If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a 25-kilometer road race as an official pacer. Like the blue-shirted man pictured below, I carried a sign advertising a finishing time for the race. My job was to set an even, steady pace – not too fast, not too slow – that ensured that those who ran with me would complete the course in that clock time.
The pacer’s work is straightforward but important – keep the group together, encourage runners who are wearing out (or who want to start out too fast) to maintain the rhythm of their desired pace, and, I learned in preparation for the 25K, to run with “calm feet.” Runners who are among a pacing group, I learned, often run with their eyes fixed on the footfalls of the pacer. Straight lines, consistent strides, relaxed cadence. Stay in step.
What does Galatians 5:25 mean when it encourages readers to keep in step with the Holy Spirit? It means to run with the Spirit, to follow at the Spirit’s pace, and to respond to the Spirit’s direction. Saying in step means that if the Spirit moves left, we’ve got to move left. If the Spirit goes east, we go east. If the Spirit grieves or rejoices, we join along.
Conceptually, most followers of Jesus appreciate this. But problems arise when fall out of step with the Spirit and fall into line with the expectations of our friends.
Many of us don’t even realize how much of our behavior is formed by other people’s opinions. But it’s always happening. What other people think and do, how they react, is real-time modifying shaping our thoughts and actions. I’ll give you an example. If you watch enough sitcoms on TV, you know what a laugh track is. At the moment the punchline is delivered, television producers overlay the sound of laughter onto the broadcast’s audio. We hear this track, and when our minds appreciate that other people are giggling, our perspective changes. It happens essentially without thinking about it – That’s funny?…Well, okay then; that’s funny!
Interesting fact: Did you know that most laugh tracks played today were actually recorded back in the 1950’s? Like, when TV’s were cubes with rabbit ears? The producers just cycle back through these recordings over and over again as ways of shaping your emotions and opinions.
The spiritual corollary is easy to understand. In many cases, we weight the opinions of other people – their expectations of how decisions should be made, how worship should look, or what constitutes beauty – more heavily than we do the desires of the Spirit. We match our footfalls to those of our colleagues and friends and subtly – perhaps imperceptibly – become resistant to the movements of the Spirit.
You know how it goes when it comes to spiritual behavior, right? We don’t want our friends to think of us as too excitable or too rash. So we make excuses for our reluctance to stay in step.
When it comes to spiritual promptings and spiritual experiences, many people say Well, all that spiritual transformation stuff, that’s just not my wiring. Sure, other people might get all fired up, but that’s not me. I’m not that emotive. I’m a brick wall.
Full disclosure: I sorta think of myself like this. My self-perception is of a grounded, mellow guy. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. But then I remember that there are plenty of times in life when I toss logic and reasoning out the window and become a very expressive dude. If my beloved Michigan Wolverines score a go-ahead touchdown or if corn dogs are readily available at a social gathering or if a meal at our kitchen table goes by without the need for vacuuming afterward, then I have no inhibitions: It’s hands up and Hallelujah at that point!
So maybe personality isn’t the real issue.
You want another example of how quickly people can change? Go to more Saturday weddings. Compare guest behavior at 4:30 PM to guest behavior at 9:30 PM. At 4:30, people are like monks and nuns, heads bowed, dutifully singing the hymns. At 9:30, the same saintly introverts can be found congo-lining among the strobe lights and Timberlake songs. Did their personalities fundamentally change? Was it something in the champagne and the roast beef? Is that all it takes to change a personality?
No, something else happened. They gave themselves over to some other spirit. The spirit of the party, the spirit of joy, the spirit of participation. Could be any of these. But something changed.
Here’s a fun exercise sometime. Look back at the catalogue of Biblical experiences of the Holy Spirit. Take a pencil and underline the aspects of the person that the Spirit transforms. In Romans, it’s the heart. In Hannah, it’s the soul. David’s mind is transformed, and for Samson – no joke – it’s his biceps. His arms get strong. This should be no surprise given what we know of God. We get that the Holy Spirit urges us to love God, and we are told in the Bible that we are to love God with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our mind and all of our biceps, right? Our strength?
