home

Essays


Open
Concept Clarifier in
separate window

"WORD of GOD"

Cary Cook 2010

"The Bible is the authoritative Word of God, and contains all truth."
William Jefferson Clinton  

This essay is addressed to smart Christians.  Why do you keep calling the Bible the "Word of God"?  Even those of you who are rational enough to keep dogmatic statements to a minimum keep falling back on this one.  Why?  I know you believe it, but you're stating it like you know it.  Surely you know the difference.  Or is it just a badge of conformity to make you look legitimate to the flock?  Yes, you have your reasons, but are those reasons epistemologically sound?  If your reasons for faith are themselves faith-based, then ultimately you have no reason for faith.  You only have faith, however decorated it may be with circular reasoning.

First I must hasten to agree that I think the Bible contains the Word of God.  i.e.  In the continually repeated redemption message, God says over and over:

You can't have what you would have had if you obeyed me the last time, but you can have what's left if you obey me now.  Here's what you gotta do...

I have no problem calling that message the Word of God.  But I don't believe that all, or even any, of the statements allegedly said by God were actually said by God.  I think those are the results of men's efforts to transmit God's will to a particular group of people at a particular time.  But times change.  The Bible updates the message every couple centuries or so.  To call any one of those messages the Word of God to all people from that time forward is, in my opinion, a gross error.  Biblical Christians today would say we haven't had a legitimate update in almost 2,000 years.  I agree, but I say we need to update our way of looking at what we've got.

This essay examines popular Christian reasons for calling the Bible the Word of God, exposes faults in those reasons, and points out negative consequences of calling it such.  Finally it offers a better alternative, not only philosophically, theologically, and spiritually better, but even more Biblically sound.

Did Jesus say that the scripture of his time was the Word of God?

No.  Then did he say that all of it was true?  Jesus said (according to the Bible, of course):
1.  that the scriptures concerning the messiah must be fulfilled (Mat. 26:54 & 56,  Mk. 14:49).
2.  that he fulfilled the scriptures that said where he would come from.  (Jn. 7:42)
3.  that Psalm 82:6 where it says "you are gods" cannot be broken.

Does that mean no scripture can be broken?  Apparently the prohibition to work on the Sabbath can be broken.  None of Jesus' statements implies that all scripture is necessarily true, or that any part of it is the Word of God.  Jesus allowed his disciples to pick and thresh grain on the Sabbath, even though God allegedly ordered a man to be stoned for gathering sticks on it.  His response to that charge was not to say, "It's okay for my disciples to work on the Sabbath, because I'm God," but rather to counter a commandment of God with an example of disobedience which was popularly considered justified.  It's okay to rescue an animal on the Sabbath.  But to go from there to "therefore it's okay to pick grain and eat it on the Sabbath" is bad logic, because the consequences of not rescuing an animal are likely to be worse than the consequences of fasting for a day.  But Jesus has a better argument: David and his men broke the law (Ex. 29:33) for no reason greater than hunger, and God apparently didn't object.

Therefore hunger justifies breaking the law, but desire for sticks doesn't.  Or possibly the big names can break the law, but the peons can't.  Jesus also could have mentioned that David violated God's order for rulers not to multiply horses.  (Dt 17:16, 2Sam 8:4)  Even if David's 200 or so horses didn't count as multiplying, Saul never could have gotten away with that.  And let's not forget that business with Bathsheba and her husband.  Maybe the message is that you can get away with murder if God likes you, but if he doesn't, you better play it by the book.

Jesus also said that the law and the prophets would not pass away until all be fulfilled (Mat. 5:18)... right after he said he fulfilled it all (Mat. 5:17).  So what does that leave?

Paul, however, was bolder than Jesus - and possibly not as careful.

2 Tim. 3:16  All scripture is inspired by God.

If you inspire somebody to write something, does that mean what he writes by your inspiration is what you said?  No.  Does it mean that what he writes by your inspiration is what you want written?  Not even that.  People like you inspired me to write this essay.  Does that mean it contains what you want written?

