Monday, February 12, 2024

Anonymous Asks (289)

“How can we know the Holy Spirit is present with us when nobody is expressing strong feelings?”

Some Christians — often women, let’s be honest — evaluate the spiritual temperature of a religious gathering by its perceived emotional intensity; by whether participants spring a leak while praying, singing or sharing their thoughts. If they had their way, there would be a box of Kleenex in every pew and we would take our spiritual temperature by how often they need replacement.

Is this actually a biblical idea?

Whenever I think about emotional intensity in a religious setting, I picture the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. The more they feared Baal wasn’t answering their cries, the more worked up they got. Elijah, definitely God’s man for the occasion, was comparatively laid back. Thankfully, nobody is suggesting we ought to cut ourselves with knives to get our God’s attention. On the other hand, some argue that if you and I have been commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, we cannot reasonably count our emotions out. These too belong to God.

Emotions Appropriate to the Occasion

There are times in scripture when expressions of joy or sadness are quite appropriate. Think about when the returned exiles laid the foundation of the second temple in Jerusalem after seventy years dispersed throughout the Babylonian and Persian Empires. There was shouting and joy from the youngsters mingled with weeping from the older men. That was a major event and emotions ran high, and rightly so. Watching your children get baptized may produce a similar effect. Other times, not so much. Only a few years later, the Levites read to the people from the Book of the Law, causing great consternation and sorrow to those who had been inadvertently disobeying it for years. But the Levites told them, “Be quiet; do not be grieved.” It was not appropriate for the Israelite worshipers to mark that day with outbursts of personal sorrow or regret, even if they had been earned legitimately, or to become occupied with themselves.

Neither of these events were precisely analogous to church services, and the Holy Spirit had yet to be given. However, they do provide us with evidence that spiritual moments in our lives need not always be accompanied by self-flagellation, sustained expressions of grief over sins already confessed and forgiven, or the kind of emotional response that has to be worked up artificially or stimulated into existence by sentimental songs that have little connection to the words of scripture. Expressions of joy or sorrow in the gatherings of the saints need to be managed by a Christian will and an intellect submitted to the Lord, not shooting off in all directions.

The Spirit at Work

So then, if emotional intensity is not the most relevant metric by which we can measure the Holy Spirit’s activity, what is? What do believers under the direction of the Spirit look like?

  • The Holy Spirit works in an orderly way. Paul writes that in church meetings, “all things should be done decently and in order”. The work of the Holy Spirit is not marked by emotional outbursts, but by men and women acting in self-control.
  • Again, Paul writes, “Let all things be done for building up.” When the Spirit is leading us, we tend to ask ourselves the question “How will this thing I am about to contribute be of benefit to others?” That includes displaying my emotions. My desire to vent does not get a high priority in a church setting.
  • As the author of scripture, the Holy Spirit is consistent in his teaching of it. There is no “shadow of turning” with the Father of lights, and therefore no incoherence or inconsistency in the teaching of the Spirit. What he says through one person will not contradict what he says through another. If they do contradict, the Spirit is only leading one of them, or maybe neither. (Note: We have largely eliminated the checks and balances of 1 Corinthians 14 by assigning every meeting to a single speaker who rarely accepts questions and whose views of scripture remain largely unchallenged.)
  • In the gatherings of the saints, the Holy Spirit leads and teaches through men. If you are wondering, “Is that woman speaking in the church meeting in the power of the Spirit?”, the answer is an unambiguous “No.” Yes, the Lord can speak through a donkey under the right circumstances. Those usually involve an obdurate audience like Balaam. Would you want to be that guy?
  • The Holy Spirit can work through spectacular displays, but normally he works quietly, in the background. Elijah had to learn that God speaks “in a low whisper”, not in a fire or an earthquake.
  • The Holy Spirit was given to convict men and women of sin, but his name and primary role is Comforter, because his ministry is helping you. If you find yourself in tears all the time during church meetings, it’s either because you sin way too much or because someone other than the Holy Spirit is accusing you. The time to be examining yourself and repenting is before you get to church, not in the middle of a meeting. You should not be leaving a gathering of the saints miserable.

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

I was in a meeting recently where a woman shouted “Amen” after just about every line the speaker uttered. It turned out she was mentally ill; not led by the Spirit to express agreement with the speaker, but simply off her meds. She later threw herself down the stairs. Nobody took that as an indication the Holy Spirit was working especially effectively in her life.

The occasional, moderate display of emotion in a church meeting is not a cause for concern, especially among new believers who are hearing certain truths for the first time. Some people are naturally more expressive than others, and they may be loving the Lord with their soul, or personality. But if we start to look for emotional displays, either positively or negatively, as the primary indication the Holy Spirit is at work, we are getting off track and outside the parameters of the word of God. The six signs listed above will give you a much better indication the Spirit is at work in your local gathering than either tears or shouts of “Hallelujah!”

The words “weep” and “weeping” appear many times in the New Testament. They do not appear once in the context of a church meeting.

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