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Can one determine the will of God through prayer?
Does God communicate with
If so, how?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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:
Genesis 44:5 discusses a silver drinking cup that Joseph
used as a divination tool.
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.
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 3:5condemn various
techniques of divination.
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.
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.
Some seek the opinion of their religious leaders, and accept their ruling.
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:
Is it the voice of God or a hallucination?
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
Can a "lucky dip" into the Bible be a simple coincidence?
Does God really rearrange the results of a Google search as a method
of communicating with humans?
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?
Could the shape of a cloud or timing of a shooting star be a mere
Do any divinatory techniques really work?
Do visions contain any rational content? Do dreams have meaning?
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:
What the Scriptures say, as interpreted by the groups' theologians and founder(s);
What traditions says: the teachings of the faith group and the traditional beliefs of the religion to which it belongs;
People's personal experiences; and
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.
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
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
Plain Truth Ministries suggests:
"God expects and
directs ... [believers] to think, research and seek counsel in order to
make wise decisions."
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
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.