Most of the things written about prophets have to do with the fake ones. That’s because there are so very many fake ones; fake either because they’re con artists trying to grab a little power, or fake because they don’t know how to distinguish once voice from another in their heads (they all sound alike to a newbie!) and started following the wrong voice—sometimes their own voice, sometimes worse.
But enough about them. Let’s get to the real prophets—those Christians who really do hear God, and share His messages—because they have their own issues. Most of those issues are the result of so very little real and useful information about how to prophesy. The popular assumption is that if God made you a prophet, He automatically made you able to do prophecy perfectly and infallibly. ’Tain’t so. Prophets are human; humans make mistakes. And just like a young child will sometimes misunderstand Mommy, and what they think they heard can come out garbled or partial or sometimes not at all what Mommy said, a new prophet will make the very same mistakes with the Holy Spirit. If they assume, as most folks do, that an anointed prophet is perfect and infallible, they’re never gonna fix their errors, and continue to make those mistakes. They may very well hear God. But functionally they can be just as error-plagued and destructive as a fake prophet.
Like actual parents who don’t know how to parent, Christians who are unfamiliar with the supernatural will often throw up their hands, assume this is just the stuff that comes with the territory, and put up with the bad behavior. Hence prophets get a bad reputation as spiritual troublemakers and rabble-rousers. And some of them actually revel in this reputation; they like being contrary, and point to the prophets in the bible who likewise had this reputation. Thing is, the folks in the bible were contrary because they were prophesying to rebellious sinners. We Christians are, most of the time, prophesying to fairly receptive sisters and brothers. Trouble means that either the prophet or the audience are rebellious—and far too often, it’s the prophet.
There are two big errors that prophets fall into. The first is the premature prophet; the next I’ll get to tomorrow.
The premature prophet.
Today I’ll discuss the person who gets the slightest fragment of a message from God, and immediately blurts out, “Hey! Thus saith the Lord….” This would be the premature prophet. They blurt out everything they think they hear from the Holy Spirit, the instant they get it.
The premature prophet would be the person who frequently says, “God is telling me right now that…” or “The Lord just told me that…” or “You know, just as we were praying, God told me….” Don’t get the wrong idea; there is a time and place for instant messages from God. But the premature prophet is nothing but IMs. And when they refer to a message that they got previously—last week or last month or longer ago—they’re quoting an IM.
They don’t bother to confirm their messages first; they’re pretty sure that they hear God that well, or that infallibly. Some of them like to chide other Christians for not doing likewise—according to them, we aren’t willing to “step out in faith.” If God gives them a vision, they immediately blurt out the vision. Sometimes they proceed to interpret it themselves, off the cuff. Sometimes the interpretations are good, but sometimes they’re wildly inaccurate; you may as well hear a false prophet.
There are two underlying problems of the premature prophet. The most obvious one is immaturity. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit, mature Christians demonstrate it, and immature Christians don’t. Obviously, immature Christians make immature prophets. The ability to hear God, or to engage in any supernatural gift, is not a sign of, nor does it automatically grant, spiritual maturity.
That’s why Paul had to explain how a lack of love, for example, actually cancels out supernatural gifts (1Co 13.1-3) —spiritual gifts without spiritual fruit becomes spiritual crap. They might have a totally valid message from God, but because they lack love, in their hands it becomes an angry message; because they lack peace, it becomes irritating; because they lack joy, it becomes woe; because they lack patience, it becomes needlessly urgent. It becomes so unlike God that people’s automatic response is, “Well, that’s not God”—even though it is.
The other underlying problem a form of pride; it’s the whole “look at me, I’m a prophet!” deal. It’s like when your one-year-old figures out how to scream, and won’t stop screaming. The baby doesn’t know when screaming is or isn’t appropriate; it just knows that it can, so it does. Spiritual babies are the same way. They might have the best of intentions, but they assume that their ability is always a useful gift, appropriate for all occasions: “Who doesn’t want to hear from God right this second?—and if you don’t, you must be resisting Him. Repent!”
While the bible doesn’t say a lot about how to deal with immature prophets, it has a lot to say about immature Christians, and those guidelines apply to prophets just as much as they do anyone.
For the most part, the bible consists of prophecies from God that His prophets wrote down. Some of them are a little hard to understand. So how can we understand them? We interpret them: We ask the Holy Spirit for insight as to what He meant when He originally inspired those words. We study the historical background of that book so that we can understand what the prophet, and the prophet’s listeners, would have known and recognized when they first heard this prophecy. We look up some words in the Hebrew dictionary where necessary. We compare the prophecy with other, similar portions of scripture. (The technical term for these steps is biblical exegesis, and it’s how a scholar studies a bible.) Then, once we comprehend it, we meditate on it—we turn it over in our mind, and pray about it, and ask the Spirit questions on it, and try to figure out how to apply the message to ourselves or to others.