Keeping in step with the Spirit means that all the parts of your person are connecting with God. Body and soul, heart and mind, speech and strength. But many of us seem to have a notion that God sort of looks at the people of the world and says “Okay, everybody, let’s number off…Number 1’s: you love me with all your heart, 2’s: you love me with your soul, 3’s: you love me with your strength. Number 4’s: (this group includes Dutch Reformed people like me) you guys just read a couple of pamphlets and we’ll call it good.
But scripture is clear… All of our wiring, every bit of personality must be consecrated to God.
The second common excuse is to say All of that spiritual revival and passion stuff – that’s not good theology. At least it’s not good decorum. We’re supposed to be respectful and dignified and stoic in church. That’s really what God wants from us.
Let me ask you this: Ever felt like raising your hands during worship but you didn’t because you wondered what the person next to you would think? How honored do you think that God feels when you are artificially aloof in church? How much worship is going on when you are working at resisting the Spirit? Is that really what God wants, just stone statues who nod and agree?
Let’s take it from perhaps the greatest American theologian of all time, Jonathan Edwards. What was worship like in his buttoned-down, puritanical context? He writes this in his memoirs:
“Many young people appeared to be overcome with the greatness of divine things and many others at the same time were overcome with distress about their sinful state so that the whole room was full of nothing but outcries, faintings and such like and many were overpowered and continued there for some hours. Some have been so overcome with a sense of the dying love of Christ as to weaken the body. It was a very frequent thing to see an house full of outcries, faintings, convulsions and such like, both with distress, and also with joy.”
And note: this is happening among Calvinists!
Some people will say, Well, what about passages like 1 Corinthians 14 where it says that everything in worship must be done in an orderly way?
Great question. Here’s my response. It seems that what any given person considers “orderly” is contingent upon where she grew up and with which people she associates. It is, I think, a dangerous thing for anyone to define exactly what “orderly” means.
A couple of years ago, I visited the Church of the Beatitudes, a beautiful chapel built on the north side of the Sea of Galilee. Surrounding this church are small outdoor amphitheaters where tour groups – many of whom have come from remote locations around the world – gather for communion and song services.
It was incredible for me to stand there and appreciate how incredibly different Christian worship can look like from one nation to the next. Some groups sat in reverent silence. Other communities engaged in Gregorian-like chants. Congregations from Africa hammered their drums. Pilgrims from South America and Korea danced freely around the Galilean park. The Holy Spirit was manifest in myriad expressions of worship and praise.
Who was doing it right? Who was doing it wrong? Is it really fair for any of us to decide what “orderly” really is?
Here’s the truth – no matter what you think “orderly” looks like, there will be some people who think that you’re being too uptight others who think that you are too loosey-goosey. And their opinions aren’t what matters, gang. Only God’s does.
And that brings us to the most instructive text of all on this issue. This is the story of Pentecost. Acts 2:5-18:
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Worship breaks out in Jerusalem. Wonderful, multicultural worship. People are falling into step with the Spirit. Then the naysayers show up. This is crazy; these guys are obviously just drunk. But watch this. Watch how Peter challenges them. He’s in step with the Spirit, not with their assessments.
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
Peter says – Don’t be surprised, everybody. This is what we’ve always understood will happen when the Spirit takes hold of people. This is biblical and beautiful.
Some of us need to walk out of the prison cell of other people’s opinions. The key is hanging right there on the wall.
Stop worrying about the critics and their opinions. Don’t let their arms-folded, down-their-noses perspective interfere with your relationship with God. Don’t let it. God loves you. Love God back. God wants to move you. Let yourself be moved. God wants your heart and soul to be surrendered to the Spirit. Keep in step with that.