Henry T. Blackaby is a Southern Baptist pastor and the main author of the book Experiencing God as well as its related “family of Bible studies” (which also include study guides, an Experiencing God Study Bible, a devotional journal, and, of course, a youth edition). Experiencing God remains popular even after it was first written 30 years ago. Blackaby’s goal in writing the book is expressed as such:
“I invite you to interact with God throughout the reading of this book so He can reveal to you the ways He wants you to apply these principles in your own life, ministry, and church.”
There are 7 “steps” that Blackaby proposes for knowing God’s will:
- God is always at work around you.
- God pursues a love relationship with you.
- God invites you to become involved in His work.
- God speaks by the Holy Spirit through: the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal this.
- God’s invitation always involves a crisis of faith for you.
- You must make major adjustments to your life to join God’s work.
- You come to know God by your experience as you obey and God works through you.
The remainder of the book contains examples of how these principles worked out in the lives of Biblical characters and how to apprehend them for your own life.
I will simply state at the outset that I believe Blackaby’s approach is not only unbiblical, but dangerous. Below I list the main reasons why. Note that Blackaby sometimes makes statements that appear to contradict others. For example, he appears to both affirm and deny experiential truth seeking in Scripture (pg. 9 cf. pg.95). These statements, in turn, may seem to contradict some of the criticisms presented below – so each must be taken in light of his overall approach.
General Problems with Experiencing God
There are some ideas Blackaby uses to back up the above points that have the potential for dangerous conclusions. But before we go on to these particulars, it will be beneficial to point out the questionable nature of the hidden foundations of this teaching. While points 1-3 seem true at face value, points 4-7 pose large enough problems that they must be analyzed a bit more carefully.
While many Christians today will be surprised to hear this, the very idea that God has a personal will for your life separate from His Sovereign or His Moral will is not uncontested. Blackaby simply assumes that his readers already agree with this view without giving any evidence for it (nor even bothering to state it). This assumption has gone unnoticed by most Christians, for this view of God’s will is prevalent among Baptist and Evangelical churches. But the fact is that the idea of God having an individual will for every believer that can be known in advance may not be true.
Blackaby’s further assumptions (such as God’s means of communication) are themselves based on this questionable premise. This opens the door for questioning not only Blackaby’s methodology, but the most fundamental aspect of his teaching. For Blackaby’s system to work, he must in fact prove the following:
- That God has an individual will for your life besides His Moral will that is expressed in Scripture.
- That God’s method of communicating this will in Biblical times was consistent and normative for all believers.
- That God continues to speak to all believers today just as He did in biblical times.
Blackaby offers no evidence for any of these assertions. He simply assumes what he is trying to prove and then uses “evidence” that will only convince those who already hold to his unproved presuppositions. The bottom line is that Blackaby is building his particular brand of “finding God’s will” theology on a stack of assumptions that may or may not be Biblical to begin with, and for which he offers no support. These are shaky grounds on which to construct an entire ministry.
Particular Problems with Experiencing God
In summary fashion, there are at least four major dangers found in Experiencing God which will be expounded upon below. They are:
- A Dangerous View of God’s Methods – Does God speak today like He spoke then? And to whom?
- A Dangerous View of the Christian Life – Does the Bible always portray a radical believer’s life?
- A Dangerous View of Scripture – Are only parts of the Bible God’s word for us?
- A Dangerous View of Christ – Did Christ have crisis of faith or make major adjustments for the Father?
Dangerous View of God’s Methods
According to Blackaby, since God spoke directly to people in the Bible, He will also speak to you: He spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis.
He spoke to Abraham and the other patriarchs . . . God does speak to His people, and you can anticipate that He will be speaking to you also.
There is a hidden assumption that Blackaby does not state nor does he attempt to support in his argument, yet without it the argument is meaningless. In logical form, Blackaby asserts that:
Premise 1: God spoke to people in Bible times.
Premise 2: (missing)
Conclusion: God speaks to people today.
That missing premise is that this was God’s normal method of communication and God continues this practice. This is the only way to make the argument logically valid, yet neither part of this hidden premise is proven correct. Blackaby jumps right from Premise 1 to his conclusion, which I believe is demonstrably false.
Though we may see God’s past works through past circumstances, answered prayers, and other believers, the only way He speaks directly to Christians today is through the Bible. Many Christians are being told that God speaks directly to them today (“just like in Bible times”) through subjective impressions, signs, and other means. Believers seem to find this true even when what God supposedly said ends up being contradicted by someone else’s “revelation.” A subjective approach such as this has lead to a distrust of careful scholarship, anti intellectualism, sloppy interpretation, and a general lack of true Scriptural knowledge. Note how Blackaby admits to the subjective and unverifiable nature of these “revelations”:
Is it important to know when the Holy Spirit is speaking to you? Yes! How do you know what the Holy Spirit is saying? I cannot give you a formula. I can tell you that you will know His voice when He speaks.
