Listening and Getting it Right
There’s nothing wrong with people who talk to God and hear answers. God doesn’t turn his back on people who do suffer from mental illness. He talks to them too. If he only talked to the mentally ill that might make us suspicious. But many of the people who quite sincerely say they talk to God are perfect exemplars of mental health. Critics to the contrary, there are a number of objective markers of mental illness (drug and alcohol abuse, failure to maintain stable relationships, inability to hold down a job, inappropriate emotional responses to events, etc.) and people who report a strong faith in God and an active prayer life generally score higher rather than lower on the mental health scale.
How then can I be so sure that W wasn’t listening very well when he asked God what to do about Iraq? There are several indications. First is that the President told a number of lies to the country and to the world about why he was invading Iraq. God doesn’t like lying. Second is that this course of action hasn’t worked out very well. God doesn’t give stupid advice. Third is that no spiritually mature people of my acquaintance were inclined to confirm that this was indeed God’s will; on the contrary they had grave doubts about it.
The story illustrates some points about discernment. When Quakers say they have a leading from God to do something they are aware of the possibilities to test the leading. It’s not simply a matter of using my own intuition to see if the idea is really from God. There’s more to it than that. If the matter is important, affects other people and there is sufficient time, then one really ought to look for empirical confirmation outside your own consciousness. Is the leading consistent with past experience of God? How do weighty Friends feel about this leading? One can formally request a clearness committee or just informally discuss it over somebody’s coffeetable, but if time permits one shouldn’t act on any serious leading without input from the community of seekers. Finally, one ought to be on the lookout of Way opening. These will be events spontaneously occurring that make the path clear. Those who shy away from traditional Quaker language might want to call them Jungian synchronicities, but the facts are the same. Things will happen that look like coincidences and signal that the leading is genuine.
Not every case will warrant such serious threshing to discern true from false leadings. On occasion the leading is something that must be responded to immediately. Sometimes one is lead to suddenly run home, without any particular rational reason, and finds a naked toddler wandering in the street. Or one is suddenly hit by the leading to help a nasty old anti-Semite carry her groceries up to her apartment. (To use two examples of leadings that other Friends have offered recently on Quakerquaker.) There’s no time for clearness committees or even much reflection. Like Abraham one hears the call and says “yes, Lord.”
Anyone who hangs around Quakers long enough has a few stories like this to tell. The proof is found in living out these leadings. God does speak to us. We are not crazy. Like Fox, we can say this is something we know experimentally.