The following article originally appeared in Renewal Ministries’ April 2018 newsletter.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the grace of baptism in the Holy Spirit has been a significant, life-changing experience for millions of Christians around the world. Much has been written about this grace to help us understand it from a theological perspective. One of the main ways this grace has been spread is through a series of classes called Life in the Spirit Seminars. Since the early 1970s, I have been involved in Life in the Spirit Seminars in a wide variety of settings. What I want to do here is offer some reflections on what happens to people when they are prayed with to receive a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which happens during the seminars, but also can happen in other circumstances as well.
My initial reflection is that we need to be careful in setting expectations for people. I have both prayed with and overseen prayer for hundreds of people over the years, and in my experience, only a small percentage have a dramatic, overwhelming, or especially defining experience when they ask to be baptized in the Spirit. This contrasts with the experiences of some of the most recognized leaders in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal—since most, if not all, of them did have a “powerful” experience. This includes all of the speakers on Renewal Ministries’ own As By A New Pentecost DVD series.
Outlines in the Life in the Spirit Seminars’ team manuals caution seminar leaders to make sure people understand that experiences will vary when they are prayed with, and that people should not look for an “experience,” but simply offer their life to the Lord and ask for a new release of the Holy Spirit. Still, it is hard for people who hear about more powerful experiences to not feel some disappointment if they don’t have such an experience themselves.
This was the case in my own life. When I was prayed with for baptism in the Spirit decades ago, I didn’t have a dramatic experience. I did experience a kind of very light joy—nothing ecstatic or powerful—and the lifting of a feeling of condemnation. These certainly were things to appreciate, but nothing to make headlines. However, as a few months went by, I began to experience new gifts and changes in my life.
My initial attempts to yield to the gift of tongues sounded like nonsense or baby-talk. The recommendation—part of the standard advice in the team manuals—to not be overly concerned about that, but to continue “using what you’ve got,” was just right. As I “used what I had received” in my personal prayer and asked God to form it into the gift of tongues, He did just that. After a few months, I was clearly speaking a patterned language and sensing something in my spirit as I did so. Also, as months went by, I noticed other classic signs of being baptized in the Holy Spirit—a hunger for Scripture and a deepened understanding of it, a desire to share my faith, a renewed desire to pray and the grace to do it, and other new gifts (charisms) that began to manifest themselves. But all of this happened over a period of months.
Over the years, this has led me increasingly to tell people, after they’ve been prayed with, to focus more on what happens in the near future than on what happened as they were asking for the outpouring. I tell them to look for crocuses—those little flowers, so easily overlooked, that first appear as winter is ending—in their spiritual life. I think the big question, as far as whether you’ve truly been baptized in the Spirit, is:
Has your life changed?
Have you seen any changes in your life similar to the ones that I spoke about above? Have you seen any other changes, or movements toward God, in your life?
One woman I know experienced nothing at all when she asked to be baptized in the Spirit and received prayer. But shortly afterward, one of her kids asked, “Mom, how come you’re so much nicer now?” And over the ensuing months, she began noticing a new fervor in her faith and new gifts manifesting themselves.
This leads me to my final point. There has been a tendency within the Catholic Charismatic Renewal to tell people,
“If you were prayed with to be baptized in the Spirit, then you were.”
I think we need to reconsider that approach. I’ve talked to people—definitely the few but, still, some—who cannot discern any difference in their lives, even months after being prayed with. In those cases, I think we have to admit the possibility that they weren’t baptized in the Spirit. Again, the real question is: Has your life changed? If it hasn’t—and if it doesn’t—then I think we should acknowledge the possibility that there was some kind of obstacle, perhaps a serious unrepented sin; a lack of forgiveness for someone who hurt them, perhaps leading to bitterness and cynicism; a lack of desire; or a hardness of heart that kept faith from actually “catching.”
My point here is not that these things would necessarily prevent a person from receiving a release of the Holy Spirit (God is sovereign), but that these things could have blocked God’s action, if there is no evidence of any difference in a person’s life, post-prayer. In such cases, if the person still desires to be baptized in the Spirit, the obstacles can be addressed and another prayer session scheduled.
Also, perhaps there is just a mystery to it, and the person should not worry about an experience, but simply keep persevering in following Jesus. Perhaps it will come in the future; and if it doesn’t, that may be OK too! The important thing is obeying Jesus and His Word, and persevering until the end.