Ministry Training Paper: Christian Experience
Adapted from the School of Christian Ministry.
1st August 2010
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Directly there came into my hands a strange feeling, and it came on down to the middle of my arms and began to surge! It was like a thousand – like ten thousand – then a million volts of electricity. It began to shake my hands and to pull my hands. I could hear, as it were, a zooming sound of the power. It pulled my hands higher and held them there as though God took them in His. There came a voice in my soul that said, “Lay these hands on the sick and I will heal them! … but I didn’t have the baptism… In an air-conditioned room with my hands lifted… and my heart reaching up for my God, there came the hot molten lava of His love. It poured in like a stream from Heaven and I was lifted up out of myself. I spoke in a language I could not understand for about two hours. My body perspired as though I was in a steam bath. The baptism of fire!”(1)
What do we do with experiences like this?
What do we understand about them?
What if they were our experiences?
What do we say to those who testify that it is their experience?
Experiences are as complex as humans
To understand our experiences is a field of psychology and sociology and all the humanities.
But Christian experience has the added element of the supernatural, which is beyond the humanities understanding or their willingness to consider.
It is our Bible reading that enables Christians to understand something of our experiences including the supernatural ones for which the humanities have no explanation except scepticism.
There is a great interplay between our experiences and our understanding
People confuse their experience with their understanding or misunderstanding of that experience.
It is hard to understand things we have never experienced.
It is hard not to use our experiences to gain understanding.
Usually we describe our experiences in the language of our understanding.
We should not read the Bible through our experiences, or our understanding of our experiences. Instead we should understand our experiences through reading the Bible.
The Bible is the lens, the glasses, through which we view the world of our experiences, rather than our experiences becoming the glasses though which we read the Bible. The Bible brings all things into focus and understanding.
I should not try to find my experiences in the Bible, for then I will tend to bend the Bible to fit my experiences, or worse, to fit my understanding of my experiences.
Instead, I should read the Bible first, as independently of my experiences as possible, and then seek to understand my experiences.
How do we understand the kind of experiences that we read about?
What is this Baptism of fire that is being spoken of in the initial quote?
Is it what the Bible means by Baptism of the Spirit?
Is it being born again or is it something different and subsequent to regeneration?
Is it a demonic counterfeit? How would you know?
Is it purely psychological – some kind of mental phenomenon?
If it is not Baptism in the Spirit or a second blessing – what do we make of the thousands of people who profess having had similar experiences?
What do we make of such experiences?
a. The Bible is quite clear that Christianity is an experiential religion
Spirituality, or being Christian, in the Bible is never a matter of theory or speculation but a matter of living out the truth.
The one who hears the truth of God’s word but fails to practice it in his daily experience of life is like a foolish man who can’t remember what he looks like after a peek in the mirror (James 1:22-27).
The New Testament is shot through with the idea that the death of Jesus and all that God has done for us should be at the very heart of our existence, shaping all that we do and think, and by implication, feel. For example, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17 and Philippians 2:1-18 are two passages that speak of the death of Jesus and how it changes the way we experience life.
b. The Bible is very quiet on any details of subjective experiences
There are very few explanations of remarkable spiritual experiences and those that are included seem to miss out the kind of juicy particulars that people are often most interested in.
The experience of conversion, for instance, is most usually described not in terms of what it felt like but in terms of what happened to those involved (eg 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
c. There are, however, some points we can make about the kind of experience that is ecstatic, remarkable, visionary or other worldly
i) It is ok to have such experiences
This type of experience is never condemned in the Bible.
Many of the great ones in the Bible had remarkable experiences
(eg Moses and the burning bush,
the apostles on the day of Pentecost,
Saul on the road to Damascus, or
Paul’s visionary experience in 2 Corinthians 12)
ii) These remarkable experiences are not normal
Otherwise they would not be remarkable!
They are never held out to us as normal for all Christians.
There are no commands that we must experience them.
We are not encouraged anywhere to look for these experiences or expect them.
There is great danger, especially to Christian fellowship, to ‘normalise’ our own personal experiences – implying or worse requiring others to experience what we have experienced.
The experiences of God’s people vary enormously in the same way that God’s people vary enormously. For some people introspective subjective experiences are a rich part of their life. For others they play almost no part. There are highly emotional people and others for whom emotions are a very small part of their consciousness.
Our standing with God is neither improved by having them nor diminished by not having them.
iii) Our Identity (or worse our superiority) is not found in our experiences
Paul is very coy about the man caught up to the third heaven. (2 Corinthians 12:1f)
He talks about a man, not himself.