But the original Greek of this verse is even stronger.  It says all scripture is God-breathed.  That's as close to saying it's the Word of God as the Bible gets.  If Paul is right, then I would agree that all the scripture of Paul's day is the Word of God.  But I don't think he's right.  If God breathed all scripture, then he breathed some really sloppy statements, and also some statements that appear to be errors and contradictions.  Yes, I know all Biblical errors and contradictions can be resolved, because my closest acquaintances are inerrantists (more on that later).  But why would God breathe the appearance of errors and contradictions, when it would have been just as easy to breathe only clear, and apparently inerrant statements?  If I thought God breathed all scripture, then I would have to conclude that he is trying to confuse people, while allegedly not being the author of confusion.  Or possibly God breathed it all, but the authors didn't inhale sufficiently.

At this point, I must make it clear that I think the Bible has great spiritual value - that is, unless nihilism is true, in which case all values are bullshit.  The Bible, at minimum, records man's efforts to relate to a God who is assumed to be just and good, as man understands those terms.  If the Bible didn't exist, then every generation would have to start over with the basic question - is life worth anything at all?  If not, then nihilism.  If so, then what are the necessary preconditions of its being worth something?  Either you have to be more successful at grabbing what you want than the competition, and never get punished for unethical behavior, or universal justice exists, which implies other necessary preconditions.  Either justice exists by magic, in which case, pantheism may be true, or there's a just personal Being in charge.  The Bible offers that possibility.  And because it exists, both it and the history in which it is co-dependent give every generation the benefit of their predecessors' efforts to relate to such a Being.  But none of that implies that the Bible is the "Word" of such a Being, or that everything it says about such a Being is true.

Let's assume that a God exists, and that the Bible contains enough of what he wants it to contain that he is satisfied with it.  That feels safe.  And if true, it could be said that God inspired the Bible.  Does that mean it contains no errors?  It would, if God's purpose was to inspire an error free set of statements like math or logic.  Does that appear to be his intent?  Assuming that a just and good God inspired the Bible, what would be his purpose for doing so?  Probably different purposes at different times.

If he inspired the first chapter of Genesis, his purpose was likely to give Bronze Age men the idea that he created everything, and is in charge of it all.  Would he explain it in terms of a Big Bang and quantum physics?  Not if he wanted to communicate.  If it contains errors, would that diminish the achieving of its purpose to Bronze Agers?  Not at all.  In fact, its purpose could be diminished if it deviated from the kind of errors they already believed.

If God inspired the Ten Commandments, his purpose was likely to give some descendants of Abraham a sufficient base on which to build a theocratic government, - but not a logically flawless base.  Note that his second commandment said two things:

1.  Don't make images.
2.  Don't worship images.
It didn't say, don't make images for the purpose of worshiping them.  But apparently God figured that his audience would have enough sense to interpret it that way, because a little later he told them to make images of pomegranates to put on priestly garments and cherubim for the ark.  So either he told them to violate the second commandment, or it's worded wrong.  God could have inspired Moses to say it right in the first place, but either he chose not to, or he didn't care.  -  Or possibly he said it right, but Moses couldn't chisel fast enough to keep up.

Of course, there are Christians who will assert that the law was merely a schoolmaster to bring the Jews (and therefore everyone else) to faith in Jesus (Gal 3:24).  What's actually being said here?  God made his laws impossible to obey, just to exasperate the Jews, so that 1,400 years later, Jesus would look wonderful for updating it all.  So it was all big a PR stunt.  God forgives us for disobeying impossible laws, so that we will be so impressed with his goodness as to gladly sign up for eternal servitude.  I don't think Paul thought this one out very well.

