On the blog forum “Open Salon,” Sharon Kay tells a heartbreaking story of having her husband chosen for her by the elders of a religious community:
Several couples had been betrothed and Uncle Dave didn’t show any signs of calling it a night. One girl was speaking in tongues and seemed to be getting a message to herself. According to her [prophecy], she should not be afraid [to] marry a brother to whom she didn’t appear to be attracted. Some couples had been waiting for this chance but everything, including who you married and when, was tightly controlled by the leadership.
The thought that it might happen to me had not entered my mind that night, so, when I felt someone from behind touch my arm and say, “Stand up”, I did. Turning to see what the person wanted I saw one of the brothers with a big triumphant grin on his face looking at me.
They all started to laugh. Uncle Dave said, “Well, she didn’t have to stand up.”
The horror started to set in. He wanted to marry me and this was my proposal, “stand up”. Under the best of circumstances this would have been considered crude but the worst of circumstances was that this guy gave me the creeps. We were supposed to love all of our brothers and sisters-in-the-Lord so I couldn’t say I hated him or even disliked him.
I immediately sat down and tried to act like it hadn’t happened. When we finally took a break, Karen, Uncle Dave’s “secretary”, came over to me and whispered, “We believe it’s the Lord’s Will.”
At this time I had been in the group long enough to become so indoctrinated/brainwashed that I believed God spoke to the leaders and particularly Uncle Dave on my behalf. To be in His will I should do what they said.
I cried. A lot.
I was counseled by the elders. I was too proud. Why did I think I was too good to marry Ed[?]
I would reason to myself that it wasn’t my pride, it was just that I didn’t love him. But how could I say I didn’t love him when he was one of the brothers?
Marriage-prophecies. Among people who believe that God speaks to us in supernatural ways, they are becoming an increasingly popular way to determine His will with respect to a marital partner. But are they safe, or healthy?
First, let me say that I have no problem, in principle, with the idea that God can reveal to a person the name of his or her future spouse. The logic behind such prophecies goes like this: God can speak to us. If God can speak to us, surely He can show us the future. If He can show us the future, He can show us who we’re going to marry! And yes, being a Charismatic, I believe God can and does speak to us, and He is very capable of showing us the future. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this.
The problem is in the execution.
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of marriage-prophecies: individual and communal. The first kind is the guy in your high school science class who says, “Last night… last night God spoke to me told me I’m going to marry Lorraine.” There’s no convincing him otherwise. The other kind, more common, is when one person in a community feels led to marry another person (through dreams, visions, or impressions), and others in the community rapidly affirm it, as in the above-quoted blog post, in ways that can appear supernatural. This kind of marriage-prophecy is becoming increasingly common as the Charismatic and community movements gain strength in our nation and throughout the world.
Unfortunately the growth of the Charismatic movement is in many (though not all places) outpacing its theological soundness. Consider the following two statements: “I believe God would like me to marry Ms. Elpheba.” “God spoke to me and told me that Ms. Elpheba and I are going to be married.” A whole world of doctrinal difference lies in between these two statements. The first suggests a certain level of comfort with the limitations of our own knowledge and the possibility that even the future is not frozen in place. (If that’s the kind of prophecy you have, more power to you.) The second—usually unconsciously—telegraphs a sort of antiquated hyper-Calvinism in which the gears of the world grind relentlessly on in spite of all our protestations.
God’s people are destroyed for lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6). My heart breaks for the woman in this story who was coerced by her religious community into marrying a creepy older man because they felt it was “the Lord’s will.” There was no appreciation on the part of the elders, or indeed of anyone else involved in this tragic situation, for the reality that expressions of the Lord’s will can change over time (what He desires in one particular set of circumstances, He may not desire in another); still less, and of infinitely more importance, that He would never, EVER impose His will on a person through others without their consent!
The first is a problem with vestigial Calvinism; the second, with the Charismatic movement more generally. Allow me to explain.
When I say “vestigial Calvinism,” I mean the cartoonish and one-dimensional Calvinism unthinkingly internalized by many Christians. It bears almost no resemblance to actual Calvinism. According to this way of thinking, all prophecies—all true prophecies—have to come true, for the future is already settled. People not already locked into a rigid ideological mindset will, I hope, have no trouble recognizing that this is neither how God nor reality operates.
Wes Adams, a young leader at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, tells the harrowing story of a time some years ago when his wife, who was pregnant with twins, ran into complications during pregnancy. The prognosis was grim: according to her doctors, they were probably going to die. Yet a multitude of people came forward with visions and dreams—some of which corresponded in seemingly supernatural ways—of the girls growing up, being in school, becoming young women of incredible character and virtue. Buoyed by this raft of apparently inarguable divine affirmation, Mr. and Mrs. Adams dared to believe for the life of their daughters.
