3 Problems Related to Spiritual Experiences

Isle of Skye. Photo by Hugh Mothersole

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.

• • •

Photo by Hugh Mothersole at Flickr. Creative Commons License

33 thoughts on “3 Problems Related to Spiritual Experiences

  1. The third “way of handling spiritual experiences”, that of using them as an apologetic to “prove” God’s existence, has always seemed kind of desperate to me…

    This “third way” is what also motivates that Christian version of fringe archaeology, The Search for Noah’s Ark.

    Ark-ologists and the like are trying to PROVE God’s Existence and the TRUTH of the Bible by trying to find hard evidence — like the remains of a 200-meter gopherwood Ark somewhere in the glaciers of Mount Ararat. Some utterly irrefutable piece of evidence to PROVE They Were RIGHT and all the rest of us are WRONG. “SEE? SEE? SEE?”

    “Always trying to prove the existence of God — as though God had nothing to do but exist!”
    — C.S.Lewis, “The Great Divorce” (from memory)

    And yes, Burro, it IS desperation.


  2. And a result of the things CM said, it’s damn near impossible to have a conversation with “God told me.” that is always a conversation ender.


  3. It’s my belief, based on things I’ve seen from others, that:

    1) We probably over-spiritualize things that have no spiritual element;
    2) We probably under-spiritualize things that have a great spiritual element;
    3) And we have no idea which is which.


  4. I was raised in a tradition that was doctrine-doctrine-doctrine all day every day all the way and personal spiritual experience was frequently dismissed as “emotionalism”. People had personal spiritual experiences for sure but there was something unseemly about it and you certainly didn’t openly discuss it. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there were traditions that not only encouraged these sort of experiences but considered them the whole point.

    And both these traditions — “Salvation by Doctrine Alone” and “Salvation by Personal Spiritual Experience Alone” — are out of balance. Just in opposite directions.


  5. Hi Stuart ……… Being skeptical is not a moral good and if it insults you good. White men in a time were skeptical of those who were not like them. Heart breaking still true in far to many. Yet men of color are skeptical of those they call white yet only one was ever describe as white on a mountain with his disciples.

    Sorry… I wish not to fight and especially with words which hurt worse than any physical confrontation I ever had. Skepticism might well be describe as a dimon( Greek). If your interested look it up .

    Yes Adam I have had experiences where I walked away did I really see that……Was it skepticism or a doubt put there by a liar?


  6. Well Adam I would expect everything i hear from post to comments here and above. I am the least of anyone who should experience a divinity such as God and Paul was trying to explain it. Yet he was not trying to limit the experiences that one could have with the divine. When we don’t share we are like the one who buried the coin in the ground. Yet on the other hand if we go and boast we put ourselves above others and swell within with the worst of human nature pride. The point being having been led by the spirit as Paul stated to a place human lips should not speak of is the great word of led.

    Sorry……. This world is a part of Heaven even though fallen. Here is the only place at the here and now we could or ever experience what we call divine. More so is forgiveness in the love of such going well beyond anything we as humans could ever understand. I see comments…. read, ponder and most of the time anymore leave them alone because I like sleeping at night. Given the last sentence not my job…..

    If the chance is given to share experience in epiphany and we don’t remember the parable of a man who buried the talent. Also if it is not there which most of the time it isn’t try to give gain as a son( used as the ancient for male and female) smile and listen with encouragement.

    My own experiences to many now to ever go over in detail and it is in the details speaking with amen ( meaning I speak the truth) have not the profound meaning many would put on them. In fact they are mine and only mine put yet an encouragement for others to find their own but to remember they are not the greatest meaning only a gift which is under the gift of Jesus. Jesus was and always will be the greatest gift. Only He is the one worthy of dying on the cross soo no matter how bad I get He still loves me and yes a hug is owed to all here. May God grant such a wonderful thing to the sad man behind blue eyes


  7. Again, Rick, there aren’t any rules about this. I simply urge wisdom — through caution, restraint, and trying to put another’s interests first rather than mere self-expression, or worse, a desire for the spotlight (which I might not even recognize within myself).


  8. I have a lot to say in response to your post there Mr. Steven but no time now so I will just say very hearty amen.


  9. Henri Nouwen’s experience in viewing Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” led to tremendous spiritual growth for him. You can read about it in his book by the same name.


  10. Unfortunately, Muslims who have dreams like this can NOT share with family and friends lest they become disowned, if not worse.

    Maybe that DOES fit in with the post. A Muslim’s conversion means nothing to another Muslim. Conversion only comes via direct contact from Jesus.


  11. Actually I think they can be overemphasized and over-shared, especially in a culture like ours when the unusual and the spectacular is used to make celebrities and put oneself in the center of the story. This is not to throw out the baby with the bath water– of course there are legitimate times to share ones story of experience with God. But the default attitude today is not healthy, IMO.


  12. Good question. My own take is the approach Chaplain Mike takes is an excellent guide and normally just what is needed. However, it is a guide, not a law, and in certain situations things should happen differently. I hope a Muslim who has a dream like this shares their story with their family and friends.

