If anyone understands the fear of the unknown it is I. I have spent most of my life as an anxious and fearful person and most of the time my fears have been about the ‘what if’s’ of life. My brother once said that our family motto should be ‘panic, it might happen’. It was a very insightful comment and true. We are all very good at imagining the worst and not just thinking about it but believing that it will happen. Most of the time it doesn’t, but that’s not the point. Somehow you feel that you have achieved something by mentally preparing yourself for a disaster.
When I became a Christian, still fearful, the idea of God became a very good substitute for the presence of God. Somehow, the presence of God seemed to be something which I wanted to keep at arms length. I was afraid of God and not in a good way. Any mention of anything supernatural made me feel supremely uncomfortable. I think many Christians feel the same way, and are not necessarily aware of it. Many who call themselves cessationists have experienced Pentecostal craziness and have decided that ‘this sort of thing’ is not for them. I concur, albeit, only the craziness part. The working, gifts and miracles of the Holy Spirit still occur and God can and does speak and direct His people. However, some not only eschew the gifts of the Spirit, they decry any experience of God which is inexplicable in natural terms. I understand that fear, it is not, a healthy fear of God and it is not, despite their protestations, a result of an exhaustive study of the word of God but of their own prejudice. Ironically, the very same problem they accuse the charismatic Christians of having.
However, sane theological discussion aside, God tends to do things which upset the apple cart. He tossed Paul into a three day darkness, and totally revolutionised his life and the lives of millions of others. God intervened in a supernatural way via a vision and an audible voice. If you go to the internet, you can read very many testimonies of visions, dreams and audible voices of God telling people all manner of things, many of which are patently ludicrous.
There are people claiming to be prophets, apostles, and having various gifts of the Spirit, including healing and miracles. There are those who have seen angels and have spoken with God face to face on trips to heaven no less. It is very hard not to be sceptical, and in fact I would suggest that scepticism is in fact obligatory in order to stay grounded. Yet so many Christians embrace these testimonies without question believing that if a Christian says it they must be right. We need to progress beyond these immature suppositions and recognise that nobody is beyond reproach and not even the most mature believer is right all the time. Which itself, in my opinion, gives anyone a good reason to believe that even if these testimonies are 90% wrong, the 10%which are true is enough evidence to give pause for thought if not repentance of unbelief.
My experience of the supernatural has been patchy.
I was saved at the age of thirteen at a Scripture Union Camp on school holidays. I hated camps, having spent my childhood going to Brownies and Guides and getting involved in a lot of pointless activities purporting to be ‘for the good of the community’, but not actually producing a lot of good for anyone except arguably the Brownies or Guides. We used to do a lot of weekend camps; putting up canvas tents and digging latrines. I hated camps. But for some reason the idea of going to this camp seemed very appealing. This camp was run by a Baptist Pastor who seemed to be a jolly kind of person except for when people asked him questions about speaking in tongues. All of a sudden he became very mysterious, laughed in a loud semi-hysterical manner and avoided giving a straight answer. This immediately piqued my interest. He sounded nervous. I was an expert on nervous, so I immediately wondered at the cause of it. The conversation didn’t progress however and, being thirteen, I soon forgot about it.
One day a few years later however during a high school religious education session (shame we don’t have those any more) a pastor from a local Pentecostal church was asked the same question about tongues and his answer was a little less mysterious but a whole lot more appealing. I asked him about it further and he suggested I came along to the Saturday youth group meeting.
I had never been to a youth group meeting before. It was a lot like the Scripture Union camp meetings but a whole lot noisier. When somebody suggested that those who spoke in tongues should do so during the praise time, it got very unruly. I now understand why Paul was adamant about order in the use of gifts during meetings. In 1 Corinthians 14 he gives specific instruction about the use of tongues in a meeting.
23 If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?
24 But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:
25 And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.
26 How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.
28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.
Verse 23 in particular describes the experience I had at this Pentecostal church. The youth group leaders who were all very young and inexperienced did not understand the principle of ‘all things being done decently and in order’. Their idea of praising God involved the free use of spiritual gifts and they figured that if the presence of God would be brought to the meeting via the use of tongues, the more the merrier. I was terrified. I did indeed think they were all mad, and I ran from that place and did not go back. The idea of the ‘presence of God’ for the next few years became a thing of terror.
