Welcome to another post on theology. I want to take a moment to discuss a topic that is rife with tension, so much in fact that most pastors really don’t want to discuss it at all. It’s not safe, not controllable, or predictable. So, they would rather forget its exists entirely.
I’m, of course, talking about religious experience or direct spiritual experience – those moments in your life that you look back on where you’ve experienced something that at least appears in some way supernatural, maybe something quite dramatic and world shattering, or maybe something much less so, more subdued, but definitely not within the realm of normalcy or what is common to men. I’m talking about the things of the mystics, the wild desert monastics who starved themselves and had visions and dreamed dreams.
One of the major problems with this subject is it is the mainstay of both the fanatic and the heretic. After all, how else could one justify twisting the Scripture unless they had a direct revelation for their God on high? Consider Christ’s response at those who protest at being cast aside, “Did we not prophecy in your name? Did we not do miracles in your name?”
The question really boils down to: is there a place in Christianity for direct spiritual experience? Is there any validity to it? Is it biblical?
Are the calamities witnessed week end and week out at charismatic meetings genuine? If no, why do so many seek after the ecstatic manifestations? If yes, why do they ring so hollow to so many people within the faith?
Let’s jump into the debate and find out if there is room in Christianity for Experiential Spirituality….
Monks East and West
Monks were not the first to have experiences from God. People in the Old Testament and the New experienced dreams and visions, heard voices from heaven, were visited by angels and demons and even Lucifer interacted with a few humans on an individual level.
But, in today’s world, especially in the western world, these things are relegated to the shysters and the con artists on television and in rented arenas who beg and plead and demand your money if you want to see a miracle from God.
The first few centuries of the Church saw little in the way of these kinds of supernatural preoccupations since it’s people were too busy trying to stay alive. Rome was persecuting Christians simply for being labeled one, and these groups were branded as enemies of the state, as atheists who refused to pay homage to the many Gods in the Roman pantheon, who were bringing misfortune onto the Roman State and the people.
But, once Christianity was no longer outlawed in the 4th century, things began to change. Especially when the faith was made the State religion and all other religions were outlaw that a rush of non-believers filled the church rolls, which forced many into the wilderness in search of the persecuted faith of the previous four centuries.
This kind of faith in the wild places developed a desert theology, an asceticism, and it borne what would later become asceticism, the striving for self-denial, to put off this world and put on the next, the process of sanctification. It was often characterized by supernatural things and events. St. Anthony, the first hermit monk (though not the first ascetic), is recorded as having battled demons of all shapes and kinds for much of his isolation. And so the stories go on from there through the generations until the dawn of the age of reason and the supernatural world was put away.
So commingled has the truth become with tradition and propoganda and fictions that it is hard to distinguish between what is real and what is fake.
Should Christianity today be viewed only through the protestant, Baptist, conservative, fundamentalist lense? Should personal antedotal evidence and experience be immediately suspect, or should the individual Christian do as Jesus’ mother did when she was witness to events that were uncommon and difficult to explain (Lu 2:19)?
The Charismatic community does not help answer these questions or present a reliable character witness for the supernatural realities of this world. When I was a new believer in Germany, a fellow co-worker (my best friend), and fellow Christian, made it his personal mission to get me “baptized in the Spirit.” I was not invested one way or the other. I had not been brought into the faith by some denomination or by a particular pastor, but first by supernatural intervention, and then by being sequestered in my barracks room for 6 months while I read the Bible from cover to cover.
Needless to say, I was wide open for a spiritual experience from God. Yet, my nature, my natural disposition, was skeptical of it. My initial reaction when explained about speaking in tongues and other Charismatic gifts or manifestations was one of confusion, and I had read that God was a God of disorder but a God of peace (1 Co 14:33). Yet, every time my friend would cart me off to a church someone in the community, I would witness experiences being had by other people that seemed the exact opposite.
One church he brought me to started out peaceful enough. But as soon as they started singing I could tell something was wrong. They got louder and their words more forceful, until suddenly people broke out in stammering and yammering, falling on the floor all around me, jumping over chairs and the whole church was in disarray.
