William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth tells the tale of a Scottish general who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will be crowned king. He becomes obsessed with this revelation, and under his wife’s sinister influence, becomes consumed with lust for power. Macbeth ends up murdering King Duncan to take his place on the throne; but his wicked deeds come back to haunt him. Lady Macbeth eventually has visions of blood on her hands that no matter how much she washes, will not come off. In Scene 5 of Act 5, Macbeth receives word that his wife has committed suicide. As central figures in Shakespearian tragedies often do, he launches into a mournful soliloquy describing the futility of life.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
“Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” is a classic line of Shakespeare, applicable not just to Macbeth’s situation, but all aspects of life. Some people are boisterous, talking big about all the great things they will accomplish but ultimately doing nothing. Magicians seem to show us great magic with amazing tricks and feats onstage, but underneath the theatrics, it’s all an illusion. Around the world, military dictators show off their armies in vast parades, with marching soldiers and tanks and flags that give the appearance of impervious might, but conceal what weak nations with starving populations they truly run.
And the Pentecostal movement is no exception.
This is not intended to be a criticism of any particular service, nor would I dream of robbing anyone of any experience they have received. It is more intended as a warning to our movement as a whole of the direction in which it’s headed. Some pastors and evangelists are beginning to decry “emotionalism,” and its takeover of our churches. But what exactly does this mean, and why is it something that needs addressing? Shakespeare’s quote from Macbeth is a perfect summation of emotionalism; our services are increasingly becoming great events of sound and fury, but nothing is truly happening underneath.
Acts 3:19: Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord. It is impossible to be in the presence of God and not be transformed; it will either bring repentance or damnation. When we come to be in His presence, we will be changed; some born again, but others with hardened hearts. Examples of this are throughout the Bible. Moses was changed into a great man of God before the burning bush, but when he brought the presence of God to Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. The Holy Spirit brought life to Peter, but it brought death to Ananias and Sapphira. Even the natural elements are not immune to this phenomenon. In His presence, mountains are destroyed and hills are raised up. The hills melted like wax at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth (Psalm 97:5)
Even if we came into His presence 100 times in a day, we would leave changed each and every time. If the hills melt like wax in His presence, why wouldn’t our hearts, His most precious creation? If we are truly before Him, our hearts will either melt or harden. If even we left church worse than we came in, at least we would know His presence was truly there.
Some Pentecostal services resemble what they used to be, but something is missing. People come together and sing and shout. We sing songs about how wonderful our God is, and how His mercy and grace has helped us through the storms. We get emotional and cry. We come together at the altars and pray for one another. We prophesy and speak in tongues, hug one another goodbye, say a dismissal prayer, and leave the same way we came in.
This is true on both the small and large church level. Some started out small, but through great revivals and evangelism, have grown into mega churches. They have so many members that the building cannot contain them all, requiring multiple services on Sundays. They have very nice services with beautiful people singing upbeat Christian rock music. The pastors give feel-good messages with some scripture thrown in for good measure. Sometimes large crowds even gather at the altars. But then after all prayers are said, the dismissal is given and the cameras stop rolling, the crowd disperses unchanged.
Again, this is not to criticize any one service, or any one church. It is not even meant to be a slight against people weeping while they pray for one another, or being emotional about God’s presence. It is not to put down great music. But we have to remember that these things are the result of being in God’s presence, not the things that bring His presence. No matter how much thunder we bring to a service, if we leave unchanged, God was never there. We can play the music as loud as we want. We can run the aisles and shout and praise God and speak in tongues and roll in the floors. Then we can leave, proud of ourselves for our “successful” service. But if we go back to our ordinary lives, we were never in His presence at all. Like Shakespeare noted, it was a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing.
Even in the Old Testament, Elijah was able to tell the difference. In 1 Kings 19, he was waiting to hear from God, but the Lord tested him first to see if he was truly listening. He sent awesome events that seemed like God speaking, but then chose to talk to him through a still small voice inside. Verses 11-12: And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. Our Pentecostal services so often are the strong wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. We are trying to stir up a thunderstorm to try to hear God, when we really need to stop and just listen for His still small voice inside. Be still, and know that I am God: (Psalm 46:10).
Read the book of Acts and you will see manifestations of God everywhere. You will read of people speaking in tongues and praying for one another in the Holy Ghost. But you will also read of people’s lives being changed everywhere the apostles went. Everyone who came before Peter and were healed by the anointing of God on him left changed. Acts 5:15-16: Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them. There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one.
We have forgotten that the anointing of God isn’t about meeting our own needs. We have created a self-centered form of worship, where the focus is all on feeling God’s presence. We get discouraged as we go through storms, then come to church so we can feel a touch of God’s anointing and get excited. But we shouldn’t be worshiping God so we can get something out of it; we should worship Him because He is worthy. And we forget that our great commandment isn’t to have our own needs met; it’s to bring His presence and anointing into the world with us, so that we can win others to Christ.
Isaiah had the ultimate privilege of seeing God’s throne firsthand in chapter 6: In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple (verse 1). God allowed the coal from the altar to touch Isaiah’s lips, so he got to taste the fire of God for himself. But then, in verse 8, Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. God’s immediate next question after letting Isaiah’s lips touch the fire was if he would be ready to tell the people what he had just experienced. When he first saw the throne, Isaiah had cried Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (verse 5). But once he tasted that coal, he was transformed into a man who did not hesitate to say Here am I; send me.
You cannot bring the gospel to the world without tasting of God’s fire first. And once you have felt His presence, it is impossible to not want to bring that presence to the world.
The church needs to seek His true presence once again. We need to put less emphasis on the emotional aspects of the church-going experience, and truly fall on our faces and worship the Almighty in a way that is awesome and holy, with pure hearts and without any ulterior motives. Psalm 24:3-4: Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.