He mentions the experiences but goes into no detail about them.
He boasts in his experience of weakness not his visions or revelations.
He refrains from boasting about it “so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me and hears from me.” (2 Corinthians 12:6)
We are warned against spiritual superiority in visionary experiences. (Colossians 2:16-19)
iv) Spiritual gifts or subjective experiences are no guide to godliness
The Corinthian church were the Christian spiritual experience front-runners, but were immature Christians that could only be talked to as “people of the flesh” and “infants in Christ”. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)
So then how do we regard the experiences that we have?
a. There is no need to deny they occurred or that they are real.
b. We must be very careful to be Biblical when we seek to understand, identify and explain such experiences.
c. It is very dangerous to use Biblical language to describe experiences unless we are absolutely sure that we are experiencing exactly what the Bible is talking about. Being imprecise in our use of Biblical language may mislead us into imagining that our experiences are the same as those taught in the Bible.
d. It is important to know what experiences the Scriptures tell us to expect or promise to come to us. This requires a careful study of such terms as ‘baptism in the Spirit’, ‘born again by the Spirit’, ‘filled by the Spirit’, ‘fullness of the Spirit’, ‘led by the Spirit’ etc.
e. But we must not limit our experiences of God to only those referring to the Spirit. We must also understand what to expect when we pray or read the Bible, or choose to live God’s way rather than our own, or have our mind renewed, or join in singing Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
f. One of the experiences of life that we are most clearly promised in the New Testament is persecution and suffering. We are to expect these experiences (2 Timothy 3:12).
g. Not all experiences will be necessarily felt. One experience that is promised in the Bible is that of forgiveness. The promise is to be forgiven not to feel forgiven (though that may accompany the reality). It is about standing before God forgiven by the blood of Jesus.
h. It is important to know what experiences mean for our life in Christ. The Spirit’s work will always lead us to
acknowledge Christ as Lord,
call upon God as our Father and
put to death the misdeeds of our body
as we put on the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus.
i. Some less spectacular experiences are much more important. So experiencing the fruit of the Spirit is considerably more important than experiencing the gifts of the Spirit. Indeed without the fruit (eg love) the gifts are less than useless (1 Corinthians 13).
What then do we make of the kind of second climactic “Baptism”
Errol Hulse, in his book Crisis Experiences, suggests several ways in which we can interpret the climactic ‘baptism’ experience. Some of them are paraphrased below:
a. In some instances, the crisis experience is conversion. It is possible for someone to be urged to make a commitment to Jesus, to sign on the dotted line, before he has really understood the Gospel. At some later point, when these great truths slot home a great awakening occurs.
b. In some instances the crisis experience is a leap forward in holy living. Especially for believers who are poorly taught, going to a conference or convention where they are greatly moved and discover great truths can be a dynamic, empowering experience. They discover new power to battle sin in their lives; their desire for holiness increases.
c. In some instances, the crisis experience is unhappily no more than feelings and emotions. There are some who go forward weeping at every altar call and yet whose lives never display the Lordship of Jesus.
d. Some crisis experiences represent recovery from backsliding. David’s great ‘return’ to God in Psalm 51 could be described as a great crisis or blessing in his life.
e. The crisis of discovery. Many Christians testify that their greatest post-conversion experience was the discovery of the doctrine of God’s sovereign free grace; that it led to great liberation and joy. A great discovery of some aspect of God’s character or plan can be a tremendous emotional experience.
f .The crisis of empowerment. A person may have a great experience of God as he is empowered to do a particular task.
This is a brief summary and Hulse lists others.
It’s worth pointing out that uplifting, encouraging experiences have a potential to encourage and help others. As we share the joy and enthusiasm we are experiencing at a particular time it may enthuse others as well.
However, in sharing our experiences there is also a potential for division and trouble. As we go into great detail about our latest spiritual experience we consciously or unconsciously bring our brother into judgement. We make him feel guilty for being so spiritually second-rate and we feel superior for being so in touch with the spiritual reality.
Worse still, when we try to attach our Holy Spirit crisis experience to the Scriptures, giving it a Biblical name and prescribing it for all Christians we cause needless strife, jealousy, division and harm to the church, which is God’s temple.
(1) This quote comes from John Osteen “Pentecost is not a Denomination: It is an Experience” cited in F.D.Brunner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit p127. John Osteen was the father of Joel Osteen. He was a Southern Baptist pastor who became a charismatic in the late 1950’s.