Freaky Physical Reactions
If you attend a charismatic or renewal service, you’re likely to eventually come upon a scene which has left many people with questions: late in the service, when people are praying for folks, some people start freaking out, physically reacting. Some stand (or lie) quietly twitching, almost vibrating. Others jerk violently and even thrash about. Some shout, moan, roar or make other, less-describable noises. I’ve heard some roar like lions, others bark like dogs, and I’ve heard the clucking of a chicken.
The percentage of people who reacted strangely varied, from just a few, to most of the crowd, and it appeared that their reactions came from different motivations; some appeared more sincere, more genuine than others.
People who frequent such meetings are often completely at ease, even inattentive to the reactions. People who are not from a tradition that includes “physical manifestations” often find those manifestations distracting, confusing, off-putting. Neophytes often come away from these meetings with more questions about the congregation than about the sermon or the prophetic ministry:
- Why do they do that?
- Is that God?
- Can they control that?
- Are they faking it?
- That can’t be good for them, can it?
- That’s not going to happen to me, is it?
Those are good questions, actually. I try to encourage them.
John Arnott pointed out one time that there are many reasons why people react physically in a spiritual environment.
- Some folks react because God is touching them; it's involuntary, like touching a live electrical wire.
- Some of them, God isn’t touching them physically, but he’s working on their emotions, and their physical manifestations are simply a symptom of God addressing and healing deeply rooted emotional wounds.
- For others, it's psychological: they need to feel like they're part of what's going on, or they need to feel loved. For some of these, it's marginally voluntary: they may not know whether they can control the physical reaction.
- Others are moved socially: everybody is doing this; I need to fit in, so I should too: their reaction is voluntary, though the thinking behind it may not be.
- Some may be manifesting because their resident demons are freaking out.
- And there are mentally ill persons among us, who are legitimately reacting for their own reasons, real or imagined.
- I leave out those who are mockingly “faking it.” I actually haven’t ever met such people, and though I imagine they exist, I have difficulty imagining them sticking around without fitting into one of the other categories.
Among these motivations, are there any of these people that shouldn’t come to God, that shouldn’t bring these needs – spiritual, psychological, emotional, whatever – to God and invite him to work in them? Is there any reason to separate some away from God and permit others to come near?
If we accept John’s observation that these physical reactions come from many sources, we can answer the question “Is this God?” with, “Well, sometimes it’s God.” And we can make that statement without judging the person who is twitching undignifiedly on the floor: whichever of these motivations is making them flop, they deserve a touch from God, they deserve to be loved by God’s people, they deserve to be pastored, not judged, not excluded.
For some people, a touch from God won’t be the whole solution; they’ll also need to replace a lie with truth, and they may need deliverance. But the touch from God is a part of the process, is a part of the healing, and often it makes room for the other components of the healing.
I remember the night that I undeniably encountered really strange manifestations on people as they encountered God – this was the night that a man clucked chicken for twenty minutes as he was praying for me! I saw hundreds of people fall on the floor and flop around like a fish out of water. Afterwards, when most of the flopping fish were through flopping, and had been helped up, had straightened out their clothes and stumbled off to the parking lot, I was talking to the guy running the sound.
I asked him a blunt question: “Do you do that?” “Do what?” he asked. “Do you fall on the ground and flop around like a fish?”
His wife interrupted before he could answer. “Yes! Yes, he does, and I’m glad he does!” Um. Ok. “You’re glad he does that? Really? Why is that?”
“Because the man who gets up off the floor is not the same man who falls down there. God works on him while he’s there, and he always gets up a better man for it.”
She went on to tell me about some of the character issues that have changed, grown, matured, since he first landed unconscious on the carpet, twitching. In my evangelical vocabulary, he was growing more Christ-like while he flopped about on the carpet.
My evangelical mind had trouble with that concept. But I was beginning to be convinced. I really didn’t understand (I don’t claim to understand even now!), but when something I don’t understand brings about the result of increased Christlikeness, increased fruit of the Spirit, then I can’t really argue with it, even if I don’t understand the process by which God works in them. I understand the results even if the process confuses me.
Reactions to the Manifestations
At those same meetings where some people who didn’t participate in the festivities. Some wandered about, wide-eyed, watching what was going on, others clung to their chairs, with the same wide-eyed curiosity. I love watching these folks’ honest fascination with what God was doing.
Others stood, often along the back wall, often with arms crossed, scowling, watching the shenanigans, usually with growing unease. I’ve been this guy, so I know that the mental process behind the scowl is not generally one of approval. These folks may ask the same questions, but with a twist, perhps twisted into a statement, usually a statement of disapproval, judgment, even condemnation:
- Why doesn’t somebody stop that?