Later, when a pastor’s wife I knew wanted to pray for me for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, I learned how fear of the unknown can in fact lead to the sin of unbelief and in turn cause you to miss what God intends to be a help not a hindrance to your walk. How strange it is that we can embrace an all-powerful God but resist that self-same power in our lives to transform us. Had I known then what I know now I would have realised that during the late 70s and early 80s the use of spiritual gifts and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit was something that churches in Australia were not familiar with and many were teaching error and many more were simply searching for an ‘experience’ of God. Not much has changed, and the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in this country have been charged with all kinds of heresy because of it.
Where Pentecostal churches have erred in being more concerned with experience than theology they have been exposed to the scathing and probably well earned criticism of the cessationists. It unfortunately does nothing for their reputation as believers walking in the Spirit and evidencing the fruits thereof despite the fact that many are learning slowly to mature and grow in this vital life God has graciously given us.
This situation can be easily remedied by a) ignoring the jeers of the cessationists and b) learning from them by getting stuck into scripture and reading some good theological treatises on the subject and generally becoming better apologists for their beliefs. Not that this is going to stop the accusations of heresy from the cessationists but it will at least give the Pentecostals some much needed respect. As a Pentecostal/charismatic believer myself I realise that many like-minded brethren seem to unthinkingly applaud the pursuit of barnyard manifestations or Barnum and Bailey type performances within the church. I do not believe this behaviour to be biblical and I certainly do not think that any of this is evidence of the presence of God. It is more likely to be proof of the presence of other spiritual entities far less beneficent.
On sitting with God in my prayer time this morning it occurred to me that simply believing in a supernatural and totally awesome (defined by traditional Oxford not internet Urban dictionary) God is the very epitome of crossing the bridge between the security of the written word and historical fact and the highly individual and life-changing experience which is knowing the manifestation of God in your own life. Surely, if scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit is sent to indwell believers and that our bodies are His temple, we need to accept that all our well-rehearsed and comforting liturgies and Confessions are no comparison for the transcendent power of God himself.
Yet recognising, communicating with and asking for salvation from a God who we confess, by the very act of repentance, is all-knowing, all-seeing, ever-present and completely and utterly holy, perfect, righteous and merciful, is surely totally at odds with the assumption that God is somehow able to be contained within a set of human boundaries. Yes, the word of God is eternal but it is the communication of God, it does not limit Him. All we can do is begin to have an understanding of who He is via His word. Yes, we can use His word to measure what is the gospel and what isn’t. But it is His Spirit who gives us discernment, and His Spirit is God. Surely, the work of discernment (a gift of the Spirit) is proof enough that God still communicates with His people in the now. Surely any cessationist is working against the very nature of faith in insisting that God stopped being God at a particular juncture. And if we are going to make it specific, then why didn’t God? Why did God not use His word to tell His people that He was going to change the way He spoke to us. Yet the last words of Jesus to His disciples was that he would send another, like Himself, to empower us to do even greater things than He did. How can we use God’s word to His people to limit Him? He only spoke to the apostles and since they died there is nobody else left to empower? What, is the enemy gone from the earth?
We worship this unlimited God, yet we also contend that by virtue of the fact that human beings have documented God’s word in one book, God now no longer wishes to communicate individually to His created and saved people. Nothing could make less sense, even for a biblical ingenue like myself.
Much theology has in fact been handed down from believers hundreds of years previously and I am not talking about the authors of the Bible. Many believers are too quick to take a denominational doctrinal stance without perhaps even realising what they are doing. Let’s face it, it is quicker, easier and much more comforting to lean on the beliefs which have been handed down for centuries and supported by millions in the same denomination. It is a lot harder to ditch everything you have ever believed and do the research from the ground up for yourself. As people who have had to ditch our beliefs and re-form them from the ground up (as a result of having been lied to for decades by so-called elders and leaders) I can tell you that it is neither easy nor pain-free. It is hard, but it is, like all things which challenge your strength and endurance, worth the exercise. I encourage all believers to go back to scripture and read what is actually written there for themselves.