Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting
In church services, it is common for the minister, after reading from the Bible, is say “This is the word of the Lord.” Australian Quakers don’t do this, for good reason. Many passages of the Bible look too much like the words of men.
The problem is not that the ancient writers did not have modern scientific knowledge. Some passages have meaning for us even if they are scientifically inaccurate. The problem is that some passages are morally reprehensible. For an example one cannot go past Exodus 21, verse 20:
If a slave owner takes a stick and beats his slave, and the slave dies on the spot, the owner is to be punished. But if the slave does not die for a day or two, the master is not to be punished. The loss of his property is punishment enough.
But if we cannot be guided by simply plucking a verse from the Bible, how do we receive communication from the Spirit? The Bible itself suggests a number of ways of understanding God’s Word. In the creation story, God says, “Let there be light” and there was light. Here the word of God is not speech (who could God be speaking to?) but action. We know something of God from the world we live in. The Psalmist says (Psalm 19 verses 1-4):
How clearly the sky reveals God’s glory!
How plainly it shows what he has done!
Each day announces it to the following day;
Each night repeats it to the next.
No speech or words are used, no sound is heard
Yet their message goes out to all the world.
In St John’s Gospel (Chapter 1, verse1) Jesus is depicted as the Word of God.
In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
What this means to me is that by looking at Jesus we can see something of God. The Quakers say that there is that of God in everyone, and we write testimonies to That of God in the life of departed Friends. But in the presence of Jesus his followers had an unusually strong sense of the Divine.
But perhaps the Word of God can come in the form of words. Often, the prophets claim to speak for God. They begin by saying “The Lord says….”
“My thoughts,” says the Lord, “are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thought above yours.” (Isaiah 55 verses 8-9).
Some of these statements are great poetry and seem divinely inspired. But I think we must not identify the words of divinely inspired people with The Word of God. Any statement which springs from an earnest search for the truth may be divinely inspired, but that is not to say it is without error. Any statement which inspires compassion may be divinely inspired, but it probably tells us more about human potential than the vast mystery which we call God.
And there are times when the Biblical prophets give commands from the Lord which one finds frankly repulsive. Here is Samuel passing on a message from God (1Samuel 15 verses 1-3)
Now listen to what the Lord Almighty says. He is going to punish the people of Amalek because their ancestors opposed the Israelites when they were coming from Egypt. Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t leave a thing: kill all the men, women, children and babies; the cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys.
The incident for which the Amalekites were to be punished occurred many hundreds of years before – if it was not entirely mythical. Does this passage tell us anything about the will of God, or does it tell us that Samuel was a nasty piece of work? (I blame it on his parents who gave him away to the priest Eli as soon as he was weaned, and thereafter only came to see him once a year to give him “a little robe”.)
All this may seem long ago and far away, but the problem of distinguishing divine messages from the effluvia of our own brains is still an issue today. This is particularly so for Quakers, who depend heavily on direct revelation. We wait in silence to hear what God requires of us, and if we receive a message which is not just for us but for the meeting we are asked to rise and minister to the meeting. It is obvious that not many of us have the confidence to do this, especially if we are warned that when in doubt we should remain silent. (When in doubt I ask three questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful? If the answers are “yes” I don’t think one’s ministry can do any harm.)
Let me diverge at this point to say something about language. All human languages spring from human experience and need. They are not the language of God, although all faiths have a tendency to assume that the language is which their scriptures are written is God’s native tongue. We have no idea how the mind of God works, but it cannot be anything like the operation of the human mind. If I might speculate wildly into the realm of complete ignorance, I imagine the mind of God working inversely to the mind of man. Human languages begin with naming the concrete – the ox and the orange, and work upwards to the abstract – the right angled triangle and the Rule of Law. The creator who made the universe from nothing must have started with the abstract – the rules of mathematics and physics – and worked downwards to the peanut and the porcupine. But to return to things we know something about.
The Advices and Queries tell us to “Pray that your ministry may arise from deep experience, and trust that words will be given to you.” The importance of personal experience is central to Quakerism, though I think it is a mistake to equate experience with emotion. When John Woolman rose to speak about the evils of slavery he was not just saying that he felt bad about it. He had also thought deeply about it, and found it to have no justification. The question I want to ask here is: will words be given to us?
There is scriptural precedent for this belief. In Matthew 10 verse 18-20 Jesus tells his disciples:
For my sake you will be brought to trial before rulers and kings, to tell the Good News to them and to the Gentiles. When they bring you to trial, do not worry about what you are going to say or how you will say it; when the time comes you will be given what you will say. For the words you will speak will not be yours; they will come from the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
I know that some people say they have been given words in difficult situations. I also know that words which come from deep experience can be powerful even if halting. Personally, I find that the Spirit gives ideas, not words. I have to find my own words to express the idea in a way that suits the audience.
People who, like John Woolman, have a deep concern which they think about all the time, will probably have words at the ready. The early evangelists who spread the gospel would also have had words at their disposal. But at a time when many of us are struggling to adapt traditional concepts to modern world views, I think a fair bit of head work may be called for. We should not shrink from this.
Of course words are not everything. Jesus, in order to preach, spent much time alone with God in silence. We need to do the same. But where would we be if Jesus had come down from the mountain and said nothing?