There is only one true answer to this, when we are talking about the God of the Bible and all of creation. The answer is always, “Not big enough.” Particularly, I find the American God to be a small God, of no moment. Offended? Well, look at the American church; instead of being the rock of offense at which men stumble, it is little more than a pebble in a shoe, discomforting at times, but hardly a stumbling block. The American church is hardly a pinprick on the conscience of society, What happened to us?
The answer may lie in a solid look at the times when men have prospered in their relationship with God. In particular, I have been looking at America’s revivals for clues about what made their times so significantly different from ours. Every awakening that I have looked at resulted in times when God became not just a little bigger in the eyes of men, but so enormous as to eclipse all else. Let’s look briefly together at each of the awakenings, that we might begin to recognize the enormity of our God.
In each of the awakenings I find men praying earnestly for their own souls first, but also weeping for the souls of others. Often God seems to delight in pulling such men of prayer together to earnestly pray for revival. In the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards was at the forefront, encouraging men and women alike to first see themselves as God sees them, desperate and utterly destitute. People would often stay up all night, seeking first to mortify themselves before God, and then waiting on God for the filling of his Spirit. Even his own wife was profoundly changed while waiting upon God. Without missing a step, Edwards writes of the powerful changes that took place in her that were similar to what was happening all over. Edwards himself carefully catalogues not one revival, or movement of the Spirit, but reveals that there were five such movements in his ministry. Charged afterwards by others with allowing emotional excesses, Jonathan Edwards spent many hours afterwards both reporting on, and intelligently defending the works of God which went on. The First Great Awakening might well count half of our current church membership as distant progeny; the debt we owe to the Spirit of God hundreds of years ago probably cannot be overestimated. God became much bigger in the reckoning of man, and that was to forever change America.
In the Second Great Awakening, Charles Finney was the preeminent figure used by God to bring great revival, such that has not been seen, and even dwarfed the First. Finney is difficult to define theologically, being neither Calvinist nor Arminian, but there is no doubt that he was the man God used to spread his fires of revival throughout America.1 He found a people strangely prepared by God for the work of salvation, for the doctrine of the day taught the common folk that regeneration was totally the work of God. Church members were taught not to seek salvation from God; in due time, if God revealed himself, then they would know that they were the elect. They were to wait on God for the choosing, and were even discouraged from prayer, for it was felt that such praying for salvation would inevitably lead to insanity.
Finney dared to upset this applecart, and challenged people to realize their own desperate need, and to look toward God, who is both rich in grace and mercy to find their salvation. Many did. Thousands. But Finney did not stop there; he believed and preached that Christians should be active in their world, helping others at every turn. America profoundly changed because of the Second Awakening, as many great organizations and works were started during this period. “Among the dozens of organizations in the Empire, the most important were the “Great Eight” benevolent societies, which included the American Bible Society, founded in 1816; the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, founded in 1810; the American Sunday School Union, founded 1817; the American Tract Society, founded in 1826; the American Temperance Society, founded in 1826; and the Americans Home Missionary Society, founded in 1826.”2 The Second Awakening had its problems too; also charged with spiritual excess, it was nonetheless a work of God, where God had suddenly become much bigger in the minds and hearts of many. Our membership in our churches today would be profoundly impacted if we had to do without the many who were saved and revived during this period.
The Third Awakening was different from the other two, in that we cannot point to a leader such as Edwards or Finney. It was a great movement nonetheless, which took place shortly before the Civil War, and even has been traced throughout the war, on the Union side, and on the Rebel side. It is said that thousands of people prayed during this revival, and I might understand it to be a revival that came from the heart felt prayers of many saints. Ten thousand saints were meeting daily in New York for prayer. But this awakening, unlike the first two, seemed well regulated, and not given to emotional excess. Finney himself witnesses of this great movement, “The general impression seemed to be, "We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is time for us to pray." The answers to prayer were constant, and so striking as to arrest the attention of the people generally throughout the land. It was evident that in answer to prayer the windows of heaven were opened and the Spirit of God poured out like a flood.”3 I suggest that, again, God suddenly seemed bigger than he had been before, and people, with their eyes on God, found him in a new way, a way that was to light America for decades.
I had the fortune to be included in the last great revival of America, whether it will come to be looked at as an Awakening or not by historians, I do not know. But I do know that thousands were reborn, that a new direction seemed to fall on the whole country, and that even Time Magazine noticed, proclaiming “The Year of the Evangelical”. I was saved in a small Baptist church, in a very small town, but the Light was very bright throughout our country, and reached down even to such a small province. In a small way, God used my salvation to awaken that sleepy church to new life culminating into serious outreach efforts into the community. God became bigger to us, as the things he says in his Word came alive to us with a richness of meaning that we had not seen before.
So I say it again. Our God has become too small. We back off of spiritual issues that we should hold forth, compromising truth, and telling ourselves that we do so out of a spirit of Christian love. What love is it to allow those around us to perish? If God means what he says, then most of the world is perishing still, and we are sleeping at the gate, ready to be spewed out as lukewarm Christians. Is it not time to fall to our knees yet again in confession at our awful state? Jude reminds us to love those around us, hating even the clothing stained by their sin. Jesus reminds us to be busy preaching and teaching and making disciples. I think it past time to look for a bigger God. Just maybe a prayerful people can yet ask God to revive us again.
1. “Classical Arminians adore Finney for his revivalistic passion while deploring him for his bad theology. Finney himself said of Jonathan Edwards, "Edwards I revere; his blunders I deplore." An evangelical classical Arminian might say "Finney I revere; his blunders I deplore."”
From: Roger E. Olson. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (p. 28). Kindle Edition
2. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1989/issue23/2331.html. Taken from Christian History.net. Christian History Home > 1989 > Issue 23 > In the Wake of the Second Great Awakening
3. Finney, Charles G. (2010-03-30). Autobiography of Charles G. Finney (Kindle Locations 7099-7101). Kindle Edition.