Some Thoughts in Response to the Strange Fire Controversy

I met once with a young man who, as he puts it, likes to “toke the ghost,” a reference, as I understand it, to experiencing the person and work of the Holy Spirit in such a way as to become intoxicated under God’s influence. For him this looked like putting his thumb and index finger together near his mouth to reproduce the motion of inhaling a joint. He then violently fell to the floor and flopped about.

When he was done I said “Feel better?”



The whole thing made me a bit uncomfortable.

Let me attempt to explain why. It’s not, as some my anticipate, because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of experiencing the person and work of the Holy Spirit in powerful and sometimes dramatic fashion. I love his presence and touch. And I love all the various and sometimes seemingly weird ways that finite humans respond when an infinite God makes his presence known. Laugh, cry, fall down, shake, run, shout, speak in tongues, prophesy, heal the sick, cast out devils…I’m into all of it and more. Nor does it bother me to see intoxication as a metaphor for these kinds of experiences. When 120 disciples experienced God in dramatic fashion as described in Acts 2, those who witnessed the spectacle assumed they must have started drinking pretty early that day based on how they were behaving. In Ephesians 5 Paul contrasts being drunk with wine with the preferable infilling of the Holy Spirit.

I think what bothered me was the way the metaphor was being used to limit rather than explain. It’s as though experiencing the Holy Spirit was being used as a drug, instead of being received as a person, as God. In reality I think that the abuse of alcohol and drugs are poor, pitiful counterfeit for the genuine work of the Spirit. To insist on the metaphor in a way that brings the work of the Holy Spirit down to the level of drug use rather than lifting the small, broken counterfeit of drug use up to the full and transforming work of the Spirit is an error. Peter acknowledged the metaphor in Acts 2 but then moved quickly away from it to a much fuller, biblical explanation. We would do better to make the same move. If we don’t, we demonstrate that what we want is a God who makes us feel good, who medicates our pain, rather than a God who transforms, who heals, who causes old things to pass away and who makes all things new.

When observing those who are strongly under the influence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power, it’s possible that the uninitiated might assume they are drunk or high. Rather than embracing this metaphor and perpetuating it, we, like Peter, must move beyond it by explaining these experiences in biblical terms. To insist on phrases like “toking the ghost” or “getting drunk in the Spirit” is to move toward the misunderstanding Peter corrected rather than away from the misunderstanding as Peter intended.

I’m processing these thoughts in the context of an event currently taking place under the leadership of John MacArthur. His “Strange Fire Conference” is a cessationist attack on the present work of the Holy Spirit to empower believers. My concern is that it appears he, in observing the “toking the ghost” crowd, is categorizing all charismatic/pentecostal believers with that very narrow, very uninformed and very immature practice and then critiquing the entire movement accordingly. This only evidences his narrow minded bias and intellectual dishonesty.

We who are within the movement, however, should take this critique as an opportunity to mature in our understanding, explanation and expression of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Not that doing so will win over the John MacArthurs of the world; that’s not our goal or job. But it will allow us to more faithfully and maturely represent the ministry of the Spirit to those who are thirsty for divine encounter.



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