April 19, 2014

iMonk Classic: Thoughts on Spiritual Experience

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From January 2007

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.

Abraham and the Three Visitors, Chagall

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.

• • •

Isaiah, Chagall

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.

Comments

  1. I’m sure that God can speak to us in dreams.

    But aside from God’s Word, and His Sacraments, we can never really be sure if it is God…or the devil that is coming to us in a dream. Or maybe last night’s enchiladas brewing with whatever is going on in our own minds.

    • If your criterion for believing something is absolute certainty, than there’s very little we can actually know.

      I can’t know with absolute certainty, for instance, if the person I see in my house everyday is my wife or just an extremely convincing doppelganger. While I do think there is some room for healthy skepticism when people say things like, “the Lord told me…”, I don’t think we need to automatically discourage people from thinking they are hearing from God.

      The problem with subjective experiences is just that – they’re subjective, so most of the time telling the person you doubt their experience won’t do anything to convince them they’re wrong. I think the best we can do is to provide people with the tools to evaluate these experiences themselves from a more mature viewpoint.

      I also think, though, that we tend to come at these things that an analytical angle that is foreign to people in Scripture. I wonder how much Moses analyzed what happened to him when he saw the burning bush, for example.

      • October 1974. i had a personal encounter with that famous religious dude, Jesus, the Christ…

        i was wide awake. contemplating the results of a very intriguing automobile accident that happened ~45 days before. it was as close to be an audible “voice” that i have ever experienced, yet that mental communication far more clearer than anything spoken…

        the encounter very Real. the impact, life changing. no supra-natural appointments. no ecstatic visions. no uber-prophetic pronouncements. it was simply Jesus ‘invading’ my consciousness, addressed my curiosity, then made this invitation: “you can go back to the way you were, or come, follow Me…”

        nothing spooky-spiritual in the encounter. nothing spiritually ‘X-treme’ or spectacular. however, it was undeniable & not the usual method of divine interaction from that point on…

        dreams? heck yeah! my name is Joseph, so yes, i dream every nite. every nite, multiple dreams stream thru my subconscious. however, only about 6 dreams in all my 38 years of faith journey i could actually state with certainty had divine fingerprints all over them…

        the most amazing was one that was meant only for me, yet was very prophetic in its unfolding. in fact, it was so amazingly ‘done’ (in a movie sense where every detail & the setting all part of the communication) i marvel at it even today. yes, Jesus was in it. i was also, but it was referencing my entire spiritual journey in a very short vignette, but powerful emotionally…

        and i have had dreams about my mother after she had died. one that challenged my theology. in this dream she was her younger, youthful self, happy, smiling, i think it was a group setting with other members of my family that had also passed away. i remember her turning to me with that smile & i was startled. “What are you doing here (in my dream)? You’re dead.” not said irreverently, just stating the facts…

        she kept smiling, then puzzled, said, “What are you doing here???” i was so startled in shook me awake…

        yeah. sometimes the manner which our spiritual natures remind us that it is just as much a part of our humanity can be quite startling.

        pizza, or enchiladas as you have referenced, do indeed produce many a nite spectre. and then there are those that use their supposed encounter with God either to boost their own spooky-spiritual qualifications, or give them supposed authority to proclaim, “God told me to tell you…”

        i have had enough genuine encounters with spiritual elements to recognize what others claim is not what it seems. however, i have also heard some very interesting stories of a spiritual nature from close friends that simply defy conventional explanations & even left me scratching my head in mild beffudlement…

        there is much controversy now with the uber-apostolic/prophetic camps & those that claim to be so spiritually empowered it’s a wonder they are still here in corporeal form! those are the crazy aunts/uncles IMHO. all my spiritual experiences were very personal. nothing included in them that addressed the national debt, the next presidential election, the economy, the judgment of God on this nation, the details of Armaggedon, etc.

        some things are mysterious without having to be feared or confusing…

  2. If God created us as individuals, then it only makes sense that He would also relate to us as individuals according to whatever “sensors” (for lack of a better term) that He wired us with. Yes, He communicates His truth through His word, through Creation, through any number of channels that are common to all believers, but He also relates to us individually through whatever “sensors” (for lack of a better word) that He has given us to allow us to hear His voice in our lives personally. And that would be different for each person. The danger comes in, I think, when I start assuming that my experience with God is / should be the norm for every person. God didn’t create each indiviual to be exactly the same, and He wouldn’t relate to every person in exactly the same way.

