Most Christians would be horrified if anyone told them to become spiritually ambitious. Actually desiring to give prophecies or work miracles or even lead prayer meetings seems inconsistent with the humility expected of a Christian. And in fact, the desire to experience these gifts can be coupled with an unchristian ambition for personal renown or position. Yet that is not to say that all spiritual ambition is wrong. We can seek to experience the workings of the Holy Spirit not for selfish motives but because of our love for other Christians.
When Paul wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians, he was apparently concerned that they were misusing the gifts of the Spirit. However, he did not tell them to stop using the gifts. He gave thanks that they had received God’s power in such abundance, and he urged them to continue seeking the operations of the Holy Spirit – ”especially that you might prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). But he also pointed out that those gifts would mean nothing unless they were exercised in love. His entire discussion of spiritual gifts centers on a profound meditation on Christian love (1 Corinthians 13).
If Christians are serving one another with true and godly love, their desire to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit will take its rightful place. God gives his gifts to each individual Christian so that the whole body of Christ may be complete and fully equipped. We each ought to long to take the place in Christ’s body that the Lord has assigned for us (for example, 1 Timothy 3:1), and we ought to hunger for the gifts and workings of the Spirit which will enable us to take that place.
The attitude which should characterize our use of the spiritual gifts is expressed clearly in a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being of full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness and conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:1-11
Jesus is our model, and it is after his example that we pattern our own Christian lives. If Jesus had the attitude of a servant (the word for servant used here can also be translated slave), we should take on the attitude of a servant. This passage points out two attitudes contrary to true servanthood. The first is “selfishness.” The word translated here as “selfishness” is a Greek word which means “seeking a position.” The word was used in Paul’s time to describe someone seeking a political office. Non-Christian Greeks would not have found this phrase negative or insulting; it simply described what politicians were doing. But when Paul used it, he gave it a negative meaning, because “seeking a place for yourself is contrary to being concerned for the interests of others. The second attitude that Paul condemned is “conceit” or “vainglory.” Vainglory is the glory which men and women give; true glory comes from God. If we are seeking glory from men and women, then we are not seeking glory from God. Neither are we serving our brothers and sisters.
If we pattern ourselves after Jesus, we cannot live for ourselves and our interests, but for God and God’s people and for their interests. To become like Jesus, we must put aside selfish ambition and take on an ambition to serve. If a true ambition to serve our brothers and sisters leads us to desire the gifts of the Holy Spirit, our ambition is holy. If ambition for our own status or reputation leads us to seek those gifts, we stand condemned and will be unable to help the people of God.
The more fully we are blessed with the workings of the Spirit, the better our service will be. Anyone who prophesies ought to desire to prophesy with more power, fullness, and depth, because he will then be a more useful servant.
Here we must make a distinction between two ways of desiring prophecy. All Christians should desire to prophesy on occasion, as Paul tells us: “Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you might prophesy” (1 Corinthians14:1). Prophecy “builds up” the body of Christ. It is a useful and practical gift. If a brother or sister is sick, we should desire to have God work to heal them. In the same way, when the community gathers together before the Lord, we should desire to hear God speak to us. Our desire to prophesy is right and good if it is focused on meeting the needs of the Lord’s people.
But at the same time, we should not desire to be a prophet, unless we know God has called us to that.
Something has gone wrong if our desire is focused on being something among God’s people – being a prophet, or being a healer, etc. If we do know that God has made us a prophet, if he has assigned us that place in the body, then we ought to desire to serve in that place as fully as we can. A desire to be a prophet should come after we have learned that God has given us that place in the body. Our will in that regard should conform itself to God’s will.
In practice, this simply means that we should prophesy to whatever extent God gives us the ability to prophesy, neither holding back a gift we have received, nor reaching out to grasp something that God has not given.
Desiring to prophesy in a way that will serve God and serve our brothers and sisters has some practical consequences. We will soon have opportunities to discover what our attitudes truly are. When we are offered correction about the way we prophesy, how do we respond? If we are hurt or upset, we show that we feel more concern for our own interests than for serving God. Anyone who honestly desires to serve will be hungry for correction, because correction will teach him or her to serve in a better way. If someone else in the group begins to prophesy more frequently or more powerfully than we do, what is our reaction? If we become unhappy or jealous, we show that our true desire is to earn ourselves a reputation or attract other people’s attention. Anyone who honestly wants to serve God’s people by helping them hear God’s word will rejoice when that word is spoken, no matter who does the speaking.
