A journey from self-focussed to Christ-centered spirituality

James Brinkhoff

Early days: Youthful zeal

After turning my life over to Jesus at age 12, I became a closet Christian. I had more concern to fit in with my friends and to avoid being the target of school-yard bullying, than to please my maker. But that all changed when my family moved into an area where I made friends who were zealous Christians (including the author of this blog, Joe Towns). At the same time, we started attending a lively charismatic church. I was suddenly prepared to let everyone know I was a Christian without a care for what my classmates thought of me, because I was “fired up”.

During this extremely zealous phase of my life, my faith could be characterized by three passions:
One, a devotion to receiving special words from God. This was evident both in my interest in the 'prophetic' and in the way I read the Bible. I focussed on verses about mountains, watchtowers and rivers, extracting exciting and esoteric interpretations about what God was going to do in my life. Unfortunately I often missed what the author of the passage (and hence God) actually intended to communicate.

Two, I was constantly chasing after what I considered to be the experience of the presence of God. That's what Christian gatherings were all about to me: excited fervour, out-of-the-body feelings, shaking, being “slain in the Spirit” and new words from God.

Three, I was obsessed with the concept of revival. I led a Christian group at my senior high school, where we spent most of our time calling down and prophesying revival. We felt like we were at the cutting edge. It was all very exciting. I wanted to be a revivalist; I didn't want to see God working in the apparently same old boring everyday small way. I wanted to see something big. And I wanted to be at the forefront of this “new move of God”.
Turning point: 'The Spirit' conference

I began studying electronic engineering at the University of Tasmania in 1998. There was a Christian group on campus that was very active and visible. Though they were obviously zealous and evangelistic, the group did not fit my perception of what passionate Christianity should look like. Their meetings seemed cerebral and unspiritual. Too much Bible and not enough experience, I thought. Nevertheless, I attended from time to time.

I was quite amused when I learned the topic for their mid-year conference in my first year was “The Spirit”. I thought to myself, “What a joke! A bunch of unspiritual, head-knowledge based people getting together for a week to study the Spirit. They have no experience of the Spirit!” A similar-minded friend and I decided to attend, with the express purpose of praying that these people would learn what it means to be Spirit-filled. We were hoping God would pour out his Spirit on them, and he would use us to bring this about.

To my shock, I was the one who was changed. I was the one who came away with a new zeal and a heart bursting with a new understanding of what God's will is. God was pleased to enlighten the eyes of my heart, and in a way and with a depth I had never known before. Aside from my conversion, that conference on the Spirit was the biggest event in my Christian life.

It dawned on me that my Christianity, and the three things that characterized it, had not been about Jesus. It had been about my excitement and experience. At this conference, the Spirit turned my gaze away from myself and up to Jesus. He opened my eyes to the wonder of the gospel. I understood – I really grasped deep in my mind and heart for the first time – that the most wonderful event in history was not a revival or a personal experience, but the crucifixion and resurrection of God's Son. I came to understand that this was where my passion must rest – a passion for the good news of a God who saved us who were his enemies, to be his people, eternally.

New understanding: The work of the Spirit in my life

At the conference, we studied systematically and sequentially every verse in the Bible that mentioned the word “spirit”, far in excess of 500 references. To read, for myself, for the first time, God's entire word on the Spirit in only a few days was certainly 'eye opening'. One of the most significant study sessions for me was on Paul's letter to the Ephesians, a book that has the work of the Spirit described again and again, from beginning to end. The letter left five big impressions on me:
One, I came to understand, to really grasp, the cross. I was struck with horror at my sin, and by the wonder that I could be counted among God's children only because of his mercy, not because of my fervour or works. (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Two, I learned how the Spirit is behind the process of revelation. He had revealed the truth of the gospel to the apostles, who then passed the message on down to us as Scripture. The Spirit was the one who enabled people to grasp the message of the wonderful depths of God's love and justice revealed at the cross. I understood that God's Spirit was at work to help me understand what his word really means, rather than twisting it to fit my interests and experience. (Ephesians 3:1-21)

Three, I was convicted of my spiritual pride. I came to realise that the Spirit was interested in calling together a people for God, characterized by humility and unity. He is not interested in making zealous revivalist lone rangers. It is the Spirit that has brought us to be God's children, part of the family. There is no room for elitism in the spiritual life. God has given all his people every spiritual blessing in Christ. (Ephesians 1:3-14, 2:18-22, 4:1-6)

Four, I came to understand that walking in the Spirit and being filled with the Spirit is not manifest in strange experience, but rather in putting to death the acts of the sinful nature and living a life pleasing to God. The evidence of being filled with the Spirit is not behaving and feeling drunk (my previous poor reading of Ephesians 5:18), but is rather being wise, being thankful, submitting to others – quite the opposite of drunkenness! (Ephesians 5:15-21)

Five, I came to see that God's will is not something mysterious that hadn't been revealed and had to be prophesied or extracted through strange readings of the Bible. God's will is something that he has already revealed plainly in his word. It involves trusting Christ for forgiveness, putting on the new self, living a life of love, speaking truthfully, working to earn a living. On the flip side, not grieving the Spirit is about putting away lying, deception, elitism and useless talk. (Ephesians 4:17-5:21)
A refocussed life: Christ-centered spirituality

God's Spirit brought me new life, enlightened the eyes of my heart to know and trust Jesus Christ, and the depths of what he achieved at the cross. I stopped separating God's Spirit from God's Word (Ephesians 6:17). He fixed my eyes on Jesus, filling me with praise for the glorious riches and wonderful inheritance the Father has given through the gift of his Son. The Spirit moved me to put to death the acts of the sinful nature and to put on the deeds that please God. The Spirit convicted me of pride and seeking to become a spiritual elitist. He gave me a desire to leave behind esoteric human doctrine and to attain maturity, growing up with the whole body into the head, who is Christ (Ephesians 4:12-16).

By James Brinkhoff | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.