Preachers speak about God for a living. But to actually believe that you speak for God is another matter entirely. People who believe such an absurd and seemingly self-aggrandizing thing are usually a little crazy—it’s a necessary part of the job description. For those of us that believe such a thing is possible, there’s a word used to describe the phenomenon of the Spirit of God descending on a human to proclaim a message through human lips: “the anointing.” I used to try to avoid this word because of its overuse in my particular tradition. But it has a rich history, not only in the practice of anointing with oil in the Old Testament or anointing for healing in the New Testament, but a particular use in the epistles of John to describe the empowerment of God’s Spirit.
In the past year, I have learned a lot about the promise and the peril of God’s anointing. I have no qualms about sharing any of it with you, save the fact that my way of talking about it might seem a bit mystical. But when you are talking about the hand and unction of God resting on human vessels, however mundane the vessels might be and however foolish an act preaching may be, it is a mystical act. So I will risk talking about the anointing as a mysterious, fearsome thing because it is the only way I experience it or know how to speak of it.
The anointing of God is a power that His Spirit gives, but it cannot be confused with the Spirit. The anointing is a gift and attribute of God, but it cannot be collapsed into God Himself. The gifts and calling of God, according to Scripture, are without repentance. God gives them and does not take them back, regardless of a person’s maturity or immaturity, obedience or disobedience. This is helpful to know, because otherwise operating in the anointing can be confused with having God’s absolute approval and endorsement of any sort of behavior. I am ever aware of the fact that operating in the anointing of God does not necessarily mean I am walking in intimacy with God.
Perhaps the strangest and most difficult dynamic to describe in all of this is learning that the anointing can be a dangerous thing. My friend Jim likes to tell me, “If you aren’t careful, the anointing will run off and kill you.” I have to remind myself of this on a regular basis, and work really hard at being an authentic human being between the times I feel powerfully used (or anointed) by God. It is the only way to keep my sanity.
Jim’s words always make me think of a favorite passage in Frederick Buechner’s novel about Jacob, Son of Laughter. In an especially vivid chapter describing what it meant for Jacob to steal his father’s blessing away from his brother, Jacob says that for all of the years of estrangement from his brother and father, for all the long years he was a slave to Laban, “The blessing was more terrible still.” In this crucial passage, you can substitute the word “blessing” with the word “anointing” and know just about everything I believe to be true about what it to have a gift of divine speech:
When the camel you’re riding with runs wild, nothing will stop it. You cling to its neck. You wrench at its beard and long lip. You cry into its soft ear for mercy. You threaten vengeance. Either you hurl yourself to death from its pitching back or you ride out its madness to the end.
It was not I who ran off with my father’s blessing. It was my father’s blessing that ran off with me. Often since then I have cried mercy with the sand in my teeth. I have cried ick-kh-kh to make it fall with a sob to its ungainly knees to let me dismount at last. Its hind parts are crusted with urine as it races forward. Its long-legged, hump-swaying gait is clumsy and scattered like rags in the wind. I bury my face in its musky pelt. The blessing will take me where it will take me. It is beautiful and it is appalling. It races through the barren hills to an end of its own.
I by no means think that only preachers understand the anointing of God. There are other gifts that are both blessing and curse. In any and every case, gifts are not signs of God’s approval or disapproval, they are neutral and thus can be handled appropriately or inappropriately, with care or with cavalier disregard. Understanding the anointing in this way both guards the recipient of the gift (i.e. the preacher) from pride, and those who are beneficiaries of the gift (the listener) from overly idolizing the preacher.
To keep the anointing from running off and killing me, there are only a few things I know to do. Keeping close, real friends who are not so blinded by the gift as to not see me is one of them. Laughter, particularly at my own expense, is equally critical. There is nothing more toxic for anointed people than to take themselves too seriously. And finally, to speak honestly of the highs and lows of walking in the anointing, to tell the whole truth of it, is absolutely necessary. It allows me to celebrate the beauty and mystery of being used by God and the real power I experience in those moments, without detaching them from my own brokenness. I am both more powerful and more fragile than I could ever possibly conceive. That is what it is to be anointed—given a gift you can steward but cannot control, a gift that neither enhances nor destroys your humanity.
Whatever it is that you’ve been anointed by God to say or to do, hold it delicately and do not hold onto it too tightly. For God’s anointing is first and foremost gift, and handling it well demands that you handle it loosely.