I had an odd experience recently: I found a pastor plagiarizing an article I had written.
I was doing an online search for a particular quotation I had used in the past. I found it in a pastor’s article to his congregation. However, the rest of the article seemed strangely familiar as well. It turned out there was a reason: I had written it. The pastor reproduced it as his article, verbatim.
If “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” as Oscar Wilde claimed, my first reaction should have been one of gratitude to be so imitated. My second should have been to pray for that pastor in the possibility that he was so time-pressured that he needed to reproduce my article to have something to send his people on deadline.
But I’ll admit, my first reaction was neither of the above: I took offense that someone took credit for my words as though they were his.
Unfortunately, many of us have the opposite problem with God.
Jim Cymbala’s greatest frustration
All through Scripture we find prophets proclaiming, “Thus says the Lord . . .” What makes a prophet a prophet is the capacity to speak not just about God or for him but from him.
I believe our broken culture needs nothing from us so much as it needs a word from God through us.
However, speaking from God comes at a cost. It is far easier to speak for him in the assumption and hope that he will bless what we say so long as it is about him.
Some years ago, I was talking with Jim Cymbala, who has served as pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle since 1971. Their church has been transformative in its city and around the world; Jim is a bestselling author much in demand in the evangelical church.
During our conversation, I asked him to name the most frustrating part of his fame for his personal life and ministry. He answered immediately: “It’s all the people who think they can take what we do, copy it, and expect it to work where they serve.” He explained that when God works in and through us, he “births” his word and work in our lives. And, he added, birthing is hard work.
Jim pays that price. He has been passionate about fasting, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines. He had empowered a team of friends to hold him accountable to the highest level of personal spirituality. He is committed to being someone God can speak to and through.
And I have found him to be a prophetic voice in my life and our world.
“They have seen false visions”
By contrast, in Ezekiel 13 God had some very harsh things to say about “prophets” who “prophesy from their own hearts” and claim that their words are his words (v. 2). He called them “jackals among ruins” (v. 4) who “have not gone up into the breaches, or built up a wall for the house of Israel, that it might stand in battle in the day of the Lᴏʀᴅ” (v. 5).
Here is their specific sin: “They have seen false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘Declares the Lᴏʀᴅ,’ when the Lᴏʀᴅ has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word” (v. 6). In this sin, they “whitewash” the sins of others (v. 10).
As a result, God warns them, “I am against you, declares the Lord Gᴏᴅ” (v. 8). The walls they “whitewash” will “fall” in a “deluge of rain” and a “stormy wind” (v. 11). On that day, “When it falls, you shall perish in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the Lᴏʀᴅ” (v. 14).
One reason church membership is falling
Before people need our rhetorical brilliance, our managerial excellence, our pastoral compassion, or anything else we think they want from us, they need to hear from God.
One of the reasons church membership continues to fall in America is that fewer people think they need what church membership provides. If they did, they would be joining in droves. It is the same with shopping malls competing with online retailers and mainstream news competing with social media. People will “buy” what they think they need.
But they cannot get a word from God apart from the Spirit of God through the servants of God.
If my experience is any measure, I can assure you that the enemy will do all he can do to keep us from being people who can hear a word from God and then speak it in his Spirit’s power.
First, he will tempt us with so-called “private” sins that keep us from hearing the Spirit’s voice.
Second, if he cannot make us bad, he will make us busy, knowing that it takes time to “be still” and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10).
Third, he will encourage us to adopt a wrong understanding of humility: Who am I to speak from God? How can I be sure this is truly from him?
Giving us what we need most
Here’s the good news: God will speak to everyone who wants to hear his voice. He will give us his word if we want to receive and share it. As Francis Schaeffer famously said, he is there and he is not silent. He wants us to know his word more than we want to know it.
So, I invite you to join me in praying these words:
- “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).
- Ask Jesus to do this: “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).
- And trust the Spirit to help you “understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12).
Measure what you hear by the timeless, unchanging truth of his written word (Hebrews 4:12). Then, speak what your Lord speaks to you. Claim his promise that his word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
You are not plagiarizing God; you are giving the world what we need most.
Is there a greater privilege?