    In all things, the rule is love: what is best for the other person’s (true) needs. Most of the time, sharing my own spiritual experiences is, as Mike suggests, something that is done for me. But one can certainly think of times when that is not the case.


  13. I have had an ‘automatic’ response for the comforting ‘Presence’ that helped me in deep grief:



  14. Here’s an interesting counterpoint to the post and comments. I don’t mean this to sound negative at all, but I share it more from a “how does this fit in with the premise of the post” kind of way.

    I’ve heard the testimonies of several Muslims who’ve converted to Christianity because Jesus came to them in a dream. Can those experiences be over-emphasized? Can they be over-shared? Can they be used as an apologetic?


  15. I was raised in a tradition that was doctrine-doctrine-doctrine all day every day all the way and personal spiritual experience was frequently dismissed as “emotionalism”. People had personal spiritual experiences for sure but there was something unseemly about it and you certainly didn’t openly discuss it. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there were traditions that not only encouraged these sort of experiences but considered them the whole point. I have no doubt that my life long reaction to this locked down upbringing has led to my view today which is that theology interests me little but I respond to the imagery and symbols on a non-verbal level.

    I have a nice print of a 14th century Cretan Icon of the Transfiguration in my office that I got because it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. At some point I bought a book about Orthodox theology that discussed Icons in general and the Transfiguration in particular but I never finished it. The image sings to me. Why weigh it down? What difference does it make whether or not it ever happened or what that meant? it happens every time I lose myself in it.

    I know everyone doesn’t feel this way and I condemn no one. Nor will I submit to being condemned for feeling the way I do about it.


  16. A turtle was attacked by a gang of snails. Cop asked him what happened and the turtle said, “I don’t know it all happened so fast.”


  17. The third “way of handling spiritual experiences”, that of using them as an apologetic to “prove” God’s existence, has always seemed kind of desperate to me, like the weedy little guy who rushed around making sure everybody knew that, yes, he did have a date for the Spring Formal. Now that nobody is listening to the Church in general or Evangelical Protestants in particular, every little thump coming from the attic is trumpeted as ‘See! There’s Somebody up there after all, [Thank you, Fr. Stephen] and won’t you be sorry for ignoring Him (me) all these years!”

    God doesn’t seem to be at all concerned about proving His existence, nor, Mr. Piper, does He seem to give three figs for His ‘Glory’.


  18. > For a skeptical personality, it’s very easy to doubt one’s own experience.

    It is not “skeptical”; it is a sign of good mental health. Everyone consider doubts.

    Note: Skepticism is not Dismissal, it is Skepticism. Skepticism is a moral good.

    > I’m not sure how much of an overall difference it made in my faith.

    I have had experiences with the same consideration.
    In hindsight it is not at all clear what to do with them.
    Best then, IMO, to box, bar-code, and send them to the warehouse.


  19. > I think this post gives very wise counsel,


    > gauged in the Western Catholic tradition

    Exactly, that; if not ‘Catholic’ it needs to be aggressively placed in a tradition, or better even, and institution, that can provide the bumpers. There is a desperate lack of such; what traditions and institutions we have seem to indulge, if not encourage, ‘bad behavior’.
    Otherwise it does much worse than make us look “silly”.

    > back to ordinary reality and experience renewed and empowered

    Exactly, the opposite of being wound up in apocalyptic fantasies and conspiracy theories. How many times – a HUNDRED quite possibly – I’ve been having what I thought was a normal conversation, then there is a brief pause, then something like: “but you know what is *really* going on, right?” . . . followed by a bible-verse or dream or I-met-a-guy. . .
    I am certain this kind of crap is coming from churches [aka pastors] who are indulging this, or perhaps are just not man enough to do their job.

    I’d be more charitable if I’d ever seen anything effectively positive come out of the talk of ‘experiences’; but I have not, **emphatically**. They seem 397% of the time to take the person off the hook of doing the hard, boring, tedious, dirty part of community; they always say that stuff doesn’t matter – focus on the BIG picture.

    I do not doubt experiences – I am assuming I’ll probably never hear of the real ones – which is sort of the point. As I keep mine to myself.

    There is value in all of these things – but I fear we have lost the institutional knowledge and **courage** necessary to approach them in any way that will not corrupt us.


  20. In my (very very) limited experience, spiritual experiences don’t even make a great apologetic for oneself. I had an incident several years ago where I thought I heard God speaking to me, but I’m not sure how much of an overall difference it made in my faith. For a skeptical personality, it’s very easy to doubt one’s own experience.


  21. I think this post gives very wise counsel, CM. The value in and of special spiritual experience, and its validity, is typically gauged in the Western Catholic tradition by whether or not it leads one to deal with one’s neighbor compassionately and lovingly. This includes a lot of humility about one’s own special experiences, and much reticence in sharing them or using them as a basis for asserting superior spiritual authority or experience over one’s neighbor. Special spiritual experiences of the depths behind and in ordinary reality and experience should lead those having them back to ordinary reality and experience renewed and empowered for the most ordinary acts of love and compassion. If they do not, then one should question them closely, and probably take them with a grain of salt.


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