Jim Samra, God Told Me: Who to Marry, Where to Work, Which Car to Buy...And I'm Pretty Sure I'm Not Crazy. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012. 208 pp. $13.99.
One of the most hotly debated issues within Christianity today is “hearing the voice of God. For the Christian, there is no doubt that God is a speaking God. He has spoken and continues to speak. But the question remains, “How?” Moreover, we are passionately concerned with discovering those issues to which he speaks. What car should I buy? Whom should I marry? What career path should I take? And beyond all this lies the most pressing question: since God does speak, how can I be sure it is actually God speaking? Careful answers to these questions are important for Christians to discover, for by them we live and make decisions for life in godliness.
In God Told Me, Jim Samra, senior pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, tackles these questions with biblical illustrations and life experiences. Through the work, Samra displays his dedication to helping people understand, develop, and sharpen the skills necessary to listen for God’s guidance.
Four Big Questions
Samra breaks his book into two main parts. The first section, “The Four Big Questions,” is broken into four chapters: (1) What Is Guidance from God? (2) Why Listen for Guidance from God? (3) How Does God Speak to Us? and (4) How Do We Distinguish God’s Voice? The second part of the book, “The Process of Listening,” is also broken into four chapters: (5) Preparing to Listen; (6) Actively Listening; (7) Lessons Learned; and (8) Telling Others.
In the first chapter, Samra states, “There are unique aspects for the advice we receive from God—namely, it will reflect his Lordship and infinite wisdom” (31). In context, Samra’s main point is that we should recognize guidance from God like we recognize it from people, but with a much different quality.
Samra goes on to illustrate from the Bible that guidance from God can be direct and specific. He references many Old Testament stories and raises the interpretive question of whether we’re to read them as prescriptive or descriptive. He concludes, “All of Scripture, including narratives from the Old Testament, is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for revealing God to us and communicating how God wants us to live today” (36).
Samra premises his book by stating the importance of learning to listen for God’s guidance: “The goal of the Christian life is to become more and more dependent upon God” (38). This seems to be Samra’s main concern, and he spends the remainder of Part One laying out the “four big questions.” Part Two then follows with practical application and putting feet to the concepts.
In large measure, theology dictates how we understand the communication and guidance of God. In evangelicalism there seem to be at least two predominant schools of thought. The first believes God has spoken and continues to speak through the revelation of Scripture alone. The second believes God speaks through the Bible as well as through people, actions, dreams, visions, promptings, ideas, events, laying out fleeces, casting lots, and so on. This latter school of thought will generally use the Bible to test the various vehicles through which divine guidance comes so as to ensure the guidance doesn’t oppose what God has already revealed in Scripture.
The goal of this review is not to debate Samra’s theology, for that is not the point of the book. My aim is to lay out an honest reflection of the practical helpfulness of the author’s intent. To put it rather bluntly, if you hold to the school of thought that maintains God only speaks, guides, and leads through the Bible, this book will not be very helpful for you. If your theology leaves room for God to speak, guide, and lead outside of Scripture, however, you are the target audience. Samra simply assumes God actively communicates through these various channels, and thus doesn’t set out to defend a particular theology.
Most readers picking up this book are likely coming with a desire to learn how they can sense and listen for God’s guidance outside of Scripture. Assuming the average reader is like me, the more important question beckoning to be answered, however, is: “How can we be sure this is God speaking?”
Samra puts forward many ways he thinks Christians can listen for God’s guidance yet never answers the basic question of how the Christian can be sure the particular guidance is from God. Unfortunately, Samra never qualifies how he, or the people in his illustrations, knew for certain God was communicating with them. In fact, Samra explicitly states that sometimes the people in his illustrations were never able to answer the question of how they knew it was God speaking to them.
Samra remarks there are times when God may want us to take the harder road because he wants to teach us dependence on him. The natural question to ask, then, is how does a person know when God wants them to take the harder road? Always? Sometimes? When they just feel they should? When they feel they haven’t in a while? It seems, according to Samra, that our response to this question almost automatically equates to God having “led” them to take that harder road. At this point the decision becomes utterly subjective, and the person is still left wondering whether it was truly God’s prompting or just his or her own gut instinct. Even in the introduction Samra provides a personal illustration in which he states, “God gave me the strangest, most indescribably subjective impression that this mystery person was [God’s] choice for my spouse!” (21) I underlined that statement and scribbled, “How can you assume a subjective impression is a form of God’s leading? What was this impression? What is the difference between your desires and God’s impressions? How did you know it was God?”
Regardless of your theology, I am not convinced this book is practically helpful. The fundamental flaw in Samra’s approach is that he tries to argue through illustration instead of letting his illustrations illumine his arguments. He does this with the biblical examples as well as his experiences.
Even those who believe God does speak and guide outside of Scripture will continue to ask the question, “How can I be certain this feeling was in fact from God?” Indeed, the consequences of a book like this can be far reaching and even dangerous. Many life-altering decisions could be based off subjective, uncertain events regarded as God’s leading.
Samra tackles a very large and pressing topic. The greatest difficulty with his treatment is the absence of a theological groundwork by which the reader is able to interpret alleged divine leadings. Personal, emotional, and subjective experiences do not in themselves guarantee the means by which God communicates, nor is lack of theological groundwork helpful when trying to understand how God guides. Though we live in a world where Christians are zealous for God’s guidance, this book regrettably doesn’t offer much help for that discovery.
Matthew Miller is an MDiv student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He and his wife, Lydia, reside in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where they faithfully serve the body of Missio Dei Fellowship. Matthew blogs at The Deliberations of a Seminarian.