I'm weary of weird Christians
by Michael Spencer
So they said to him, "Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?" John 6:30
So the Jews said to him, "What sign do you show us for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." John 2:18-19
And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation." Mark 8:12
I'm tired of weird Christians.
I am tired of hearing people I work with say that God is talking to them like He talked to Moses at the burning bush or like He talked to Abraham. I'm weary of people saying God speaks directly to them about mundane matters of reasonable human choice, so that their choices of toothpaste and wallpaper are actually God's choices, and therefore I need to just shut up and keep all my opinions to myself until I can appreciate spiritual things. I'm tired of people acting as if the normal Christian life is hearing a voice in your head telling you things other people can't possible know, thus allowing you a decided advantage.
I mean, if all this were really happening, wouldn't these people be picking better stocks?
I'm weary of immature college students and high school kids going on and on about what God is saying to them as if they were up there with the authors of scripture. I've had it with Christian musicians acting as if every lyric they write is a message directly from God and free from the possibility of mediocrity or poor taste. I now hear preachers who preface their sermons with an appropriate selection from CCM, rather than with scripture. I mean, is there really that much of a difference?
I'm burned out on Christians telling me about the next big thing God is going to do, as if they really know. I'm tired of Christians predicting the future and being consistently, continually wrong, but acting like they weren't wrong. If you said that on New Year's Eve the east coast was going to fall into the ocean because of divine judgment and it didn't happen, you were wrong. Really, badly, embarrassingly wrong. So why can't you act like you are wrong? Why am I so sure you will have more absurd predictions next Sunday?
I'm worn out on people doing weird things that aren't in the Bible and saying it's the "leading of the Spirit." Falling over. Acting drunk. Jumping around like a wasp went down your dress. I'm tired of turning on the TV or the radio and hearing Christians making more noise than a riot at a mental hospital. I'm out of patience with Christian spirituality equaling some form of clown college graduation.
I'm seriously fatigued from constantly hearing reality explained as spiritual warfare between angels, Christians, demons, and various conspiracies. The drama of blaming everything from illness to bad credit to all your bad choices on the devil is getting old. I'm tired of people being delivered from demons when their problem is their own rebellion, stupidity, meanness, and determination to get their own way.
I'm tired of God being the bag man for everything ever done by some guy who didn't want to answer questions about right and wrong. I'm tired of God directing people to do things that, uh...actually are not all that ethical or are just plain evil. I'm tired of having to tell my kids that "Yes, so and so said God told them to do it, but that's not what Jesus should do or you should do." I'm annoyed at the attention weirdo Christians get, and the obligation I supposedly have to love them anyway.
Let me use some bad language: "Normal." Dare I bring up that word? Isn't the Christian life a constantly supernatural life? A frequently miracle-filled life? A life of divine direction, healing, and signs? A life where you (the Christian) know all kinds of things that ORDINARY people don't know?. A life where you (the Christian) are in on the future, in on the prophecies, under the ministry of anointed prophets who are plugged into the big plan? A life that is a battleground of constant demonic assault? Aren't Christians supposed to have supernatural knowledge of Kung Fu, and be able to hang in the air and.......well, maybe not.
Isn't the Christian life the "Victorious" life? The "Purpose Driven" life? The "Spirit Filled" life? The life with Christ living in you and through you? It's not a normal life, and it's not ordinary. Right? Do I get an "amen?"
Or maybe you are like me. You are an ordinary Christian living an ordinary life. You don't hear voices, see visions, or believe you are under constant attack by demonic forces. You may have some experiences that you call supernatural or miraculous, but they are the exception, not the rule. When you pray for people, things usually don't change; you change. You have no authoritative insight into what is going to happen in the future. You suspect that if you were filled with the Spirit, you would love God and people more, and do the right thing more often. You'd be more like Jesus. You wouldn't be running around in circles pointing out angels on the roof. The fruit of the Spirit would make you a person others would want to be around, not someone who would frighten animals and small children.
A Disclaimer, A Principle, and An Observation
Before the tomatoes start hitting the screen, I should open a window and let some air in.
I believe there are some really strange things that happened in the Bible. I don't doubt any of them. I believe in Satan, demons, and angels. I believe God speaks to people in any way He chooses. I have experienced God's direction in my life in a way that can only be explained as "God spoke to me." I don't hesitate to say it. But this happened once in my life. Miracles are real, and prayer in scripture is an invitation to ask God to do what only God can do in any way He chooses.
I accept without question that some very Spirit-filled people come off as weird in the Bible, in history, and today. I have no argument with anyone over the reality of spiritual gifts or spiritual experience. The Christian does have victory, power, purpose and revelation, all as gifts from God. I do not automatically write off any claim of spiritual experience that is different from my own.