If God inspired the prophets, what would be his purpose for doing so?  To foretell the future?  Or was that just a sign to get the locals to take their advice seriously?  Ezekiel and Jeremiah both prophesied that Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon would conquer Egypt.  According to history, it never happened.  But by the time Nebuchadnezzar died, Ezekiel and Jeremiah had served their purpose, and are still regarded as legitimate prophets.  So either their errors shouldn't have been part of scripture, or scripture shouldn't be considered inerrant.  Or if you must, then somebody named Nebuchadnezzar may yet come from Babylon, and may yet conquer Egypt.

If God inspired the Gospels, what would be his purpose for doing so?  Probably to get people connected up with him via Jesus.  Would errors diminish the achieving of that purpose?  Only if those errors were known to be errors.  Maybe that's why God didn't start inspiring the Gospels until 30 or 40 years after the fact.  In this case, the achieving of his purpose is facilitated by whatever sells his program.  If an error sells, then it facilitates.  It is not errors that diminish the effectiveness of a sales pitch, but the appearance of errors.  So again the question, why would God inspire the appearance of errors in his alleged Word?  I conclude that it is not his Word, and that the appearance of errors (if not errors themselves) exist because they are unavoidable.

If God inspired literature that contains errors, would that not mean God is imperfect?

It would certainly mean he inspires imperfect descriptions of reality.  If you say he inspires no imperfect descriptions of reality, how could he possibly inspire anyone with an imperfect grasp of reality to understand him, much less to transmit his message to anyone else who also has an imperfect grasp of reality?

Besides... what does perfect even mean?

Complete?  What constitutes completeness?  A line is a complete line, but an incomplete angle, which is a complete angle, but an incomplete triangle, which is a complete triangle, but an incomplete rectangle, etc.  Half a dog is a complete half a dog.  But a whole dog is an incomplete pair of dogs.  Completeness depends on definition.  God is a complete God, because X is a complete X.
Pure?  What constitutes purity?  Pure garbage contains no non-garbage units.
Ideal?  What constitutes ideality?  That's completely and purely subjective.
Conformity to a given standard?  To what standard does God conform?  If God is the standard of perfection, then to say God is perfect, says nothing.  You're just saying he is what he is.  Everything is what it is!

It has been asserted that a thing is perfect if nothing greater can be imagined.  Let's say that's true.  What does great mean?  Either greatness is subjective, or a thing is the standard of greatness, in which case calling it great says nothing.  Neither does calling it the greatest say anything.  The statement that God is perfect says absolutely nothing denotatively.  But connotatively it makes God look good, so it makes theists feel good for saying it.  And what chance does reason have against such a motivator?

One reason for the Bible's elevation to Word of God status is that the Reformation protestants needed an ultimate authority to counter the pope.  But is the Bible truly your ultimate authority?  Actually this question is ambiguous until it's broken into two questions:

1.  Is the Bible your ultimate authority for determining truth?
2.  Is the Bible your ultimate authority for determining what you should do?

1. Is the Bible your ultimate authority for determining truth?

If so, then you must either reject logic, or reject science every time you are forced to acknowledge a scientific truth is that disagrees with the Bible - unless you use truth as your ultimate authority for reinterpreting the Bible.  You can always say, "If X is true, then that interpretation of the Bible which conforms to X must be the correct interpretation".  It's a common trick of Biblical inerrantists.  It entails a departure from the plain meaning of the text to a less obvious meaning.  But a good scholar of the original languages and the cultures in which they were written, can always rake together enough reasonable doubt to permit the possibility of the desired interpretation.

You must also assert that the Bible contains no contradictions.  But Biblical inerrantists find this no problem.  Of course, they must admit that there is no such thing as an omnipotent Being who can't lie, but the Bible doesn't say God can't lie, only that he doesn't.  Biblical contradictions are easier to resolve than would first appear.  You don't even need to buy any of the hundreds of books on the subject.  In fact, there is no contradiction anywhere outside the realm of pure theory that can't be logically resolved.  Consider these two statements:

A equals B.     A doesn't equal B.

