Sometime during my years in elementary school, my dad was estranged from us. There was some issue with the status of his immigration visa, and it took over a year to resolve. For some, this might sound routine; however, for us, it was a very stressful and painful experience. Not only were we unsure if he would ever be able to come back to the States, but we were also not very well-off.
My mom suffered tremendously that year trying to put food on the table. Since the separation was unexpected, she had to scramble to find a job in a country where she could barely speak the language. Thankfully, a church friend offered my mom a wage for sewing little clothing pieces like socks and cuffs. But to make even a little money, she had to sew thousands of these things. My mom shares with me that she spent many sleepless nights sewing sock after sock; oftentimes, she fell asleep at the sewing machine exhausted. I still have many memories of my coming back from school and helping her turn a bunch of these clothing pieces inside-out. (Those who’ve sewn clothing know that in most cases you have to sew things inside-out and then “flip” them to finish the job.) Since I was still in elementary school, I thought it was kind of fun. But for my mom, it was a constant reminder of estrangement and the little money we had in the bank.
The stress and length of time eventually got to my mom. She always looked frail, and she got sick frequently. As a little kid, I didn’t know what was wrong, and I didn’t know what to do. I was plagued with fears and a feeling of helplessness.
I remember Christmas that year. My sister and I were so excited. We thought we were going to get lots of toys. (We didn’t know the dire state of our financial situation.) Surprisingly, my mom let us open the presents on Christmas Eve that year, which made it even more exciting for us. But when we lifted the presents, they were too light; we knew we were in for a disappointment. (I have a feeling that’s why we got to open them early – she didn’t want to have to see our disappointment in the morning, and she would also have the night to cry it out.) Regardless, they were presents; so we ripped them open, and we each found a pair of Freaky Freezies (winter gloves that change color in the cold) and a scarf. I think we were really quiet afterwards, maybe looking down. We had no idea what to say, so my mom spoke. With her voice cracking and tears in her eyes, my mom said to us, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you toys this year. I promise next year I’ll get you something really nice.” My sister looked at me, her eyes communicating that she didn’t know what to do. As the older brother, I knew I needed to do something. I remembered my dad telling me over the phone that I had to be the “man” of the house while he was away. So I took my Freaky Freezies and ran to the fridge, my sister trailing me. I quickly opened the freezer and rubbed the color-changing side of the gloves on the ice. My sister did the same. Then we both took the gloves out, showed our mom, and said with as much excitement as we could, “Look, umma. The gloves changed colors! Thank you so much. These are really cool.” My mom smiled, and she let her tears flow freely as we all laughed together. I think that’s one of the few things I did right that year. (I was a handful as a kid, so I’m told.)
But despite the hardships, my mom was anchored in the teaching of the Bible, and God’s Word taught her to cry out to him in hard times. So every night, my mom would gather me and my sister into her room, we’d sit on top of her dilapidated, queen size bed, and we’d hold hands and pray for God to bring our dad back. We did this every day for many months. I’m not sure if I looked forward to these times, but I knew they were important for my mom, so I participated without complaint. Today, I look back on those times in my mom’s room with deep appreciation as the experience was so formative in my life.
Later the following year, after we had finished one of our nightly prayers, my sister said to us that she heard an audible voice reassuring her that our dad was coming back. (I believe, she was in early elementary school at the time). I still remember that moment as if it were yesterday. She turned to me and said, “I heard God’s voice. He said appa’s coming back soon.” As older brothers do, I told her that she didn’t and that she was stupid. Well, very shortly after, my dad did return. Thankfully, my sister was too young to know this was a perfect opportunity to rub it in my face.
Anyway, several years ago, I learned something else about the circumstances surrounding my dad’s return. Right around the time my sister heard the voice, one of my mom’s friends (Joyce*) said she had another friend (Laura*) who was known as a woman who prays. Laura did not know my mom or our situation, but she said this to Joyce: “You have a friend who’s been separated from her husband. Tell her not to worry. He will be returning soon.”
This is one of the experiences that has held our family together over the years. And God has continued to work in amazing ways. Grateful does not describe how I feel when I look back to see God’s love in our lives.
If you want to know what triggered this post, you can read on below. If not, I hope this story was an encouragement to you!
*Names have been changed.
Some years ago, Pastor John Piper wrote a post criticizing a theology professor who was excited about having heard God’s audible voice. (I bring it up now because I recently saw it shared on Facebook.) You can read John Piper’s post here—The Morning I Heard God’s Voice—and the professor’s post here—My Conversation with God.
