Responding Wisely to Big Spiritual Experiences, by Peter David Gross

 

Introduction

Camp is a normal place to have big spiritual experiences. You’re out of your comfort zone, meeting new people, and more open to God than usual. But those big experiences are often confusing. And, if we don’t respond wisely, they can end up fruitless: just emotional, spiritual fizzles. Here, I want to help clear up some confusions, and offer some ideas for what to do when you or the people you love have a big spiritual experience.

Before I begin, remember that Wheatstone isn’t affiliated with a single church or denomination. And, because we believe it’s super-important for Christians to grow inside their church communities, we don’t intend to replace your church’s teachings or practices. What follows is general advice, but most churches have lots more resources available on these topics for people who request them. For more specific help in your tradition, go to your church leaders and get their help too.

Here are nineteen tips to help you respond wisely to big spiritual experiences.

 

 

Section one - General Principles

1. Spiritual experiences aren’t more or less real than everyday faithfulness is.

Just like big emotional or intellectual experiences (falling in love, changing a long-held belief), big spiritual experiences are part of real life. They’re uncommon and immersive, but they’re also completely connected to normal daily living.

It’s easy to think that your spiritual experience was fake if it was uncomfortable or demanding. You can end up irrationally minimizing or ignoring it. On the other hand, it can be tempting to think that normal life is somehow less real or important if your spiritual experience was intoxicating. You end up neglecting everyday faithfulness while you chase after another big experience.

Both are mistakes. Instead, when the experience passes, it’s important to hold onto the experience as an important part of your story, then turn right back to the demands of day-to-day life: praying, giving, following Jesus.

2. Spiritual experiences aren’t more or less desirable than everyday faithfulness is.

Life is so full of grace waiting for us to notice and enjoy that it just isn’t worth it to chase or avoid big experiences. Better by far to learn how to receive what God gives, day by day, with joy. In heights and valleys, God remains faithful and generous.

Are you having huge spiritual experiences? That is God’s generosity to you. Are you learning the steady, quiet peace of life with God? That is God’s generosity to you. Do not envy the gifts given your neighbors. Discover the liberation that comes from gratitude.

God is never ungenerous. Seek to desire what he gives, even when you didn’t expect him to give it.

3. The practices we need for everyday faithfulness — prayer, study, fasting, generosity, the imitation of Jesus — are the same practices we need for big spiritual experiences.

Sometimes spiritual experiences —encounters with angels or demons, revelatory visions or dreams, a sudden awareness of the depth of your sin or of the glory that God has prepared for you, access to Jesus’ suffering and death, etc.— are so out of the ordinary that we feel ill-equipped to face them. Surely there must be an additional super-spiritual skill that you need in order to respond to them! Surely the people who know what to do with these experiences have some secret knowledge!

Nope. This is good news: you already have everything you need to face every spiritual experience. There aren’t big secrets that you’ve been left out of. There are simply the old, powerful practices of God. You have prayer, Scripture, all God’s people, and the Almighty Trinity. What more could you possibly need?

When you aren’t having big spiritual experiences, you should pray, study, give to the poor, and follow the way of Jesus. When you are having them, you should pray, study, give to the poor, and follow the way of Jesus. Don’t listen to anyone who says you don’t have what you need. Simply turn to the God who is sufficient for you and keep walking on.

 

 

QUOTE

You already have everything you need to face every spiritual experience. There aren’t big secrets that you’ve been left out of. There are simply the old, powerful practices of God. You have prayer, Scripture, all God’s people, and the Almighty Trinity. What more could you possibly need?

 

 

section two - Making Good Judgment Calls

4. Having spiritual experiences is normal. Insanity is rare.

You probably aren’t crazy. Not many people are. If you had a big spiritual experience, the most sensible thing to do is exactly what you usually do: trust your perception and wait for an explanation. Something happened to you. Don’t dismiss it, ignore it, or deny it.

Remember: our culture’s rejection of spiritual experiences is really weird. Almost every culture on earth from the beginning of humanity until now has treated spiritual experience as a normal thing. Our culture is anomalous. When you trust your perceptions and look for a good, spiritual explanation, you’re joining the biggest community. You’re normal.

In all likelihood, almost everyone you know has had some sort of spiritual experience too. We just don’t talk about them, and we try to forget them. Isn’t that silly of us?

5. Not having spiritual experiences is normal.

When it seems like everyone is having spiritual experiences except you, it doesn’t mean you’re broken, inferior, or rejected. It just means that this experience wasn’t for you right now.

Sometimes it’s very important to have someone nearby who isn’t in the middle of the experience, so they can pray faithfully, watch carefully, and lend a hand. Your clear-headedness was probably exactly what God intended.