    • +1

      Each one of us is spoken to by God in a unique manner, known alone to the One who created us to be the way we are.

      There are the messages that are directed to every follower, the “coporate voice” of things we ought to know, believe, and put into practice whether we are a married mother of eight in Portland, a single university student in Dublin, or a Chinese leader of a “home church” trying not to get thrown into prison.

      Then there are the personal ways that the Lord speaks to us…to enlighten, encourage, rebuke,or lead us….at three in the morning, or when we are sitting quietly, or whenever we are still enough in mind and spirit to hear Him. It is the “intimate voice” of Love meant for me and me alone.

      I only doubt the veracity of someone else’s messages from God if they involve something demanding or unpleasant or expensive (in money or otherwise) from SOMEONE ELSE! Then it really starts to look and sound like manipulation under the guise of God’s words.

    • I agree with you wholeheardedly. Yet I know of someone who thinks that the ONLY way one is with God is if they have these prophetic insights or a out of body experience where there is also “gold dust” and other phenomona. I just let that person know my experience with god and leave it there. I know you do not have to have extra-sensory experiences to be with God!!

  3. Short of God instructing me to tell others something or do something, why would there be a need to tell anyone else about my subjective experience other than perhaps pride, bragging rights or the desire to influence others from a position of anointment or authority? People can’t question my sanity if they aren’t aware of my thoughts and experiences.

    • I think it depends on the situation and the people with which such experiences are shared.
      Back when I first started having what one might call “subjective” experiences of God, it was during a very tumultuous time of inner and external turmoil in my life, and, to be honest, I feared I was going nuts.
      Talking with some Christian friends about their own experiences really helped me to gain some context, perspective, and understanding regarding what I was experiencing.
      Remember, it was the vocalized and written witness of those earliest followers of Christ — average people talking about what they had seen, heard, and experienced first-hand while hanging out with Jesus — that laid the foundations for the Christian faith.
      While I tend to be a little wary of people who put too much of a spotlight on their personal spiritual experiences — particularly those who use such stories to further some agenda or item of self-interest — I think believers sharing their experiences of God with other believers is an important part of discipleship.

  4. cermak_rd says:

    I can honestly say that I have never felt the presence or voice of a divine being. Never in my 44 years on this planet. Yet to hear some people tell it, this is a constant experience with them, such that they experience it daily or weekly. Can you blame me from doubting them? By and large I just listen and assume they are speaking metaphorically or simply putting a name to some innate psychological feeling or need.

    And then there’s neuroscience which has come so far these past 30 years in understanding just how it is that brains work.

    • I think the thing that pushes me over the edge of it being purely a matter of a personal experience inside of one’s head is when a person claims that God told them something about you. I have had the experience of someone who didn’t know me and I didn’t know them and telling me something that really would have no other way of knowing. Personally, I just don’t have a way of explaining that away. This was beyond the realm of the vague sort of info a palm reader or psychic would give. It was spot on.

      • I think that such an experience would probably drive both me and the stranger insane as I tried to find a connexion or way to explain this phenomenon. And I bet I would find a way.

        Besides, the thought of a divine being that is not only a voyeur but also tells other people what s/he sees is creepy beyond belief (and I lead a tame life!)

  5. David Cornwell says:

    To deny subjective spiritual experience is to deny part of our humanity. Just as Michael Spencer outlines in this piece, it must be ultimately subjected to a balancing criteria. Unless we are sure an experience is meant to be shared, it may be prudent let it remain private, or be selective in the sharing.

    Criteria for judging and bringing balance to such experiences should include the following: scripture, tradition, and reason. Experience is the fourth element of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Experience is defined as: “a Christian’s personal and communal journey in Christ.”

    Excellent piece.

    • David Cornwell says:

      One addition to the above: Wesley always believed scripture was the primary and most important leg of the quad and that all else had to be judged through it.

