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Prophets Can’t Win

People tend to seek information that affirms what they already think. But prophets are called to a very different task. And whether prophetic teaching is subtle or direct, the public reception is often sadly predictable.
The Prophet Isaiah by Rafael 1512

“I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.”  ~Harry “Give ‘em Hell” Truman

The 2020 U.S. presidential election resulted in one of the most spectacular recent controversies in evangelical Christianity. A number of charismatic evangelical “prophets” proclaimed that God had provided for the electoral victory of Donald Trump. Following Trump’s loss in the election, evangelical discernment commentators like Justin Peters provided lengthy commentary cataloging their failures, treating them in some cases as evidence for the cessationist view that prophetic gifts ceased long ago.

For those seeking to discern true prophets from their counterfeits, flattering messages that affirm our political fantasies should constitute a bright red flag in the messenger.

Some evangelical preachers publicly repented of their false prophecies. North Carolina pastor Jeremiah Johnson apologized for his error, then publicly lamented the threatening and abusive messaging that was sent to him in response by people claiming to be Christians:

Over the last 72 hours, I have received multiple death threats and thousands upon thousands of emails from Christians saying the nastiest and most vulgar things I have ever heard toward my family and ministry. I have been labeled a coward, sellout, a traitor to the Holy Spirit, and cussed out at least 500 times. We have lost ministry partners every hour and counting.

Valuable lessons about prophecy can be gleaned from the ministry of Jeremiah Johnson’s namesake, the biblical prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah had a sharp confrontation with the nationalist false prophet Hananiah, who in the name of Yahweh spoke the comforting lie, “I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” Hananiah, like others before and after him, gained an audience by telling people what they wanted to hear, answering their cravings for security and control in a world that is unpredictable and often frightening. Jeremiah, by contrast, told the people and the political and religious establishment that their turn to pantheism and idolatry was apostasy and forfeiture of divine protection from enemies.

For those seeking to discern true prophets from their counterfeits, flattering messages that affirm our political fantasies should constitute a bright red flag in the messenger.

One of the great brain teasers for Bible translators and interpreters is found in Isaiah 6. After Isaiah sees the Lord and expresses a willingness to represent the Lord to the people, he is given a message that seems to represent a legitimate thwarting of his own prophetic efforts:

Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

Isaiah seems to have been told to engage in prophetic obfuscation. At this time, the people’s spiritual senses were so dull that the prophetic message was to be offered in a way that was not aimed at their turning, their conversion, or their divine healing. Realistically, if the people were offered a message of redemption and spoken in clarity, it would not be valued appropriately. And to receive such a message and reject it in this way would further accelerate the people’s downward spiral away from God. This may help to explain why Isaiah’s communications often seem so cryptic and even confusing; he seems to have understood well the extent to which his message was to be crafted in a way that corresponded to the people’s level of spiritual receptivity.

Prophets are rejected because their style is too something: blunt, polite, vague, normal, eccentric, bland, provocative, cheery, corporate, abrasive, or any number of other descriptors

Jesus would later invoke Isaiah 6 as He explained the need for parables, rather than direct pronouncements,  in His own teaching:

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables:

That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. (emphasis added here and below). 

Rejection—even angry, violent rejection—by the majority of society has been part of the prophetic call throughout history. To accept a prophetic mantle is to accept persecution; it is to receive the word of God and undertake to share it while often mourning as people burn it in a bonfire of their rival commitments and worldviews. 

For example, the resurrected Christ knew that Saul of Tarsus would eventually become one of the most influential religious figures in history, but His words to Ananias in Damascus were a sobering, realistic view of Paul’s imminent ministry: I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. The prophetic call is a call to suffer.

And then there is the “soft rejection” the Lord describes to Ezekiel:

They sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness.

And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not. And when this cometh to pass, (lo, it will come,) then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them.

The soft rejection of prophets is often a function of their style. Prophets are rejected because their style is too something: blunt, polite, vague, normal, eccentric, bland, provocative, cheery, corporate, abrasive, or any number of other descriptors. The rejection of Ezekiel fits this pattern; Ezekiel lamented, “Ah Lord God! they say of me, Doth he not speak parables?”). Then there are also the artificially contrived criteria: some people of fundamentalist leanings claim, for example, that Latter-day Saint prophets no longer qualify for the title because they decline to preface their statements with “Thus saith the Lord …” and they almost never offer dramatic public predictions of future events. This is viewed by some as a problem despite the fact that, for example, Elijah and John the Baptist (regarded by Jesus as the greatest prophet to that point in time) spent their prophetic energy responding to present concerns, not unveiling apocalyptic visions of the future.

