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The Fear of God: Learning to Trust the Holy Spirit

Terrified, I clung to the microphone, very aware of the hundreds of college students surrounding me. I continued to pray into the microphone, but mentally my prayer had changed to “God, please don’t do anything crazy.” I wasn’t doing anything that normally made me fearful. Praying in front of large crowds during vespers was routine for me, the men’s student chaplain at Walla Walla College. However, this time as I prayed on my knees surrounded by college students who had come forward after Friday night vespers, I began to get lightheaded. And to understand why I was afraid, you have to understand the classes I was currently enrolled in.
I was a junior theology major taking “History of Adventism” and “Inspiration & Revelation” from Alden Thompson. In the course of class readings I began to learn about the beginning of Adventism, back when the denomination’s actions didn’t have to be approved by multiple boards. The stories I read about early Adventism were exciting, unpredictable and sometimes scary.
The story that came to mind as I nervously held the microphone surrounded by hundreds of students was from Ellen White’s early ministry. She had attended a prayer meeting during which her physical strength left her, after which point someone in the group began to reprove her for not rejecting this excitement. It is documented that “[This man] had scarcely stopped speaking when a strong man, a devoted and humble Christian, was struck down before his eyes by the power of God, and the room was filled with the Holy Spirit.”[1] The one thing I knew about being “struck down by the power of God” was that it was weird and not something I ever expected or wanted to have happen at church. But during my prayer at vespers that evening, I began to feel lightheaded under the presence of what I could only guess was the Holy Spirit, and my main reaction was fear. What will people think if I “fall under the power of God” right in the College Church sanctuary? Will people still like me? Will people think I just want attention or that I believe I am better than them?
Nothing happened. I didn’t faint, start speaking in tongues or do anything else that might be thought weird by a typical Adventist college student (even though “weird things” happened to people in the Bible).
One thing that did happen is that I started experiencing my Christianity in a new way. I began to recognize when the Holy Spirit was near and present and when She wasn’t. This helped me stay connected with God for a greater portion of the day because I liked feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit, and quickly found I was able to be in God’s presence simply by turning my attention to Her. This in turn made me more confident in my connection with God and increased my faith. I began to pray for people more and even began to see some of them healed.
As a result of this I also became aware of an interesting phenomenon in Adventism regarding the experience of God: we are very concerned about excess, but we are fine with lack. We are wary of false miracles or experiences with the supernatural, but fine with the idea that a Christian might go through his or her whole life and never have what some might call a “weird encounter with God.”
An example of how I have seen this play out happened during a small group I was leading last year. Susie was in her 50s and attended our group regularly. She had experienced healing after being prayed for during our meeting when she complained of a lack of energy one evening, and she seemed to grow more excited about Jesus each time we met. One night she shared how she had called her mom to tell her how prayer had impacted her so deeply. She also told her mother that this was the first time she had ever felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. Her mom’s reply was very blunt: “Okay, well be careful!”
I have heard similar reactions many times. Over the course of my time working with students at special events and weeks of prayer, I have routinely prayed with others for the Holy Spirit. But when we have heard testimonies of the Holy Spirit tangibly doing things, the main reaction I’ve encountered has been the belief that reported experiences are at best naiveté and at worst the devil.
This article is only sufficient to open the can of worms, so I am not going to attempt to lay out all the reasons, good and bad, why supernatural experiences seem to have become taboo in Adventism. However, I do think it is hurting us. Without hearing testimonies about how people around you are experiencing God it can become easy to see God as being at best far off and at worst non-existant. I compare this to how encouraged I have been hearing co-workers, students and mentors talk about the ways God has interacted with them supernaturally. So why aren’t the stories being told? Why haven’t you read about them yet?
I believe the answer is the same reaction I had when I first encountered things that were unexplainable: fear. Fear of having to defend ourselves without any scientific evidence or scholarly proofs. Fear of being labeled “Charismatic” or “not Adventist enough.” Fear of having people think that we are uppity and that we think we are better than others.
These are legitimate fears, and I know many people who do not share their testimonies or experiences of God anymore because of the responses they have encountered. If you knew that people were fine with a complete lack of the supernatural but were terrified of excess, non-logical thinking, and emotionalism, would you tell anyone?
I have chosen to share the beginnings of my story because I think we owe it to youth who are growing up Adventist to know that God does exist and wants us to experience His love. The love which He leads us to believe is the perfect antidote to fear.
Caleb Henry has ministered on the Walla Walla University campus as Director of “The Awakening,” as a Freshman mentor, and a University Church assistant pastor. He is currently an associate pastor at Connections Adventist Church in Yakima, Washington.
[1] White, Ellen G., Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1. Pg 46.

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