  6. Michael S. says:

    I think that personal experience is a valid means of receiving communication from God, but I think that scripture is very, very clear on how the situation is to be handled. In the first place, we’re told in no uncertain terms that we are absolutely required to compare any “revelation” we receive from God, against His pre-existing Word, to see if it’s valid or invalid. God is a God of truth, and will not say anything inconsistent with what He has previously revealed. This was actually (and still is) the Biblical means of avoiding false doctrine and false revelation — you must test everything received spiritually against what has already been shown to be true, and if it’s fundamentally incompatible, then you must reject the *new* “message” or teaching as false and accursed. We already know that Satan is perfectly capable of deceiving us, and what better way to do it than to appeal to subjective “feelings” and convince us that we’re acting for God when we’re actually acting against Him? Dr. Walter Martin once had a quote that I want to paraphrase — he said that when you want to counterfeit something, you don’t make it totally different from what you’re trying to make it look like. You don’t print purple money with Donald Duck’s picture in the portrait frame.

    So — all this is to say — Paul warned us through scripture that even the devil himself can appear as an “angel of light”, and that personal experiences COULD be a deception to get us off the straight and narrow. So, any personal experience of God might or might not actually be God; that’s why we’ve got scripture and tradition to test against and determine which experiences we should act upon and which should be ignored or fought against.

    Remember that “personal experience” appeals to the emotionally driven segment of the population (compared to the logically driven segment — I consider this to be a nearly strict dichotomy; people either follow their heart or they follow their head, there’s very little middle ground when you get right down to it) — these appeals are how the Mormons and the other pseudo-Christian cults get and retain members. The LDS mode of gaining converts is a misguided appeal to James 1:5 and then a suggestion to read the false revelations of Smith and then “pray to know that these things are true, and God will put the feeling in your heart that it’s true.” Well, the problem with that is that God’s already told us that that kind of “rely on your gut feelings to test the truth of My statements” thinking is invalid, and will lead to falsity. That’s exactly *why* we’re admonished so many times to “test the spirits” and to contend for the faith that was *once for all* given to the saints. Any experience we have of God that is compatible with that once-given, forever-true faith — was of God and should be embraced. Any other “spiritual” experience we have, if it’s accompanied by something that’s incompatible with existing teachings at an important level, has to be denied.

  7. I believe this is a valuable post because it has generated good thoughts on how to balance objective, rational observations from Scripture with the subjective experiences of individual Christians. The case study on Brian’s dream was excellent.

    It seems to me that in many church bodies the extremes of rationality or subjectivity are in danger of “capsizing the boat” because so many have drifted to one side or the other. In such a case, balance will be achieved when some runs to the other side of the boat and jumps up and down!

    IMHO I believe the American church as a whole is made up of millions of individuals who believe primarily in what they feel and experience. Our culture tells us to blindly follow our heart (subjective feelings and experiences) and many Christians appropriate that concept into their faith. Experience and feelings are put in first place.

    Subjective experiences with God are valuable (I am very thankful for mine), but they they cannot be considered the ultimate means by which we guide our lives. I think of the Hebrew slaves who witnessed 10 plagues on their enemy, a Passover deliverance, the parting of the Red Sea, the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariot division, water from a rock, and manna from heaven, all in their behalf (talk about “experiencing God”!!). These same people rejected God, and died in the wilderness without faith. Paul told the Galatians that hearing the Word with faith resulted in the provision of the Spirit and miracles. Hearing the Word with faith is always first, personal experiences follow. If that order of importance is understood, both extremes might just come to their senses.

    • “It seems to me that in many church bodies the extremes of rationality or subjectivity are in danger of “capsizing the boat” because so many have drifted to one side or the other. In such a case, balance will be achieved when some runs to the other side of the boat and jumps up and down!”

      I think this is an interesting observation. But I can’t think of a church body that has gone to an extreme of rationality. The Episcopalians certainly haven’t otherwise they would not constantly refer to the movements of the Spirit (something that really grated on me when I was contemplating Episcopalianism). Perhaps you were thinking of the Unitarians or Catholics? Catholicism certainly has a healthy dose of rationality, but it also has its mystical side, too. Perhaps Calvinism with its strong emphasis toward right doctrine?

      My own tradition of course leans heavily toward rationality. Hardly surprising in a child of the Enlightenment. Calvin also is a child of the Enlightenment.

