This need came to my attention through a friend who had been sent an unsolicited prophetic word by an email. The friend had no idea where the prophet had obtained the email address from. However, it was a lengthy piece, and it spoke into all the hopes and frustrations this friend was experiencing, ie it was exactly what the friend wanted to be true.
Thankfully the friend had the courage to share it with me.
The very first thing after reading the prophetic word and ascertaining that it contained nothing specifically pertaining to the life of this friend, ie there was nothing in it that couldn’t easily be applied to the life of just about anyone else (warning flag 1) was to search the internet for what could be learned about the prophet.
The website had a pleasant feel, and a link to what must be a very inspiring conversion story, and some very basic Christian teaching without any perceived denominational biases. But it did contain a few things that gave me significant pause; a few very general prophetic words that were undated, no contact information or details, and no affiliation with any faith community.
It is so unusual for a prophetic word to be undated (warning flag 2). No address, no social media links, no email address, no contact form where you would expect it to be (ie an easily visible Contact page), but given bit by bit under a ‘please support this ministry’ sub-page that begins by asking for donations (warning flag 3). There is no indication on the website that the prophet is part of a faith community, in leadership of a faith community, or anything other than a lone ranger. Ideally a prophet should have a regular small group to which he/she is personally accountable, and should also be under some form of leadership to whom he/she is also accountable. Otherwise there are none of the normal and natural checks and balances that come from community life where people are invested in you enough to ask the odd quiet question if you are looking like going off the rails, or when your walk doesn’t match your talk. (major warning flag 4).
If something is exactly what you want to hear, (eg in order for the destiny God has for you to unfold, don’t let anyone box you in to their mindsets) and it doesn’t contain any invitation to transformation that leads to a deeper relationship with God, that should put up a warning flag too. It is a hallmark of the Gospel accounts that Jesus always invited people to the next level of relationship with Him, requiring either a change of heart or a change of life.
There were enough warning flags to safely dismiss and delete that email.
Around the internet at present there is a set of major ‘doom and gloom’ prophecies going around. The prophet is not a regular prophet, but is in leadership with a Christian community, and has had some vivid dreams that were felt to be prophetic for a national and global scale.
Can God call anybody to deliver a message? Yes, He can, for example the prophet Amos. However, it is more usual for an important wake-up call kind of message to be given to someone who is mature in the prophetic gifting and widely recognised as such, with a reasonable track record for accuracy.
There is also a difference between a Jonah-like warning message that invites to repentance and a Daniel-like message declaring that God’s judgement on bad behaviour is going to manifest in specific ways. Neither are certain; the former can be mitigated or even avoided by repentance (Ninevah); the latter can be mitigated by intercession (2 Sam 24). But even the most dire of messages warning of austere times to come contain an inkling of hope, that after punishment and exile that there would be restoration and return (Jeremiah).
However if the prophet reveals that his/her consumption of news media is greater than his/her consumption of God’s word in scripture, then extra caution is required.
Many years back this lesson was given to me. It happened like this. The community I was a member of at that time was receiving lots of apocalyptic sounding prophecy. It somehow happened that I was able to have a chat to one of the most accredited prophets in that community about all this apocalyptic stuff. His response was that many in the community had been reading the same spiritual/devotional literature that contained that kind of language. The ideas you consume eventually come out again, and often get processed in dreams and can be expressed in prophecy. And that was what had been happening in that community situation. You can see it too in less mature prophets who drink in what a lot of other prophets are releasing online. Sometime down the track, all of that prophetic soup will emerge in a very generic prophecy (and very sincerely given) that is a reasonable summary of the main flavours of the soup.
Such known human weaknesses do make it less clear to discern whether God is telling everyone the same message (in which case, Pay Attention!!!), or whether everyone has collectively gone off on a non-God inspired tangent. For this reason, keep aware of times of the liturgical year that various messages arise.
Sometimes they are collective wishful thinking born of deep desire to see God act in powerful ways, as what often happens as Easter, Pentecost and Christmas draw near or something related to the Jewish liturgical calendar. You see this big crescendo of expectation, and then as the special date passes, there is a lull until someone comes out with a statement that the date was still very important, and we will find out why in due time things didn’t manifest in the natural and there’s even bigger and better things coming in a month or 3 months’ time. Yes, it is easy to become cynical, but we do have to fight against that lest we dismiss a true message from God. That’s why growing in discernment is so important and so necessary.
