Why Can’t God Speak English?

I received a surprising resurgence of activity from one of my oldest posts, Book of Mormon Geography.  In the latest discussion, Bishop Rick asked, “Why would HF send a revelation that would not be understood?”  Then he clarified it further stating, “Why would HF send a revelation to HIS “Prophet” (as opposed to any “prophet”) that would not be understood by HIS “Prophet”?”

This seems to be a common theme in the Bloggernacle–but not just here.  Other religions have similar questions, and even agnostics/atheists ask similar questions.  In the book Powerful Prayers, Larry King asks Rabbi Irwin Katsof, “Why can’t God speak English?”  Let me quote from the book for a moment.  From page 163,

I can accept that God would send us a challenge so that we  might learn from the experience, but we shouldn’t need an Orphan Annie decoder ring to figure out the message he’s trying to send.

So I put the question to the rabbi:  If a prayer is answered, but we’re not given the tools to decipher it and are not even aware it has been answered because so much mishagoss–Yiddish for “craziness”–has been piled on top of it, then the prayer really hasn’t been answered.  Or has it?

Another uncomfortable pause at the other end of the phone.  Or maybe the discomfort was on my end?  Let’s see, if an uncomfortable pause occurs and there’s nobody there to hear it…

“Larry, if a prayer is answered and your eyes aren’t open, then of course you’re not going to see it or understand it.”

“Why can’t God speak English?  Why all the hoops?”

What do you want?  You want it delivered every morning like the newspaper?  You want room service?  You want a Larry Channel on you TV?”

I must admit, I started thinking about the last one and enjoying the idea.  With all the TV shows I’ve done, they could program a Larry Channel twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for several years without repeating a show.  I had to get my mind off that prospect and back to the heat of the debate.

“I want to understand it, Rabbi, that’s all.”

“You have to work at getting a conversation started, correct?”


“Can you have a conversation if one participant isn’t listening?”


“Larry, God knows what we need.  So we don’t pray to God to remind him, we pray to God to remind ourselves.  The essence of prayer is choice.  Prayers help us refine and affirm what it is we want out of our lives.  God desires our growth as human beings.  Like any good parent, he doesn’t spoil us by giving us what we want on a silver platter.”

“We are confronted with obstacles, and we struggle when we lose awareness of God.  Understanding isn’t given, it is earned.  We encounter roadblocks in life because we’ve lost sight of our path to God.  Prayer is the map that leads us out of the wilderness and connects us to God.”

“Hmm,” I said, vamping for time and not really understanding.

“The concept of this is called ‘the bread of shame.’  Unless you earn it, you are spoiled.  Let me ask you this:  Were you an overnight success as a talk show host?”

“Hardly.  I worked at it a long time, struggled for years.”

“So that didn’t come easy?”


“Don’t you think the struggle makes the success that much sweeter?”

I couldn’t disagree.  I looked out my hotel window and started thinking about something Lou Holtz said in our interview.

Faith is nothing more than believing when you have no proof.  People say, “Show me proof and I’ll believe.”  That’s not faith.  That’s fact.  There’s a big difference.  — Lou Holtz

I think far too many people view prophets as looking into a crystal ball and seeing the future.  While that may happen for some prophets some of the time, they too have to walk by faith, not fact.  As Paul said in 1 Cor 13:9-12,

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known

Prophets see parts, just as we do.  Comments?

25 comments on “Why Can’t God Speak English?

  1. “Prophets see parts, just as we do.”

    Agreed. The question remains— why the song and dance?

  2. questions without answers, answers without question… life, nature, and the universe seem to be composed of order and chaos in equal measure.

    if you’re wont to look past and beyond traditional mormon sensibilties, the recent film ‘a serious man’ may be to your liking.

  3. what song and dance are you referring to?

    can you tell me more about this film?

  4. Hello… MH,(sorry because I am not good using english) I am very interest with your article in this website..

    (from Malaysia)

  5. In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

    Quran, Surah 5:Ayat: 82-83 “And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud. When they listen to that which hath been revealed unto the messenger, thou seest their eyes overflow with tears because of their recognition of the Truth. They say: Our Lord, we believe. Inscribe us as among the witnesses”

  6. I think the reason “far too many people view prophets as looking into a crystal ball and seeing the future” is because that is what we are taught, both from the pulpit and the scriptures. You don’t have to read that far into the BoM to get a taste of that, and the OT is replete with it.

