Beyond Cynicism 3

Andrew Byers, in his very fine new book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint, claims “cyncism is a sickness” and defines it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives. Some become cynical because of experientialism, and Andrew tells a funny story of hoping to reach the full level of spiritual maturity when he went with some friends to a Toronto Blessing meeting in Kentucky, and ended up getting into a “contest of sorts” where the charismatic bless-er was trying to push Andrew down and Andrew was convinced that if he was going down, God would have to floor him.

Many of us have either been there, or gotten very close to this kind of experience, and some of us have been profoundly disappointed by what we discovered, and some of us became cynical about it all because of this experiential emphasis on the part of some. Andrew admits that “this non-experience precipitated a gradual descent into disillusionment with the mysticism” of Christianity (61). And some are deeply, deeply distrustful of any kind of feeling or experiences.

Let’s talk about this: How many of you have had experiential hopes that were dashed by reality that led to disillusionment and even cynicism? What do you do about the high level of experientialism on the part of some? Are you cynical about such things as the Toronto Blessing and holy laughter? I’ve got solid Christian friends who say they’ve never had any kind of spiritual experience.

Yes, there is danger in experientialism; there is also some danger in non-experientialism. Where’s the balance? Where’s the truth? If there is hyper-spirituality is there also hypo-spirituality? [under emphasis]

Experientialists measure spirituality by highs. Healthy spirituality is felt spirituality. A good quiet time is one in which we feel God. It is not uncommon for a college professor who listens to students to hear stories about one experience after another in high school or college, or at least the searching for that experience. Some speak of missions trips as motivated more by the experience to be had than the ministry to be done.

Yet, think of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and good grief Ezekiel above all, and Jesus and Paul and Peter. They had some profound experiences. God is emotional and so are we. Reliance on emotions though is not a good thing. “Just follow your heart” can go only so far.

So Byers suggests three things about experiential spirituality:

1. Spiritual experiences can be as much occultic as holy. Think Saul.
2. There are valid responses to valid spiritual experiences: spiritual pride or power are not valid.
3. Valid spiritual experiences do not necessarily validate our spirituality.

And this: The Spirit and experience are not one and the same. Too often we think the more normal something is the less spiritual it is. The Spirit is not an “it” but a person. It is not the “force.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rick

    Many churches conduct (orchestrate) their services in the hopes people will have an experience. The service builds to a pinnacle of emotion.

    It is difficult to then tell people that such “experiences” are not the goal.

  • http://admiralcreedy.blogspot.com Tom C

    Agree with Rick.

    Having suffered from being ‘pastored’ to by members of various churches on issues like depression, its frustrating that experience is so common – completely agree with the three points at the end of the post too.

    Doctrine (or whatever you want to call it, basically knowledge of God) and experience are both incredibly important – And I would personally err towards knowing things being more useful in many situations – as long as this reflects a living reality.

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff K. Clarke

    As one within a classical Pentecostal denomination, I have observed that for many within the tradition have defined spirituality almost exclusively by individual power (crisis) encounters that ignores the biblical emphasis on journey. As a result, we have a tendency to jump from one power experience to another and downplay the influence of the mundane, everyday and communal orientation necessary in spiritual formation. Andrew’s Toronto Blessing experience is a case in point.

  • Susan N.

    Spooky that the topic of neocharismatic evangelicalism arises in this post — last week my daughter had a conversation with an acquaintance in which the IHOP org in Kansas City, MO was recommended. Our Internet research turned up the connection between IHOP and the Vineyard Movement, and the Vineyard Movement’s connection to Contemporary Worship Music…

    I believe in miracles! That God still has the ability and will to act in ways that transcend natural laws. I have even had a few experiences that I would count as miracles. All that said, I am VERY skeptical and yes, probably cynical, of programs designed to produce an ecstatic experience in a group setting. I’m also very cynical of any formula marketed as being a tried-and-true method for causing God to give or do what is asked in prayer. In my thinking, feeling, lived faith journey, that theological view is not only false but dangerous to one’s spiritual health!