Discernment can take time. And it is easy for us to get it wrong.
Just recently I have had to sadly acknowledge that someone I had on my short list of trusted online prophets was no longer worthy of being on that list. When the messages are exactly what you want to hear, and those messages get picked up and promoted by others and there are online followers in the order of tens of thousands, then of course you are biased towards the messages being true prophecy. But slowly some question marks began to arise. The first question marks happened when some of my cautionary comments that had logical merit were rejected out of hand. The second question marks began when there were more lists of how to do this or how to respond to that, which were all just human thoughts. The third set of question marks began when ‘sign up for my online course’ appeared at the end of prophetic messages, and it was an almost seamless segue. The final question marks were due to the disclosure by way of sharing personal background that this was, despite friendships and recognition from other prophets in good standing, very much a lone ranger ministry although it was couched in pioneer terminology. So I went back and took a more detailed look at the associated website, and the lack of accountable relationships became apparent.
It is like this, as far as possible there should be no conflict of interest between the ministry of a prophet and the way a prophet earns a living. The whole ‘God showed me how to deal with issue X in a whole new and effective way, but you need to pay $$ before I will share it with you’ thing flies in the face of ‘you received without charge, give without charge’ Matt 10:8. At the same time, a labourer is worthy of his hire, so there is no objection to a Donate/Give page. But when the prophet’s main source of income is online mentoring courses or similar, how can the prayers and natural desires for a good sign-up rate not transmute consciously or unconsciously into the prophetic messages, particularly when those messages are squarely aimed at hidden and forgotten ones who have a big destiny in God’s plan? Isn’t this what we all long to hear when we feel that life has passed us by, thus making us very vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation?
Then again, some things are presented as prophecy, when in fact all they are is teaching or preaching on some topic of the life of faith. Weigh it for what it is, not what it purports to be.
In this age of prophets with some celebrity status, it is well to remember that popularity is not a guarantee of accuracy. In the time of Jeremiah there were plenty of prophets announcing times of prosperity ahead, and only Jeremiah repeating God’s warning that the punishment of exile for their sins was coming. Of course the people of that time wanted to listen to the other prophets who spoke what they wanted to hear, and of course they wanted to shut Jeremiah up by any means necessary.
There will be times of restoration and refreshing, just as there will be times of trial and testing, therefore the maxim, ‘test everything, and hold onto what is good’ has to be our guide, as well as frequent prayers for guidance and discernment.
Why is the accountability thing so important? Because a true prophet is going to have enough humility to mistrust his/her own judgement, and be open to correction and submission/obedience to leadership. Even the best of prophets don’t get it 100% right every time (1 Cor 13:9). Obedience to lawful human authority despite what the prophet believes God has told him/her is the ultimate test of legitimacy. If it is of God it will come to pass, despite setbacks, delays and misunderstandings. Any prophet who thinks that everything they receive is always 100% from God is deluding themselves, and a big danger to themselves and others. Do you know what the worst punishment is from God? To be let drift into error. Because unless someone intercedes for you, there’s no way out. (read St John of Avila’s ‘Listen Daughter’ a.k.a. ‘Audi Filia’ for the best ever explanation of this.) Even Moses had his father-in-law Jethro as someone willing to speak truth into his life.
Now should a prophet make a grand prediction, and it doesn’t come to pass, eg a major share market crash during the visit of a specified world leader, then said prophet is automatically and completely discredited.
Particularly when it comes to dreams and visions, it can be crucial to separate the raw material of the prophecy from the interpretation of the prophecy. Quite often the raw material is correct, but the interpretation is incorrect or immature (ie the prophet has only grasped the first layer of the interpretation and not yet the underlying layers of interpretation.) In essence they are similar to parables. With time and diligent prayer, usually the full meaning comes to light.
