In a Christian subculture that often privileges the extraordinary, a real temptation exists to discount the mundane — and perhaps rarely more so than at the end of summer.
Summer can throw us off-kilter. “Mountaintop experiences” — whether through mission trips, summer camps, or periods of spiritually-intense isolation in natural beauty — can give us an extraordinary sense of God’s presence — and an unusual sense of power, clarity, and courage. These moments, of course, are important. But privileging them may contribute to our discouragement when the power seems to fade.
When we return to the mundane world of everyday challenge, we can become disheartened. This is because we fundamentally tend to undervalue the power of ordinary spiritual life. We fail to grasp the reality that the ordinary Christian life is the result of the uncommon working of God’s Spirit. We need to eclipse the relatively rare mountaintop experience with a clearer vision of the vital, gracious, and personal nature of the Spirit’s ordinary work.
Ordinary and Extraordinary
During the summer of 1738, in a sermon titled “Love More Excellent Than Extraordinary Gifts of the Spirit,” Jonathan Edwards contrasted the Holy Spirit’s extraordinary and ordinary work.
Prophecy, the working of miracles, healing, and the other miraculous gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12–14 were gifts of power — extraordinaryinfluences given to illustrate the awesome capacity of God. These gifts were great privileges occasionally given throughout Israel’s history (and especially to her leaders), “bestowed as tokens of God’s extraordinary favor and love, as it was with Daniel” (Works of Edwards, 8:157).
Edwards distinguished these extraordinary influences from the ordinaryinfluences of the Spirit — the work that the Spirit continually did in the lives of God’s elect to convict them of sin, to free them from idolatry, and to bring about in them love of God’s beauty, faith in his trustworthiness, and hope in his promises. These ordinary influences were uncommon, since God poured them out through the Spirit only on those adopted as children in Christ.
Common and Uncommon
Edwards labored to make an important distinction: extraordinary operations of the Spirit are common both to the believer and unbeliever alike. The Spirit can work in such a way that religious affection, illuminations, enlightenings, conviction of sin, sorrow, and gratitude do not result in salvation. Edwards argued that even though these operations of the Spirit can be extraordinary, they are still common, evidenced by the fact that “many bad men” can have them (Matthew 7:22; Works, 8:154).
Edwards notes that Balaam, Saul, and Judas were all empowered to do mighty works, since “the extraordinary gifts are what God sometimes bestows on those for whom he has no love, but whom he hates: which is a sure sign that the other is an infinitely more precious and excellent gift than these” (8:160).
Don’t Despise the Ordinary
While Edwards’s insight is particularly important as we think about the display of the spiritual gifts, it also has bearing on how we value our own spiritual experiences. We need not be suspicious of what we feel in mountaintop experiences — but those feelings will fade. Instead, we must deepen our sense of wonder for the ordinary but uncommon gifts of God in all of life — especially the mundane.
The ordinary but uncommon grace of God in the heart “is a gift of the Holy Ghost peculiar to the saints” (8:160). This uncommon grace is the demonstration of God’s personal, particular, deep, abiding, invigorating love in your life. The bestowal of this ordinary grace is God giving you his very self.
“When the Spirit by his ordinary influence bestows saving grace,” Edwards writes, “he therein imparts himself to the soul in his own holy nature; that nature on account of which he is so often called in Scripture the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit” (8:158; emphasis added). This saving grace and holy nature “is that in which the spiritual image of God consists” (8:159).
Nearly eight years after his sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13, Edwards returned to this vital distinction:
“The inheritance that Christ has purchased for the elect, is the Spirit of God; not in any extraordinary gifts, but in his vital indwelling in the heart, exerting and communicating himself there, in his own proper, holy or divine nature: and this is the sum total of the inheritance that Christ purchased for the elect.” (2:236)
In the same way that “the ordinary influence of God’s Spirit, working saving grace in the heart” is “a more excellent blessing than any of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit,” our consciousness of the moment-by-moment indwelling of the very Spirit of God is a more satisfying, empowering feeling than any mountain-top experience (8:152).
Edwards is known for his major theological works, but many readers will find a more inviting point of entry in his pastoral writings. Consider beginning with his sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13, Charity and Its Fruits. Nearly all of Edwards’s works are now available online, free of charge, through the Edwards Center at Yale University. Serious scholars can own Edwards’s 26-volume works in digital format.