    The only place I hear to the contrary is from the apologists.

  7. In my denomination we’re taught that prophets interpret the mind and will of God. I see no particular reason to limit what God can communicate to what parts of space-time continuum we deal with without such communication. So I do think prophets can foretell the future almost as easily as they can interpret the present. But I think not even the best of us do either of those things very well in an absolute sense, and all of us have a prophetic sense to a greater or lesser extent. So we constantly need to check with each other about what others are seeing, and not to become locked into dependency on a single “prophet.”

  8. Muhammad, welcome! From your name I assume you are Muslim. I don’t get very many Muslim visitors here, and I hope you enjoyed my articles on Malay. Let me know if you have any questions.

    Bishop Rick, apologist is a pretty broad umbrella term. John Hamer seems to have a similar point of view of prophets as FireTag and I. Yet FireTag and John are members of the Community of Christ. Are they the type of apologists you refer to?

    I’ve also been accused of being an anti-mormon (Tara has said that some of my posts are borderline anti). As I recall, over on Zelph’s blog, I was both an anti-mormon and an apologist, but I think we settled on TBMH (TBM Heretic) or UBM (Unorthodox Believing Mormon). Frankly, I prefer TBM, TBMH, UBM, and apologist to anti, so I’ll take that as somewhat of a backhanded compliment.

    I agree that some people preach from the pulpit that the prophet sees into a crystal ball, but I don’t think any LDS of RLDS prophets support that notion. I think Mormons try to simplify the gospel and inadvertantly give this simplistic view of a prophet. But I think as we spiritually mature, we begin to understand the nature of prophecy. Unfortunately some people prefer to keep the simplistic definition of a crystal ball prophet, and then complain when they learn that isn’t realistic. I think it takes a kind of spiritual maturity to get past some of these simplistic caricatures, but unfortunately, some people never seem to get to that spiritual maturity.

  9. If I want someone else to understand something, it is up to me to do everything I can (or need to) to help that person understand. If God is doing less, then the question is why? If God will do nothing except He reveals His will unto His servants the prophets, then he can’t do anything unless the prophets understand. If He deliberately confuses the message, then He hasn’t revealed his will.

    I believe any other interpretation is non-biblical.

  10. My comment wasn’t only pointed at LDS. I joined the LDS church my Junior year of high school, but was taught as a child that prophets could prophesy (see into the crystal ball). The scriptures are riddled with this notion.

    My first point (might not have been my first) is that I never hear LDS (or any religious) leaders state the contrary. Quite frankly, I have only heard LDS apologists (and I roll you, John and FT into that group) state what you are stating. To use an LDS example, both Nephi and Lehi saw the world from their time to the end. If that’s not seeing into the crystal, I don’t know what is.

    So my question is, “why do you seem to be surprised at how many people have this perception?”

  11. Oh, and I’m well aware that Tara feels you cross the line too often to be an apologist, but I disagree with her. You are like BH Roberts. Bring up the bad, then try to come up with plausible explanations. Not sure why Tara took so much offence to that approach.

    Kinda miss Tara. She is a real True-per.

  12. We really need to come up with new words for apologist and anti-mormon. There’s just too much emotional baggage with those words. I’d prefer pragmatist and skeptic for these terms, because I don’t personally feel apologist or anti-mormon accurately portrays my views. On some church issues, I’m a skeptic, while others (such as this one) I’m more of a pragmatist. Those feel better labels for me. What do you think?

    So Bishop Rick, if you joined LDS in high school, who was teaching you about prophets as a child?

    “why do you seem to be surprised at how many people have this perception?”

    I guess I’m not that surprised, but I am surprised that some people get so emotional about the issue. My next door neighbor told me her 14 year old son is getting bored with church, because it is always the same thing. I’ve been a little bored with church since that age too. Church is simplistic–probably always has been. It seems to me the church caters to the weak, rather than to the strong. I’m not sure why that is, but I guess they figure the strong will be strong on their own.

    I don’t understand why more people don’t get tired of milk. All this “milk before meat” stuff bores me to death. Personally, I would like to see the church focus more on meaty things and help people spiritually progress. Perhaps the church is so focused on growing and missionary work, that is the reason why they constantly water down stuff–to help the “fresh new members.” I wish the church added more variety to the milk diet.

