Sometimes when I read or think about something I get tremendous insights. I might make a strong connection between two things, see an angle I never saw before, or even think something completely original. I am sure you have had many similar experiences.
What do we make of these experiences—especially as they relate to the Bible or religious beliefs? Should we consider that we are simply learning? Or that we are experiencing creativity? Or is it, perhaps, the leading of the Holy Spirit?
My Experience as a Pentecostal
As an adult, I was pentecostal for 25 years. I spoke in tongues, and on two occasions I even interpreted messages in tongues by other people. Whenever someone gave a message in tongues I searched my mind to see if I had any sense of understanding it. Usually I did not, but on these two occasions I did.
The first happened in a large pentecostal church of about 2000-3000. I always wondered if, when I stood up, someone else would stand up as well, but that did not happen. I wondered if, when I gave an interpretation, the pastor would call me down. But he did not; he seemed to accept it as genuine.
The second time was in a smaller congregation of 150-200. Actually, someone gave a message in tongues and another member interpreted it. I thought immediately ‘That’s not right’ and gave an alternate interpretation. I had no idea what the pastor would do with that, but he approached me afterward impressed with my ‘prophecy’; he accepted both as valid.
Some time later I joined a non-pentecostal church and never had those experiences again. I didn’t repudiate them but no longer had an appropriate setting for their expression. I left Pentecostalism for two reasons. First, I was moving farther along my journey away from conservative Christian beliefs and Pentecostalism embraced all the harmful doctrines I had been shedding.
But secondly, throughout my time with pentecostals I witnessed constant extremes of various sorts—pentecostals are sometimes given to extremes. I thought a movement genuinely led by the Holy Spirit should produce a more steady and informed body in general—not a problematic one.
‘God Gave Me a Message for You’
A lot of ‘revelation’ goes on among some pentecostals. During sermons preachers share revelations; preachers will also give people personal revelations during prayer time; and even regular members might come to you and say, ‘God gave me a message to share with you’. How can you ignore a revelation from God just for you! I never observed this to be a general practice, but some individuals would do this.
I hated seeing it happen. Had I been the recipient, I would have listened and considered whether what they said had any merit but basically ignore the claim that God revealed a message to them for me. I figure that if God has a message for me, he/she will let me know personally.
If I felt prompted to talk to someone else about an issue I might say, ‘I had a thought the other day about such-and-such. I don’t know if it is helpful or not, but I thought…’ To me, claiming to have a message from God is high hubris. If it is of the Holy Spirit then the Holy Spirit will work in the recipient as well—we don’t have to announce it.
What does it even mean to say, ‘God gave me a message for you.’ Does that mean we are inerrant? Does it mean our message is authoritative? In that case, what happens to that person if they ignore us? And, on the other hand, what if we are totally wrong?
I think if we feel the slightest impulse to speak to someone about our thoughts (which is often risky in itself), we should approach it in all humility. The recipient shouldn’t even suspect that we think we are speaking from some special inspiration.
Does the Holy Spirit Reveal Truth to Individuals and Groups?
Do we receive specific guidance from the Holy Spirit on God’s truth? The gospel of John devotes several chapters to a discussion between Jesus and his disciples after Jesus tells them he is about to leave them. Two statements are relevant to the issue we are discussing.
[T]he Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
John 16 says:
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
These passages say that the Holy Spirit will:
* Teach you (the disciples) all things
* Remind you (the disciples) of everything I have said
* Guide you (the disciples) into all truth
* Tell you (the disciples) what is yet to come
What do these words mean? First of all, Jesus was not speaking to believers of today but to his disciples who were concerned that he was about to leave them. And, anyway, how can the Holy Spirit remind us today of what Jesus said? We weren’t there to hear it.
If we assume the Holy Spirit will teach us all things (as individuals or in groups) and guide us into all truth, then what results of that do we see in the church today? We see conflicting truth-claims on almost every issue often with the assumption that ‘the Holy Spirit revealed the truth to us, and everyone else is wrong’.
We all have tremendous insights, but the fact is that these insights are subjective—not objective truth revealed by the Holy Spirit. Our insights might, indeed, be from the Holy Spirit; but this does not mean that any of us is inerrant on any particular insight.
This should lead us to great humility about our experiences rather than audacity.