Tremble

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    bring an offering and come into his courts.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness;
    tremble before him, all the earth.

Psalm 96:8-9

Throughout the Psalms, and the Bible in general, we see that a normal response to the tangible Presence of God is to tremble. When theophanies happen in the Old Testament, people often tremble in the presence of God.

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.

Exodus 19:16-17

We get the sense that in a face-to-face encounter with the fullness of the living God, our bodies can’t handle all the power, our sin can’t handle all the holiness, our eyes can’t handle all the light, our hearts can’t handle all the love. The healthy and reverent fear of the Lord hits people and they begin to tremble. We might call this trembling a “physical manifestation of fear” or a “physical manifestation of being emotionally overwhelmed.”

I grew up in a Baptist church where we used to sing a hymn that spoke to this reality. It was called “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.”

 Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Stanzas 1 & 2

All of this got me thinking about trembling as a “physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit.” To clarify, this is different from trembling that is a “physical manifestation of being emotionally overwhelmed” (although emotions may accompany it). When the Holy Spirit causes the physical manifestation, it is not showing up in our body because of our emotions. While emotions may be a part of the experience, physical manifestations of the Spirit are when the Holy Spirit himself causes our body to react to an increase of his tangible presence. And while our bodies can react in a number of different ways, trembling is a common one.

Both Jonathan Edwards, in the First Great Awakening (1730s), and John Wesley, in the Second Great Awakening (1790s), recorded the phenomenon of people trembling under the power of the Holy Spirit. In subsequent revivals (Azuza Street in the early 1900s, Charismatic renewal in the 1960s, Toronto and Brownsville in at the 1990s) the experience of people trembling under the power of the Holy Spirit was very common. While this reaction of trembling has been recorded by historians in nearly every revival, it sometimes gets explained away with accusations of some combination of groupthink and mass hysteria.

Yet, these simplistic dismissals can’t account for the wide rage of personal experiences that people have had with the Holy Spirit. How do they account for people continuing to experience these physical manifestations of the Spirit while they are alone in the privacy of their own prayer time with the Lord? How do they account for their regularity? How do they account for people with no prior religious experience experiencing these physical manifestations despite not wanting them and even being skeptical of them? There is too much personal and historical evidence that one of the physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit is the phenomenon of trembling.

What’s fascinating to think about is that while people who experienced trembling were not necessarily experiencing a theophany in the traditional sense–they weren’t face to face with the living God–their bodies were reacting as if they were. It’s as if their bodies were picking up on the reality of the tangible Presence of God in a way that their eyes weren’t. What if their bodies were responding appropriately to God’s tangible Presence even when their mind wasn’t able to?

Have you ever had a moment where your heart was ahead of your mind? Your heart picked up on something and tears began to flow but your head was still unaware of what was going on. You were crying but you weren’t sure what you were crying about yet. Your heart was ahead of your head. Only later, upon further reflection, did your mind begin to understand what your heart already knew. Has that ever happened to you?

I suspect the physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit that happen to our bodies, like trembling, are versions of this. It’s like our spirit and our body picks up on God’s Presence in a way that our mind hasn’t yet. Our body and spirit are ahead of our mind. Only later does our mind make sense of it. And this completely makes sense when we begin to recognize the truth that we have the Spirit of God actually dwelling in us. When the Spirit within us connects with the Spirit falling upon us, our body will react to that powerful connection often before our mind can catch up.

We may begin trembling in a way that is beyond our control. If this happens to us, we shouldn’t fight it as if there is something wrong with our body. Quite the opposite. Maybe our body is actually responding appropriately. Maybe it’s the rest of us that has to catch up. We’re experiencing the profound Presence of God in our midst, and maybe whatever walls may be up in our heart and mind need to come down so that they too can join in on the moment.

Hungry

One who is full loathes honey from the comb,
    but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.

Proverbs 27:7

This proverb could rightly be re-written,

“One who is content with religion, who loves church but is not desperate for Jesus, will hate it when the Presence of God comes crashing in with all of His weird manifestations and powerful encounters. But to those who hunger for more of God’s Presence, who are desperate for life-changing encounters with Jesus, who know that church is worthless without Him, even uncomfortable moments with Him are better than comfortable moments without Him.”

