Last Sunday morning I was in Stockholm, Sweden, visiting a church, Elimkyrkan. The pastor was finishing a sermon on love in the Christian community. In the application, he emphasized how small groups can create and sustain a sense of community. That's when a thought popped into my head: You should definitely start the home Bible study you've been thinking about for months. This fall.
I took that as a Spirit-inspired thought, and resolved to do that when I returned to the States.
After the sermon, the pastor explained that, during the next hymn, prayer ministers would stand at the front of the sanctuary to pray for anyone who came forward. And then as the hymn began, another thought popped into my head: You should go up for prayer for the home Bible study you want to start.
That's when the wrestling began.
At my home church, I have availed myself of a prayer minister during worship. Every Sunday, many in our parish do the same. So it would not have been out of character of me to do so in this at Elimkyrkan.
Neither was language a barrier. The service was in Swedish, yes, but it was translated through headphones into English. And every Swede I met on this trip could converse in English. So I assumed that the prayer ministers would be able to communicate with me.
The problem was that no one in the congregation stepped forward. When I saw six prayer ministers walk to the front, I figured that a slew of people would step up, but no such thing happened. I surmised that either no one felt moved to do so this morning, or that this was a new custom the pastoral staff was trying to introduce to the congregation.
In any event, I now squirmed. On the one hand, the urging to go forward for prayer was just as strong as the urge to start a home Bible study, and I attributed both to the nudging of the Spirit. But the second nudge required a public commitment in a setting in which I was a stranger. Going forward alone would have drawn a great deal of attention to me.
So what? I debated. I'll never see these people again. And maybe the sight of one person, a visitor no less, going forward will encourage others to do so.
Then again, I thought, But what will they think I'm seeking prayer for? The minister had included in his invitation to prayer a call to commit one's life to Christ. I didn't want people thinking I hadn't already done that!
On this went through the hymn, until I finally defeated the Spirit, stubbornly staying rooted in my pew.
This, of course, is not an unusual situation for an evangelical to find himself in. We have been invited to do such in one way or another in many such services. As British historian of evangelicalism David Bebbington, in his now classic Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, has noted, conversionism—or what I call decisionism—is part and parcel of our Christian subculture. The Christian life does not just evolve. It also requires specific decisions and public commitments to deepen our faith and obedience.
We also believe that Christ is raised from the dead, alive and active in his Holy Spirit. He is not only Lord of the world, but of our lives, a God who would guide us with his loving, even daily commands.
So we've had to learn how to negotiate such moments—knowing that not every thought that pops into our head is from the Spirit, and knowing full well that some of them are! We've all looked back in gratitude for such moments.
I've told this story before, but it is too good to not repeat here. In preparing a list of people to invite to a Thanksgiving meal one year, the name of a couple my wife had just met popped into her head. She took it as a nudging of the Spirit. During the Thanksgiving meal, this husband got into a deep conversation with another guest, and the result was that his life vocation turned on a dime. As soon as was feasible, he quit his job, applied for graduate school, and got a job in his new field. He's there to this day, 30 years later. It's difficult not to believe that this Thanksgiving conversation was providential.
Then again, we've all looked back with regret at some decision, realizing it was not a response to the Spirit but to pressures of others or the ego. And we've also known regret at having failed to respond to a "prompting" that we are now sure was from the Spirit. Like last Sunday for me.
This is not something we talk about much, especially in the chattering classes—writers, speakers, professors, public intellectuals, and so forth. And as mature adults—some of us quite mature in years, anyway—we certainly don't like to admit that peer pressure can sway us as much as it does adolescents. But as Paul Froese and Christopher Bader note in their new book America's Four Gods: What We Say about God—and What That Says about Us, a strong belief in God's involvement in the world is a distinctive of evangelical theology and practice. We believe that Christ is alive in the Spirit, and that we are in a personal relationship with a God who is actively guiding and shaping our lives. So I suspect that most of us have to wrestle with, and often repent about, such matters.
