It happened on a Sunday night several years ago. I had just finished preaching in the gymnasium where we held our meetings when one of the men who often brought a prophetic word stood up. Speaking in the first person for the Lord, he said, "I am telling you now that I am about to act, so that you will know that what is about to occur is something I am bringing to pass."
Everybody stood breathless for a few moments. Then, all of a sudden, in different parts of the room, twelve people-by actual count-flipped out. Literally. One man did a somersault from a seated position (try it sometime), shrieking like a banshee and landing in the middle of the aisle.
Every one of these people was afflicted by demons. The Lord was moving on them, and the demons were coming out, screaming and blaspheming. Folks standing in the bleachers had to pass a couple of these people over their heads to get them down to the floor where they could be ministered to.
I grabbed the microphone and said, "Well now, sometimes these things happen, you know, and, uh, well . . ."
I actually did not know what to say. I was trying to get some kind of control. And I wanted to communicate to people that we really knew what we were doing; we were not really this weird.
How Could God Do That?
I was offended by what God was doing. In fact, I was incensed.
I drove home that night talking tough to the Lord all the way. I remember walking up to the house and putting my key in the front door, muttering, "How could you let those demonized people into the church? I can understand U you want us to minister to them at home-but in the church? How could you let that happen?"
And the Lord said to me, in almost a plaintive voice, "But, John, it happened to me."
I stood there with the key in the door. That's right! The gospel of Mark, the first chapter: Jesus preaching his first sermon. "There was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, 'What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?' " (Can you imagine that happening when you're trying to preach your first sermon?)
I was offended by what had happened at the church. Would I have been any less offended by what happened in the synagogue?
A week later, the man who had spoken the previous Sunday prophesied again:
"I made you a marketplace. Why do you try to protect your reputation? I have given it to you, and I can take it away."
The Lord was saying that we must not be ashamed of what he directed us to do, even when it was incongruous with everything respectable in society. He wanted us to be prepared for the shame and criticism that would come our way over the next few months if we proceeded along the lines that he was moving us in.
One Offense after Another
Why does God act in ways that offend our understanding of how things should be?
For me, the question is not a peripheral one. The entire thrust of God's action in my ministry has brought the question front and center.
I remember how offensive to me the gift of tongues was. It seemed such a silly thing to wiggle your tongue around for minutes at a time, making noises you do not understand (often repeating those noises, if you have a very limited "tongue vocabulary"). It is supposed to build us up (1 Cor. 14:4). The incredible thing is, it does. The whole experience humbles the mind like very little else.
Eventually I got my tongue under control and properly closeted. (Why should anyone need to know I spoke in tongues?) Then came praying for the sick.
That offended me too. It meant getting involved in messy situations.
I did not look at it from the sick person's stand point. I looked at it from the point of view of a pastor who did not want to be "graded down" by his peers because he pastored one of "those kinds of churches."
I hoped we could get the healing ministry into a corner where hardly anyone would notice it. We would see a few people healed, and that would be nice, but it would not be a big issue. But the Lord brought healing right out into the middle of every thing in our church.
And as soon as our praying for the sick started having some effect, demons showed up. That blew all propriety to the winds, because demons do not behave at all. They manifested themselves any old place they wanted to.
More recently, we have experienced the phenomenon of offense with the advent of several prophetic voices in our church. On the one hand, these men have demonstrated sterling Christian character and a powerful anointing. The fruit of their ministry has been very good. But at the same time, they operate in a different way than I am used to. Some of what they do would seem strange by many people's standards.
I am finding that, as a general rule, moving toward the heart of God may put us, even as believers who genuinely want to know the Lord's will, in a position where we are offended by the things of God. God's actions often offend human expectations, human ways of thinking, human pride.
A Sign of Division
God offends the mind, I have come to believe, to reveal the heart.
Jeremiah 17:9-10 says that "the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? I the Lord search the mind and ex amine the heart, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve."