All I could do was sit there and pray. Pray for God’s will to be done. Pray for the chaos to stop. Pray for five intelligible words rather than a thousand in an unknown tongue. And then, just like that, as if everyone in the congregation has their watches set, it all stopped and order was restored. People took their seats and the pastor thanked God for “moving in the congregation” and the meeting was ended.
To this day, what I experienced at these meetings still makes no sense. Why would God move in such a useless and unproductive way and why would he do it Sunday after Sunday reaping no real benefit from his labor? At the time I half heartedly wondered if something was wrong with me, while my friend grew more frustrated that I wasn’t “catching it.” I showed all the other signs of a genuine faith in Christ, just not that one, and, apparently, it was more important that I speak in tongues than any of the other signs in a changed life.
He was not the only one. Over the years I’ve had Charismaniacs question my salvation, question if I were possessed by demons, all because I did not speak in tongues. At a little country Church I’d been called to help by a member of the community, I stood in opposition to a Charismatic, Word-Faith self-professed preacher who declared me an enemy of Christ and had me escorted off the property and said if I ever came back he would have me arrested for trespassing.
When I speak about experiential Christianity, this is not what I’m referring to. I’m not talking about artificial or emotionally driven drama that is too often used as an opiate to a lack of faith or the seeking after physical, tangible signs of God’s existence or his approval of them.
When I talk about spiritual experiences I’m talking about genuine ones that have no purpose other than God’s own. Experiences that do not contradict the Bible or its message, but are in light with it. Experiences that do not breed confusion and pride, but actually engender faith and growth.
This, in my experience, is not the Charismania we see in today’s “spirit-filled” denominations. There is a spirit at work there, certainly, but it would not be a spirit of God.
My Own Experience
In Acts 2:16ff, Peter credits what is happening to the disciples as a fulfillment of the prophet Joel, “in the last days, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and daughters shell prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams…”
If Peter thought the times in which he lived were “in the last days” how much more so are the days in which we now live? How much closer are we to Christ’s return than those of any century before us? And, yet, so often Christians, especially American Christians, poke a finger and chuckle at the idea that God would speak to someone in a dream. Yet, we see this happening continually in the Middle East were there is less access to the Bible than anywhere else on the planet. It is attested to again and again in the Bible, yet in our materialistic world we cannot fathom anything supernatural being true.
I’ve, personally, had two supernatural experiences in my life (that I know of). The first one when I was probably barely a teenager (maybe 12) and the other one when I was 17.
The first one was a dream, yet, it was truly like no other dream I’d had before or since. I remember waking up to it staring back at me, unrelenting in its clarity, its consistency. It was so unlike the dreams I typically had, the few and far between that I could even remember at all.
In it I found myself standing on the bare mountain that was behind my childhood home, where I had secured permission as a young boy from the owners to hike and explore on my own. But I stood there in the early morning, looking at the Bodi tree (a large oak tree that I would often sit and meditate under). It wasn’t cold. There was no breeze blowing. And then suddenly there was a small boy standing not far off from where I stood. He was much younger than me and about half as tall as I was. He had short dark hair and dark eyes.
I turned to him and he said, “look.” So I looked in the direct he pointed, toward the western sky, just as the sun broke the horizon and washed the valley below in its radiant light (oddly that the sun rose in the west in the dream).
I asked the boy, “What is it?” And his reply still echoed in my ears as I stepped into the shower and tried to forget. As I turned back and looked at the sunrise before me, he responded with a single word in answer to my question. He said, “God.” It was then that I woke up.
I remember, as the water from the shower ran over my face and arms and body, the warmth soaking into my muscles and warming the blood pumping inside of me, the feeling I had lasted for several hours after I had awoke from the dream and started my day. I kept thinking back about that peculiar sunrise and the little boy on the mountain, the sun touching me with its rays, as if reaching out to me with his hand to comfort me, to let me know he was there.
At the time I was anything but a believer in Jesus. Not being raised in a church I really didn’t even know who Jesus was. I’d never read the Bible or really paid attention if or when the gospel had ever been explained to me. I had no real concern for it or him or anything like it. In fact, about that time I was an angry, adolescent Satanist who wanted nothing to do with God and everything to do with getting back at the world for being born (my misanthropy has been lifelong).
