Inspiration, Prophecy—How it works

Inspiration, Prophecy—How it works

The term inspiration commonly refers to (1) God’s directly revealing his thoughts to his people through a prophet or a biblical writer; or (2) special grace in composing a song or creating a work of art or writing a particularly effective sermon or inventing a new widget or figuring out an especially effective business plan, etc. At least among Christians, each of these concepts concerning inspiration tends to be attributed to the Holy Spirit. Each deserves comment from a biblical perspective.

I have experienced both kinds of “inspiration.” I have spoken both oral and written prophetic messages that, so far as I subjectively could discern, God revealed to me explicitly. And I have written songs, poems, sermons, etc., that seemed clearly to arise from “inspiration” that infused into my mind concepts/abilities that were not native to me.

The purpose of this essay is to shed light on what’s actually happening in such situations. What is NOT happening, I believe, is that God is dictating the final product word-for-word (or note-for-note in the case of music, or brushstroke-for-brushstroke in the case of art. . .). Contrary to the understanding of many believers, that idea does not mesh (in my opinion) with the overall thrust of scripture.


“Inspired” actions related to music, art, literature, etc.

Sometimes a person does something brilliant and creative, thus being labeled “inspired.”  Let’s investigate that phenomenon.

The bigger picture: human freedom

The underlying question is the extent to which human beings do or do not create original thoughts, actions, works of art, even paths for our lives. Are we humans free and autonomous? If God is omnipotent and omniscient, dare we imagine we actually can create original stuff: words in a poem, melodies in a sonata, strategies for a business, ideas for courting a future spouse? Many Christians would answer No. After all, millions of believers proclaim a “spiritual law” that asserts, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” A significant portion of those believers assume that the path is clearly and completely laid out in God’s mind, and it is our task simply to discover what that path is and then to follow it. In other words, every aspect of our lives has a single ideal direction in God’s mind. Many believers maintain that God’s will for us extends from major life choices down to minutiae such as the kind of shoes we wear to work. I used to believe that—until my oldest son challenged my thinking.

For decades, I believed that God had a specific will concerning every aspect of our lives. I encouraged my children (and many other people) always to seek God’s will in order to discover where he wanted them to go to college, what profession he wanted for them, where he wanted them to live, whom he wanted them to marry, and so on.

I continue to believe that, in specific cases for specific individuals, that can be true. Because God can see much farther down the path than we can, he sometimes knows that a particular choice may be disastrous for us in the long run, or perhaps unbelievably wonderful. It is therefore of unparalleled importance that we learn to live hour by hour in deep fellowship with our Lord, with our spiritual “receivers” always tuned to what he is saying, so that we can pick up on these messages when they come. If they come.

Most of the time, however, I am now convinced that God cherishes the opportunity to walk with us, observe us, protect us, bless us—and to take delight in our creative decisions. That appears to be the whole point of creation. It’s one of the most significant take-home lessons from the first two chapters of Genesis: Having made creatures very much like himself (only much smaller, etc.), God told them, “Here’s this wonderful creation, and here are a multitude of creatures for which you need to care, but everything’s in a pretty raw state right now. Let’s see what you can do with this planet! I’ll help you. I’ll advise you (how about a daily walk together in the early evening?). But you’re basically in charge. Use your imagination. Be creative. Surprise me. This is going to be great fun.”

Of course, humans turned away from God and introduced sin and pain and death into the world—but that is not the subject of this essay, so we’ll lay aside such considerations right now.

Not a puppet master

Just as I believe God doesn’t have a highly detailed and specific plan for each of our lives, I believe he also does not intrude too much into our independence. God is not like fathers of Cub Scouts who, while allegedly “helping” their sons build pinewood derby racers, in fact do all the work while their kids simply look on. God is willing to help, to provide advice, etc., but he delights in sitting back and seeing what his kids can do on their own. It is astounding to think that God created beings who would themselves be able to create—to come up with ideas and plans and dances and music and poetry that are truly original, stemming not from God’s mind but from their own minds.

This God is immeasurably greater than the traditional God who created people who could in no way surprise him.