      But perhaps this can explain the reason why Pentacostalism is becoming far more prevalent in Christianity. It emphasizes subjectivity to a wild degree. If religious institutions are not seen as friendly toward those who are of a rationalist bent, then those people will not join or leave. And if they leave then assuming (and this is an assumption I will admit) that the population of people are of a 50/50 bent toward either subjectivity or rationalist thought, then the concentration of those left in religious institutions would be more subjectively ordered. And if that becomes the case then religious institutions would be inclined, I would think, to become less comfortable places for rationalists over a period of time, which would become a giant feedback loop, leading to ever more concentration of subjectivists in religious institutions and rationalists either in the few religious institutions that are comfortable for them or outside religious institutions all together.

      • I can think of a lot of churches that have gone to the extreme of rationality. What is Calvinism if not boiling down the whole notion of God and salvation to a formula that’s set in stone. Also, the more staunchly Reformed a church is, the more cessationist it tends to be. They don’t call ‘em the “chosen frozen” for nothin’.

        • Reply to Phil and Cermak:

          I did have the Reformed branches in mind, as I myself lean that direction. The idea that God might actually break through into our world and (gasp!) heal someone, or give extra ordinary guidance, comfort, or direction to an individual would be unthinkable to many of the “chosen frozen”. But that is not a fair way to describe all of the Reformed, just as it is not fair to describe all Charismatics as silly, mindless, emotional basket cases! I do agree with Cermak that the predominant problem, in terms of extremes, lies with those who rely on subjective experiences. May the Lord help us all!

  8. Dormant Barbarian says:

    In the article, point #5 states, “For example, at times in the Bible God revealed himself to individuals through dreams.” However, when you compare the number of dreams (not visions) recorded in Scripture to the number of years represented by the Scriptural record, you find, on average one dream every hundred years or so. If you take into account that many of these dreams are clumped together (e.g. five dreams in the days of Joseph), the times of dream revelation are spread out even further apart. Secondly, one of the important parts of how God communicates through a dream is that He provides someone with special gifts to interpret the dream absolutlely. Pharaoh had Joseph; Nebuchadnezzar had Daniel; the prophets were able to interpret their own dreams. When these dreams are interpreted there is no uncertainty as to what God was comunicating. A legitimate dream today would need that gifted “prophet” to declare, “Thus saith the Lord.” Finally, the dreams recorded in Scripture tend to be at times that are unique and significant in salvation history like the calling of the patriarchs, the fall of Jerusalem and the exile, or the birth of the Messiah. So based on Scripture I would be willing to believe that perhaps once every hundred years or so when an unmistakable prophet (or patriarch or apostle) arises at a time that is unique and significant, God might speak through a dream whose interpretation is clearly communicated and not left up to subjective interpretation.

  9. So, I’ve been pondering along these lines the past few days. I was having a beer with a buddy from church the other night, and we began to talk theology, as we have done in the past. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it, but this conversation left me with the impression that my friend knew quite a lot about Christianity, as he was raised a pastor’s son, but that he may not have had an experience of Christianity, the kind of experience where you are left with the impression that you have been in the presence of God.

    So, this left me unsettled. I of course have not drawn any solid conclusions about my friend from one conversation, and I doubt my intuition greatly. But the result of it is that it has left the following questions for me that I’ve been pondering since, and which is related to this discussion:

    Is an experience meeting God a normative and/or essential part of the Christian life? If so, what is the normal frequency of such occurrences? Is only one such experience required (presumably when one receives Christ as Lord)?

    I really have no idea what the answers are to these questions. Maybe I’m over complicating things and the answer is simply that our God is not a tame God, and He can visit Whom He pleases when He pleases.

    • David Cornwell says:

      You raise interesting and intriguing questions. I think we are on dangerous ground if we say such experiences are essential. However we should also be careful about saying they cannot happen. They do take place with “normal” people, not just spiritual giants of some kind. Our relationship with Christ doesn’t depend on such experiences.

      For sure, God cannot be tamed by us, and is not subject to our rationality. God can at times be scary and and a little wild.