By strict rules, each contradicts the other only when A and B are different numbers.  Otherwise you can always assert that the statements mean A in different senses, or B in different senses, or even equals in different senses.  No contradiction exists when non-numeric values are plugged into the variables, because identical terms cannot be proven to represent identical concepts.

Here's what's going on.  Dumb people don't know that words mean things.  They figure that people mean things, and that words are merely tools to intuitively approximate what people mean.  (And to be fair, sometimes that's all words are.)  Smart people know that words mean things (usually), and people mean things, but they don't always mean the same things.  But still, smart people can usually figure out what people mean by interpreting their words according to normal probability judgment.  Smarter people know that words can mean many things, and people can mean many things, and that smarter people are under no obligation to use normal probability judgment when they don't want to, because all non-statistical probability judgment is subjective.  So the smarter people can choose those word meanings which provide desired interpretations, and pretend to think people mean whatever they want them to mean, when those people are no longer around to correct them.  Therefore God's written "Word" can mean anything within the range of possible interpretations, regardless of improbability.

I cannot logically refute a competent Biblical inerrantist.  So if you can employ these tactics without vomiting, I am forced into a position of resentful tolerance.  Resentful for this reason: The "Scripture is the Word of God" mindset, and the "God is perfect" mindset lead to the "either it's all true, or it's all a lie" mindset.  And this mindset turns intelligent and rational people into either atheists or rabid fundamentalists, responsible for such travesties as the Crusades and Inquisition, to harp on the two classical examples.

Yes, you can assert that Crusaders and Inquisitors interpreted the Bible wrongly, and that if everyone interpreted it correctly like you do, then none of that would have happened.  Like you have the universally correct interpretation of scripture, untainted by the history-borne biases of history-bound minds, whose vision is unfortunately confined to a viewpoint.  Maybe if everyone in history had had your theological savvy, they never would have done bad stuff, because obviously you don't do bad stuff.  Well, maybe you're right.  But I can't help imagining a Crusader saying, "If only my predecessors had interpreted the Bible correctly, they never would have lost the Holy Land in the first place."  Or an Inquisitor, "If only my predecessors had interpreted the Bible correctly, they never would have let these heresies take root."  Well, maybe you're smarter than your predecessors, or maybe you're exactly like them.  I lack the cosmic consciousness to know which it is.  I do know, however, that your universalist argument is currently being used by Muslim terrorists to defend their interpretation of the Koran.  But admittedly, even if they do cause a nuclear holocaust, nobody could ever blame you for it - except maybe Bill Maher - and he'll probably be dead anyway.

2. Is the Bible your ultimate authority for determining what you should do?

If so, then why haven't you plucked out your right eye and cut off your right hand?  Surely those appendages have, at some time in your Christian walk, done things the Bible says they shouldn't.  Is it because you don't believe that God meant for you to actually do that?  Congratulations on your common sense.  You have figured out that some parts of the Bible are hyperbole, or symbolic, or metaphorical for some non-literal meaning.  But then clearly you believe God wants you to do some things the Bible says, but not other things.  How do you determine which parts you're supposed to actually do?

Common sense keeps you from amputating body parts, but what about turning the other cheek, and giving to the poor?  According to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to give anyone anything they ask for.  Why not give all your money to the poor?  Why do you not walk out onto the street with nothing but the clothes on your back like Jesus did - and like the Bible says he advised you to do?  Common sense doesn't rescue you from that.  Common sense preserves life, but it's not what we use to preserve our wealth and comfort over that of other people.  Simple self interest does that job.  If you are a Christian, and don't do everything the Bible says Jesus said to do, then how can you call the Bible your ultimate authority for behavior?

Paul to the rescue!  1 Timothy 5:8  If you don't provide for your family, you're worse than an infidel.  Screw Matthew 10:37!  So Paul trumps Jesus, but so what?  Moses trumped God on the divorce issue, so it's scripturally justified !!!  More importantly, you can still claim the Bible as your ultimate authority - if you have a family.  Otherwise you have to fall back on Romans 4 - justification by faith.  This tactic can rightly be called scripture ping-pong.