It brings great glory and joy to our Creator when we use our minds, our imaginations, our feelings to create works of art, to invent new gadgets, to plan life journeys, to pursue future spouses. God is SO great and powerful and creative that he was able (and eager) to introduce into his universe creatures who could come up with new things that God himself hadn’t even thought of! That’s how powerful God is!

An illustration: Even though in the past on a number of occasions I used the phrase “God gave me” concerning a song or poem, I no longer use that term. Even the songs that popped nearly full-blown into my mind on a couple of occasions, I now realize, may have been genuinely “inspired” by God’s Holy Spirit, but he didn’t simply give them to me in the sense that he wrote the song and I did little more than write down the notes and lyrics. Being objective, I see that those songs reveal the stamp of my personality, my tastes, my vocabulary. Somehow God was involved, since they did indeed come so easily to me. It’s also true, however, that somehow I created them—friends who know me well would be able to pick them out of a group of unlabeled songs, for example, and claim, “I can tell by the style that you wrote these two songs.”

And I believe that’s true of all “inspiration” of this ilk. It is our Creator’s delight to observe what we create using the astounding faculties he gave us when he made us in his image.

Inspiration is a partnership between God and a human being.

It’s not a situation in which God does all the creative work and we are nothing more than reporters. He might provide plenty of advice in making that pinewood derby racer, to return to that metaphor, but still delights in watching us put our own creative stamp on it.

The God I’m describing is much more personal, more creative, more joy-filled, more loving than the traditional deity who so infuses everything with his presence and thoughts and will that we humans are mere passive participants in the flow of history, whether on the level of nations or on the everyday level of deciding to paint a room yellow or white.


Speaking God’s prophetic word

God sometimes speaks directly to human beings through other people. We call this “inspiration,” although of a more direct kind than the inspiration that leads us to write a sonata. How does that come about?

Consider the prophet who wrote chapters 40-55 of Isaiah. The Hebrew literary tradition to which the prophet often adhered required that a given line of poetry (these prophetic words were clearly written in poetic form) should comprise equal halves, each containing the same number of syllables. The number of syllables did not have to be consistent from line to line. The only requirement was that, for any given line, there be two parts, each containing the same number of syllables. That was an accepted literary style, just as iambic pentameter was an accepted literary style in Shakespeare’s day.

I can guarantee you that our creator God did not suddenly decide to follow a particular literary style when speaking to/through this prophet. No. Clearly, God provided the essential message, and the prophet molded it into a form that would most cogently address his particular culture.

Ditto for poetic parallelism, in which a thought is repeated in slightly different words (e.g., Psalm 24:1-2, Amos 5:21, 23-24, Isaiah 1:27-31). Poetic parallelism was in vogue only during certain portion’s of Israel’s/Judah’s history. The content was God’s; the style was that of the prophets.

It is easy to observe this principle in people who speak prophetic words today. (First, a disclaimer: I believe many such people are simply speaking their own minds, mistakenly asserting that their thoughts are inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul encouraged Christians in Corinth to test every prophetic word, in order to ascertain whether it was indeed from the Spirit vs. from a merely human mind—see I Corinthians 14:29).

Even when messages seem pretty clearly to be from the Holy Spirit, their form—and even to a certain extent their content—is determined by the mind of the speaker. People in very traditional, conservative churches often prophesy in ersatz King James English. Prophets in more mainstream churches tend to prophesy in modern English. The source of the message—is it from the Holy Spirit, or from the speaker’s own mind?—is not related to the format. I have heard messages that unambiguously were from God arise from the mouths of Pentecostals who prophesied in very poor imitations of King James grammar. And I have heard sophisticated, highly educated believers present prophetic words in clear, literary, modern English, even though my discernment told me that the message was in no way from God.

In this seemingly direct kind of inspiration, then, a servant of God receives a prophetic message that s/he puts into her/his own language and literary style before conveying it to others. Many people are not aware that that is what they are doing, unfortunately, sometimes leading to pointless debates over the precise implications of words and phrases. It is important for all believers to understand that “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (I Corinthians 13:9). Our creator God does not originally form his thoughts in English. We must never get too worked up over the specific language of a message from God, whether it comes from a present-day prophet or from ancient scripture. No matter the source, it comes to us in a specific language and a specific cultural style that conforms to that of the speaker/writer, not necessarily to the deep mind of God. Humility is always in order as we seek to discern the intent behind God’s word.