One salient example.  Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones among us who squirm and wrangle out of a commitment to prophetic teachings. Among Latter-day Saints, some reject the Family Proclamation by claiming it has never been formally canonized as if that has ever been the standard for determining whether or not a prophetic teaching is true or binding. Some use historical criticism, presenting the Family Proclamation and other prophetic teachings as products of a certain time and place and culture, in order to undermine the relevance of those teachings. When people are fully committed to subverting God’s message, prophets can’t win.

However we approach prophetic teaching, we have our reward: either a religion in our own image that fits our paradigms or a religion that points to soul-stretching realities beyond our paradigms.

But a good question for critics would be, what if the Family Proclamation were prefaced with a declaration that it is the product of revelation from Almighty God and then formally canonized? Would you, a critic, then accept it as binding and change your own views to be in line with it?

The obvious answer is no because critics of the Family Proclamation are not being honest when they pivot to questions of canonization. They have placed their bet on a rival religious ideology that revolves around the prioritization of sexual desire and the obliteration of gender. And in this bet, they are all in. This is why they are extremely careful to avert their eyes from realities like the recent study from Eric Kaufmann showing a rise in mental health problems among LGBT+ youth during a corresponding rise in social acceptance; avert their eyes from the strenuously-held delusion that male and female are meaningless social constructs, even among animals like chickens; and avert their eyes from the current wave of gender chaos fueled by social incentives. Rejection of the Family Proclamation requires denying multiple wide swaths of empirical reality. And if we are waiting for even one single critic of the Family Proclamation to candidly acknowledge these calamities, that looks to be an extremely long wait. Prophets can’t win because, in a sense, they are playing a game that has been rigged in advance by their hearers.

Man Ignored in a Busy Market | Challenges Prophets Face in Communicating Their Messages | Prophets Can’t Win | Why are Prophets Rejected | Public Square Magazine
Prophets face challenges in communicating their messages.

We live in a time when witness testimony of the prophetic mantle in the Church of Jesus Christ has become increasingly direct. Examples include Elder Dean Davies’ eyewitness account of President Gordon B. Hinckley’s selection of a precise temple site; Elder Quentin R. Cook’s bold witness testimony of revelation in the councils of the Church; and Sister Wendy Nelson’s specific testimony of her husband’s revelatory activity. Amid all this, critics of the Family Proclamation find creative ways to assert that this doctrinal statement is an entirely human fabrication not involving revelation at all. In light of increasingly potent witness testimony of the prophetic mantle, I find it far more plausible to believe that the Family Proclamation is exactly what we claim it to be: a universally-binding revelation that addresses problems that most of us could not have imagined when it emerged in 1995. Equally revelatory and binding are current prophetic statements that recognize people’s varied challenges in living the ideals of the Family Proclamation and the need for compassion toward those with varied life experiences and circumstances.

Critics of the Family Proclamation should perhaps consider the counsel given to their spiritual predecessors through Isaiah: “Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled.” In other words, we are welcome to whatever self-generated religion we desire.

In a self-centered religious paradigm, there can be no authentic encounter with God.

Affluent Westerners, and particularly Americans, bring a consumerist paradigm to prophetic teachings. “The customer is always right,” applied to questions of faith, results in a transition away from Abrahamic religion that authentically seeks to encounter God on God’s terms towards a therapeutic relativist popular religion that seeks to validate our religious consumer preferences. However we approach prophetic teaching, we have our reward: either a religion in our own image that fits our paradigms or a religion that points to soul-stretching realities beyond our paradigms. The latter is the strait and narrow way articulated by Jesus, which He frankly acknowledged would be chosen by a numerical few.

A prayer offered by Flannery O’Connor conveys this essential reality:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.

…what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

Flannery O’Connor held deep spiritual wisdom that acknowledges that God is often obscured by our own assumptions and perceptions. In a self-centered religious paradigm, there can be no authentic encounter with God. And in times like Isaiah’s and our own, where people’s spiritual senses are dulled, the prophetic message is often spoken with a frustrating vagueness. This is by design, and in so many ways, it ultimately reflects our lack of receptivity. We must learn to, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, push ourselves aside. This presents both a challenge and opportunity for all of us who take seriously the prophetic mantle in our day.

About the author

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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