Are we full? Are we satisfied with the intensity of the Presence of God in our midst? Or does He have permission to disrupt our comfort? Does He have permission to cause weird things to happen to us and those around us? Do we crave the level of the Presence of God that the priests experienced when the Temple was dedicated?

When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying,

“He is good;
    his love endures forever.”

2 Chronicles 7:1-3

God’s Presence was so thick and so real that it totally disrupted their worship plans. All they could do was bow with their faces to the ground and proclaim God’s goodness and love. Do we hunger for that level of God’s manifest Presence in our midst? Do we long to see God drop fire down in the center of our worship space? Or are we so full with other Christian activities that we’re missing the best part?

While Christian community, small groups, social justice and outreach programs are all good things, they are not the main thing. Jesus is the main thing. God in His glory is the best thing. All other aspects of church should flow from our all-out pursuit of Him and our experience of Him in our midst.

Christ is preeminent. He is above all things!

Father, may you stir in us that deep hunger again! May we become so unsatisfied with Americanized church that we begin to simply long for your manifest Presence in our midst. We are changed when You draw near!

Filled With His Presence

The priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim. The cherubim spread their wings over the place of the ark and overshadowed the ark and its carrying poles. 

When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.

1 Kings 8:6-7, 10-11

Solomon had just spent seven years building a magnificent temple for the Presence of the Lord. The whole thing was made of cut stone blocks and cedar. The entire inside of the temple, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, were covered in gold. Most of the objects in the outer courtyard were made of cast bronze.

Once the temple was completed, Solomon ordered the priests to bring in the ark of the covenant. First they gathered the people, and then they sacrificed so many sheep and cattle to the Lord that their number couldn’t be counted. Finally, the ark was placed into the Most Holy Place. When the priests left the Most Holy Place and the Holy Place, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.

The Presence and power of the Lord came with such intensity that the priests couldn’t re-enter the Holy Place to perform their services. Here is how the writer of 2 Chronicles describes it:

…the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord…

2 Chronicles 7:1-3

Their natural response to the Presence of God coming in power was to drop to their knees, bow their faces to the ground, and worship the Lord. Sometimes God shows up gently and brings us peace and comfort. Yet, other times God shows up with ferocity, and when He does we might find ourselves on the ground. It’s probably best to stay there and worship Him in a posture of submission and humility.

Some Christians today have trouble with phrases like “God showed up in power” or “She was filled with the Spirit.” They tend to push back against this language saying things like, “Isn’t God always present?” Or, “How can you be filled with the Spirit if you already have the Spirit in you? Do you get more of the Spirit? Is He like a liquid?”

These responses reveal a misunderstanding about God’s Presence. We could ask the same questions about Solomon’s temple. Scripture says that “the glory of the Lord filled his temple.” Wasn’t God’s Presence already there in the temple? God is omnipresent after all. How could God fill the temple if He was already there? And why did the priests react so dramatically?

What this scene shows us is that, while God is always present, He can, at times, increase how much of His Presence is tangible or manifest. Theologians sometimes call this God’s “manifest presence.” This is sort of a measurement of how much of God’s Presence breaks through the veil between the spirit realm and the physical realm. The tangible Presence of God (or manifest Presence of God) can increase and decrease based on the environment. Because of this, our bodily reaction to God’s tangible Presence can change based on its intensity.

This is why Paul commanded the Christians in Ephesus to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). He wasn’t commanding them to become Christians again by accepting the Holy Spirit into their lives. He was commanding them to allow the Spirit to take over more of their lives. He was telling them to allow the Presence of God within them to become the tangible or manifest Presence of God within them. When we are filled with the Spirit there is naturally going to be an overflow, and this overflow will affect the people around us. Being filled with the Spirit will often, though not always, cause physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit in our body that are beyond our control.

As followers of Jesus we need to accept the fact that God’s tangible Presence, and the Holy Spirit’s tangible Presence, will increase and decrease based on the situation we are in. It doesn’t mean God wasn’t there in one moment and that He is there in the next. But it does mean that God will increase or decrease how much of His Presence we will tangibly experience at any given time. This is what James was trying to explain when he wrote:

Come near to God and he will come near to you.

James 4:8

We know, of course, that God is alway near. James is talking about the tangible Presence of God here. If we draw near to God with hearts and minds that are worshiping, we will often experience an increase in the tangible Presence of God drawing near to us.

