I’ve been involved in some good discussions recently on the role of subjective, personal spiritual experiences. How should we deal with personal experiences of God “speaking” or otherwise relating to Christians on the subjective levels of feeling and sensing? Because there is such abuse and misuse in this area, it’s very easy to create a kind of “classroom” Christianity, where everyone is a theologian and a note-taker, but those who have experiences with God are viewed as off the rails and abandoning the Bible.
Jonathan Edwards can write about overwhelming sensations of God’s presence, but such talk today will get you looked at as one of those touchy-feely contemplative types.
Is subjective Christian experience one of those areas we have to throw away in order to hold on to Biblical authority and reasonable, non-fanatical balance in the Christian life? Or is there a way to look at subjective experiences that is positive, balanced and healthy enough to honor the Biblical material, the reality of the Spirit and our own humanness?
Here are some of the main points in these recent discussions, followed by a case study. Your comments are welcome.
1) Subjective spiritual experience is everywhere in the Bible. It’s an incomplete and distorted Christianity that tries to take away the element of feeling, hearing, sensing, enjoying God and his presence. God speaks to Abraham, and we rightly look at the words of the promise as crucial. But God also MET and SPOKE to Abraham, an experience that would have been life-altering on its own.
2) So the Christian life is a life that believes and trusts in a personal God of objective truth, but this God is experienced. He has made us in his image that we might subjectively know him as well as know about him. We cannot make this a secondary aspect of the knowledge of God, and we cannot make it the primary aspect of the knowledge of God. Finding the proper place of subjective Christian experience is an important part of Christian growth and the life of the church.
3) Many Christians automatically make the experience of God a matter of suspicion; often to the point that to say “I felt” or “I sensed….” is to commit the sin of disbelieving and ignoring scripture. Yet how can we believe the Bible’s story, and especially its portrayal of the life of the Spirit exemplified in Jesus, and say that the Christian experience is only rational and objective? The Christian has a subjective experience of God in the Spirit, and that experiential Christianity must be rightly valued and encouraged.
4) Subjective Christian experience is often the critical place where God reveals himself to us, leads us, encourages us and gives us particular directions and assignments. Without a healthy emphasis on subjective spiritual experience, Christians will overvalue the role of human leaders and reason. While these are two very important components in the Christian life, it is impossible to see that the God of the Bible only works in and through those elements. We have a God who speaks, who gives senses of his presence, who works within our life experience in ways that cannot be entirely objectified or systematized.
5) For example, at times in the Bible God revealed himself to individuals through dreams. Nothing will make a thoroughly rational person more uneasy than someone saying that God speaks truth through dreams. We are, like Scrooge, more like to say there’s more of “gravy” than God in such revelations. Yet we cannot deny that this is the God who spoke to Joseph and Paul, and unless one is a cessationist of a high level, there is no reason that we should not believe that God, in his freedom and sovereignty, could not speak through a dream in the life of an individual today.
6) The argument that God does not give various kinds of subjective experiences today generally depends on the desire to honor the sufficiency of scripture. But completed revelation in scripture does not change God’s design of human beings to experience him subjectively, nor does it change his nature to do so. That the authoritative place of the Bible in Christian experience now is part of the “matrix” of Christian experience does not erase or replace that subjective experience.
7) It is, therefore, important to build into the church a culture that values subjective Christian experience rightly, interprets it correctly, and equips us to minister to one another in ways that honor the work of the Spirit. Leaders should determine that they will not create a church where those who “feel,” “sense” or “hear” God are looked down upon or seen as immature, deceived or deluded.
8) Crucial to this culture will be inter-relating subjective experience (“God spoke to me through this event”) with scripture (“What does the Bible teach and tell?”), the collected wisdom of the church (“What does the wisdom of church tradition tell us about this kind of experience?”), and the role of spiritual leadership and mentors (“How does a wiser, gifted Christian mentor see this experience?”) In this matrix of factors, subjective experience can be valued, but not over-valued; owned, but not in a way that begins to dominate and over-influence.
9) The relationship of subjective spiritual experience and human personality is the critical area of study. Because we are fallen, sinful and broken images of God, none of our spiritual experiences may be seen as absolutely dependable. We can be wrong. Other factors of humanness- from brain chemistry to sleep to food- influence our perception of spiritual experience.
10) This awareness of our fallenness does not, however, render subjective experience useless. Abraham was a sinner when God spoke to him. Joseph had other dreams where God did not speak. Sometimes we have a subjective experience that is due to factors that are not God. But this is where we ask simple and important questions?
