A pope, Tim Tebow, Georgia hero, Michele Bachmann: Unashamedly hearing God

When ex-Pope Benedict says "God told me to do it," he doesn't sound that much different than Tim Tebow, Michele Bachmann, and this week's Georgia school-shooting hero who prayed as she deflected a tragedy. How to take it seriously. 

AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, ho
Ex-Pope Benedict XVI, left, is welcomed by Pope Francis during a ceremony for the unveiling of San Michele Arcangelo statue at the Vatican, Friday, July 5, 2013.

"The devil made me do it" may be the most clichéd excuse next to "the dog ate my homework." But "God made me do it?" – well that makes people flip.

If you're Tim Tebow and you say it, you're sidelined. Figuratively speaking. If you're Michele Bachmann, well ... good luck with that. Even former Pope Benedict – who ought to be hearing from God if anyone should – caused an eyebrow or two to raise when he explained this week that God had told him to resign.

But all this is silly. The mocking, when it's not done to distort the opponent and score a rhetorical point, is likely done out of a misunderstanding of religion.

Believers of all stripes have been listening for God's voice since the days of Adam and Eve. And they still do. Some come from families and denominations where God-talk flows freely and unashamedly. Many are by nature more reserved, or from more stoic, un-emotive churches where even clergy don't "talk shop" outside the building. Sometimes, God's voice, learned over time, becomes immediately clear, as to school bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff, whose prayer and trust, she said, helped bring this week's Atlanta school ordeal to a peaceful end, with the gunman, the students, and the staff all unharmed.

That's not to say it's always God who is speaking. But religions offer theology and structure which often helps those who pray distinguish among the many voices they may hear. Often, they believe that the community of faith itself helps them make choices consistent with their religious values.

Believers of all faiths understand God's hallmark is peace.  

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle in 2010, Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues and rabbi of the New North London Synagogue in the UK, explained, “God's speech is always life-enhancing, the essence of the commandment to love.”

The rabbi described how the listening process works in his own tradition: "What does God want of us today? What is God saying to me now? As Jews, we search for God's voice in life and in the Torah, in order to understand what this very Torah means."

"We listen to God's speech in the wisdom of our ancestors who, century after century, formed and transformed, created and recreated the meaning of that Torah through law and lore, according to their understanding of God's voice in their specific context in history and culture."

"Beyond that, more immediately," he continued,"…we want to hear the voice of God speaking in our conscience and our heart.... so that the commandments to love God, God's world and our fellow human beings cease to be mere injunctions and come alive with impassioned immediacy...

"I am moved," he said, "by those whose God speaks not only from the heavens, but out of the anguish of human need and in the innocent song of the birds."

Maybe that anguish moves someone to feed the hungry. Maybe to run for president. But mock him at your peril. Maybe it is God who's asking him to do it.

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