No one of these methods [circumstances, answered prayers, other believers, and the Bible] of God’s speaking is, by itself, a clear indicator of God’s directions. But when God says the same thing through each of these ways, you can have confidence to proceed.
The Bible, then, is just one of many ways God speaks to Christians – and apparently we cannot know God is “speaking” unless the Bible itself is backed up by our own experiences! One must ask, what if one’s impressions contradict another’s? Are they expected to wait on an experience before they can understand the word of God? Are someone’s feelings about Scripture indicative of its meaning? Can experience contradict Scripture? It is easy to see the problems that can crop up with a mystical view of God’s leading.
Dangerous View of the Christian Life
Blackaby uses the unusual experiences of unique men in the Bible to support his view that God speaks directly to Christians today. That explains the emphasis on the experiences of men such as Abraham and Moses. But are we really supposed to appropriate the details of some unique individual’s life in order to live the Christian life? There is no evidence that this is case.
First, the unique experiences at unique times of unique people in the Bible should not to be taken as normative for all believers. It simply is not correct to conclude that since certain people in the Bible had an experience, we should too. To state that this is so requires evidence, yet Blackaby simply makes his assertions and moves on without objective support:
God clearly spoke to His people in Acts. He clearly speaks to us today. From Acts to the present, God has been speaking to His people by the Holy Spirit.
How does Blackaby know that God “clearly speaks to us today”? Of course he can get away with this, as most Christians today also assume this to be the case although biblical evidence is missing for such a belief. The truth is that God used these men for a special purpose at a special time. Scripture had not yet been completed, so God used miraculous signs to verify His chosen one’s messages (2 Corinthians 12:12). Second, even back then their experiences were not normal – that’s why they were recorded! It is not correct to assume that since God spoke to the prophets and apostles, that He speaks to Christians in the same way today (in fact, Scripture indicates that He does not – Heb 1:1).
Blackaby uses the example of Moses to show that God still speaks to His people today. But to whom else did God speak in this manner? No one according to Deuteronomy 34:10! Scripture itself testifies to the fact that this event was incredibly unique when it states that “no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” Yet Moses is pictured on the cover of his book as if he were the template for all Christian experience after him. Should we model all the details of our lives after Moses’ life? Are we to all seek a burning bush? Tend sheep? Drink from a well? If not (as Blackaby admits!), then why act like Moses’ other experiences should reflect ours? Blackaby’s approach to Christian living is not consistent with what the Bible says about the normal Christian life. He uses examples of Moses at the Red Sea, Joshua and the Jordan River, and Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace . . . but the very fact that these stories stand out should tell us that they are not normal!
Blackaby actually sees normalcy as a problem in the church. He speaks of “miraculous signs” that believers should be seeing and about Christians doing “God-sized assignments” so that everyone around will know they are from God. He states,
When they [unbelievers] see things happen that can only be explained by God’s involvement, they will come to know Him.
In fact, according to Blackaby it is the average Christian’s lack of the miraculous that causes people to reject Christ! This, according to Blackaby, is because God’s people lack the faith to attempt those things that only God can do. If you or your church are not responding to God and attempting things that only He can accomplish, then you are not exercising faith.
What our world often sees are devoted, committed Christians serving God. But they are not seeing God. They do not see anything happening that can only be explained in terms of the activity of God. Why? Because we are not attempting anything that only God can do.
If this is true, it seems odd that nowhere in the New Testament are churches told that performing miracles must be a part of the Gospel message, and not once are they ever reprimanded for not doing miracles. Of course God who can do extraordinary things. But does the New Testament tell us that these extraordinary things will be available for the average Christian on a regular basis? No, it does not. Living for God is not about seeking after one “God-sized assignment” to the next. With Blackaby’s emphasis on extraordinary experiences, the reader is left with the impression that he is only “experiencing God” and doing His will if he sees big things happening in his life. This is not a biblical approach, however, and no Christian who takes this approach will be satisfied with their relation to God.
Dangerous View of Scripture
Blackaby makes several statements in his book that sound dangerously similar to the idea that the Bible only becomes God’s word to you through your experience:
Have you ever been reading the Bible when suddenly you are gripped by a fresh new understanding of the passage? That was God speaking!
No, God speaks in all of the words of the biblical text – not just those that make an impression on the reader. Someone buying in to this statement might very well come to the conclusion that a lack of “fresh new understanding” of Scripture means that God was not speaking to them. The reverse is also true – it may be that you do have an emotional experience when interacting with the text and think God has given you “a word.” Yet which book in the Bible was written to 21st century believers? Not one! We discover God’s will for us by reading what He has said (to others) and then apply God’s principles to our lives. The words of Scripture only have one correct interpretation and if they were written to all believers in every generation then there would never be a fixed meaning! The Bible was written for us, not to us.
In fact, Blackaby asserts that God’s truth comes through the Bible to the reader – not that the text itself contains truth:
You may ask, ‘Can’t I get a word from God from the Bible?’ Yes, you can! But only the Holy Spirit of God can reveal to you which truth of Scripture is a word from God in a particular circumstance.
