Sunday, January 14, 2007

Some of my experiences with Pentecostalism (Part 4)

Let me state, for the record, I am not suggesting uncritical endorsement of all the various forms of Pentecostalism I’ve encountered over the years. Far from it. There is much that I’ve described from my past that, at this stage of my life, I definitely would not endorse.

You must remember, however, that I did not grow up under thorough, sound, biblical teaching in church. The general method of preaching practiced by the various pastors I sat under was to take a verse of Scripture and then preach a message that may or may not have anything to do with the text. In Sunday School, by 5th or 6th grade, the teachers would sometimes ask me for answers. My real Bible teaching came from home, from my great-grandmother and her sister. They knew more about the Bible than the average evangelical that I encounter today (that’s both a tribute to God’s grace in their lives, and a criticism of the shallowness of the teaching in the average evangelical church today), but there was a whole lot they didn’t know and, quite frankly, because they were Black, they were never exposed to it. So, they taught me the best that they could.

So, again, I’m not so much endorsing as I am reporting what I’ve seen and heard. All these experiences are part of the journey I’ve taken to get to where I am today, particularly as it concerns my views of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. And, ultimately, that’s where I’m headed.

As I said in my previous post, one of the stages in my life which saw some of the greatest changes occurred between my salvation in 1980, when I was still in high school, and my graduation from graduate school in 1986. When I started college I was still very much a new Christian. Being denominationally loyal, I sought out the church in town that was of my denomination, rather than looking for the best church. Sadly, the church of my denomination in that town was not even as good as my church at home, as far as helping me spiritually. But, God was faithful in that He kept me, taught me as I read His Word, and brought Christian friends into my life to encourage me.

A few of these friends came from a Pentecostal background. My earlier encounters with Pentecostals and Pentecostal practice made this inhibited and repressed boy naturally curious about believers who could experience such joyful freedom in their worship. From observing, talking to and just being around these friends, I learned, first of all, that any stereotype of Pentecostals as ignorant fanatics, or people who are odd and irrational, was false. Remember, I was in college. These friends were not ignorant; they were college-educated or earning their college educations, like I was. These people helped remove for me some of the mystery surrounding Pentecostalism. I had the opportunity to watch these friends in worship as they danced or “shouted” before the Lord. I learned that the “holy dance” wasn’t so much about being “overcome” with the Spirit as it was about having the freedom of spirit to express one’s joy enthusiastically before the Lord. They could control themselves, but they chose not to: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34:1).

I also remember a couple brief conversations about “tongues” or glossolalia. Two friends in particular admitted to me that they utilized a “prayer language”—in their private devotions. They described it as something natural, not weird or out-of control, but under the control of the speaker. That seemed to me to accord with Scripture: “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32/in context).

Admittedly, I was curious about the whole idea of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals traditionally taught that tongues were the necessary evidence of the Spirit’s presence, pointing to Acts 2:4; 10:45-46; and 19:6. My friends did not hold to that position. But, whatever the case, I really felt I needed something more. It wasn’t a case of devaluing Christ Jesus, rather, it was a case of seeing my sin and a needy world and realizing that I didn’t have what it took to conquer sin in my life, minister to a weak and wayward church, or reach a lost and dying world. I needed what these people claimed to have.

About this time, God demonstrated His kindness to me by introducing me to the local Christian bookstores. The authors of Christian books have been my mentors and teachers ever since. What I lacked in the local church, I found in Christian writers. Among some of the early books I bought, were about three titles by Charismatic authors. I must admit, I probably wouldn’t recommend any of these books to anyone today. Primarily for this reason: You must be able to eat the fish and spit out the bones. Do you understand? I don’t condemn these writers. One book, in particular, helped me greatly. But, lest someone try eating these “fish” and accidentally end up with a “bone” stuck in their throat, I’d rather recommend other writing.

Nevertheless, it was these Charismatic books that God ordained to come into my hands. They’re still in my possession. As I sit here typing, they sit on the shelves next to me. I generally don’t get rid of any book I receive. To me, many of these books represent stages in my spiritual growth; they remind me of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, by the grace of God. So, I’m sorry if anyone thinks my library is somehow “spoiled” by the inclusion of Charismatic literature. It’s my library—it’s what God gave to me—and I like it.

Anyway, here’s how these particular Charismatic books helped me: God used them to stimulate in my spirit a desire to seek Him. As I said, I became hungry for something more from God. I can imagine someone reading this and asking, “Isn’t Jesus enough?” Well, yes! Jesus is enough! But, didn’t the apostle Paul say “I want to know Him” (Philippians 3:10/in context)? Paul already knew Christ, yet he said, “I want to know Him!” Paul wanted something more from God. Moses was privileged above anyone else in history: He spent 40 days with God on Sinai and received directly from the hand of God “the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). Now, you would think that would be more than enough to satisfy Moses. You would think he could live with that. But, what does Moses say? “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). Moses wanted something more from God. This is where I was, and I began to pray toward that end—seeking to know God more, seeking to experience Him in a deeper way, seeking the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

Did God answer my prayer? I believe He did. First of all, I’m convinced that any usefulness I’ve had in the Lord’s service through the ministry of preaching, teaching, writing, singing, playing the organ and piano, or leading God’s people in worship, over these past 20 years, has been the result of what God began to do in my life in answer to my prayers for more of Him. The spiritual gifts I have, God gave me in answer to those prayers. I’m convinced of it. I have desires and interests and passions and abilities that I know did not exist before I first began to seek God for the fullness of the Holy Spirit. I know that! The passion that I’ve had these 20 years to feed and tend Christ’s sheep (see John 21:15, 16, 17) came into being right there in my dorm room, in graduate school, as I poured out my heart to God in prayer for the Holy Spirit.

So, yes, God answered my prayer. He didn’t necessarily answer in the way I expected. I’ve continued to struggle with sin. I think the Wesleyan holiness and Pentecostal camps are correct to desire freedom from sin, but they go too far when they expect perfection or the eradication of the sin nature in this life. Concerning the human struggle with sin, I’ve received far, far greater help from J.C. Ryle and John Owen (who I am currently reading). But, in His mercy, God used those books by Charismatic authors to stir in my spirit a desire, a hunger, for more of Him. And God answered that prayer.

I remember one night in particular—I can’t adequately describe it, and I don’t want to glorify an experience—but it seemed that God Himself came down and filled my room with His glory. I hear and read what the anti-Pentecostals say, but I feel like Peter and John: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather that to God. You must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). And I cannot deny what God has done in my soul.

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