Charismatic Spiritualism: The Good and Bad.
I’ve been asked to write about the Pentecostal movement within the Protestant Churches and about the Charismatic movement within the Catholic Church. I will use the term Charismatic Spiritualism to envelop both movements into one for the sake of talking about them collectively.
Charismatic Spiritualism is best described as a spirituality that emphasises continuationism, the Holy Spirit and its movements through Spiritual gifts and other signs and wonders. These Spiritual gifts can include healings, prophetic words, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, exorcising evil spirits, and other less apparent ones like service, teaching, giving aid, leadership, wisdom, etc.
Charismatic Spirituality tends to emphasise a baptism of the Holy Spirit or a baptism of fire as second to a water baptism. In a baptism of fire God bestows the grace of one or multiple gifts of the Holy Spirit on the believer and fills them with many spiritual consolations.
It should be noted that I used to be a Pentecostal before converting to the Catholic Church. I have witnessed healings and all sorts of extraordinary miracles and spiritual consolations given to many people. I have also been the recipient of many spiritual consolations through this movement and I have prayed over people who have been ‘Slain in the Spirit’. I’m not looking at this as an outsider, I am very much looking at this from having experienced these extraordinary phenomena.
Firstly, I’m not going to presume that these things are from God or from some malicious spirit or simply autosuggestion. I’m not going to presume that every individual case is collectively from God or the Devil or some grand placebo. It will invariably come from all three camps at different times. I think Charismatics know that healings and miracles like these can come from the Devil or from God or from some placebo effect. This isn’t something I think we need to focus on since it has been spoken about ad nauseam. Instead, what I want to focus on is the spiritual benefits and problems that arise from such a spirituality.
We should first understand how one grows spiritually. This isn’t something I think many people fully understand and for the Christian is certainly an important topic to understand if they wish to grow closer to God. Spiritual maturity is dependent on one’s sanctity. As it says in Romans 6:22, “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end life everlasting” and in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “But we ought to give thanks to God always for you, brethren, beloved of God, for that God hath chosen you firstfruits unto salvation, in sanctification of the spirit, and faith of the truth.”
Now, we need to understand how one can be sanctified. In short, it means to become perfect. Now, many will argue that because of the taint of sin it’s impossible for man to become perfect. However, God does not order us to what is impossible, but yet He says, “But you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” However, it is important to understand what we mean by being perfect. Now, perfection lies with charity because it is written, “Above all things have charity, which is the bond of perfection” (Colossians 3:14). Therefore, when we speak of perfection we must also speak of charity or love. So, from this we can understand three levels of perfection in charity. First, the perfection of love in the way that God loves. Second, the perfection of love in the way that man can love God. Third, the removal of all obstacles towards our love of God. As to the first level, this is impossible for man for God is Love and man can not be love in the same way God is. As to the second level, this is not possible for man until we reach heaven for as it is written, “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12) This passage relates to how we cannot perceive things as they are fully, until we get to heaven or “face to face” with God and this includes love as it mentions in the next verse. Finally, the last level of perfection is to remove all obstacles that separate us from fully loving God and this is done in two ways.
First, by removing things in our life that stop us from being able to love fully and this is sin. We see this in Isaiah 59:2 where it is written, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.” The second way is the removal of our affections which hinder us from giving ourselves wholly to God. Both are important for us when looking at Charismatic Spiritualism.
So, does Charismatic Spirituality lead someone to a greater sanctity? Provided that the experience felt is genuinely from God and is not autosuggestion or demonic in nature then yes Charismatic Spiritualism can lead to greater sanctity but only to a point. If someone is struggling with a habitual grave sin, then a consolation from God through Charismatic spiritualism can bring someone to a greater sanctity through this experience. Charismatic Spirituality can also help in other ways that aren’t directed towards sanctification such as healing mental illnesses through spiritual consolations, and other physical healings through miracles. Charismatic Spirituality can also help people have a greater knowledge of the reality of the supernatural world which can strengthen their faith in there being a God.
However, when it comes to the growth of sanctity according to this second part Charismatic Spiritualism can stunt one’s sanctity and as we will see can lead practitioners to other more subtle sins.
There are three main problems with relying on this form of spirituality for any mature spiritual growth. The first is that when one must grow in detachment that the Charismatic Spirituality can create attachments that have to do with the spiritual consolations and physical manifestations of this form of spirituality. Second, that the practitioner of Charismatic spirituality can be deceived into doctrinal errors about God, the Holy Spirit, and what being a Christian means through this Charismatic Spirituality. Lastly, the practitioner can begin to form sins sourcing from this form of spirituality because of the great forms of supernatural activity that happen in this form of spirituality.
