Practical Divinity: The heart of spiritual revival: loving God and neighbor

Andrew C. Thompson

Andrew C. Thompson

By Andrew C. Thompson
Special Contributor

Our theme at this year’s annual conference was “A Call to Spiritual Revival.” We should not overlook the boldness and the challenge in that statement.

The boldness comes in what we are claiming is possible in this day and age. It suggests that revival is truly possible—not just for an individual but for a whole church. And it summons us to prepare ourselves for it as well.

The challenge of that theme hides a little under the surface. But it is there. Because if the revival we are called to experience is a spiritual revival, then it isn’t something we can conjure up ourselves. Spiritual revival can only come about through the work of the Holy Spirit. No amount of our own effort can make it a reality.

So the one thing we need is beyond our own capability! That might seem a tough pill to swallow. It isn’t the case, though, that all we can do is sit on our thumbs and hope the Spirit strikes us like lightning. God’s grace doesn’t work in one-dimensional fashion. Instead, we receive grace in multiple ways and are called to respond to it according to how it is given.

When it comes to our desire to experience spiritual revival, it’s important to realize that the desire itself is a result of God’s grace. We only hunger for Christ when Christ makes us aware of our deep need for him. And not only does he give us the grace to know our own hunger, but he also gives us the grace to reach out to him.

In other words, spiritual revival has already begun. Revival starts with a new awakening, but this is only the first step. For us to keep walking the path toward full fellowship with Christ Jesus, we must continue to receive his grace and respond to it in ever-greater ways.

Faith working by love

John Wesley was famous for claiming that the only real distinguishing marks of a Methodist were the love of God and love of neighbor. These are simply the two great commandments, of course. Or, as Wesley once put it, “the common, fundamental principles of Christianity” (“The Character of a Methodist,” ¶17).

Truth be told, Wesley wasn’t really interested in drawing a sharp line between Methodists and all other Christians. He was just interested in the love of God and neighbor becoming the ultimate, guiding forces in the Christian life.

Wesley did not see belief in Jesus Christ as a box one needs to check off and then forget about. That’s why he was so fond of the Apostle Paul’s phrase, “faith working by love” in Galatians 5:6. True faith, for Wesley, is something more than words. It is a life that has been transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Because love language can so easily be sentimentalized, Wesley was often at pains to describe in creative ways what Christian love means. He once notably described it using an enigmatic phrase: “True religion is right tempers towards God and man” (“The Unity of the Divine Being,” ¶16).

Tempers, in this instance, are like dispositions of the heart. They are really a synonym for the virtues. We can see that when Wesley goes on to describe true religion in more detail: “It is, in two words, gratitude and benevolence: gratitude to our Creator and supreme Benefactor, and benevolence to our fellow-creatures. In other words, it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves” (¶16).

So when we truly experience the love of God, we become thankful people. And when we come to know the love of neighbor, we become benevolent toward others. It’s not just that we give thanks and act benevolently at times. It’s rather that we become people of gratitude and people of benevolence. True faith is transformative. It impresses certain holy character traits upon us.

That’s not a bad measure for authentic spiritual revival. Are we being changed, transformed, and made new? Are our desires being altered from vice to virtue? Has our hunger for Christ been met through a filling of his Spirit?

Connecting loving God, neighbor

Two speakers on the final day of annual conference captured the heart of spiritual revival in a powerful way. One was the Rev. J.J. Whitney, who spoke to us about the 200,000 Reasons to Fight Childhood Hunger initiative. She spoke about the deep need in the state of Arkansas to care for undernourished children, and she pointed out the great variety of ways that local churches can join in that effort. She challenged us to think about caring for hungry children as a deeply Wesleyan calling. In other words, she impressed upon us how we can love our neighbors in concrete ways.

The other speaker was the Rev. Lisa Yebuah, who preached our closing sermon. She spoke about the powerful ways God blesses us, and about how a deep sense of connection to God will move us to want to bless others. She preached as one who is intoxicated with the love of God. Her message about how God’s blessing of us can move us to bless others provided a wonderful illustration of the way that the love of God and love of neighbor are connected.

Wesley once spoke of “that love of our neighbor which springs from the love of God” (“Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, III,” ¶I.1). There is a connection between the messages that Lisa Yebuah and J.J. Whitney were offering us on that last morning of annual conference. If we will take those messages to heart, we may well find the path to spiritual revival clear before us.

Dr. Andrew C. Thompson is the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church Springdale. He can be reached at www.andrewthompson.com.