Paul Tillich's book, New Being, contains a helpful chapter that asks "Is there any word from the Lord?" It's question asked by people throughout all ages, and even today it is a common question many have asked, or even claim that God has answered them.
NEW BEING: Chapter 16: "Is There Any Word From the Lord?"
Am I a God at hand, says the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams which they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord, is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who use their tongues and say, "Says the Lord."
Then Zedekiah the king asked Jeremiah secretly in his house and said: "Is there any word from the Lord?" And Jeremiah said: "There is: For thou shalt be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon."
Is there any word from the lord? This is a question asked by men in all periods of history. It has been asked by kings in moments of danger. They asked it of priests and prophets. It has been asked by people in all ages and places in times of unrest. They asked it of extraordinary men and women, often of those considered to be abnormal, of ecstatics and hysterics. It has been asked by individuals in moments of great personal decisions. They asked it of holy Scriptures which should give a special word to them, from saints and inner voices.
What about ourselves? Have we never asked for a word from the Lord? Many, certainly, will answer with a definite "No." They will tell us that they always decided for themselves, using their own reasonable judgment, based on experience, knowledge, and intelligence. Perhaps they impress us. Perhaps we are ashamed to confess that sometimes we have asked for a word from the Lord. But let us wait with our answer until we have found out what these words mean.
We should not be misled by the phrase, "word from the Lord." It sounds as if we turned to a heavenly authority after all others, including the authority of reason, have failed. It sounds as if we asked the Lord of providence to give us for a moment a glimpse into what He plans for us, individually and in history. But such a favor is not granted. The answers given by seers, ecstatics, books and inner voices are mostly ambiguous, open to different interpretations, so that we would have to ask for a second Divine word to interpret the first, and so on indefinitely. Or, these answers are clear and agree with the best wisdom we can have without them. Therefore, I repeat: Let us not be misled by the phrase "word from the Lord." It is not an oracle-word telling us what to do or to expect. Then what is it?
It is the voice from another dimension than that in which we ordinarily live. It cuts into the dimension of things and events which we call our world. It does not help us to manage things within this dimension more successfully than before. It does not add to our knowledge of the factors which influence a situation, it does not remove the responsibility for our decisions. It does something else. It elevates the situation in which we have to decide, into the light of a new dimension, the dimension of that which is ultimately important and infinitely significant and for which we use the word "Divine."
So it was in the case of the king Zedekiah and of the false prophets with whom Jeremiah had to fight. The king came to Jeremiah in a hopeless situation, in a situation into which he had brought himself and his people though guilt and error and disregard of the warnings of the prophet. He was supported in his wrong decision by nationalistic politicians who called themselves "prophets" without having received a word from God. They did not interpret the situation of Judah in the midst of threatening empires in its seriousness. They lacked the realism which is the quality of true prophetism. They were not able to look beyond political chances and military calculations. And so disaster approached and brought about Zedekiah’s desperate attempts to get a consoling or helping word from the prophet. But he did not get it. Out of his prison Jeremiah tells him the only thing he did not want to hear: You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon! God will not save you! And the king felt: So it is! He did not slay the prophet of doom, as present-day dictators or nationalistic mobs would do. On the contrary, he helped him out of his miserable prison. But he did not do anything to change the situation. It was too late for this politically and psychologically, and the threat of the prophet, the word he had received from the Lord for Zedekiah, became a terrible reality. Yet it was spoken in vain. It has been remembered ever since, not as an interesting historical report but as an event in which the eternal gives ultimate meaning to an historical catastrophe.
The many words from the Lord which are recorded in the Old Testament have the same quality. They are not promises of an omnipotent ruler replacing political or military strength. They are not lessons handed down by an omniscient teacher, replacing sound judgments. They are not advices of a heavenly counselor, replacing intelligent human counsel. But they are manifestations of something ultimate breaking into our existence with all its preliminary concerns and insights. They do not add something to our situation, but they add a dimension to the dimension in which we ordinarily live. The word from the Lord is the word which speaks out of the depth of our situation. It is, one could say, the deepest meaning of the situation, of every situation which comes to us in such words.