Firstly, to the idea of detachment and it’s importance. Detachment is an important virtue to form because it relates directly to the second part of growing in perfection being, the removal of affections which hinder us from giving ourselves wholly to God. Detachment works by finding the things which we are affectionate towards which are obstacles to giving ourselves wholly to God and detaching ourselves from those things. Things that could be an obstacle to giving ourselves wholly to God could include a love of material objects like cars or jewellery or clothes whereas things which wouldn’t be a obstacle to wholly loving God would be loving a favourite story about Jesus from the Bible or the love of knowing more about God through nature or theology. So, what attachments does Charismatic spirituality create? Well the spiritual consolations that people receive of having a great sensory pleasure come upon them can very easily become an attachment. Many charismatics believe that this pleasure within them is God making himself dwell within them and is therefore God. This is unfortunately inaccurate. The consolations one receives from God is not God Himself but merely a grace from God. Charismatics by attaching themselves to these internal pleasures are stunting themselves from growing in their spiritual maturity by taking their focus off the author of these consolations and in a way believe that if God does not make them feel this way that they have somehow disappointed God or lost His favour. They base their relationship with God on whether they feel something or not. This becomes dangerous because they can lose heart when they feel that God is not giving them the same consolations they once had and feel that God is either unhappy with them or is a malicious being just teasing them with giving these consolations and then taking them away. The attachment to these feelings can be even more dangerous as we will discuss later. Healings and other miracles from Charismatic spirituality can also be a source of attachment. People become so fixated on being healed or healing people that they tend to lose focus on God. Charismatics become so attached to healing that they presume that God is not there unless someone is healed. They think that if someone is not being healed that it is a reflection on that person’s faith or belief in being healed being problematic and preventing God from doing it. They tend to associate certain people with the gift of healing and say that someone can only be healed by these specific people or that they need to place their body in a specific position in order to be healed. All these take the focus away from God as the primary healer and focus it on some secondary cause. These events also don’t create a greater love of God but more a joy in the fact that some supernatural event happened and the amazement that comes from such an experience. Charismatics also do get carried away with certain spiritual gifts like the ‘gift of tongues’ where they say whatever comes to mind and believe that this speaking is some privileged way to communicate with angels or with God Himself. Again, their focus is not on God but this ability to speak some ‘angelic language’. The last thing we’ll mention is the worship. Many Charismatics believe that if you don’t lose yourself to singing the worship music and the atmosphere that you aren’t truly connecting with God. They may say that you have to put your arms in certain positions in order to receive the Holy Spirit and that the more expressive you are in your worship that the more you are connecting with the Holy Spirit. Again, this take the focus away from God creates a superstitious idea that God responds only when you assume certain body positions or unless you lose yourself in the worship services. We could go on for ages describing different aspects of Charismatic spirituality and the different attachments that can come from it. All these attachments must be purged if one wants to grow in spiritual maturity.
The second problem is that Charismatic spirituality can lead to many doctrinal errors about Christianity which contradict the Bible and orthodox Christian teaching. The first is regarding the ‘Baptism of Fire’. Many Charismatics believe that there are two forms of baptism. One by water and a second separate baptism by the Holy Spirit. They believe that this second baptism is how one receives these different gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, this assertation is simply unbiblical. The Bible clearly states, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).
What is meant with passages like Matthew 3:11 where it talks about baptism by Holy Spirit and fire can be understood in three ways. The First, the fire is just another way of saying Holy Spirt again (Luke 12:49, Acts 2:3 both describe the Holy Spirit this way). The second way is that fire signifies tribulations. It describes tribulations because these test us and our works. “The kiln tests the potter’s vessel, and the trial of tribulation the just man” (Sirach 27:5), “Fire will test what kind of work each one has done” (1 Corinthians 3:13). These tribulations are necessary because Christ says, “And you shall be hated by all men for my name's sake: but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22). The last way this can be understood is fire meaning the fire of hell. This understanding makes sense because it immediately talks about, “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).
Some, not all, Charismatics describe what they call a ‘New Pentecost’. The idea of a new Pentecost when considered more deeply has some grave implications which would go directly against Christ’s teachings in the Bible and specifically for Catholics would lead them to heresy. First, we must understand the significance of Pentecost at the time of the Apostles. The day of Pentecost was when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles and marked the start of the Christian Church. The Apostles were filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit which they used to evangelise to bring people to know Jesus and his gospel.
