On Discerning the Meaning of Spiritual Experience

RadianceA reader of my blog writes:

How do you know if a certain spiritual experience is God-inspired, ego-driven, or tricks of the devil. How do you discern the meaning of such an experience? Can you give me some clues?

This is the kind of thing that a number of mystics struggled with — including some of the greatest spiritual teachers of the Christian tradition, luminaries like St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Teresa of Ávila.

Just because I have some sort of extraordinary experience of God (or of an angel, or a saint, or whatever) does not necessarily mean that such an experience comes from God — or from heaven. As my reader points out, it could be simply an illusion of my own ego, an attempt to make myself feel special or important by psychologically “manufacturing” a mystical experience. And once we acknowledge that we can be fooled by our own egos, that raises the even more terrifying question: what if my “special experience” actually comes from a spiritual source — but from a source that is hostile to God (and, therefore, hostile to me)?

This problem is one reason why many spiritual guides, both past and present (and not just in the Christian tradition) actually recommend that we disregard spiritual experience. In other words, when we have some sort of powerful emotional or psychological experience of God or heaven or the angels or whatever, the safest response is to simply not place much importance on the experience.

Here’s the logic: If we focus our lives on trying to serve God and striving to (with God’s grace) become holy, then mystical experiences become far less important to our spiritual well-being. In fact, St. John of the Cross felt that extraordinary experiences, generally speaking, just get in the way.

One of the Desert fathers counseled ignoring any kind of mystical vision or experience. To his way of thinking: if it’s a genuine message from God, God will keep trying to reach us, and sooner or later we will discern just whatever it is that God is trying to tell us. But if it’s not from God — regardless of whether it comes from our ego or from a less friendly source — then ignoring it as always the safest route to take.

In other words, God will not be angry at us if we ignore an extraordinary experience, because of course God would want us to ignore any experience that is not from God.

If Ignoring It Won’t Work…

But if something truly remarkable has happened to you and you feel like you simply cannot ignore it, then what should you do?

The next step to take is to try to prayerfully discern the source of your experience. The Christian mystical tradition very clearly insists that we need help in order to properly do this kind of discernment. Face it: the human ego loves to feel “special” or “important.” So it’s almost impossible to discern the true meaning of a spiritual experience relying solely on the wits of just our own minds. We need the objective counsel of somebody other than ourselves.

The first step, then, would be to confide in someone you consider to be a spiritual mentor or guide. Be discreet: History shows that the greatest of saints and mystics are usually very circumspect in terms of who they recount their extraordinary experiences to. Carefully seek out someone you can trust, and who is clearly a person of spiritual maturity and personal holiness. They do not need to be a priest or monk or nun, but they probably do need to be someone whose faith is important to them (If you share your extraordinary experience with someone who isn’t a person of faith, chances are they will either make light of your experience, or try to explain it away just as some sort of psychological process. But in addition to your guide being a person of faith, he or she should be someone whom you trust to be balanced, fair, and objective.

When we ask someone else for their perspective — someone older and wiser than ourselves (this part is important) — they are far more likely to be balanced and careful as they seek to evaluate what we’re experiencing.

Our discernment partner will probably want to know more than just the details of the experience. They’ll also want to know how the experience has impacted your overall spiritual life. These are the kinds of questions your spiritual friend will ask you:

  • How has this experience shaped the way you feel — about God, and about yourself, and about others?
  • What kind of mission or vocation do you feel like you are being called to, especially as a result of this experience?
  • How is this experience changing or shaping the concrete, practical ways you express love and service for others — especially the poor, the sick, the elderly, the imprisoned, and refugees?
  • Does this experience leave you feeling a greater desire to repent of your sin, and to cultivate more virtue in your life? Practically speaking, how is that playing out in your life?
  • How does the content of your experience compare with mainstream Christian understanding of God, theology, faith or spirituality? Is your “message” from God consistent with Christ’s teaching?

It can feel really vulnerable answering these questions honestly and candidly with someone we consider a spiritual guide or mentor. And yet, even as we seek to be as honest as possible with another person, often that will go a long way to helping us discern just how much ego or self-delusion is present in our “experience.”

For what it’s worth, I personally believe that the vast majority of spiritual experiences are usually projections of our own ego. To me, that doesn’t mean such experiences or evil or bad. But they are ultimately distractions. If we get caught up in having experiences, the experience can end up being more important to us than God is.

At that point, our experience has become an idol.

Just one more reason why I think, generally speaking, the safest approach to mystical or spiritual experiences is simply not to take them too seriously. If we can learn something about God, and maybe feel a sense of God’s love and care in our lives, that’s a beautiful thing. But the minute we start thinking we’ve received some sort of special vocation or calling from God, chances are we are just reinforcing our own ego-driven need to feel important. Which,  ultimately, is a spiritual dead-end.

I hope this is helpful, even if it seems a bit harsh. If it does seem harsh, here’s why: We live in a culture that is very experience-centric. Many people say that having an experience of God is more important than just accepting the teachings of other people. That seems wise when based on the biases of our culture. But why should I assume that my experience will automatically make me wiser or holier than great saints and mystics who have gone before us? That seems rather arrogant.

Perhaps if I tempered my hunger for a direct experience of God with just a dash of humility — acknowledging that I actually can learn a lot from the experience of others, especially saints and mystics, who have gone before me — then I might find that what really matters to me is not the experience of God but rather, simply God. An experience of God, if it’s truly from God, can be a marvelous gift in our lives. But I’d rather have a relationship with the giver than be too distracted by the gift.


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