It is also the depth of our own situation that speaks to us when we receive a word from the Lord.
Let us imagine an hour in which we have to make an important decision, be it the choice of a vocation, be it the choice of a mate for life. We know most of the factors which could determine our decision, and we know the ways our souls work in relation to these factors. Nevertheless, we cannot decide. The anxiety of the possible makes us restless. We see one, two, perhaps more possibilities. We realize a disturbing number of possible consequences in each of them. We ask friends, counsellors; we seek for counsel in ourselves. But the anxiety of having to decide increases. And a longing grows in our souls, a longing for something that liberates us from the anxiety of the possible and gives us the courage toward the real. It is the question of our text: Is there a word from the Lord? And perhaps an answer has been received. But it was not an oracle-word pointing to the right vocation to choose, or the right man or woman to join with. It was a voice out of the depth of our situation, elevating our concrete problems into an ultimate perspective. In doing so, it probably has devaluated some factors determining our decision and has stressed others. Or it has left the balance of possibilities unchanged, but has given us the courage to make a decision with all the risks of a decision, including error, failure, guilt. The word from the Lord, the voice out of the depth of our situation, ends the anxiety of the possible and gives the courage to affirm the real with its many questionable elements.
Some of you may say: If this is what "word from the Lord" means, how can it help me in moments of decision? But would you really want me to tell you where to turn for an oracle which would liberate you from the burden of decision? Certainly, that which is weak in you would like it. But that which is strong in you would reject it. The Lord from whom you derive a word wants you to decide for yourselves. He does not offer you a safe way. You may be wrong in your decision. But if you realize that in relation to God man is always wrong, your wrong may turn out to be right. If in the presence of the eternal you risk defeat, through your very defeat a word from the Lord has come to you.
Let us now look at a quite different situation, one in which we do not have to make a great decision, and in which the small decisions we have to make daily do not give us much anxiety. There are not concrete threats against life and well-being, there is not a depressing guilt feeling or a despair about ourselves. There is not a disintegrating doubt or an intolerable emptiness. There is not an extreme situation. Does this mean that there is no desire to ask for a word from the Lord? Are the situations which are not extreme situations, deprived of a word out of the dimension of the eternal? Is God silent if the foundations of our existence are not shaken? A hard question, and answered in many different ways! How would we answer? I shall never forget the word of a wise old man who said to my grandfather when I was still a child, "I need somebody whom I can thank when a great joy is given to me." Can we share this experience? Do we remember such moments in which the eternal made itself felt to us through the abundance or greatness or beauty of the temporal?
I believe that none of us is completely without such experiences. But did we not say that a word from the Lord is the eternal cutting into the temporal? Certainly that is what it is! But cutting into the temporal does not mean negating it. This it can mean, and this it does mean whenever we are driven into an ultimate situation. There are in everybody’s life such situations, and they are frequent in man’s tragic history. But the eternal can also cut into the temporal by affirming it, by elevating a piece of it out of the ordinary context of temporal things and events, making it translucent for the Divine glory. Without such moments, life would be poor and sad; there would be no creations in which the greatness of life is expressed. But they exist, and the eternal shines through them; they can become a word from the Lord to us.
But still some of you are thinking: All this may be as you say, but it remains strange to us. Neither in ultimate situations nor in moments of a great elevation has the eternal cut into our temporal existence. We never got a word from the Lord. Maybe you did not hear it. But certainly it was spoken to you. For there is always a word from the Lord, a word that has been spoken. The problem of man is not that God does not speak to him: God does speak to everyone who has a human countenance. For this is what makes him man. He who is not able to perceive something ultimate, something infinitely significant, is not a man. Man is man because he is able to receive a word from the dimension of the eternal. The question is not that mankind has not received any word from the Lord; the question is that it has been received and resisted and distorted. This is the predicament of all of us. Human existence is never without that which breaks vertically into it. Man is never without a manifestation of that which is ultimately serious and infinitely meaningful. He is never without a word from the Lord and he never ceases resisting and distorting it, both when he has to hear it and when he has to say it.
