Feeling whether the Spirit is working

As I have come off Facebook and Twitter, I have re-opened comments on the blog. You are welcome to post your comments below.

The other day I wrote about what to do if you preach a bad sermon. As it happened, I felt I had not preached a great one on Sunday. For various reasons it didn’t feel as good as it could have been.

One of the things that made it problematic was that I had edited it, but it didn’t seem to be edited as I started it. Turned out, I had edited a copy that was saved somewhere else, so I was preaching the unedited version. At the time, I assumed it hadn’t saved or something. But I nevertheless knew it wasn’t the right version as I started. Part way through, I thought perhaps it was that the version I was using hadn’t updated, so I stopped and tried to update it. This didn’t work and it made me stop in an unhelpful way partway through. The sermon thereafter felt disjointed all the way through.

All of which is to say, I felt I needed a real sense of the Spirit being with me as I stood there. I felt under-prepared and as though I were preaching something, though not my fault, that was not what it should be. I felt, in the moment, if ever I needed the Spirit to work – if ever I needed to know he was doing something or other in the moment – it was then.

But the truth is, I felt absolutely nothing. I stood there, muddling through my sub-optimal sermon, and I had no particular sense of the Spirit working. There didn’t seem to be any particular movement from him. I felt as exposed and unprepared as I did when I started and realised what was going wrong. So, feeling absolutely nothing, I limped on. I preached what I had, as best I could, and felt only that it wasn’t much good. So, I went home and didn’t feel so good about it.

But, not so long after, some came up afterwards to than me for the message. A member of the congregation later messaged me to tell me how helpful it was. Another, not long after, messaged to give some specific encouragement about what they found particularly helpful and how they felt moved to respond meaningfully to it. Go figure.

What lesson are we supposed to draw from this? Not that I am actually a better preacher than I think, not least because one’s I occasionally (and ever so humbly) think I have knocked out the park – the ones where I felt the Spirit palpably move amongst his people – can be the ones that my wife tells me on the way home were a bit rubbish. They’re sometimes the ones other people tell me weren’t much good too. So, it doesn’t prove any of that in the least.

What it tells me is my feelings are an unreliable guide to whatever the Spirit might be doing. If I feel nothing, yet the Spirit is clearly at work, and the time I think he has been blowing where he wills with gay abandon, only to be told that sermon was a bit of a duffer, it tells me what I feel about the Spirit’s work is meaningless. My feelings are a totally unreliable guide to what he is doing. Which also tells me that what you feel about the Spirit’s moving is an unreliable guide too.

In the end, the work of the Spirit – though sometimes it may seem perceptible – it is more often than not imperceptible. Or, more accurately, it is not perceived by how we feel. Rather – just like the wind to which the Spirit is explicitly compared in scripture – his work is perceived by its effects. It is when people are changed, when people glorify God, when people grow, when people are moved to obey, then we can sense the work of the Spirit. My feelings about it are entirely irrelevant to whether he is working. As, it happens, so are yours too. The Spirit will blow where he wills, regardless of what we feel about it or whether we feel anything while he does so or not.