Besides, some people are just less sensitive to spiritual experiences, in the same way that some people are less sensitive to intellectual or emotional experiences. Even if you never had a big spiritual experience, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that you were broken or disconnected from God. It might just mean that you have different strengths to use for the kingdom of God. Big spiritual experiences aren’t necessary for a life of faithful discipleship.

6. Confusion about spiritual experiences is normal.

Especially when you haven’t had many of them, big spiritual experiences can be confusing. How much of what you experienced came from you? From God? From someone else? What was it for? What does it mean? If you don’t know the answer to those questions, the important things to do are 1) be patient, and 2) be faithful.

You should be patient, because most spiritual experiences are part of something bigger than themselves. In the Bible, many spiritual experiences required an interpreter, or weren’t clear until much later. Lots of Old Testament prophesy, for example, makes very little sense until you see it fulfilled in Jesus, hundreds of years later. In the same way, your spiritual experience is probably just one part of a bigger story that God has for you. If you don’t understand it yet, simply wait on God and ask for advice from other God-fearing friends who take spiritual experiences seriously. Don’t forget or ignore it. Just trust that God will help you understand your experience in his perfect timing.

Being faithful means doing your best to obey God, even when you aren’t 100% sure what he wants. God knows that we make mistakes, so the goal isn’t to be perfect. It’s to be obedient. If you think that God is asking something of you, but you aren’t sure if it’s him, the best thing to do is pray, “God, I want to obey you. I think you’re telling me to do this. If I’m wrong, please prevent me or help me clean up any messes I make. I trust you.” Then do it. Making a mistake is better than being disobedient. Strive for faithfulness, even in your uncertainty.

7. Spiritual experiences are not in conflict with physical and psychological states.

Most of what we experience involves our body, heart, mind, and spirit all working together. When you’ve had a big spiritual experience, you’ve also had a physical experience, an emotional experience, and an intellectual experience. Your experience wasn’t either emotional or spiritual. They aren’t in conflict; they go together. If your spiritual experience was extremely emotional or intellectual, that doesn’t prove it wasn’t spiritual. It probably just means that your heart, mind, and spirit were working together.

This also means that experiences of spiritual healing still might require other kinds of healing. Having a big spiritual experience doesn’t replace therapy, exercise, and study. Don’t use it as an excuse for neglecting those things. For example, if you’ve been demonized and you’re finally set free, you will probably still have emotional, intellectual, and physical wounds that need to be treated. Devils like to take advantage of preexisting physical and psychological illness, so getting rid of the devil isn’t the same as healing those illnesses. It just means that now you can work on healing them without the fear of interference.

8. Good spiritual experiences could come from God, the image of God in you, and God’s people.

If you’re trying to figure out where your spiritual experience came from, it might help to narrow the options. Good spiritual experiences are gifts, and in a sense they always come from God. But when you know how God gave it to you, your joy can increase. Sometimes God uses his servants or his image in you as the direct cause of his gifts. Just because your good spiritual experience came from his grace already in you (for example, as a result of study, patience, or spiritual discipline) doesn’t disqualify it as a genuine spiritual experience. It just means that God used you to give it to you.

Note that “good spiritual experiences” are not the same as “pleasant spiritual experiences.” Sometimes good spiritual experiences are scary, painful, and very hard.

9. Bad spiritual experiences could come from the world, your flesh, and devils.

Bad spiritual experiences, in contrast, don’t always come from the devil, who isn’t as powerful as he’d like to think he is. Sometimes they just come from the human brokenness that you carry around, or from our imperfect culture. Sometimes they certainly do come from devils. But just because you’ve had a bad spiritual experience doesn’t mean that you are or aren’t being demonized.

The first thing to do is simple: pray to, trust, and obey God. Whether your bad spiritual experience is coming from your subconscious, your culture, or the devil, the best response stays the same. After that, if you can figure out which source your experience is coming from, you can seek the kind of healing that’s appropriate to it: therapy, sleep, spiritual warfare, study, or some combination of these.

Note that “bad spiritual experiences” are not the same as “painful spiritual experiences.” Sometimes bad spiritual experiences are very pleasurable.

10. Don’t rush to an inflexible interpretation of spiritual experiences.

In all likelihood, you’re going to need to change your interpretation of your spiritual experience once or twice. That’s normal, because spiritual experiences tend to be a little confusing, especially at first. Don’t mistake the emotion of confidence with the voice of God, and don’t mistake the emotion of confusion with his absence. Make your best guess with the information you have, and keep your eyes and hands open so that God can keep teaching you the truth about your experience.

 

 

QUOTE

God knows that we make mistakes, so the goal isn’t to be perfect. It’s to be obedient.