    • “Subjective” experiences are exactly that — subjective. There is no “normal” number for the frequency of such things, and I think it is fair to say that they are not an “essential” part of one’s Christian experience. I think they are gifts of divine grace and on the few occasions I’ve had reason to believe God was communicating directly to me, I try to receive them with gratitude and use them wisely.

    • So, this line of thought bothers me greatly. I was raised christian, and I’ve always considered myself a christian since birth. But I have -NEVER- felt anything I would call a religious experience. Never felt G-d’s presence, never heard an answer, never… anything.

      This may be symptomatic of just being “born” into christianity. Many of my friends (not all, certainly) who were “born christian” (as apposed to “born again”) often talked of similar lack-of-experiences. I haven’t talked to my brother about his experiences (or lack thereof) in a long time, but I’d wager he’s the same.

      But, man, I will never be allowed to forget it! From philosophers like Kierkegaard who thought personal conversion moments were -necessary- to real belief, to other kids at school and church who doubted either my sincerity or my salvation because I’d never had a religious experience, it seems most people who are religious have a subjective reason to be so. Sure, along with many more logical or objective reasons, but near the core is a subjective one. They might say, “I wouldn’t believe, but now I can’t believe”. My mother was a Christian for many reasons, but I think one of the biggest was that she believed that G-d was the force behind her intuitions. That listening to her “inner voice” or “instincts” was, in a way, G-d.

      Growing up, I agonized over it endlessly. That’s how it feels in my memory anyway. I hated G-d for making me such a terrible musician even though I desperately loved music. I begged G-d to make me wiser than Solomon, though Lord knows he didn’t grant that one. It finally hit a peak during college, where I prayed to G-d that I be allowed to not believe. But as soon as i’d said it, I knew; I believe because I simply do. I believe the christian myth, I believe in Christ. On a bad day, I will doubt anything about the church, or christians, or miracles or the even the bible but I can’t shake my belief in Christ and who He was. In a way, wanting to not believe is simply proof I do.

      But on a good day? It doesn’t bother me at all. I like to think that maybe, just maybe, G-d doesn’t speak to me because He doesn’t have to. Maybe I am who Christ spoke of when he said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

      • Thanks to everyone for your replies. I’m surprised the iMonk post hasn’t blown up with more comments…there’s so much room to talk about this and so many experiences represented!

        Kero, as to your thoughts – I wonder what qualifies as an experience with God? I don’t believe in such a thing as pure rationality. To me that’s like talking about a computer that runs without any input. We’ve all got some form of logic and reason hard-wired into us, but what good is it without any inputs? The computer has to have some interaction with the world outside itself – someone typing, for example.

        So too if your reason has come to a conclusion that you believe in the Christian God and specifically Jesus as Lord, then doesn’t it have to be experience that led your reason to conclude that? Maybe the response to your prayer to not believe was responded to by God immediately with the thought that you “believe because [you] simply do.” I suspect that He has a multitude of ways to show up and be present, and just because it’s not dramatic doesn’t make it any less real.

        I guess what I’m saying is that after thinking about this all day and reading through the comments, I’ve come to think that it’s these experiences – the ones that are input to our reason – are probably necessary, or else how would we come to believe? Also I’ve come to think that God is in those “input” experiences as much as any other experiences. But the mystical type ones, I’m thinking they’re not necessary, but used by God at certain times as He would use them.

      • I have a theory (based on my own life and others I know) that our experiences of God in the times when we’re far from God are far more intense and memorable than if we’re already close to God. My “conversion” experience of God breaking into my life as a totally uninvited stranger with a rather painful message demanding repentance was certainly a much more emotional experience than anything that has come since then, precisely _because_ God was so alien and foreign and unwanted at the time. After that I spent years trying to get more, similarly emotional experiences before accepting that because I was now in Christ, my experiences of Christ would feel much more natural and much less supernatural.

        To me the very fact that you can’t shake free of Jesus says that _he_ is holding on to you rather than you being the one holding on to him. Maybe his hands have been holding you secure for so long that that doesn’t seem like an unusual or spiritual experience to you, but it clearly is, and it’s _far_ more important than hearing God tell you who to marry or all those other silly things that people expect God to speak to them about.

        Monks and contemplatives throughout history speak about the danger of the “spiritual promiscuity” of seeking after religious experiences, and counsel people who have those experiences not to set too much weight on them or to get too caught up in them, lest they become a distraction. The end goal is to be united to God in love; whatever we experience is helpful only if it leads us toward that end.