    It all seems so…manipulative? I’m very suspicious of any person or group willing to employ such coercive tactics. To my mind, it is a form of legalism.

    I think it is best to remain open to the possibility that God is able and sometimes willing to work a miracle…to see in our circumstances how God has intervened or revealed Himself more fully to us. Most of the time, though, I think the life of faith is about pressing on when nothing particularly exciting is happening, or maybe even (especially?) when things are going poorly and you “feel” spiritually dry or low.

    Personally, the experience that has disillusioned me the most is lack of love / indifference among Christians and Christians toward non-Christians. Frankly, if the Toronto Blessing group were demonstrating love for fellow human beings in concrete, practical acts, I would say, “You go, brothers and sisters in Christ!”

    I apologize for the length of this post. These are matters that I have wrestled with in the not-so-distant past, and in some ways, I’m not sure I have fully resolved them in my mind and heart (work in progress)!

  • Jeremy

    Susan – That first paragraph reads like the old “Vineyard is a cult” stuff I used to hear. I’m sure that’s not what you meant, but I’m curious as to the point you’re trying to draw out there.

    Being the odd one out when something seems to be happening is pretty disheartening. When it happens consistently, it’s horrible. I always wondered why God would do that to me. It has made me very cynical when someone either has an experience or starts talking about what God told them. It’s been a slow dawning on me that my expectations were so high, that even when God did something I should have noticed, it wasn’t good enough. I wanted a Ferrari when I got a Porsche.

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    Susan, FWIW, I’ve been in a Vineyard for many years, and I can tell you that the Vineyard totally shares this with you: “I’m also very cynical of any formula marketed as being a tried-and-true method for causing God to give or do what is asked in prayer.”

    On the larger point of experientialism, I tend to think of it like this: for many, many Western people, Christianity had/has been presented as a journey that is void or nearly void of any mystical (spiritual?) experience, even the kinds we see frequently in the NT. I think this tends to produce, ironically, an extreme hunger or desire for such by their absence, or makes it very easy to overvalue such experiences when they do come. Our western rationalism has a tendency to push folks into extremes as either “mystical” OR “rational” which is our cultural problem, not a problem with experiences per se.

    Frankly, I think we need, on the whole, to be less uptight about powerful spiritual/mystical experiences, and maybe even “warm” to them (not be hot for them, just be warm to them), especially given their prevalence in our New Testament predecessors. They’re not going to kill anybody. God actually does use them to communicate and change us in deep ways. But I agree that the addict-like response, though normal for some folks coming from an anti-mystical background, and encouraged in some charismatic/pentecostal camps, needs to be advised against, as does the “pushing” and its relatives.

    I would like to say, though, that having a well-thought and reasonable theology and practice of God’s presence, both in a brother-lawrence way and in a way that takes our many NT teachings and examples to be as normative for us as for them is not anti-intellectual, nor is it experientialism. It’s just an honest pursuit of a prima-scriptura faith and practice.

  • Amos Paul

    Susan,

    I would like to just comment that the Vineyard’s connection to IHOP was a short-lived, informal thing. IHOP is a parachurch org. There were some connections when Wimber was alive and conversing with guys over there, but he severed them when he disagreed with what they did. The same goes for the ‘Toronto Blessing’.

    On the topic–I think we have a strangely forced divide between ‘spiritual’ and ‘non-spiritual’. In Christ, all Creation is held together, as they say. What we might call ‘tangible’ experiences of God’s power is simply when His Spirit becomes manifestly obvious to us. But if I’ve learned about God’s ministry over the years, it’s that God is *always* doing something. We should believe the promise that His Spirit is with us and expect a relationship that manifests itself in various ways when we pursue Christ.

