Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Spirit moves

The one thing you can count on with the Holy Spirit: He will do the unexpected.

No one would have predicted that the motley group of defeated disciples of Jesus would suddenly be transformed into mighty men, speaking with the power of the Spirit and upending the world around them.

And who would have guessed that Saul, the great Jewish persecutor of the early Christians, would become a blazing missionary for the new faith?

Looking back at my early life, I would have laughed had someone said I would become a devoted follower of Jesus.  I can remember as a teenager scoffing at a television show featuring the evangelist Oral Roberts.  I recall being amazed when my father defended him.

As a university student, I was more interested in having a good time with friends than I was in studying.  Christ was far from my thoughts.

But the Holy Spirit moved in me.  He did the unexpected.  He drew me to Jesus Christ and my life changed forever.

I know many similar stories – some far more astounding.

One of these is the story of Jack Frost, an American evangelist and healer who died not too long ago.  I was listening to his testimony yesterday and I praised God for the Holy Spirit’s direct intervention in his life when he was near despair, alone on his fishing boat on the Atlantic Ocean.  With a sense of humour, the Spirit used a song about Jesus sung by a secular rock group to melt Jack Frost’s heart and drown him with joy.  Frost was an alcoholic and heavy drug user and was cured of these addictions immediately.

Unfortunately, we often take these high points and say to ourselves that life is downhill after that.  But we do not really understand what the Holy Spirit is up to.  For him, our conversion is just the beginning.

I was grateful to hear Jack Frost tell about the Holy Spirit’s work on his life after his conversion.  His is a story of gradual transformation – with some major setbacks – over many years.  Inspiring and challenging.

The danger is to lose faith in the Holy Spirit and his work.  Regretfully, I am guilty of that sin.  I have looked at my failures and sins and assumed they are insurmountable.   But the Bible and history prove me wrong.

I am focusing more and more on the Holy Spirit and his work.  God has given us the Spirit to empower us for his work in our world.

I am not helpless.  The Holy Spirit is within me – God is within me.  There is no greater strength than that.

So the world may look hopeless as it did to the early disciples after Jesus’ death.  But the Spirit is moving.  That is our hope.

Is the Western church doomed?

For many informed Christians, the answer to the question in the title is: “Yes.”

The evidence for decline in the Western Christian church – including the evangelical church – is strong.  Churches in Europe are empty as are many in North America.  Spiritually, there is not much to tell between Christians and non-Christians.  Divorce rates are as high in evangelical churches as they are in the rest of the world.  Some evangelical leaders have been found guilty of sexual sin.  I could go on.

Our daughter was mentioning yesterday that her church is considering a Saturday night service to reach people who are too busy on Sunday with family matters – such as children’s sports – to attend church.  She noted that families are under a lot of stress as husband and wife are both working and they are busy in off hours taking their children to music or dancing lessons or sports activities.  Sometimes it comes down to the question: “Do I sacrifice my child’s chances for a brilliant career in hockey or music in order to go to church on Sunday?”

It’s easy for aging believers such as myself to frown on this haphazard church attendance.  But my wife and I didn’t have to face that Sunday conflict between church and kids’ sports when our children were growing up.

With a little ingenuity such as Saturday evening services, I think some of these issues can be resolved.  There are other aspects, though, which are equally effective in keeping people away from church – the competing attractions of society around us.

Sporadic church attendance combined with growing moral and spiritual failings in the Western church makes the future look worrying.

So, do we throw up our hands and admit the Western church will gradually die?

I am an optimist so my answer is: “No.”

I look at history and see that God can suddenly change things dramatically.  My reading of great revivals is that the Holy Spirit can transform an entire society.  The Welsh Revival in the early 1900s is a good example.  Not only did people commit their lives to Christ in vast numbers but bars were closed and jails were emptied.

It is said that the social situation was so serious and the church so corrupt in England in the 1700s that Britain could easily have faced a revolution on the scale of the French revolution.  But the Wesleyan revival turned England around.  The evangelical movement in the late 1700s led to William Wilberforce and other social reformers who brought lasting change to Britain.

People in those days were busy, too.  Men worked longer hours than they do today.  And women helped men work and looked after their large broods of children without the modern conveniences we enjoy.

Change is possible in Canada and the United States, too.  Revival often begins with a few people.  It is interesting that Old Testament prophets were commissioned by God to warn of disaster to come and sometimes the people listened and returned to the Lord.

I recognize that I need to attend to my own relationship with God and with other people.  God will take care of the big picture.

The army of God

As a new believer 50 years ago, I saw myself as part of the invisible army of God.

As a bit of a romantic, I imagined this army of believers conquering the secular world around us with the gospel of Christ.  It was thrilling to be part of this army.

