Several years ago, at the Bible college where I taught, news reached the campus that a revival had broken out among the students of another school. It was much like the recent event at Asbury University, though on a smaller scale. The stories we heard were similar. Students knelt and wept at the front of the chapel as they asked God to forgive their sins. There was singing and confessing.
Some of the students on our campus were unsettled by these reports. But not for the reasons you might think. They were bothered that God had chosen a Liberal Arts school for this singular blessing instead of ours. They were indeed a Christian college. But we were a Bible college, training students for Christian ministry instead of business or the arts. Many felt this was a distinction demanded more of us in terms of the spiritual climate on campus. Perhaps they believed we should also have expected more from God because of it.
In other words, it seemed to me, that our students’ initial reaction to the news was one of disappointment rather than rejoicing. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that it produced a kind of petulance and self-recrimination. “What is wrong with us,” they seemed to say, “that the Spirit would pass us by and choose to fall on them?” It was as though God had overlooked Jerusalem and chosen Samaria instead to be his habitation.
This was not the first time I had observed this kind of spiritual jealousy. I had seen it many times in churches. I had wrestled with it myself. Watching others obtain a blessing you have sought for many years is hard. It feels much the same as being passed over for a promotion. It is like learning that your best friend was invited to a highly anticipated party when you were not.
There is biblical precedent for such a thing. Jesus performs miracles in Capernaum and ignores Nazareth (Luke 4:23–28). He invites Peter, James, and John up the mountain to watch the transfiguration and leaves the other nine apostles in the valley (Mark 9:2). He heals the invalid at the pool of Bethesda but leaves the rest to sit in their affliction (John 5:1–15). There is also plenty of precedent for spiritual jealousy. On several occasions, Jesus’ own disciples speculated and even argued with one another about who was the greatest among them (Matt. 18:1; Luke 9:34, 46).
In his Gospel, Mark tells how blind Bartimaeus sat by the side of the road begging as Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd were leaving the city of Jericho (Mark 10:46–52). When the blind man heard that it was Jesus, he began to shout. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd attempted to silence him, but he only got louder. Finally, Jesus stopped and called for him. “Cheer up!” the people in the crowd said. “Get on your feet! He’s calling you.”
Bartimaeus cast aside his cloak and jumped to his feet. When he stood before Jesus, the Savior asked a question whose answer seems self-evident: “What do you want me to do for you?” I don’t know which bothers me more. The fact that a blind man had to tell Jesus that he wanted to see or the thought that if Bartimaeus hadn’t made such a fuss, Jesus might have passed him by. With this act, Bartimaeus becomes the patron saint of all those who make demands of Jesus. He also becomes the prototype of all who fear that Jesus will grant a blessing to others while withholding it from them. There are, no doubt, reasons for Jesus’ question. Perhaps his blindness was not obvious. Maybe Jesus wanted him to take the initiative and ask as an indication of his faith. I suppose Jesus could have been hinting to Bartimaeus that he could do more for him than heal.
Still, there is brusqueness to the question that I sometimes see in Jesus of the Gospels and find unnerving. It is the sort one occasionally experiences from the clerk at the counter who asks how they can help us. They know why I have come. They also know why they are there. Must I really spell out in detail what to me seems self-evident? Of course, such a comparison is unfair to Jesus for many reasons. I can’t see the expression on his face or hear the timbre of his voice when he poses this question to Bartimaeus. He may have exuded an aura of welcome and appeal.
Whatever Jesus’ motive was for requiring Bartimaeus to make the first move, it is the blind man’s anxiety we feel when we hear that Jesus is working somewhere else. It does not always come to us as good news, especially if we feel that we have been overlooked. For Bartimaeus, of course, it was a moment of opportunity. This was his usual spot. Jesus just happened to be passing through. It is different for some of us. The blessing we have been looking for is one that we have been pursuing for some time. To our own minds, at least, we can make a case for why it should come to us rather than someone else.
Some of the students at the school where I taught were part of a group that had prayed for a revival on campus for months. Some of them for years. For some reason, they always scheduled these meetings to last all night and held them on Fridays when most students were going out on dates. I suppose it was their way of shouting, like Bartimaeus. The more inconvenient they made the circumstances, the louder the shout. Then to have God drop the blessing in such an arbitrary way on a group of students who they felt were not nearly so devoted seemed almost like an insult.
I couldn’t help noticing something of this petulant spirit when comments about the prolonged chapel at Asbury began to surface on social media. Not everyone, mind you. But enough to make me take note. I am not surprised to find such things greeted with a certain amount of ambivalence. We Christians are caught between two equally necessary but competing obligations when it comes to such phenomena. On the one hand, we are warned not to “quench” the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19). Apparently, if we are not welcoming, we can act as wet blankets to his fire. On the other, we are warned that we must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).
As a result, some people see it as their primary responsibility to sit at a distance and make negative judgments based on the photos and videos they see on the Internet. These gatekeepers issue reports and warnings as a public service to the church. Others, who are grieved by this critical spirit, consider it their responsibility to counter those remarks. They act as cheerleaders posting updates and affirmations. The rest of us scroll through being triggered by one or the other, depending upon our personality and spiritual history.
It doesn’t help matters that we are theologically split when it comes to such questions. Our doctrinal differences have their roots in American church history, with the divide coming between the first and second Great Awakenings. The theologian of the First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century pastor whose marks of a work of the Spirit of God have been showing up in posts on social media lately. The theologian of the Second Great Awakening was Charles Finney, the 19th-century revivalist whose methods and assumptions still shape most of today’s popular worship practices. The main difference between them is essentially a question of control. To what degree can our efforts guarantee revival?
Edwards’ answer was that we cannot. Revival, according to him, comes as a surprise. Finney had a different view. “Revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense,” Finney asserted. “It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means.” When Finney calls revival “philosophical,” he is using the language of what was then called “natural philosophy,” or what we refer to as science today. In other words, Finney believed that spiritual laws govern revival. If the right means are used and proper conditions put in place, then revival must follow.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that there is much more that separates the two views of these men and that the differences between their theological perspectives are largely incompatible. This is another reason for the harsh tone taken by some of those who differ over contemporary claims of revival.
But ultimately, these differences really come down to a basic question. Did Bartimaeus cry out because Jesus chose to come his way? Or did Jesus call for Bartimaeus only because Bartimaeus raised his voice loud enough to get noticed? I suppose, if you are Bartimaeus at that moment, you don’t really care. All that matters is that Jesus stopped and called for you. Such questions are probably best pondered at leisure rather than at need.
In the end, however, I think Finney was wrong. The Spirit of God is ours as a gift, but he is not ours to control. There is something whimsical about how God interacts with and acts upon us. He is unpredictable in his ways, especially where the Spirit of God is concerned. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit,” Jesus explained to Nicodemus (John 3:5).
I have had more than one person ask me what I thought about the revival at Asbury. My answer has been that I am not close enough to the events to have a good opinion. Besides, I am not sure that my opinion matters. What I do know is that if, it is legitimate, the same Spirit at work there is the one who dwells in me. The same presence that fills the auditorium is also present in every place I am. And the same Jesus who called for Bartimaeus also calls to me in Scriptures and says, “Come to me . . . whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (cf. John 6:37).