    Moreover, I often like to cite Eph 5:18 when Paul says do not be drunk with wine which, I highlight, is *dissipation* or an empty life–but be rather filled with the Spirit! Specifically, I think Paul is saying that drunkenness is certainly a tangible experience that people pursue, but it leaves them with nothing at the end of it (except maybe a hangover…). If people pursue manifest experiences of the Holy Spirit instead–they should be able to bear specific and reasonable fruit from that experience. That’s part of what ‘testing the spirits’ is all about.

    When you ask , ‘Was that experience God’s manifest presence?’ You can ask, ‘What fruit did it bear in my life for the better?’ You should be able to meditate on, learn from, and grow in God due to the experience. That’s the point of those experiences, to bring God glory and build his people up. Though as a philosopher I might append that the followup meditation and rational investigation of the experience is, itself, an experience (as all things are). One might even call it a ‘spiritual’ experience.

  • Susan N.

    Jeremy, can you believe that before last week, I had either never heard of the Vineyard Movement or, if I had, it did not register on my radar? So, I really do not know enough to pronounce it (or IHOP) as a cult. When my daughter’s acquaintance was explaining the wonders of IHOP to her, she cited the benefit of “professional pray-ers” on duty 24 hours to pray and prophesy over you. That alone put me on high alert to be suspicious of this org. A distinction should probably be made as to the perceptions of those involved with or having experienced IHOP, and the intentions / mission of the org and its leaders. It’s often hard to discern what’s at the bottom of something, and separate it from our own emotional reaction to it. I’m very leery of this brand of spirituality or church format.

    And thanks, Jeremy, for sharing your own disillusionment with faith-word and spiritual gifts of prophecy and healing. The negative spiritual effect that this way of thinking/believing had on you is exactly the dangerous element that I alluded to. Eventually, you begin to wonder if something is just wrong with you, or if maybe God doesn’t like you for some reason, or worst of all, that God is not even real (as has been presented in this type of theology). It’s a very long, hard climb out of this sort of pit to a healthy relationship with God *and* others in community. To me, it’s legalism.

    I got the sense from my reading of the link between IHOP and Vineyard that what started out as a hopeful and positive thing (Vineyard) had been taken by some radical elements to a whole other level. I guess that would be a cautionary word on endorsing any person or group blindly just because it has been affiliated with a larger, reputable org? I’m not even completely certain that IHOP is wholly a bad outfit. Do they do good in the inner-city of KC? The theology is not for me, but does that cancel out any good that the people involved are able to do? I am not sure about that…

    Begging your forgiveness for my lack of finesse in wording my remarks in a less offensive manner. This is a hard topic for me (unfinished business). Still, I am sorry for causing any hurt.

  • John Lieb

    Scot, I am a regular reader of your blog. I always enjoy your insights and the many good books you introduce. On the issue of spiritual experience I think there is fuzzy thinking among the faithful.

    With respect to the friends you cite in the post, I don’t mean to impugn their sincerity or faith but I can’t for the life of me conceive how they can have a saving relationship with the Jesus of the Gospels and not had SOME kind of spiritual experience. Ipm not sure it says as much about them as it does about the relative lack of spiritual vitality of their faith community.

    My take on spiritual experience is that, with the note struck by the last three points on your post, with respect to spiritual experience we start with suspicion instead of anticipation and expectation.

    I’ve know many who are of the mind that spiritual experience is a something like a necessary evil:

    “Spiritual experience is like salt: too much and it ruins the food but too little and the food is bland.”

    “Everybody needs a little spiritual experience to make their faith alive but be careful so you don’t go off into a ditch chasing the Holy Ghost.”

    Going in a ditch, I agree, is a bad thing. The problem is we have now allowed a sort of hermeneutic of suspicion to so infiltrate our thinking about spiritual experience to the degree we feel duty bound to preface our exhortations to pursue God with ridiculous qualifiers.

    When we read Ephesians 5:18, “Don’t get drunk with wine but instead be filled with the Spirit”, we are counseled by people with furrowed brows, “Yeah, but…”.

