Some people may want prophecies to be positive to guard against abuses, though this is subject to its own abuses (see part 1). Others, however, may prophesy positively as a way of expressing faith.
Prophecy as positive confession?
Some may insist on prophesying only positively as a vestige of an emphasis on positive confession (a more distinctive emphasis in some earlier charismatic circles). When the New Testament speaks of “confessing” something other than sin, however (Mark 1:5; James 5:16; 1 John 1:9), it usually refers to Christ’s followers confessing Christ (e.g., Matt 10:32; Rom 10:9-10; Phil 2:11; 1 John 2:23; 4:2-3, 15; 2 John 7; Rev 3:5). The one exception familiar to me is a more specific confession of faith in Heb 11:13: some heroes of the faith confessed that they were outsiders to this world, because they awaited the promised New Jerusalem to come (11:16). If we examine biblical proverbs about the tongue together as a whole rather than speculating about some verses in isolation, it is clear that Proverbs also speaks not about “confessing” something to make it happen but about how we speak affects others and our relationships with them.
Of course we should speak and live like those who believe what God has spoken! And of course we should pray in faith in God’s grace and power—why waste words praying if we’re not trusting God to hear us? But that’s not the same as confessing something as an intended act of faith that God will do it and calling that prophecy. “Who speaks and it comes to pass, if the Lord has not commanded it?” (Lam 3:37). That limitation is surely implicit even in Mark 11:23 (“whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and hurled into the sea,’ … it will happen for them”). If you don’t believe me, go test it empirically on some mountain and see what happens, especially if there’s not been any seismic activity there recently.
Faith is only as good as its object. God is absolutely trustworthy. His voice is absolutely trustworthy. Our hearing … well, most of us do need to mature in that. Our fallibility limits both our prophesying and our teaching. “For we know only partially and we prophesy only partially” (1 Cor 13:9).
When the Bible talks about humility, that principle should invite attention to being epistemically humble too. I was quite impressed with my knowledge in my 20s. I know far more in my 50s, but also am far more aware of how much I have yet to learn. Hopefully by my 200s, I will know fully as I am known; what I know now is very limited compared to that future knowledge.
Recognizing true prophecy
There are some who are specially gifted in hearing God’s voice, have cultivated that gift, and walk humbly before God. Mesfin, a brother from Ethiopia, did not know that I was a writer. Yet he prophesied to me about two big books that I would write, the second larger than the first. Since I was already working on my Acts commentary (which turned out to be 4500 pages) and could not imagine writing a book larger than that, I was confident that he was at least partly mistaken. Only later did I discover that my miracles book (merely 1100 pages) would be completed and published before the Acts commentary. Similarly, three people in Congo who did not know each other independently prophesied to Médine Moussounga, who later became my wife, that she would marry a white man with a big ministry. I am glad to be married to her, but my whiteness was not something that I arranged.
Conversely, on some major personal decisions (such as whom to marry), it is not always easy for us to hear God clearly. Sometimes, in fact, our personal biases can get in the way (e.g., as in whom to marry—did I mention that?) It helps when wisdom and whatever ways we have learned to hear the Lord line up. But the issue of personal guidance better belongs to a different post, so I mention it here just to reinforce what most of us already know: God is infallible, but God is not who we are.
True prophecy must be consistent with Spirit-inspired Scripture and led by the same Spirit who inspired Scripture. The biblical gift does not always tell people what they want to hear. If we’re just learning to hear God’s voice, if we don’t have mentors like Samuel or Elisha (who supervised some younger prophets in the OT), and if we don’t have the safety net of other first-generation hearers of God for peer review (as in 1 Cor 14:29), some messages remain fairly safe.
If it’s truly biblical, it’s good. (If you feel like God is telling someone that he loves them, there’s no risk of getting that one wrong.) If it’s an appropriately encouraging word spoken in a timely way, it’s good (Prov 15:23; 25:11). If it exalts Jesus and builds people up in faith in him, it’s good. If it draws people to Christ, it’s good. But of course, such words can be Spirit-led without even calling them prophecy, or without us always even being conscious that the Spirit’s fruit moves us to such words.
But for beginners in hearing God’s voice, such basic discernment is a great place to start, allowing us to “test” our own words (cf. 1 Cor 14:29). And for brothers and sisters striving to serve the Lord, most such words will indeed encourage and strengthen them. May we have encouraging words all the more!
Nevertheless, a rule that limits all prophecy, or even all exhortation, to what sounds encouraging runs the risk of missing larger divine warnings if judgment or suffering lies on the horizon (cf. Jer 28:6-9). This was a serious mistake of most prophets in Jeremiah’s day. “They have healed the wound of my people flippantly, declaring, ‘Peace! Peace!’—when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14; 8:11). Biblical prophets sometimes told people where their lost donkeys were. But we had better not lose sight of the bigger picture—because what lies on the horizon will impact many of us.