Monthly Archives: November 2013

A Spiritual Journey, Part 2 – A New World Opens Up

This post has been a long time coming. It is the follow-up to a post I wrote in June 2008 called “A Spiritual Journey, Part 1.”  In order to understand this post, you really ought to read that one first, which can be found here:

https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/

From 1991 to 2000 I served as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Seven years into my ministry I had a significant encounter with God which revolutionized the way I understood the Christian life.

I told that story and the events leading up to it in the post listed above.  If you haven’t read that first part, I recommend you do it so this post will make sense.

Here I’m going to pick up where the previous post left off.  (Some of the names in this post have been changed because I haven’t been able to ask permission from the parties involved to share their part in the story.)

After asking Christ into my heart at the first annual Knoxville area Pastors Prayer Summit on Wednesday, March 11, 1998, the retreat was over on Thursday, and I went back home to the church I was pastoring in Lenoir City, Tennessee.  I had decided to share the testimony of what had happened with my congregation.  I was nervous because my denomination was staid and traditional, and not that keen on conversion stories. Even though my church was pretty friendly and open, they were still fairly traditional, so I wasn’t sure how my experience would be received.

Sunday finally came, and I shared my testimony.  It seemed to be well-received.

Altar calls, or invitations to receive salvation, are not a common practice in the Presbyterian Church. In fact, they are so uncommon that Presbyterian sanctuaries generally don’t even have a place at the front for people to kneel if they were to come forward.  This is partly because Presbyterian churches don’t have altars, but instead communion tables. But that’s a topic for another post.

At any rate, that Sunday at the end of my message I gave an altar call, inviting people to come forward and ask Jesus into their hearts, or rededicate their lives.  To my delight, six people came to the front, including several longtime members of the church.  Since there was no altar rail, I just invited them to stand where they were or kneel there on the floor.  As I recall they all knelt, including one dear matriarch of the church who was in her 70s.

I hadn’t given many altar calls before (only one other one in the entire course of my ministry), so I really didn’t know what to do when the people came forward.  To be honest, since invitations weren’t a common occurrence, I hadn’t really expected a response.  That’s what I get for underestimating God.

So I had the organist play a hymn (it may even have been “Just As I Am,” I can’t remember now. 🙂  ) Then I led everyone in a prayer in which I invited them to ask Jesus into their hearts.

At the end I dismissed the service, and talked with those who had come forward.  I wish I could say I was good about following up with them in the days to come, but honestly, I wasn’t.  I hadn’t been trained in anything like evangelistic follow-up, so I didn’t feel like I really knew what to do or say.  This is one of a number of regrets I have looking back on my years of ministry.

That night I had been invited by one of the pastors at the prayer summit, a man named Doug, to share my testimony at his church, a large evangelical church in Knoxville.  I’m not sure Doug knew exactly what he was getting himself into.  But it wound up being a good and memorable experience.

At that time, Doug’s Church had four identical services every Sunday, two in the morning, and two in the evening.  Doug had invited me to share at the two evening services.

At the first service Doug had me speak at the beginning, right after the singing.  He had prepared a message but after I shared, he said he sensed the Holy Spirit moving and decided to stop the service and issue an invitation.  Doug asked the people to come forward if they needed a touch from God similar to what I had experienced.

There wasn’t a huge rush to the front of the church, but I would say somewhere between one and two dozen people came forward.  One of them caught my eye, though–she happened to be a woman I recognized from my home town!  I didn’t know Terri well, and wasn’t even sure she would know who I was. She was known around my home town as a strong Christian, someone who had been very active in Young Life, a para-church ministry to youth.

Because of what I knew about Terri’s Christian background, I was surprised to see her standing at the front of the church weeping.  And yet because of what had just happened to me that week it made perfect sense.  After the service I went up to her and introduced myself, telling her I remembered her from our home town.  She shared that in recent years she had come to a place in which her faith felt dry and empty, and so when she heard my testimony she could really relate, and so she came forward.  When she did, God really touched her.

I later learned that Terri was the wife of one of the elders in the church. I made plans with Terri to get together with her and her husband soon, which we did not long after that, and shared a wonderful evening comparing notes of what God had done in our lives.

The second service that evening went very much like the first.  I shared, and then Doug led an altar call, in which a dozen or so more people came forward.  I later learned that the lives of several people in the church had been touched by my testimony and the Spirit’s working during the altar calls.  I was surprised, delighted, humbled, and thankful.