The pregnancy carried to term. Both girls were born. A few hours later, they died.
What are we to make of an actual, real-world situation such as this one, where seemingly every single prophecy turned out to be wrong? A number of possibilities present themselves. Perhaps the two girls are being “taught by Jesus” up in heaven. Perhaps God Himself does not know the future. Perhaps there are several different probable futures presented to us, and some of them happen, and some of them don’t.
Perhaps they were simply wrong.
But I don’t think so. I think the truth is, we in America have a serious problem, and the problem is this: we imagine time as a great big, Newtonian world-machine, a giant mechanical contraption ticking out the days and the hours as they pass inexorably by. Then we read that understanding of time back into the Bible. Only trouble is, it’s an anachronistic reading of the Scriptures which would have been completely incomprehensible to the Jews of the ancient near east. Time is more fluid than that. Choices are presented to us, and the decisions that we make are freighted with eternal consequence.
And so the prophets who prophesied over Wes and his wife and his daughters genuinely caught a glimpse of something. What they saw was just one of a number of possible futures. It happens to have not been the future that happened. But that is why we place our faith in Jesus.
That’s issue number one. History turns according to the slow accumulation of our choices and the strange fluidities of circumstance. Too much faith in prophecies betrays an obvious discomfort with mystery and freedom of choice. It can be scary living in a world where people die before their time and not all prophecies come true. But in the end, I think we can agree that that’s the only kind of world worth living and fighting and dying for.
Issue number two: control.
The story of the horrors perpetrated on Sharon by her elders brings tears to my eyes. No one should ever allow the most critical decision of her life to be made by another—even if that person has the word of the Lord.
What marriage-prophecies tend to be, ultimately, are mechanisms of control on both a personal and corporate level. In the first place, we become so scared that we’ll never be married that we seek to lock the other person into a relationship by any means necessary. Follow this train of logic for a moment. Every Tuesday night after her session is over, the worship leader Misty Edwards comes into the coffee shop where I work. Now I see Misty all the time, and I know other people who know her, but we’ve never been formally introduced. Yet I can lull myself into a comforting and pleasant illusion that Misty (“the Mist,” as I call her) is one of my best friends. “It’s just a matter of time!”
It seems to me that this is the very essence of many marriage-prophecies. We pretend that we know people better than we do because it gives us a sense of security and keeps us from having to do the things that would be necessary to make that friendship happen. In the exact same way, it can be comforting, when you’re being spurned by someone you love deeply, just to sit back and say, “That is okay, because we will be married. Perhaps in the present everything is going badly, but ah, in the future—in the future, what a beautiful relationship we have!” Put simply, marriage-prophecies typically erupt out of a feeling of perpetual dissatisfaction which seeks to relieve itself by claiming and controlling the other person. This can be true regardless of whether the prophecy ultimately “comes true” or not.
What makes matters worse is the reality that in many Charismatic communities, “hearing the word of the Lord” about a particular person is a celebrated corporate event. Tolstoy, in the luminous, the everlasting War and Peace, touches on the inner dynamics that cause this to happen. When the young hero Pierre is introduced to a beautiful and beloved young countess, the author writes, “Pierre felt for the first time that there was being formed between himself and Ellen some sort of tie, recognised by other people, and this idea at once alarmed him, as though an obligation was being laid upon him which he could not fulfill” (Book III, Chapter 1). Anyone who has ever been caught on the wrong end of a marriage-prophecy will recognize this feeling immediately. It’s the slow shock of recognition that occurs when you realize that your own closest friends, people you love and trust, are conspiring to decide your future for you without your consent. When a great number of people believe in a thing, it attains an air of validity, and resisting it becomes all the more necessary and difficult. In those moments, determining to break away from received wisdom and decide one’s own destiny can become an act of genuine heroism.
Simply put, I don’t question the validity of marriage-prophecies because they don’t come true. Many of them do. I question their validity because the inner mechanisms which produce them tend to be neither biblical nor Christian. Those of us who are willing to man the barricades in their defense, as I have in the past, would do well to consider two questions: number one—given the rich, extra-biblical, post-apostolic, 2,000-year history of prophecies, visions, dreams, miracles, and oracles in the New Testament era, why is there no corresponding tradition of marriage-prophecies? Number two—why, among the major Christian organizations that acknowledge the existence of miracle and prophecy, are marriage-prophecies consistently either ignored or condemned?