SCRIPTURE PING-PONG

Matthew and Luke taught us how to play it.  Or possibly it was Jesus and Satan.

Satan took first serve.  "If you be the Son of God, command this stone, that it be made bread."  Jesus parried with Deuteronomy 8:3, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God."  Satan forgot about Exodus 16 where God provided Manna from heaven, so Jesus scores a point.

Satan changes the venue and serves with "Worship me, and I'll give you authority over all the world."  Jesus slams back with the first Commandment.  Kill shot.  Satan should have known better.  Two nothing - Jesus.

Satan changes venue to the top of the temple and serves with, "Jump! Because you're protected by Psalm 91:11."  Jesus says, "Deuteronomy 6:16 back at ya!"  Satan could have contested Jesus' hermeneutics on this one, but he didn't.  Or if he did, Jesus didn't mention it.  Story goes - Satan quit the game with an implied score of three love.

What's the message here?  Know your scriptures just in case you ever get challenged by the devil to a ping-pong match.  But besides that, it also tells you that if scripture says something you don't like, you can always neutralize it with another part of scripture.  Logical refutation is not even necessary.  Intuitive opposition is sufficient.  The church has learned this lesson possibly better than any other lesson scripture has to offer.  The problems it causes cannot always be resolved by reason, and must be resolved by clout.  The first biggy was the Arian controversy.  The Trinitarians had slightly better arguments, but the deciding factor was Constantine's clout.  The following controversies were decided by council clout or papal clout until the Great Schism, which gave us two possible clouters.  The Reformation gave us our choice of clouters, which has multiplied so greatly that ecclesiastical clout barely exists any more.  If your church doesn't say what you want to hear, you can probably find one that does.

Fight a Crusade, or condemn those who do.  Your choice.
Conduct an Inquisition, or condemn those who do.  Your choice.
Determinism or free will.  Your choice - if choice exists.
Condone slavery, or condemn it.  Your choice.
Condone divorce, or condemn it.  Your choice.
Punish a criminal, or forgive him - or punish him while you claim to forgive him.  All your choice.
Abort a fetus or not.  Whoops!

No choice there!  God says that's murder.  And no Christian would ever condone such a thing - that is, until somebody figures out that if a pregnant woman would rather be aborted than an unwanted child, then she should abort it according to the Golden Rule.  But the world needs to get a bit more overpopulated before the Bible gets around to saying that.  Likewise with the gay thing.  It's only a matter of time before liberal Christians figure out just how much divine law can be trumped by the Golden Rule.  And once they do, the only thing that can prevent a second Reformation is the Second Coming.

If the Bible is not the Word of God, does that mean the Bible is worthless for getting people right with God?

No.  God may have inspired people to write the Bible for that very purpose, even if it is full of errors.  Many people who think it contains errors still believe the basic message (or some version of it).  In fact, believing the Bible to be the Word of God can be detrimental to the efforts of people to get right with God, as evidenced by the fact that it took Christians so long to recognize human rights as more important than divine right of kings - or even to recognize slavery as immoral.

Does the Bible say anything is the "Word of God"?

Yes.  Jesus - the Logos.  So why don't Christians adopt Jesus as their ultimate authority?  Because churches won't go along with it.  Churches will admit that Jesus is the Word of God, because the Bible says so.  But they won't let him say anything the Bible doesn't say.  Christians are not the Church.  Christians are individuals.  The Church (with a capital C) is the sum total of them, as defined by Jesus.  A church is a particular community of them, as defined however the members choose to define it.  All communities need to define themselves in terms of who's in and who's out, and what the rules are, and why the rules are what they are.  That requires an accessible source of authority, which the community agrees on.  So churches can't use Jesus as their ultimate authority.  They need written documents - preferably holy holy documents in order to sell it.  Hence the Bible displaced Jesus as the Word of God.  But I'm not talking to a church, or even the Church; I'm talking to individuals.  And if the NT is correct, so does Jesus talk to anyone who has "ears to hear".

