By Hal Knight
We have been looking at dangers to the Christian life, those things that can draw us away from God and our neighbor. The last of these, enthusiasm, may not sound like a danger at all. We might think that our lives and our churches would benefit from having more enthusiasm. And as we usually use the word, we may be right.
But in the 18th century the word was not so positive. In general a person was called an enthusiast if he or she was thought to have a religion driven by emotion rather than reason. Because John Wesley emphasized the religion of the heart, he was often called an enthusiast by critics. But Wesley had a more precise definition, which he used to distinguish true Christian experience from false.
In his sermon “On the Nature of Enthusiasm” Wesley describes enthusiasts as “those who imagine they have such gifts from God as they have not,” or “imagine themselves to be so influenced by the Spirit of God, as, in fact, they are not.” They might imagine God gives them the very words they speak, or expect to be directed by God through “strong impressions or sudden impulses of the mind.”
Wesley was a leader in a great religious awakening, and while he saw the changed lives of persons as a genuine work of the Holy Spirit, he also saw cases of enthusiasm. These were persons who assumed their feelings and impressions were from God, especially if they were intense. In his sermon on “The Witness of the Spirit I,” Wesley commented “How many have mistaken the voice of their own imagination for the witness of the Spirit of God.”
In “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” Wesley warned his followers to “Beware that daughter of pride, enthusiasm ... Do not hastily ascribe things to God ... They may be from him. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil.” Here he is calling for discernment as to whether an experience or impression is from God or another source. So how does he advise us to make that judgement?
He has three suggestions in “On the Nature of Enthusiasm.” First, we should consult scripture, keeping in mind that it calls us to holiness of heart and life centered in love. Nothing that takes away from that is of God.
Second, he suggests that instead of simply asking what is God’s will, we should ask more focused questions: What improves us or helps us grow in grace? What makes us useful to God? This moves us from focusing on transient feelings to seeking guidance to become persons who embody God’s love.
Third, he suggests our faithful participation in means of grace such as prayer, the study of scripture, the Lord’s Supper and serving the neighbor. Enthusiasts who assumed they had a direct link to God by way of intense religious experience often saw no further need for one or more of these means of grace. But if we are to distinguish the genuine things of God from the counterfeit, Wesley believed the means of grace to be essential.
Wesley was not against experiencing God. He just wanted to be sure it was really God who we are experiencing. And if it was, he was convinced that it would always lead to our growing in the knowledge and love of God and love for our neighbor.