    Tara sent me an email a few months ago, and I said I might use something for a blog post. She asked me about the church’s position on politics. As you can see, my sports and politics posts don’t see to be very popular, but maybe I’ll drum up something and invite her. Blogging can become real time consuming; she’s been pretty busy, so I think that’s why she took a break.

  13. Goldarn, If God will do nothing except He reveals His will unto His servants the prophets, then he can’t do anything unless the prophets understand. If He deliberately confuses the message, then He hasn’t revealed his will.

    Who says God is deliberately confusing the message? Could it be that the prophet understands most of the message, and God believes that is good enough?

    Sometimes there is value in struggling. As a teacher, I don’t tell my students all the answers or they will forget. If they struggle a bit, they are more likely to remember the answer. I think God works the same way.

    I teach math. Some students look up the answers in the book while they do their homework. With the answer there, it’s easy to get the right answer. However, when the test comes, they are astonished that they can’t do well on the test. Struggling is an important part of learning. The student who struggles to figure out the answer before looking at the key does much better than the student who looks at the answer and works backwards.

    The parable of building on the beach or on the rock fits here. Let’s put a modern day perspective on it. People who build on the beach are the ones with the “easy” life, right? The ones who build on a solid foundation are much more prepared with the inevitable storm comes. If God gives us every answer any time we want, are we really going to remember it when the storm comes?

    Making mistakes is a valuable part of learning; yet too often, we act like Oliver Cowdery in D&C 9:7 “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. 8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind;”

    God teaches us through our struggling. He often gives hints, rather than revealing everything through the crystal ball. Even when he gives a crystal ball revelation, like he did to Joseph in the Bible (your brothers will bow down), Joseph struggled for years as a slave and in prison in Egypt before the crystal ball revelation was fully revealed.

  14. I want to clarify. I’m in the “interpreting the mind and will of God” camp definitely, but I don’t discriminate past, present, or future as limiting God’s communication; John Hamer might.

    I would liken the prophetic gift to the ability of a chess master. In more detail, the ability of a “Prophet” is the ability to see what chess players call “deep combinations”. In these combinations, the first move seems inferior to another move by all conventional doctrine, yet opens up hidden possibilities for the second, third, or forth move that would have been closed off by what conventional doctrine teaches.

    In religion, the ability to see those combinations is often associated precisely with the ability of the prophet to “unbind time” and know not only what God is doing today in the present, but also recognize what He has already unleashed in the past and what He will unleash in the future that will make those unconventional combinations possible. It is faith not just that God will do something, but that God will act in specific ways and times that others cannot yet identify.

    A prophet will be drawn to seek prophetic solutions most obviously by some immediate crisis – how Old Testament Israel can survive in a world where it is caught geographically between regional powers like Egypt, Syria, or Persia; or how the early Christians must respond to the growing political infighting within the declining Roman Empire (with its resulting persecution of Christianity). He/she will also be influenced by the ferment of ideas emanating from the larger culture and will be drawn to explore the possibilities inherent in those ideas. Similarly, a chess master will not look for combinations at random, but will be drawn to look for them out of the immediate problems to be solved on the game board. But I think we’ve been too quick to limit the scope of the prophetic vision to the immediate problem it addressed, or the cultural processes from which it sprang, and miss the deep combinations and their impact on future blessing possibilities.

    By focusing on the very specific immediate situation, and/or by generalizing the prophecy up to a universal, least-common-denominator mush, even the most progressive of us try to make prophecy safe for continuing our existing life patterns and world views. But prophecy is not safe, not for the prophet or for the disciples who embrace it. It will, of course, lead to confrontation with earthly “principalities and powers” because, even if civil rulers are honorable men and women trying to do the best for their people, they won’t see the deep combination.

  15. “So Bishop Rick, if you joined LDS in high school, who was teaching you about prophets as a child?”

    I was raised Southern Baptist. Went to church every week (still do actually).
    The prophets I was referring to there were Old Testament prophets which were taught quite a bit in Sunday School and pulpit sermons. Plus I had one of those Old Testament stories books that highlighted all the prophets.

