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Simply Spirit-Filled: Experiencing God in the Presence and Power of the Holy Spirit
by Andrew Gabriel
Learn More | Meet Andrew Gabriel
CONFESSIONS OF A RECOVERING SPIRIT-EXPERIENCE JUNKIE
When I was eight, my family packed our boxes again and drove eighty miles to live near the Air Force Base in Greenwood, a town with just enough farming and military families to support a small mall with a Walmart. We were always moving because of my father 's work, and so I grew up singing and praying in a number of different Baptist, Salvation Army, and primarily Pentecostal churches. Each church was unique in how they worshipped God, and each had distinct perspectives regarding what it meant to experience the Holy Spirit. The first time I remember having a real experience of the Holy Spirit was in Greenwood, in a modest Pentecostal church with brick and white siding and gravel in the parking lot. This is where the Spirit called me to put my faith in God.
I may have experienced the Holy Spirit in a service at another church a couple of years earlier, when I was six or seven years old, but I question whether this was the case. I remember shuffling to the front of the sanctuary and up the stairs onto the stage where the pastor guided a number of nervous children to stand side by side in a line. He prayed for us, and we fell over. Of course, we knew we were supposed to fall because the pastor had asked our parents to stand behind us to catch us. I don 't recall much from this experience other than that I lay on the floor for a while and, the next day, when I played in my backyard with my neighbor, we stood one in front of the other on the grass and took turns catching each other as we fell backward. The fact that I remember anything about this experience, even though I was still quite young, makes me think I might have had an authentic encounter with God during the church service. At the same time, I wonder if I found myself on the floor solely as a result of charismatic manipulation.
After living in Greenwood, my faith in God meant little to me until my teenage years. Then, becoming serious about my faith meant regularly praying and reading my Bible, but also that I wanted to have lots of experiences of God. I 'll describe some of these experiences in the coming chapters. Looking back, I 'm not sure that all of them were legitimate. To some extent I just copied what other "Spirit-filled" people were doing. I watched people shake, so I shook. I heard people pray in tongues, and eventually I did as well. Following altar calls, during what we called the after service, that is, after the pastor preached and gave an invitation for people to gather at the front of the sanctuary and pray around the altar, I saw people laugh and dance, so I, too, laughed and danced. And I witnessed people stumble around as they claimed to be drunk in the Spirit, and sometimes I copied their stumbling.
I did all this because I yearned to know God or, probably more, to experience God. And experiencing God was like getting a spiritual high — a feeling of elation and peace. Even though I would diligently sit in my pew during a church service and concentrate on the sermon, I would eagerly await the after service. When it finally came, I would race to the altar because that was the place I sensed the presence of God the strongest. Furthermore, every summer you could find me at church camp, where it seemed the exciting spiritual stuff happened and I could experience the Spirit even more! After all, at camp there were altar calls every night of the week. While I have no doubt that the Spirit was forming me in positive ways during my teenage years, you might say that I became a bit of a Spirit-experience junkie.
The Junkie Turns Skeptic
Somewhere during my four years of college, I lost a sense of enchantment regarding the Spirit. I learned to be more discerning, or, you might say, to think more critically. For the most part this was a good thing, and I 'm grateful for my time at college. I certainly learned how to understand the Bible there, and I even had the privilege of studying for a year in Africa, where I worshipped amid the explosion of global Christianity, much of which is Pentecostal or Charismatic in nature. But gradually, by my senior year of college, I started to become skeptical regarding my past experiences of the Spirit. It wasn 't because of anything specific my professors taught me, but their encouragement to think about my faith did cause me to question the extent to which I was simply following the spiritual crowd.
That growing skepticism was also in part an overreaction to the revivals taking place during those years in Florida and Toronto. Some of my friends who had traveled there told me some Christians there were barking like dogs as some sort of spiritual experience, while others lay on the floor groaning as though they were giving birth to a child. I balked at these behaviors, which just seemed weird to me, and I hesitated to engage in any spiritual experiences that were associated with those revivals. This included anything happening there that resembled my previous experiences, sometimes even something as simple as raising my hands in worship.
After I graduated from college I got married, and we moved to a midsized city on the shore of one of the Great Lakes. There, in seminary, my skepticism reached its peak. As I continued to study, I questioned even more than just experiences of the Spirit. While I had caring and thoughtful pastors, for a while I had a hard time listening to their sermons because I could always find something to disagree with. And I wasn 't so quick to respond to altar calls.
