Quoted in: R. Dwight Hill, "Seven guidelines in helping you determine the will of God," Berean Publishers, New Zealand. It was online at: http://www.bereanpublishers.co.nz/ This appears to be offline.
  7. "Co" is one of many proposed gender-neutral personal pronouns, like she and he, except that a gender is not implied.
  8. Paul Strand, "Vice President Pence Blasts ABC's 'The View': Christianity Is NOT a Mental Illness," CBN News, 2018-FEB-14, at: http://www1.cbn.com/

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Copyright © 2004 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2004-OCT-05
Latest update: 2018-MAY-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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