Friday, October 21, 2005
Kicking the habit
For me, leaving the church was relatively quick and easy, albeit not without pain. Although each of the churches I regularly attended was classical Pentecostal, I was heavily influenced by Word of Faith teachers such as Kenneth Hagin. After my pastor preached a sermon that exposed the bankruptcy of the WoF and I read "A Different Gospel" by D.R. McConnell, my questions and doubts began in earnest. My previous openness to all manner of spiritual gifts was quickly replaced with a new zeal for discernment. I was no longer content to unquestioningly receive every prophecy, but instead felt that I ought to test each one against my understanding of Scripture. As I did so, I became painfully aware that the vast majority of the "manifestations" at my church were at best well-meaning piffle ("I love you and have a wonderful plan for your life") and at worst heretical garbage (e.g., a prophecy in which we were exhorted to pay greater homage to the Virgin Mary). On no occasion did the pastor or worship leader offer any rebuke to even the worst of these prophecies. When I shared my concern with the pastor about one of the worst of the prophecies, he agreed that it was in error but that if we were going to allow the Spirit to do His work that we had to allow a little wildfire. He went on to warn me of the danger of entertaining a critical spirit. Thus, the same man who'd been instrumental in getting me to think about charismatic doctrine and practice was unprepared to exercise the same discernment that he himself had promoted from the pulpit. Feeling as though I was caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, I concluded that there was no point in my attending that church any longer.
Although it was relatively easy to leave the charismatic church, it wasn't nearly so easy for me to give up on charismatic doctrine. Looking back, my problem was that I'd built my faith upon the wrong foundation: my personal experience rather than Scripture. For years after leaving the church, I desperately clung to the prophecies, visions, and healings as proof that God wasn't through with me yet, and that He would one day deliver me and use me again. On the flip side, I felt very much betrayed by the church. My zeal to throw out the spiritual bathwater (without harming the baby) only grew, but I'd seen that the churches that shared my belief in the charismatic gifts were utterly lacking in any kind of discernment. Although I somehow knew that I'd have to return to church sooner or later, my bitterness and disillusionment was great indeed, so for at least five years I didn't ever seriously consider finding another church.
This will probably come as no surprise, but my personal spiritual life during this season was poor at the start and only declined as time passed. My faith was still based upon my experiences, and I looked at the Scriptures as "old hat", so I hardly read the Bible at all. I did pray after a fashion, but my prayer time degenerated into angry rants against God's dealings with me and desperate pleas for Him to stop making me so miserable. Like a drug addict going through withdrawal, I continued to crave my old spiritual highs, but my cries for deliverance went unheeded. The heavens were as brass to me, as though I was a stranger to God and God was a stranger to me. For five years, maybe more, this dark season dragged interminably on. Although I considered myself to be a believer, there was little or no fruit that would have led anyone to suspect that I was. In fact, my spiritual life was so dismal that I'm now of the opinion that I wasn't converted until after my "withdrawal" from charismania.
In speaking of the redemption that Jesus Christ purchased for His Elect, Paul tells us that "where sin abounded, grace abounded much more." A good thing, too, because were it not for sheer grace I'm certain I would have remained in my spiritual dungeon to this day! My anger against God and bitterness towards the church was such that He ought to have cast me aside permanently, but instead He had pity on me, a wretched sinner.
In retrospect, I think my final recovery from charismania began at the very beginning--my real conversion--because it wasn't until then that I began to realize that I really was a wretched sinner who, far from deserving any kind of favor, deserved nothing but condemnation from the hand of a Holy God. Moreover, I began to see that I could never put 100% confidence in even the most real of my supernatural experiences, so I made a deliberate choice to put them on the shelf. At this point, I wasn't prepared to give them up entirely, because I wasn't yet sure of what was true and what was false. Instead, I told God that I was giving my experiences back to Him, and that if I was to put any trust in them that He'd have to make it exceedingly clear that they were from Him. When I did this, I had no idea that I'd end up giving up on my experiences permanently. Also, I made the commitment that, unless God gave me clear affirmation to the contrary, that I was only going to trust what I could know for certain: the Scriptures.
At this point, more changes came into my life. The most pivotal was the unexpected decision of my landlords to sell their house. They lived in the first story, and rented the second story to me. I had no desire to go through the uncertainty of a new landlord, so I considered the options of moving to another apartment or buying the house from my landlords, but neither option appealed to me. Even though I'd had absolutely no desire to own my own home for its own sake, I ended up buying a house simply because it seemed like the best use of my financial resources. This was the first decision I'd made in years without relying on a "still small voice", and my move to a new house in a new community directly set the stage for my return to church, but that, as they say on TV, is another story. :-)