Enlightenment Legacy vs. God’s Legacy
If you go to church and pray regularly, do you ever wonder if there’s supposed to be more than you’re experiencing? What does God really intend your faith and life to be like? I’m not foolish enough to say that every day ought to be a parade of miracles. Most of the time, even in the Bible, life is as normal as normal can be. Yet both then and now God breaks into our normal world. Biblically that’s normal too. But for too many of us it isn’t.
Beliefs and expectations of Christians in wealthy modernized nations like America tend to be as influenced by the legacy of the Enlightenment Period as much as the Bible.
The Enlightenment was primarily a philosophical movement in the 1700s that bridged the Western world’s transition into the modern age. Enlightenment thinkers largely rejected previously held social, religious, and political ideas, and instead emphasized rationalism. Human reason, especially anything scientific, was emphasized as the primary way to gain and test knowledge and truth. This propelled the rise of modern science. Unfortunately, this thinking was unfriendly toward faith in general, especially the supernatural—including prayer, the Holy Spirit, and spiritual experience. Because of this I think the era might equally be termed the “Endarkenment Period.”
Christians unwittingly influenced by this thinking will often say they believe in the Bible yet ignore the implications and promises of stories and teachings from Genesis to Revelation. God is in heaven, we are on earth, and someday death will kick us off the planet and we’ll take permanent residence in heaven. Until then God loves us and is somehow with us. And we’re conditioned to assume our thinking is normal.
Another reason believers don’t give more attention to the supernatural is that it doesn’t work in real life the way it does in the movies. We can’t manipulate or control it. Sometimes we get disappointed with God, or don’t see our prayers answered the way we hope. So we lose interest. Who can blame a person for this?
I won’t blame anyone. But I will say that if we’re serious about following Jesus, we need to move past such thinking. When the Bible informs our expectations more than our cultural conditioning does, we can expect things to change. We’ll see that the material world is only a part of reality; angels and demons are very real and active; and God really does do supernatural works in our midst.
What if we let go of our conditioning and strove to be biblical in how we live our lives and how we do church. Read the gospels and Acts for what Jesus and the Christians do. The lifestyles of owning little or nothing and the activities of healing, casting out demons, and trusting God for miracles are so foreign to many of us that we wouldn’t know where to begin. The New Testament clearly tells the church to function by spiritual gifts, but too many function by committee. We have book knowledge, but how much do we practice?
Jesus never taught his disciples to minister through programs; he demonstrated how to minister in the manifest power of God. The New Testament church exploded primarily because of God’s presence and power. But nothing in the Bible or in history says God’s presence and power evaporated.
I can’t offer in this article a full course of how to make all these things happen. And besides, it’s more a matter of giving ourselves over to God than of taking another class. I’m simply appealing for more believers to take God’s legacy seriously. Understanding will follow willingness.
Being God’s Hand
People in this postmodern age are often skeptical and jaded. They won’t respond much to Christian claims, and I don’t blame them. They want to see something work, not just hear about it. They want something real, authentic, that takes them beyond themselves, yet is practiced in a community of people who care about each other. This is exactly the model we see in the New Testament.
I hear a lot, and even teach, about how churches need to reach out in relevant ways to people in our changing culture. But I hear little about how churches need to operate in the supernatural and train people to exercise their God-given spiritual gifts. Isn’t that part of effective outreach?
One of the hard things about operating in the supernatural (and a reason a lot of us don’t) is that we can’t control it. But we’re not supposed to. We can only seek it and go with it when it manifests. This again is exactly what we see God intending in every story of the Bible. He intends that we humbly submit to him and live by faith.
Stepping beyond our conditioning can be hard. But if we’re hungry enough for God, we will. We will have to overcome doubts, unanswered prayer, and testing. We will have to go against the grain of the Enlightenment-influenced church. And when we do, we’ll increasingly live with something better: the life-changing presence and power of God.
God’s reign, or kingdom, operated in power throughout the Bible. Jesus’ first coming brought the kingdom in an immediate, personal encounter. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit began to widely manifest God’s presence and power among his people. At Jesus’ second coming, the Kingdom and God’s purposes will be completed.
Right now we live between two points in salvation history, the two comings. We are in what theologian George Ladd called “the presence of the future.” God’s kingdom is “already” (inaugurated) but “not yet” (consummated). In this in-between time God has promised the church his continuing presence, spiritual gifts, and the manifestation of his power.
The term used most commonly throughout Scripture for the manifestations miraculous is “signs and wonders”—signs of his work among us and wonders of his supernatural power. History testifies that in some times and places God’s people have done better at operating in the supernatural than at others.
To function well in kingdom terms, we seek and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading rather than function on our own. We operate less by programs and more by God’s leading. We let go of our own control of the church, though we still need organization. We do ministry based on our spiritual gifts rather than by committee and assignment, because in a church body each person’s gifts complement the others’. We take risks and actually hold God to his Word. It’s called “faith,” and is often spelled R-I-S-K.
The Scriptures and the Power of God
It was trick-question day in Jerusalem, and Jesus fended off the Pharisees, nailing them with, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Then the Sadducees took a shot at him with the conundrum of a woman married to seven successive guys—whose wife would she be at the resurrection? Jesus replied in Matthew 22:29 with a universal truth that shut them down and astonished the crowd: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”
He applied that statement to the issue they raised. And it remains for us to apply the same statement to countless specific issues in our own lives.
We will fall into error when we don’t know or learn what the Bible says—or when we ignore or forget what the Bible says—or when we don’t take the Bible seriously. We will fall into error when we don’t believe the power of God—or when we forget answered prayer in the past and don’t expect answers now—or when we hesitate because God didn’t answer our prayer the way we hoped. Knowing and believing God’s Word and power are the basic foundation for doing things his way.
A Simple Path
Without going through a lot of training in all this, what’s a person to do? Let’s keep it simple with an approach that has served well for people around the world: faith and humility. Prioritize those two in tandem, and watch God work in your life and touch others.
We can have great faith and be naïvely triumphal—then beat others over the head with spiritual pride and insensitivity. We can have faith without love, and be as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:1–2, “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” which makes us “nothing.” We can have faith in faith until it overshadows our faith in God. On the other hand, our faith can get so tangled up with doubt that it gets lost in rationalizations about why we shouldn’t really believe all that stuff in the Bible. But even if our minds doubt, our hearts can still believe (see Mark 11:23). Jesus said throughout the gospels that he acted according to our faith. Not our need or our crying, but our expectation that he will do what he said he would do.
We can have great humility and be so self-deprecating that we never step out and act on God’s behalf. Godly humility is the kind Moses had, where in Numbers 12:3 he is described as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” That may sound crazy when said of a national leader, but his godly humility consisted of seeking and trusting God and not taking situations into his own hands, as well as not getting puffed up by what God did through him. Godly humility submits and says, “Yes, Lord.”
The truest foundation for faith and humility is love—the culminating virtue of life, as expressed throughout Scripture. Love motivates us to act and keeps our motivation pure.
Isaiah’s prophecy noted the high place of God’s esteem for those who join humility with faith in his word: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).
This approach is simple. But it’s not easy. Truly following God in the footsteps of Jesus is never easy. But it’s the most fulfilling and eternal path a person can follow.
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