But I’ve remembered that dream ever since then, and think of it often. The feelings it conjured within me, despite my own predilections for rebellion and misotheism, I believe it was a true, supernatural experience.
My second experience occurred when I was 17, just before I was set to graduate high school. I had a girlfriend and was signed up to elist in the US Army as soon as I graduated (I would be in Basic Training before I turned 18), and I was a devout Buddhist who secreted desired to enter the Buddhist monastery rather than go into military service. By that time I had a few acolytes of my own, three other friends who had decided to begin following the Eightfold Noble Path after my example – having shaved their heads and sworn off eating anything but rice and meditating together.
But, one night my girlfriend wrecked her car after taking a corner too fast. She flipped the car, crushed the roof and sustained a head injury that landed her in the hospital. I rushed to be by her side and ended up staying the night in a chair next to her bed.
Of course, I’ve recounted this story several times already in previous episodes and blog posts, so I will try to summaries for brevity sake. I ended up that night reading 2 Peter 2 for the first time and for the first time I experienced something so profound and simultaneously unremarkable and mundane that I could not be sure it even happened except for the fact that it changed my life entirely. the Bible I read from not the reading itself was supernatural. But it was what occurred within, that metamorphosis that restructered my soul, that replaced the spiritual deadness within with a life-giving spirit; this I will forever be convinced was a miracle.
I can’t say this was a moment of saving grace. I can’t say at that moment in that hospital room I became a believer or surrendered my life to Christ. This came later while I was stationed in Texas, after spending 3 months in Basic Training and another 3 months in schooling for my job. My surrender to Christ came later with me in a barracks room by myself with a KJV Bible in my hand, knowing full-well who Christ was from a thorough reading of the text itself (and not by way of some denominationalism or cultural or church tradition).
It was not an experience unlike any other. It was not ecstatic. I did not fall to the floor. I did not see visions of light or translucent beings floating in mid space. What appears to signify the experience’s supernatural essence has been the utter transformation in which it brought about, a transformation that has not waned over time, that I have not outgrown, that I did not get bored of or allowed the world to erode. The thirst it indwelled within me that night for God’s Word has remained as strong all these years, if not grown stronger. The full formed faith that was implanted in me at the reading of those words has never faultered. I have erred only the way, certainly. I err still today in my sin, in my selfishness, in my propensity toward hating the world and all who exist in this space and around me.
But, this experience still remains a strong influence on my life and what it is I commit my life to. If not for this supernatural experience, I’m certain it would have been possible that I could have been later saved. If not for the direction the dream gave me, as a sign post of what was to come. Before the dream I did not think of God, or thought of him as I thought of my earthly father who was more often cruel and bitter and hard. Instead, the boy in the dream showed me who God was, that he was light, the God of light, and that I could look upon him with full faith and trust that he would reach out to me and one day make me whole. I was born, not perfect and whole as my mother tried to convince me. Death was not natural, and sin was not natural. These are lies, tricks, deceptions from the adversary. Rather, I was, from the foundation of the world, intended to be born into immortality, not sin and death and with a fallen and corrupt nature.
But, God, has provided the provision by which I can be brought back, in how my sins can be not just forgiven but forgotten forever.
I pray that everything I’ve come to believe is true and that heaven is not a lie. If it is so many of us have been utterly deceived, some more than others.
At the bedside of my girlfriend in that hospital room (who, by the way, upon hearing the news of my conversion the next day was not too thrilled – I discovered first hand that there are those in the world who claim to be Christian but truly are in name alone), God intervened in the trajectory of my life. I can only assume that there was no other way to reach me other than by direct involvement on the part of my future King. No preacher would have ever convinced me. No argument would have ever swayed my mind from the faulty knowledge I had of a Karmic Worldview. I not only had convinced myself and been led astray, but I was also leading others astray as well. I often wonder how differently my life would have been if it had not bee for God’s direct intervention. Would I have gone off to college and become a professor of Asian Studies or Philosophy or Buddhist Studies? Would I have continued as a practitioner of the Martial Arts, maybe opened up my own school, maybe even open up a school and temple or retreat center? How many people did God save when he purposefully reached in and altered my life (even against my will)?
