Is prophecy a waste of time?

The Harold Camping fiasco last weekend prompted a merciless round of jokes (not least of all from me–and I have stockpiled new ones for October like the proverbial cans of green beans in my apocalyptic fallout shelter). The word prophecy was of course thrown out a lot this week, both in the sense of what Scripture says or doesn’t say about the end of the world, as well as prophecy as defined as a kind of personal insight or perspective on futuristic events. There are of course, a diverse set of definitions for what it is to be a prophet. In the purist sense of the word, a prophet is one who declares the word of God. In Scripture this often carries the connotation of anointed, inspired, powerful speech (more in terms of authority than volume).

Perhaps the best and most beautiful example of prophecy in Scripture comes from Isaiah 61.1-3, which Jesus would reinterpret in light of His own prophetic task: “The spirit of God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for them who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” There is no more beautiful nor more potent definition of prophecy than that. And of course prophecy can also carry with it the connotation of speaking truth to power, speaking God’s word from the margins in the way the Old Testament prophets most often did. So a stinging critique of culture or religion from one postured outside that culture’s norms might be called a “prophetic” voice.

Yet in popular vernacular, the words “prophets” and “prophecy” has come to denote any kind of supernaturally inspired, intelligible speech. Thus in traditions like mine, anytime a person offers “a word” to another believer about something they believed God has revealed to them–whether regarding that person’s present struggles, or a word of encouragement or edification, or a word regarding their calling or future–in shorthand any such behavior is identified as a prophecy. I chafe under that definition sometimes because it is truncated, and can thus downplay the biblical realities of divine proclamation and speaking truth to power described earlier. But at the end of the day, I don’t think it is unfair to refer to these activities as prophetic. And while I am leery of self-designated prophets of any stripe, I do not think it is inaccurate to label believers who operate within these gifts as prophets.

Yet not only in cases like that of Camping, where a person has claimed some sort of personal revelation on the end of time, I have been witness to countless abuses under the moniker of prophecy–and nearly always from sincere people. God wants you to quit your job and go do this…and then things don’t pan out. Sorry. God says you are going to have a baby in the next 15 months. Oops, my bad. God says you are going to get rich by 2003 and send missionaries around the world from your abundance. DOH! And then there are those abuses that are not well-meaning missteps, but intentional power plays to manipulate others and give oneself a sense of power or control. If I were honest, I have as many accounts of prophecy gone wild as I do prophecy gone well.

And yet at the end of the day, I cling tenaciously to the idea that God’s people in all times and all places comprise a prophetic community, and that includes real personal insights shared from the Spirit of God in countless ways worthy of the p-word. I don’t know where Renovatus would be (or I would be) if not for the natural, humble and healthy ways people in our body have operated within this gift. In fact, I plan to share this weekend one of the defining prophetic experiences of my life–something that happened this week, hot off the presses.And while there are individuals who function in these gifts with unusual clarity or one might even say anointing, I also believe that every believer has the capacity to function within the sphere of these gifts at some level.

I understand better than anyone why people are inclined to throw the baby out with the bathwater–that is the natural inclination of anyone who has been victimized by prophetic abuse. This point must be conceded: for all the promise that prophecy has to edify and encourage within the local Church, for all the benefits of being attentive to hearing God’s voice in this way–prophecy is maddeningly inefficient. It takes great time, discernment and safeguards within Christian communities for prophecy to operate within a body in a way that brings unity and direction rather than chaos and confusion. Let me say it again: prophecy is not efficient. But are the risks worth it? Not trying to quote Sarah Palin (or Tina Fey’s impression of her), but youbetcha.

In the following posts, I offer what I hope will be some helpful insight into what this might be look like and how it might work.