by Rev. Robert Luhn
Recently, the church where I am serving as interim pastor completed a video Bible study series,”When The Spirit Moves” by Jim Cymbala. He’s the senior pastor of the dynamic Brooklyn Tabernacle. Lesson 5 entitled “Who’s In Control?,” contained Rev. Cymbala’s teaching on being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Cymbala began this segment by talking about David Berkowitz, a serial killer who terrorized New York City beginning in the summer of 1976 and ending with his arrest in August of 1977. Berkowitz said he had joined a Satanic cult and felt he was controlled by Satan through a dog that belonged to his neighbor, Sam. He took the name Son of Sam when he spoke or wrote of himself.
After his arrest and imprisonment, Berkowitz confessed faith in Christ and become involved in prison ministries. He said it was easy having once surrendered control of his life to Satan to now renounce that and surrender control to the Holy Spirit.
The implication seems to be that control by the Holy Spirit is only different in degree from being controlled, dominated, or manipulated by evil spirits. It is control either way; One is controlled by an evil force or one is controlled by a good force, i.e., the Holy Spirit.
Cymbala then asked the question, “What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit?” He answers in this way: “Filled doesn’t mean filled like a glass . . . it means to be controlled by the Holy Spirit.” He goes on to say that Christians are to “not only walk in the Spirit but be controlled by the Holy Spirit.”
Cymbala consistently uses the language of control to describe the Spirit-filled life. He even mentions demonic possession as a counterfeit of genuine Spirit control.
What a contrast Thomas Jay Oord provides in The Uncontrolling Love of God. His basic premise is summarized well: “Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being. God also upholds the regularities of the universe because those regularities derive from God’s eternal nature of love….God is not a dictator mysteriously pulling strings. God never controls others, but sometimes acts miraculously, in non-coercive ways.”
Throughout his book, Oord consistently uses terms like, “influencing,” “empowering,” “inspiring,” “wooing,” “non-coercive,” “guiding,” and “calling.” All these terms emphasize his basic concept that God who is love, “never controls others.”
Love by nature doesn’t control, dominate, manipulate, or rob people of freedom in any way. In fact, it is the non-coercive, others-empowering love of God that sets a person free to be fully human, capable of loving God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as one’s self.
Let’s look at one well-known passage of Scripture: Galatians 5:22-23. Nine virtues known as the “Fruit of the Spirit” or the character qualities that form within the life of the Spirit-led person are listed here. The last one is “self-control.” It is not Holy Spirit control but self-control. It is not Holy Spirit domination; it is not being consumed by the Spirit, or losing one’s identity in the Spirit. It is not being overwhelmed and swept away by the Spirit.
What is emphasized is individual persons being given control of their own life after previously being under the sway of the flesh as described in Galatians 5:19-21. Increased freedom from sin, decreased selfishness, and control of one’s lower impulses are provided by the working of the Spirit in a Christian’s life. The Holy Spirit as an indwelling presence is constantly influencing the person in the direction of free and holy love.
I see this fruit of the uncontrolling Spirit in my own life. Prior to committing my life to Christ and being filled with His Spirit, I was not free to love or to want anything but my own selfish way. After the Spirit moved in I felt strength, motivation and encouragement to love others as I loved myself. I was not being controlled, but for the first time I felt like Someone was cheerleading me on as well as supplying energy to make loving choices in every situation.
Sadly, sometimes I have used my freedom poorly and have not made the loving choice. In these moments of failure I am very aware that the Spirit has granted me self-control. I am not forced, dominated or manipulated by the Spirit; I am granted power to love and freedom to make a loving or unloving choice. It is always my hope to make the loving choice.
I believe Oord’s understanding best provides a way of understanding Scriptures that refer to the Spirit-filled life. The Third Person of the Trinity shares the essential characteristic of God: uncontrolling love.