From Skepticism to Recovery
It wasn 't as if all my studying caused me to lose my faith in God, though. In fact, it saved me. Reading theology was like reading devotional literature, and it deepened both my prayer life and my worship, helping me to recover from my skepticism. Over time I learned to relax more in church, to have a greater appreciation for the sermons I listened to, and to be less cynical about the experiences of the Spirit the people around me were claiming to have.
During these years of study, Krista (my wife), our girls, and I attended a large, multi-staffed church where the presence of the Spirit was evident in many ways. While I don 't doubt that some things that happened at the church were more human-inspired than Spirit-inspired, both the pastors and the members of the congregation were outstanding examples of what it means to live a Spirit-filled life — they were passionate in their worship of God, they engaged in all the gifts of the Spirit on a regular basis, they prayed for and cared for one another, and they served communities around them and around the globe. During my time at that church, I slowly became more open to experiencing the Spirit in dramatic ways again. To some extent, my sense of enchantment regarding the Spirit returned, though now it coexisted with thoughtful discernment.
After completing my PhD, I moved to serve in the Midwest. Churches here on the prairies are not as vibrant as many churches where I have worshipped in the past. Yet, even though people here clap less during worship and aren 't likely to shout "Amen!" when the preacher says something they like, I have still found the Spirit at work, though perhaps more quietly than I was used to. Thankfully, by now I have recovered from both my time as a Spirit-experience junkie and my time as a skeptic. As a result, I can appreciate that the Spirit works in and through believers in a variety of ways, some of which are less visible than others.
I 've met many people with stories similar to mine — people who were once open to having intense experiences of the Spirit, experiences that might affect their emotions and even their bodies, but who were turned off by some seemingly strange people they witnessed in a worship service or even some strange experiences they may have had themselves. Some have watched people try to manipulate others under the guise of the spiritual gifts. Others have seen people fake an experience of the Spirit. Some have been discouraged by seeing too many pastors or evangelists, who were supposedly anointed by the Spirit, betray others ' trust with terrible moral failures. Such experiences could make anyone want to stay away from anything that has to do with the Holy Spirit.
I 've met many other people who have never been open to experiencing the Holy Spirit in any perceptible manner. Usually they are from churches where the Spirit is never discussed, or, if the Spirit is mentioned, it is usually in a negative way. They are warned, "Be careful of people who talk too much about the Holy Spirit," as though the Spirit were like poison or a hot stove. "Don 't get too close! Don 't touch!"
The Holy Spirit is not hazardous. Jesus was anointed by the Spirit, and we all love Jesus (Acts 10:38). And if you are a Christian, you can 't escape the Holy Spirit anyway, because the Spirit dwells within you, making you "a temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19 NASB). If it wasn 't for the Holy Spirit living in us, God might seem only far off in heaven or in the distant past doing miracles in Galilee. Thankfully, "this is how we know that [God] lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us" (1 John 3:24).
The Holy Spirit is like the wind. In fact, the Hebrew and Greek words for Spirit (the languages the Bible was originally written in) both mean "wind." And like the wind, the Spirit is mysterious. It is free and unpredictable and shapes its surroundings (John 3:8). Sometimes the wind gusts powerfully like a hurricane, whereas at other times it blows gently and we are not conscious of its stirring. Some Christians only look for the Spirit in the storm — in the spectacular and dramatic. By contrast, others assume the Spirit is only ever a calm breeze. We should not deny that the wind of the Spirit blows both powerfully and gently.
My hope for the skeptic is that you will be open to experiencing the Holy Spirit, who is the touch of God, as more than just idly dwelling within you, and that you would sense the Spirit like "a spring of water welling up" within (John 4:14). My hope for the Spirit-experience junkie is that you will be discerning and realize that we experience the Spirit for more than just selfish reasons, like to enjoy a psychedelic buzz during worship. My hope for everyone is that you would "not quench the Spirit ... but test everything; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:19, 21 NRSV). Open, but not gullible. Discerning, but not cynical. Engaging, but not fanatical. My hope is that you would be simply Spirit-filled.
Father, for those of us who have been skeptical or feared the Holy Spirit, please open our hearts to the authentic work of the Spirit. For those of us who have not followed your direction to test everything, help us be more discerning. Blow like the wind, Holy Spirit, in our lives.
Questions for Reflection or Discussion
- Do you think you have leaned more toward being a Spirit-experience junkie or toward being a skeptic of experiences of the Spirit?
- What are some ways you have experienced the Holy Spirit?
- What is the most intense experience of the Spirit you have had?
- Do you equally value the ways the Spirit blows like a strong wind and like a calm breeze?