While I do see John’s cautionary point (e.g. that God “speaks” more powerfully through the Bible every day), I’m not fond of his tone. John Piper actually does not hear God’s audible voice at all, though it comes across as if he had in the first half of the post. Instead, he simply uses rhetorical devices (e.g. misdirection and ambiguity) in the first half to make his final half more compelling. In other words, in the first half Piper is deliberately vague when he says that he heard God speak making it seem like he heard God audibly only to “clarify” later that, in fact, he actually “heard” God speak through reading the Bible, and that that’s more powerful than an audible/mental voice. One could interpret this rhetorical method as being sarcastic. Of course, I certainly get John’s main thrust, and I somewhat affirm his sentiment, but I think his critique of the unnamed theologian is overly harsh. He could have made the same point with much more grace, in my opinion.
During biblical times, while many were drawn to Jesus’ and the Apostles’ teachings (God’s Word), in certain cases much more initial excitement and rejoicing occurred after particular miracles. Unlike what Piper does here, Jesus nor Paul chastises these people for their excitement even though they didn’t include qualifiers and caveats to rejoice in God’s Word first and foremost. Certainly, sinful people could wrongly emphasize such things over and above love and God’s Word and God himself (e.g. the Corinthian church). But so long as they’re anchored in God’s Word, I think it’s fine to delight in God’s “miracles.” And even if people are not anchored in the Bible, I’ve seen these things draw people closer to God and God’s Word. But again, there are abuses, of course; thus, the need for wisdom.
Personally, I think I’d be stunned (though, not surprised because it fits in my worldview) if I heard God’s audible voice (or, direct mental communication), and I think I’d be thrilled or terrified (depending on the content). But I would never say God doesn’t speak even more powerfully through the Bible. Church history is clear on that point. But I want to give this theologian the benefit of the doubt that he would agree God’s Word is central, especially since we know the type of people that Christianity Today allows to write for their magazine.
And when John refers to the voice as “extra-biblical,” it comes across as a derogatory descriptor. Of course, it is meant to come across that way (in the technical sense), but the force behind it seems to belittle the experience.
Also, the professor uses the phrase “God still speaks,” but I certainly don’t think it implies what John Piper says it implies. Piper seems to be under the impression that when this professor shares that God still speaks that he is implying that God does not still communicate through the Bible. When I read the professor’s statement, I did not interpret it as John did. I read it as, “God still speaks audibly/directly today,” which I would argue is the more natural reading. (Tim Keller & Oswald Chambers share of similar experiences, as well as some other folks I know personally.) I hardly think the author of the article meant that God doesn’t speak through the Bible just as powerfully, if not more. At the very worst, this professor was simply not careful with his words. It seems to me that John was doing a little eisegesis when reading that article.
One related side point: Christian cessationism (that God does not act miraculously or speak audibly/directly today, that certain spiritual gifts have ceased, etc.) has never made any sense to me. (John is not a cessationist, but his line of thinking in this post is found in the cessationist paradigm.) The cessationist arguments always seem contrived, convoluted and forced. In fact, ironically, the arguments supporting cessationism import extra-biblical (and a priori) assumptions quite a bit. Frankly, I find the view to be quite an eisegetical exercise (though, certainly not for all). It builds an artificial separation that Jesus and the biblical writings do not erect. I have much to say about this, but I’ll stop here. (For those interested in seeing how God still works and speaks today, check out Miracles by Dr. Craig Keener.)
Indeed, God’s Word is amazing and breathtaking. And I pray that more people will mine its infinite riches. Nothing compares. But that certainly doesn’t prevent me from rejoicing and delighting in my “extra-biblical” experiences with God whether it be through my heart, my mind, my ears, my hands or my eyes. This is the way relationships go—there is never a single mode of experience with persons (which God is). (And this includes the experience of God’s reality through nature, through people, and so on.) But again, just so the point is not lost, the Word is my anchor, and a very sure one, indeed.
And I don’t think God would fault my family for being a bit more excited on that particular day because my sister heard God’s (or some angel’s) voice. I don’t think God was upset because we didn’t include a caveat in the praise that God’s Word is central and primary—our actions already implied its foundational role in our lives. In fact, it is the memory of that experience (and many others) that drew me more to appreciating God’s Word. And honestly, if I had written a testimony of that experience, in the midst of my excitement I think I might have used similar language as the unnamed professor, and I think God would have been fine with it despite John Piper’s criticism. Oftentimes praises from the heart are not grammatically careful or precise; but that’s the nature of the heart; we should use this knowledge when interpreting other peoples’ words. Yes, we can share cautionary points, but they should be far more gracious. Personally, I think John’s point would have been much better received if he had done so; it probably would have enjoyed a much wider audience than the “choir.”