Apparently some of the things I shared in my testimony that night were a bit controversial, though, and I understand there was a lot of discussion and some debate about it the following week.  We tend to expect salvation to be a very cut-and-dried event. Most often we hear testimonies in which someone who was deeply involved in sin found God, and their life totally changed. My testimony wasn’t like that.  I had been a good churchgoer all my life, and was even involved in church leadership.  The things of God were my bread and butter.  Meeting God in a new way out of that experience is not as cut-and-dried as the blatant-sinner-finds-Jesus testimony.

Back at the Pastor’s Prayer Summit earlier that week, on the night after I had asked Jesus into my heart, I lay in bed unable to sleep, so excited by what I was experiencing, and also wondering what on earth had happened to me!  As I lay there asking questions, I felt God begin to speak to me.

Two analogies came to me, and I believed they were from God.  The first one was that my experience of God had been like that of a couple who are engaged but have never married.  They’ve come to know each other well but their relationship hasn’t been consummated.  They’ve shared their hearts but they haven’t yet been united in marriage and become one flesh.  They may have spent many hours together, but they haven’t become one.

I felt God was showing me that this is what my relationship with him had been like prior to that night.  I read the Bible and prayed a lot, but God had still seemed distant and remote.  The Bible says a Christian is someone who has been united with Christ through faith.  A Christian is “in Christ,” and Christ is in him.  This union with Christ is similar to a married couple becoming one flesh through the consummation of their marriage.  Ephesians 5 even compares the relationship of a husband and wife to that of Christ and his church.

That night I felt like God was showing me that prior to asking Jesus into my heart I had been acquainted with Christ, but I had not been united with Him.  I even talked to Jesus but was not in Him or He in me until I invited Him in, which I had never really consciously and intentionally done before.

The second analogy that came to me as I lay awake that night was of a business deal that had been negotiated but never closed.  In that scenario, both parties have worked out the deal in every detail, but the contract has never been signed on the dotted line, sealing the arrangement.

In a similar way, in the years prior to asking Jesus into my heart, I had a lot of interactions with God but had never really “closed the deal” with him.  When I asked Christ into my heart, that’s when I finally closed it.

The night I gave my testimony at Doug’s church in Knoxville, I shared these two analogies.  Apparently some people were bothered by the subtleties of it.  Folks were asking “He was ‘engaged to Christ’??–What does that mean??”

The intercessors who had prayed with me to received Christ (who also went to that church) didn’t have a problem with what I was trying to say.  Their take was that anything is possible with God. But my analogies didn’t sit well with others because I guess they weren’t cut-and-dried enough.

So Doug, the pastor of the church, wound up feeling a need to address the issue.  The next Sunday his sermon was entitled “What Happened to Morgan?”  I’ve listened to that message after it was given and it was very well done, though I can’t remember the exact content of it now, since many years have passed.

Well, everything I’ve written about in this post so far covers the events of just four days after the pastors prayer summit–Thursday afternoon through Sunday evening.  Some time during those days I had also called my parents to tell them the news. My mother said this explained something that had happened to her: the same night I’d asked Jesus into my heart, she was awakened in the night and thought she heard God say the words “to the heart” but she had no idea what that was about. After she heard my story she concluded her experience pertained to what had happened to me.

This was typical of my relationship with my mother. She had that sixth sense that moms seem to have about their children, and she was also very sensitive to the things of God, especially anything having to do with me. Rarely did anything important ever happen in my life without my mother having some sort of knowledge or awareness of it even before she was told about it.

After the prayer summit I had wondered how my congregation would receive my story. In the days and weeks that followed I sensed they seemed to approve of what I had shared. As one person commented, “We liked you before, so now if you’ve really met God” (or some words to that effect) “then we like you all the better!” They seemed glad I’d had an experience that legitimized my relationship with God and my ministry.  No one ever questioned my testimony or spoke against it in any way.

The week after the prayer summit I began to wonder how my experience fit with the Bible.  I wanted to know: was it scriptural? I began to think about the Bible passages I knew, and also to search for others.  Over the next week or two, several verses came to my attention that seemed to speak to the experience I’d had.  I’ve already shared some of these in the earlier post, but I think they’re worth repeating in more detail.

My mother pointed this passage out to me: Ephesians 3:14-21

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (emphasis added).