        • To what I wrote I’ll add, I believe that the end goal of our transformation into the likeness of Christ is that we will participate in God’s nature so fully that God’s promptings and presence no longer seem to come from outside of us, but instead are so deeply rooted inside us that they feel like our own impulses. Where we will cease experiencing God’s presence as an external reality and instead simply become, un-self-consciously, the place where God is present. Where there will no longer be any possibility of spiritual pride because we will no longer even be aware of a separation between God and ourselves. I don’t know if anyone reaches that point in this lifetime, but I think that’s the direction we’re all headed in.

          And when we reach that point, spiritual “experiences” will no longer serve any function, because it would actually require a step _backward_ away from union with God to return to the point where we can analyze ourselves and God as two separate beings, and analyze our feelings instead of just feeling them, and conclude that such an experience has taken place.

  10. Randy Thompson says:

    Without spiritual experience, Christianity is an endless Bible study where everyone knows the answers beforehand.

    Without Scripture, tradition and reason, spiritual experience is as likely to be the result of a bad burrito as it is something from God.

    The genuineness of spiritual experience, I think, is rooted in the humility of the person having the experience.

  11. I see no reason to deny that God can reveal Himself through subjective means. However, instead of being content to treat this as the gift it is, we Evangelicals have to codify it and write 100s of how-to books on “how to hear God’s voice”. What I see taught around this “subjective leading” are :

    - it’s a sign of maturity
    - it’s a learned skill
    - you should be seeking these experiences
    - regular (i.e. daily) “nudges” from God are a normative part of the Christian life

    And if you are not experiencing this then your relationship with God or even your salvation can be questioned.

    Just within the last month I know personally of one fella who is doubting he is saved because this has not been his experience. And he attends the the big Southern Baptist church in town, not some Charismatic or fringe non-denom church.

    Sorry for the rant. It’s one of my soapboxes. I just think this continual focus on hearing from God as a necessity to robust, spiritual life is a huge distraction at best and can lead to a lot of inner turmoil and angst among sincere and committed believers.

  12. I’m quite certain that I would have given up on Christianity years ago if it were not for times when I experience God’s love and God’s presence. In a weird way even the times when God feels achingly _absent_ are a tangible reminder to me of God’s reality. I’ve learned over the years not to try to seek out or force spiritual “experiences,” and to be _very_ wary about ever saying, “God told me ____”. But I do for the most part walk around with a sense of God’s presence with me.

    Most of the time that’s not a feeling or an emotion, it’s just faith, just a confidence that God is real and that all of God’s creation is held in God’s loving arms. That certainty somehow sticks with me regardless of how I’m feeling or what I’m going through. I can’t imagine going through life without it. Even in the desert times when I’m not _experiencing_ God’s reality, there’s a part of me that never stops knowing that this whole world was birthed out of God’s love and is on a trajectory back into the fullness of that loving presence. I think we expect our spiritual “experiences” to take the form of guidance, telling us to do something or change something or be something. But perhaps God is more focused just on communicating love to us.

    I really honestly don’t get it when I talk to people who talk as if God is just a theory in their head or an opinion they need to defend. It makes me sad, really, and a little bit frustrated with them, like there’s a whole layer of the visible church that’s just going through the motions without even realizing that there’s more to it than that. Why would you even try to follow God if you were in that situation?

    • I hear you Michael. I have a friend who grew up Christian Reformed and it seems most of what he has lived out has been believeing God in faith, without a lot of experience.

      When I came to Christianity I was too simple to do anything other than believe what it said in scripture was true. Abraham, Issac, Jacob and Elijah experienced God, so I thought that was the normal Christian life. And there were experiences I could not explain, and lots of them. People being told things they needed to convey to me, money coming in to pay restitution and I could go on.

      Am I special, not at all. I was a complete mess and God was merciful to me. I can relate to Peter because I tend to screw up, it was almost congential. And I do believe God talks to people, and that we can learn to obey his inner promptings.

  13. I think this is one of the most instructive pieces that Michael Spencer wrote and I love it. I particularly am taken with #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.”

    So very true.