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Spiritual Performance Anxiety

Yesterday, I suggested a typical but torturous back and forth process involving the attempt to correct imbalanced points of view on the Spirit’s work. The specific nature of the imbalance redressed by Andrew Murray and the Keswick movement involved the issue of power. Because the Spirit’s power was underestimated in previous generations Murray placed it front and center, suggesting that it could be released in a revolutionary manner within a Christian if only they would absolutely surrender themselves. Keswick teachers often described this as the "secret" of the Christian life. This secret was considered a hair-trigger which would release the Spirit’s power. As important as surrender, trust and obedience are in the life of faith the overcorrection of placing power at the center of the Spirit’s work leads to some not-so-subtle distortions of the spiritual life: perfectionism and works-righteousness.

During the 1970s the Spirit-issue that concerned us involved the spiritual gifts and their use. For centuries virtually nothing was mentioned in any of the writings of the church about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. J.I. Packer points out that not since the 17th century and the work of the Puritan John Owen had there been a full work on the gifts of the Spirit. Church leaders and communities were in cahoots with one another insisting that leadership, especially ordained clergy, were responsible for the work of the ministry in the church and in the world. This left many potential gifts of the so-called laity unexplored and underutilized. In the seventies the center of the Holy Spirit's ministry shifted from power for holiness to performance in ministry. The gifts of the Spirit enabled people to perform and to do ministry in an accelerated, often supernatural, way.

While the restoration of the gifts in the body of Christ was and is needed, spiritual and emotional distortions crept in as the performance of gifts became highlighted. As in the extremely charismatic community of Corinth overemphasis on gifts and performance spawned spiritual pride and elitism in the seventies. Modern "spirit-folk" stressed the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a special experience accompanied by tongues and the supernatural. Old John Owen warned that the emphasis on the gifts overshadowed the Spirit’s central work of producing the grace of character in individuals and communities. It did and has.

Where is Watershed Community’s imbalance? I believe that our community is more concerned with power for living than gifts for performance of service. Our emphasis on personal development or therapeutic redemption inclines us toward placing the power for piety front and center. The desire for personal transformation ought not to be abandoned; the Spirit’s enablement to overcome personal addictions and repeated compulsions ought to remain among one of our major concerns.

What concerns me is our motive for wanting to overcome our weaknesses. If our motive for piety is gratitude and love of God that is one thing, but if the Spirit’s power is to insure our spiritual security or our salvation, that is another. When insecurity is at the root of our desire for piety it easily devolves into perfectionism, legalism, and works-righteousness. God’s deep love for us is not conditional upon our surrender; otherwise God’s motive for loving us would become suspect. God loves us because we are his creation, his friends with whom he shares the universe. We can pray for empowerment but this fundamental motive of love never recedes as the primary motive of God’s acceptance and self-sacrifice. Desiring to reciprocate is fine but desiring to earn his love is only an example of spiritual immaturity and inadequate theology. God’s message to those of us who feel insecure and weak is that we can rest in God’s love believing he is powerful enough to sustain us even when we fail and falter. It is upon this foundation that we can have absolute assurance. That said, the decision to surrender our will into God’s loving purpose ought never to be neglected.

Performance anxiety also plays a part in our communal and individual lives. It is not so much the expectation of the exceptional gifts of the Spirit but rather the Spirit-empowered gift of service for our local community that absorbs us. Over the past two years, we have been given a desire to move out from our ingrown community toward community service. We undoubtedly need full member participation and the full use of the Spirit’s gifts that are implanted in our little group. I think our hope involves the desire that the Holy Spirit would consecrate, take up our natural abilities, and perform Kingdom consequences of liberation and justice.

In our tentative and faltering attempts at performance we have, as yet, not witnessed an outpouring of the Spirit. We see how the new focus has made us aware of the needs of our area but mostly when we seek our place we find that we are discouraged because our efforts do not seem to take hold of the needs of our neighborhood nor seem welcome by others doing ministry in our area. I have sometimes become confused by this. Here we want to serve. We have many natural gifts and we are making efforts but we haven’t hit spiritual pay dirt.

My intuition is that our service has not made a profound impact not because the Spirit is withholding but rather that our motives need repair. Why perform ministry at all? Again the word love steals into my mind. It is not the power of performance that we need but the power of love, the characteristics of compassion, and the attitudes of genuine empathy. I ask myself whether I am attuned to the plight of other people. I don’t mean this in a sentimental manner but in the sense of whether I can see people through the mind of Christ as individuals who are loved and are in need. How do I respond? With performance front and center I am more concerned with how I see the Spirit operating in me, again there is a subtle need for confirmation that I am secure in God.

I am sure that J.I Packer’s book Keeping in Step With the Spirit will move on to the themes of love and the graces of the Spirit. Meanwhile I can only say: Who will deliver me from these imbalanced perspectives and tainted motivation? Praise be to Jesus Christ…who has begun his work in delivering us and is guiding us as we seek out his will as we experience his presence.

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