Scared out of the Movement
[Although this part of my story focuses on why I left the Charismatic Movement, it is in no way intended to disparage the beliefs of my charismatic brothers and sisters. These are my experiences to the best of my recollection; they were an early example of my thinking process where deconstruction is concerned and as such are important to understanding my story. I am sharing these recollections as honestly as I can but they don’t necessarily represent my views or feelings now.]
As I mentioned in my previous post, although the charismatic youth Bible study and Pentecostal churches I had been hanging out at were a lifeline for me, I saw things that puzzled me. Things that weren’t consistent with my understanding of scripture. For example: a weird, off the cuff interpretation of prophecy by a visiting preacher; an overemphasis on money and opulent church buildings; and a warning against associating with a group that held to a doctrine called the Manifested Sons of God.
All those things puzzled me, but like Mary I stored them up in my heart and pondered them.
But several other things I saw during the couple of years I spent in the Charismatic movement bothered me deeply. One even frightened me. These are what ultimately led me out of the movement.
A MIRACLE? OR MAYBE NOT?
The first time I saw a “leg lengthening,” the skeptic in me was awakened. I had a front row seat, as it were, as the Bible study leader prayed for a lady who’d complained of back pain. The lady sat in a chair and the Bible study leader held her feet out straight. One leg looked to be at least an inch shorter than the other. As the Bible study leader prayed, the shorter leg seemed to grow until they were even. I was seeing a miracle happen before my eyes.
Or was I?
Leg lengthenings were not unusual events. If someone complained of back pain, that was the usual remedy. Maybe I was naturally skeptical, but I often thought it strange that so many people had such a difference in the length of their legs. Although it was supposed to be divine healing it always struck me more like a parlor trick, something you’d see a stage magician do. I didn’t buy it.
I felt the same way about the “deliverance” prayers that took place occasionally. These weren’t everyday events, but more than once the Bible study leader would pray over some troubled teen or adult and attempt to cast out a demon. This was usually accompanied by gagging and coughing by the person who was being delivered from demonic oppression or possession.
I was skeptical that anything was actually happening. Maybe it was because I’d been immersing myself in Walter Martin’s follow-up series, “The Kingdom of the Occult” by then. Or maybe it was because I came to the table with a history of fascination with the occult, demons, and ghosts before I ever became a Christian and what I was seeing seemed artificial. (That’s a story for a different series!)
Whatever the reason, I wasn’t convinced of the reality of the so-called deliverance prayers. Those events aroused my skepticism, but they didn’t frighten me. The events that frightened me began with an experience commonly known as being “slain in the spirit.”
SLAIN IN THE SPIRIT
I was at the weekly youth Bible study and we were sitting in a circle praying when I suddenly just started repeating “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” It felt like electricity was surging through my body, head to toe, and I was completely out of it for several minutes after the prayer time ended.
When I finally recovered to the point where I could talk, I was told that I had been slain in the spirit. There was a congratulatory atmosphere, as if something very special had happened to me.
It certainly felt special. It was exhilarating. I didn’t know what to make of it but I accepted everyone’s comments that it was a good thing. It happened one or two more times before I left Pennsylvania, but never to the degree of my first experience.
I have no idea whether that experience was psychological, spiritual, physical, or a combination of all three or none of the above. I know that it didn’t frighten me–until something similar happened to me at home.
It was early evening and I was in my bedroom taking a nap. At one point, when I was hovering just between sleep and consciousness, I felt the same surge of “electricity” that I felt when I was slain in the spirit. It came in waves and I felt as though I was being pulled down through the center of the bed. Worse, I couldn’t move. I desperately wanted to wake up and couldn’t do a thing. And, although the experience at the Bible study had been exhilarating and positive, this was not. It was terrifying. When I finally was able to move, I was shaken. What had happened to me?
With fifty years of hindsight I know that I experienced what is known as sleep paralysis, a fairly common, albeit frightening, sleep disorder (which still affects me today). But back then I didn’t know what had happened, and I interpreted everything through the lens of my slain in the spirit experience.
When I went to the Bible study leader and described my experience he looked troubled and said, “You have a familiar spirit.”
I had no idea what a familiar spirit was but I got no further help from the Bible study leader. No prayer. No deliverance. He didn’t even explore it further. Just casually told me what he thought the problem was and then moved on.
Needless to say, I was troubled by that. But I didn’t know what else to do, so I let the matter drop.
Perhaps he didn’t know what to do either. Maybe he thought he was facing the possibility of a genuine demonic experience and wasn’t ready to face that. I always gave him the benefit of the doubt, and still do.
But it was many years before I learned about sleep paralysis and realized my experience was physical, not demonic, and so my feelings of uneasiness increased. That uneasiness peaked when I heard the first (and only) instance of speaking in tongues that I felt was truly supernatural. I also felt it wasn’t from God.
SCARED OUT OF THE MOVEMENT
I was very forward about my faith in those days and had led a library co-worker (actually my boss) to Christ. I was not only vocal about my faith, I was also vocal about the importance of receiving the baptism with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. So, after I led my co-worker to Christ, I took her to a dinner put on by of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International, where she received the baptism and spoke in tongues for the first time.
It got interesting when I took her to the adult prayer group that I had originally visited. During the prayer time my friend made a public utterance in tongues, which was kind of unusual for a new believer, but that’s not what scared me.
She spoke, raising her voice above all the others in the room, and what came out of her mouth was chilling. In my experience, when people spoke in tongues they spoke in syllables and phrases that were pleasing to the ear.
This was anything but.
Her tongue-speak was loud, guttural, and garbled, sounding almost as if she were choking. It raised the hair on the back of my neck. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound like a “heavenly prayer language.”
If that weren’t bad enough, what she said afterward was even worse.
We were driving home and she said to me, “Didn’t you tell me that speaking in tongues was something that the speaker was in control of?”
“Yes,” I replied. (We liked to quote Paul from I Corinthians 14: “The spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet.” In other words you were always in control when speaking in tongues, able to start and stop whenever you wanted.)
“I had no control,” she said. “I was forced to speak.”
Her words hit me like a sledgehammer. I didn’t know how to respond. All I knew is that what I’d heard coming out of her mouth did not sound like something from God.
I’d heard (and done) a lot of speaking in tongues, and to this day that’s the only time I felt it was something supernatural–and that wasn’t from God.
That event was a turning point for me. Although it took another couple of years for me to break with the Charismatic Movement and the Pentecostal churches I was attending, that day was when I began my first deconstruction.
Something changed in me and I no longer viewed my experience uncritically. Indeed, I began examining my beliefs, my experiences, and my understanding of the Bible. Eventually it led to me making a complete break with the Charismatic Movement.
How did that happen? What was my deconstruction process? What was deconstruction like?
I’ll delve into that next time!
[Note: I had planned to release these posts weekly, but I’m finding that as I explore my personal history, I’m remembering things long forgotten. I don’t want to rush the process and leave out something important. I’ll post these thoughts as frequently as I can, but it probably won’t be weekly. –Jim]
All posts in this series: A Deconstruction Observed