I am coming back to this vision now.

Of course, the world has changed greatly in 50 years.  At that time, I was a young man – only 20 years old.  War of any kind seemed to be a great adventure.  Naziism had been defeated by a righteous force of allied nations.  Militant communism threatened our liberties, including religious freedom.

As a believer, I knew the army of God was not there to defeat secularism and communism by force.  It was there to win the battle through love and the power of the Spirit.

However, the idea of armies – whether godly or not – fell into disfavour in the intervening decades.  The Vietnam war led many Americans and other Westerners to denounce war of any kind.  “Army” and “war” became dirty words.

I believe this has had an impact on us as believers in the Western world.  We are on the defensive.  No one sings “Onward Christian soldiers” any more.  Christians believe in the peace that Christ brings to our hearts when we put our faith in him.  But we have carried that further to not wanting to offend anyone by our beliefs.

In the last while, I have come to accept what many other believers have pointed out over many centuries: We are in a battle with Satan’s kingdom whether we like it or not. It has taken me a long time to recognize this truth.

Only six years ago, I remember a friend suggesting that serious illness in our family might be part of Satan’s attack on us.  I said nothing but dismissed this thought as an extreme position.  Maybe it is, but I am not so sure any more.

I have changed my thinking as a result of studying the scriptures and reading modern-day stories of people delivered from evil spirits.  I have read of witch doctors in the developing world  who had supernatural powers but were defeated by believers resting in the power and love of God.

Some might say that this kind of “power encounter” happens only in poor countries where people are not well-educated.  But similar things are happening in North America.  In fact, I remember a very mild-mannered Baptist pastor and teacher at an Ontario seminary who had a deliverance ministry in Canada some years ago.

When people speak about spiritual warfare, they usually refer to the apostle Paul’s message to the Ephesian Christians in Ephesians 6:10-18.  Paul says explicitly that the battle is not against “flesh and blood”, but against dark spiritual forces – the forces of Satan.

I have learned not to be troubled by our enemy.  As some have said, Christ won the victory over Satan on the cross and our job is to gradually mop up the enemy forces until Christ’s victorious return.  The Bible clearly shows that the devil will flee if we resist him.

So, now my focus is on advancing the kingdom of God in this world as part of God’s vast, invisible army.  I do this whenever I allow Christ to work through me to touch the people around me – through prayer, acts of kindness, and the word of God.

But to be effective, I need to submit to my heavenly commander.  That is what I am learning now.

Whispers

I have been thinking a lot about what Bill Hybels calls “whispers” – nudgings from God.

How can I know what God wants me to do?  How do I know how he wants me to change?

I read about how great Christians – in this era and in past ages – have heard the voice of God – sometimes audibly and sometimes in other ways.

There seems to be a definite pattern: The people who hear God are the people who seek him continually.  A great example is the prophet Daniel.  He prayed to God three times a day.  Sometimes he fasted and prayed for very long periods.  And God spoke to him dramatically through angels and visions.

Along with praying regularly, Daniel repented of his sins and the sins of the people.  His repentance wasn’t a half-hearted “I’m sorry” followed by another round of sin.  His repentance was genuine and thorough.

It’s easy to get discouraged when you read about Daniel.  My natural reaction is: “He was special.  I can’t match Daniel.”

But, I’m increasingly convinced that it is possible to live a life like Daniel’s today.  In fact, many people are living lives like him now.

The secret is keeping my mind on Jesus, listening to him, and praying in the Spirit (Romans 8:26,27).

I have tried this in the past but only sporadically.  But for the last two weeks I have been doing this much more consistently.

What is listening?  And what is “praying in the Spirit”?

There are a variety of scriptures that indicate what these phrases mean.  However, there is not enough evidence to support one particular view over another.

I believe listening involves silently focusing my mind on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2), picturing him in my mind and actually making the effort to listen.  A man I know does this for an hour every morning and recieves Jesus’ “whispers” during the day – knowing that God is speaking to him and giving him guidance.

As for “praying in the Spirit”, it could mean speaking in tongues as some say or it could simply be pouring out your heart to God silently.  Whatever way you do it, you are saying to God: “I don’t know how to pray in some situations.  But your Spirit knows my needs and the needs of those you want me to pray for.  I will get out of the way and let the Spirit who lives within me, pray in my place.”

I believe this fulfills what Paul recommends in 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray continually.”

Since starting doing this two weeks ago, I have found my mind and heart being changed.  When my mind is focused on God, I don’t have time to wallow in my sins.  And somehow I am more available to be used of God.

I am looking forward to seeing how God will change me as I continue along this path.  I realize I will need the Spirit’s power to do it because I am weak.