13 myths Christians believe about the gifts of the Spirit

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This is a blog post that I recently realised I have been writing in the back of my head for the past 6 months or so. From dozens of conversations with people and epiphanies in the shower, all of which I thought were unrelated, I’ve realised that a lot of the thoughts I’ve been thinking lately can be more or less unified under the topic of misconceptions Christians hold about the Holy Spirit, his gifts, and his interactions with us. So here are 13 myths that I think (many) Christians believe and should start unbelieving about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

While this is partly a cathartic rant unloading all the ways everybody but me is wrong, actually, I hope much of what’s written here is a liberating and empowering encouragement to people to, as Paul says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” (1 Corinthians 14:1), with even a few practical ways that we can actually do that, all towards a vision to use these gifts to build up the church and see real change in our lives. Much of what I say here we can all agree on, while every reader, from every denomination and theological persuasion, will probably find something to disagree with.

1. Equating the gifts of the spirit with the Holy Spirit himself

I’m kicking things off with this one because it was encountering this myth in a recent conversation that got me frustrated enough to write this thing in the first place. You see, this is something that we charismatics say a lot, and I wonder if we realise what we are saying – where we use the term “the Holy Spirit,” to refer specifically for some reason to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It’ll just be a passing comment where someone will say, “It’s so sad how those traditional Christian folk don’t believe in the Holy Spirit.” Or, “Unlike them, we believe the Holy Spirit is present in the Church today,” or, “What a shame that so many Christians miss out on the Holy Spirit.” And we’ll talk about how the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900s were the long awaited return of the Holy Spirit to the Church. We’ll even put on services at church with a focus on healing and prophecy, and we’ll call them “Holy Spirit” nights.

There is a gigantic problem with this way of speaking, and it is that it equates the gifts of the Spirit with the Holy Spirit himself. Or more specifically it implies that the Holy Spirit’s sole function in the Church is to give people “spiritual gifts”. The reality is that the Holy Spirit does a lot more than give us spiritual gifts. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Holy Spirit has far more important things to do than give us spiritual gifts, such that by far the majority of the roles the Holy Spirit plays in the lives of Christians are things that every Christian believes in, whether they’re charismatic or not.

First of all, it is impossible to be a Christian without having the Holy Spirit living within you (Rom 8:9-11, 1 Cor 6:19). To say that someone doesn’t have the Holy Spirit is to say that they are not a Christian at all. So let’s be careful with what we say. Further, to put it bluntly, the Holy Spirit is the one who actually does the dirty work, on the ground, of actually saving us (Titus 3:5-7, John 3:5, Romans 8:15). The Spirit is also the one who empowers us to believe and say that Jesus is Lord – according to Paul, without the Spirit it is impossible for us to do this (1 Cor 12:3). The Spirit is also the one who sanctifies us and empowers us to die to sin and live in obedience to the Father. There’s a reason our good works are referred to as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26, Romans 8:13). I could go on listing all the other nifty things the Holy Spirit has been involved in, from creating the universe to raising Jesus from the dead, but we’d be here all day. Hopefully by now you can see that restricting the Holy Spirit’s resume to “spiritual gift giver,” really fails to give him enough credit, which is ironic when the people who talk like this claim to be the ones who like the Holy Spirit more than other kinds of Christians.

When we talk about prophecy, tongues, healing, and other spiritual gifts, we are talking about something much more specific than the entire person of the Trinity that is the Holy Spirit. We are talking about one of the many things the Holy Spirit does. And so when it comes to charismatics (who believe in the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit) vs cessationists (who believe these gifts ended with the first generation of Christians), both of these camps believe in the reality and power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church today. In fact charismatics and cessationists agree on far more about the Holy Spirit than they disagree on. Also, I know we mean well, but it’s kind of nonsensical to talk about “Holy Spirit nights” at church. Every church service in the history of church services has had the full involvement and cooperation of the Holy Spirit, without which nobody would be saved, nobody would be edified, and Christ would not have been proclaimed or worshiped. And as for the “return” of the Holy Spirit to the Church in the Pentecostal revivals… If the Holy Spirit ever actually left the Church, the Church would cease to exist. Continue reading

12 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Date a Non-Believer

Let’s start by saying it out loud: I’m single. So here comes another single guy, writing about relationships as if he’s qualified on the topic. But actually, I’d want to suggest to you that perhaps my singleness is in fact exactly what qualifies me to talk about this. Because, while I have never been in a relationship, I have had several serious opportunities for relationships that came close but which I ultimately decided not to pursue. It’s not that these girls weren’t Christian, but I had my reasons for knowing that pursuing a relationship with them would not have been the godly thing to do. So while I may not know that much about dating, I do know a thing or two about, well, not dating. And that’s precisely what this article is about.

