Sloths and bats hang upside down. Snakes slither along the ground. But the normal human position is to be upright. At ninety degrees to the earth. Vertical.

We walk that way and stand that way. Even when we sit or kneel, our head is the bit of us farthest from the floor. It's normal.

From time to time, of course, we adopt a horizontal position. In sleep, for instance. As every overnight air passenger knows, sleeping upright is no fun. When you wake up over Cameroon with a crick in your neck, the thought of getting horizontal is powerfully attractive. Sickness, too, overrides the normal mechanisms that keep people upright. When they faint or collapse they end up horizontal.

And God can cause humans to leave the vertical position. His glory and power are such that even a glimpse can bring the strongest man to the ground. Ezekiel 'fell face down'.[1]  John 'fell at his feet as though dead'.[2] To fall prostrate—that is, face down, to hide one's eyes from his glory—is the common reaction to God's presence.

Sometimes this seems to be a choice. Just as in Bible times a visitor would deliberately prostrate himself before a king or other dignitary, it was natural to adopt that position before the King of kings. It's not uncommon today, therefore, to see people prostrate themselves before God in times of worship, at least in churches that allow such freedom of expression.

At other times falling over is involuntary. The power of God touches a person and he goes 'out for the count', as unconscious as a boxer at the receiving end of an uppercut. Oddly enough, people touched this way usually fall backwards, not forwards.

In recent years we've seen a spate of backwards-falling in meetings as part of various times of 'refreshing'. When it first began, people would suddenly keel over in their places, scattering chairs and scaring their neighbours. These, when they regained some composure, would make their friends comfortable on the floor, arrange their dress for modesty and stand aside.

Sometimes the leaders would invite folk to come forward for prayer. The lightest of touches on the forehead could have an effect like a bolt of lightning. I've seen people literally leave the floor, as if the carpet had been electrified, and crash down backwards in a sprawling heap, unconscious. In spite of hitting their heads hard, none seemed to suffer even a bruise. After a while they would 'come round' and stagger to their chairs having enjoyed an unusual sense of God's presence.

To me, the saddest thing about all this was how church leaders so quickly institutionalised it. What undoubtedly started out as a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit ended up as another item in the church's repertoire. Before, you could sing, pray, testify, preach, teach, prophesy, speak in a tongue, interpret a tongue, share a vision or bring an exhortation. Now, you could also call people forward to line up and be 'ministered to' and they would fall over backwards.

That can't be right. The work of the Spirit, Jesus said, is like the wind: it 'blows wherever it pleases…you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.'[3]  But church leaders built themselves a wind-tunnel. 'The wind,' they said, 'will come from the touch of those who pray for the people, and it will blow those people over backwards, preferably within two minutes so that we have time to get round everybody.'

Gradually, the freshness and spontaneity of the Spirit's work was vanishing. In its place was coming a pattern of learned behaviour, tutored by well-meaning but insensitive leaders.

A woman comes forward with others. She stands, eyes closed, expecting God's touch. Everyone knows she's going to fall backwards—that's the system—so someone ushers her into a position that leaves two metres of clear space behind her. As a leader comes to pray with her, a 'catcher' moves in behind, hands lightly touching her waist to reassure her that she can fall safely.

If, after a couple of minutes, she's still upright, leader and catcher alike become a bit tense. The leader feels he may have 'lost the anointing' and is going to lose face in the eyes of the congregation. The catcher, who likes to be kept busy, is willing her to fall over so that he can move on to the next person. The fact that God is sovereign and that she doesn't have to fall over, or that she might fall forwards, or that it might happen in fifteen minutes rather than two, doesn't seem to enter the equation.

Measures must be taken to help the Spirit in his work. The wind-speed in the tunnel needs cranking up by mechanical means. The leader begins to push the woman backwards. Sensing this, the man behind her stiffens for the catch. The woman takes a step backwards, a natural reaction to being pushed. That shortens the space behind her to a metre and a half. Now, if she falls, she's likely to land on somebody else. The catcher frowns. He's going to have to do a spot of clever manoeuvring here.

The pressure is not just on the leader and the catcher. It's on the woman, too. Behind her is a congregation that has learnt the procedure. Everyone's wondering why she's still standing. The pressure for her to keel over voluntarily is enormous. She gives in. Yielding to the push on the forehead and secure in the knowledge of the catcher's presence, she falls back, eyes still closed, and is laid out in the available space. The leader smiles. Another success. He moves on to the next person. The catcher smiles. Another one safely down. He too moves on.

But was this the work of God? Did she 'go down under the power'? Certainly not. She went down under a power, but not the power of God. It was the power of peer pressure, the power of learned behaviour and the power of a push on the forehead. It was the synthetic power of the wind-tunnel. If the Holy Spirit showed up at all, he must surely have shown up grieved. But he is 'the Spirit of grace' and may well have dispensed a blessing to the woman simply because he loves to bless. If so, it was in spite of the wind-tunnel arrangements, not because of them.

How dare we toy with the Holy Spirit this way?

Much that has gone on in the name of the Spirit has been little more than sympathetic magic. When the rain comes, the worms rise. So we do a rain dance, performing actions that, by simulating the fall of rain on the ground, cause the worms to rise. But rising worms do not spell rain. When the Spirit comes, certain phenomena—like falling over—commonly occur. So we do a Spirit dance, with forehead-pushing and catchers. People dutifully fall backwards. But such antics don't spell the presence of the Lord.

Let's allow God to be his sovereign self. Scrap the wind-tunnel. Let's just open the windows of our souls and let the wind of God blow where it wills.

And if you're an official catcher, take my advice: resign.

Copyright © David Matthew 1999

1. Ezekiel 1:28

2. Revelation 1:17

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And I don’t mean fishing

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.


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3. John 3:8

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