My point is not to trash anyone who believes in any of these things. Not at all. My point is that "normal" Christian experience is increasingly seen as "bad" or "abnormal," while weirdness is increasingly seen as "normal" and proof that a person is really "spiritual." This shift has enormous implications for Christianity in its essence, its witness, and its experience in the lives of believers.
The principle that I would like to put forward is this: The supernatural character of Christian truth and experience does not remove the basic, normal, human experience of Christians. If "normal" humanity is eclipsed, Christianity ceases to be Biblical, truthful or helpful.
In some ways, I think we are being presented with a spiritual dichotomy similar to the Roman Catholic division between those in "holy orders" and your regular Christian in the pew. Protestantism refuted this view, and strongly reasserted the Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. But now Pentecostal/Charismatic spirituality has brought evangelicalism to a similar situation--a division between the spiritual elite with their "supernaturalism" and the ordinary Christian who doesn't hear voices and see visions.
Now, that we are all calmed down, let me be very matter-of-fact. In my experience, Christians who go very far down this road of a "hyper-spiritual" experience rapidly become less useful in the service of Christ. Some become quite useless, even a hindrance and a detriment. Let me entertain you with three stories to illustrate--not prove--my point. All three are about individuals who were highly involved in hearing God's voice, experiencing personal spiritual warfare, seeking miraculous experiences in daily life, and getting words of prophetic insight about personal and world events. I won't overdo that description of each person. We'll assume it for the moment.
John, Matt and the Band
"John" came to work for us as a teacher and coach. He was a remarkably gifted guy, particularly in anything that involved people. He was a natural conversationalist, and had real skill in motivation and relationship-building. Before long, we had placed John in an administrative position where he could tell possible donors about our ministry. I had high hopes for John.
John was, however, one of the people I am discussing. Before long, it became apparent that John was pretty uncomfortable with the fact that our ministry wasn't casting out demons from students. His frustration grew. One day, over lunch, he told me that he was going to leave and find a ministry that would really "pray for" the students. John's comment struck me as stupid and arrogant, because our ministry depends on and practices prayer. It's just not the sort of prayer that John was advocating, prayer that really amounted to diagnosing problems as demon possession and ordering the appropriate demon around. I've never had much appreciation for people who identified straightforward problems as being evil spirits. It's not a matter of doubt on my part. It's a matter of being helpful to the person. John could have been helpful, but he wanted something else.
He left, which was his pattern. He's been from church to church, ministry to ministry, always pushing for more and more supernaturalism. And if you don't want to go his way, you're not going with God. In the meantime, a really talented guy is not putting his gifts to work.
"Matt" and I worked closely together during a good period of spiritual renewal in our ministry. We worked well together because Matt had a maturity and an appreciation for other Christians that I admire to this day. During the time we worked together, our ministry saw a lot of "harvest time:" good numbers, lots of professions of faith, many public testimonies of Christian experience. It was a good time. It could have been better, but I was pleased with what God was doing with our students. Matt was as well, but he wanted more.
In fact, it turned out that Matt and several other Charismatics wanted to see a LOT more than we were seeing. They wanted tongues. They wanted people falling on the floor. They wanted exorcisms. They wanted--according to Matt--"vomiting" of evil spirits. They wanted things to get "out of control"--in the Spirit, of course. Matt and company got more excited the more "Pentecostal" any meeting became. Of course, there is a considerable difference between enjoying the evidence of the Spirit's work and determining what kind of supernatural demonstrations we have to see next. Matt rejoiced in the present with hopes it would lead to a real "breakthrough." I thought we already had one.
Before long, Matt moved on, unhappy that our ministry was not as "open to the Spirit" as we should be. I couldn't help but wonder: Were we not open, or was Matt simply unable to accept the freedom of the Lord to stop short of the whole menu of spiritual gymnastics that he determined we had to see? Today Matt isn't in ministry at all, but hanging out with other people on the same supernatural fast track. Is this really what Christian service is all about? It seemed more like some kind of Pentecostal peer pressure.
One more story. A few months ago I brought in a very talented Christian band for a concert. They played great music with good lyrics. Then the leader of the group decided he needed to preach. For 45 minutes he went on and on about how anyone here could do miracles if he had enough faith. He talked about God telling him what to do in every decision. (All he had to do was go to church and lay on the floor till God spoke.) He said he'd seen lots of instant healings at their concerts. Then the big one. His goal was to raise the dead. Everyone could raise the dead if they just had enough faith. (Of course we had some kind of an invitation to verify these good intentions.)
