I became a Christian during the Charismatic Renewal in the early ‘70s when God poured out his Spirit in a way that we haven’t seen since in the ensuing four plus decades. People from every denomination experienced this outpouring along with manifestations such as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues. Old Testament prophetic scriptures burst into our consciousness and thrilled us with “the” promise:
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
And it happened! When I walked into Catacombs, a mid-week meeting at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto, a blast of heaven enveloped me as though I had entered a furnace of glory. God had descended. His presence filled the temple. Many hundreds of people all felt it together. During Full Gospel Businessmen’s meetings at the Royal Connaught Hotel in Hamilton two or three thousand people would gently begin to sing spontaneous praises unto God. The volume gradually increased as individual voices blended into one heavenly sound lifting our attention higher and higher–to Jesus, the baptizer with the Holy Spirit. No one wanted to leave. Lives changed forever.
Gradually, however, darkness began to cloud the light. We seemed to forget the nature of the Spirit we were receiving. People began to focus on power rather than love. External manifestations such as tongues or being “slain in the Spirit” took center stage. Some took delight in the feeling of self-importance gained by prophesying over another. Authoritarian leadership reared its ugly head in many charismatic ministries. Leaders domineered, sometimes going so far as telling people whom they should marry. Somehow we forgot the Spirit’s essence–love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, goodness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). The plight of the poor and vulnerable didn’t get much press. The glory departed.
The confusing thing about such a time is that what you see is sometimes of God and sometimes merely human. Some people genuinely did fall down under the Spirit’s power and some were pushed by over-zealous pray-ers presumably wanting to be seen as mighty, Spirit-filled men or women. And what about the one who prophesies or speaks in tongues? How does she know if what she’s about to say is of God, self or even the evil one? How do we discern God’s Spirit at all?
Ignatius of Loyola, a great spiritual leader of the past, gives us valuable advice. He suggests a delicate but profound image for what he calls “the discerning of spirits.” God’s Spirit, says Ignatius, comes to us like water dripping on a sponge. He enters quietly and easily through an open door–if our heart’s orientation is toward God. Our experience is exactly the opposite if our heart’s disposition is to self. The evil one comes as water dripping on a stone. Darkness enters only with clamour and noise because the door is closed to it. The dark power tries to break it down through fear, hurry and intimidation. That is, we experience the darkness as silently entering because the door is open to it. In such a state, God’s presence is noisy and clattering because we have not aligned ourselves to him and hence we are not receptive to what he gives. Like welcomes like.
The first step in aligning ourselves to God is having a right understanding of God’s nature i.e. good theology. That means coming to Jesus and learning that he is “gentle and humble in heart” and that he produces deep rest in our souls. The teaching he asks us to accept is easy; his burden is light (Mat. 11:28-30)–water gently falling on a sponge. If our God is harsh, we ourselves will tend to be harsh.
As soon as we talk about the peace and nonviolence of Jesus, someone inevitably rushes to tell us about the injustices of the world. We need to be angry, to rise up and do something about them. But again, let’s look to Jesus and specifically what the coming of the Spirit did in his life.
“Here is my chosen servant! I love him, and he pleases me.
I will give him my Spirit, and he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t shout or yell or call out in the streets.
He won’t break off a bent reed or put out a dying flame,
but he will make sure that justice is done.
All nations will place their hope in him.”
Jesus acted decisively to bring about justice, but he did it without clamouring to get attention, demanding his way or trampling on others, especially the weakest and most bruised souls. He tenderly cared for marginalized people whether the leper cast out of Jewish society or the woman considered unclean because of her bleeding. In fact, Jesus didn’t even trample on his enemies. The term nations, used twice in the passage above, refers to Gentiles, Israel’s enemies, those who are on the outside and are despised by the “good people.” Jesus would rather die for his enemies than show any callousness to even the worst. He is the “social justice warrior” extraordinaire who triumphs absolutely, but he does it God’s way and in God’s Spirit.
We cannot go through something like the Charismatic Renewal without longing for more of God’s Spirit. Could it be that we don’t experience him as we would like because we’re opening our heart’s door to a false image of God? Have we created an idol of power or success or pleasure that we’re bowing down to? The Holy Spirit does bring power, but it’s not that we might be mesmerized by supernatural manifestations or exert dominance over others. As scripture tells us the power of the Spirit enabled Jesus to do good and to help those oppressed by the darkness (Acts 10:38). I am persuaded that it will be so for us.