This is the main passage in the Bible that speaks of Christ living in our hearts.  It also makes the connection that the heart is a person’s inner being.  My prayer summit experience was profound for me in terms of teaching me about my own heart and the human heart in general.

Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, which is a very intellectual town (with more Ph.D.s per capita than any other city in the nation, I understand), I tended to look at everything very rationally (maybe this was somehow related to my upbringing, too).  I was quite a literalist in that metaphor and figures of speech didn’t make much of an impression on me.

As a result, sentimental talk about the human heart always left me cold. As far as I was concerned, the heart was a muscle that pumped blood through your bloodstream and that was it. I was cynical about thinking of the heart in symbolic terms.

My prayer summit experienced made me aware of the emotional aspect my heart for the first time in my life. Once I asked Jesus in and had the experienced of him entering my heart, everything changed. I realized all that talk about the emotional side of the human heart wasn’t pure bunk after all.

Often the heart is equated with our emotions, but from a biblical standpoint this isn’t completely accurate. Ephesians 3:16-17 imply that when the Bible talks about the human heart it is referring to our inner being, the innermost part of us that makes us “us.” So the heart isn’t just a sentimental thing, it’s really the central aspect of who we are.

In the years after my prayer summit experience, as I was discipled by a pastor named David Moore, I came to understand that God relates to us mainly through our hearts, more than our minds.  Therefore, what’s most important in terms of our relationship with God is not what we believe about Jesus in our minds, but what we know and believe about him in our hearts.  The mind reflects what’s in the heart, and whatever we don’t truly believe in our hearts our minds will struggle to grasp as well.

But I digress.  My point was: Ephesians 3:17 does speak of Christ living in the hearts of Christians.

I also found a couple of verses which speak of asking Jesus in.  One of these, probably the most famous, is Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”

Months later when I studied this verse in order to preach on it, I learned that the door Jesus is actually talking about there is the door of the Laodicean church to which he is speaking in Revelation 3:14-22. Jesus is standing outside the church, as it were, asking to be readmitted. But the promise he gives in verse 20 is still to individuals in that church, for he says “If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Jesus is speaking in individual terms there.  So the verse still applies to the idea of individual persons answering Jesus’ summons and letting him into their own lives.

In my studies I also found a verse in the gospel of John which speaks of receiving Christ: John 1:11-13

11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (emphasis added).

This verse tells what must happen in order for someone to become a child of God (that is, to be saved): they must receive Christ, believe in his name, and be “born of God.”

I think we are all familiar with the idea of believing in God or believing in Jesus.  For many people, being a Christian is equated with this simple kind of belief, or with believing certain ideas about Jesus: that he died for our sins and rose again from the dead. We may see it as believing in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Too often the idea of belief is thought of as mere intellectual assent – if someone believes God exists, believes Jesus lived 2000 years ago, believes he died on the cross and rose again, then that makes them a Christian. These beliefs are good as far as they go.  But the Greek word for “believe” throughout the Gospel of John (such as here and in the famous verse John 3:16) is pisteuo, which is better translated “have faith in” or “trust.”

So the kind of belief John 1:12 and John 3:16 are talking about is more than just intellectual assent.  It’s really faith or trust, which is a more relational idea than mere belief. In order to have faith in someone, you have to know them. You have to know what sort of person they are to know if they’re worthy of your trust. So these verses really imply not just believing in Jesus, but knowing Him, and trusting Him.

John 1:12 also speaks of those who “received” Jesus. Prior to my prayer summit experience I’d never noticed this verse, and had never given much thought to the idea of “receiving” Christ. I’d heard people talk about it (“Have you received Christ?”) but not really considered it.

The context of this verse is the incarnation, God coming to earth in Jesus Christ.  Verse 11 says “He came to his own home” (literally, “his own things”) “and his own people received him not.”  “Receiving” here calls to mind hospitality.  Jesus came to the world he’d made, to his own people, the Jews, and the religious leaders rejected him.  They did not receive him.  Some people did accept Jesus, though–many of them social outcasts such as tax collectors and prostitutes. These folks received him.  They showed him hospitality, inviting him into their homes and lives, spending time with him, accepting him, listening to his message, and obeying his word.

John 1:11-13 implies that those who received Jesus in this way did more than just show him hospitality–they believed in him, not just in his teachings but, it says, in his very name.  In Bible times the name represented the person.  These people trusted Jesus.  They opened their hearts to him.  In doing so they were born of God and so became children of God.  As we would say it today, they were saved.