    Our teachers sound like pharmaceutical commercials that introduce a product and then finish with “In some cases Dosaspirit causes extreme excitability, loud singing and on rare occasions, laughing and other bizarre behaviors”.

    Memory research has shown that our lives, our values, how we think, reason and behave are most shaped by emotion laden experiences. The work of people like Daniel Schacter has shown that episodic memory, aka the record of emotion laden experience, trumps semantic memory (the record of factual knowledge) and procedural memory (the record of complex, skills like typing, performing surgery, riding a bike, etc). This means facts and behavior are crucial but “not sufficient” to shape character.

    This insight from neurobiology matches well with one of Jesus’ most recognized statements in the Gospel of John, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. The truth that you “know”, or know by personal experience, is the only truth that has the power to set you free. We fill believers heads with truth (good) but do little to help them experience the wonder of that truth (bad) and are surprised that they don’t change and grow.

    A Gospel emptied of a healthy pneumatology will not likely offer much to a culture starving on a diet of pleasure, greed, skepticism and narcissism.

  • Susan N.

    Thanks T. and Amos Paul for your further insights into IHOP as distinct from Vineyard. T., I agree with so much of what you have said about having a well-reasoned theology AND be warm to experiences of the Spirit of God moving. I have been reflecting on the meaning of this since first posting, and my present connection with the UMC (Wesleyan theology) is affirmed in my mind and heart… You know about John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience (when his heart was “strangely warmed” and he perceived his conversion/salvation)? The life of faith is an ongoing process. But John Wesley, as I have read and been told, was not a big fan of hyper-spirituality as evidenced by overly emotional reactions. More an inward awareness of something unexplainable occurring. And, yes and Amen! — to the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s movement by the fruit it produces in our lives. That’s what I mean by, “Are outfits like IHOP doing concrete, practical ‘work’ as an expression of all these hyper-spiritual experiences?” If so, then maybe there’s some confirmation of God in the midst of their ministry. I would choose another way of following God, but that’s me.

  • Amos Paul

    Susan,

    I’m curious if you could clarify what it is you’re specifically criticizing in your previous post(s). Like Jeremy, I’m uncertain what it is in particular that you are citing as bad about Vineyard or IHOP–and why you think those things are bad. You mentioned the formulaic approach to producing spiritual encounters, though while I respect your impression and experience in this arena–I would mention the Wimber and Vineyard emphasize authenticity. That is, not trying to hype God’s presence but praying for people calmly and expectantly so that God can do the work.*

    *Disclaimer: This is a general teaching, actual practice among churches may vary.

    For instance, you said that 24 for hour praying sent warning bells in your head. Why? The reason is unclear to me.

    You also cmmented that Vineyard (or was that IHOP?) in your opinion had been taken over by radical elements. What radical elements are you referring to and what is it about those elements that makes you think they’re ‘radical’? And radical in what sense?

  • Adam

    Hi Susan,

    I actually live in Kansas City and am pretty familiar with IHOP.

    In short, you will find the whole spectrum of belief there. IHOP draws all kinds of people from all over the country so, you’re never quite sure what you might run into. I know a few who go there and are extremely conservative people, and I know others who go there and are way more free-spirited. So, it’s kind of hard to put any kind of descriptor on what IHOP is.

    The best advice I heard if you want to explore it, “Know what you believe and be willing to hold your boundaries”. The people at IHOP are always respectful of what others are comfortable with but if you don’t know what you’re looking for you might get roped into something you don’t want.

    Just my perspective, as someone who has some contact with the place.

  • scotmcknight

    John Lieb,
    Does reception of Spirit and genuine experience of the Spirit have to show up in some kind of emotive/religious experience?

  • T

    I think the comments (and people’s experiences) are hitting on the core issues of the post, and I think it’s worth discussing these things as specifically as possible.

