One of my deep disappointments regarding the emerging church movement is its apparent rejection of the practice of the gifts of the Spirit. In its effort to distance itself from the excesses, doctrinal immaturity, exclusiveness, and fundamentalism of some of the previous ‘Spirit’ movements in the church, it has turned a deaf ear to many of the more dramatic types of genuine Spirit manifestation. This is not without justification. Yet Paul’s exhortation to us that we should not despise prophecy is applicable to us here.
The passage in Thessalonians reads like this: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.”
As with all of Paul’s exhortations, there are good reasons for giving them. If we could not put out the Spirit’s fire, why he would have exhorted us not to put it out? But what did Paul mean by the Spirit’s fire? Does anyone besides me hear the echoes of the words of the prophets? Without the fire of the Spirit the distinction between the holy and the profane would be blurred. Fire marks the line of that which is totally devoted to the Lord and that which is not. The concept of radical zeal and devotion applies here. But it is the Spirit’s fire, a fire not of our own generation. Yet that cannot mean that the Spirit’s fire can burn without our consent and complicity. If it could burn in such a way, without our consent, how then could we put out the Spirit’s fire? So then for the fire of the Spirit to burn in us we need to agree with the Spirit. This results in a passion for the things of God – love, holiness, compassion, forgiveness, truth, justice, fidelity, and so on. By agreeing to live in these things we agree with the nature of the Holy Spirit. The more we are consumed by these virtues the more we are ‘on fire’ by the Spirit.
Yet there is an aspect of the Holy Spirit that manifests itself in the supernatural - things that happen that defy natural explanation. This will bug the confirmed rationalist that must have all things explained in a causative way. The difficulty in explaining the supernatural is that it ain’t natural. How come everyone isn’t
healed, or why did God answer that prayer but appears not to have answered this other prayer? The rationalist wants rules so it will work each time the same way. There probably are rules and purposes governing the manifestation of the supernatural power of the Spirit of God, but they are not natural rules. This is not magic. It is a relationship with the Being who made it all who desires to share His person and power with His children. God makes the rules and does what is holy and right every time.
In addition to rationalism, the mystical approach leaves much of what God is giving into this relationship still on the table. It receives well enough but seems to be weak on cooperating with the Spirit in the Spirit’s desire to express himself through people to other people. Jesus said that if we want to be his disciples we must take up our cross and follow him. This means, among other things, that we are to enter into Jesus’ work. This work is the work of giving our life to others through the power of the Spirit. God wants to do this work with us, not just pour into our lives. There is a difference between a friend and a siphon.
Here, in entering into the work of God, we discover the Spirit’s fire. The gifts of the Spirit are birthed in us by faith and compassion, also of the Spirit. The gifts are given to us so each of us can give a supernatural manifestation of the Spirit to someone else. As we participate in the Spirit’s desire to touch the heart of people at their point of need, the Spirit works in and through us, both with virtue and with power. By closing ourselves to either the Spirit’s virtue or power, we begin to put out the Spirit’s fire. We drift back into the gray area between light and darkness.
Why would we ever want to close ourselves off to the Holy Spirit, quenching the Spirit’s fire? Few of us willingly close ourselves off to the Spirit’s virtues. It is the Spirit’s power that is the sand in our sheets. Like with natural fire, we only feel safe if it is controlled. Yet the Spirit will not be controlled by us. Who is the Lord here anyway? The Spirit is the Lord, not us.
In the past the Holy Spirit had the people of God do many strange things. Ezekiel laid on his side for much too long, enacting the siege of Jerusalem. Hosea married a harlot. Jesus spat on people sometimes when healing them. How can we tell what is of the Spirit and what is because someone is nuts? Worse yet, what if I prayed for someone and they were not healed? What if I declared something in faith, waiting for the mountain to cast itself into the sea, and it didn’t go? What if I looked foolish and other people thought less of God because of me? Because of this many say that going down this ‘Spirit’ road is not worth the risk.
It is in this way prophecy and other Spirit manifestations are devalued. Because of the problems, the craziness, and the doctrinal uncertainties, the teaching and practice of the power of the Spirit is reconfigured to avoid these pitfalls. One way to reconfigure the teaching is to say that these gifts are no longer for today. Another is to say that they are not necessary, but you can practice them at home if you like. The problem is that it is by these very gifts, and the loving context in which they are supposed to be used, that God’s word is confirmed to those who are yet to believe. Additionally, it is also by these gifts that God intervenes in peoples lives to help them know Him better, to meet their needs, and to help people participate in the work of Christ.
So then how are we to differentiate between the Holy Spirit and the kooks? Do we need, like some early Pentecostals and some modern Charismatics, to accept everything that says it’s from the Spirit of God? Including barking? Do we need to accept all kinds of fanciful exegeses that say they are Spirit inspired? How do we ‘test everything’? To describe that will take another article. For now it will be sufficient for us to know that we can test everything, we should test everything, and that God wants us to test everything. There are controls on the gifts which need to be in place. These controls, when properly used, will not put out the Spirit’s fire. Indeed, these controls are themselves Spirit inspired. These controls are not controls on the Spirit, they are on us. The problem is not with the Holy Spirit’s manifestations, the problem is with our ‘manifestations’.
Because we are participating in the Spirit’s work, there are, at least, two sources for our activity: the Spirit and us. Since the Spirit wants to work with us and through us, we are always involved. The plan is for us to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. Yet when people are involved, mistakes will always be made. It is important to remember that the supernatural does not come naturally. To some, it will always look wrong and be offensive. Jesus did get nailed to a cross. And so will we who, through the Spirit, endeavor to participate in Jesus’ work.
Just because some people are put off by the power of the Spirit does not mean that we are to abandon the fire of the Spirit. Paul exhorted us to hold on to the good. Today he might have said “Don’t through out the baby with the bath water”. The gifts of the Spirit are intended to build up, to encourage, all those who are seeking God. Surely this is a work that still needs to be done. The gifts are intended to confirm the source of our message, the gospel. They are intended to heal people who are ill, deliver people who are in bondage, to reveal the plan and purposes of God, to cut through satanic opposition, to reveal some of the power of the kingdom of God.
Now what is wrong with that?