I have no earthly milestone by which to gauge that my life has been a success. To the professional church and her clergy, and to the rest of the world (as they are often one in the same), my life is quite a failure. I have no money. I have no career success. I have no spouse, no family. I have no influence. What I labor in with my hands or with my mind I do so in near perfect obscurity. Yet, I wonder why God did what he did in my life with that experience.
I wonder if what I and the world might view as a failure he views as an unavoidable consequence of success.
There is in Christianity apparently room for heretic and orthodox alike, for we each will stand before our God. To his own master the servant stands or falls, and I pray Paul was speaking of me when he said, “To his master he stands or falls. Indeed he will be made to stand for God is able to make him stand” (Ro 14:4). I hold ever so tightly to the promises made on my behalf, for if my salvation at all depends on what I do or do not do, or on any possible self-worth or merit of will, then I am doomed.
May Jesus’ perfect work on the Cross be the only think God sees when I stand before him at the Judgment.
There were actually two questions from the same person sent in this week that I wanted to answer.
What is the best way to study the Bible? Do I need a Bible Program? A particular translation? Commentary? (Cal G. in Washington State)
This is an excellent question, Cal, especially if you are a new believer or have just started taking your faith seriously. As for what you “need,” there is very little. You just need a good translation in your native language (if possible). Be sure, though, that reading and studying your Bible does not make up the greatest portion of your faith. Make just as much if not more room for prayer and solitude, and the leading fo the Holy Spirit in what you should do with your life.
As to the actual process of studying, you will want to enact a habit of reading daily. This is devotion not study. Pick any schedule that takes you through the Bible on a regular basis. Make it flexible so if you missed a day or a week you don’t feel behind. Next, the best way to approach the Bible is systematic study. It was written in a particular way, as individual books and letters. It was only later collected into what we have today. Topical studies are okay, but don’t make them your bedrock. Commit to a consistent, systematic study where you’re covering each book of the Bible. This can be as simple as you reading the text and then spending time going through commentaries, etc. Or you can opt for formal programs like they have at KI and elsewhere. I would recommend for anyone who is new in the faith or just getting serious to take 6 months to year to read through each book of the Bible at least once. Go through with three highlighters: 1. What you agree with 2. What you disagree with, and 3. What you don’t understand. After the end of each book, collect your highlights into their three groups, study these, and seek out not only answers to the highlights you don’t understand but also to the ones you don’t agree with. Find out why you don’t. Make sure you know what it’s saying.
Once you’ve done this its best to graduate to more advanced studies. I would suggest a Bible program will help you tremendously, not only speed up the time it takes to do your study but it can help you in ways you can’t even imagine. For beginner or intermediate studiers the free program The Word Bible Software is a great choice. It’s free. All the resources are free. You can build a really great library for theological study and never need anything else. If you are going to be doing more in-depth work, such as going to seminary or you are outgrowing the free materials or free programs, I would recommend Logos. I would not recommend Accordance. Logos provides some advanced search features as well as some advance retrieval features that TW5 does not have. It is not necessary, but it is definitely helpful, especially if you are doing a dissertation or are preparing sermons or teachings or a podcast or writing a blog, etc. To get a functional program with Logos you will spend about $1000. The prices are ridiculously overpriced but they are (and I repeat) they are not in any way a ministry. They are a for-profit business and operate with the same motives and ethics of any other for-profit business. Don’t think of them as Christians doing business. They are a business that caters to Christians.
Whatever format you choose (computer, print, etc), you will do best to make sure you have an exhaustive concordance (the digital software has this already), a few conservative commentaries, a few Bible dictionaries, a few Bible lexicons, and also several English translations (or whatever your native language is), and a few Greek / Hebrew translations. If you don’t know the original languages, it’s a great idea to get an Interlinear Bible (Logos has these for all the major English translations).