Put another way: a genuine prophetic message given to and spoken through an Anglican with a Ph.D. will come out very differently from the identical genuine prophetic message given to and spoken through a Pentecostal with a ninth-grade education. The message is no more or less valid, no matter the speaker. It’s just different. “We know in part and we prophesy in part.”

What a blessing God’s people share by not having the scriptures in our own language (unless we are Israeli or Greek)—and not in a “sacred” language such that, as with the Quran, the only genuine version is the one in the original language (Arabic, in the case of the Quran).

Our Creator was clearly aware that one of the major default errors of Homo sapiens (and surely the major default error of Homo religiosus) is legalism—placing inordinate importance on words and rules and laws instead of focusing on what brings Life and Joy. To paraphrase Jesus: The law—and all the scriptures—are intended to serve people; people are not meant to serve the law or the scriptures.

What does all this have to do with inspiration—specifically, verbal inspiration such as with the scriptures and with prophetic messages?

Again: Inspiration is a partnership between God and a human being.

God does not overwhelm or take over a person’s mind. From the beginning, God has wanted human beings to rule this planet (and so we shall—see Revelation 5:10!). God is the creator, he is the savior, he is the protector, etc.; but out of love for his people he is neither a despot nor a puppet master. Unlike what sometimes appears to happen in certain pagan ceremonies when a person becomes possessed by a demon and the demon speaks directly through the human’s vocal chords, our creator/savior God respects the minds and hearts of those whom he made in his own image. He never “takes over” anyone.

Even if the words appearing in a prophet’s mind are very explicit, we still shouldn’t take them so seriously as to insist that they are the direct, unimpeachable, immutable, uncorrupted, unquestionable words of God himself. After all, if he were giving this same message to/through someone else, do you really expect the words would be absolutely identical? Of course not. As mentioned earlier, some contemporary people might well communicate the words in a fake King James-like language, even though I assure you God did not learn English in the late 16th century. It’s a partnership. God provides the basic message; the prophet shares the ideas according to her/his native language, personality, education, cultural experiences, and so on. Even the prophet’s theological beliefs can partly shape the message. If a prophetic word includes grammatical (or factual or even theological) errors, they do not necessarily diminish the genuineness of the message. Rather, they simply indicate that the speaker/prophet didn’t do very well in eighth-grade English, or the prophet is somewhat uninformed.

Conversely, even if a prophetic message appears to be directly on target, confirming what many people are already thinking, and even if it is well presented, it nevertheless is not necessarily from the Holy Spirit.

The only way to determine if a message is truly “inspired” by the Spirit is to ask God.

Beware of messages that superficially “seem” right. Always ask God to provide supernatural, spiritual discernment.

And when a prophetic message is finally judged (preferably by a plurality of prophetically gifted believers), beware of putting too much stock in the exact wording. Remember, it’s a partnership between God and a human. Any other prophet would have worded the message differently. This holds true for present-day prophetic events, and is just as true of the scriptures.

Many years ago I was told by the leadership of the church I attended that I should no longer prophesy in the assembly (I won’t go into the reasons). Yet on many occasions over several years I felt the Holy Spirit come upon me powerfully, impressing on me his intense desire to speak to the congregation on a particular subject. I would leave the service and walk around the block in order to be certain I wouldn’t disobey the church’s leadership by speaking the message I was certain God had for us. On several such occasions, I learned that in my absence someone had spoken a prophetic word that clearly was the same one that had come to me for the congregation; the phrasing and vocabulary were quite different from what I would have said, but the essential idea was the same. Praise God! I

That situation taught me first-hand about the fluidity of God’s word. It’s not that my wording would have been better than the other person’s, or vice versa. Rather, God had a basic idea he wanted to communicate and he did just that, delighting in his partnership with one of his children, letting that person mold the message as s/he was best able. It is inappropriate to overanalyze specific words or phrases of a message, since those are frequently from the messenger, not from the Source—it would be like obsessing over the ribbons and wrapping paper of a gift rather than centering on what is inside the box. What we should seek within a prophetic word is the essential idea.