In 1986, I was seven years old. I was in Mrs. Howry’s class at Lakeview Elementary School. I spent Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings at the First United Methodist Church downtown. All my relationships were simple and uncomplicated: with my parents, with my teachers, with my God.
I was too young to care much about pop culture. It would be several years before I’d buy my first album on a tape cassette. But that doesn’t matter; I still remember this hit like it was a soundtrack to my second grade days:
If you were alive for the year 1986 then you probably have some recollection of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know.” The song was originally written for Janet Jackson but she turned it down, and her missed opportunity became Houston’s second number one hit. “How Will I know” debuted at number 60 on the Billboard Top 100 in late 1985 and eventually made it to the number one spot. It’s a certified gold hit and an infectious tune that you’ll probably have in your head the rest of the day.
I bet I could sing along with this song when I was seven, but the sentiment of the lyrics wouldn’t hit home with me until my teenage years. “How will I know if he really loves me?” How do you tell the difference between a guy with bad intentions and a guy who really cares? How?
Moses’ talk with the Israelites as they get ready to enter the Promised Land addresses this important question… but about prophets, not boyfriends.
In Deuteronomy 18, the Israelites are approaching the end of their 40-year wandering between Egypt and Canaan. Moses is preparing them to reach their destination with instructions about how they ought to act as God’s people. They will need to keep listening to God, but direct communication from our Creator is a little more than they (or any human) can handle. So God will send prophets – people that God will speak through – and anyone who doesn’t listen to them will be in trouble.
But it’s possible to fake the role of prophet. There will be real some real ones, and there will also be some impersonators. And, in the words of Whitney, “How will I know?”
Anticipating this question, Moses gives this practical advice: If what the prophet says comes true, then he’s for real. But if he predicts things that don’t come true, he’s false.
Well, that makes perfect sense, but I find it lacking. If we apply that same logic to Whitney’s question, it goes like this:
“How will I know if he really loves me?”
“If he marries you and stays faithful to you until the day you die.”
That’s absolutely true, but unhelpful in the gut-wrenching early stages of a relationship when all those events are years in the future. So, yes, a prophet is for real if what he predicts comes true. But what about between now and then?
How will I know?
It’s a question we still need to ask. I don’t think in terms of prophets, per se, but I do wonder which authors I should trust and which I should ignore. What teachers will lead me the right way and what teachers will send me off into left field? What ideas make me good uncomfortable, because they are stretching me out of my comfort zone, and what ideas make me uncomfortable simply because they are wrong?
How will I know?
If you, like me, would like more concrete advise than “wait to see what happens,” then the Wesleyan Quadrilateral might be of interest to you.
You might remember that John Wesley is the guy who started the Methodist movement. He was a Church of England priest in the 1700s who wanted to bring passion into the church, and the church into the world. He cared a lot about how he lived out his faith and he thought very carefully about what was right and what was wrong. Those who have studied Wesley have noticed that his decision making consistently drew on four things: Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition.
- Scripture, of course, refers to the Bible. Wesley always started here. The Bible was and is most important in finding answers and discerning the truth. But Wesley did not stop there.
- Wesley used his reason, his God-given ability to think and problem solve.
- He also drew on his own experience of God, how he had personally felt God to work in his soul and in the world.
- And he turned to church tradition – the wisdom of those who have followed Christ before us.
So let’s play this out with an idea that gets preached from time to time: if your faith is deep enough, God will reward you with health and wealth – sometimes called, “Prosperity Gospel.”
First, what does the Bible tell us on the subject? Jesus does tell us to “ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). But we should also notice that the great faith of Jesus Christ led him to a lonely death on the cross. Passages like James 1:2 – “whenever you face trials of any kind, considering it nothing but joy” – insinuate that faith goes hand-in-hand with suffering, not reward.
Having started with Scripture, now we can turn to reason. My own logic might actually defend the idea that God would reward those who are committed to following Christ. But my experience of God observes that this is not always how it plays out: good Christian people are not immune to cancer or financial ruin or natural disaster.
How about tradition? Most of our church fathers and mothers predate this “prosperity gospel” that emerged in the 1950s; they did not directly address it, so we’ll need to look for indirect material. John Wesley consistently preached a cautious approach to money because material gain can easily lead to spiritual loss. Wesley also believed that self-denial was an essential part of truly following Christ, not accumulation. These things might tell us to be wary of a teaching that hopes faith will lead to personal gain.
So, what of this idea that our faith will lead to wealth and health? Seen through the lens of Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition, it doesn’t seem to hold much water.
We are all exposed to new ideas from time to time. We read books and listen to the radio; we get the newspaper and subscribe to podcasts; we watch TV and follow social media. You’re getting a new idea, right now, in the form of this sermon. As we take in all this information, we will wonder: Is this a prophetic voice speaking the truth, or a misled human being who’s misleading others? How will I know?
Wesley’s “Quadrilateral” approach to spiritual discernment is a real gift in finding the answer to that question. We at Andrews UMC are Methodists, heirs to Wesley’s theology. So what if we actually used it? When a new idea hits us, and we can’t tell whether it’s prophecy or heresy, what if we turned to Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition to wrestle it out?
I realize that I’m asking for trouble, because you might start using this with me – but I’ll ask for trouble, anyway. I don’t want my congregation to be a gathering of “yes” men and women, nodding along compliantly to whatever I might say. I want them – and you – to ask, “How will I know?” and dig deeper for the truth. I want to find that truth, together.
In 1986, I was seven years old and not giving a second thought to any crises of romance or prophecy. Both of those would come in my middle school years, especially the question of theological correctness. “How will I know?” I wondered. I had no idea.
I wish I had known then to explore those questions through Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition.
But I’m glad I know that today – and now, so do you.
To read more about John Wesley, try Richard Heitzenrater’s “Wesley and the People Called Methodists.” For more on Methodism in general, Will Willimon’s short book “United Methodist Beliefs” is a quick and helpful read.
Credit to the guys at Pulpit Fiction for the idea to use Prosperity Gospel as my example today. Subscribe to their podcast for a helpful and entertaining look at each week’s lectionary texts.