- What does it mean to be open to having authentic experiences of the Spirit?
SHAKE AND BAKE
Slain in the Spirit and Other Manifestations
The steel concave walls made the sanctuary, or tabernacle, as we called it, look more like a steel barn than a church. About a dozen campers remained in the evening worship service, praying and singing the slow worship choruses as the band played their guitars and keyboard onstage. Below the stage, I lay flat on my back on the cold concrete floor. I opened my eyes and saw the green plastic underside of a chair. Later my roommate would tell me that when I fell back my head smacked the chair and then cracked on the floor. Yet I had no sense of this or any pain as I lay there, and there would be no negative after-effects.
My experience that night was what many people call being "slain in the Spirit." Some people also refer to this as "falling under the power" of God or "resting in the Spirit." The idea is that, while people are worshipping, the Holy Spirit might "slay" them by making them fall over as if dead. Of course, if you have ever been in a church service where you have seen this happen, you will know as well as I do that many people who fall over are not knocked over by the Holy Spirit; they are pushed over by a preacher.
Slain in the Spirit
But no one pushed me over when I fell under that chair at church camp. On previous occasions I had been prayed for and had people catch me when I fell over. But this time was different. I wanted to know if the experience of being slain in the Spirit was legitimate. Perhaps I was a bit naive; I was still in my teens. If I had resolved to test the experience of being slain in the Spirit later in life, I 'm sure I would have gone about it differently. But that night, as I stood there worshipping with my hands raised, I began to feel myself sway like a tree that was being cut down. This is what usually happened before I was slain in the Spirit. I suspect this was more my own doing than that of the Holy Spirit. After all, I eagerly desired to have "more of God," as the preachers put it, and this especially included feeling or sensing God more — what some people describe as mystical experiences of God. But as I swayed, I knew that this time there was no hand behind my back to catch me. The time had come for the test.
So I let myself fall. Did I mention that the floor was concrete? The camp had apparently stopped believing in having sawdust on the floor at the altar, as some earlier generations did. Still, I didn 't feel my head hitting the floor or the chair. I have heard stories of other people falling down while worshipping and without experiencing pain as well.
Shaking and Baking
Being slain in the Spirit is only one of the controversial so-called manifestations of the Spirit. Another one would be shaking. I myself have shaken to some extent. Usually it was just one arm or one leg at a time. I have also seen some people shake quite violently, so much that you might wonder if they were demon possessed or having a seizure.
I jokingly describe the trembling as the shake and the lying there "under the power" as the bake. I myself have experienced both. During the numerous times I have lain on the floor "baking," I have remained conscious of myself and those worshipping around me. Sometimes I have also prayed, sometimes I have prayed in tongues, and sometimes I have sung, but I think the majority of the time I just lay there relaxing and soaking in the presence of God. And while I have absolutely no doubt that I encountered God in those moments, I do want to question whether the shaking and falling were actually from God.
Are the Experiences Caused by the Spirit?
I really did meet with God the night I fell and cracked my head on the concrete floor, but maybe it was not the Holy Spirit who made me fall down. Maybe I fell down because I wanted to. But what about the fact that I didn 't end up with a concussion or bump on my head after it hit the floor? Perhaps that was God being gracious to me in my naiveté. God knew my faith was sincere, even though I was possibly putting God to the test. Instead of healing me after the fact, maybe the Lord was gracious enough to keep me from injuring myself in the first place. This is certainly possible. But even if God miraculously saved me from injury, my falling does not require us to conclude that the Holy Spirit knocked me over.
And what about those experiences when I shook? My shaking does not require any supernatural explanation either. I had seen other people do it. I probably came to the conclusion that that was what a person was to expect when they experienced the Holy Spirit during a church service. So, again, I ask the question: what are we to make of all this trembling and falling?
The Loopy and Weird Test
One could immediately reject experiences of falling or shaking as just plain weird. I hear some people dismiss certain teachings or experiences simply because they sound loopy. The problem with this approach, however, is that we usually make such conclusions only when it concerns an experience we are not used to; yet, others may be very used to it. Nevertheless, many people have made similar conclusions regarding speaking in tongues. In fact, numerous times throughout Christian history, church leaders have accused people who spoke in tongues of being demon possessed. If the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement had not grown to the extent it has today, speaking in tongues would still seem weird — it remains so for some people — and many people would continue to dismiss the experience of speaking in tongues as a result. So I do not think it is wise to dismiss trembling or falling under the power of the Spirit just because it seems strange.
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