This gives us a picture of what it means for us to receive Jesus.  It is to open our hearts and lives to him.  To get to know him. To trust him like a trustworthy friend.

John 1:13 says those who received Jesus in this way were “born of God.”  This is reminiscent of a more familiar passage in John 3 that talks about being “born again” (see John 3:1-15).  We’ve all heard the phrase “born again.”  “Born of God” is what it means.  (For more on what it means to be born again, see my post here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/62/).

In the days after my prayer summit experience I remembered that a couple of years earlier, in 1996 or so, a lady in my church had given me a sermon on tape by John Wood, the pastor of Cedar Springs Presbyterian, a large church in Knoxville.  The sermon was on John 3 where Jesus talked about being born again.  Pastor Wood gave an excellent explanation of the passage.

As I listened, it dawned on me that whatever the Bible meant by being born again, I didn’t think it had ever happened to me.  So right there I said to God “I don’t know what it means to be born again, but I want it.

Now, two years later, as I thought back on my recent prayer summit experience, it occurred to me that what had happened to me there was God’s answer to my prayer about being born again back in 1996.

In John 3:5 Jesus said “You must be born again.” It’s not an option.  John 1:11-13 also shows that being born again, or born of God, is required in order to become a child of God (i.e., be saved).

This isn’t often discussed.  Many times there’s talk about someone becoming a “born again Christian.”  But according to the Gospel of John, there is no other kind of Christian.  To be born again is to be saved, and vice versa.  Jesus said, “You must be born again.”

Based on my experiences and my reflections on them, I concluded that being saved (i.e., becoming a Christian) is more than just accepting certain beliefs in our minds.  It’s more than just praying a sinners prayer. Being born again involves a personal encounter with God which causes us to be born anew and have our spirits brought to life. (For more on this go here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/62/)

Colossians 1:13-14 says “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Did you catch that?  This verse says that when we’re born into this world, we’re born into the domain of darkness and that we have to be transferred by God out of it.  This is why we must be born again.  The first time we were born we were born into the wrong domain.  In order to be transferred to the kingdom of Christ we have to come under His dominion and submit to him.  We have to be born into his kingdom, born of God.

I will end this post by asking: Have you ever been born of God?  John 1:11-13 tells us how we can be born of God.  🙂

If you feel this post has been a worthwhile read, or if you know someone who might benefit from reading it, please share it with your friends!  You can use the “Share” buttons below, or copy and paste the URL in your address bar onto your friend’s Facebook page or into an email and send it out!

Up next: A Spiritual Journey, Part 3, in which I talk about the conclusion of my ministry as a pastor, as well as events in my life since that time.  Stay tuned.

Dividing Between Soul and Spirit

Book Review: “The Latent Power of the Soul” by Watchman Nee

The Latent Power of the SoulNee, Watchman. The Latent Power of the Soul. New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1972. (According to Nee’s preface, the book was originally written in 1933.)

Watchman Nee (Chinese “Ni To-sheng”) was a leader in the Chinese church during the first half of the 20th century.  After the Communists came to power in China, Nee was imprisoned and spent the last 20 years of his life incarcerated for his faith.  (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchman_nee)

Nee only wrote a few books himself, The Latent Power of the Soul being one of them.  However, notes from many of his lectures were also compiled and translated into English to comprise quite a few more books that have been published in his name.

I’ve read several books by Watchman Nee that were really good.  In particular, The Normal Christian Life, an explication of Romans 5-8, and Sit, Walk, Stand, based on Ephesians, are outstanding.

However, The Latent Power of the Soul is not on par with Nee’s best work.  The reasons are as follows: 1) Nee’s exegesis (that is, his reading and explanation of Scripture) is very weak. 2) His explanation of his argument is unclear. 3) Much of Nee’s case is based on his own subjective experiences rather than on hard biblical evidence, and these experiences aren’t described clearly enough in many cases for the reader to even be sure Nee’s meaning is understood.

Nevertheless, I do see some good in the book, which I will share toward the end of this review.

Spirit, Soul, and Body

The central concept in The Latent Power of the Soul is built on Nee’s earlier book The Spiritual Man, in which he explores the tripartite nature of humanity (i.e., man as spirit, soul, and body). 1 Thessalonians 5:23 reads, “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Likewise, in Hebrews 4:12 we read “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (emphasis added).