- That is not God! That can’t be God!
- They could control that reaction!
- They’re faking it!
- That can’t be good for them!
- That’s not going to happen to me!
Often, they’re rehearsing in their minds all the reasons why this can’t be God. Confusion is replaced by indignation, then anger, and they leave the meeting, usually early, more justified than before, in their opposition to the physical manifestation of the touch of God. Often they’ll write an angry blog post afterwards, justifying their judgmentalism.
Curiously, some of their judgments touch truth in the matter. We’ve already described how some of the manifestations are from psychological or emotional sources, so it can legitimately be said, of some, that it is not God making them shake; some of those could be described as faking it, though I have come to question the need (or benefit) from identifying or judging that. And it’s true: most people (though perhaps not all people) can indeed squelch the reaction (the critics sometimes do that themselves!). But those who enjoy encountering God this way, choose not to squelch the experience. And the statement “That’s not going to happen to me!” is in some measure self-fulfilling.
So I compare the three perspectives: ● Those who twitch and moan (“those who manifest”), ● Those who eagerly watch the manifestations, and ● Those who stand back and judge. (Note: I have been all three of these people.)
One could make a biblical argument to each of these three people for the validity of physical manifestations (referencing Matthew 17, or 28, for example). But it’s my experience that the first group doesn’t need the argument, the second group isn’t paying attention at the moment (but will ask about it later), and the third group can’t be convinced, no matter how biblical the argument.
In my mind, the more important issue is the question of fruit: what kind of fruit does this encounter produce in each of the three groups? Let’s look at them in reverse order:
- The critics are an easy one: their fruit is bitterness, judgment, and anger. That doesn’t sound like it represents God well. Therefore, I decline to partake of this fruit.
- The curious observers are easy as well: they manifest genuine hunger, honest questions, eager anticipation, or legitimate confusion. They are willing to listen to testimony and teaching on the topic, but will judge both by what they’ve seen. Most of these onlookers will become participants before long. These characteristics (these fruit) seem to reflect God’s character well; they fit well on his children who are growing and learning. I find this to be very nice fruit.
- The fruit of those who manifest is harder to classify, because it’s so varied. Some, like my friend the sound guy, have an honest encounter with God and get up changed. Those are easy to discern: that’s God! But some seem to have an honest encounter with God, but develop a fixation on the encounter, missing the God whom they encountered, and these seem to be less changed. I find good fruit in some people, and less desirable fruit in some others.
The conclusion I’m coming to in all of this is this: I like some of what goes on, and other aspects, I’m ready to distance myself from. I have decided that what happens between them and God is really none of my business, none of my business. My business is about being impacted by God myself.
Some may ask, “But what about those who you lead? Don’t you have a responsibility to them? Shouldn’t you warn them?”
This is a good place for a testimony, a story: Some time ago, I took a group of fairly intellectual young believers on what we called a “Field trip.” We visited a church who had a guest speaker that was known for these kind of manifestations. I intentionally did not tell the group what to expect, except to say, “It will likely be different than you’ve experienced before.”
Sure enough, God showed up, and people started falling, twitching, moaning, whatever. Two ladies were convinced that this was fake, but were hungry for God enough to get prayer. They had been convinced that the pastor was pushing people over, and they stood there, braced against pushing, hands in their pockets, as he lightly touched their heads. When he removed his hands from their foreheads (and not before), they both fell down backwards (caught and lowered gently to the ground by people less skeptical than themselves). Twenty minutes later, hands still in their pockets, they woke up, confused as to how they had landed on the floor, but excitedly chattering about their encounter with God during the time they were out.
Another time, I took another young believer to a similar meeting, but the results were different. We talked about it afterwards, and she was indignant: “He pushed me! That’s just wrong!” I probed further, “So you’d say this was not God?” “Well, he sure wasn’t working with God! I landed on my back, mad, because he pushed, and because he wanted so desperately for me to fall down. But while I was there, God said, ‘While you’re here, do you want to make the most of the time?’ and then he showed me some really cool things while I was lying there!”
We concluded that the minister was, for whatever reason, relying on pushing, rather than on God, for the manifestations. But we also concluded that God likes the heart that is eager to interact with him, and is willing to use people’s fleshly and inferior responses in order to reach his eager children.
So in regards to the question of pastoring, my conclusion is this: If I am leading people to myself, then I guess, yeah, I need to have all the answers to all their questions. But if I’m leading people to God, then the measure of success of my pastoring them is this: do they know God well enough to discern for themselves?
Yes, I’m there to help them process the experience, and that’s valuable to them. But my role is not to make their judgments for them; rather my job is to support them in their own encounters with God, and to encourage them to encounter God.