Here was a guy who seemed normal, and in half an hour convinced most everyone in the room that he was nuts. And non-Christians in the room were justified in deciding this fellow was a loon. Giving glory and credit to God didn't matter nearly as much as impressing all of us with how "out there" he could be, and with the fact that we all ought to be "out there" as well.
I could tell these stories all day. The co-worker who had a real gift for evangelizing students, but eventually began making personal prophecies over all of them, including saying the world would end before they all turned twenty. The African student who told the whole school that because I didn't speak in tongues or get slain in the Spirit, I wasn't a true minister of God. The woman who wandered my neighborhood praying "against" the various demons that God had revealed to her were influencing our neighborhood. The intelligent young man paralyzed with fear of making any decision without a sign from God.
What is going on here?
Lord, Give Us A Sign
In a previous article about religious fanaticism, I told about the theory that Islamist fanatics were overcompensating for what they saw as the "absence" of Allah on the stage of history. I said that religious fanatics may tend to think this way. Thinking about this later, I remember a story I've heard many times about John Wimber. Seems that when the founder of the Vineyard movement became a Christian, he expected to see the miracles of the Gospels happening today. He asked a pastor, "When do you do the stuff?" "The stuff? What do you mean?" "The miracles. The healings. You know, the stuff Jesus did." It's a good story, and I think it gets at something vital in this discussion.
If you read the Bible you are, of course, struck by the presence of supernatural events. Many of these events, like the Exodus and the Resurrection, are central events in the drama of redemption. The Gospels record many miracles by Jesus, and tell us there were many more. Yet what place do miracles really play in the Bible? There are large portions of the Bible without much more than an occasional message from God to a prophet. Miracles are, actually, the exception and not the rule. I frequently point this out to skeptics who ask why the miracles in the Bible aren't happening today. If the Bible is read honestly, there were actually very few miracles over the course of history, and most of those were completely unknown to anyone except a handful of people.
When you look at the characters of the Bible there are many supernatural experiences, but have we properly put these in context? For instance, how often did God speak to Abraham? My friends tend to think it was common. In fact, it was rare. Very rare. Abraham's encounters with God were often years apart. While Moses is described as a person to whom God spoke face to face, we ought to remember THAT WAS MOSES. His burning bush experience isn't there to say that every person is going to have a similar experience.
Jesus performed many miracles, but he clearly taught that these miracles were "signs of the Kingdom" and were authenticating signs pointing to who he was. When skeptics demanded of him "signs" that would prove who he was, he bluntly said they'd had all the signs they were going to get, and to look at the resurrection if they wanted a real sign. Yet Jesus actually lived a remarkably normal life. He didn't heal everyone he met. He wasn't weird. He didn't run a three ring circus of miracles. His miracles and exorcisms stood out as unusual, and therefore as authentic.
The disciples also did some authenticating miracles, but even a beginning Bible student can see that the number and size of supernatural goings-on decreases enormously after the ministry of Jesus. By the time of the epistles, the kind of miracles and supernaturalism we find in Exodus or Luke is long gone. Certainly there are gifts, answered prayers, and a sense of God's power in the church. But Christians lead normal lives. There doesn't seem to be any idea in the New Testament that every day is a burning bush, a face-to-face conversation with God, or a series of demonic assaults repelled by special prophecies and prayers.
If I am right, then the tide of weirdness that has rolled over me amounts to insisting that God provide a "sign" to true believers. It's exactly as John Wimber said--it's the "stuff" they did in the New Testament, pushed through the grid of Christian history and theology, and finally interpreted by modern believers determined to show that the God of the Bible is still in business. It's a way of saying, "This is true, and we are going to prove it by living out all those miracles again today."
We've been Fleeced!
I think my first encounter with this weirdness was the whole business of "putting out a fleece." For those of you who didn't grow up so immersed in fundamentalism that you know what I am talking about, it basically amounts to getting God to give you a sign of your own choosing. A common version of the "Fleece" method might involve, let's say, whether to marry a particular guy who has proposed. The fleece might be, "If God wants me to marry Bill, he (Bill) will call me on Saturday morning and ask if I would like to go on a picnic." This sort of little test was considered harmless when I was a young Christian, but take a moment to look at what's really going on.
It's demanding a sign. It's being able to say "God told me!" At its root, is the desire to know that the God of the Bible is still speaking and acting now, and doing in my life what he did for Moses and Abraham.
So what is Benny Hinn doing when he tells the crowd that the people on the floor are being healed? What are some of my co-workers saying when they repeatedly say God is directing their lives with audible messages? What is happening when a Christian claims that a dream, vision, or prophecy has told him the future? In all these cases, God has proven Himself. He's given a sign that he is around and is still doing business.
