Experiencing God: How to Live the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God
Authors: Henry Blackaby and Claude King
Publisher: Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1994
Experiencing God has swept through Christian circles. Its beautiful cover shows the burning bush of Moses in place of the O in the word God. This is a fitting graphic, because God's revelation to Moses is presented as the pattern for His interaction with believers today.
The authors elaborate on seven principles intended to help readers to "experience God":
- God is always at work around you.
- God pursues a continuing love relationship with you that is real and personal.
- God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.
- God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways.
- God's invitation for you to work with Him always leads you to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action.
- You must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.
- You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you.
Six of these principles comprise the basic Christian life. Depending on how you understand them, they can be biblical and helpful. In their exposition of these principles, the authors have captured my heart and thousands of others. God's love relationship with us is beautifully portrayed. The greatness of our God is extolled so that our faith grows. The book motivates our desire to give full dedication and absolute obedience in response to such love. God is not only always at work around us, but we are touched deeply by God's names and nature so that we see Him at work in us as never before. My heart is warmed and my faith grows at each reading of this book. The fact that I have reasons to critique the book at certain points does not change that reality.
A friend of mine studied Experiencing God with a small group and liked the book very much. But at the end of the study she was surprised. "We read the same book, but they came out with all the wrong ideas." Her fellow readers took the teaching of Blackaby and King more literally than she did and the results were not what she expected. This difference is not incidental. For Experiencing God presents two different ideas about how God "speaks."
The authors begin with an explanation of what they see as the prototype in biblical examples of God speaking. I will call this Pattern A. In these instances, when God spoke, those who heard knew it was God. They knew what He was saying. They knew what they were to do in response (p. 31). This should raise a caution flag in the mind of the perceptive reader: Are they going to take examples of God's direct revelation to Moses, Isaiah, or Paul as the normal ways believers experience God?
In their fourth principle, the authors maintain: "God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways." I will call this Pattern B. And it reflects the traditional view of finding God's will. It will come as no surprise to the reader of Decision Making that I see problems with Blackaby and King's juxtaposition of Patterns A and B.
Critique #1-Experiencing God uses examples of supernatural direct revelation as the norm.
Like other proponents of the traditional view, this book muddles the concept of God's revelation. Examples of direct, supernatural revelation to specific biblical characters (Pattern A) are set out as normative experience. "Surely the Lord does nothing, unless He reveals his secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). Then these examples are said to substantiate the idea that God speaks through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church (Pattern B). This is a confusion of categories that are not the same.
In the Bible, prophets were set apart by God who gave them special revelation to pass on to God's people (Pattern A). Their experience was hardly the norm for the rest of the people of Israel. And Moses was unique even among the prophets. God gave him direct revelation without dreams and visions. He was given direct access to the voice of God and saw God's form (Numbers 12:6-8).
But when Blackaby and King explain how God speaks to people today, they describe something very different. God is said to "reveal" His will to us through the Bible, circumstances, the church, and prayer (Pattern B). These signs all have to be checked against each other. But that is not at all what happened with Moses. In Exodus 3, Moses had no Bible. He was not praying, he was minding his own business, tending sheep. Circumstances were never conducive to Moses' new task. The nation of Israel was the closest thing to the church-and they didn't want him. This interpretational method is flawed. It is invalid to superimpose Pattern A illustrations onto Pattern B experience. But that is what this book does.
Critique #2-This book encourages believers to wait until they receive a clear revelation from God before acting.
This book assumes that God's detailed will is not contained in the Bible. God must tell you what He is doing and then you are to join in with Him. God is the one who initiates. He reveals to each believer what He is doing and what we should do. God took the initiative with Noah, Abraham, and Moses (p. 54). "When God starts to do something in the world, He takes the initiative to come and talk to somebody" (p. 66). It is this "agenda" (p. 68) that we must know if we are to act in harmony with His purposes.
Experiencing God is the traditional view of guidance with an edge. Some readers who take the illustrations in the book literally have concluded that they should do nothing until God tells them what to do.
