As I was reflecting on yesterday’s post and some of the comments, I was struck with a few thoughts regarding spiritual discernment and the broader subject of personal spiritual experience. In particular, I was thinking about how the experiential side of faith, expressed in such terms as “hearing God’s voice,” “being led by the Spirit,” “being touched by God,” “feeling God’s presence,” receiving “visions,” experiencing “miracles,” manifesting “spiritual gifts,” and so on, is often problematic for us because we often don’t have the wisdom to know what to do with it.
There have been plenty of occasions where I had no reason to doubt the validity of a person’s stated experience. If I believe in a living God, a relational God, a communicative God, and a loving God who through Jesus has instituted a new covenant under which God has put his Spirit within us and written his Torah upon our hearts, then I have no problem accepting that individuals and communities of faith can and do experience the personal presence of that living God and find themselves confronted by some epiphany of the Kingdom’s reality. Akin to the existence of the quantum world, I accept that there is an unseen realm we typically call “heaven” — God’s realm — and that there are moments in which that realm intersects with our own and we are exposed to a world that normally hides behind a veil — or through the back of a wardrobe.
But what do we do with such experiences? Off the top of my head, I’ve seen three ways of handling them that, in my opinion, are improper. In many ways, they end up undermining the power of whatever has been experienced.
The first response is to over-emphasize.
This was the way of the Corinthians. If you read 1Corinthians in particular, you will see that Paul patiently tells them in dozens of ways essentially that they were being immature, overly obsessed with the spectacular, the ecstatic, and the miraculous.
The apostle nowhere denies the presence of God among them, nor does he dismiss their spiritual gifts, but he does suggest that they were too infatuated with glory and not thinking enough about the “ordinary” but all-important gift of self-emptying love for each other and their neighbors.
The second response is to over-share.
In 2Corinthians 12, Paul exemplifies a cautious approach to telling others about our spiritual experiences. These churches were being troubled by religious leaders who were constantly “boasting” in their credentials, spiritual experiences, and powerful presentations. Paul counters by “boasting” in his weaknesses and sufferings. At one point, however, he thinks it necessary to share a personal spiritual experience he had.
“It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” (12:1-4, NRSV)
Paul is speaking of himself here and a remarkable spiritual experience God gave him. He was taken into heaven itself! But he tells this story with tremendous restraint. Paul uses the third person and seems hesitant to talk about details. Most notably, this experience happened 14 years earlier, and as far as we know, he had never shared it before! In our confessional, tell-all age, can you imagine what someone would do to hype it if they had an experience like this?
However, Paul only shares it as a last resort to try and save the Corinthians from going astray. And, in fact, he leaves this story behind immediately and goes on to talk about the “thorn in the flesh” the Lord gave him because he had been privileged to experience such revelations. He would rather boast in his weaknesses and sufferings.
The point is, whatever Paul shared about his own life, whether incredible experiences with God or terrible sufferings for the sake of Christ — he did so within limitations. He spoke with restraint, and always for the sake of his brothers and sisters, not to put the focus on himself.
The third response is to use our experiences as an apologetic.
In our minds, having a spiritual experience usually confirms our faith and strengthens our belief in the living God who loves and speaks to us. The problem comes when we then try to convince someone else (or everyone else!) to believe based on something we’ve known personally.
The biblical record has quite a mixed message about this. On the one hand, Jesus sometimes encourages people to see his works as “signs” that testify to who he is. On the other hand, he is quite clear that wow!-works don’t ultimately convince anyone. The apostles sometimes speak about how the “signs and wonders” God performed through them confirmed the gospel message. On the other hand, they place much more emphasis to their churches on showing grace and practicing love as the ultimate apologetic.
In general, I shy away from speaking about any spiritual experience I’ve had as a way of persuading someone else of anything. There’s far too much of that kind of thing going on, and in the end I think it usually makes us look silly. I’d rather meet someone on common human ground and show them a love that gets their attention.
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Photo by Hugh Mothersole at Flickr. Creative Commons License