Strangeness and Subjectivity

There are a lot of strange things that happen in this world. Our televisions, newspapers, magazines, radio and internet help remind us of this. Such things not only happen in ‘the world’, but they also happen amongst Christians. Again, televisions, newspapers, magazines, radio and internet help remind us of this reality.

And sometimes it hurts. It can really hurt!

And the branch of the church that can easily get hit with this is the charismatic-Pentecostal branch. We have a lot to be ashamed of and apologise for.

Such strange occurrences in charismatic and Pentecostal circles are highlighted in places like Hank Hanegraaff’s book, Counterfeit Revival. This book was handed to me by my college pastor (and friend) from my former Baptist church back when I was first entering into a charismatic church. As someone new to the gifts of the Spirit, at least from the 1 Corinthians 12 sense, this book did scare me a little. Not a big fear, but questions did arise.

Roaring like lions, slain in the Spirit, Holy Ghost bartenders, holy laughter?!

Some ten or eleven years later, I’m at a place where nothing really surprises me or catches me off guard anymore. I still shake my head at some things that I see on ‘Christian television’, but there is not much shock value anymore.

Even more, what I have come to realise over the past decade is that strangeness does not disqualify something as being from God.

Some will continue to point out the strange happenings in the Pentecostal and charismatic churches. And I agree, some of it is just plain weird and shameful. But, again, strangeness does not automatically determine that something is not of God.

I’ve written before on the scandalous nature of God (post 1, post 2, post 3). But let me just list a few weird activities found in Scripture:

  • Isaiah walked around naked for 3 years as a prophetic action pointing out what would happen to the Egyptians (Isaiah 20:1-4)
  • Hannah prayed so fervently for a son that Eli thought she was drunk (1 Samuel 1:9-16)
  • When Nehemiah and Ezra read the Law to the Jews, they mourned and wept (Nehemiah 8:9)
  • Jesus had a spitting ministry, or He healed people by use of saliva, sometimes mixed with mud (Mark 7:33; 8:23; John 9:6-7)
  • Following the outpouring of the Spirit, the onlookers declared that those speaking in tongues must have been drunk (Acts 2:1-13). As a side note, the behaviour identified with drunkness was probably not the activity of tongues, since the people understood what was being said in their own language, and no one speaks in another language by getting drunk. Rather, other behaviour must have exhibited other forms of strangeness.
  • Not to mention the varied reactions during exorcisms (i.e. Mark 1:23-28; Luke 4:33-35)

My goal is not to say that things must be strange, nor to glorify strange occurrences. Such is unnecessary, even unhealthy. But my point is to show that strangeness does not mean that something is ungodly or evil.

I know that a lot of these activities is equated with emotionalism. We live in a day and age, and have for a while, where emotions are seen as weak. Any show of emotions and it is automatically assumed that something is ‘wrong’. So, someone cries out in a gathering or begins to laugh out loud and the action is branded as emotionalism, or even worse, of the flesh or of the devil.

Of course, such could be. I’ve seen it before. It’s worse when such has been manipulatively contrived. And I believe responsible leaders will approach the person(s) and graciously instruct them. If it carries on, a godly firmness might need to be employed.

But I don’t believe we need to be so scared of emotions, or strange occurrences. As Jack Deere points out in his book Surprised by the Power of the Spirit – We are more willing to give the devil the ability to deceive us than God to work amongst us. Specifically, he states:

‘I frequently encounter Christians who have no difficult at all in believing that demons can speak in an audible voice, prompt thoughts, produce physical sensations and other bodily effects, but they don’t believe God can or would do these things today. Anytime they see one of these physical manifestations, therefore, they automatically assume that it is a work of the devil.’

But the testimony of Scripture itself is that God can do and does do strange things at times. This is not THE characteristic of God’s acts, but His acts are, at times, characterised by strangeness.

In the end, a large portion of Christians do not like the idea of subjectivity. For something to be objective, this means it is factual and, thus, not influenced by opinion or feeling. An objective statement would be that I wear glasses. It’s a fact (and you would know if you could see my face right now). Another objective fact is that I live in Belgium. These statements are true fact. They really cannot be disputed

So, for many Christians, we stand on the objectivity of the Scripture, since we can be certain of the God-breathed nature of it and that it is truly God’s revelation. But this cannot be established through subjective experiences, which can simply boil down to a person’s feelings or opinion, rather than what is real and true. So, a prophecy could be of God or it could be either someone’s personal feelings or even a false prophecy. Subjectiveness creates a quagmire.

And I’ll just be completely honest. It would be much easier to cast off all subjective experiences, bodily manifestations and the notion that God still speaks today. It would be much more simple for me, as a pastor, to say it’s all found in the Scripture and, therefore, everything else is subject to extreme scrutiny. I’d be saved from a lot of awkward situations (or awkward situations for the congregation). I’d be saved from a lot of, ‘I believe the Lord is telling me to….,’ when I know that is just a bit out of bounds, yet I don’t have a Scripture to quote to bury the suggestion.

I’m not saying that every cessationist chooses to hold to cessationism because of the possible awkardness or false manifestations that could appear. I’m simply noting that, for practical purposes, I know it would be easier to move towards cessationism.

But I also know it would be much easier to join the Roman Catholic church where everything is dogmatically defined for me already. There seems even less room for subjectivity than in evangelical cessationism. But I’m not sure that is God’s desire.

And I am not sure it’s God’s desire that we lay aside all subjective experiences for the sake of ease. I love to be in control. Really I do. Ask my wife. But I’m willing to let go of control of this one. And He does promise that when these things are truly stirred by Him, they are for the common good and edification of His people (1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:3-5). Not too mention how true activity of spiritual gifts glorifies Jesus and can draw people to Jesus.

I know a favourite verse to combat subjective experiences is found in 1 Corinthians 14:33:

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

This verse is par excellence in the rhetoric of many cessationists. And I don’t want to disregard it. I don’t even want to deal with it flippantly. But can I make a couple of suggestions:

1) This is one verse in the midst of a whole tenor of Scripture. Can I not keep this verse in connection with the other examples I listed in the bullet points above? Examples where God did some strange things?

2) It is amazing how true works of the Spirit bring peace out of confusion. One person is uncontrollably weeping over their ungodly practice of sin. Weeks later they are walking in fruitfulness and godliness not known before in their life. That’s a work of the Spirit.

Listen, please know I am not wanting to put all my eggs in the basket of strange and subjective experiences. I don’t want to glorify them, as they are not THE point and not THE determining factor of the real work of God. But they are also not THE determining factor of what is NOT of God.

I would challenge us to be open to the expression of the emotions. Check out the beauty of the Psalms. I’d ask us to allow for strange occurrences, not as the template, but as acceptable and possibly coming from God. Weigh these experiences with Scripture and amongst godly leadership. But don’t just make a judgment from the get go. Give time. Allow for fruit, for not all fruit comes forth in 3 minutes.

In all, allow for the work of the Holy Spirit via the activity of all His gifts. It will be a blessing in the end, even if some people get their panties in a wad (or knickers in a twist) and head out the door. Jesus is the great shepherd of His sheep, not the few that might get offended. He will be faithful to build His church. Jesus is much more faithful to lead than Satan is to deceive.

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