October 20, 2017

Thoughts on Spiritual Experience

418.jpgI’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.

• • •

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. Dan Price says:

    Hey friend, I’ve kept up on your blog and love your insight into everything you write about. You pick great topics.

    This one for me is a super important one too. A few years ago I was a youth pastor at a church in Columbus and had three crazy things happen in the matter of one week all concerning God’s Will.
    1. A young couple, just married and the husband was looking for a Job. There was a particular job that he hoped to get and was confident that he would get it. His wife even told him to not even apply to other places because God “told her” that this was the job he would get. A couple weeks went by and he finally got the new that he didn’t get the job. Now he’d lost a couple weeks worth of time, not searching for work!
    2. A young Christian lady told my wife and I that “God told her” to date a certain guy. Problem was that this guy wasn’t a Christian himself. When we warned her, she ignored us and dated the guy. The guy slept with her and left after a couple days, leaving her with a broken heart and confused mind.
    3. A young guy who was attending a Christian college was in trouble with the law. He stole a couple hundred dollars worth of video games etc… from a friend, but was wrecked with guilt and was in the process of thinking how to give it back, when he was found out and arrested. A couple days before his court date he saw a church sign that said “Everything Will Be Ok” he thought it was God “telling” him that he would recieve a mild sentence. Knowing this, he decided not to have a lawyer present (against the advice of myself and his parents) and went to court. Turns out the judge handed him the most aggresive sentence that a first time offender could be handed given the offense.

    All this to say that in all three of these cases there was a lack of maturity in diciphering God’s will. So this is super important stuff to understand and I really like the widsom that you bring to the experience of God. I’d probably fall a little bit more on the wisdom side of things in any case, but could see that anyone folling your example would sit well within God’s moral will and would probably end up making a good choice.

    By the way, have you ever read “Decision Making and the Will of God” by Garry Friesen? Really good read. I’d love an internet monk review of that if you ever have the time.

    Thanks for all the great posting!
    Dan Price

  2. michael, great topic and post! i think this is one of the most important ideas being discussed in various faith circles now.

    i wish some people would start to understand that in anything they do (e.g. reading the bible) is an experience. sure, we don’t want to become entirely individualistic (me and god and nothing else matters) but we have to realize that subjective experiences with god are not only real but essential.

    in the spirit of learning from and interacting with believers in other denominations, i was commenting in a blog thread (more like a charybdis) with some orthodox and anglican people a few weeks ago which, unfortunately, turned out to be pretty pointless. they would not accept that anything other than the inerrant [T]radition of The Liturgy could be worship, especially not the “experiential” and “subjective” flavor.

    i think when christianity moves away from this idea of subjective=bad/objective=good fallacy, the world will be better off.

    nonetheless, i found your thoughts here wise about the bounds of subjective experience within the context of the church. we have to be very careful about that side of the debate as well.

  3. Experience tempered by Scripture….

    I’ve heard somewhere that “experience is the best expositor”

    As long as the foundation is Scripture, we must have experiences are we don’t have “religion” (religion in the purely Edwardsian Puritan sense of divine life implanted in the soul)

    This is a very important issue and makes all the difference in whether our doctrine is just a mole hill we defend like kids guarding a fort, or whether we “know” truth and love it. I like your example and how you trickle “experience” down a biblical stepping stone until neither are compromised. Even reading Scripture is an experience.

  4. Michael,

    This is an incredible post. I think it resonates for me so much because this fact, that experience matters to the Christian life, has been a real emphasis of my education, my Christian maturation, these past several years.

    We cannot deny experience. We are human. That’s what we do. Things enter our plane of existence and we encounter them, we experience them.

    Right now I am reading a book written by Luigi Giussani called, The Journey To Truth Is An Experience. The premise can be summed up in the event of Christ and the encounter of Andrew and Johnn with Him. (Look at John 1:35-42). The importance of experience can be seen in the way the Baptist’s claim about Jesus (“Behold the lamb of God!”) is verified in the lives of Andrew and John so that Andrew is able to say to his brother: “We have found the Messiah!” Look at the difference between those two. Like the Baptist, the Church throws the truth out there into the deep, and trusting that it will correspond with our being if encountered — because we are made for Him — it allows us to go off (like Andrew and John did) to test and verify. And when we do. When we verify the truth in our experience, it takes such a deeper root in us, it takes up conscious meaning for our lives, it transforms. [There’s a lot more to be drawn out from that Gospel passage about the nature of the Christian life, but for now let’s focus on that.]

    So it is sad to me when many Christians reject experience out of a fear that it is inviting relativism. But we follow a Person not a set of ideas. So how can we reject experience, without falling into the trap of reducing Christ to something less than He is — substituting a packet of dogmas, a set of morals, etc., in His place.

    On the other hand, we must be careful to not think that experience is the same as feelings. The emotions are involved, to be sure. They are a powerful tool. In another of Luigi Giussani’s books, The Religious Sense, he highlights that it is an illusion to think that we can free ourselves from them. No man has accomplished that. In fact, they help us experience things. They draw us in to what is before us. The challenge is to ensure that our judgement of what the experience means places them in their proper place.

    You have highlighted so much of that Michael, both in your emphasis on the importance of experience, but the need for community to assist in reaching judgment about it. For on our own, we are often tempted to mix in our images of what we want it to be with our judgment of what it is. It is the help of another, someone outside of me, someone outside of my control, that can be crucial in making sure I stand before what is in front of me and see it as it is, not how I would like it to be.

    Michael, I highly recommend Luigi Giussani’s works that I mentioned above, along with his At the Origin of the Christian Claim and Risk of Education. The reason I do so is because he is the only Christian author that I have come across who seems to have so deeply dove into these questions of experience and reason that ring so vital these days.

  5. Togenberg says:

    The denial of experience seems strongly influenced by the modern mind, by Enlightenment rationalism, a reaction to it. It’s hard to believe that an Augustine or a Francis or a Luther would have rejected the subjective as a whole, much less have had a clear and distinct category for it. It is odd but it does seem that an aggresive sola scriptura position denies humanity and the spirit in the same way that a Lockean or a positivist might.