    As background, I’ve never fallen down (well, never been involuntarily put to the ground by the Holy Spirit; I’ve fallen down plenty :D ); I’ve never spoken in tongues. I have friends, fellow church members and even family who have had those experiences. I’ve had other experiences, though, that many would put in the same category. I have wondered, especially initially, about why I got/get “X” and others get “Y.” The best explanation I’ve ever received was the rhetorical question of Paul: “Do all speak in tongues?” The strongly implied answer, from the whole passage, is “No.” But, he says, “eagerly desire the greater gifts” which in this passage seems to point to those gifts that benefit others, not just the one exercising a gift with the Spirit.

    I think it’s very telling that Paul, for the one community of believers in Corinth, has to both affirm tongues, definding the practice (“I’m glad I speak in tongues more than all of you;” “Don’t forbid speaking in tongues.”) AND (presumably to other members of the same community) that it’s not the end-all, be-all. It’s not a “greater gift” like those that build up the whole body. It seems to me he has to both defend tongues and put it in its place because those who didn’t experience it would be tempted to forbid it entirely (out of feelings insecurity? ignorance? fear? jealousy?), and those practicing it were being selfish/prideful or something and not thinking of the larger body and not seeking to use gifts that benefitted all when they gathered together. Paul (and the Spirit) seems to envision people with different experiences and types of service existing in the same community for mutual benefit and service.

    I think we miss something on this topic if we fail to see the seeds of the same issues of both (selfish?) experientialism on the one hand and disallusionment on the other at work to some degree in Corinth and being addressed by Paul.

  • Amos Paul

    T,

    Fyi, I’ve also been in Vineyard for a few years now. Random that such a relatively smaller ‘group’ got so many hits on here.

    Also Susan,

    I have a relation in leadership at UMC. You might be surpriised how Wesleyan the pursuance of the gifts and manifest spiritual experiences is. Wesley had and endorsed quite a few things that some people today might label ‘hyper-spiritual’.

    A quick Google search runs up the following on the first page:

    http://ucmpage.org/articles/rtuttle1.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Supernatural_Occurrences_of_John_Wesley

    http://www.amazon.com/supernatural-occurrences-john-wesley/dp/B000YQVQEO

  • http://wellthoughtoutlife.blogspot.com/ Kacie

    I experience God and experience great emotion about God, faith, etc. However, I have rarely if ever had a spiritual experience that would seem externally supernatural like the Toronto Blessing crowd.

    My cynicism comes from seeing others enter into the passionate experiential faith of that sort of crowd and then leave again. Whatever change they experience seems temporary, and the “experience” seems to affect them in ways that pull them away from others and from loving humility. Does the experience push them towards God and towards loving service, or does it push them into a sort of exclusive club of people that all “experiencing” together?

  • Rachel K

    Interesting topic. For many years I would have described myself as the quintessential “experiential” Christian – I was “on fire for Jesus”, quoting Christianese at anyone who would listen…in short, as “happy clappy” as they come. Then I suffered a personal tragedy and that was the end of my personal, emotional experience of God. I was forced to wake up each morning and make a decision to believe; it wasn’t long however before this was no longer enough and I figured that I need to go get some wisdom to balance out all that experience. Years passed and I got my theology degree but I am no closer to being back where I was, all those years ago when I was on a spiritual “high”. For a long time I questioned whether any of it it was real – a chilling thought to ponder – and to be honest I missed it! I still miss it…but not enough to “fake it ’til I make it”. Only recently have I come to the realisation that all those “dry” years of theological study were in fact developing a deeply contemplative experience of the presence of God – one that involves a “new” me, and yes a new God too; or at least a new side to God. In the end it’s all good; He loves all of it, just as long as you come with your raggedy self and express your love with everything that you have, whatever that looks like. I may be a lame duck these days, but I’m a loved lame duck :)

  • T

    Scot,

    I want John to answer your question for himself, but will say this. One, he makes several good points particularly toward the culture of suspicion.