On the surface the text sounds relatively harmless. After all, we are in harmony with the Lord, aren't we? And he has every right to search our hearts, to sort things through, and reward or discipline as the situation merits.
Most of us think of God searching our hearts privately. But what if he chooses to do it in public? Sometimes he does shine his spotlight on our hearts through some public action. Something in his dealings with us embarrasses us or humbles our intellect. How we respond reveals what is in our hearts toward him. God's shocking interventions bring to light whether we are characterized by righteousness or rebellion.
When the minds of the righteous are boggled by something God does, they seek him for under standing. They may have fears; his action may make them uncomfortable. But they are teachable. They patiently learn to cooperate with what they discern are God's initiatives.
The rebellious use the same circumstance to justify their hidden desire to dismiss God's will and do things their own way. The offensive element in God's action exposes the antagonism in their heart toward him.
The rebellious may very well be Christians. Within the Christian community there are some who are in hidden opposition to any kind of authority. They have never come to terms with Jesus' lordship over the church. They may be well schooled theologically, and may even be quite visible within the church system. Their rebelliousness may never have shown itself. But when some intervention by God offends them, they react against it swiftly.
Jesus Offended Enemies. . .
The week after the demons showed up so dramatically, I was walking across the parking lot before the morning service when I was accosted by a group of church members. They were clearly agitated.
"We have a question," they said. "Just exactly how far is all this going to go?"
"I promise you this," I replied, holding up my Bible. "It'll go no farther than this book."
They actually seemed to take comfort in that. I thought to myself, "Have you people ever read this book?"
Scripture offers numerous examples of Jesus giving offense to people. The religious leaders of Jesus' day took offense at his approach to the traditions of the elders. They were offended by his healing on the Sabbath. Later they rejected the healing that the Spirit worked to confirm the apostles' testimony to Jesus.
At the same time, those whose hearts were open to God rejoiced in all these divine interventions, even though they occurred at odd times and places, and violated social conventions, and involved people who were not considered acceptable.
Jesus' cleansing of the temple offers an illustration. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for a festival, and in the temple courtyard he finds men selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. He takes one look around, and makes a whip. No by-your-leave's, no formal grievance to the chief priest, no dialogue. He just comes in with a whip and attacks the traders in the temple area. He drives out the sheep and cattle and turns over the money changers' tables, sending their coins scattering. "Get all this stuff out of here," he bellows. "How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"
The Jewish leaders are offended. They demand to know what authorization Jesus has for doing this. The demand seems reasonable. Perhaps Jesus could have sat down and dialogued with them. "Now that I've got your attention, let me tell you why I did all this."
But Jesus answers them with a dark saying: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."
In the tradition of the prophets, Jesus was speaking in a mysterious way about himself. He was responding appropriately, in terms of his consciousness of who he was. But his answer did not meet the expectations of his hearers at all. They did not get it. "It's taken 46 years to build this temple, and you're going to rebuild it in three days?" They did not realize that the temple he spoke of was his body.
. . . And Friends
Neither, at the time, did his disciples. They probably stood there frightened out of their wits. Here was a new side to Jesus! Up to this point he had been healing people, saying nice things. Everything was going fine. Now, all of a sudden, he is acting like a maniac, and giving an explanation that no one can understand.
The disciples may have been as offended as the money changers and the dove sellers. They probably went home just as confused as the religious leaders. "We've got to talk. I thought he was all right. He was great at the wedding. But you saw what he did today. I don't think I'll ever be able to show my face there again."
Years later, of course, the disciples understood. When John came to write the gospel, he could ex plain that the temple Jesus had spoken of was his body after he was raised from the dead. But at the time, Jesus left them in the dark. They had to simply stay with him until his purpose became clear. They had to walk with him even though they had little or no understanding-and were being criticized as fools. "Here they come again, those dingbats, following that crackpot preacher."
Division and Decision
A biblical example that comes closer to present day experience is the miracle of Pentecost.
