Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I know that there are plenty of opinions on this question, and I don’t intend to weigh in on the topic myself. However, the question is intended to be representative of circumstances in which we can’t be totally sure of cause and effect. So in the case of revival, who starts it? God? Or do we? I have a strong opinion on that, and I’ll share my thoughts on it, but first I want to acknowledge why there would be some confusion.
Why would some Christ followers insist that people start revival? Honestly, there are lots of reasons. Sometimes Christians are passively waiting on God to do something, while God is waiting on us to do something! The truth is, God has already taken the initiative in Jesus Christ, he has already given us the Holy Spirit, he has given us the Word of God that includes our marching orders, and he has delegated Kingdom authority to us. Rivers of life-giving water are available to flow from within us out to a spiritual desert around us. We cannot just passively wait for God to do something when so much has already been given to us!
Also, if you look at revival history, you will probably see that great revival movements were preceded by prayer. Prayer is our job. We can choose to pray or not to pray. We can choose to believe God for great things, that God can awaken a nation, or we can continue in our prayerless self-reliance. Right? Maybe. Maybe not.
Is it really all up to us to choose to believe, to pray, to act on faith? I don’t think so. Though I believe strongly in human free will and in the spiritual authority of the believer, I also believe that unless we somehow see the Father at work first, it’s not going to happen. Even Jesus operated by this principle while he was here on earth (John 5:19). And when it comes to revival-producing prayer, unless God grants us a “spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:10), we just can’t do it.
Further, we can’t pretend that we have everything we need from God and now we just move out with what God has given us. We still need more. The Acts 4 church needed more boldness and more power for miracles and healing; they needed a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Yes, God’s presence is always with us, and as a result we are far more equipped than most believers realize, but with an infinite God there is always the possibility of more. As a result, there is nothing theologically wrong with asking God to pour out his Spirit, to send his fire, to send revival.
The downside of believing that we can initiate revival is that we can become too independent of God. The same danger exists whenever we overemphasize human free will over against God’s sovereignty. That’s the problem with the extremes of “name-it-and-claim-it” theology. Even Christians who pray and fast for revival are subject to the pride that seeks credit for a great move of God. Yes, we need to fast and pray, but we need to do so while cognizant that without God’s help, without God’s initiative, and apart from God’s timing for revival, we can’t make revival happen.
Having said that, I’m not really bothered by the belief that we human beings can initiate revival. Maybe when God moves upon enough believers and convinces us that he’s already given us the tools for revival, we will actually have revival. Maybe God will raise up voices who tell us to release the revival that’s already in us. Maybe God will shake us from our overly passive waiting. I could easily see that when God begins stirring Christians to believe for a great revival, it will almost feel as though we are indeed making it happen. After all, God sends revival through people!
So what comes first? In my opinion, it’s a matter of God’s will, God’s timing, God’s increasingly manifest presence. Revival is not something that’s already and always here, even though the potential for revival is. “Seasons of refreshing” (Acts 3:19) are just that: seasons that come, seasons that go. But whether we believe that we can start revival, or whether we believe it is dependent on God, the important thing right now is to believe and act together for a great season of refreshing.