[In my last post I suggested that a recent dialogue at Fuller raised two issues for me. First, the interplay between being a responsible but engaging and provocative communicator and the fear of the Holy Spirit I see in the Western Church. In this post I want to share my own journey where I came from a place of fear of the Holy Spirit to being in a relationship to Her.]
Tony Jones shared that while he had Pentecostal friends he was scared of Pentecostalism and the current trends in the Global South. A few months ago I could have probably said the same thing. I too have been very skeptical of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians. Like Alicia, however, I have been on a journey towards accepting the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the life of the Body of Christ. Because there has been such a dramatic change in my life regarding to how open I am to the Holy Spirit I wanted to share why I was once like Tony, but now I am thankfully more like Alicia.
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, a very basic and fundamental Christian doctrine. Upon reflection it strikes me as odd that this third person of the Trinity was largely absent from my life. Additionally, I had even come to fear what Jesus Himself had sent as a comforter and a counselor. What gives?
I think this fear stemmed from a very basic fear of the unknown, the mysterious, and the uncontrollable. We humans like to feel like we are in control and know what is coming next. This gives us a sense of safety and power over what happens to us. Additionally, because of the chaos of my home I am hyper-vigilant, always looking for danger, and have striven, probably more so than the average person, to have control in order to feel a basic sense of personal security.
The Holy Spirit to me was then just one more thing beyond my control. I was fearful and suspicious of Her movement in my life and in the world. It was much safer for me to study the Bible and do ministry as I planned to rather than to receive from the Holy Spirit and let Her have Her way with me and follow Her where She lead. She seems to have a mind of Her own and unlike the concrete answers I found (or made) from my interpretation of scripture She is not, or at least not always, knowable, tangible, controllable or predictable.
I was what was known as a “cessationist,” for most of my life. This means that I did not believe the Holy Spirit really did anything other than save our souls and I did not believe God performed miracles today. This fit rather conveniently with my fear that God really did not answer prayers at all or may not even exist.
Because of my own fear regarding the Holy Spirit I had been suspicious and even condescending towards those that were happily interacting with the Counselor sent by God. I was not raised in Christian traditions that really looked to the Holy Spirit moving in our congregations nor paid attention to the gifts of the Spirit beyond a superficial way. If we identified your spiritual gift, we could tell you how and where you could fit into our church programs.
Looking from the outside in upon the worship of Pentecostals and Charismatics nothing made sense to me. How can you tell who is “slain by the Spirit” and what is the purpose of this? Why is an entire congregation suddenly speaking in tongues…at the same time every Sunday…at the command of the senior pastor? Was this a congregation full of people with the exact same gift? There appeared to be clear abuses and excesses in Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions. There was also no way to asess most of what I saw through scriptures. I also had a number of very negative experiences with Pentecostals where they (meaning these individuals) came off as prideful and only able to have fluff conversations. So I scoffed, like the onlookers at the Pentecost, and suggested such Christians were weak, drunk (with emotion if not alcohol) and not of a mature faith.
It is incredibly presumptuous to write off an entire segment of Christianity and this is also completely out of character for me. Being raised in both Catholic and Protestant traditions I have seen truth and error in both traditions. I have seen how the in-house bickering within Christianity as counter-productive and usually motivated by ignorance. So why was I blind to my own hypocrisy?
I think it is in human nature for people to fear and condemn that which they do not understand. We make things not like us the mysterious “Other.” Like in Lost, we automatically fear “The Others” and often turn them into something to fear or even hate for our own needs. However, at the end of the day they, just as in Lost, they are often not that different from us. I think the U.S.A.’s descent into violent political and cultural rhetoric is an example of this and LORD knows we do this all the time in the church.
Not understanding the relationship other Christians have with the Holy Spirit, and being too scared to explore that relationship for myself, I went with the most salient option: condemning what I was ignorant of. The question of “Why are you waving your hands like that when you pray?” was really just the question, “Why don’t you approach faith like I do?” The question of “Why are you speaking in tongues?” was really just the question, “What is speaking in tongues and should I be concerned with it? Should I even be doing it?”