 

 

Section Three - Staying Humble

11. Having a spiritual experience doesn’t mean you’re spiritually superior.

Big spiritual experiences say nothing about your worthiness, and everything about God’s generosity. None of us are worthy of God’s big gifts, yet he gives them. But not only are big spiritual experiences separate from worthiness, you can even have big, powerful spiritual experiences while falling away from God. Remember Matthew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Never allow pride in your experiences to substitute for discipleship after Jesus. If other people can become false prophets and “workers of lawlessness” who Jesus “never knew,” then so can you. Don’t seek these experiences; seek Jesus and live.

12. Lacking a spiritual experience doesn’t mean you’re spiritually inferior.

If you are resting in the love of God, loving him, and loving your neighbor, you’re just fine. If you believe in his Son and make him your hope, you’re just fine. You don’t need to add anything fancy. Plus, you can trust that someday you will experience God with all the fulness of experience there is. If you follow the Trinity, it’s impossible for you to miss out.

Remember 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Don’t fret for yourself or envy a neighbor who’s having more overt spiritual experiences than you. God’s got you.

13. Spiritual experiences don’t happen on a schedule. You aren’t in control.

It’s unwise to demand spiritual experiences on your timeline and in your way. God is free to give the gifts he wants when he wants to, and he knows how to give you the best gifts. Trust his timing and his generosity. In fact, if you (or your summer camp) are able to predict a big spiritual experience, that’s a reason to suspect that you’re just manufacturing it instead of receiving it from God. God tends to surprise us. Let him surprise you by laying anxiety aside and resting in his timing. Release control.

 

 

QUOTE

Big spiritual experiences say nothing about your worthiness, and everything about God’s generosity. None of us are worthy of God’s big gifts, yet he gives them.

 

 

Section Four - Practical advice

14. Fear not.

It’s ok to feel scared after a big spiritual experience, but Christians are called out from under fear’s authority. It should not rule us. Instead, if you feel afraid, acknowledge your feeling, consider it, then put it in its place by reminding yourself of God’s power and faithfulness.

Remember Romans 8:31-39:

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And remember 1 John 3:18-20:

Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him;for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.

And turn to the comforting words of Christians who came before you, like this part of St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

You need fear no evil.

15. Trust and obey.

If God’s asking you to do something or become something, don’t drag your feet.

On the other hand, don’t act like it’s all on you to succeed. If God has called you to something, he will empower you to complete it. You must rely on him.

Ask: “What is the next step I could take right now?”
Set reminders on your phone or calendar.
Put physical reminders in places that you’ll need to see them.
Tell someone else about your call to obedience.
Ask for help.
Look for good role models and mentors.

16. Don’t isolate.

God calls us into a family, a nation, a priesthood, a community. The devil, by contrast, seeks to get us isolated and vulnerable.

The fact is, in Christ you are never alone, so don’t act like you’re alone, even when you feel lonely. Seek mentors, peers, and people who you can help. Remember the great cloud of witnesses. Live in the light.

17. Study up.

Right after a big spiritual experience is a great time to re-read some of the stories of God’s miraculous work. Dig into scripture to see whether you understand old stories in a new light. Find biblical examples of people who experienced something like you did, and thank God for putting you in their company.

Finally, ask your denominational leaders for their recommended resources about a spiritual experience like the one you had. There’s probably a lot of wisdom in your tradition.

18. Give thanks.

Gratitude means glorifying the gift you received and the person who gave it to you. It means making sure that their gift ripples out into the world around you with beauty and honor. What could you do or make to extend the beauty of the gift God gave you?

Could you write a poem? Compose a song? Make a drawing? Serve the poor? Read a book? Dance? Do it for the Lord! For he has done great things for you.

19. Pray.

This is the last and most important point. Forget everything else if you want to, but don’t forget to pray. Does it seem boring to pray? Pray about that. Does it seem scary to pray? Pray about that. Does it seem hard to pray? Pray about that. Pray, pray, pray.

Don’t do this instead of praying, but if you’d like help thinking about prayer, I recommend this audiobook of How to Pray, by R.A. Torrey.

Still having trouble? Find a prayer by another one of God’s people, and join them in it, like this from 1 Samuel 2:1-10:

“My heart exults in the Lord;
    my horn is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth derides my enemies,
    because I rejoice in your salvation.

“There is none holy like the Lord:
    for there is none besides you;
    there is no rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
    let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
    and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble bind on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
    but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low and he exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's,
    and on them he has set the world.

“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
    for not by might shall a man prevail.
The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces;
    against them he will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king
    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

Or this, from Jonah 2:1-9:

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

God is ready to welcome you! Go boldly to the throne of grace, and snuggle up to him.

 

 

QUOTE

You need fear no evil.

 

 

Conclusion

Big spiritual experiences are great gifts, but they aren’t as big a deal as we tend to think they are. When they’re done, we’re left where we were before: waiting for Jesus and following his example. Let them fire your hope, like a particularly beautiful sunset or a really rich film, and keep walking into life to which you’re called. God is your help, friend, so you’ll be better than fine.