When Acts 2 opens, a group of the disciples are waiting on the Lord. Suddenly something that sounds like wind and looks like fire comes on them. In a few moments a crowd gathers.
The people who gather hear the disciples speaking 19 different languages and dialects. They are astonished by all these evidences of the supernatural. They are sophisticated commercial people who have traveled from all over the Middle East. "How can this be?" they demand. "Aren't these Galileans that are speaking our languages?"
At this point the crowd of spectators becomes divided. One group says, "Ah, they're drunk." This was not an adequate explanation. but it supported their predisposition to reject any intervention by God into their lives.
The other group may also have been offended, but concluded that there was more here than meets the eye. They decided to stick around and seek more understanding.
Peter then stands up and preaches a 43-second sermon (it takes about that long to read it). He preaches under the anointing of the Spirit of God, and soon people in the crowd are shouting, "We agree with you! We're in trouble! What can we do?"
Peter says, "Believe and be baptized, and the Lord will give you the Holy Spirit, too." And they were, and the Lord did. (If only you and I could preach 43-second sermons so impregnated by the Spirit that they produced 3,000 converts!)
And so the one action of God that shocked everyone revealed what was in every one's hearts. In some people a rebellion against his lordship was revealed; in others, a willingness to be corrected by him and respond to his initiative. One group was driven away by what God did, while the other crowd persevered and received some thing from God.
Driven Out or Driven On
I know a Christian man whose life was unalterably reshaped by personal tragedy.
One afternoon, while baby-sitting for a family a few houses from home, his teenage daughter was brutally murdered by a young man who attempted to rape her. At the end of the day, utterly desolate, the father went back to his house and gathered his family together to pray. As his wife later told me, he bowed his head and said, "Father, I don't understand. But I trust you."
In the months and years that followed, the pro found pain of his daughter's murder became the single most catalytic event in this man's life. He had been a sincere believer, involved in every aspect of church work. But now he experienced a profound motivation to make Christ known.
The story of his daughter's murder, the pursuit of her killer, the trial, and the father's forgiveness of the young man were front-page news for months in the Los Angeles area. People knew about him, and were willing to listen to him. In the years that followed, there was not a home in his town that did not receive a visit from him. Through his testimony to Christ, hundreds of people came to faith.
Some years later, this father's only son, a 22 year-old man just graduated from college - a wonderful Christian, a fine athlete, a brilliant student-was in an auto accident. His car flipped over, and his skull was crushed.
Today this father cares for his big, handsome boy, who functions with significant handicaps and must be watched at all times.
This tragedy has been an offense that some people could not live with. "If that's what God is like, I'm getting out of here. I'm not going to trust a God that will let my kids get done in."
But the same mysterious working of God's plan that has driven some out has driven him on. Again, this man's prayer has been, "Father, I don't understand. But I trust you." He has continued to lead many people to Christ.
I am one of them. One evening years ago I knelt in this man's living room, and he prayed for me as I turned my life over to Christ.
Something that was in this man's life was placed on me. In the two or three years after that I led as many or more people to Christ than my friend had-not because I am anything special but be cause God blessed me and gave me great opportunity. I carry today in my being the mantle that was passed on to me by this man.
I am sure that if I were designing a program to prepare an evangelist, I would never come up with anything like that. God's ways are not my ways. But God's action in this man's life produced a broken and contrite heart, and a highly motivated personality. He went out and has done the job the Lord gave him from that day forth.
If we are going to pursue the things of the Lord, we will often not understand what he is doing, and at times we will be embarrassed by it. Nearly everything of God that we come in contact with has offense in it. We are constantly being brought to that rock of offense and having to deal with it. The rock of offense is not comfortable to lean against. As my friend always used to tell me, "Sometimes God crushes a petal to bring out its essence." Sometimes he offends our minds to reveal our hearts.
The Rev. John Wimber is pastor of Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Anaheim, California.
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