    One of the things I long for, especially for men, is the freedom to feel and express genuine appropriate emotion at the appropriate time. And I don’t mean “appropriate” as set by American culture, such as touchdowns and goals. Nor do I mean that every worship service has to be X or Y emotion, or any, for each person.

    The truths of God, the love of God, the gospel of God, even the truth about us, is overwhelming at times. Perhaps it even should be. I think too many men learn from American culture, not from the scriptures, to have a goal to never be overwhelmed or outwardly emotional about anything. Are there things that are worthy of an emotional reaction? What would some of those things be?

    I think one of my first draws to preaching was that it appeared that it was the one place where a man could express genuine emotion about things that deserved emotion. Sad, but true, no? It seemed pastors permitted themselves to feel things about God and others, but only while in that venue. It was hard to understand as a child.

    Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that human emotion is more fallen than human intellect. When I hear the critique, “That’s a purely emotional appeal” I wonder, “Is a purely intellectual appeal somehow better?” The cross isn’t one or the other. It hits both hard. So does truth. So does the Spirit. I say this, as you know, as a lawyer by training and practice. Reason is a wonderful gift, but it’s just as much the devil’s whore as emotion, to use Luther’s phrase. God wants to liberate and form the whole man, not just his head, into Christ, who was no stoic, nor an anti-mind. Holistic, human, redemption is important. Part of Biblicism, in my view, is the bent, in some camps, that words or text better embodies God and better accomplishes mission than men and women full of God. Text isn’t better than embrace; verbal communication isn’t all there is, or even a majority. What a shame. Humanity, with all it’s capacity for emotion as well as verbal ideas, that’s God’s favorite way to work and love and reveal himself, and we shut so much of that down out of misconceived fear, ignorance, hurt and pride. I’m not saying a person has to have this or that experience, whether tongues or prophesy, or shaking or crying or whatever. Nor would I say that person with no intense experience of God isn’t a Christian. Not at all. But if someone says that they’ve never had an emotional experience with God, I would want to explore that. What have been their emotional experiences?

  • T

    Rachel K,

    Thanks for sharing that. You are loved. And we’re all lame. :D

  • John Lieb

    “Does reception of Spirit and genuine experience of the Spirit have to show up in some kind of emotive/religious experience?”

    Scot, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? At the risk of encouraging unrealistic expectations I would say, ordinarily. To get it right we would need to flesh out “ordinarily”, but I hope you get my drift.

    I know this is a touchy point, Scot. Yet, I believe we have left too many believers with the impression the Spirit of adoption, with whom they are indwelt, has little demonstration available for them of the affection that inspired their adoption in Christ.

    “If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” We tell fathers they can make a profound impact on their children by showing them affection and in another breath leave believers the impression that God, their Father, isn’t ordinarily willing and able to do the same.

    I think something is wrong, Scot. A fish doesn’t know it is wet. In my opinion we have so dialed down the expectation of believers (and failed to help them learn how to meaningfully abide in Christ) that they are content to live on crumbs.

    I’m not advocating some sort of “there’s a prize in every box” spirituality. At least I hope I’m not. :)

  • John Lieb

    One more thought, Scot. As one of my friends so artfully points out, it is not the scripture, “Perfect love casts out fear” that casts our fear. It is the experience of perfect love that casts out fear. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts here.

  • Susan N.

    Adam (#12), thanks for sharing your insights on IHOP. I appreciate the wisdom you expressed in knowing what you believe when going into a place or situation that is different or diverse. My misgivings about exposing myself to a situation like IHOP are much more about me and my baggage. I believe that my childhood initiation into faith via fundamentalist / legalistic religion makes me susceptible to falling into wrong thinking. When you are taught to just believe what you are told about the Bible and God, something in a person’s “radar” for discerning truth from lies, good from evil, has to be disengaged. The IHOP focus as I understand it has shifted to an emphasis on prophecy and healing. (Amos Paul, #11, it is these aspects of the 24-hr. prayer ministry, combined with the recommendation of “professional” pray-ers, that made me suspicious.)