Based on these verses, in The Spiritual Man Nee argues that the terms “spirit” and “soul” are not interchangeable but instead in the Bible each is used distinctly to refer to a different part of the human make-up.  As Nee explains in The Latent Power of the Soul, “the soul is our personality” (p. 11), while the spirit is “that which makes us conscious of God and relates us to God (p. 13).”  I haven’t read all of The Spiritual Man, but what I have read of it seems accurate from both a biblical and experiential point of view.

Superhuman Power Before the Fall?

However, Nee’s main argument in The Latent Power of the Soul seems less well-founded biblically.  His premise is that human beings as originally created prior to the fall were endued with incredible, even supernatural, power, and this power resided in our souls.

Nee bases this claim on the fact that in Genesis God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the earth. Nee takes God’s command to Adam to subdue the earth quite literally and assumes it was incumbent on Adam and Eve all by themselves to fulfill it. Nee’s assumption is that our first parents, as the only two humans on earth at the time, must have had incredible powers in order to be able to fulfill this command, in light of the sheer size of the earth and the scope of plant and animal life that covered the planet at that time.

In my opinion, however, it’s better to interpret God’s command to Adam and Eve as intended not only for them but also their descendants–i.e., that the command is given to the entire human race.  It’s unnecessary to assume God expected Adam and Eve to take dominion over the earth all by themselves.  (The question of whether Adam and Eve were the only humans on earth arises later in the story when their sons Cain and Seth marry, for one must ask, where did their wives come from?? But that is a topic for another blog post.)

To back up his argument, Nee makes this claim: The fact that sweat and toil in labor were effects of the fall and not of the original creation (see Genesis 3:17-19) means that prior to the fall Adam must have had limitless physical strength to labor and not grow tired.  However, this is also a misinterpretation, because a careful reading of these verses shows that the increased difficulty in manual labor after the fall is not due to a decrease in Adam’s strength, but to an increase in the difficulty associated with work. In the fall the ground is cursed and produces thorns and thistles (weeds) and so plants which can be eaten now have to be cultivated and the ground worked in order for it to produce food. Man’s labor is likewise cursed with an increase in the obstacles he must overcome in order to achieve his goals.

Because of the fall, humanity has to work a lot harder to produce the same results.  So Nee’s claim that prior to the fall Adam must have had superhuman stamina is unfounded.

Nee also claims that in order to name all the animals (see Genesis 2:19-20), Adam must have had an incredible power of memory and thought in order to accomplish this task.  Here as elsewhere, Nee’s argument is based on conjecture that cannot be supported by the text itself.

Likewise, Nee argues that the Garden of Eden must have been very large because it was bounded by four rivers (based on Genesis 2:10-14), and therefore Adam must have had superhuman powers in order to be able to manage the garden.  However, once again we have a faulty interpretation, for the text actually says that “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters,” (emphasis added).  So the four rivers were not part of Eden but flowed from the river that came out of Eden.  Even if Nee’s interpretation were accurate, his argument about the size of the garden is based solely on conjecture, and such arguments are not a good basis on which to found an entire teaching.

Finally, Nee claims that the fact that Adam and Eve were created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-27) also means they had powers that would seem supernatural to us today.

Now, I don’t have a problem with the idea that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve had greater abilities than we currently know.  Science has shown that we only use about 10 percent of our brain power.  I believe it was C.S. Lewis who proposed that prior to the fall we used 100% of our brain capacity and pondered what wonders we’d be capable of if this power were restored.  But the biblical basis on which Nee makes his assertions about Adam’s prowess before the fall seems flawed to me.

Latent Power in the Soul

Nee goes on to say that when Adam and Eve sinned against God their spirits died, causing these incredible powers that resided in their souls to be “frozen” and immobilized due to sin. Nee tries to explain this biblically but in my opinion his argument here is not just bad, it’s unintelligible.

The major premise of Nee’s book, then, which is referenced in the title, is that this vast soul power which was frozen in the human soul lies latent and unused.  The central biblical passage on which he bases this idea is Revelation 18:11-13:

11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.” (emphasis added)

From this passage Nee surmises that in the last days Satan’s goal is tap into this latent power in human souls in order to accomplish his diabolical deceptions again humanity and the church.  How he comes to this conclusion from these verses is, quite honestly, beyond me.  It seems like a complete stretch in terms of interpreting the passage, especially in light of its context, which speaks of judgment against Babylon in the last days.

Satan Wants Your Soul Power!

