I spent a great deal of time during my high-school years learning how to play the guitar. I attended music classes, hung out in music stores, and practiced scales over and over—even while watching the TV! At one point, since I was not employed and hadn’t developed a desire for completing my homework, I practiced for four to six hours a day. I wish I could tell you and all budding guitar players that it was fun, but the truth is that it was a tad bit repetitious. My fingertips bled, my fingers were sore, and my social life was as vibrant as a raincloud.
Eventually, however, thanks to all that work, I was able to play fairly well. Not only could I run through pentatonic and harmonic minor scales, but I could hold conversations while doing it. Eighth notes became sixteenth notes and on occasion even thirty-second notes. I could chord without looking, and what’s more, I began to feel the music rather than just play it.
Breaking away from the scale and chord patterns in the book, I began coming up with combinations of my own. I entered a sector of music called “improvisation” where I could simply play my own rhythms and solos without having to think about what I was doing and without reading any of the music that was in front of me. This left me feeling very free. I could walk into any jam session and begin playing along.
Music as an experience
I’m not a professional musician by any means, and I have friends who are far more expert at playing their instruments than I ever will be. Many of them have composed their own songs and sold them to people like me. Because they spent so much time learning, they have developed a deep insight into the art of music. To me, that is the ultimate in music talent—to be able to experience it as an art, to feel it, to understand it in the heart, and, as I said, to have a deep insight into it.
The Japanese have a term called gen no sen and also mushin, which is a state of mind that can be translated as “mind no mind.” Rather than focusing on a chord, a scale, or a sheet of music crammed with enough chords and scales to make you go cross-eyed, the mind-no-mind musician can take in everything at once. It isn’t some trick or method that can be taught but is rather a level of mastery that comes with years of experience.
And musicians aren’t the only ones who are able to achieve this level of familiarity with their art. Athletes in sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, and bowling can execute their techniques while talking to you. Painters can also do this after years of practice. I was astounded by Bob Ross, who used to have a TV show called The Joy of Painting. He could whip out a beautiful landscape as he spoke casually into the camera. It looked so easy and effortless. When I tried it, even without talking to anyone, my paintings resembled nonsensical lines and splashes of color. My four-year-old daughter can paint better than that!
As I reflect on this level of expertise, I’m drawn to people in the Bible who had a deep experience with God, the result of which was tremendous insight that helped others to have a more intimate relationship with Him. Only, in this case, it didn’t come with practice or repetition. It came as a gift of grace from God (2 Peter 1:21). We call it “the gift of prophecy.”
An experience with God
Throughout the Old Testament, we see people to whom God gave this special experience, after which He sent them out with a special message to the world. Jeremiah was a preacher’s kid, who felt he was far too young to speak for God. Nevertheless, God called him and gave him a difficult message to deliver. And he did so faithfully for the rest of his life.
Another example is Isaiah, to whom God gave a vision of judgment and heavenly things. Following this vision, Isaiah cried out that he was a “man of unclean lips,” who was not worthy to speak of such things (Isaiah 6:5). However, an angel touched his lips with a hot coal from an altar in heaven and purged him of all uncleanness, making him a fit vessel for God to use (verses 6, 7).
In the New Testament, Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts, one of which is the gift of prophecy. By reading everything he said on the topic, it becomes clear that prophets are people who act as spokespersons or messengers for God. Like those who have a deep, intimate knowledge of their art, prophets have a deep, intimate knowledge of God and are able to see spiritual things that others can’t see. God commissions them to reveal His will to those who are having trouble understanding it. It’s important to note that, while prophets may at times predict future events and while supernatural signs sometimes follow them, the vast majority of their work is simply instructing people and guiding them on how to carry out God’s will for their lives. Prophets aren’t circus sideshows. Their roles are to speak straight truth, often unpopular truth, to those who have trouble understanding truth.
In Revelation, a book of prophecy, an angel told John, “I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers [and sisters] who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10; emphasis added). Much of Revelation is about the close of earth’s history, which suggests that the “spirit of prophecy” John spoke about is a gift that will be active within the body of believers until the end of time. And note that its primary goal is to be a testimony of or about Jesus, pointing people to Him.
A modern example
In my faith tradition, we believe strongly that the spiritual gift of prophecy was at work in the life of a woman named Ellen White. Ellen had a third-grade education, and she battled sickness during her early years. Nevertheless, she produced voluminous writings that helped a handful of believers to grow into a worldwide church of 16 million people. She wrote on topics as wide ranging as nutrition, evangelism, education, foreign missions, and parenting. Many, even of those from outside my tradition, recognize her as an influential Christian thinker.
Ellen White described her ministry as pointing people back to the Bible, which points to Jesus. She said, “Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.” Her great passion was to direct people’s attention to Jesus. She said, “I point you to the cross of Calvary. I bid you in the name of Jesus, Look and live.”
Ever calling attention to Jesus, she wrote hundreds of letters to erring believers who needed correction. She was not one to sit idly by and let people destroy themselves with sin. Sometimes she was quite pointed in her advice.
However, she had a healthy perspective on her own status and authority. She never claimed infallibility, for she said that “God alone is infallible.” She had her own struggles and needed a Savior as much as anyone else. A casual glance at the leaders in the Bible reveals that all of them needed Jesus—even the prophets.
I’m thankful that throughout history God has given His people prophetic insight to help them see Jesus more clearly.