Scripture is only a word from God in particular circumstances? This is highly problematic in that it leads to private interpretations (what does this text mean to you?), rather than to the text’s objective meaning. A text’s meaning is not found in ourselves, nor in our interpretations – whether they are supposedly aided by the Holy Spirit or not. Meaning is located in the text itself whether or not someone “gets it.”
Blackaby demonstrates these private interpretations when he spuriously applies texts to himself that were not written to him. This can be seen in his testimonial application of John 11:4. Blackaby takes “this sickness is not unto death” to refer to his daughter’s illness (pg. ). But the context of Jesus’ statement in John 11:4, is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is not a promise to him that his daughter would live through her illness (the fact that she lived is no evidence that he was correct – other particulars could be given to support the opposite conclusion. That is why we must rely on principles not particulars). This kind of fallacy not only makes one believe a conclusion that may be false, but it also obscures the original intent of the passage so that its true meaning is lost. What if every parent thought that John 11:4 was for them when their child died? We know the children of Christian parents sometimes die. What would that do to their trust in God’s Word?
And Blackaby doesn’t stop there. He takes passages that speak of unbelievers and applies them to believers and verses that refer to salvation are applied to Christian living, such as John 14:6:
Who is the one who really knows the way for you to fulfill God’s purpose for your life? God is! Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).
Jesus is teaching about salvation here, not making a statement about knowing God’s will.
Blackaby quotes Jeremiah 18:1-6, stating that the point of that passage is that, “to be useful, the clay has to be moldable.” The point of Jeremiah 18:1-6, however, is that God can sovereignly do what He pleases with those He has created – whether or people are moldable or not! This kind of sloppy scholarship should call Blackaby’s authority on Bible study in general into serious question.
Dangerous View of Jesus Christ
The picture of Jesus that Blackaby paints is difficult to square with the Jesus that Scripture presents. Consider the following statements:
He [the Father] pursues a love relationship and invites Jesus to be involved with Him by revealing what He is doing. Jesus then makes the adjustments to do what His Father is doing
He [the Father] even required major adjustments of His own Son
God used circumstances to reveal to Jesus what He was to do. The circumstances were the things Jesus saw the Father doing. There are some things that only the Father can do
The Son kept on looking for the Father’s activity around Him so He could unite His life with the Father’s activity
Jesus did not simply look around for “what God was doing,” Jesus knew exactly what His mission was from the beginning. And while His human will did not desire death on the cross, He never had to “majorly adjust” His life to “fit” God the Father’s plan. Would Blackaby also suggest that Jesus had to go through a “crisis of faith” before He could serve the Father? What does this do to his suggestion for us?
Your job as a servant is to follow Jesus’ example: Do what the Father is already doing-watch to see where God is at work and join Him!
Besides the fact that this is most certainly not how Jesus did it, the New Testament does not teach that Christians must try to figure where God is at work around them so that they can then join Him. They can know that God is at work right where they are. This can be done at home, in the workplace, in school, or in any place God has put them. God does not have to ask them, in fact when God speaks He doesn’t ask – He tells! Blackaby discusses the account of Jonah. He states, “When God had a plan to call Ninevah to repentance, He asked Jonah to join Him in His Work.” But God never asked Jonah to do anything . . . He commanded him! When even the very examples that Blackaby (spuriously) uses as evidence for his position fly in the face of his own system some flags should go up. A self contradictory system is automatically false.
Begging the Question
As with many other “knowing God’s will” schemes, the question that is consistently begged is this: how do you know that you know? Even if we were to grant every one of Blackaby’s assertions, allowing for all of the logical leaps and out of context Scripture usage, the whole system still fails at this critical point: how can one know by experience what God is doing?
For any activity you see going on you always have at least two ways to look at it: it is God or it is Satan. What if you “saw God working” in a neighboring city, “went to join Him”, and saw hundreds of people come to Christ? Vindication? Not necessarily. Perhaps God had actually wanted you to go to Africa where you would have led thousands to Christ instead of only the few hundred that you reached? What if it was really Satan who set it up so that you thought you were supposed to stay local?
The problem is that there is always an alternate explanation. People must read what they think God is doing into their interpretation of each situation – but if they already know what God is doing then why look at the situation?
In light of the very questionable and unsupported assumptions Blackaby relies on for his whole system, the objectively false philosophy he espouses, the confusing and sometimes contradictory methodology he supports, the dangerous consequences that many of his principles could lead to, and the impossibly subjective and circular means of verification that the system is tested by, it is my conclusion that Experiencing God should not be taught as a means for discovering God’s will today. At best it might be useful as a resource for learning how God spoke to unique men and women in Biblical times in order that they might fulfill their truly “God sized” assignments – but that would completely undermine Blackaby’s purpose in writing it.
The New Testament does not teach that Christians must try to figure out where God is at work around them so that they can join Him. It does, however, have plenty to say about God’s will for our lives (more, indeed, than most are willing to accomplish).