Recognizing When It Is the Holy Spirit

The first of the four Great Awakenings in American history happened in the 1730s and 40s. Arguably America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, was involved but grew skeptical as the Awakening worked its way out.

That movement brought great controversy. One side emphasized religious emotions as the essence; feeling the love of God was most important. The other side taught that the heart of true religion is right thinking; emotions are fickle and often lead astray.

Edwards was decidedly Word oriented. In his writing, he argued against a shallow, human-oriented view of spirituality. He taught to look for these reliable signs of the Spirit’s indwelling:

  • A new spiritual sense reflected in love of God that does not come from self-interest
  • A new kind of convicted knowing
  • A genuine humility
  • A hunger for God and a Christ-like Spirit
  • Christian practice

Flipping channels, many believers occasionally come across high-intensity healing services and revivals. Most are usually turned off, sensing phoniness, and they quickly move on. Next time dwell a little longer and apply Edward’s reliable signs to identify whether the Spirit is really at work. Before judging, beware that those of us from Northern European descent are easily turned off by high emotions. But that is what many others are used to and seek.

First is whether the leaders are pursuing self-interest. Are they making money? Check on the wealth of the featured speaker/healer. Evidence of self-interest should certainly raise doubt about the Spirit’s dominance.

Is there a pervasive sense of humility? When the Spirit is at work he changes hearts to bring a new humility. The Spirit cannot do much with a person who is full of him or herself. Those truly full of the Spirit are hesitant to draw attention to themselves. Be careful with those who claim that the Spirit is telling them to do what they are doing. Be cautious with someone whose personal life does not reflect a Christ-like Spirit.  Do they practice what they preach?

Cleveland has a healer who I think is genuine.  Issam Nemeh is an M.D. with a practice on Cleveland’s West Side. He does prayer-for-healing services on a Saturday or Sunday at various local churches. These are made known on his website but are not advertised. He does treat patients at the normal cost for a doctor’s visit. That is how he makes his living. Many claim special relief associated with his prayers.

Since “emotions” can be a highly charged word in traditional ministry practices, we do better to talk about “affections.” That word is no longer used much in ordinary English. Edwards defined affection as strong inclinations of the soul that are manifested in thinking, feeling and acting. Affection includes a belief held with strong conviction.

Affections can be either good or bad. The difference is the good lead us toward God and the bad away from God. According to Edwards, questionable affections often go along with prideful, show-off quoting of many Scripture passages, or self-serving eloquent talk, or passionate praise for God, or pharisaical devotion to religious activities.

Consider this perspective of Martin Luther. According to scholar Simeon Zahl, “affections” and the heart are central to Martin Luther’s theology of justification and sanctification. For Luther right motivation and willingness of the heart were far more important before God than right action. Luther recognized that affections are actually transformed by the Spirit of God. “The love of God is a gift of love which is given by the Holy Spirit.”

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