There are two problems with this approach. The first is the assertion that God's assignment to us (through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, church) will be as clear to us as it was to Moses. It just doesn't work out that way in practice-as the authors admit with their illustration from the life of George Mueller. Mueller did not claim to have direct revelation. He went through steps in the process of finding God's will. In the end, he says, "I come to a deliberate judgment according to the best of my ability and knowledge" (p. 72). Blackaby and King add, "Don't be discouraged if it still seems vague," there will be more chapters to explain it all (p. 72). Clearly the experiences of Moses and Mueller were different. Moses did not evaluate impressions or interpret circumstances; and he never had reason to complain that the message was vague.
The second problem is that waiting for a clear message from God before acting is a prescription for inaction. The Bible does not call us to passivity. Even those to whom God broke through with divine revelation were not "doing nothing" when that happened. Most often they were faithfully going about the business of life, obeying the moral will of God. In their case, the dramatic intrusion of God was for the purpose of giving a specific and strategic assignment. Both before and after the revelation, they were engaged in fulfilling the (moral) will of God.
For believers today, God has already taken the initiative. "God has spoken" through the prophets and through His Son (Hebrews 1:1) to give us His moral will. The normative response for Christians is to exercise initiative in creatively responding to that moral will through obedience. This pattern is illustrated by Paul who was active and resourceful in making plans to visit Rome (a process he describes in Romans 1 and 15 and that I discuss in chapter 14 of this book).
Critique #3-This view expressed in Experiencing God turns spiritual gifts on their head.
Blackaby and King teach that a spiritual gift is not a "thing" like administrative abilities that you use for the Lord's work (p. 47). Waiting to discover your gifts before you accept an assignment from God is backward (p. 46). The gift comes after you accept the ministry, not before. You should listen to God and He will tell you what to do. He will supply the miraculous power to do it successfully. The power He gives you is the spiritual gift.
This explanation fits Moses well. God not only gave him a task, but three miraculous signs and ten plagues to carry it out. But it does not match up with the normative teaching of the Apostle Paul. He explained that each Christian has been given one or more spiritual gifts that must be discovered and used (1 Peter 4:10; see Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12-14). Stewardship of one's spiritual gifts is to be a factor in the decisions that one makes about ministry. (For elaboration of this point see chapter 23 in Decision Making.)
Critique #4-This view expects all our assignments will be successful and miraculous.
Inadvertently (I hope), these authors give the reader the impression that hearing God's voice and doing His will always produce a successful outcome. When you know this success in ministry, you are "experiencing God." The logic sounds good: God told you what He is going to do, so it will always happen. If you obey, there will be a 100 percent success rate from following God's direction. It has to be. God made the plan and God brings it about. "When God purposes to do something, He guarantees that it will come to pass" (pp. 152, 168). The caveat of James 4:15, "If the Lord wills we will live and also do this or that," does not seem to apply (see chapter 13 of Decision Making).
The authors give an illustration of a church trying to start a Bible study as an outreach to seekers (pp. 44-45). For two years they got nowhere. They then reversed their method. This time they just asked God to show them what He was doing so they could join in. Within three days someone asked a member of the group: "Do you know somebody who can lead us in a Bible study?" Bingo. They started several Bible studies. They conclude, "For almost two years we tried to do something for God and failed. For three days we looked to see where God was working and joined Him." (p. 45)
This interpretation of their outreach endeavor unintentionally disparages God-honoring, sincere efforts by Christians who serve God in ministries that produce little by way of observable results. A balanced use of illustrations would include not only Moses and the Exodus, but also those "heroes of faith" who were approved by God though they accomplished little or nothing by their sacrifice (Hebrews 11:36-39). The Bible says that spiritual success is measured by faithfulness, not results (1 Corinthians 4:2). I'm glad the group experienced a fruitful ministry, but I'm not convinced that the change in approach alone explains the earlier frustration and the later breakthrough. The sovereign timing of God's answer to their prayers provides an explanation that ascribes value to two years of preparatory spade work that, in retrospect, resulted in a harvest.
