by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca), Kingston, Ontario, February 2006
The Apostle Paul said "I am not ashamed of the good news; it is the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16). What did he have in mind? By the end of his life, he was able to claim that what he had accomplished was "by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum (present-day Croatia) I have fully proclaimed the good news of the Messiah" (Romans 15:19). "For this I toil with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me" (Colossians 1:29). That is why he prayed for the new converts "May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power" (Colossians 1:11). "For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Timothy1:7).
Till very recently preachers thought this meant that the Gospel was the power to forgive us. There were rules to obey, and failure made us into sinners. The good news was about being forgiven. They did not really expect us to be empowered for a supernatural life in the world.
At Christmas they spoke of the power that had enabled the Messiah to take birth in our world. Mary was told "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35). That was the power that the Messiah needed to battle the forces of evil. "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil" (Luke 4:1-2). "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee" (Luke 1:14; 5:17). All his teaching and healing and other miracles were by that power. And Paul explained that it was this power that gave Jesus’ mangled corpse on the cross his resurrection body. " He added that this same power will raise us when we take our last breath. "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Romans 8:11).
Christians imagined that was all very well for Jesus, and even for us when we die. But to live a supernatural life by the power of the Spirit was not for us, except for a very few extraordinary saints like Paul or Mother Theresa.
It was the charismatic movement, beginning a hundred years ago, that recovered the idea that the power of the Spirit could empower ordinary people in miraculous ways. "There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge by the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses" (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
These were a variety of ways Christians could be empowered in a congregational gathering. But there was very much more that the Holy Spirit was ready and willing to do in us. The Apostle Peter, who a few years earlier had failed and denied his Lord, concluded that "His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3). There was power to give us supernatural wisdom. This is not academic wisdom. The Lord’s brother said that "the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy" (James 3:17).
We know how to think up items for prayer, but Paul described a totally different quality of intercession, "We do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26).
There are many more ways we can be empowered by spiritual energy than all the ways we rely on energy or electrical power for our cars, factories and homes. A century before the power of the Holy Spirit was rediscovered in our churches, Harriet Auber (1773-1862) captured this in her hymn "Our blest Redeemer ere he breathed His tender last farewell , a Guide, a Comforter, bequeathed with us to dwell . . . And every virtue we possess and every victory won, and every thought of holiness are His alone." This suggests that Christian maturity is not measured by how much we know but by how many ways in which we allow ourselves to be energized by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We can turn on a light switch, plug in an appliance, or start our car. The power is there at the flick of a switch. But how do we draw on the power of the Spirit?
Artists and Composers have always known that when they come to the end of their best efforts, inspiration is given to do what they cannot achieve. When we do not know what to do in an impossible situation, if we give up and go to sleep, the solution often greets us when we wake up in the morning. The point is that the Holy Spirit does not intervene as long as we think we can manage without him. He never intrudes. When we admit our total inability to do what is needed, then and only then does the Holy Spirit fill us for that task. Self-confidence closes off any possibility of supernatural power. Too often we muddle on frustrated, and perhaps trying a little bit harder. But the mighty power of God waits for our unconditional invitation. "I give up, I can’t do it, please come and do the impossible." (2 Corinthians 12:10). As Paul experienced "Power is made perfect in weakness . . . whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
(For the way Paul explained this see the Commentary on Romans and the article on Divorce)