I had just finished attending the Pentecostal World Conference in Sweden when I went to this church, so my spiritual antennae were especially alert. While I don't call myself a Pentecostal, I am sure that Pentecostals would accept some of my spiritual experiences as evidence of "Spirit baptism," and thus welcome me into the fold. So there is much in the movement that I resonate with. Personal negotiations with the Spirit would be one of these things.
But when I asked theologians and pastors at the conference how Pentecostals discerned the leading of the Spirit—that is, how they determined when it was the Spirit and when it was not—they didn't have a lot to say. Pentecostals as a lot pretty much rely on the subjective sense to determine this, they said.
This strikes me as woefully insufficient and subject to abuse—to which many of the Pentecostals I spoke with agreed. They granted that there were excesses and even abuses. But their answers suggested that you can hardly have a dynamic, Spirit-led movement among weak, sinful, and foolish human beings and expect it to be flawless.
One does have to acknowledge that, for all the excesses and abuses, the movement is changing lives and the face of world Christianity. It does indeed seem to be a Spirit-led movement.
That got me to thinking about how God gets his work done. I would like to think that he does so mainly through people professionally or spiritually qualified—people of discernment, wise in the ways of both the world and the Spirit. But this is precisely what he does not seem to do, or to do consistently. Whole continents are being transformed by Pentecostals, who are the first to say they identify wholeheartedly with Paul's words:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
Evangelicals have long ago abandoned the idea that we are foolish, weak, low, and despised. We've been striving for half a century to prove to our culture—and maybe to ourselves—that we are anything but those things. Pentecostals seem to revel in them.
In the end, I don't believe God honors foolishness as such—think of all those biblical admonitions extolling the virtue of wisdom. Furthermore, the arc of the Bible is to strengthen the weak and raise the lowly and despised. That being said, God is one who honors the humble and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17)—whether foolish or wise, whether weak or strong.
Here's how I've seen it work time and again. Joe Christian thinks Jesus is telling him to do X. It seems to me that Joe is confused, and that a lot of X is wrapped up in delusions of spiritual grandeur—lots of inflated talk about "transforming the culture" or "blessing the nations" or "healing" or "prosperity." And yet God seems to bless the life and ministry of Joe, despite obvious theological problems and seeming improprieties. God has this uncanny knack of using people I consider unqualified in one way or another to touch many lives with his love and justice.
I've concluded that God often does not lose sleep over whether we guess his will correctly. If this were his highest priority, I think he'd be a lot clearer about making his will plain! A higher priority for him seems to be this: humble and contrite hearts that are willing to risk, to step into the unknown just because it might be God's will. He honors the heart as much as the execution.
When my daughter Katie was a girl, she learned calligraphy. At the time, I showed her a quote I said I wanted to have in calligraphy some day. Well, she soon presented me with the quote, framed and in her newly learned art.
It was not good, I have to say—a judgment she doesn't disagree with today as an adult. Lines swayed helplessly, and some letters looked like they were going to fall over. It was clearly an amateur effort. But she was proud of it.
And so was I. I happily displayed it on my office wall for years. It was not what I had envisioned, but it was something that despite its imperfections—and partly because of them—I cherished.
Okay, it's a cheesy illustration—the kind that sophisticated people like me are not supposed to traffic in. But, to paraphrase Paul, God often uses the cheesy to confound the sophisticated. He regularly uses those who are confused about his leading as if they had nailed it.
Did the Spirit prompt me to go forward to receive prayer? Ultimately I have no idea, but I suspect so. I also increasingly suspect that God wants me to be more willing to do a seemingly foolish thing because I merely suspect it might be something he's calling me to do. It's not that I should ignore the wisdom that comes through experience, the church, or Scripture. But more important, it seems, is a willingness to put wisdom, wealth, strength, and honor on the line if I believe that, maybe just maybe, the Spirit is leading me to do so.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author ofJesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
How to Become a Successful Religion | A marketing consultant advises early church leaders. (August 19, 2010)
God Talk Is Dangerous | Apparently the Almighty has given us permission to talk about that which we know relatively little about. (July 29, 2010)
Divine Drama Queen |But I'd secretly rather have a God who is a non-anxious presence. (July 15, 2010)