    Amos Paul, I’ll follow up on the links you shared. I read one interesting biography of John Wesley. Can’t think of the title off the top of my head. The upshot was that a lot of what emerged as fundamental to the Methodist Movement was as much the result of adherents of John Wesley’s doctrines forging their own way as seemed most beneficial in community, as following everything he said or did. (He had some strange ideas about health and healing too, as I understand it.) Many people fairly worshiped him as their leader, which he didn’t necessarily try to correct. (The cynic in me would say, “Whoa, watch out!” Wesley was just a man, susceptible to error and pride, like all of us.) But as far as theologies go, I identify with Wesley’s understanding of God’s grace on three levels, progressive sanctification, and the utter necessity of actions that bear fruit and impact society. With my wacky background, my lingering cynicism, etc., I feel at peace in the UMC. God has been so good to a cynic like me, to lead me to a place where I can be and grow and serve.

    Adam, I go back to what you stated about IHOP — we have to know ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, and accept that we’re not all alike, maybe? By the same token, don’t fear or reject out of hand that our deepest convictions and impulses could just be coming from God’s Spirit. If we experience a powerful moment or insight that elicits an emotional response, is that inferior to a more rational, steady, controlled faith? If someone else is not getting the same experience or “gift”, are they inferior or weak in faith? I don’t think that’s right. I think we all struggle with this, though. If I have had a deep experience that has had a powerful effect on my life, I have a hard time understanding why everyone else can’t see what I see and “know the truth”! Talking with those who are motivated to facilitate understanding and who make a commitment to listen to one another, is helpful. I appreciate this forum as a place to be in conversation and grow :-)

  • Alan R

    I’m a middle-aged bible study and ministry leader. Whenever I mention that I’ve never experienced God directly, I get a lot of puzzled and concerned looks. I believe saying so is an important corrective for the many times we’ve heard people testify about hearing God’s voice, sensing the Spirit, etc.

    A drumbeat of stories about direct experiences can easily undermine faith (in things hoped for and not seen) and our reliance on an apostolic tradition. And where does scripture promise that we’ll receive an experience? Doesn’t it emphasize fruit-bearing, as we become conduits of God’s love and righteousness?

  • Susan N.

    Rachel K (#17), thank you for sharing. A tragedy in my life caused me to completely re-evaluate what I believed (basically when the theology fell apart in the face of a real crisis of faith). Lame-but-loved-duck…right there with you (a cracked eikon, indeed.) I’m O:K / You’re O:K — and God is so good.

  • Jeremy

    Susan – Thanks for clarifying. I’m a Vineyard PK of a former regional director of VMI, so I’ve had to field some pretty weird allegations/perceptions based on Toronto, Kansas City and a couple of other things, nevermind a stream of thought that sees all “contemporary” worship music as heresy. I didn’t think you fell into one of those categories, so wasn’t sure how to respond. T and Amos have done so pretty well.

    IHOP is a weird one. I have friends who go regularly and think that God’s done some pretty cool stuff there. It’s not formulaic, though it is a bit out of a lot of people’s comfort zones, so keep that in mind when reading about it. I don’t think their use of the word “professional” is intended to mean anything but “this is their ministry.”

    I think the problem with experiential is that ultimately, when you live in a culture where it’s normal, you start to wonder what’s wrong with you when you’re not right there with the group. It leaves you wondering if its all fake or if God doesn’t like you much. Once you realize that some of those people are, in fact, faking it, it gets even worse.

    I’m not sure how to deal with it though. God moves and sometimes you’re on the outside. It doesn’t much matter how little or much the community emphasizes spiritual experience, I think. Being left out is devastating. Sometimes, I think that devastation is part of the process of molding us into something better. I find myself wishing God had made us a little less obstinate. haha

  • Amos Paul

    Alan,

    Is not bearing fruit of the Spirit an experience of the Spirit? I’d contend that if you’re bearing such fruit, you’re obviously experiencing the Spirit!