However, as I grew up I began to get out of my own religious ghetto and began meeting Christians from other traditions. God has kept bringing more Pentecostals and Charismatics into my life. As I got to know them as individuals, “The Others” became people. They became Linda, and Gary, and Philip. These were people are honest in their desire for God, sincere in their faith and they were people who were not given to rampant emotionalism, nor proponents of some shallow gospel. Some of them were and are very intelligent and theologically educated.
Between my interactions with people open to the Holy Spirit and actually reading the Bible in college I no longer claimed I was a cessationist. Many of the verses I thought were in the Bible that confirmed my cessationist beliefs were actually not in the Bible…
(Sidenote: I think it would surprise many Christians to find that many things they think are in the Bible are actually not in the Bible. This is a far more widespread problem than we acknowledge. Tabling all the complex issues regarding interpretation and considering reading the Bible alone…I was a Christian all of my life and had my B.A. in Biblical Studies, yet it was only last year that I read the Bible from cover to cover and could say I had read everything in the (Protestant) Bible. Dear Christians, do us all a favor and educate yourselves about your own faith.)
…However, I was still functionally a cessationist. I intellectually assented to the fact that supernatural things could happen, but I did not go looking for them. I confessed a belief in the spiritual world, but did not act like it existed. I thought the Holy Spirit could move, but I gave Her a wide berth and never prayed for anything miraculous in my life.
It took some pretty dramatic steps for me to finally become open to the Holy Spirit. During the last season of my life I was brought to the end of my rope. Interacting with God on the terms that I had laid out simply was not working any more. Additionally the Bible, that I had devoted myself to studying, was not providing answers. I had read every word in it and had experienced much of it to be untrue, or at least untrue in my current circumstances. I began to deeply question the validity and usefulness of the Bible for guiding modern life.
It was during this time that I turned to praying for a miraculous healing from the Holy Spirit in inner healing prayer. I was on my way out of faith and really had no reason to stay. This was a last ditch effort for help. This was essentially me creating a space for God to reach out to me if He really was real and He really wanted me.
Since that time I have been increasingly open to the Holy Spirit’s movement in my life and in the Body of Christ. I now know that the Holy Spirit truly is the Lord, the giver of life.
Now as I look back I realize that while I had read the Bible I had done so very selectively with a highly secularized starting point. Our wider culture does not believe in miracles or the spiritual realm and neither do many Christians. Yet as I read the Bible, especially the ministry of Jesus, I see demons being cast out, visions, miraculous healing, and a variety of spiritual gifts. There is no discussion of these things ceasing, or ceasing after a a physical region of the world comes to faith, or ceasing after a certain period of time. In fact, quite the opposite occurs.
Jesus instills in His followers authority over demons and the power to heal and suggests that where His followers are, miracles will happen. We are told that even the shadow and physical items of certain apostles healed people. A lot of this sounds similar to the works and promises of certain televangelist and faith-healers. Sadly, some of these people are total crocks and have taken advantage of people for financial gain. But we should not let these counterfeits sour us from hoping for and experiencing the promise of the real thing.
Additionally, while there certainly are abuses in Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions there are abuses in all kinds of churches. Many of the letters in the New Testament are written to correct problems in churches. Churches are filled with people. Dirty, stinky, messy images of God that often cannot get things right even after coming to faith. Just because there are problems and abuses in churches that are open to the Holy Spirit does not make the Holy Spirit the problem. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water and made the Holy Spirit guilty by association.
Finally, because I was so closed off towards the movement of the Holy Spirit and did not pray expecting any help my faith was basically a civil religion. My Christianity provided little more than religious salting to a very secular life not that different from the lives of my non-Christian friends. Honestly the direction and nature of my life was almost exactly the same as my non-Christian peers, I just explained it in religious language. For example what was the real tangible difference between my pursuit of a calling and my friend’s pursuit of a career? How was my ministry, essentially devoid of the Holy Spirit, prayer and an openness for the miraculous, any different from humanitarian work or altruism done by non-Christians? While my faith may have kept me from committing certain sins and made me a better citizen, I do not think I was being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and I was not that helpful to other people. I would like to think this is changing.
In my next post I would like to turn to the wider issue of the fear of the Holy Spirit in general and the future of Christianity.