Listening to God

Tonight I'm visiting a church that's a fair bit more... relaxed than I'm used to. It's a Baptist church so technically it's not Pentecostal but certainly some people would see it as a Pentecostal church.

The mere fact that I'm going at all speaks volumes. I became a Christian at 17 within a very conservative tradition. Some things about that were great - I was encouraged to read the Bible, to study and grapple with God's word. I was taught and mentored by loving and faithful people. I had a great knowledge of the awesome, forgiving and loving nature of our great God. But that's the thing... I had head knowledge of God but I had no heart knowledge; and no language for expressing it. I thought that loving God meant being intellectually aware of what he has done for me. Loving God passionately, wholeheartedly and with abandon was something that was never modelled to me; and something I hadn't experienced and didn't understand. More than that, I believe it was something I was implicitly discouraged from seeking.

My one-sided understanding of God was made worse by the fact that I didn't even realise it was a one-sided understanding. I was entrenched in the Sydney Evangelical system, which has some great things going for it. However, it wasn't until I moved to Melbourne that I realised it also has some serious flaws. Many ideas and traditions within Sydney Evangelicalism have grown as reactions to Pentecostalism. Even things that started as good things have become distorted. For example, in the 1970s there existed the idea that God spoke to us only when we meditate, become all hippy and mystical and wait for a word from the Lord. That is, it's up to us to be super-spiritual and only then can we know God's will. The response to this was a series of talks, which eventually became a book, saying no, God speaks to us through his Word - willingly and joyfully - and we don't need to be super-spiritual to hear him. I have no argument with this... but eventually it turned into the idea that God ONLY speaks to us through the Bible and any other experiences are to be doubted and feared. Further, it developed into an understanding of God's will that says his will for us is to be like Jesus - and that is his only will, so it's pointless to ask for guidance in things like work or where we live or anything else, because all that matters is that we become like Jesus. It implied that God is not at all interested in the details of our life; only the big picture. It made God impersonal and distant; and it left me confused about how, or even why, I should love this distant God. I have a very vivid memory of speaking with the minister of my church and saying, "Look, I can't see any reason for continuing to be a Christian except that I believe hell exists and I don't want to go there. I'm following God through fear, not love." His response to me was "Well, fear is an appopriate motivator." To be fair, he probably didn't realise the level of desperation I'd reached after agonising over this issue for a long time, and being unable to reconcile what I was hearing about 'emotion' with my need to feel love towards God, but even so that response strikes me as incredibly ungracious and narrow.

Another 'tradition' arose as a direct response to Pentecostalism and their perceived emotionality. Evangelicals came to believe that Pentecostals rely only on emotion, visions, word of knowledge and guidance from the Spirit; and therefore either ignore the Bible entirely or treat it as the 'back-up' to the emotive things. This of course is not true as a blanket statement, although for some individuals it may well be true. Regardless of the truth of the situation, 'emotion' came to be seen as code for 'charismatic/pentecostal' and became an indication that people didn't know the Bible or that they supported a theology of prosperity. Evangelicals have reacted so far against this that any emotion is seen as bad. Hand-raising during songs is greeted with eye-rolling and the instant application of a 'charismatic fruit-cake' label. And yet... the Bible calls us to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul. Surely this involves an extravagantly emotional response? Of course I have a problem with prosperity gospel and with doctrines that suggest we need to receive the Holy Spirit twice to be real Christians - but at the same time I have a problem with a doctrine that suggests we should love God intellectually and not seek, or enjoy, an emotional relationship with him. It becomes very Orwellian: "knowledge good, emotion bad". All of one and none of the other is bad; it's a matter of balance. It was a genuine surprise to me when I finally understood that I can have a great knowledge of the Bible, and love to immerse myself in it and study it, and at the same time love God so much that it moves me to tears. It may even move me to raise my hands during a song (although admittedly, it probably won't). But if it does, that's okay - because, contrary to popular belief, there isn't a nerve connecting my arms and my brain; and raising my arms won't cause my intellect to shut down.

Mark Driscoll recently spoke at a conference in Sydney. One of his talks has been summarised here. I particularly liked this point:

Many of you are afraid of the Holy Spirit. You don’t know what to do with Him, so the trinity is Father, Son and Holy Bible. You are so reactionary to pentecostalism that you do not have a robust theology of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit calls people into ministry. He also empowers people for ministry. You don’t have to be charismatic but you should be a little charismatic, enough at least to worship God with more than just all of your mind. The word charismatic here [in Sydney] means prosperity, excessive, bizarre. In London, it means you’re not a liberal. Don’t get hung up on all the terminology. Do you love the Holy Spirit? Jesus says the Holy Spirit is a ‘He’ and not an ‘it’.” Ministry cannot be done apart from the Holy Spirit – I think that is in part leading to the lack of entrepreneurialism and innovation, because if it’s not already done and written down, you’re suspicious of it.

Amen to that, brother. Let's hope someone listens and allows the Spirit to move them, not just educate them.


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