Christianity Today recently interviewed megachurch pastor Charles Stanley of First Baptist Church Atlanta and father of fellow megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. The interview focuses primarily on the prayer life of the elder Stanley, who says that the key to his life has been to “learn to talk to God and to listen to him and to be obedient to him and watch him work.” For Charles Stanley, this seemingly includes hearing from the Lord outside of the pages of Scripture.
As Christianity Today’s senior managing editor Mark Galli spoke with Stanley, he asked the following:
You often say in your books and preaching that God speaks to you, tells you things, and gives you messages. What is that like for you? Is it a thought? Is it a voice you hear? Source
Getting right to the point, Galli seeks to know precisely what method Charles Stanley claims that God is using to speak to him. Stanley’s answer, then, points not to the objective, written Word of God, but rather to impressions received from God that Stanley believes he has learned to interpret.
For me, I get this strong sense of feeling that’s so clear, so direct to me. Like this week, something happened and I thought, Well, I could do thus and such, and God said, “Don’t do that.” I don’t hear a voice, but it’s so crystal sharp and clear to me, I know not to disobey that.
I think that comes from early in life as you learn to listen. You make mistakes; after a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn’t turn out right.
Galli rightly labels this claim as “mystic,” following up with the question,
The way you talk about your relationship with God, the word mystic comes to mind. How would you feel if someone were to describe you this way? Source
Not specifically addressing this question, Stanley instead answers by stating that his entire life has been “wrapped up in” asking the questions, “Who is this God? How do I have an intimate relationship with him? How can I listen to him knowing that he’s the one doing the speaking?”
Indeed, how can one know that it is God who is speaking? Herein lies the problem with a reliance upon subjective experiences as a means of encountering and “hearing” from God. How does one tell the difference between a “strong sense of feeling” that allegedly originates with God, and one’s own internal desires? How does one know that it is God who is speaking, and not a deceptive spirit? When seeking to “hear from God,” there is no biblical guidance as to how one may determine exactly who or what is communicating. CRN’s research article on the topic of Spiritual Formation explains this in further detail.
In this interview with Christianity Today, Charles Stanley concluded that he wants “the Holy Spirit to interpret the truth” for him. Certainly this should be the desire of the Christian, but where can this truth be found which the Holy Spirit must illumine? Said Puritan John Owen,
Scripture is the believer’s rule and the Holy Spirit is his guide. Source
How, then, can one be certain that one is being guided by the Holy Spirit into the truth of God? Is it by relying upon and placing one’s confidence in subjective, extra-biblical experiences? Or is it by opening up the concrete, unchanging Word of God? The Lord Himself answers that question:
Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. (John 17:17, NASB)