Nee’s main point, then, is that in our souls we humans have enough hidden power to perform supernatural wonders. However, he says, as Christians we are not to make use of this power because it is forbidden, due to the fall.  Instead, Christians are to rely solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, working through our spirit (as opposed to the soul) to do God’s work.

Moreover, Satan is trying to tap into the latent power in the human soul in order to deceive the world in the last days through false signs and wonders he would perform using humanity’s soul power.  For millennia Satan’s attempts to harness this power failed, but in recent centuries he has found success and has been building up steam toward the climax of the last days when the antichrist will unleash the full power hidden in man’s soul and take over the world.

Now, the idea that we should rely on the Holy Spirit’s power instead of the power of our own souls in order to live the Christian life is exactly right.  It’s Nee’s claim that we have supernatural powers bound up in our souls which Satan is trying to release that I see as unfounded from a scriptural standpoint.

Nee makes much of Anton Mesmer’s discovery of hypnotism in 1778, and claims this was the turning point at which Satan began to have more success in releasing humanity’s latent soul power.  Since that time, claims Nee, man has been learning more and more about parapsychology, through which Satan has been gaining ever greater control over human soul power.  Nee believes that parapsychology and all paranormal activity is a product of man’s latent soul power, and says that this is going to increase in the last days until the antichrist finally emerges and gains control of the world.  It seems to me that Nee’s thesis betrays a 20th century Western preoccupation with paranormal activity.

A More Biblical Approach

Now what strikes me as odd about this is, I think there’s a way in which Nee could’ve easily made a similar argument from a much more biblically sound perspective.

Nee’s position is that Satan needs man’s soul power in order to be able to do anything of a supernatural nature or perform the false miracles with which he will bring the antichrist to power in the last days. Strangely, Nee completely overlooks what the Bible has to say about the occult.  Several passages in the Bible (notably Deuteronomy 18:9-14) make it clear that occult practices like witchcraft, spiritism, necromancy, and the like were forbidden by God, and the implication is that these are activities which convey genuine supernatural power and originate with Satan.  (Paranormal activity like Nee describes would fall under the category of occult power as well, by the way.)

So the Bible would seem to indicate that Satan is capable of supernatural activity without having to use man’s soul power.  Therefore Nee’s claim that Satan needs human soul power to do his dirty work simply doesn’t seem necessary (or biblical).  I’m sure it’s true that when the human soul is separated from God and HIs Spirit, this can become a means through which Satan can work; but it doesn’t follow that this is the only means by which Satan can work.  At any rate, it seems strange to me that Nee ignores such a clear scriptural connection to his topic, and instead comes at it in such a roundabout way.

Soulish or Spiritual?

In the last of the three chapters in the book, Nee focuses on the difference between living the Christian life, or conducting ministry, out of one’s soul power versus doing so by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is a helpful distinction.  However, I found the practical examples Nee gives to be singularly unhelpful.  They are very subjective, often based on Nee’s own personal intuitions and perceptions, so that his reasons for believing a certain experience or manifestation was soulish rather than Holy-Spirit-led are hard to see or understand.  And in fact some of his claims seem pretty strange to a modern reader.

For example, Nee says that too much singing in worship services is soulish rather than led by the Holy Spirit; too much reflection on a Bible text will lead to a soulish interpretation rather than a spiritual one; all holy laughter (yes, they knew of it in his day) is soulish; if you desire for God to speak to you through dreams or visions, and especially if you have a lot of dreams or visions, then these are likely from the soul rather than the Holy Spirit; if you experience strong feelings, especially good feelings, in worship or prayer then these are likely from the soul rather than from the Holy Spirit; too much praying in tongues, or an inordinate desire to speak or pray in tongues, is soulish; and that many supernatural healings are wrought through soul power rather than Holy Spirit power.

Fear of Spiritual Deception

After reading Nee’s final chapter I felt like the ultimate effect of it, and indeed of the entire book, might be to instill in the reader a fear of being deceived.  Nee comes across as though he believes most spiritual phenomena and manifestations in church or Christian meetings are soulish and demonic rather than from the Holy Spirit, especially if they are accompanied by very nice feelings.  Nee seems to believe that the Holy Spirit’s work is accompanied by very little feeling at all, almost as if the Holy Spirit works impassively in human beings.  Therefore, a lack of strong feelings is a sign of a work that is authentically of the Holy Spirit, while the presence of strong feelings renders an experience suspect as being possibly soulish and demonic rather of God.

