The Nature of Enthusiasm - A Devotional Paraphrase

(Sermon 37 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley)
By: Michael Roberts

Acts 26:24

“While he was making this defense, Festus exclaimed, “You are out of your mind, Paul!” Acts 26:24

Many who do not know Jesus as personal savior are likely to think of us as “mad.” We don’t like this characterization, so it is tempting to water-down our faith to the point where it is little more than “being nice,” practicing “common sense,” and performing outward rituals in an orderly manner. We may add “orthodoxy,” or a “system of right opinions,” with a share of basic morality. People respect religion at this level, and are not likely to think of it as crazy. But once religion becomes a matter of the heart and we start talking of “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit,” or say that the love of God is in our heart, and turn from temporal concerns to a pursuit of life eternal, then soon the sentence will be passed, as it was to Paul, “You are out of your mind.”

The world does not like this kind of “enthusiasm,” as it is called. Such behavior is unacceptable to serious society. This “enthusiasm” is so easily misunderstood. The word itself comes from the Greek, but with debate about its origins. Some say it is derived from “en theoi,” or “in God.” Others say it is derived from, “en thysiai,” or “in sacrifice,” since so many enthusiasts of old faced great sacrifice. One reason this word keeps its basic Greek form, in so many languages, is because there is little agreement about its origin and meaning. We therefore adopt the Greek word, because we do not know how to translate it, and because it describes a behavior that doesn’t make sense to many.

Some take it as an expression of the divine, superior to human reason and all the natural senses. In this sense, all the Prophets and Apostles of old were enthusiasts. Others see it as “inspiration,” and can be ascribed in a religious sense or a more secular sense. It describes a “peculiar fervor of spirit, an uncommon vivacity not found in others.” But in common practice, it is used as a term of derision, kin to fanatic or extremist. It is seen as a “disorder of the mind,” a hindrance to reason. It is a type of “madness,” where one imagines they are something that they are not, or have some powers that are beyond reason.

Speaking specifically of religious enthusiasm, there are those who imagine they have the grace which they do not have. They have no roots, no deep repentance, or conviction. A shallow faith can lead some to be “fiery zealots” for certain opinions about God or styles of worship or activist for or against some cause. This madness is not rooted in the love of Christ. Others imagine they have gifts from God that they do not have. Some proclaim that they can work miracles, or heal with a word or touch. Others proclaim they can tell the future. And then, in time, their misplaced passions are revealed. Others imagine that they have particular direction from God. In our vain hope, they ascribe their own impulses and dreams to God, when they are “utterly unworthy of Him!” Often this is mere “enthusiasm,” and way out of the bounds of true religion.

Another common type of enthusiasm is to imagine that you have the peculiar favor of heaven, and that God blesses you with a particular providence. God’s providence is universal. It extends to all and we are all part of this bigger reality. In this sense, we humbly say, that God presides over the whole universe as over every single person, and over every single person as over the whole universe. To ascribe a particular act to providence runs the risk of making oneself more favored than others. The offspring of this type of enthusiasm can be pride. It can alienate us more and more from the love of God. It can lead to contempt for others, to furious anger, to impatience with the world, to works of greed, all in the name of Christ. Such is the nature of this many-headed monster called “Enthusiasm!”

Enthusiasm can be tested by the virtues of faith. It is possible to imagine that we are Christians, but are not. Christians love God; these enthusiasts love the world. Christians are humble; these are proud. Christians are gentle; these are passionate. Christians have the mind which was in Christ; these are “mad” for the imaginations of their own minds and hearts, all in the name of Christ. They consider themselves Christian because of their baptism, or their orthodoxy, or their attendance in worship, but these are poor self-deceivers. “Physicians, heal yourselves.” First know your disease, your self-will, your misplaced loves. You are mad, mere enthusiasts! You are “walking in the vain shadow, a shadow of religion, a shadow of happiness.”

So, the question becomes, how do we know the will of God? The answer is sobering and less “exciting” than the proposals of enthusiasts. We start, not by waiting for supernatural dreams or by looking for direct inspirations or sudden impulses on our minds, but by immersing ourselves in the Word of God, as given to us through scriptures.

The scriptures give us a general rule to apply in particular cases. This rule can be summarized by saying, “the will of God is our sanctification.” It is God’s will that we should be inwardly and outwardly holy; that we should be good, and do good. This rule is as clear as the shining of the sun.

But what about knowing God’s will in particular circumstances? “Should I marry this person?” “Should I enter into this business?” “Should I move to this place?” “Is it the will of God?” In answering these kinds of questions, we must focus on the general rule as we make our way through life. It is the will of God that we should be holy and to do the most good, so in which circumstance do we believe we can best fulfill this calling. The specific answer is determined in part by reason, in part by experience, but always through the lens of which decision may most lead to sanctification. As we navigate our lives, and make decisions as fallible human beings, we can trust that the Holy Spirit is at work, with guidance and gifts to live out our calling in all circumstances.

Here are some implications and inferences to be considered. First, learn to think before you speak. Do not be quick to judge. Be careful when bringing any “heavy accusation, without full proof, without justice and mercy.”

Secondly, beware that you are not yourself entangled in enthusiasm. Watch and pray that you do not fall into this temptation. Beware that you are not a “fiery, persecuting enthusiast,” believing that God has called you to destroy lives rather than save them. Never dream of forcing others into the ways of God. Think yourself and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way, in your estimation, do not invite them into faith by any means other than reason, truth, and love.

Next, beware of all who trust more in extraordinary signs, visions, and impulses, than they do the plain scriptural rule, used with the help of experience and reason and the ordinary assistance of the Holy Spirit. Let us first look here rather than signs written in the sky.

Finally, beware of imagining that you shall obtain the end without using the means conducive to it. God can give the end without any means at all; but you have no reason to think God will do this. Therefore, constantly use all those means which God has appointed to be the ordinary channels of God’s grace – private and public prayer, searching the scriptures, worship and communion, holy conferencing with others, to name a few. Through these means, expect to grow daily in that pure and holy religion which the world will always call “enthusiasm,” but which, to all who are being saved from mere nominal Christianity, is “the wisdom of God and the power of God;” the glorious image of the Most High; ‘righteousness and peace;” a “fountain of living water, springing up into everlasting life!” Don’t be embarrassed to seek, or to know deep within, these blessings that God wants to give. Amen.