  16. I agree with your Anti / Apologist statement. They both seem to be on the extreme left or right. In my case, skeptic is probably not strong enough. Unbeliever is more accurate. I don’t consider myself an Anti, I’m just an everyday bloke that no longer believes.

  17. Well, no wonder you’ve got an improper view of prophets–Baptists have it all wrong! 🙂 We just need to get you to the proper view of John Hamer, FireTag, and myself! 🙂

    I can’t speak for John Hamer, but perhaps he might be considered an unbeliever as well. As you may know, he considers the BoM to be a 19th century document (which is perfectly fine in the CoC). Perhaps you might adopt his definition of a prophet?

  18. Well, John finally did decide to be baptized on April 6 and has had time to announce it since. It seems odd to call him an unbeliever NOW, although his position on BofM historicity has probably not changed.

  19. lol, of course I feel I have the correct view of prophets.

  20. Yes, i was aware that John just got baptized, but he does seem a bit more New Order Mormon than full believer to me. I’m glad he found church he feels comfortable with. If I ever chose to leave Mormonism, I think I would probably feel most at home at the CoC.

  21. I think I would feel much more at home with CoC than LDS, but Unitarian would probably be my choice.

  22. As FireTag anticipated, I do disagree with his generalized point about the capacity for humans to receive sure information about the future via revelation. However, I do agree with his more elaborate analogy of prophet as an inspired chess-master looking at large systems and anticipating future trends. In that way, I personally function as a prophet by attempting to study human systems: how past systems have functioned historically and how current systems are functioning today. Exercising reason has long been identified as a “calling” extended to all humanity. By exercising our reason through studying complex systems, we all have the capacity to be prophetic people — as we are likewise all called to be.

    I agree with Bishop Rick that most religious people, by contrast, believe God-gives-prophet-crystal-ball is the way revelation functions precisely because that’s how humans have generally used the term and that’s how it’s often portrayed in literature, like the Lehi story. (Did Lehi actually see a vision of the whole of history, past to future? Of course not. Lehi was a literary character who had access only to the historical knowledge of his author, Joseph Smith Jr. That knowledge did not extend beyond the present, New York in 1829, and its understanding of history prior to 1829 was extremely shallow.)

    On the main question, I think it’s actually impossible for a message from the future to be transmitted to the present — in precisely the same way that it’s impossible for a message from the present to be sent back in time to warn Julius Caesar to avoid the senate, Abraham Lincoln to avoid the theatre, or Archduke Franz Ferdinand to avoid the Balkans. The past can’t be changed.

    Also, there are no pre-destination loops (where you are supposed to go back in time to act out a role that already happened). Pre-destination loops merely serve to highlight the problems with believing in absolute determinism — the idea that everything we do is pre-determined and we merely act out the part as slaves to a combination of our DNA and upbringing. Too many random variables are interacting and the shades separating paths are too incredibly minute at their departure points — meanwhile the consequences can be radically different. Because the universe has a component of uncertainty, the future is not written and does not exist. It’s impossible for anyone or anything to know something that doesn’t exist.

    God is traditionally defined as “omniscient,” meaning “knowing all” — but “all” can’t include that which can’t be known because it doesn’t exist. This isn’t a limitation on God, any more than saying that God can’t create a rock that is too big for God to life is a limitation on God. So, for me, maintenance of the traditional picture (God gives crystal ball to prophets) is a failure of human intellect to consider the logical consequences of the picture (time-travel paradoxes, determinism) and correct the picture so that it is actually meaningful instead of faulty.

  23. That should read: “a rock that is too big for God to lift” not “God to life.”

  24. John, I agree that the “crystal ball” prophets are the ones we admire the most. In the Bible, we pretty much ignore the “boring” prophets like Habakkuk, Amos, Joel because they weren’t nearly so miraculous, but seem more akin to modern prophets like Pres Monson and and Pres Veazey, who I don’t think we really categorize as crystal ball prophets. Rather, I think these 2 prophets are more like Nephi’s brothers, Jacob and Joseph that just give good counsel without the crystal ball stuff. I think it is a shame that we don’t look at these “boring” prophets of the Bible and the Book of Mormon to get a better perspective that prophets don’t always perform miracles like Moses, Noah, or Lehi. Often prophets are more skilled in oratory like Amos, Joel, or King Benjamin.

  25. I don’t think there has been a crystal ball prophet since Brigham.

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