Subtitle: In About an Hour
Readers from my generation might remember a 1980s TV advert for a well-known photo developer, who proudly boasted they could produce a set of prints ‘in about an hour’. This post is about one of the most extraordinary hours of my life, in which I was privileged to witness what the Lord can achieve, if given room to move.
It was early 1997 and I was in Cebu City, serving as a missionary. Cebu is the second largest metropolis in the wonderful country of the Philippines, and is a place of extreme poverty. I was living on a ship at the time, and within meters of the port gate, toddlers were playing naked in the sewage, running freely down the street. A stinking, sluggish river snaked through the slum, and all around it were makeshift shelters, stacked perilously atop each other on the steep banks, built from scavenged tin and tree bark. Poverty was strangling the community, and yet every place I went, the welcome was warm. I’d wander the streets, meeting people, sitting with them in their homes, sharing the good news about Jesus, and boy did they want to talk!
Some friends and I were sent into the city to work with a local missionary. We stayed for several days in her apartment, and each morning we’d pray, asking the Lord to lead us to those who needed him. One morning, after finishing praying, we walked out the door into a tense situation on the street. A young couple were shouting at each other, pulling at either end of a screaming, terrified baby. The mother had a hold of it by the shoulders, and the father by its legs. I had no doubt these were the people God wanted us to reach out to that day. My friends and I approached, and stood around them in silence until the shouting stopped, and the mother was holding the baby once more.
“If you come with us, we can help you,” one of us said.
They were so surprised that they went along with it, returning to the apartment with us to talk. It was then that the Holy Spirit took over. I was in the habit of spending long hours with God, bathing in his presence and meditating on his word. Over the course of the previous few years, I’d worked hard to seek, receive and develop spiritual gifts, and had become capable in the use of prophecy, discernment of spirits, words of wisdom and knowledge. This is not a boast. We are all called to develop spiritual gifts in the Lord, which are an expression of grace. Romans 12, 6:
‘Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them.’
Spiritual gifts, then, are a manifestation of grace, which is the power and ability of God to save, heal and restore (Grace is often confused with mercy, but I’ll save that for another day). Not only are spiritual gifts a manifestation of grace, but we are taught to earnestly desire and seek them. The Corinthians were in a bit of a mess, when it came to the use of spiritual gifts, practicing them chaotically in their meetings, to the point where the message of God was lost in the noise. Despite this, and despite his instructions to bring order to their services, Paul urges them to continue to seek out spiritual gifts. I Corinthians 12, 31:
‘Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.’
He has already specified that prophecy is greater than tongues, and doubles down on that in 1 Corinthians 14, 1-5:
‘Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.’
Prophecy is of massive importance to the Church because it strengthens, encourages and comforts the hearer. In other words, prophecy allows God to speak directly to his people, in a clear, understandable way. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve seen the message of God change lives. For me, the greatest privilege of prophecy is that in receiving and delivering the message of God, I get to feel his emotions. My most compelling experiences of the compassion of God have come through prophecy, including prophesying over strangers. The love of God is tangible in those moments, and lives are changed by his word and his presence. I’ve learned more about the compassion of God through prophecy than through years of Biblical instruction.
I learned to prophesy at the age of twenty-one. After years of spiritual drought, I’d only just begun to experience the presence of God in worship and prayer, and though I could speak in tongues and feel God’s power, I wanted to be able to pass on something really useful when praying for people. Some of my friends were able to prophecy, and I wanted to be as effective as they were in bringing the love of God. Hungering after prophecy meant first of all recognising God wanted this for me (as clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14), and getting on my knees, day after day, week after week, month after month, expressing my desire until finally the breakthrough came. I’ve found the Lord is always ready to take us deeper, to say yes to our prayers to know him more closely, and to empower us for service. It is amazing how effective ordinary people can become for God, if we apply ourselves to seeking him.
And so there we were, with the young couple and the baby, and the Holy Spirit began to move. First we learned of their situation. The young man had been unfaithful to his wife, and she had caught him in the act. She was leaving him, and he was trying to persuade her to stay. In the power and presence of God, we knew what to do. First, we shared the Gospel, and both were touched by the Holy Spirit, giving their lives to God on the spot. The Lord spoke to me of the young man’s past – a childhood in which he had been labelled and judged, setting him on rails he’d continued to slide down to that day. We spoke about the power of God to change him, and reset his destiny. His wife made the extraordinary choice to forgive him for cheating on her, which reduced us all to tears. We prayed for the child, as did the parents, blessing it with the love and promise of God.
It was the most extraordinary experience, throughout which this couple, who only a short while earlier had been screaming at each other, wore expressions of childlike wonder. When the time came to part company, they walked away with the arms around their baby, happiness writ large across their faces. Importantly, the missionary we were staying with got their details and was going to stay in touch, helping them connect with a local church, so they weren’t left to figure everything out on their own. That night, I stood on the flat roof of the apartment and cried tears of gratitude. I could hardly take in the goodness of God, or grasp that this whole encounter, with all its moving parts, had taken about an hour. I was lost in awe and wonder at the sweetness of the Lord, and the things he would do in our lives, if we let him.
When I tell people about this event, even some Christians are cynical – it couldn’t happen that fast, maybe they were pretending, maybe she was for real but he was pretending in order to get away with his affair, maybe they felt coerced, etc…
But I was there. I felt the presence of God, heard his voice, felt his emotions, delivered his messages, and watched as he set this couple free before my eyes. The tears, the astonishment, the joy were the real deal. The truth is, in the presence of God, anything is possible; that which should take years can happen in a moment.
Reading the Gospels with spiritual gifts in mind shines a light on the way Jesus flowed in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, during his ministry. Take the conversation he had with the Samaritan woman at the well, in which he uses gifts of knowledge and prophecy to lead her to freedom, and to worship. John 4:
The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’
(Jesus is already prophesying at this point, speaking of the salvation he would bring through the cross, and the indwelling Spirit who would fill all believers.)
‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?’
Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’
(This is deep, messianic prophecy, speaking again of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who would live in all believers after Jesus had died, risen again and ascended.)
The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’
He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’
‘I have no husband,’ she replied.
Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.’
(He moves into a word of knowledge, knowing details about her life revealed by the Spirit.)
‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’
‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.’
(Again, this is deep, messianic prophecy, speaking of the Church, which will worship in the power of the Holy Spirit, all around the world.)
The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’
Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you – I am he.’
Jesus is our perfect example. He moved comfortably in and out of spiritual gifts as an essential part of his ministry, and we are called not only to be like him, but to do the things he did. I don’t see how the modern-day believer can do anything other than seek to be empowered, as Jesus was empowered, and use spiritual gifts as a daily service to God. Without him, none of us could hear his voice or feel his love. Without him, prophecy would be empty. Without him, there is no power to change. It’s all about Jesus, but people won’t see him if we don’t learn to let God be God, leading and empowering us by the Spirit.
Lord, inspire us to seek more from you – more power, more love, more spiritual gifts. Make us more effective for you, as we deepen our connection. Let us be one with you, as you and the Father are one. Let us feel your compassion, and be your hands and feet, ministering to those who need you. Let us be more like Jesus, who walked in spiritual gifts every day of his ministry, and through them, set people free. Let us be like Jesus.