If what Nee says is true, then a lot of what goes on in today’s charismatic church (not to mention the rest of the church) originates in the soul and is of demonic origin, rather than from God!

Throughout The Latent Power of the Soul Nee refers to a book called Soul and Spirit by Jessie Penn-Lewis, an evangelist famous for her role in the Welsh revival in the first decade of the 20th century.  Penn-Lewis is also known for her controversial book War on the Saints in which she concluded that some of the spiritual manifestations which occurred in the Welsh revival were from Satan rather than God.

Though I haven’t read War on the Saints in its entirety, nor have I read Soul and Spirit, I have studied Penn-Lewis and can sense her influence on Nee in The Latent Power of the Soul.  Penn-Lewis became very suspicious of spiritual manifestations and is accused by some of being too quick to label certain manifestations as being demonic in origin rather than divine.  The Latent Power of the Soul strikes me as having this same tendency.  And since Penn-Lewis’ book is about the only source Nee consistently references in this book besides the Bible, I think it’s pretty safe to assume Soul and Spirit had a lot of influence on The Latent Power of the Soul.

I will be the first to admit that discernment is needed with regard to spiritual experiences and manifestations.  The apostle John warned us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).  However, in my opinion Nee’s approach in this book is erroneous in itself.  It seems based more on Penn-Lewis’ book and on certain assumptions of Western society (which is ironic from a Chinese author) than on the Bible.

Reading this book helped me understand something about my own life and background.  My mother was always very afraid of being deceived in the way Nee describes in this book.  In fact, the copy of the book I read belonged to my mom, and contained all her underlining and notes.  From these I could tell that she really agreed with or was greatly influenced by the teachings in this book.  I also know that my mother was highly influenced by Jessie Penn-Lewis’ book War On the Saints which also goes into great detail in describing what the author believed were demonically inspired manifestations in the Welsh revival and warning her readers to be on guard against them.

It seems my mother was highly influenced by these two books, and that her deep fears of being spiritually deceived may have been founded on them.  My mother’s fears in this regard had a very profound (and I would say negative) effect on our relationship and also on my perception of God and His trustworthiness with regard to spiritual phenomena.

The Value of This Book

Having described all the problems I see with The Latent Power of the Soul I will go on to say, however, that it’s not all bad. I did benefit from reading it.  Nee’s clear and careful distinction between the human soul and spirit is helpful, as is his delineation between the ways they operate.  Nee also makes a valid point that there is an important difference between what we conjure up by our own power and what is the true work of the Holy Spirit.  He rightly points out that some of what goes on in Christian church services and meetings is more the use of psychological means and human effort rather than relying on the Spirit.

Nee’s words made me ask myself: when I lead worship or speak, how much of what I do is my own efforts, and how much is reliance on the Spirit?  How often to I employ persuasion or manipulation, rather than simply looking to the Spirit to do his work?  It is a sobering question, worth considering.

Nee’s book also made me take a fresh look at some of the ways we do things in church today.  For example, if church leaders work very hard to sport the latest hip fashion, and if our desire in worship is to have the latest cool music in order to attract new people (or retain the ones we have), are we using psychological manipulation?  Is our very approach, and our motive, soulish in origin?

Reading this book also spurred me to begin a study of how the Greek word for soul, psuche, is used in the Bible. Psuche is the word from which we get the English term “psyche,” another word for soul.  In fact, “psyche” is really just a transliteration of psuche.  “Psychology” is the study of the soul.

In my word study I learned something new about the following verse (or was reminded of it, because I think I had heard it before): 1 Cor 2:14 says “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  In the Greek (the language in which the New Testament was originally written) the word translated “natural” is psuchikos–literally “soulish” (or, as the English translation of Nee’s book quaintly says, “soulical”).  So a paraphrase of the verse using this idea would be “The person operating only in the realm of the soul does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  Here is another place in Scripture where we see the distinction Nee has rightly pointed out between operating from the soul, and operating from the spirit.  It shows the importance of the distinction.

I hope no one reading this will leave with a bad impression of Watchman Nee.  He was a great man, a truly courageous Christian.  No doubt he received a great reward when he met his heavenly Father after leaving this life.  Some of his books are classics.  The Latent Power of the Soul is just not one of his better works.  This reminds us that even the greatest of Christian leaders is still a human being and fallible like the rest of us.  But I’m grateful I took the time to read this book.  It gave me greater insight into one of my spiritual heroes and helped me to see his more human side.