But lest I be accused of saying churches have no value, I must now defend them.  I found churches necessary for at least 20 years after turning Christian.  But their value gradually diminished as I gained personal knowledge of God and Jesus by one on one relationship.  The more knowledge anyone has by first hand experience, the less he needs second hand testimony.  That includes scripture.  Though I don't advise any Christian to move beyond scripture, until he has a thorough understanding of it, I assert that calling it the "Word of God" is a theological error, known as bibliolatry - making an idol of the Bible.

If there is an afterlife, and it is managed justly, then the Bible must be salvation-safe.  i.e.  Believing it will get you to where you belong.  But then, disbelieving it will also get you to where you belong.  If the afterlife is just, then everybody will get to where they belong, regardless of what they believe about anything.  If the afterlife is not just, then nihilism is true, regardless of what anyone believes about anything.

The advantage Christianity offers is to give scumbags who deserve punishment an alternative to hopelessness, by appearing to give them an escape from justice.  Their supposed "heaven" is a place where they don't get deserved punishment.  But it's a world full of other scumbags who also deserve punishment - lying cheating bastards who will continue to lie and cheat as long as they can continue to be forgiven for it.  How long do you want to live in that?  Eternity?  Fine.  Go ahead.  I just spent a lifetime in such a world, and definitely don't want to ever do it again.  But I thank God that his grace package was offered, because I once had use for it.  So technically, I guess I'm still a Christian, because I haven't been able to get around Jesus.  Apparently I still owe him for past services.

But I don't owe him the pretense of thinking what I don't think.  I'm a truth seeker first, and I'm talking to other truth seekers.  Eventually any truth seeker will and should get around to testing parts of the Bible to see if they are true.  I'm not saying you should test God in the sense that scripture says not to!  That's challenging God to do something - which I tried once, and don't intend to ever do again.  I'm saying test your understanding of scripture to see to see if it's what God wants it to be.  And test the safe parts first.  Don't go picking up any poisonous snakes.  Test John 14:14.  "If you ask anything in my name, I will do it."  If it works - great.  If it doesn't work, admit it.  Or, if you must, you can always ping-pong it against other scriptures, like the ones that say it only works if you really really believe it.  Then you can try really really believing stuff, and see where that takes you.  Finally you can conclude that it doesn't work because you're asking amiss, in order to consume it on your lust (James 4:3).

That's the end of the game for most ping-pongers.  From there, it's usually Sinner Saved by Grace Retirement Community.  But there is more to be tested.  Like maybe God isn't doing what you want because you're not doing what he wants.  Maybe you should bump up your obedience - give more, trust more, etc.  But be warned that your nervous system can tolerate only a certain amount of righteousness in any given time period, and will break down if you exceed that amount.  The Bible doesn't tell you that.  Of course, you don't know it's true until your experience proves it.  But having advised you to test, it becomes my duty to warn you of what may happen if you do.

Possibly you should revise your prayer strategy.  Ask for only those things you think God wants you to ask for.  Test prayer for results.  Find out if particular prayers or prayer types give you consistent results.  This form of test can last for years - decades.  The more you test, the more you find out what happens when you test.  You will build up a bank of knowledge that can come only from testing.  But if you "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness," be careful.  There is no marker at the point of no return.

To the charge of arrogance, I assert that arrogant speech is justified when its benefit to its target audience exceeds its annoyance to its coincidental audience.

You don't get spiritual knowledge from reading or listening to what other people say.  Even if what they say is perfectly true, you don't know it's true until your experience confirms it.  Yes, you can have faith that it's true, but faith doesn't cause knowledge until faith is acted on.  If you act in accordance with what you believe, you will find out if what you believe is true.  If you don't act in accordance with what you believe, you may spend your entire life believing lies and never know it.  Even if you get to "heaven", you will have wasted a whole lot of time not learning stuff you could have learned, and will have to learn eventually.  Spiritual knowledge is a kind of wealth you can take with you beyond death - again assuming a just afterlife.

