“I pass the test … I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel” (Lord of the Rings, II.7, p.357).
“The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less” (John the Baptist, Jn 3:29f).
I think the most ironic phrase in the English language is, “I was humbled.” When we use it, we might as well say, “I felt really proud.” But I get it. I was humbled recently to have lunch with pastor and author, Vern Heidebrecht. I.e. I felt proud to be invited into his company. In fact, I was actually humbled in that I had that “I’m-not-worthy” feeling to have someone I consider as a seasoned man of God treat me so graciously. And this will be part of my point in this article.
Vern and I share a common passion to equip others to hear the voice of God. We were comparing notes on discerning God’s voice and distinguishing it from the cacophony of competing messages. Vern provided me with an “Aha! moment” when he mentioned humility as a key to recognizing the call of the Good Shepherd. I’d like to share an excerpt from his book and then respond to this point, because I believe it provides a serious upgrade for Christian discernment and a benchmark for carefully weighing prophetic messages and ministries:
Vern Heidebrecht, Hearing God’s Voice: Seven Keys to Connecting with God (Victor Books, 2007), 29-30.
God is humble and speaks to us in messages that call for humility. Long ago, King David declared: “He leads the humble in doing right, teaching them his way” (Ps. 25:9). Jesus invites us to come to him when we are stressed out and burdened down, because he has rest for our souls. For this reason, Jesus revealed himself to be “humble and gentle” (Matt. 11:28-30). This is how he communicates with us.
A.W. Tozer makes the observation that, “religion has accepted the monstrous heresy that noise, size, activity, and bluster make a man dear to God. But we may take heart. To the people caught in the tempest of the last great conflict, God says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). He continues, “Our strength and safety lie not in noise but in silence.” James says it this way: “God sets himself against the proud, but showers favour on the humble (James 4:6). Paul confirms this with the statement, “your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took on a humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form, he would humble himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Yes, we hear the voice of God when we humble ourselves before him. It is at that point that the resistance in our hearts is broken down and we clearly hear what God has to say to us.
In my encounter with Vern and his teaching, I saw three layers or principles of humility in reference to prophetic ministry.
1. The Humility of the Prophet
Prophetic maturity will inevitably include a journey to humility for the one who is truly listening to or speaking for God. There will be an emptying of egotism and self-will as the prophet insists, like St. John the Forerunner, “Jesus must increase. I must decrease.” Against the flow of so much of the current Christian culture, the growing prophet will follow Jesus example in downward mobility, humbling oneself rather than being concerned with building a name, a reputation or an international ministry. Our attitude, according to Paul, ought to emulate that of Jesus, who humbled himself and received only the glory of the Father’s approval. Note that this initial approval came at Jesus’ baptism, before any signs and wonders, before any public speaking ministry and before he had any followers at all. Note also Jesus’ own advice that it is better to seat ourselves in the least place at the table and let the divine Host insist that we take the place of honor, rather than suffering the humiliation of being bumped for our presumption.
I would suggest that even Jesus had to pass the test of resisting the temptation to be great and impressive and powerful before the Father would release him into his kingdom ministry. Hebrews says that Christ, the perfect one, had to learn obedience through the trials and temptations that he suffered, not just during Passion Week, but in the wilderness testing and the thirty years of patience before that. Learning obedience does not imply that he had been disobedient. It probably means that he became increasingly poor in spirit as he repeatedly said YES to the Father and NO to the pressures of the world system, the demands of the ego and the assaults of the enemy—esp. in the face of suffering and the lure of independent solutions. Let me be clear: Jesus was devoid of ambition—even the ambition of an international prophetic destiny.
2. The Humility of the Word
I really noticed the issue of tone in Vern’s excerpt. It’s not just that the prophet is humble; the God who speaks is humble. He doesn’t just like humble people; he is the ultimate example of humility. A glance at the Cross will confirm this and should truly humble us. We did that to our God. It ought to make us feel very small indeed, but it even then, it would not be as small as our God willingly became as the Word made flesh.
God is unmatched in humility when we consider his refusal even to coerce love and loyalty from his children. Even his wrath is not the violence of an angry tyrant, but rather, the humility of a Father who grants us our self-destructive agenda and persistently calls us to our senses. We should perhaps hear his more dire warnings, not with the roar of ranting dictator, but through the tears of a broken-hearted lover.
Because of this, should not our prophetic messages be delivered with humility both in their tone and their content? The exceptions should prove the rule rather than grant a green-light for angry people to project their ire into God’s messages. This is tricky, because there is a true prophetic edge that comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. It is not about simple dulling the Sword of the Spirit such that the fine edge of truth can no longer penetrate the heart. Rather, the few prophets that I trust to bring the fiery word are qualified by their humility. Meanwhile, the normal rendering of the Word of the Lord will sound like the fruit of the Spirit (e.g. gentle, patient, long-suffering, kind, self-controlled).
3. The Humility of the Fruit
Discernment of spirits is important for this final principle. The fruit of a genuine prophetic word or of personally hearing God’s voice aright will be humility. In other words, when we give or receive a prophetic word, both the messenger and the recipient will be called to be like Jesus who was lowly in heart and we will give glory to Jesus rather than to self.
In practice, this may not be so easy. How does one give or receive a word that strengthens, comforts and encourages without flattering? How does one give or receive a word that invites faith-filled, bold action without nurturing fleshly ambition? How does heaven deposit spiritual insight without puffing up the intellect? It is a risk, to be sure. But a risk that God is happy to take over and over. He certainly doesn’t shrink back from speaking of his love and his plans for an abundant life and fruitful ministry. Yet how does one receive such an inheritance in true humility?
I would like to make some suggestions. First, for the one giving an encouraging word, motive is critical. If my motive is to minister love and nourish faith, I trust that God will take that word into the recipient’s heart rather than into the ego. In other words, my motive may direct or misdirect the very same arrow of truth. Even if the word is accurate, if I am delivering it for the purpose of being impressive or earning approval or dabbing my insecurities or establishing my little kingdom, that may impact the purity with which the word is received. I know that my heart can be wayward in all these ways, so as I deliver the word, I can commit my motives to the Lord and ask for mercy, rather than shutting down out of fear of my own agenda.
As to the recipient, when we receive a glowing prophetic word, there are some simple questions that enact humility as a benchmark. For example, did this message lift my eyes to Jesus. Did it trigger the good fruits of repentance, gratitude, love for God and others, etc. Or did it trigger the negative fruits of creating dependence on the prophet, or tickling the ego, or inspiring haughtiness. Whether giving or receiving a message, if it creates striving or strutting, I do well to retreat into hiddenness with the Father for some perspective.
In other articles, I have exhorted readers to use the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12) as a furnace of testing for every prophetic message. Does what we hear survive Jesus’ version of the fruit of the Spirit and life of the Kingdom? Does it live up to these verses which serve as a veiled biography of Christ’s character? Again and again, I sense the Lord prompting to recall the first beatitude and use it as a litmus test in which to dip every alleged message: the beatitude of humility. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of God.”
Those messages which inspire me to exalt myself, build my empire, or take over do not stack up well against this verse. But I can freely receive even the most positive messages if they serve to impress me with Jesus rather than with myself. Whatever makes it through the fire of that verse is usually gold. A gold that humbles me.