Evaluating spiritual experiences

This post is based on a talk titled ‘A Move of God or a Spiritual Fad?’ given by Jason Clarke of UCCF in the UK. The talk itself was based on Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Religious Affections’.

In the days of the early church, the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem had decided that what the apostles were doing wasn’t of God and actively opposed them. They were getting nowhere, and one of their number, Gamaliel, advised a let’s-wait-and-see approach. If the fledgling church’s actions were of human origin, they would come to nothing. But if they were moved by God, they would be unstoppable (Acts 5:34-40).

Unusual and perplexing spiritual experiences exist up to this day. How do we tell apart the genuine from the spurious?

For starters, we need to know that our culture, temperament and theological framework all influence the opinions we hold. For example, I have what I call ‘the gift of suspicion’: I always want to check out and verify everything, which no doubt drives people around me up the wall (sorry!). People like me need to be aware that cynicism can be a useful tool to the Enemy. Likewise, people unlike me need to know that openness can also be used to further Satan’s ends.

We also need to hold together reason and experience. The Holy Spirit uses both our intellect and our emotions to communicate God’s truth. When we’re born again, both our intellect and emotions are redeemed and consecrated to God. We don’t become more or less emotional, just as we don’t obtain a greater or lesser IQ.

As for spiritual experiences, Christians need to distinguish between what is promised in the Bible and what is possible. It is possible for God to appear to me in a bush that isn’t burning (He’s done it before!), but that isn’t promised in His Word as an experience every believer should seek after. God has appointed means of grace through which we can expect to deepen our spiritual experiences—prayer, praise, preaching and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To neglect these and to expect to grow is unreasonable and presumptuous.

Test everything

Here are some guidelines for evaluating others’ spiritual experiences:

  1. True religious experience recognises that divine things are good in themselves, and not only because of the benefits they bring. God is good, gracious and wonderful whether we benefit or not. Is the person taken with the glory of God or the beauty of the experience?
  2. True religious experience delights in God’s holiness and in the beauty of His moral perfection.
  3. True religious experience is based on the truth of the texts of scripture. The person is not without an understanding of the Bible and of the Gospel.
  4. True religious experience results in sin not having dominion and in a longing for more of God and less of sin. This accompanying holiness is an outworking of point (2) above.
  5. True religious experience results in consistency and integrity. The person acts the same whether in company or in private.

If we cannot find anything objectively unscriptural it is our Christian duty to accept, love and rejoice with those who experience spiritual realities that perplex us. Judge nothing before the appointed time (1 Corinthians 4:5), for the certainty of separating sheep and goats belongs to Christ alone.

In all these things, we can reach settled and provisional conclusions. We need to have courage to speak out as well as to be quick to encourage the good wherever we find it. Be patient with others as others (and God!) have been patient with you.