The Value and Limits of Spiritual Experience (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 33)

NOTE: This is part 33 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

As I said earlier, testimony is vital to growing and strengthening our faith. But it’s not just others’ testimonies that matter; it’s ours too. It’s common today to think of “faith,” “spirituality” or even “truth” as detached from the physical, historical world; as though spiritual things are fundamentally separated from material reality as we know it.

But the Bible insists that this is not so—and that in fact, to draw up a map of the Christian faith as something detached from the world we live in is to discredit it completely. For Paul (always a good mapmaker), this is because the foundation of Christianity is a historical event: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the resurrection did not happen, he insists, we should all pack it up and go home.

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without foundation, and so is your faith. In addition, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified about God that He raised up Christ—whom He did not raise up if in fact the dead are not raised. (1 Corinthians 15:13–15)

But the resurrection is not the end of the story. There is a road from the resurrection to our present day, a road along which every other aspect of “the faith,” and of our personal experience of it, falls into place. Dallas Willard says that for those who are willing to honestly consider it, the possibility of resurrection means that

A reasonable next step would be openness to God’s intervention in other contexts and, especially, in the events of their own lives today. Thus they could come to know the reality of a “spiritual life” for ordinary human beings. (Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge)

In other words, the historical fact of the resurrection provides solid ground for our personal, subjective experiences in the faith.

I think it’s important for us to really grasp this and recognize it, for two reasons: first because it gives us something external to ourselves that we can anchor to, which will help us avoid disillusionment when we get a smaller piece wrong; but also because it gives us reasonable grounds on which to accept spiritual experience as real.

All too often our experience of faith is not grounded in much that is external to us, and it becomes very easy (and even reasonable) to doubt what we are experiencing in a subjective and internal way. If we mistake our subjective and internal experiences for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) we make ourselves unnecessarily vulnerable to doubt. But at the exact same time, it is the external facts of Christianity that give validity to our internal experiences.

Christianity at its best has always had a spiritual or “mystical” dimension, and it is the historical events of creation and resurrection that give that dimension its reasonable foundation.

This matters very much to the whole issue of doubt. Some of us are doubting because despite our experiences with God, things are going sideways and causing us to question it all, including our experiences. If we’re self-aware, we know that we are prone to confirmation bias and misinterpretation and yes, good old-fashioned flakiness.

But others of us doubt because we have never experienced God at all, at least not in any way that we are aware of. I have experienced God a lot, but before I ever did, there was a long period when I did not. Before God spoke directly to my heart, he didn’t. Before I ever had an out-of-the-box experience, all of my experiences were inside the box.

In other words, just because you don’t feel that you’ve ever experienced God doesn’t mean you never will; and when we understand this whole saga of creation, resurrection, ascension, enthronement, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as the real-world basis for inner spiritual encounter and experience with God, we can open ourselves up for that kind of experience without fearing that we’re losing our minds, becoming flakes, or straying into “New Age” territory.

Because of Jesus, it’s reasonable to expect things to really happen that we can’t explain in purely this-world terms. It’s reasonable to expect heaven to invade earth in our own experience, because after all, it has already done so in the wider world outside of us.

For John the Baptist to doubt Jesus’s Messianic identity, he had to doubt a lot of things he had personally experienced. He had to doubt the vision of the dove descending, and the voice from heaven, and the inner voice of the Spirit that had previously explained to him what the sign of the dove would mean. He had to doubt the prophecies about his own life and the identity and calling he believed himself to possess and into which he had poured his whole life to that point. He had to doubt the whole schematic of his life and mission.

In John’s case all of his experiences turned out to be valid; he was right about all of it. But if John could experience God so vitally before the resurrection and before Jesus was enthroned in heaven; if he could know God so personally before the Holy Spirit was poured out with the promise that he would indwell, empower, teach, and fellowship with us, then we certainly have good reasons to expect to experience God as well.

In Matthew 11, after Jesus had finished rebuking those who stubbornly clung to unbelief despite many reasons to believe, he spoke first to the Father and then to the crowd:

I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, because this was Your good pleasure. All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him. Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:25–30)

Jesus’s purpose in coming to earth was to reveal the Father to anyone who would choose to come to him. If we come to Jesus, we should expect to encounter God in personal and transformative ways.

The Limits of Experience

At the same time, it’s good and healthy to recognize the limits of our experience, precisely because we are human and subject to confirmation bias, misinterpretation, peer pressure, and just sometimes getting things wrong. I believe the Holy Spirit does speak to individuals and intervene in their lives. I believe he heals, does miracles, gives prophecies, answers prayer, reveals visions and dreams, and all the rest of it.

I have personally experienced many of these things. But I also know that my own experiences of these things come through my personal filters, and therefore they are subject to interpretation (and reinterpretation), and in particular they are open to doubt.

The good news is, these experiences with God are not the foundation of my faith, even though they may be my entry point to it and central to my living it out. In my case this is very true. Although I grew up in a solid and faithful Christian home with exemplary Bible teaching and a good sense of apologetics, I did not really own my faith until I had a direct encounter with the presence of God at age thirteen or fourteen that changed my life. I knew the Bible prior to that but did not really believe it until I had “tasted and seen” God for myself. Even so, my memory of that moment is over twenty years old as I write this, and while it still strengthens me, it’s not a sufficient anchor for my life. The whole foundation of the faith, built mostly on the resurrection, is.

Because it happened in the real, historical world, and because it happened outside of my spirit, my mind, or my experience, the resurrection grounds my faith in a way that no subjective experience ever could. In very simple terms, if I believe I’ve heard God say “turn left,” and months or years later I decide that wasn’t God speaking at all, or that I was mistaken in the way I heard the instruction, that does not have to shake my faith as a whole.

Because my faith is grounded in the historical event of the resurrection, which does not change, I have freedom to stumble occasionally along the road opened up by that event.

In a way, this may be why John felt the inner freedom to ask the question he did. Notice that he still expected the Scriptures to be fulfilled, even if he had been wrong about Jesus: “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” John knew the prophetic Scriptures and believed them to be true, and because he had that foundation, he was able to question his own interpretations and experiences without completely losing faith in God.

To be continued …


This is Part 191 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash




2 responses to “The Value and Limits of Spiritual Experience (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 33)”

  1. […] Part 191: The Value and Limits of Spiritual Experience (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 33) (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

  2. Bill. Tuck Jr Avatar

    Your so right. We need the Word of God then comes the experience which is up to us to interpret? But the Word of God is a solid foundation. It’s such a Pleasure to read your teachings. I have to wait on The Lord for the Mind of Christ to really understand them!! Such a Pleasure!

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