Sometimes a prophecy (particularly to a community) is an invitation to go deeper, and the ‘more’ that God intended doesn’t happen because the response to the prophecy was mismanaged. For example, someone in that community who has been growing in the prophetic gifting shares that God has shown a vision of angels, surrounding the prayer meeting, who are waiting to be sent on assignment. Responding with a call to those at the prayer meeting to present their petitions to God is level 1. If you took that word seriously you would them get the prophet back and ask if there were any angels left, and if so, how many? (level 2) and if the answer wasn’t zero, you should then either get the people to petition some more, or better yet, ask the community to pray for wisdom in order to petition according to God’s desires (level 3) and delegate a leader to question the prophet about any details not disclosed in the initial message (ask if the angels were all the same size?, were they perhaps in groups?, was there anything to distinguish the groups eg colour, what they were holding?) which might give clues to the How to pray. If there is any sense that this might be a more significant word than first ascertained, then and there, or soon afterwards, get the prophet to have a go at drawing what they saw in as much detail as possible, and then share both the verbal and drawn parts with leadership and other prophets to pray over, discuss and ask further questions. After all, if it was God’s intention to lead the group into prolonged and specific intercession for local political leaders and business leaders, or for the bringing down of some stronghold that was preventing the conversion of the region, and everyone prayed for those they knew in personal, financial or family stress, then that was a comparatively poor outcome.
Some prophecies don’t find fulfilment for a year or several years, some don’t find fulfilment in our lifetimes. Because of this, some interpretations take a while to become clear. For example, St Catherine Laboure was convinced that much needed funds would appear if an area was dug down to a certain level. Everyone else thought she was crazy to keep insisting upon it. Yet in the years ahead, that area was the place where her body was buried, and not too long after a very sizable donation was anonymously placed on her tomb.
Care should be exercised when reading prophecies from years past and seeing in them relevance for today. That can indeed happen. However it is also possible that the mindset with which you read it today prejudices you into believing that it is solely about the current times. For example the pandemic situation the world has recently found itself in has seen a lot of re-evaluation of past prophecies. Many of them read like they were written for us today, and some of the phrases that were glossed over back then, now seem to carry increased meaning (eg A great shaking happening among the nations, and peoples locked down by a spirit of fear). ‘Lockdown’ carries a whole new level of meaning now that it didn’t pre-Covid19, as does ‘lawlessness’ in the wake of the George Floyd riots. Yet there is no guarantee that this is the only era it was meant for, or even if it was the primary era it was meant for.
We do know that God never takes back or revokes His gifts, and that He always invites us to grow. The intended life cycle of a prophet is that as they grow in experience, they also grow in holiness, and weightier and more important prophetic words can be given through them. However this doesn’t always happen; what started out relatively pure can become increasingly sullied with human frailty and error; or what started out pure can go through a wilderness period away from the moral life and then re-emerge stronger than ever after a sincere conversion. Sometimes there will be only a single season of profound revelation, and then no more, if that is God’s plan for them. St Bernadette is an example of this; and saw herself as a broom that was used by God for a while, and then put away. Always the revelation is firstly for the prophet, and then for others. If the prophet is growing in response to the revelation, and growing in holiness and in moral character, it is an indication that what they are receiving is God inspired.
If God is trying to get a message across, He will use more than one messenger, and probably from diverse sources. Therefore, if a message is of a personal nature, it will confirm something He has already called you to do, or in time to come it will be confirmed via other sources. So never change your life on the strength of a single unconfirmed word. Write it down, store it somewhere, refer back to it every 3-6 months, it may make more sense then. If it doesn’t, and there haven’t been any confirmations of it, you can safely forget all about it.
These are only general guidelines born of experience for sifting out the questionable. For every general guideline there are exceptions, because God is not limited and He sometimes chooses to use the unusual or discredited to get our attention and loosen our pre-conceived ideas.
Here are some scriptural reminders that the gift of prophecy is a good gift from God, and needed, and worth the effort of time in discernment and interpretation:
1 Thess 5:19-21 Never try to suppress the Spirit or treat the gift of prophecy with contempt: think before you do anything – hold on to what is good.
2 Peter 1:19b-20 You will be right to depend on prophecy and take it as a lamp for lighting a way through the dark until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds. At the same time, we must be most careful to remember that the interpretation of scriptural prophecy is never a matter for the individual.
I Cor 14:3 The man who prophesies does talk to other people, to their improvement, their encouragement and their consolation.
1 Cor 14:32 Prophets can always control their prophetic spirits, since God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
For more detailed guidance on prophecy, interpretation and discernment, please read the attached document, particularly pages 11-16 and pages 18-20.