11) Does this experience validate God and the Gospel as revealed in scripture?
12) Does this experience reveal truth that is validated through reason and the wisdom of others?
13) Does this experience make me more useful in my assignments in God’s Kingdom?
14) Does this experience foster Christian virtues like humility and the despising of sin?
15) Does my critical reasoning ability tell me that such an experience is outside of what the Christian worldview presents as the right interaction between God and the world, and between myself and other persons?
16) Is there any obvious reason to attribute this experience to other factors?
17) It is important for all Christians to remember that subjective Christian experience is a significant part of God’s response to our humanness. Everyone on the day of Pentecost was a sinner. Many of those in scripture to whom God gave significant experiences were sinful, weak and broken. We cannot automatically conclude that our depravity means that any sense of God’s presence or voice is meaningless.
18) An unhelpful emphasis on “hearing God’s voice” as the normal pattern of the Christian life can create havoc in the matrix of Christian experience. We ought to beware of anyone who proscribes or describes subjective experiences in universal terms. Godâ’s ways of dealing with all people are in scripture. His subjective ways are unique to our personalities, etc.
19) A further warned is needed for those leaders who base their leadership upon their own subjective experience. Leaders are, in particular, to be aware of their need to submit aspects of their experience that affect leadership to the wisdom and counsel of others. It is unethical and wrong to manipulate others with our subjective impressions of God. (“God has revealed to me that you are going to fall in love with me and marry me.”)
20) Finally, the subjective experience of Jesus was a sense of the Father’s fellowship and constant love. While we see other kinds of experience- such as insight into the human thought process, etc- the primary work of the Spirit is the assurance of God’s love for us, which is proclaimed in scripture and poured out in our hearts.
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CASE STUDY: A church member, Brian, comes to me and says that as a college student, he repeatedly had dreams where he was preaching to Muslims in a setting that he believes was North Africa. He believes these dreams were God speaking to him at a critical time in his life about being a missionary to Muslims in North Africa. He wants to begin making preparations to go on a short term mission trip to North Africa in view of a major move to the mission field later on.
God has obviously used subjective experiences like this to call missionaries down through the centuries. The fact that these dreams were years ago makes it difficult to ask what other factors might be present, but it would be important to ask if Brian was, at any time, under the impression that missionaries are serving God in ways he cannot where he is, or that missionaries are better Christians, etc.
If it appears that the dreams were not unduly influenced, then I would accept that God was speaking to Brian. I would then move to looking at what this means in the short and the long term. For example, does Brian have the character and overall life situation that makes missions a possibility for him. If, for example, Brian is in debt for college loans, these must be paid. If he needs to make significant growth as a Christian, this should be addressed.
If these are not factors, however, then I would advise Brian to begin a process of reading and learning about Muslim missions. In particular, I would put him in dialog with retired and furloughing missionaries to discuss missions in general, and I would tell him that evaluation by these missionaries would be crucial in my further support. Should he show any evidence that he would not submit to a process of long-term preparation, I would not support his short term trip or further goals. If, however, Brian was willing to learn what is needed in Muslim missions so that he could evaluate his own gifts and involvement, I would support him in the short term and likely in the long term.
In the process, it will be revealed that Brian’s wife is not interested in long term missions, but is open to considering it later. This would cause me to shift my emphasis with Brian to what he can do in short term situations, perhaps language missions or training pastors/leaders in new churches. I would see Brian’s relationship with his wife as more crucial than any perception of a call. I would not hesitate to ask Brian’s wife to read, prepare and be involved in Brian’s initial investigation into Muslim missions. I would also ask her to pray about her role as it relates to Brian’s sense of call. I would ask Brian to submit his own perception of call to the needs of his marriage, reminding him that it may be some time before his wife “hears” from God in a way that releases her to affirm his call or their future together in missions. In the meantime, he can be very useful in Muslim missions in many ways.
It would be important to keep Brian’s call to missions in mind, and to help him interpret that in a “critically-realistic” way. The danger would be that Brian would go beyond his call experience and begin to fill in for himself what he must do. In fact, his call experience did not make it clear in what way or when Brian would be on the mission field, and that would be a critical element in my counsel to him to be in process and in short-term opportunities if that is useful on the field. Because the dream did not include his family, but he has chosen to be married to someone who does not share this sense of call, he must work with his call experience in the context of marriage. This may mean some compromise from his own interpretation of the dream experience.