So. This is an article about why, if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t date someone who isn’t. I’m writing this in part because it is a common issue in most Christian communities – all of us will have at some point at least known a Christian who was dating a non-Christian. But it’s mainly because I’ve often thought, from the conversations I’ve had about this topic over the years, that there is a lot of unclarity and maybe confusion around how some people in church think about this. It seems to be a bit of a grey area for a lot of Christians. I want to argue that it’s actually pretty black and white. I want to argue that because I don’t want Christians to be confused and unsure about this. So I hope to bring clarity and definition to the issue for people, so that they can have a conviction about it that is not merely a product of Christian culture, but is the product of their own engagement with God’s word on the matter.

Of course life and people are complicated things, and knowing clearly what’s right doesn’t always produce a lifestyle to match. It’ll take more than one blog post to change a person’s life choices. And the huge premise here is that, regardless of where we’re at on this particular issue, we’re all together in the fact that we’re messy, idiotic sinners who get stuff wrong all the time. And so I would hate for my exhortations here to come across as a self-righteous sense of moral superiority. I assure you I have no delusions that I am a good person. But as a starting point, whatever we do with the information, it is beneficial or all of us to be informed about how God wants us to live, and to know the reasons for our beliefs. Because we definitely can’t live right, or help our friends live right, if we don’t know what right is.

  1. How good or bad a boyfriend/girlfriend they are to you is not the issue

I think this is the first thing that needs to be said. This is not about how good or bad a partner a non-Christian will make. When I say you shouldn’t date a non-Christian, it is not based on some prejudiced, unrealistic notion that unbelievers are selfish, debaucherous people who won’t treat you right. This needs to be said because, personally, I am very perplexed by the frequency with which I hear the argument that goes, “A lot of unbelievers will treat a girl better than a lot of Christians out there.” This is so confusing. Why would you say that? Is it because you believe this is about how well someone treats you? It’s not about getting someone who will be good to you. It’s about something so much deeper than that.

Yes, there are plenty of Christian guys and girls out there who are after your affections and who don’t deserve them. There are some Christians out there who would treat you worse in a relationship than some non-Christians. But the answer to that is not to ditch those loser Christians and pick up the decent unbeliever. The answer is to neither date the inadequate Christian… or the unbeliever. The answer is to raise your standards – not lower them. The answer is to wait for someone who belongs to Jesus’ Kingdom, and will treat you right. Because Christians aren’t perfect, but you’re stuck with them. If you don’t want to marry a Christian, you might be in the wrong religion.

  1. The Bible says no

Sorry to be blunt. (I promise this article gets more tenderly pastoral towards the end.) But I really do believe God has spoken on this topic. Well, almost. The Bible doesn’t forbid dating unbelievers. But then again, “dating” is a foreign concept to the authors of the Bible. What the Bible does forbid is Christians marrying unbelievers. We can see this in 1 Corinthians 7:39, where Paul says a widow is free to marry anyone she chooses, “only in the Lord,” which is First Century Christianese for “only if he’s a Christian.” Continue reading

A Lesson From Prayer

This is not a lesson on prayer. This is a lesson from prayer. Sometimes God teaches us things through our own prayers. As we talk to him, he shows us something new. This is a lesson I learnt from a recent experience praying to God about something.

See, there was something I wanted. Something in my life that I really wanted to happen. I’ll leave you to speculate about what it was, because it doesn’t matter what it was. The point is that I wanted it. I really did.

And yet, as I talked to God about it, I somehow found myself saying, “God, I only want this if you do too.” From where I mustered the faith to say such a thing I don’t know, but there I was, telling God that it was more important to me what he wanted for me than what I wanted for myself. There was something so therapeutic about the very act of saying this to God, because it meant that I wasn’t trying to attain this thing by my own power or finesse. Believing that the outcome was in God’s hands, believing that he was in control over whether or not I got what I wanted, I had no choice but to believe that if I didn’t get it, it’s because God didn’t want me to have it.

And what a difference that makes. Because a “no” from God is so much easier, so much more tender than a “no” from just… life. It is so hard to handle the idea that the thing that has prevented you from getting what you want is nothing other than the blind, mindless processes of chance. But if this thing was withheld from me by an intelligent agent, a personal being who was consciously aware of my desires, and who does things for reasons, and not only that, but whose reasons include the fact that he loves me and is deeply and intimately concerned with my life. That is something I can handle. That’s something I can be okay with. That my “no” comes from God proves that I didn’t need what has been withheld. A “no” from God comes with a smile, and with the promise of a better alternative. As the old adage goes, that God answers every prayer in one of three ways: ‘Yes,’ ‘Not yet,’ or ‘I have something better.’

