The Nature of Enthusiasm

We are taught early in life that being enthusiastic is a positive attribute. I remember learning in youth group that the word “enthusiasm” meant having excitement in God. Indeed, “enthusiasm” as Webster defines it is “strong excitement of feeling.” But that is the second definition. The first definition is “a belief in special revelations of the Holy Spirit or religious fanaticism.”[1]

The first definition goes along with Wesley’s teaching. Wesley said that the meaning of the Greek word was uncertain. He calls it an uncouth word that some use in a good light (as in a divine impulse) and some use it indifferently like when referring to poets. “But neither of these is the sense wherein the word enthusiasm is most usually understood. The generality of men, if no farther agreed, at least agree thus far concerning it, that it is something evil…”[2] Wesley said that the nature of enthusiasm was “undoubtedly a disorder of the mind; and such a disorder as greatly hinders the exercise of reason.”[3]

Wesley classified “Christian” enthusiasts as those who 1) imagine falsely that they have grace; 2) imagine falsely that they have certain gifts; 3) think that they can accomplish an end without going through the given process (for example, understanding Scripture without reading it); and 4) those who imagine themselves the “particular favorite of heaven.”[4] Enthusiasts also lay responsibility on or give credit to God where none is due.[5]

A modern visual example of enthusiasm that came to mind are those men at football games who only wear shorts in freezing temperatures and paint their bodies with the colors of their favorite team. These men have abandoned reason in favor of the game. But we see enthusiasm in the Church as well and it must be addressed. For example, I was in the office the other day going over email when another reporter who was reading online news muttered something. I asked what was up and she read a quote from a man who had just lost his house in a recent tornado. The man said that the loss of his house and the houses of three others must be God’s will. I snorted and said, “When you can’t blame someone else, blame God,” and she agreed. This kind of enthusiasm degrades the loving nature of God and eliminates the fact that there are other forces at work in the universe because of the Fall. Instead, it is better to ask God to use tragedy to bring about good.

In my own life, I have dealt with, been taught by and have been at one time or another, an enthusiast. This has become more evident to me since starting this program. There have been numerous times in the past when I depended on “gut” feelings to make decisions. When I didn’t have that feeling, I worried because I interpreted that feeling as God’s voice. I remember one time when I was suffering from morning sickness and really did not want to be pregnant. I went into denial and wrote it off as the flu. I even thought that God had told me that I wasn’t pregnant. When I found out that I was pregnant I felt very foolish and asked for forgiveness. This child is a great blessing to me. I cannot imagine my life without him.

It seems like in the Church we want intensely mystical experiences that will light our pathway; we want to be guided by the Holy Spirit as if we were marionettes. This is not what God wants at all! God equipped us with a mind and an ability to think and reason. Why would he/she not want us to use those gifts?

In this sermon, Wesley gives guidelines about discerning God’s will. First, he said that anything we hear from God will comply with Scripture. And, secondly, where Scripture is silent on a particular matter, he said that it gives us a general rule to apply in any situation: “the will of God is our sanctification. It is his will that we should be inwardly and outwardly holy; that we should be good, and do good, in every kind and in the highest degree whereof we are capable.”[6]

In the past, discerning the will of God was an agonizing task for me. Wesley asks if it would “not be better to say, ‘I want to know what will be most for my improvement; and what will make me most useful?”[7] By asking this instead of asking “What is God’s will?” I will be taking a reasonable look at my gifts, talents and what would benefit God and others the most, rather than spending valuable time waiting for a “sign.” I want to discipline myself so that I will just obey reasonably, rather than waiting for a mystical moment.

Another time when enthusiasm could have become a problem was when I was a pastor’s wife. It was very hard to trust people because of the way they abused my husband. It would have been very easy to rely on the guidance of my own heart and become prideful by thinking that I was better than others.[8] This can lead to what Wesley calls a “devilish” temper. [9] This temper may become evident through fits of rage or may be turned inward. No matter what the outcome, the temper ruins our souls and wreaks havoc in the lives of people around us.

For me, the solution to stemming enthusiasm has been accountability, reading Scripture, heartfelt prayer and studying the works of people who have lived the Christian life successfully, like the patristic writers or other modern authors. Friends, who will sit down and sincerely ask what is going on, are a blessing. Learning about the responses of writers to similar situations helps me to respond in kind. Reading about their weaknesses helps me to be honest about mine.

From this sermon, I hope to avoid “enthusiasm” in my own life and I hope to also help others. I pray that God will grant me the compassion to do this.

[1] Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (http://www.merriam-webster.com)

[2] Wesley, John, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 5 (Kansas City, Missouri: Nazarene Publishing House), 468-469.

[3] Ibid, 469.

[4] Ibid, 470-476.

[5] Ibid, 470

[6] Ibid, 474

[7] Ibid, 475

[8] Ibid, 477

[9] Ibid, 477