Think of any “Christian” politician you know, or celebrity pastor, or faith-touting academic with a large following, and over the course of a week, pay close attention to their social media. What do you notice? What is the content and tenor of their message? How do their posts and tweets make you feel?
Though the authority they present online might say otherwise, the truth is that many of them — and, well, many of us — are not prophets, at least not in the way the Bible reveals. Real prophets act out of a truth-and-grace synthesis that incorporates biblical proclamation, intercessory prayer, and Spirit-led knowledge and action. Most utterances today represent something quite different. Those who purport to offer a prophetic word don’t always do so in ways congruent with Scripture and, in fact, may be working directly against God’s purposes.
THE RADICALIZING EFFECT OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Too often, the animating force behind our prophecy crises is a leader’s pernicious pattern of self-grandiosity, and this is aided by the boundless, 24/7 social media stage.
The world of Twitter is one of the most egregious offenders. In a recent study of Twitter users, Yale University researchers found that positive feedback for moral outrage predicted the probability of future outrage. The more likes and retweets, the more likely users are to amplify their emotions. Machine learning and newsfeed algorithms play into this mix, infusing users with information and methodically intensifying response. Sadly, the most amplified voices and posts can be confused with the truth, to the point of even being called prophets or prophetic.
The blame doesn’t reside with the platforms alone, though they certainly aid and abet. Leaders make choices about the tone, content, and urgency of what they share and what channel they use to share it. A common rationalization goes: “I have something important to say about something that troubles me, so I’ll proclaim it as loudly as possible through my screen to whoever will listen.” Communications theory shows that this approach is severely lacking. And more importantly, it flows from a cruel misunderstanding of biblical prophecy.
WHAT MAKES A PROPHET TRUE
Genesis 20:7 tells us that Abraham is the first prophet, but Moses becomes the standard bearer for all who follow: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut 34:10). A taut line of prescient gifting between Old Testament prophets — such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel — and the closing of the canon stretches through Jesus, the apostles, and leaders in the early church.
Prophecy is a gift bestowed upon the community of faith for mutual edification, encouragement, and comfort (see Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 28–29; Eph 4:11). But it is always bookended by love.
After Paul teaches about spiritual gifts and their role in serving a unified and communal whole, he asserts: “If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I have nothing” (1 Cor 13:2, ESV).
A few verses later he declares, “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end” (1 Cor 13:8, ESV).
Prophecy has identifiable markers, which — when paying attention — can be read as clearly as the Nutrition Facts label on food packaging. True prophets seek to strengthen the church rather than tear it down (see Isa 61:1, Luke 4:18). They pray for the welfare of the city, provoke godly grief and repentance, and offer declarations that ultimately bear good fruit (see Jer 29:7, Matt 7:16–20). As theologian Oscar Merlo observes, true prophets are “filled with God’s love, life, shalom, justice, reconciliation, and restoration.” They show compassion. They suffer alongside their people. They sacrifice, intercede, and endure in the hope of a better future. And to paraphrase author Steven Garber, prophets willingly take up the wounds of the world knowing that they will be wounded by doing so.
Conversely, the fraudulent who claim prescience are interested in demolition rather than repair and renewal. They are Machiavellian and ultimately self-serving. Across social media platforms, they shout, critique, and destroy. In our churches, civic halls, and other venues of cultural influence, false prophets consciously (and not so consciously) encourage men, women, and children to follow other gods, which often demand their own allegiance. The Bible doesn’t mince words: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:1; see also Matt 24:11, 24; 2 Pet.2:1).
True prophets operate from a mindset of abundance. God’s goodness and blessings aren’t constrained. His mercies endure forever and extend to the full breadth of God’s creation (see 1 Chron 16:34, Psalm 145:9). As theologian Walter Brueggemann observes, a belief in scarcity over abundance leads to a frugality of spirit. No matter our political philosophies or social concerns, “we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity — a belief that makes us greedy, mean, and unneighborly.” He continues, “When people forget that Jesus is the bread of the world, they start eating junk food — the food of the Pharisees and of Herod, the bread of moralism and of power.”
REDEEMING THE GIFT OF PROPHECY
In A Sand County Almanac, conservationist Aldo Leopold’s reflection on early morning marsh life provides a stark reminder of what our world becomes when “the hour of listening ends.”
By the time the mists are white over the lowlands, every rooster is bragging ad lib, and every corn shock is pretending to be twice as tall as any corn that ever grew. By sun-up every squirrel is exaggerating some fancied indignity to his person, and every jay proclaiming with false emotion about suppositious dangers to society, at this moment discovered by him. Distant crows are berating a hypothetical owl, just to tell the world how vigilant crows are, and a pheasant cock, musing perhaps on his philanderings of bygone days, beats the air with his wings and tells the world in raucous warning that he owns the marsh and the hens in it.
Leopold continues by noting that wetland “illusions of grandeur” are not limited to the animal kingdom. For our communities to truly thrive again, we, too, need a “listening hour,” a quietness centered on God and his love for the world.
The world desperately needs a prophecy reformation — the opportunity to hear more clearly from leaders and teachers across all walks of life who faithfully bring God’s word to bear on our cultural needs and image-bearing responsibilities.
In a recent piece for the New York Times entitled, “11 Small Ways You Can Help Mend the World,” Tish Harrison Warren offers practical suggestions for getting us moving in the right direction. Among her sage advice, three ideas stand out as particularly instructive for elevating and purifying the gift of prophecy.
- First, more in-person conversation. She says, “To love people, or even to tolerate them, it helps to actually speak with them.” To reimagine the gift of prophecy, let’s step away from our machines.
- Second, avoid both online and real-life mobs. Acknowledging that there are real reasons for personal and societal enragement, she offers a helpful warning: “When a protest or conversation becomes unruly and vicious, certainly if it skews toward violence, then it contributes more heat than light to the world.” The Twitterized world is more indicative of the former than the latter. Practice recognizing mob mentality and be ready to walk away or remove yourself from the fray.
- And lastly, she encourages us to make a steel man rather than a straw man out of another person’s logic, “choosing to seek out the best arguments of those with whom we disagree requires humility and curiosity, and it makes for healthier social discourse.” Imagine a world — even a Twitter sphere — marked by more open-mindedness and less self-importance.
Our capacity to receive God’s prophetic word has been impeded by an exchange of enmity for enmity. This only amplifies the voice of the enemy, granting greater power to the powers of darkness. To move instead toward the deep mending, healing, and re-weaving of trust that is so desperately needed, we must unlearn the patterns that have blocked our ability to hear the true prophets. A few ways to begin opening our ears are found in remembering that prophecy is always bookended by love, discerned in prayer, and suffers alongside an embodied community.
About the author: John Terrill is the Executive Director of the Stephen & Laurel Brown Foundation and Upper House, located in the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.