But that’s where the fears started coming in. What exactly does God consider “better”? Given that God’s ways and thoughts are so much higher than mine, what if his ideas of what would be best for me consist of things that I would consider abhorrent and miserable, and will only understand the benefit of in the next life or when I’m like 80? What if it’s best for me to go through decades of suffering? What if he needs to teach me a painful lesson? What if God wants me to live a truly hard life, overcoming some serious, heart wrenching battle in order to humble me or something? And while I’m slightly exaggerating, don’t write off questions like these. It’s not a stupid thing to wonder about. A life of suffering is literally what God, in Acts 9:16, explicitly had planned for the Apostle Paul.

And can anyone say, “Job”?

This stuff isn’t beyond the realm of realism. Earthly exemption from suffering (of whatever kind) is never promised in the New Testament. What God promises is to empower us to experience joy through pain. And that’s great, but it doesn’t come easy. It requires a journey. And that journey is terrifying. And what doesn’t help is Christians coming around you with empty promises, saying “God’s gonna do this, and give you that,” when they’re often just platitudes based more on hearsay and the hopeful thinking of folk theology than on God’s own words to us.

Yeah, some days I really was worrying about stuff like that. Because, while I knew that God, according to Romans 8:28, was doing everything for my ultimate benefit, I feared what kind of journey that might entail – and what kind of crazy, ridiculous, deep trust in him I might need to find in order to be okay with whatever journey he has planned. And so, at this point, for God to say “no” to my prayer, would to me have been taken as more evidence that God’s plans for me might be radically, painfully different to my own.

Well. I found the answer about an hour before the “no” came. One night, the door was shut to the thing I wanted. But, to the Devil’s dismay, that door shut itself right after a church service. And I guess God used that service to prepare me for the impending denial. Because as I was standing in worship that night, I can’t remember what song we were singing, but for some reason it reminded me of Romans 8:32, which says:

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

It’s funny how God works. Because he usually doesn’t answer your questions. He just distracts you from them. Our questions are stupid, and so rather than answering them, he gives us something better to think about. While I had all these fears running around my head about the scary things God might put me through, I was hit with this… thing… from the Bible.

God gave me his Son. How could I not trust him? He has already given me his best. The very best thing he had in his possession, he has already given me.

Now I guess the usual lesson we take from that would be the fact that, “Jesus is enough.” And that’s true. But that’s not what God was showing me that night. He was simply showing me that he was worthy of absolutely all of my trust, because he is the kind of God that would give me his greatest and most prized possession.

On that day God withheld something from me. And I don’t like speculating about what his reasons for that might be; how could I possibly figure that out? But the fact that he has already given me his very own Son, tells me what isn’t the reason he withheld it from me:

He didn’t deny me this thing because it was too good a gift.

It’s not because it was too good for me. It’s not because I’m not worthy of it. It’s not because I don’t deserve it. How could it be? If he denied be some earthly gift because of my lack of merit, how the heck could he possibly give me his priceless, glorious, eternal, majestic, only begotten Son? If he gave me his Son, then I just know for a fact that he’s not in the business of withholding things from me because they’re too good. The giving of his Son showed me what kind of value he places on me, what kind of a giver he is to me. He’s not holding out on me things that he knows will bless me. He doesn’t look at me and look at the gift and think, “Hmm, nah this is to valuable a thing for me to give away to him.” That’s not what’s going on, because that’s not what he did with his Son – the best thing that anyone has given to anyone.

How could I not trust him?

Sometimes we give something up because God asks us to, but at the time we don’t even know just how costly our choice of obedience will turn out to have been. With great anguish we sacrifice something for him, only to find out later that the sacrifice we made was even bigger than we realised – that the consequences are more numerous and more painful than we saw coming.

God doesn’t always act with our informed consent. He doesn’t always give us all the information before asking us to do something.

Perhaps this is for our good.

Love Reconsidered

My understanding of love has drastically changed, and we might need to talk about it…

*TLDR version: I know this is long, so I’ve made it skimmable. If you just read everything that’s in bold you will get the main points (but you won’t get as much of my sweet prose skills.)

I: LOVE AND ACTION

Correcting a worldly error

We Christians talk about love a lot. And we should. We all know that love is a concept that lies at the very centre of the Christian faith. And it should. As Jesus said, the greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:37-39). And of course, as John said, “God is love,” (1 John 4:8).

