Shortly after my husband and I started dating in 2002, I began sensing the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life in ways that I never had before. I felt unusual promptings to speak with specific people about specific, sometimes awkward things; I felt a primal urge to spend time in worship, needing to sing or listen to songs of praise for hours at a time; I had a prophetic dream that was clear and made sense, unlike most of my dreams, and which communicated to me that I was going to marry Philip Reed.
Having this dream did not make dating a piece of cake, and it does not make marriage easy. My future husband didn’t have a corresponding dream telling him I would be his bride; he came to that conclusion through two years of dating and the guidance of others. And once he came to that conclusion, my certainty started to waver, because although a dream from God can be powerful, it cannot take the place of the normal human work of getting to know someone, learning to love someone, and taking the risk of commitment. I eventually (happily) agreed to get married, but after thirteen years of marriage, my husband and I still have to work every day to strengthen our marriage and serve each other, and we often fail.
I look back on that dream as a special, supernatural gift, but I also see it as a reminder that supernatural experience cannot sustain a marriage—or a faith. In fact, once I got married, many of the powerful spiritual experiences I had began to fade. I no longer felt the daily intimacy with Jesus that guided and sustained me for two years. I haven’t had a prophetic dream since my first and only one. Sometimes I’m sad that experiencing God in that way now evades me, and when I’m really down, I tell myself that God is no longer working in my life. In reality, those experiences were a gift for a certain time, and God continues working in my life now, even if not so dramatically.
Throughout the book of Acts, which describes the beginning of the Christian church, we see the miraculous, supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, people who spoke many different languages were able to understand each other because of the power of the Holy Spirit.
On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.
At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages!” (Acts 2:2-8 NLT)
The story of Pentecost, and of many other miraculous events in the book of Acts, is a powerful one. Many witnesses of Pentecost were baptized that day because they were so amazed by the power of the Holy Spirit. In our own lives, some of us have had personal “Pentecosts,” like I did—times when it is easy to believe because we see or experience God’s supernatural work.
For example, Mother Teresa, the nun who devoted her life to serving the poor and destitute in Calcutta, had a series of visions in 1946 and 1947. In the visions she saw people in utter poverty and then heard Jesus say to her, “I have asked you to take care of them, to bring them to Me…I cannot go alone to the poor people; you carry me with you into them” (Jesuit Archives in Calcutta). These visions were life-changing. They were a large part of what motivated Mother Teresa to form the Missionaries of Charity, now a religious order of thousands of sisters who vow to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor,” in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, who wrote a book about Mother Teresa called Something Beautiful for God.
What many didn’t know about Mother Teresa is that after she experienced those powerful visions and intimate conversations with Jesus, she suffered through years of feeling far from God, unable to feel his presence like she had earlier. Yet she did not abandon her work, and she even came to see her spiritually dark time as a way to more deeply understand both the suffering of the people she served and the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Even though she lacked the supernatural experiences that drew her to Jesus in the first place, Mother Teresa found spiritual sustenance in her daily spiritual disciplines, her service to the poor, and her fellowship with other Christians, particularly those in her religious community.
Supernatural experience can be wonderful, but it cannot sustain our faith. In the words of Texas megachurch pastor Matt Chandler, who may not appear to have a lot in common with Mother Teresa: “I love the supernatural, want to see the supernatural, constantly plead with God for the supernatural, but the supernatural has never anchored anyone to long-term faithfulness in following Jesus.” Chandler goes on to say, “If you want to argue with that, go ahead and e-mail me, and I’ll send you an unreal amount of passages that prove I’m right.” Not exactly Mother Teresa’s style, but at least they agree that supernatural experience cannot be the driving force of faith.
If we can’t rely on personal supernatural experience to grow in our faith, what can we rely on? What sustains faith is not the same for everyone, but it often includes the discipline of personal spiritual practices like prayer and Bible study, the willingness to look for God in our everyday, ordinary experiences, and the guidance and fellowship of others—which we might call “community.”
Creating a community is exactly what the first believers did, which we read about after the description of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts: “They worshiped together at the temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity” (Acts 2:44-47). Forming or finding a church community is often difficult, and it can feel overwhelming to take the first steps in doing this. But it is comforting to know that when you’re feeling spiritually dry, taking Communion and inviting the person next to you at the altar over for dinner are ways to experience Jesus. And if you don’t believe me, e-mail me, and I will send you an unreal amount of passages that prove I’m right.