Becoming a servant after the model of Jesus is the root and the ground, the beginning, the middle, and the end of the prophetic gift. We need a servant’s attitude in order to begin prophesying; we need it to improve our exercise of the gift. Several other attitudes which we will examine in this chapter can also help us grow in the gift of prophecy, but the attitude of the servant is most fundamental. Without it, we have nothing.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but have not love, I am nothing…. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away …
For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect … Faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.1 Corinthians 13:2, 8-9, 13
PROPHECY AND INSPIRATION
We cannot just decide on our own to prophesy more frequently or more powerfully or to receive more revelation. The prophetic gift depends completely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So, to a great extent, growing in prophecy amounts to waiting on the Lord. Perhaps for two years you have given prophecies regularly, but they have all been relatively short and not very powerful. Now you are eager for that gift to develop. You would like to break out in prophetic song or to deliver a truly powerful and life-changing prophecy or to receive a revelation from the Lord that provides direct guidance for some difficult situation. But as you wait week after week for these things to happen, your prophecies remain the same – short and not very powerful.
Well, you do have to wait. You cannot sing inspired songs just because you want to. But you can wait in a way which allows you to receive more from the Lord. You can wait with eagerness to have the Lord do more through you. You can tell the Lord in prayer that you are willing to serve him fully and that you want to prophesy more fully. You can look for the Lord to inspire you in new ways, so that you will be able to perceive his inspiration when it does come.
And you can pray. Seek God daily – not just for the sake of prophecy, but for his own sake. We cannot receive any gift from the Lord if we are not abiding with him in a deep and intimate personal relationship. Spend time just getting to know the Lord and learning to love him, but also seeking him for his word. Ask him to reveal his word to his people, and tell him that you want to hear that word. At times when you or people you know especially need to hear God’s word, go to him earnestly for it. When the elders in Jerusalem asked Jeremiah for the word of the Lord (Jeremiah 42), the prophet had to go off for ten days seeking the face of God before he received it.
It often helps to talk and pray with others who prophesy. Sharing with others the experiences and difficulties you have had will allow you to learn from them. As you pray together, God can speak to you about serving him through the prophetic gift. These gatherings can also provide simple encouragement for people who prophesy. Our community has held such meetings in the past with very good results. Even though apparently “nothing” happens at any given meeting, overall the meeting has improved and strengthened the exercise of the prophetic gift in the life of the community.
Prophecy is received and given by faith. No one can speak in prophecy unless he has faith that God has inspired his words and will uphold them through the action of his Holy Spirit. With some prophecies in particular (for instance, predictive prophecies) we need faith simply to proclaim what we receive.
We can easily slip into thinking that prophecy depends upon us, rather than upon the Holy Spirit. I have known some people to grow so tense and nervous that they could not prophesy at all because they were relying on themselves and not on the Lord. One woman had a very dear and strong gift of prophecy, but finally stopped prophesying because she was afraid that she couldn’t. In every prayer meeting, she would think, “I have a gift of prophecy, and I am supposed to use it. I had better get something to happen!” But then she would find that nothing happened.
There is a real difference between “stirring up the gift” and “prophesying by our own power.” The latter cannot be done. To “stir up the gift” means to put ourselves in readiness to receive a prophecy from God. “Prophesying by our own power” means we are trying to work up a prophecy ourselves rather than waiting to receive it from the Lord. An experience I had two years ago illustrates the difference.
An important meeting of our community was coming up and I knew that we would need to hear the Lord speak very clearly. I started trying to get myself ready to prophesy. But I tried in the wrong way; I began to pressure myself to have a prophecy for that meeting. By the time the meeting finally came, I had made myself extremely tense and anxious. I sat through the first half hour desperately trying to get something to say. Then I realized my mistake; I didn’t have to prophesy, I only had to speak a word if God gave me a word to speak. Immediately I relaxed and looked to the Lord peacefully. And, in fact, the Lord did have a word to speak. I was able to receive it from him and prophesy.
Peter had the same experience when Jesus asked him to walk on the water. Obviously Peter couldn’t walk on the water, but he stepped out of the boat in response to the Lord’s invitation. He wasn’t trying to walk on water; he was just doing what the Lord asked him to do. But when he became frightened, he did try to walk on the water, and he sank. As soon as he moved from simply responding in faith to the Lord to trying to do something himself, he failed. We will too.
This principle applies even more when we want to grow in the exercise of prophecy. If we cannot prophesy even on a simple level through our own efforts, how much less can we grow in the gift by our own effort! Jesus said that none of us, by being anxious to do it, can add anything to the length of our life. But by faith in God we will receive full care from our Father in heaven. In the same way, we cannot add any growth to our service of God through prophecy by being anxious about it. But by faith we can receive the utter fullness of that gift.
To become stronger and purer in prophecy, we must also be submissive. Being submissive simply means taking the place that God assigns to us and acting in a way appropriate to that place. We must learn to be submissive to God and submissive to the Christian community.