Every Christian, and especially every Christian minister, should be aware of this: We resist and distort the word from the Lord not only when we hear it, but also when we say it. When we ask why our message of the Word of God is rejected, we often find that one does not reject that for which we stand, but the way in which we stand for it. Many of those who reject the Word of God reject it because the way we say it is utterly meaningless to them. They know the dimension of the eternal, but they cannot accept our names for it. If we cling to their words, we may doubt whether they have received a word from the Lord. If we meet them as persons, we know they have.
There is always a word from the Lord, a word that has been spoken. The Christian Church believes that this word has a central content, and that it has the name Jesus the Christ. Therefore, the Church calls not His words but His Being the Word of God. The Church believes that in His Being, the eternal has broken into the temporal in a way which once for all gives us a word, nay, the word from the Lord. It believes that whatever word from the Lord has been said in all history and in every individual life, is implied in this Word, which is not words but reality, a new reality, the reality of the eternal in the temporal, conquering the resistance and the distortions of the temporal.
So we have not a, but the word from the Lord? As Christians we can boast that we have it? Can we really? Did we not receive the message through men, and are not we who heard it men? And does that not mean that the message, while it went through the mouths of those who said it and through the ears of us who heard it, lost its power to cut into our world and our soul?
Those who said it—the Church and its servants in all periods—made it a matter of law and tradition, of habit and convention. They made it into something we believe we know and have tried to follow. It does not cut any more into our ordinary world. It has become a part of our ordinary world. Like the prophets with whom Jeremiah fights in our text, the ministers of the word have ceased to ask, to cry for, a word from the Lord. They claim to have it as their possession, and since the Word of God can never be a possession, the words they say are not a word from the Lord. We have received it. But as it has been distorted in the mouths of the preachers, so it has been resisted in the ears of the listeners, that is, in all of us. We hear it, but we cannot perceive it. As Christians we do not reject it, but it has lost its voice, that voice with which Jahweh spoke into the hearts of the prophets, that voice with which the Spirit spoke into the hearts of the disciples. We hear the words which have been said before. But we do not feel that they speak to our situation, and out of the depth of our situation. They may even produce torturing doubts and drive us to ask passionately for a word from the Lord against what we have received as the Word of God, in Bible and Church.
For there is no word from the Lord except the word which is spoken now. How can we get such a word that is spoken now and is spoken to us?
There is only one answer: By keeping ourselves open when it comes to us! This is not easy. We try to resist it, and if it is too strong for us we try to falsify it. We may be in a situation out of which we cannot extricate ourselves. It is too late for this. So the word from the Lord comes as a word of judgment and we cannot take it. Or the word which comes to us requests a radical change in our ways of life and thought. But this we cannot achieve, and we back into our habits of good and evil, of right and wrong. Or we are in doubt and guilt and despair, and the word comes to us and tells us that we can say yes to ourselves because an eternal yes has been said to us and of us. But we resist the word which demands of us the courage to say yes to ourselves because we are in love with our doubt and our guilt and our despair.
It is not easy to keep oneself open for a word from the Lord. And nobody can make it easier for us by giving us the direction in which to listen. No fixed place can be named, either in our religious tradition or in our cultural creations, or in the depth of our souls. But for this very reason, no place is excluded from communicating to us a word from the Lord. It is always present and tries always to be perceived by us. It is like the air, surrounding us, omnipresent, trying to enter every empty space. It is the empty space in our souls into which it tries to enter here and now. So the last question is: Is there an empty space in your soul? Or is everything filled with that which is transitory, preliminary, ultimately insignificant, however important it tries to be? Without a soul opened for it, no word from the Lord can be received. Listening with an open soul, keeping an empty space in our inner life, sharpening our spiritual hearing: this is the only thing we can do. But this is much. And blessed are those whose minds and hearts are open.
Therefore, let us keep open our ears and let us keep open our hearts, and ask with great seriousness and great passion: Is there a word from the Lord, a word for me, here and now, a word for our world in this moment? It is there, it tries to come to you. Keep open for it!
- Paul Tillich, New Being, Chapter 16