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The quiet arrival of the Kingdom

Is our desire for revival an attempt to shortcut spiritual formation?

I didn’t grow up with itinerant preachers or tent revivals. I don’t belong to a charismatic tradition which regularly seeks outward manifestations of the work of the Spirit of God. So I am a bit mystified and, if I’m honest, cynical about the strange attraction of Christians with the revival at Asbury University in Kentucky in February, and subsequent revivals elsewhere. 

A question keeps flitting through my mind. Is our desire for revival really the hope that we can somehow short-cut the process of spiritual formation?  

I am not denying the appeal and beauty of a close encounter with God – an experience that is so profound that life becomes divided into a “before” and “after.” What I am questioning is why it seems like we believe revival will save us. Why is revival the answer many Christians point to when asked to address societal ills? Is it because we want a quick fix to what ails us and the world around us? 

First, repentance 

We see people leaving church, disillusioned and staggering from harm. We are witnesses to disasters that leave us reeling, and participants in ongoing debates that threaten to rend the fabric of our society. Our communities are deeply divided, and we would like a magic pill to repair it all. 

But our mountain-top experiences will not heal the fractures in our society or fix the lack of accountability in our church leaders to repent of wrongdoing. It will not solve issues of inequality, homelessness, or food insecurity. 

A revival will not repair the harm done when abusive leaders in our pulpits are protected while the victims are marginalized and doubted. We need repentance and reparation. Too often revival stops at the good feelings and does not translate into a pursuit of justice and healing. 

I wonder how often our prayers for revival are rooted in our instant culture. We want the quick and miraculous over the slow, everyday “long obedience in the same direction,” as Eugene Peterson would say. I know this has been true for me. 

I assume my prayers, my thoughts and even my life can be transformed with very little effort. I expect the miraculous on my behalf. I have been conditioned to presume expediency. Instant coffee, 10 easy steps to success and one-hour teeth whitening predispose me to look for quick results. I expect God to fill me up when all I give him is a few minutes of rushed devotion each day. 

Second, space for God

Like mastery of any skill, however, maturity in faith requires consistency and wholehearted persistence. It requires long hours of intentional effort. It will include quiet, invisible acts like contemplation and prayer, disciplines which work to open space for God, allowing his voice to break through the outer cacophony of sounds. Even Jesus repeatedly took himself away to quiet, lonely places to receive what he needed. His ministry did not begin until he had spent 30 years in the quiet obscurity of Nazareth. It was these secluded times with his Father that prepared him for the work ahead. What would happen if we steeped ourselves in God’s presence so consistently that every hour of the day, all interactions, work, and relationships were permeated by God?

Thousands of people traveled to Kentucky in search of the Holy Spirit. They wanted to witness the revival, to join in the experience. It seems a curious thing to search for God on a distant campus when he can be found just as readily in our kitchens and boardrooms, our coffee shops and gyms – in other words, exactly where we happen to be.

I believe what we need in this cultural moment is not a one-time religious event but everyday saints doing the hard work of formation. We need Christians who repeatedly humble themselves to the “slow work of God.” There is a need for those who regularly search and purge their hearts of the vices which keep us from being more fully formed into the likeness of Jesus. Our culture and churches need to see believers who live virtuously day-in and day-out. Sometimes God grants unique and powerful experiences like a revival or reawakening. We can be grateful for such encounters with God but resist the temptation to hang all our hopes on them. 

Third, softened hearts

It is our inner life that requires change. Spiritual formation is like a slow heart transplant, where our concrete hearts are gradually softened to become more like the tender heart of Jesus. We become more like him, and his mission becomes our own. As Dallas Willard says, “It is the inner life of the soul that we must aim to transform, and then behaviour will naturally and easily follow.” Revival, which can be merely an emotional and personal experience, cannot take the place of formation which takes us out of ourselves and reforms us to be good news to the poor, agents of freedom for the oppressed and imprisoned (Luke 4:18-19). Ideally both work in tandem. 

If we live like Jesus in our everyday, walking-around lives, we will see the kingdom of God come more fully into every corner of the world. His rule and reign are amplified in the lives of normal people doing everyday things while being the very presence of Jesus to their communities. 

As far as I can tell, God doesn’t regularly come in flashy brilliance, “slaying” by his Spirit, or attracting crowds. His kingdom comes in a bowl of soup delivered to a neighbour, a drive offered to a friend needing treatments, a letter written to those in political office, a hand to hold when frightened, speaking up when we see injustice, a compassionate listener – acts of love done as if for Jesus himself. 

May we be the agents of the continual, quiet arrival of the kingdom of God wherever we are. 

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