As Christians, much of our rationale and justification for decision-making is based on our faith. We attempt to live in a way that follows the principles of scripture and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. However, in walking out these decisions we cannot disregard the role that our rhetorical choices play. Do the rhetorical devices that we use in our conversations help us work toward discovering truth, or do they function as a defense for conclusions to which we have already committed ourselves? Furthermore, do such rhetorical devices sometimes act as weapons, utilized to “win” an argument or a debate?
Let’s examine one particular rhetorical device that is commonly used, and that is the phrase “God told me” (or some variation of it). This phrase often functions (wittingly or unwittingly) as either a trump card or a conversation-ender. For example, when discussing with a friend the actions she should take in a certain moral dilemma, many pieces of information may need to be weighed. The facts of the circumstances would be considered; actions and motives may be examined; advice from Scripture may be applicable; the prompting of the Holy Spirit would be discussed; and common-sense observations may also factor in. Perhaps the two of you may have differences of opinion and perspective on the situation, which may incur some disagreement. At that point, what happens when she announces her conclusion to be based on the fact that “God told her it was right”?
A trump card has just been played. Where can the conversation go from here? Maybe God did tell her that; maybe he didn’t. Hopefully you have enough humility to realized that you have no way of objectively knowing if he did or did not. So how does a dialogue continue productively? Her use of this phrase has had rhetorical impact — ending the conversation. It doesn’t matter if this was her intent; it is the consequence of using language that functions in an ultimate and symbolic manner.
Theorist Kenneth Burke spent much of his work exploring the way language functions symbolically in our lives. He has captured the essence of symbolic action well: “A symbol is a vessel of much more content than is disclosed by its “face value” as a label. Words may contain attitudes much more complex and subtle than could possibly be indicated in the efficient simplifications of a ‘practical’ dictionary.”1
The declaration of God speaking to someone — either audibly or through an impressed conscious thought — symbolizes much more than what appears at face value. On the surface we may surmise that someone has received an answer or found some divine clarity on a situation. However, when such a statement is employed in the context of a disagreement or difference of opinion there are many different messages being communicated with this symbolic language act. For one, such a phrase may communicate the end of a dialogue on the subject. There is a finality to such a phrase, communicating the idea that “God has spoken.” The only possible challenge to this statement would be the question, “How do you know it was God?” However, this is usually not a question that is up for consideration by someone choosing to employ this trump card in the first place. The individual has already determined it to be God’s voice; what she is now communicating by sharing her revelation is that further input is void.
I bring up this example not to nullify the concept of hearing God’s voice and being “led by the Spirit.” I bring it up to demonstrate how such statements often function in our Christian communities as rhetorical weapons that stifle dialogue about how we are to live out our faith. We are often not aware of the ways in which we use language symbolically to justify our own conclusions or win an argument. We often have to unlearn rhetorical habits that we have adopted and absorbed from the culture in which we have been raised.
1. Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, 3rd ed. with a new afterword (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 329.