The authors maintain that hearing God and joining him will not only bring success, but your "assignments" from God will be "God-sized" (p. 135). "I have come to the place in my life that, if the assignment I sense God is giving me is something that I know I can handle, I know it probably is not from God. The kind of assignments God gives in the Bible are always God-sized" (p. 138). Now it is true that no one should ever rely on his or her own strength to accomplish spiritual results. Dependence on God is always required. But it is going too far to say that every ministry assignment must be of miraculous proportions. We need to remember that the biblical illustrations are the exception to the rule. The Bible's teaching on stewardship instructs us to match our resources to the task under consideration (Luke 14:28-30; 2 Corinthians 8:12). It is not unspiritual to evaluate a potential challenge with the question: "Is this something I can handle (by God's grace)"? That is wisdom. It is good to stretch our faith, but God's power is as necessary for "routine faithfulness" as it is for herculean tasks.
Critique #5-The book teaches that believers can discern personal messages from God through the Bible, prayer, and circumstances.
"Only the Holy Spirit can reveal to you which truth of Scripture is a word from God in a particular circumstance" (p. 88). In this statement, the authors seem to mean more than personal application of general truths. When one of their daughters[WHICH AUTHOR'S DAUGHTER? Don't know] daughter had cancer, they say that God used John 11:4 ("This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God") to show them that Carrie would not die of the cancer. The verse is about Lazarus, but the personal message from God was that this daughter would not die of her disease.
It is wonderful that they received encouragement from this verse during a distressing time. It would have been a great verse to hold onto in prayer: "May this be true in my daughter's case as well." But to claim a historical statement as a personal promise, even if it is deeply impressed upon one's mind, is to turn the Bible into a kind of divining rod. Not only does this approach violate legitimate principles of interpretation, but it sets up vulnerable believers for disillusionment. The stories that don't pan out-where someone believed that God gave a promise through a verse, and it didn't come true-don't make it into published testimonies. But those cases are as devastating as this one was encouraging. We should not hold God to supposed promises He has not obligated Himself to keep.
"What God says in prayer is far more important than what you say" (p. 109). In fact your prayer will always be answered, we are told, because God will tell you what to pray. His personal message to you assures that if you pray for the things He reveals, they will always come to pass (pp. 110-11). "Believe that what He has led you to pray, He Himself will bring to pass" (p. 162).
Again, this counsel fits the theology of the traditional view. But most of the biblical texts on prayer assume that the one praying does not know what God is going to do (see Romans 1:8-15; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9; 2 Samuel 16-22). The requests that we are to make to God are said to be our own (Philippians 4:6).
These authors agree that circumstances are notoriously difficult to read. But God will tell what they mean. "You will be watching circumstances and asking God to interpret them by revealing to you His perspective" (p. 152).
I will not repeat here the refutation in chapter 13 of Decision Making of the invalid practice of "reading providence." Suffice it to say that once again this theology cannot be sustained by careful examination of Scripture.
To sum up: The Bible, prayer, and circumstances are important factors in decision making. But the promise of personal messages through specific revelations is not their proper role.
Critique #6-The main theme of the book is taken from a misreading of John 5.
The authors say repeatedly that we should see what God is doing and join in. Look at the circumstances that surround you and God will show you what He is doing. Then you can join what God is planning anddoing, not what you want to plan and do. The pattern is based upon the statement of Christ in John 5:19: "The Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does these things the Son also does in like manner."
However, this verse is not about Christ looking at circumstances around Him and "joining the Father's work." This is John's introduction to proving that Jesus is equal to the Father (John 5:18) since He can do all the works of the Father, including resurrection and final judgment (John 5:21-22). His apprehension of the Father is intimate and direct as a member of the Godhead. He did not learn God's plan by viewing circumstances. (This passage is more completely expounded in chapter 4 of Decision Making.)
Despite my criticisms, I still find much in the book to be very helpful. It is edifying as a devotional appeal to sincere faith in God. The reader who "translates" the vocabulary and illustrations of this book through the interpretive grid of the way of wisdom will benefit greatly from genuine spiritual insight. Those who try to apply those examples and explanations literally will try to live a life that was not even the norm for Moses...who actually did see a burning bush.