We do this with the bible. We need to do this with prophecy. It is, after all, the very same stuff.
Some churches teach Christians how to interpret their own dreams and visions. Some of them rightly teach that visions may need to be exegeted, just like the scriptures. But some of them wrongly teach that every image from God follows the pattern of an easy-to-crack code: Horns always represent strength, or stars always represent angels, or water always represents the Holy Spirit, or birds always represent devils. In some visions, water isn’t the Spirit; it means death. (Rv 12.15) In others, water is just water. So which is it? Depends on what God’s trying to say at that time. Depends on your cultural context. Depends on the person who’s meant to hear the prophecy—after all, prophecy is about ministering to them, not about showing off that we hear God. Depends on lots of things.
Frequently we can forgo the historical study, because God is speaking to this culture, which we’re familiar with already. But we still ought to check the scriptures for parallels. And occasionally we have to look up some things: If God gives you a vision of a palm tree, and you know nothing about palm trees, it’s kinda dumb if you don’t look up palm trees on Wikipedia or something. Part of taking God seriously is in looking into the stuff He tells us, instead of just looking at it.
Often we need to ask God for a little more revelation: “Okay, I know what You said, but now what does You mean?” How does this message show the Holy Spirit’s strengthening or encouragement or comfort? (1Co 14.3) How is it consistent with the bible, and with other messages He’s personally given us? How does it show God’s love, joy, peace, patience… you know, His fruit? How can we present it in a way that shows we demonstrate His fruit? Honestly, a lot of the time we need to sit on a prophecy for a little while and let it work on us before we go sharing it with other people.
The premature prophet does no such thing: The message goes in the prophet, out the prophet, and on the way through, it affects the prophet not at all. Yikes.
And, which is just as bad, the person receiving the message will rarely bother to do any of this study and meditation. First of all—unless it’s one of those messages that immediately makes them think, “Who told you what I was thinking?”—recipients are going to be a little bit skeptical of the message. And even if they aren’t the skeptical sort, they’re often not gonna know to do anything with it, like study it or meditate on it. They’ll hear it, they’ll feel a warm fuzzy feeling, and they’ll remember the feeling, not the prophecy. I have heard Christians say so many times, “That was such a great message!… I forget the details, but I think it was about….” and remember little more than their emotions. Sad, but commonplace.
Now, to be fair, your job as the prophet is just to make sure they get the message. Their comprehension, and whether they actually do anything with it once they do understand it, is not your responsibility unless God makes it so; if you’re a pastor, for example. But there is usually a reason why God gave this message through you instead of someone else, and often it’s because He wants it filtered through you in a sober, mature, fruitful, understanding way. Not a willy-nilly slapdash way.
Guiding the premature prophet.
Newbies make sloppy prophets; it’s like giving a nailgun to a baby. Why, then, does God even talk to them? Because He talks to everyone. Premature prophets have simply figured out that it’s Him before they reached a certain level of Christian maturity, and are eager to share this gifting with everyone. You gotta love their zeal. But you also gotta temper their zeal. Older prophets, like the pastor and your church’s leadership, need to take them in hand and teach them how to prayerfully consider God’s messages, instead of opening fire with that nailgun.
What can you do when a premature prophet starts blurting out, “You know, God just told me right now that…” and proceeds to give you knowledge without wisdom? First and foremost, be kind. Don’t discourage prophecy. People should prophesy. What the premature prophet is doing is prophesying without thinking, so gently get ’em to think. Start asking questions.
“That’s interesting. What do you think He means by that?”
“Is there a scripture that confirms that?”
“What do you know about [image in the vision]? Can you look that up?”
“I’m trying to figure out how that message fits together with [contradictory scripture]. What do you think?”
If a premature prophet gets enough of these challenges, some of them are bright enough to recognize that maybe they need to slow down and answer all these questions for themselves before they give a prophecy. Others react negatively… which I’ll get to tomorrow.
Sometimes there just isn’t time to ask these questions; the premature prophets tend to blurt stuff out in the middle of a prayer meeting, or bible study, or something where it’s hard to pause and ask questions. So save your questions. Then, once the meeting is over, go to the prophet and say, “You know, you said something earlier—something God had told you—and I wanted to ask about that.”
You’ll find that half the time they don’t even remember what they said. This should rightly embarrass them, but sometimes they’ll blow that off as your fault, because it was God’s message to you, not them. Again, this is immaturity, but be the bigger person: Make sure you remember the message, at least. And then ask your questions. Remember, be kind. Be patient. Be the adult.
And encourage! We need more prophets, not fewer; these folks are trying, albeit poorly, to do what they can, and this is all about making them better at it, more responsible at it, and less error-prone. Point out that you’re taking this seriously because we should take everything God says seriously; if He’s going to take the trouble to talk to us, we ought to take the trouble to really understand Him. As prophets, they should understand this better than most. And if they don’t yet, they will.