Welcoming God’s Presence

When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God…

David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household.

2 Samuel 6:6-11

King David was taking the ark of God to the City of David (Jerusalem). The manifest Presence of God went everywhere the ark went, so David wanted His Presence in his own city. But instead of carrying the ark on polls by priests, as prescribed by the Law, David and his men clumsily transported it on a cart pulled by oxen. This was the equivalent of treating the ark like a common pagan idol. It was how one might transport a harvest of produce.

In addition to this, no one was supposed to touch the ark. To touch the ark was tantamount to treating the Presence of God flippantly and irreverently. Imagine meeting the Queen of England and greeting her with a “good game” on her backside, then multiply that times a hundred, and we’re approaching the irreverence of touching the ark.

All of this sloppy irreverence with God’s Presence culminated in the unexpected. Uzzah, thinking he was doing a good thing by grabbing the ark, fell down dead in God’s Presence. This terrified David, and fear caused David to want to avoid the manifest Presence of God.

This still happens to us today. The Presence of God is not something to be taken lightly. God is awesome and powerful and His manifest Presence will do some strange things to people. I’ve been in worship services where people fall to the ground having lost control over their bodies in God’s Presence. I’ve seen people tremble uncontrollably. I’ve seen people get bombarded with the joy of the Lord in such a powerful way that they start laughing uncontrollably. One might think they were drunk if they didn’t know better (just like in Acts 2:4 & 13).

I’ve seen people get muscle contractions in their abdomen so strong it looks like–and sometimes sounds like–they are giving birth. I’ve seen both men and women experience this. I’ve seen the Presence of God fill a person so powerfully that they start jumping up and down like a pogo stick. And I’ve seen people just completely pass out in His Presence.

All of the above, except for the pogo stick jumping, I have personally experienced firsthand, so I know it is not fake. I’m sure a few people exaggerate or fake some things, but having experienced almost all of these, I know that these encounters are incredibly intimate, massively powerful, and often unexplainable.

Why do these strange things sometimes happen in the midst of God’s manifest Presence?

Well, picture an unattended fire hose on the ground which suddenly experiences high volumes of water passing through it. That hose is going to do some strange things when that much water, that much power, flows through it. Or, imagine a circuit or power cord normally meant for 110 volts suddenly has 220 volts passing through it. We should expect unusual physical phenomena when God’s manifest Presence comes near.

Unfortunately, our reaction is often the same as King David’s. FEAR. We don’t understand God’s power and we certainly can’t control it. As typical humans, anything we don’t completely understand that we also can’t control makes us afraid. And when God’s Presence does the unexpected or unusual, our fear causes us to step back. We push God’s Presence away. We don’t want to be a part of it. We don’t want to lose control like “those people.” We want sanitized, safe Christianity. We want measurable and controllable Christianity. We don’t want God’s Presence if it shows up in a way we can’t predict or subdue.

However, King David paid a price for this reaction and so will we. David left the ark of God (and therefore the manifest Presence of God) at the house of Obed-Edom. And simply because Obed-Edom was willing to steward the ark (and the Presence of God) in a way that was both reverent and without fear, Obed-Edom and his whole household were blessed.

The churches that are willing to invite God’s manifest Presence, treat it with awe and reverence, and not succumb to fear when God’s Presence starts affecting people in unusual ways will be the houses that God will bless. God’s manifest Presence always brings blessing where it is welcomed and stewarded well.

But here are some decisions we have to make ahead of time, before God’s Presence shows up in power:

  1. We have to decide ahead of time that we won’t be afraid if God does something unusual.
  2. We have to decide ahead of time to let the Spirit move without trying to control Him.
  3. We have to decide ahead of time that God’s manifest Presence can sometimes get messy.
  4. We have to decide ahead of time not to take His Presence for granted, as if God owes us something, and instead treat it with awe and reverence.
  5. We have to decide ahead of time to be as welcoming, inviting, and hospitable to the Presence of God as we try to be to guests who visit our church.
  6. We have to decide ahead of time not to quench the Spirit if God starts moving powerfully in us or in the person next to us. In other words, if things start getting weird, we have to resist the urge to extinguish it and instead hold a “Yes” in our hearts.