Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

How Will I Know?

Written by: on April 23, 2015

“How will I know if he really loves me?
I say a prayer with every heart beat.
I fall in love whenever we meet,
I’m asking you ’cause you know about these things.”

I kept hearing this song in my head as I read this week’s book, When God Talks Back. [1] 1985. Whitney Houston. Former gospel singer, diva, addict, mother, and now gone. But those words, “How will I know if he really loves me?” seemed to sum up author T.M. Luhrman’s quest. How do you know if God is really speaking? How do you know if He is real? Is he something I have imagined into being? Is he someone that I have systematically trained myself to hear? Or is he something more?

Luhrman sets out on an anthropological experiment to observe the practices, the spirituality, and the faith of those evangelicals who follow a “milder” Pentecostalism, that of the Vineyard church. Over four years in two cities, she observes, takes notes, asks questions, and researches the history of not only the Vineyard, but of evangelicalism. She takes a scientific approach to observation, and compares spiritual experiences to psychological theory. She does a masterful job.

On the topic of the book, I have two specific takeaways. First, I was most impressed with her Spiritual Disciplines study. In this study, she recruits 128 subjects to participate in randomly assigned control groups. One group participates in a month of centering prayer (Apophatic), one in guided imagination of the Gospels (kataphatic), and the third in an intellectual study of the Gospels (study). Those who regularly practiced the first two models of prayer reported the most benefit, while those in the guided imagination also generally experienced an increase in the sensory experience of God. This study is radical for most anthropologists. Luhrman compares the results to Buddhist, Kaballah, other meditation practices. She also considers the impact of culture. Yet what she cannot explain is how people identify their experiences with God. [2]

The second takeaway comes from her description of undertaking a similar anthropological study of magic. As with her experience with the Vineyard churches, as she immersed herself in these cultures she found herself having experiences associated with these practices. Yet in the end, she walked away from magic. As for Christianity and God? “But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way, I have come to know God.” [3] While she does not outrightly identify as Christian, she describes her experiences and her changing understanding as one who has come to know God’s love.

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. ” (Hebrews 11:1)

Before I sat to write this post, I went out and sat on my porch and reflected for a few minutes. It was dark, softly raining, and my mind wandered to those points when I knew. I hear God’s voice. Not audibly. But I know it. He doesn’t sound like me. He speaks in the first person. But I couldn’t convince you or anyone else that it is God. Not scientifically. But I still know.

I reflected back to those days when I was fourteen years old and did not yet know God. But I desperately wanted someone to love me, to be faithful, to be trustworthy. I remember sitting in my sister’s bedroom while she prayed for my mom to get the gun away from my drunken father who was threatening to kill himself and us. A moment later my mom walked in with the gun and asked us to keep it. An answer to prayer? Coincidence? Convenient. But I was not convinced. I remember going to church with my grandparents and watching as others danced before the Lord, cried out his name, and went to the altar and wept before God. But I didn’t cry out or dance or weep. And I remember being on the second day of a five day hiking trip on a remote island in Alaska with my cousins. None of whom were Christians. My genetically defective knee gave out. I couldn’t walk. But I was not about to ask for help from the real people. So I tossed a fleece out to God and asked him, if he was really real, to fix my knee. Instantly the pain was gone. And I was stunned.

Was I a hurt and lonely kid who wanted to be loved? Who wanted to be safe? Absolutely. Was I looking for God? I don’t think so. All the same, God showed up and I was not the same. Could I have imagined my healing? Sure. I had surgery on that knee a few years later. But I knew, and later that night I found myself on the beach alone and I told God that He must be real and that I needed Him.

I could go on. I could recount experiences. I could recount times that I clearly heard God speak. I could talk about the general sense of His presence and how He has changed me deeply, profoundly and permanently. I am well trained enough in the social sciences that I could also discuss the developmental, psychological, and social processes of change that could also account for my change. But I still know that it is God.

Which brings me back to that question: How will I know? That I just do seems simplistic and unscientific. But that is what I call faith.

[1] T.M. Luhrman, When God Talks Back, New York: Vintage Books, 2012.
[2] Ibid, pp 189-226.
[3] Ibid, p 325.

About the Author

Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

9 responses to “How Will I Know?”

  1. John Woodward says:

    Julie, thanks for your wonderful post. I am in “stress mode” as I face of weekend of deadlines and my eyes are swimming from staring at my computer screen for hours. Your post was such an encouragement…just what I needed. I appreciate your stories and your question of how do we know. As you suggest, we know because God does show up. I too can relate (not huge or blow your mind experiences, but) many times where I saw God work, where He moved in my life (and in the lives of others) in ways that are beyond a doubt God! This weekend, it is so good to know and remember that God is with us, and that He is real. Thanks Julie for sharing your story (and so glad your mother got the gun away!). Blessings to you (and your mother!).

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Thanks John. I found the book to be an encouragement in many ways – a good way to end the semester – and am glad that my post brought encouragement to you.

  2. Ashley Goad says:

    I welcome you to the light side of finding a song to play through your head as you recount and reflect! Now, I, too, have Whitney belting out in my head. Actually, it’s via YouTube!


    Julie, you’re vulnerability in this post shines brightly. I love the personal stories you relate to the reading, and this one takes the cake. Explaining God’s voice and God’s presence is beyond words, and when we stumble for concrete details, others often see us as being inauthentic or making it up. Me, I hear God’s voice in a rather “Tom Brokaw” sound – it’s deep, comforting, and nurturing! But it’s absolutely true when you say you “just know.” It’s indescribable and uncontainable. Amen.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      I find that there really is a song for anything. I had that song playing via YouTube when I wrote the post.

      Blessings to you as you head over to your second home. May Tom Brokaw speak to your heart.

  3. rhbaker275 says:

    Thanks, Julie,
    This is a really insightful and helpful post…

    I like your comments on unconditional love and the reference to the words in the song, “How will I know if he really loves me?” The chapter in the book “Developing Your Heart” addresses the topic of love as an aspect of knowing and experiencing God. It is as you note, natural for us to question unconditional love as it is divine attribute. If God is real, Luhrmann notes, “You should feel that your are deeply loved, and your heart should grow in the warmth and acceptance of that love, and you in turn should become more loving, forgiving, understanding and patient. ‘From love, with love for love’…” In our humanity, we can only imagine unconditional love. God does talk back with love. Luhrmann identifies six practices for the believer that develop “the experience of feeling loved by God” (111). I need to frame these and keep them before me at all times. I probably got the most out of the book in reading the many Vineyard experiences of receiving and sharing God’s love as a practice in “heart development.”

    Thanks for sharing your own “stunning” experience of discovering God’s presence in your life.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Ron –
      I also found it interesting that Luhrman, as a skeptic and researcher, detailed multiple strategies for nurturing our relationship with God. She described them as practices (my word not hers) but I found it remarkable how she was able to describe “us” and what helps us develop our walk with the Lord.

      Peace to you as you finish up this semester.

  4. Stefania Tarasut says:

    Thanks Julie! As I write this I’m watching CNN’s coverage of the earthquake in Nepal… your post reminds me that God shows up… He just shows up… and that’s comforting!

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Funny you should mention Nepal. My first check this morning was to see how my friend Debbie and her husband Daniel are – they live in Kathmandu as missionaries. And yes, God shows up. They are safe but sleeping in the car – though based on the pile of bricks that landed on their neighbors car, I’m hoping they pulled away from the buildings.

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