There is an urban legend about John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Church movement and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. The story goes that after his conversion to Christ, he started to attend a local church in his area. After a number of Sundays passed, he approached an usher with some frustration. “When do we get to do the stuff?” he asked. Puzzled, the usher inquired as to what he was talking about. “You know,” replied Wimber somewhat exasperated, “…the stuff – miraculously healing people, talking in tongues, slaying demonic spirits – the stuff!” According to the unconfirmed legend, Wimber continued, “I gave up sex and drugs for Christianity. I can’t wait to get to doing the things the Bible talks about.”
I find myself chuckling by just recalling the infamous story. This is not what I heard about. The branch of Christianity that brought me back into the faith (really into it for the first time) was full of quiet and contemplation. It had/has a gentle civility to it. I came into the faith through nice, reasoned intellect sprinkled with some “proper” emotion and action. More and more I find myself wondering about these varied branches. I know that both branches have something to offer the larger tree of faith.
I was in a Wesley study with a number of younger, well-educated clergy (Seminary M. Div. and more). We were digging deep into Mr. Wesley’s works and started to run into Wesley and the “supernatural.” It was here that we collectively had to pause and admit our ignorance. Someone in the group pointed out that our vows of profession and church membership include the words, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” (The United Methodist Hymnal, Baptismal Covenant I, p. 34)
More recently, I was in a conversation with two seminary faculty members (one with a Ph. D. from Harvard, the other with a Ph. D. from SMU) who had been in Cuba and engaged in spiritual warfare with members of the Methodist Church in Cuba. The warfare included being “slain in the Spirit.” As a faculty member from another seminary as well as a young progressive clergy member of the Central Texas Conference both asked me (in separate conversations), “What do you make of all this?”
Any reading of John Wesley that is more than casual cannot easily dismiss spiritual warfare. Take for instance Wesley’s sermon #42 entitled “Satan’s Devices.” Albert Outler, in his introduction to the sermon, comments, “He [John Wesley] had his clue, of course, in the conviction that the world in general was ruled by Satan and his minions. … Thus, ‘Satan’s Devices’ is Wesley’s elaboration of this suggestion on the point of sanctification in particular; it is also a warning to his people against Satan’s insinuations in general.” (The Works of John Wesley, Volume 2, Sermons II, 34-70, edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 138) Quoting 2 Corinthians 2:11, Wesley jumps right in. “We are not ignorant of his devices. The god of this world (i.e. Satan) labours to destroy the children of God, or at least to torment whom he cannot destroy, to perplex and hinder them in running the race which is set before them.” (The Works of John Wesley, Volume 2, Sermons II, 34-70, edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 139)
I could go on, but the reader will get the general tone and direction. In a tangibly practical application, the confusion, chaos and conflagration taking place at the southern border of the United States is place where spiritual warfare is engaged moment by moment, hour by hour and day by day. The best of us are tempted to jettison our Christian values in favor of political expedience. The way forward is shrouded in the smoke and dust of a debilitating conflict which, if not caused Satan (it looks to be caused by sinful humans!) is at least being used by Satan. I must confess that even as I write that last statement, I am uncomfortable with its implications. Yet I have chosen not to delete it because there is truth contained in it.
Satan’s devices would have me see people as the enemy, and this is true no matter what one’s political convictions are. Jesus reminds me, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
More recently, Rev. Carolyn Moore has reminded us of what Wesley said. “John Wesley, founder of our Methodist movement, wrestled as much as anyone with the mixing of supernatural ministry with the daily working out of sanctification through the means of grace.” (Carolyn Moore, “Pure Grace: Wesley’s Take on Supernatural Ministry,” July 12, 2019) She goes on to note that Wesley wrote in his Journal on Sunday, Nov.25, 1759 “The danger was to regard extraordinary circumstances too much, such as outcries, convulsions, visions, trances; as if these were essential to the inward work, so that it could not go on without them. Perhaps the danger is, to regard them too little; to condemn them altogether; to imagine they had nothing of God in them and were a hindrance to his work.”
As I gaze over the landscape of conflict raging like a wildfire across the globe in the second decade of the 21st century, I think there is biblical and theological insight here worth pondering and praying over. More pointedly, as I wrestle with the machinations of my own heart and life, I too battle anguish, hatred, greed and indifference. Spiritual warfare is not just an abstract thing for theological study and reasoned discernment. It is a reality of our days and times, but on both a public and private level. I know there is a lesson for my living that begs application in my common days. It is easy to be defeated in spiritual warfare by the devices of Satan, especially when you want to deny the very existence of spiritual warfare.