And here’s the thing. The contemporary Church has needed to combat many worldly distortions of what love is, because the World so often teaches us that love is a kind of euphoric feeling that comes over you whenever and however it pleases, that can neither be cultivated nor controlled, and ought to be obeyed above any considerations of morality – we ought to follow our hearts. The Church has rightly corrected the problems with this notion of love, reminding us that love, according to the Bible, is not merely euphoric but is maintained by discipline and is expressed through action, that it is not convenient but is self-sacrificial. In reaction to the over-romanticised Disney brand of love, the Church has reminded us that God demonstrated his love for us by the ultimate sacrifice of sending his Son to die a brutal death for us, that we may have eternal life. To correct an erroneous emphasis on emotion, the Church has taught us that the best way to love our neighbour is by treating them the way God’s law tells us to treat them.

And again this is absolutely right. After all, when Jesus gives the great twofold commandment, he says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 22:40). Paul reiterates this in Galatians 5:13-14: “Through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” Clearly, to love people is to obey the law, and to obey the law is to love people, because God gave the law to show us what real love should look like in practice.

But some time lately (ok, it was about a year ago now – that’s how long it’s taken me to write this), I began to rethink entirely the nature of this commandment to love one another, as I became confronted with how much deeper – and how much more challenging, powerful, and exciting – it is than I thought.

To-do list love

When I look at contemporary Western Christianity, I notice some things. As we endeavoured to combat against cheap, flippant, passive, convenient love, I fear that we have sometimes overly intellectualised and externalised love into a concept, and a to-do list. Please hear me right: We have made love about helping people, meeting people’s physical and spiritual needs, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, defending the oppressed, visiting the lonely, liberating the enslaved. We have preached, “Love your neighbour,” and meant, “Get out there and do something!” We have made the topic of love into a “how to” topic, writing books and articles suggesting practical ideas on how to literally “love our neighbour” – with the help of baked goods and power tools. We have asked ourselves, “How can I love this person,” and meant, “What does this person need that I can give them?” Indeed, we have made “love” a verb, and we have synonymised it with “serve”. And what wonderful things these are!

But if this were all our love was, there would be something missing, something we have maybe forgotten about love (even though it is perhaps the most basic, intuitive fact about love that there is to know), something I am beginning to think is actually the main thing God is trying to get us on board with when he tells us to “love”. Continue reading

On the Unity of the Church – What is this thing called Christianity?

[Edit (03/10/14): Apologies for how long this post is. If you’re in a hurry you may find it effective to just read the bits in bold to get the main points, and prioritise reading the final section.]

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“Christianity” can mean so very many things.

When you meet enough people – especially people who have met a lot of other people – and when you see enough of the world, you must concede this fact, that two different “Christians,” when randomly plucked from different places on the globe, will not necessarily adhere to beliefs or practices that at all resemble each other. To study history only multiplies this phenomenon: not only is Christianity different from one place to another, but also from one time to another, within the same place! Over the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, those who claim to follow him have said and done radically different and irreconcilable things. In the name of Jesus, some people have fed the hungry and clothed the poor, while other people have fought wars and taken land by force; some people have abolished slavery, while others have enslaved generations; some people have set up schools as centres of free education, while others have sought to suppress and persecute free thought. Some Christians have called Jesus the very Son of God, while others have called him only a good teacher; some have said that salvation is a free gift received by faith, while others have said we are to earn our way into Heaven by our good deeds. Some Christians believe fully in the authority of scripture, while others say it’s only a flawed human guideline. Of those who do believe the Bible, they can’t agree on how long it took God to create the Earth, or whether God exists as a Trinity, or whether or not women ought to preach. All the while some of these people are singing hymns while others sing rock music – and have even waged war on each other over differences comparable to this.

I hope you get the point. There is a serious question on the minds of so many people on the outside, looking in: What is this thing called “Christianity”? And why can’t its proponents get along? How can you say that there is one Christian religion worth talking about, when there as many interpretations of it as there are “Christians”? Of course, Christians like myself will say that people who fight wars in the name of Christianity have entirely abandoned the very essence of what Jesus came to earth to achieve – a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36). “They are not true Christians,” I will say. But of course that’s exactly it, they shall reply: who gets to decide who are the true Christians and who are the fake ones? Your peaceful Christianity is just your interpretation, while those who want to advance Christendom by the sword will tell you that your interpretation is wrong; you are the fake Christian. Who, then, can be the arbiter? Who can really say what ‘true’ Christianity is?