You get spiritual knowledge the same way you learn to navigate a maze.  You travel in a particular direction that looks like a good way to go.  You reach a dead end (usually nihilism).  You back up as far as you need to back up in order to find another path that looks good.  And you keep doing it.  Even if you never reach your goal in this life, you can be certain that if your goal is reachable, you will reach it by this method.  But if you never move from where you are, the only thing you learn is what happens when you don't move.

Here's why Jesus is a better "Word of God" than the Bible is:

If the Bible is your ultimate authority (for truth or behavior), then your own understanding of the Bible is your ultimate authority.

You think the Bible is telling you something.
You act accordingly.
How do you know if you understood it right?
You don't, because the Bible has no corrective power.
All you have to correct you is more of your own understanding of it.
Does the Bible tell you to lean to your own understanding?

If Jesus is your ultimate authority, then it's Jesus' job to correct you if you're wrong.

You ask Jesus to communicate with you.
You ask him to correct you if you're wrong.
You think Jesus is telling you something.
You act accordingly.
How do you know if you understood him right?
Because Jesus will do anything up to and including clobbering your ass if you're wrong about anything important.
Doubt it?  Test it.

If you think God and/or Jesus is either unable or unwilling to communicate with you directly, then tell him so.  See what happens.  If nothing happens to convince you that you are incorrect, then assume you are correct, and go no further with it.  If you think he is able and willing to communicate with you directly, but are not sure if you are ready for it, then ask him if he wants to do so.  If you get what appears to be a positive response, then go with it.  It's not my place to tell you how to go about it, but ignoring that fact...

Here are some tips and suggestions:

Don't ask, "Which is true - X or Y?"  The answer may be neither.  Rather ask, "Which is true - X or not X?"  Questions with only two possible answers are more likely to get an understandable response than open ended questions.  e.g.  "What's true about X?" is less likely to get a clear response than, "I believe X is true.  If I'm wrong, please correct me".  "What do you want me to do?" is less likely to get a clear response than, "I believe you want me to do X.  If I'm wrong, please correct me".  If you get what appears to be a response, then move cautiously in compliance with it.  If, in that process, you think you made a mistake, then back off.  Always do what you believe you should do.  That's the only moral/ethical principle that's always applicable.  Ask God to cause you to believe what he wants you to believe.  If you ask to believe only truth, you may get more truth than your spirit can handle.  This can cause stress and depression.  (Though I would challenge atheists to do it.) Though you can never be too correct, you can become too concerned with correctness.  Symptoms include intolerance and irritability.

Prioritize your prayers.  Don't let less important ones interfere with more important ones.  Don't pray in two potentially conflicting directions.  e.g.  If you pray for a Mercedes, don't also pray for God's will to be done in your life, and vice versa.  Test only one prayer at a time.  Otherwise, if you get a response, you may not know which prayer it goes with.  Never stop asking for correction of errors.  Prayers for correction are more likely to get a response than any other kind, though that response may be unpleasant.  Avoid asking for a specific kind of response, unless you definitely need it for guidance on a pressing matter.  And always give God the option not to answer.  There are some things you're supposed to figure out for yourself.

Finally, be very careful before acting on anything that violates your common sense.  Common sense is not just God-breathed; it's God-programmed.  There are scripture wackos, and voice-in-the-head wackos, and follow-the-leader wackos.  But there are no common sense wackos.

If the "Word of God" exists at all, it's what God tells you to do now, not what he tells someone else to do, much less what he told other people to do 2,000 years ago.  Paul said, "Be followers of me, as I am of Christ."  I say, "Be followers of Christ, as you think Christ wants you to follow him."