The Problem with Prophecy
Saddling cats vs riding elephants
Imagine I’m describing an elephant to you. But you’ve never seen an elephant. In fact the only animal you’ve ever seen is a cat.
I picture: An elephant
I say: This animal has four sturdy, strong legs.
You picture: A big cat with strong, furry legs.
I picture: The elephant sucking up water in its trunk and spraying itself down.
I say: This animal is gifted at making itself clean.
You picture: A cat licking itself clean.
I picture: The broad, strong back of an elephant.
I say: This animal is strong and can carry many people on its back.
You picture: A cat with big legs, licking itself and carrying people.
You frown. You start to suspect that I am a bit of a lunatic.
"Preconceptions are understandable, but dangerous."
The problem with prophecy is…wait for it…us. Those of us on the receiving end of the prophetic word. Much as we love to blame the prophet for ‘missing it’ or God for simply not living up to his promise, the main pitfall of prophecy is our preconceptions – what we already believe or expect to hear.
Preconceptions are understandable, but dangerous. We hear what God is saying through the filter of our past experience. And the filter of what we want him to say. We have our pre-selected framework and we try to squeeze an elephant-sized prophecy into a cat-sized frame. Then we get frustrated when it doesn’t seem to fit. So that the next time we see a cat we try and saddle it up and ride it. When that idea - and the cat - collapses, we get frustrated: “God said this would work, and I was obedient but it totally didn’t work. God has let me down.” A few years later we walk past an elephant. “Woah. What is that? I have never heard of one of those before.” And we carry on walking.
Why is prophecy so easy to misunderstand, to misinterpret, to manipulate?
Our preconceived ideas of what God is talking about blind us to the very thing he is talking about. So that when we see it, we cannot see it. Bizarrely, this may be the very effect God is going for. Remember when the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in stories and riddles that people didn’t understand. He said this:
"This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.' " (Matthew 13:13-15)
"Why is his message a mystery wrapped in a conundrum, wrapped in pancetta?"
God is not in the business of making things easy. Or obvious. He likes metaphors, a.k.a. picture riddles. He likes stories that hint at the heart of his message but that don’t put it bluntly. He chooses to use us, to communicate the message of salvation. Rather than trend on Twitter (hashtag: salvation-up-for-grabs), appear on YouTube or just write it in big red letters in the sky. But why? Why does God whisper rather than shout? Why is his message a mystery, wrapped in a conundrum, wrapped in pancetta? Well, I’m going to ‘pull-a-Jesus’ on you. Instead of explaining, I’ll tell you a couple of stories.
Case Studies in The Unexpected
Last year, I was teaching a group of 6 to 9 year olds to prophesy. I asked for a volunteer from among the kids who wanted to be prophesied over. Then we all closed our eyes and asked God to give us a picture or a thought for that person. Attention spans being short in that age group I only waited for around 15 seconds for them to receive something. That was too long; their eyes sprang open immediately and I started to feel a bit suspicious. One girl stuck her hand up, with a cheeky grin on her face. “Did you get a picture for Nathan, I asked?” “Yes,” she said, “I saw a big golden hippo with an elephant standing on his back and they were really shiny and they were dancing and eating chocolate bars.”
I detected a prank, “Is that really what God said?” I asked, expecting to catch her out. She looked hurt, “Yes!” she insisted. As I went round the group many other children shared their pictures: “I saw sweets”, “I saw gold coins”. The pictures were different enough that they weren’t just copying each other but with a definite theme. The prophetic picture that I had dismissed as too silly and too quick, was genuinely how God was speaking to a 7 year old girl. I brought the words together for Nathan: “Nathan,” I said, “It seems like God is saying he likes you as much as you like sweets, and that you are very precious to him, like gold, and very strong, like an elephant. Wow. God thinks you are very cool, Nathan.” Nathan grinned.
"He baffles us to get our attention."
Going back a few years, the first time that my husband and I received a full-on personal prophecy was when we were students at the School of Ministry in Toronto. We’d come to the school because life had gone a bit wrong. We felt pretty messed up and on the scrapheap of life. Enter, the very wonderful and mature prophets Ivan and Isabel Allum.
We stood in front of them in fear and trepidation wondering if they were just going to ‘read our mail’ and shake their heads. But what came next was 15 minutes of the most life-affirming, encouraging and mind-blowing prophecy. I didn’t even understand half of the terms they were using because my knowledge of these things was basic. But I came away feeling loved and affirmed. I thought I was a cat, but God said I was an elephant. I didn’t even really understand what an elephant was, but God seemed to think it was very cool.
My framework for understanding who I was in the kingdom and what God could do through me, was too small. The prophecy spilled over the edges of the frame. Yet my spirit was filled with life and hope and love and so I knew it was God even though it was totally unexpected.
Natural insight vs spiritual insight
When are we going to get it through our thick heads that we just can’t figure God out using human logic or reason? Natural intelligence only gets in the way when it comes to understanding prophecy. “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” (Isaiah 5:21)
"Seeing is done with the heart."
Let’s go back to what Jesus said about us not being able to see:
“For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.” Calloused means thick or hard. When our hearts are hard, we cannot use our second set of eyes and ears. The eyes and ears of our spirit-man.
“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” says Paul in his prayer for the Ephesians (Eph 1:18)
Seeing is done with the heart. Perceiving comes via the Holy Spirit in our Spirits. We could never have figured out with our brains what Jesus was talking about in his parables. That was rather the point of them. He baffles us to get our attention. “What?! That makes no sense!” we yell. “Hmmm,” he says, “you’d better come to me and ask me what it means then”.
God’s goal is always to draw us deeper into relationship. He doesn’t give us a ouija board or a book of dream symbols, an astrological chart or any kind of system for understanding his messages. We have to come to him each time for revelation. It has to be fresh food. We have to collect the manna fresh every day or it goes off.
Time to do a MMOJ
"A big part of receiving prophecy is in the pondering."
When you receive a prophecy or a word from God, and you don’t get it, or even if you think you do get it, just do a MMOJ:
"But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2:19)
A big part of receiving prophecy is in the pondering. That’s what MMOJ (marymotherofjesus) did. Hold it in your heart. Ask him to show you what he means, and to give you a hint as to the timing of it. Because what we need is his spirit of understanding to be our interpreter and not our own preconceived ideas.
"But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding." (Job 32:8)
As we ponder in conference with the Holy Spirit, any words that weren’t from God will fall away. Only the ones that were truly from his heart will stick. We don’t need to be afraid of getting deceived or misled when we allow God to explain to our hearts what God was talking about. But we can’t rush it. It’s not like turning to the back of the book to find the answer to the crossword puzzle. We do a MMOJ. We allow the words to settle in our hearts. We ask God about them. We ask him questions and we wait. He promises that those who ask will be answered. (Matthew 7:7)
When it comes to prophecy even the most anointed prophets ‘see through a glass darkly’. God is full of mystery. He speaks to us of things that no man has seen before. That makes them pretty hard to imagine. So let’s not analyse with our heads, but ponder in our hearts like MMOJ. Because without the spirit of understanding to interpret, we’ll end up saddling cats when we should be riding elephants.
How do you feel about prophecy? Do you welcome it, get baffled by it or feel disappointed by it? What are your experiences?