First of all, we must be submissive to God. Perhaps God wants to give us an exceptionally powerful prophetic gift. Perhaps he does not. Whatever he wants to do, we should accept his plan joyfully. For two years after I first spoke in prophecy I exercised the gift very frequently. And then, suddenly, it seemed to stop: during one whole year I scarcely prophesied at all. That year produced some turmoil within me. Here I had thought that God wanted to make me a prophet, and suddenly the gift was just leaving! I discovered that I wasn’t quite as willing to take the place God assigned to me as I thought I was. I was happy to obey the Lord so long as I knew that he wanted to make me a prophet, but not so sure about obeying him when prophecy didn’t seem to be involved. That year taught me that I had to change my attitude about serving the Lord. I had to learn to be happy and peaceful in whatever service God called mc to. If he wanted me to be a half-time prophet, then I would be a half-time prophet joyfully.
We must find our joy in God’s will, not in our own. If we want to prophesy, yet God assigns us a different service among his people, we should accept the service he gives us and forget about becoming a prophet. If, like Jeremiah, we do not want to prophesy and yet God calls us to that, we have to lay down our will and take up the prophetic service.
We must also be submissive to God in the way we prophesy. Maybe our greatest delight is to sing inspired and prophetic songs. But if the people we are serving don’t need inspired songs, we should not sing them. Perhaps we would like to prophesy before large groups of people. Yet if God wants us to prophesy only in small groups, it should become our joy to prophesy in small groups. A servant is not supposed to do what he likes to do, but what his master gives him to do. The good servant is one who takes care to do just what his master instructs him—neither more nor less.
The day may come when the Lord wants us to take initiative in exercising the gift he has given to his body through us. If it does, then we should vigorously carry out his will. We should neither anticipate that day nor hold back from it.
The second way we must be submissive is to be submissive to the body of Christ. Often the way that the Lord makes his will known to us is through the instructions we receive from the Christians we are serving. We must be submissive to those instructions just as we must be submissive to the Lord. I have at times asked certain people in our community not to prophesy in public meetings for some period of time, either because they needed to grow and improve in the gift or because their prophecy was not beneficial to the community. I have also corrected people in the way that they prophesied. All of these instructions have helped prophecy grow in our community. Similar instructions may be given to any one of us at some time. If they are, we should submit to them, knowing that they are given for the good of the Christian people.
In the meetings of our community we have established an order for the exercising of the prophetic gift. Normally people have to ask the leader of the meeting if they may prophesy. That order is necessary because a very large number of people attend our meetings. At first we resisted the idea of establishing this order, because we thought it might stifle the freedom of the meetings. We have found, however, that just the opposite has happened. The exercise of prophecy has flourished because the regulation of the gift is appropriate to the situation. In a different setting such regulations could stifle the Spirit, and some day in new circumstances we may change the approach we are using. But for the time being, it is a great help.
It is the place of the prophet to be obedient to the leaders of his group. At times the Lord may correct or admonish those leaders through the prophet, but still he must be submissive to the leaders, trusting in God to work through them. In this way, the prophetic gift can be properly regulated.
You will not become another Isaiah overnight or even in the next five years. God has to work a great many changes in all of us before we reach maturity in his service. And we need patience in order for those gifts he has given to come to their maturity.
Patience, according to Scripture, is the ability to faithfully and peacefully keep at something over a long period of time. The word carries with it the notion of determination. Our realization that maturity will only come with time (and probably only with a long time) should not prompt us to just sit back and not expect much change or improvement. Instead, we should persevere in our determination to grow, not being discouraged if things don’t seem to change quickly. If God has called us to serve him through prophecy, then he will supply every working of the Spirit, every quality of character, every grace necessary for us. Be patient. Thank God for every grace and improvement; hope in God for the changes which still have to come; believe in God because he is faithful.
This article is excerpted from Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today, Chapter 9, by Bruce Yocum, © 1976, 1993 The Servants of the Word. Revised edition published in 1993 by Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
See previous articles on Prophecy by Bruce Yocum:
- A Brief History of the Role of Prophecy in the Church
- Assessing Prophecy and Charismatic Renewal Today
- The Importance of Christian Prophecy and Its Purposes for Us Today
- The Prophet’s Role
- The Discernment of Prophecy
- Beginning to Prophesy
- The Forms of Prophecy
- Growing in Prophetic Service
Top image credit: Outpouring of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire upon the first disciples of Jesus on the feast of Pentecost, painting by Juan Bautista Maino, Guadalajara, 1581 – Madrid, 1649. Image in the public domain.
Bruce Yocum (1948 – 2022) was involved in leadership and teaching for many years in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the Covenant Communities Movement which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the Sword of the Spirit. He travelled widely throughout the Sword of the Spirit communities to equip and train community leaders in North America, Europe and the Middle East, Latin America and the South Pacific. Bruce Yocum was a life-long member of the Servants of the Word, an international ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He served as Presiding Elder of the Servants of the Word for thirteen years (1989-2003).