Anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann concluded from her study of two Vineyard Fellowships, “Coming to a committed belief in God was more like learning to do something than to think about something. I would describe what I saw as a theory of attentional learning—the way you pay attention determines your experience of God.
Clinical Psychologist J. Harold Ellens often witnessed the joy and satisfaction they expressed when his clients’ recognized God was influencing and changing them supernaturally. He concluded, “It is important to name those movements and tell others about them, so we become people of the Spirit, cultivating a culture of the Spirit.”
Diane Butler Bass did presentations and discussion with mainline pastors. She observed that to put the words “experiential” and “belief” in the same sentence is asking for trouble in those circles. Noting how the modern Pentecostal movement first gave expression to the priority of experience, she reports the reaction of one pastor: “You mean we’re all going to become Pentecostals? My congregation would rather die first! Faith isn’t about feelings. It must have intellectual content.” Another said, “Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?”
Moving the Middle
There is a middle ground between icy intellectual and fiery ignorance. The psalms point the way. Consider Psalm 23 “The Lord Is My shepherd.” What makes it so popular is its description of many feeling experiences. In the Lord I feel full and find peace. My anxious soul is refreshed. He gives me confidence. He takes away fear. My cup overflows with blessings. I trust him and feel his presence.
The second most popular is Psalm 51 with its description of a crushed inner soul. Wash away my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a pure heart, God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
Traditional mainline worship is full of rational explanations of the faith, especially in heavily head-oriented sermons. Yet provision was made for heart-oriented feelings by the extensive us of psalms and hymns like “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” and “Beautiful Savior”. Traditional worship did have a middle ground appropriate to its times. What’s happening today is movement of that middle more to emotions of the heart. Some Pentecostal worship is almost raw emotions. Plenty traditional churches, though, are exploring worship with more subtle feelings.
For churches oriented to the Word, feelings need to be in a proper sequence of Facts, Faith and Feelings. Facts about God are proclaimed in the Word. Faith is not only the noun for beliefs but especially the verb for trusting those facts about God. God-pleasing Feelings then flow from such trust. Spiritual leaders can be more confident in their ministry when they expect the Holy Spirit work through this progression of Facts, Faith and then Feelings.
Paul’s Experiences of the Holy Spirit
The apostle Paul had a dramatic experience of God on the road to Damascus. Often overlooked is his slow over-the-years formation by the Spirit. According to Paul’s report to the Galatians, a total of fourteen years passed after his conversion and before he joined with Barnabas on his first mission journey. Undoubtedly, Paul spent a lot of his unrecorded years explaining to others what happened to him. In those years, he worked out the centrality of grace in God’s relationship with his people. He also came to much greater depth of understanding how the Spirit’s work changes in the believer’s heart, as the Spirit did in his own life.
When Paul wrote about what the Spirit can do among God’s people, you can confidently assume this is what the Spirit did to him. He learned to look into the future based on his own past experiences of the Spirit. You, too, can do that.
Have you found that your understanding of faith has moved beyond the basics to greater willingness to live with Jesus as Lord of your life? That was the Spirit at work. (1 Corinthians 12:3)
Have you experienced a lessening of fears that inhibit joyful living? The Spirit helps you become confident of yourself as God’s child (Romans 8: 15).
Have you noticed yourself more inclined to be involved in your congregation, perhaps teaching Sunday School or taking on administrative responsibilities? The Holy Spirt has been working on you, giving you extra motivation to do what you now find satisfying (1Corinthians 12:7).
Have you found lately a greater sense of love, joy peace and patience? That was the Sprit producing these fruit in your life (Galatians 5: 22).
Can you prove that any of these positive movements in your life came from the Holy Spirit? No more that you can prove God exists to someone who does not want to see him. These insights happen when the eyes of your heart are enlightened. It takes the Spirit to recognize what the Spirit has done.
How the Spirit Can Work in the Lives of Others
These can be seen as manifestations of the Spirit in your life. How does the Spirit work among others? Recognize the Spirit:
- Wherever someone encounters Christ’s call and follows it (John 1:43).
- Wherever presentations of the Word bring greater insights and illumination to someone (Ephesians 1:18).
- Wherever two or three come together in the name of Christ (Matthew 18:20).
- Wherever Christians come together with special energy and sing with gusto and intensity (Colossians 3:16).
- Wherever a follower of Christ finds new levels of joy and peace through release from guilt and expectations of perfection (2 Corinthians 3: 17).
- Wherever a person is considering whether or not at attend church on a Sunday morning and feels the tug to do so (Hebrews 10:25).
- Wherever a fellowship of Christ is experiencing a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:26).
Some would understand the “new heart and the new spirit” as a one-time event—at conversion. But Luther understood it as a frequent, even daily process of drowning out the old nature in us through repentance and letting the new nature come forth and arise. Being made new again renewal—is the Holy Spirit’s work (Titus 3: 5). The Spirit’s way is movement, not status quo.
Paul explained to the Corinthians that the Holy Spirit transforms us into Christlikeness with the movement of “ever increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). We are being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). The Spirit does this with individuals. But he also can do so with congregations.
Whatever an individual Christian or a congregation might be reaching for now, there is more the Spirit wants to give and do. Name what he has done so you can recognize what more he can do in the future.