Dreams, Burning Bushes and the Voice of God


Photo by Manuel Sorenson, via Flickr

In the Bible, people are always being told what to do in dreams and bushes that don’t burn and angelic visits. Not only that, half the time what they’re being told doesn’t make sense. Go sacrifice your only child, the one who’s supposed to grow up and give you descendants beyond count. You’re gonna have a baby even though you’ve never had sex. Go, thou stutter-er, and tell the king of Egypt to free his slaves.

And they always do it. And it works out because it was God talking.

We set these people up as examples to emulate. But in my life it’s led to a twisted view of my will versus God’s will. A view that says anything that makes sense to me must, because it seems rational, be contrary God’s will. And any whisper in the brain suggesting something scary, irrational or involving what feels like unwise risk must, therefore, be God’s will.

(I said it was twisted.)

This is a neurosis I’ve struggled with for years, most notably when I was battling anxiety, and I’ve come to think it stems from the faulty understanding of Scripture that causes Scripture itself to be a stumbling block for so many reasonable people.

Being modern people, we tend to take words at face value. Being people of written history, people whose grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents have been literate, we approach the Bible like a newspaper, rather than a compilation of tales and poetry passed down through oral tradition over the course of generations before it was written down. The book And God Said What? taught me a lot about literary forms of Biblical times. The author goes through the forms, most of which are no longer in use–hence our difficulty in making sense of them–and stresses that the point of Scripture is to communicate truths about God, not historical events.

People get really nervous about the idea that you can’t take every word of the Bible as literal, historical truth. We think if that’s the case, is any of it true? I struggle with this a bit myself, in all honesty. But again, that’s a sign that we’re imposing a modern sensibility, formed and steeped in the idea that you must be able to prove something scientifically in order for it to be true, upon people who just didn’t experience the world that way.

Photo by spratmackrel, via Flickr

In any case, the reason I’m going through all this is because we have a tendency to think that God talked to people differently in ancient times than he does now. And although it feels like blasphemy to say it, I can’t help wondering if many of those stories about dreams and burning bushes were less historical events and more images people came up with to try to explain to others how they discerned God’s will. I knew a girl once, angry, broken, seeking and resisting, who sat in an oak forest in the fall and threw a challenge to the skies: Prove it, then. At that moment, an autumn breeze swept a cascade of leaves down and one of them landed on her palm. That was how she encountered God.

Modern audiences recognize that God didn’t literally pick one leaf off a tree and place it in her hand. At the same time, we recognize her encounter as genuine. That’s the form our narratives take today–and we’ve all seen similar stories come through on email and Facebook.

Discerning the right course of action is hard enough without placing unreasonable expectations for clarity on God. We’d all like to have a billboard with our name on it, laying out in black and white the “right” decision. But putting those kinds of expectations on God throws roadblocks in the way of faith. It’s time to stop expecting God to behave the way He does in stories and start paying attention to the ways He does speak in real life.

9 thoughts on “Dreams, Burning Bushes and the Voice of God

  1. Jen K-M

    I have a really hard time explaining discernment to people because it’s hard to describe how God talks to people. I’m reading “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” and I’m finding that the author (James Martin, S.J., of whom I am a serious fan girl) is doing a great job at explaining it.

  2. I often say that I wish God did email so I could figure out what he is trying to tell me!
    Fr. Michael Casey wrote my favorite book on prayer – Toward God, The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer. In it he says that the key is, of course, spending regular time in prayer with God. And if we dont do that, then we will not recognize His voice when He speaks to us.
    In my case, God nags me. Though I think I may recognize His voice, I often do not trust myself, and so I wait. And after He has nagged me for a long time, I finally say, OK! I get it! I will do it!! 🙂

    • Yes, I think that silence (which in my experience is virtually 100% interchangeable with the word “prayer”) is really important in discernment, and hardly any of us do enough of it. I’ve been thinking about that in terms of my own life lately.

  3. barbaraschoeneberger

    Great post. I think that the more time we spend in the many types of prayer, the better we get at looking for and listening for God. I noticed that much of the time He makes us wait because all the other ducks He’s lining up aren’t in place yet. I’d love to have that personal email from God telling me exactly what He wants me to do and how He wants me to go about it. Life would be so much clearer, but then, as you noted, we might very well be sacrificing faith in the process.

  4. Kathleen, you brought to mind this Merton prayer:
    “MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

    • The first part of that prayer is familiar–it was in our Young People’s Way of the Cross when I was a kid, I think. I didn’t realize that was a Thomas Merton prayer.

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