You don’t need to spend any money at all on a Bible Study hobby. But you can spend outrageous amounts of money if you have it to spend or get suckered in by those fleecing the flock. Most minstries in western countries are build around capitalism and are really nothing more than individuals who are teaching the Bible for a price. Beware. Most are not worth the money or the time investment. I highly recommend Dr. Chuck Missler’s teachings, but your mileage may very. It is important to do what I’ve outlined in order because your
1. Reading the Bible on your own
2. Doing systematic study
These two steps over the course of a few years with a great deal of prayer in the process will solidify your foundation in the faith and you will subsequently be able to spot counterfeits much easier when you start shopping around for teachers and mentors.
Studying the Bible was given to me by God when I was 17 and it quickly became an obsession that I’ve never grown tired of and it has rewarded me in so many ways. I wish you all the best in your own endeavors to mine the Bible for what God is trying to tell you.
Is there a particular tradition within Christianity that is more accurate than the others? Should I be part of a certain denomination? (Avery K in Ansbach, Germany
The short answer, Avery, is no. But it is also yes. There are some denominations or sects that are not really Christianity even though they claim to be (they are actually cults). Depending on how narrowly you define Christianity will dictate who you consider orthodox and who is heretical. Much if not all denominations think I’m heretical because I do not limit myself to theological orthodoxy. In reality, I have too great a curiosity and ask too many questions that have been forbidden by the denominations. In short, I tend to make pastors and teachers uncomfortable because I often will bring up questions that they do not have the answer for or the answer disrupts or disproves their second-hand theology they are peddling.
I would argue for Protestant theology but not necessarily evangelical denominationalism. This means I would reject Catholicism as a Roman Sun cult that is steeped in extra-biblical dogma and is based on a works system and a cult system (i.e. salvation is through the Church not through Christ). I would argue the same for Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as they all insist that the individual cannot interpret the Bible for themselves with the help of the Holy Spirit but are required to submit to the interpretation of those in charge of the aforementioned institution. I personally know all too well how wrong humans can be at any given point in their history or in their religion. I do not trust people. I put my trust solely in God alone.
This is not to say that there are not Christians in every denomination. Even Catholicism or any of the other cults. I define “Christian” as anyone who qualifies under Romans 10:9-13. I am convinced that Jesus is truly building his Church and has been building it for the last 2000 years, but it is not represented anywhere on earth at this time in any organized, human religion or sect or denomination. I am not convinced that the local church is the Church Jesus is building. That church is invisible to us, but visible completely to Christ.
So, I would argue that there is no particular tradition or denomination within Christianity that is more accurate than any of the others. They all have their problems in they are man-made religions claiming to be the religion of the one true God. But if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if he is your Lord and King and you have put your hope and trust in him, then you are part of the Church universal that he is building and it will be revealed in the supernatural realms at the day of his return.
Do you need to be a part of a particular denomination? Only you can decide this with much prayer and hand wringing. I spent 20+ years trying to “fit into” the local churches only to find that they did not want me. I was never comfortable or felt as if I belonged in any church or denomination. It wasn’t until I discovered the solitary lifestyle or vocation that I finally felt at home in the calling God has placed on my life. The last 10 years has been so much better than the 20 before that. I’ve grown in my faith, I’ve at peace, and I no longer feel as if I’m a fraud.
Christianity is changing as the culture in the west is transformed into a post-Christian, totalitarian, pluralistic, anti-Christian culture. Before too long, I suspect Christianity will be forced underground (where it belongs) and it will be illegal to be a Christian or to talk about Christ or to have or read a Bible. This will be the testing by fire that the church typically thrives in, and many will part with the faith to save their own skin.
Only you can answer your question, Avery. Pray about it. Maybe visit some churches. But ask yourself why you are wanting to be a part of a local church or tradition? What are your real motivations? If they don’t center on Christ then they really are more about things of the earth than the things of heaven.
The local church may not be a bad thing at all for some people. But, even if it’s not, our motives for why we want to be a part of it might just condemn up nonetheless. Make your calling and election sure. Learn about the different expressions of Christianity through the centuries. There have been all kinds. Whatever you do, do it in full faith and confidence in your conviction. Because whatever is done apart from faith is a sin.