Unfortunately, Charismatics only focus on this second part of Pentecost for their desire of a new Pentecost. They long to see a new Pentecost where the Holy Spirit will out pour these gifts more abundantly upon Christians to enable them to preach the good news with more zeal and authority. However, the undue implication of a new Pentecost is that it creates a new Church. Not only that, but it also implies that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the original Pentecost isn’t sufficient for Christians today to be able to preach the Gospel with zeal and authority. These two doctrinal problems cause a lot of headaches for Charismatics. By preaching of a coming ‘New Pentecost’ they are implicitly preaching the coming of a new Church. By implying a New Church, you then have to assume a new body of Christ and all of the other doctrines that go with the Church and then infer there was something lacking in the old Body of Christ for there to be a need of a new one. For a Protestant this is a doctrinal mess completely against scripture. For the Catholic, it’s pure heresy. The Bible clearly teaches one body, “So we being many, are one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5) and, “There is one body and one Spirit just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6) To imply a new body necessarily means there are then two bodies (the old and the new).
The Catholic Church is very clear that the Church is one, the Nicene creed clearly professes ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The Papal Bull, ‘Unam Sanctam’ declares infallibly that, “Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic.” Any Catholic professing a new church which necessarily creates two churches (an old one and a new one) espouses heresy.
It seems clear that when speaking of a new Pentecost if they are not implying a new Church then they are simply wanting the gifts of the Holy Spirit which completely misunderstands what the original Pentecost was all about. They fail in doctrine on either side. They either have a doctrinal error on what Pentecost meant for the beginning of the Church or they are implicitly preaching a new Church and body of Christ.
Lastly, Charismatic spiritualism creates a false doctrine that God doesn’t want us to suffer. By being constantly bestowed with consolations which bring with it spiritual and physical pleasure one could easily assume that this is all that God wants for His people. Only consolations, pleasure and a deep sense of peace. It could even lead to Charismatics believing that when they feel desolations or times of tribulation and trial that this is the devil working and God does not will it for our spiritual growth. This is an error and is completely against what the Bible says. The Bible talks about God sending tribulations to purify us, “My brethren, count it all joy, when you shall fall into diverse temptations; Knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience. And patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) The reason God sends trials for us is because it is through our trials that we work our virtues and become dependent on them. God wants us to love Him not only in the goods times but also in the bad times too. Can we truly say we love God if when times start getting tough, we curse God for our hardships? It is through these hardships that we learn to love God unconditionally.
This leads us to our final problem with Charismatic spirituality which is that it can create sins in the practitioner through the more overt supernatural activity that occurs there. This spiritualism leaves Charismatics open to deceptions by the devil where he may mix in consolations with small bits of poison that lead Charismatics astray with their hearts. The first is a growth in pride. When charismatics start to possess gifts of the Holy Spirit, they see this as some favour from God. They see themselves as special and count it lucky when they can share this new gift they have with others. They can begin to exalt themselves because they begin to see themselves very highly and find great joy when people come to them to prophesy or heal in the name of Jesus. However, of these people Jesus speaks in Matthew 15:8, “This people honoureth me with their lips: but their heart is far from me.” And they are also spoken about in Ezekiel 33:31, “And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness.” These people although they profess to speak in the name of Jesus and say with their lips that they love them, they in fact love their new power. They wish to exalt themselves among men and show off how God has blessed them with this new gift. They accept the glory of men and have a false pride in saying they are such terrible sinners and show a false humility only to give off the appearance of holiness. They prophesy openly to people for the sake of being seen as having a hidden wisdom. Yet, these are the same people Jesus speaks about in Matthew 7:22-23 when He says, “Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have not we prophesied in thy name, and cast out devils in thy name, and done many miracles in thy name? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.”
One should not want these powers from God because they are a source of great temptation. We should follow the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This is because Jesus says, “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” How can we truly give honour to God and humble ourselves before Him when we are wanting these supernatural gifts? If we truly wish to humble ourselves, we ought to flee from anything which may make us seem higher than we really are. Another form of pride is during the worship service when charismatics will display huge gestures with their body in order to ‘draw closer to God’. They put their hands in the air and jump and show off their love for God in front of everyone else. However, what parallels can we see with this and what is written in the Bible? “And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:5). Unfortunately, many when they worship like this are focusing on how others perceive them instead of focusing on God. They also wish to be seen as holy by those around them because they are getting into the words of the song or really into the music where they feel a connection with God. These thoughts also stem from pride. They worship in this way to be seen by men rather than any real worship of God. God tells us that he prefers the hidden acts of worship, yet the Charismatics want to use grand gestures. This stems, as we have said from Pride because they prefer to worship God in a way that gives them pleasure and can make themselves be seen as holy by others rather than worship in humble ways before God and in secret so others will not see them.
