The Problem of Prophecy
Most people want to know the future. What is coming next? Will I be successful? Will my dreams come true?
In charismatic circles of Christianity, some look to the gift of prophecy for answers to these questions. Like Pharaoh, or Nebuchadnezzar, they search for a Joseph or a Daniel to listen to the voice of God and then pull back the windows of time to reveal what has not yet taken place. Occasionally, certain Christians walk so in tune with God that the words they speak reflect the truth of what will be – or of what could be. Most of the time, though, the gift of prophecy looks like knowing something of what another person needs to hear and then drawing upon principles outlined in the Scripture to encourage, comfort, or strengthen them. God has revealed His desires for His people in the Bible and prophecy seems to be a loving relational application of these truths to individual situations for the purpose stated in 1 Corinthians 14:31 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.
It seems simple enough, but I learned early on that prophecy could become a dangerous tool in the hands of power hungry individuals. Growing up in a Baptist church, I remember laughing ironically at the poor unfortunate soul who could not find a girl to marry until the prophet gave him the following Biblical phrase: “Grace be with you.”2 This phrase, found thirteen times in the letters of Paul, seemed to confirm the prophecy, so the poor fool promptly obeyed and married a woman named Grace. While the story is probably fictional, it shows the kind of danger individuals put themselves into when they begin to look at prophecy as a kind of sanctified fortune telling.
But this is not the problem of prophecy that I am referring to. I am referring to the problem of prophecy where it is used biblically to strengthen, encourage, and comfort others. It is the problem that keeps most prophecies from ever coming true. This is the problem that so often turns the gift of prophecy into a source of unnecessary suffering and discouragement.
It is perhaps easiest to introduce the problem of prophecy by describing a similar problem experienced by many evangelical churches in regard to the concept of salvation. The problem finds its root in a misunderstanding of the idea that life is not about the destination but the journey. Rephrased, one could propose that salvation is not about pursuing a destination (Heaven), but pursuing the journey of a relationship (Jesus) that will lead one there.
Many people get this confused and sell Christianity as a means to an end: Jesus is the way to heaven. But what is heaven? Is it utopia, nirvana, or some other perfect place of our imagination? Not necessarily. As described in the book of Revelation and elsewhere in the Bible, the distinguishing feature of heaven is the presence of God on His throne.3 It is therefore impossible to desire heaven without also desiring God. Those who do not desire to be in the presence of this God will find heaven to be a less welcoming place than they had imagined. Salvation, then, must be all about beginning to walk with this God here on earth, then continuing the journey in the next world. The relationship is much more than simply a means to an end.
Likewise the point of marriage is all about loving another person, not about the marriage itself. It is impossible to desire marriage without also desiring to love another person. If a person truly believes in the value of marriage, they will pursue a commitment to their partner and develop the kind of internal character that makes a good marriage. Marriage, like heaven is a concept that cannot be pursued as an end in itself, but is the result of a deepening relationship of love.
As with marriage and heaven, many people mistake prophecy for an end (the future it reveals) instead of the means to an end (becoming the kind of person who can create that future). Because prophecy often reveals a person in the way that God sees them, it shows people a future that does not yet exist. The future is exciting, it is fascinating, and many people are tempted to spend their time waiting for it and learning about it rather than using it as encouragement to become the kind of people who will experience it.
Tragically, they may even begin to celebrate the future that hasn’t happened yet. They act like the team of a politician who wants to win a campaign. She constantly tells her staff they are on a winning team. All the staff believe this, so they spend their time celebrating the fact that they are a winning team. Even though the election won’t happen for months, they have already won!
In reality, the only way that the politician’s words will come true is if she shows her staff how to act like a winning team. She must give them strategies and leadership in order to become the winning team she has told them they are. She tells them they are a winning team right now because she sees their potential and who they can become. The purpose of her words are to encourage the team, help them improve themselves (exhortation), and comfort them when they don’t feel like a winning team.
This is the same function of prophecy. Prophecy is all about revealing who God created people to be and encouraging them to act that way even when circumstances seem to dictate otherwise. One example of this is the story of Abraham, who had received a prophecy about having a child, but had not yet seen it happen. God had told Abraham that he would be a father. That was his identity as God saw it, even though the man had been childless for his whole life. In Genesis 17:1-2,4 God appears to Abraham and says “…walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you and may multiply you greatly”. In other words, “I have already told you what I am going to do, now you have to go be the kind of person that I can do it with.”
Even though Abraham knew the future, he still needed encouragement to become the kind of person that could experience it. Unfortunately, Abraham ran into the problem of prophecy when he forgot that its purpose was to encourage him in the process of becoming the father of faith rather than give him a challenge to overcome. Abraham didn’t need to figure out how to make the future happen, but how to become the person of faith that God could use to make the future happen.
Prophecy today carries the same kind of function. It is not necessarily about predicting the future, but about encouraging individuals to become the kind of people who can create that future. If people truly understood the significance of their identity as image-bearers of God,5 the future would be more incredible than they can imagine. The purpose of prophecy is to strengthen, encourage, and comfort one another in the process of coming to understand and walk in this identity.
The problem of prophecy occurs when Christians become so focused on figuring out what is going to happen that they forget to become the kind of people who make it happen. Prophecy is less about this first part and more about the second. Until Christians begin to use the gift of prophecy as a source of strength, encouragement, and comfort in our process of becoming who God made us to be, the future it reveals will remain somewhere in the future.
If, however, Christians understand that knowing about the future does not bring the future to pass, we can shift our focus onto the truth of our identity as revealed through prophecy. If we take strength, encouragement, and comfort from the truth about who we are becoming, we can begin to act like that person today. We can become the kind of people who create a future where anything can happen!
“You will not become tomorrow what you are not becoming today.” – Dr. William Brown6
2 “Grace Be With You”
3 Revelation 4
4 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
5 Genesis 1:27 “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
6 Brown, William E. Chapel message notes by Charles Heyworth. Cedarville University, Cedarville, OH. March 2012.
Photo courtesy of Rachel James.