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Does Spontaneity Equal Spirituality?

April 30, 2011

Imagine this scene:

Paul has just spent days, maybe weeks, dictating his letter to the church in Rome. He has invested hours pacing and praying, laboring to pick just the word that will communicate the burden that is burning in his heart. Tertius has faithfully written as Paul talked, at times re-writing, at times reading  out loud so Paul can hear how it all flows together. The Spirit of God has been invoked from the very beginning. He has inspired not only the apostle’s thoughts, but the very words that are being used to squeeze the breath of God down into human syntax. It has been a season of work and worship like neither of them have ever known.

And just as Tertius finishes – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen – and begins to roll up the scroll, Paul strides across the room, grabs the scroll, tears it down the center and says, “just dash off a note telling the church to ‘follow the Spirit’ when they meet together.” 

The response I imagine you would have to witnessing this event is something of the way I responded the other week when a pastor’s spontaneity was made a sign of his spirituality. I was listening to a friend describe the praiseworthy traits of his pastor. And the quality he put at the top of the pile was spontaneity. What made this man truly and powerful spiritual, in my friend’s opinion, were the times he had torn up his manuscript just minutes before walking into the pulpit. Here was proof of a spiritual giant – he tore up the letter to the Romans right before he sent it.

This scenario is obviously overblown. When we are dealing with the inspiration of Scripture we are in a whole different orbit from a preacher’s sunday sermon. But the Reformers taught that when God’s Word was proclaimed, God Himself was speaking. So I use the example because Paul following the Spirit in writing Romans and this pastor tearing up a sermon manuscript in order to “follow the Spirit” have interesting parallels when it comes to people being helped to hear the word of God.

I suppose I should put in two quick qualifiers here. (1) I agree that there may be times when the Spirit sets a direction that we were not sensitive to discern before. In these times we should hold our agendas loosely. But my friend was voicing something that I am hearing more and more – his opinion was not only that spontaneity could be following the Spirit, but that spontaneity is necessarily following the Spirit.  (2) I am supposing that the torn up sermon was the product of hours of careful study and constant prayer that resulted in a message faithful to God’s word. It was s sermon, in other words, that would have been glorifying to God and helpful to His people had it been preached!

Here are some of the questions I would have for Paul, had he torn up Romans, as I have for this pastor, who tore up his sermon:

(1) Do you not believe that the same Holy Spirit whose voice you want to hear speak in the meeting is speaking to you as you read and write? If you were asking for His help over the text and He gave you light, does discarding that message not come very close to disregarding His voice?

(2) Is it not presumptuous to try and time the work of the Spirit who is no respecter of persons, or meeting times? In other words, the urgency you feel as the service starts may be the urgency the Spirit felt last week when He illuminated the exegesis and application of your sermon. This means there may be more flesh in the “new thing” produced by the urgency you feel than there is Spirit.

(3) Is it not a fallacy to assume that newer is better? Why would what God gave you two days ago out of His timeless Word be less powerful or relevant than what He gave 30 minutes ago?

(4) The implications of what you say will be far less carefully considered if words are coming out of your mouth at the same time they are coming into your mind. As a shepherd accountable for the help he gives his people, how can you feel comfortable starting down a road you haven’t yet been able to trace to the end?

(5) Why should we imagine that what God spoke when we were still, listening, probing, working – beholding the face of God, should be discarded in favor of what our emotions feel is best or most helpful when we behold the faces of men? Is this not a subtle way to disguise a pride that assumes we know better what is needed here? Does it not open the door for a man-pleasing spirit to be disguised as spirituality?

Paul didn’t tear up Romans. Most preachers don’t tear up their sermons – at least not right before the preach them! But the deeper issue here is a culture that idolizes the spontaneous as a way of throwing off the bonds of God-exalting tradition, escaping the labor of thorough preparation, or displaying our own gifting and preferences. It is true, of course, that every believer (and how much more every preacher) must have an overflow. We must be ready, even when there has been no time for preparation. And we must be willing to submit our agenda to His. But we must not be allured by the lie that worship sets or sermons or prayers or family devotions are at their most spiritual when they are the most spontaneous.

The biblical word that may best capture true spirituality is not spontaneity but steadfastness. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life (Js. 1:12). May steadfast, spiritual men walk into pulpits all across this nation tomorrow morning, with manuscripts intact!

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One Comment
  1. Amen!
    It’s funny, in Sunday school yesterday a conversation arose over this very word. We are going through Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” and (I wish I brought my book or at least the quote) somewhere in it Bonhoeffer, talking specifically of good works and whether they arose from the hidden righteousness of Christ working through us or the result of our own calculating how some good work will make us look good. Bonhoeffer uses spontaneity as the litmus test of whether those works be for Christ or for us. To be fair to Bonhoeffer I only saw the quote and didn’t read it in context, but on the surface of just the quote (and again, it’s totally unhelpful that I don’t have it) I disagreed, and quite a number of people in the class did too.
    I think you have your finger on the pulse of the church here. It’s something we should be aware of. I mean, sometimes, your heart will definitely sing out/cry out to the Lord and those will be spontaneous and praise God He listens, but I don’t think it should be spontaneity v. tradition by any means.

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