The second secret sin that becomes ingrained is that of envy. People see the great gifts being used by others but when they go to pray over someone then they feel like nothing happens and they become envious of those who are seen as favoured by God and wonder why God doesn’t favour them. This envy begins to breed hated for those who do show these gifts because these favoured people have something that they want but can’t get. Not only that but when they see others being healed or receiving great consolations from God they wonder why they don’t receive these great blessings that others have received. They become envious of those who have received these blessings and wish evil on them because they feel like these people have somehow stolen all the blessings from God and didn’t share with them. This is a really dangerous sin because it turns all good things into occasions of sin for the envious. They begin to spite God and their neighbour because they try their best to receive these blessings but to no avail. They don’t understand why God is so selective with His blessings and what he is doing wrong. They then despite seeing these supernatural signs doubt that God exists or at least think God is a malicious God. This envy is pure poison. Even if it is felt in small doses can lead someone away from God. They feel a spiritual dryness and find that they feel less love for God then when they first started practising this Charismatic spirituality. Another reaction to this envy is that they lie to cover up for their lack of blessings. They lie about how God has blessed them in so many different ways so that they can be seen as favoured by God. They lie to cover for their envy and in so doing they commit to more sins.
The next secret sin that digs itself in the hearts of Charismatics is spiritual gluttony. Spiritual gluttony is the insatiable and even in some cases pathological desire for spiritual experiences. Spiritual Gluttons wish to turn everything into some act of spiritual devotion so that they can experiences the consolations of God and experience the pleasure found in spiritual exercises. These people base their entire spirituality on feelings they perceive come from God. They feel that when they don’t drink of the fount of these spiritual consolations that they go thirsty and starve. However, this spiritual dryness after these ‘consolations’ should be a warning sign that they aren’t from God. God’s consolations don’t leave one thirsty as Jesus said, “but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.” This idea of ‘never thirst’ doesn’t mean we won’t be eager to know and love God more. It simply means that when we drink from what God gives us that we won’t feel like our spiritual life is drying up and dying. This spiritual gluttony is really dangerous for multiple reasons. Firstly, because we can easily be misled by the Devil and his poisoned water that he may give us when we beg for a drink. Second, because we equate God or His love with pleasure or feelings which is simply nonsense as we discussed earlier. Lastly, because these people fall into the sin of seeking pleasure for its own sake rather than giving up pleasure for God’s sake.
Lastly, Charismatics instead of detaching themselves from things in order to have a greater freedom of loving God. They instead attach themselves to these outer spiritual signs and wonders and believe that this is the path to greater holiness and spiritual maturity. Instead they become fixated on the material object and not the efficient cause or in other words, they become fixated on the gifts and not the author of these gifts. They think that receiving this gifts will make them holier but in fact they then accept another object of attachment which makes their journey of holiness harder. Rather, Charismatics should reject these gifts and say to God in the words of the great theologian Thomas Aquinas, “Non nisi te Domine” (Nothing but you, my Lord) or in the words of the great Christian mystic John of the Cross,
“To reach satisfaction in all, desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing.”
So, how do we view Charismatic spiritualism? If it is from God, then it can be good for beginners who have only want to know that God and the supernatural exists. However, for any serious spiritual maturity it must be rejected as being a hinderance rather than a helper. It, was we have seen, diverts our love away from God and on to attachments. It causes doctrinal errors in it’s thinking. Lastly, it leads to secret sins which drive us further away from God. The better alternatives are the Ancient Christian asceticism of the Desert fathers and others like Benedict of Nursia or the contemplatives like Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas and other forms of spiritualism like that of Ignatius of Loyola.
These are all tried and tested forms of spirituality which will help you grow in holiness and grow closer to God and His love.
I am not here to discourage people who practice Charismatic spirituality, but I want to make you aware of the dangers and how it doesn’t really help you grow in your spiritual maturity. As Teresa of Avila says about this, “There are many holy people who have never known what it is to receive a favor of this sort, and there are others who receive such favors even though they are not holy.”