To complicate matters further, while there are a whole bunch of people who claim to be Christian that I will say are in fact not Christians, there is a whole group of other people whom I affirm when they profess to be Christian, even though I disagree with them on smaller but still major theological issues, such as the nature of God’s sovereignty and its relationship to human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or creation and the age of the Earth. Yes it seems as though Evangelical Christians (by which I mean roughly “Protestant Christians who believe that Bible is the sole authoritative word of God and that people must be saved from deserved punishment for sin through a personal faith in the atoning work of Jesus’ death and resurrection”), have decided upon a certain set of criteria for what it is to be a real Christian. We have at some point drawn a theological circle, inside which you count as a Christian and outside which you don’t. And of course, “to be a Christian” is here synonymous with “to be saved”, and thus such theological line drawing comes with a certain level of moral connotation, and can cause all sorts of offence. And yet such line drawing must be done, for not just any old person who believes any old thing can be called a “Christian” just because we want to be nice – no more than just anybody can be called a “hipster” (not that they necessarily want to be). The question then is, on what basis do we mark the cut-off between Christian and not? Just how much can a person disagree with me before I say they have departed from the true faith? Ultimately, on what basis can I say that there is one religion called Christianity? Continue reading

On prosperity theology

Even in the case that prosperity theology is true, then I still do not see how the believer is left with a reason to “chase God’s blessing.”

If the truth is that obedience to God will attract material blessing towards you, then this could only be a reason precisely not to chase wealth. For “it will chase you.”

The believer’s only task, then, would be to simply obey God by being generous towards others with their wealth.

It seems to me that any person who is storing up for themselves treasures on earth is not living a life that is consistent with prosperity theology.

On women preaching.

There are Christians who believe that women should not preach to men.

Understandably there are many Christian women who are upset about this.

But we must remember, that to preach is an act of service. It is not done for the good of the preacher, but for the good of the listener. The only right some women are being deprived of is the right to serve others.

This is true about all gifts within the body of Christ: they are not toys that the Christian has a right to play with, but tools that the Christian has a responsibility to serve the body with. I play keys at my church. If somebody in leadership decided that I couldn’t play in church because I was left handed, how should I respond? Would I assert my equal right to play? Why would I do that? Was I trying to gain something by playing? I hope not.

I hope that I would be upset not because I have lost something, but because my church has lost something. I hope that my love for the church would be so great, so central to my vision, that it would alone be my inability to help them that hurts me.

Preaching is no exception to this law. It seems to me that, if women are angry about the lack of opportunity for those of their gender to preach, it ought not be because they feel that Christian women are being deprived of something, but because men are being deprived of something.

And here lies precisely the reason why it makes no sense for women to be alone in speaking about this issue. If God doesn’t forbid women to preach to his Church, then the absence of this in the Church is an issue for everybody – especially men, since they are the only ones who are unable to hear sermons from the mouths of women. If God desires women to preach to mixed congregations, then it is because he has made man such that he needs it, such that there is something about the way women think, speak, and exhort that men need to hear.

If God desires women to preach to men, then men should be more upset about their suppression than women.

To Know the Word

I’ve resolved that I now want to begin a journey of better knowing the Word of God.

There is such a difference between knowing about the Bible, and knowing the Bible.

It is just like any other piece of literature, really. I could tell you a lot about Immanuel Kant’s major work Critique of Pure Reason. I could tell you when Kant wrote it, why he wrote it, and what philosophical questions it addresses. I could tell you about who his influences were in writing it, as well as about the ways in which the book influenced generations of philosophers to come. I could even tell you many things about what views the book espouses.

But do I know the book? Am I familiar with it? Do I know Kant’s actual words? No I do not, because I have never read the Critique of Pure Reason. Not more than a few pages anyway.

In the same way, I think I know more about the Bible than I do the Bible itself. I can tell you a lot about the theology that the Bible contains. I can tell you how and when the books of the Bible were compiled together. I can tell you who wrote what book of the Bible, when they wrote it, and the historical context in which they produced it. I can summarise the message of many of the books of the Bible. I can even tell you a lot about how to read it.

But the thing is, there are many people to whom I could teach a lot of the above things, but who know the Bible itself better than I do.

I don’t want to just know about the Word of God. I want to know the Word. I want to be intimately acquainted with the words of the Scriptures such that their exhortations frequently feature in my conversations with others, that God’s promises saturate my prayers, that his commandments are the meditations that form the backdrop of my mind. I want to be so familiar with the Word of God, that I have a verse to stand on for every situation I face, and another one to encourage my brother in every trial.

Such a knowledge is not the product of intelligence. It is the product of devotion.