Until the next time we are together….be well.
Please consider supporting this blog by purchasing one of my books on Amazon or from my website at isaachunterthewriter.com. Let me read you an excerpt from one of my novels.
Excerpt from Our Daughter:
“Okay, mom,” Randy said.
“You behave yourself and be nice. You’re lucky to have company while you wait for the doctors.”
The woman turned and started back the way she came.
“The nurse said it would be twenty or thirty more minutes, so we’ll eat quick and be back up here before they take you in, okay?”
“Sorry for him,” the woman said to Katie as she walked by.
As the woman left, Katie noticed the boy moving around again on the bed. Before she realized what was happening, the tiny lump disappeared and she could hear the faint sound of bare hands and feet on the tile floor.
He was low crawling under the beds toward her.
A moment later, Randy popped his head out from under the nearest hospital bed, craning his neck around to look up at her.
“Hello, there,” Katie said.
Randy disappeared back under the bed, the bed sheet draping down almost to the floor. Katie could still see three little fingers pressed to the tile.
“What are you here for?” Katie asked, readjusting her seat in the chair, trying to get the ache in her chest to lessen.
For whatever reason, the wheelchair was really uncomfortable.
“Why are – “
Randy’s voice trailed off for a moment as he looked around.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m getting my leg fixed,” Katie said. “See?”
Randy poked his head back out from under the bed and looked at the leg she was pointing to.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The doctor said it’s broken,” Katie said. “Shattered.”
“Can you feel it?” Randy asked, able to stay out from his hiding place.
“I can feel it, but it’s not too bad,” Katie said, then tapped the IV in her arm. “This thing is giving me medicine of some kind for the pain. At least that’s what the nurses said.”
“Why are you – ”
Randy stopped mid-sentence.
He scooted out from under the bed entirely and slowly crept over to er on all fours.
“What are you, some kind of spider?” Katie asked, giggling a little.
“What are you?” Randy echoed.
He was now only about a foot away from her chair and sat there, his legs folded up under him, gawking up at her.
“What are you staring at me for?”
“I’ve never – ”
Randy put out a hesitant hand and ever so gently touched her arm.
“Are you some kind of ghost?”
He looked around again.
“Are you – ”
He leaned in, talking in a whisper.
“Are you dead?”
A nurse came around the corner and stopped abruptly, spotting the empty bed in the far corner where Randy should have been.
“Randy Andrews,” the nurse said, her hands now on her hips. “You get right back into the bed and you stop playing around, please. They are ready for you in surgery.”
Katie watched as Randy scrambled on all fours under the beds and back up onto his, pulling the sheet back over top of himself again.
She started to ask him about his question, but couldn’t get the words out before his parents appeared at the door.
Katie sat there quietly, watching Randy stare back at her from under his sheet. She glanced over at his parents and the nurse, noticed Randy’s dad had no hair on the top of his head.
Are you dead?
What kind of question was that?
The snap of the wheel locks being disengaged on Randy’s hospital bed jarred Katie out of the confusion she was in.
The doctor she’d first seen was now at the door, waiting for Randy.
He was his surgeon.
They wheeled Randy out of the room, his parents following right behind, disappearing to the left, heading for his operating room.
The pre-op room was empty again.
Are you dead?
What kind of crazy question was that?
The nurse came back through the double doors.
“It won’t be long now,” she said.
Katie tried not to think about the dull ache growing just behind her sternum.
The nurse disappeared around the corner as Katie watched the double doors to the operating rooms slowly shut.
Buy my book Our Daughter and begin the adventure of a lifetime, as you uncover the mysteries behind Katie Cadora’s new life after the horrible accident that stole her mother away from her. Will she find sure footing again? Will the pain ever stop? Will she discover the secrets her new foster family are keeping from her? Is the boy’s question right? Is Katie Cadora actually dead?
Click here and grab your copy today and jump into this Witch Gnostic Heresy trilogy with both feet!
But, trust me when I tell you, there are deceivers in our midsts! Get started in this bone chilling suspense novel right away and find out why….sometimes….you’re just better off DEAD!