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.