I won't hesitate to say that I believe the vast majority of this exaggerated emphasis on supernatural experience is self-delusion. I don't believe God is talking to these people. I don't believe the prophecies are real. I don't believe the miracle stories are true. While I am willing to accept that God can do as He chooses without my permission, I think we don't accomplish anything by taking the route of accepting everything without critical judgment. We have to say what is really going on.
I think the appeal of this kind of experience is far more intense than we might imagine. It is promising a personal experience that proves God is real. My late friend Pat had two heart transplants. During the first, he had a vision of the cross that was immensely real. The experience banished all his doubts and made him a bold--and sometimes annoyingly intense--Christian. I didn't have the experience. Pat did, and it made him run on a higher level than I did. The supernaturalists want that experience on a daily basis. While I don't believe Pat was self-deluded, I can't say the same about most of these people.
"Normal" Christians are living without these "signs." They are living by faith in what the Bible says, and not looking to their experience to be a daily demonstration of God's still being around and in the miracle business. In comparison to those who live with daily miracles and prophecies, these normal Christians may have experiences that seem dull or even absent. It is no wonder that many "normal" Christians struggle with feelings of resentment, envy, or anger toward those Christians who claim constant miracles and manifestations of God's power. Part of my own weariness is from years of feeling second-class and left out of "real" Christian experience. Then I was angry at myself for faking it in an attempt to fit in. Now I'm tired of playing this game, and disturbed by what I see as the misrepresentation of the Gospel, and an insensitivity to the effects of weirdness on those in and out of the church.
How Long Will This Go On?
So before we all grow wearier of the topic than I am of the weirdness itself, what can we say?
I'll start by saying that the Bible's emphasis on walking by faith rather than by a constant diet of supernatural experiences needs to be understood clearly. I am constantly reminded that the weirdness has registered with many people as Biblical Christianity. We have to say that the Bible is a supernatural book, and God works in our world as He chooses, but faith is nurtured on the Word of God, and on what God has already done in Jesus. The weirdness looks at the events in the Bible as the first inning, and we are now playing out the game. In actuality, the Bible records the entire game and Christ wins! We are living out that victory now. The point is not the next big thing, but what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Always, being centered on the Gospel and on Christ himself is what we must strive to offer in response to the chaos currently gripping the church.
Further, I think we have to reclaim the fact that God wants us to use our minds to think and make reasonable choices. The Christian life is not a throwing out of the mind, but this is a primary tenet of weirdness. I don't just mean anti-intellectualism. I mean a rejection of a reasonable, human use of the mind. This glorifies God. Our prayer for guidance and truth from God should be fervent, but we should fervently say that God's Word of Truth usually comes to our minds through the normal methods. Nothing distresses me more about this entire business than the message to young people that their minds should be ignored and some esoteric, gnostic method of "hearing from God" should lead us in making life's important decisions.
How should we view our weird Christian friends? That is a complicated question. Given that I have said they are seeking signs contrary to scripture and are deluding themselves and others, you might be surprised when I say I think we should be generous in forgiving and tolerating much of this behavior. Many of our hyper-spiritual friends are sincerely hungry for God. They are following what they believe is a path that will remove their doubts and bring the power of the Spirit into their lives. All of us ought to desire genuine Holy Spirit power, and a true experience of God. I don't criticize my weird friends for wanting to have a life full of God!
I have to stop, however, when we reach the point of asking what is the source of true experience, what is the nature of that experience, and what are the results of a genuine experience? Jonathan Edwards, who I criticized in a previous piece for leaving the door open for fanaticism, wrote a book that can't be improved on: The Religious Affections. Charismatics often quote it. Few have read it. We need to hand out a lot of copies. With a generous--perhaps overly generous at times--heart, Edwards puts his head into the scriptures and shows what makes up true religious experience. His words are plain and true:
It is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ all along hitherto. It is by this means, principally, that he has prevailed against all revivings of religion that ever have been since the first founding of the Christian church.
Discernment is what we most owe to our weirder brothers and sisters. Not condemnation or rejection, but discernment and simple truth. We need to know our Bibles, and be able to point out the truth of the Gospel. Our lives need to be shaped by Christ, and display evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification and renewing our minds and characters. Even those who have given themselves over fully to every kind of weirdness are usually well aware of their own need of what is real. Many solid Reformed Christians spent a sojourn in this camp, and starved to death while everyone pretended there was a feast.
Bishop Ryle put it plainly:
in religion are worse than worthless, unless they are accompanied by
practice." Many of our sincerely deluded brothers and sisters know
this, and are afraid of what this must mean. It will do them good to see
in us genuine experience and a true, substantial working out of what
Christ has done for and in us.