    I can completely empathize with the mindset of not being able to directly experience the manifest presence of God. Indeed, I still struggle with it! I was raised in an evangelical style non-denom church that neither really helped me bear much fruit or have any of my own ‘experience–despite the fact that they professed belief and active engagement with such things.

    Honestly, I think that we all have the Spirit stirring in us. Regularly. Directly experiencing it is, generally, about learning how to tune in to that still small voice… about being bold in taking risks to find out whether or not that’s just you in there or, surprise, God in you! It may not be obvious or easy to identify it, but I believe we can.

    I’m not claiming that it’s normative to be so tuned in all the time, and not am I saying it’s a mark of maturity. It’s merely, I think, a sign of willingness and boldness and is helpful in progressing in maturity. But why not strive for it? It’s getting to know God in us, intimately and personally. It’s a part of our relationship with Him.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I am pretty sure my experiences have been quite different than most here. My real initiation into numinous encounter was through everything but Christianity. I have done extensive meditative journying, dance, drums and other intstruments, centering practices, but have not tried drug induced. The world is full of numinous contact methods.

    So I agree, the occult and the holy are both there.

    I also believe it is healthy for people to practice meditation, centering, and then trying for deeper insight through contemplative means. They are also frequently accompanied by numinous feeling.

    I also spent a couple years trying to get good at hypnosis. That is the part that starts to scare me when we talk about the Christian manifestations that we see out there. Many many people are highly suggestive, and most of us are to some extent. When we combine the numinous with directed defined behaviors I am certain that people experience what they will see as the real thing. It is.

    But, that does not mean that it is from god, or not from god. I equate it to intense sexual feelings. Yes, they are natural and they feel good, and they are part of the creation which came from god, but is it really part of god, or is more similar to a dream where the external experiences are what you are projecting them to be and not truly coming from outside of yourself.

    Is that cynical? I suppose if the question you are asking is whether these are truly coming from an agent outside of the human, then yes, I am cynical. But they are real experiences.

  • T

    Alan,

    I don’t know what you mean by not “directly” experiencing God, other than it seems that hearing God’s voice and sensing the Spirit would be things that you would put in that category.

    It is true that hearing about other people’s experience (but not having that experience) can undermine faith. But then again, are not the Gospels and Acts reports of other people’s experiences? Granted, many athiests will read the gospels and say, “Well, I’ve never seen anyone raised from the dead or heal with a word, so this is all make-believe.” But clearly, the scriptural accounts of people’s experiences with God and his people don’t have producing unbelief as their goal or even primary effect; quite the opposite. Same with the apostolic tradition. I find that when people see someone healed in Christ’s name, just as the apostles and others did, it strengthens faith in the apostles’ teaching, it doesn’t undermine it.

    And yes, let’s bear fruit. Amen. Let’s have Christ-shaped love as our highest goal. Double amen. But it takes help, from beyond the scriptures, to walk away from the scriptural witness and conclude we shouldn’t expect to experience God in a variety of ways.

  • Alan R

    Amos, I won’t quibble with you here that fruit is an experience, but the discussion in this thread isn’t about such experiences. But I will argue that we shouldn’t strive to hear God’s voice. I gave up trying after 20 years of attending a church that constantly urged me to listen and assured me that it would happen, just as you do, if one is willing. Where does scripture define the Spirit this way? Why put God to the test? The lack of results undermined my faith.

  • Alan R

    T,

    please not that I have not said that others shouldn’t or don’t experience God directly. I’m simply saying that I haven’t, in the same way that the apostles had to rely on accounts rather than their direct own experiences of Christ. And I’m suggesting that those who believe they’ve had a direct experience of God ought not make their experience normative for Christian faith.

  • T

    Alan,

    Thanks. I agree about not making one type of experience normative for all. That’s at least partly what Paul’s teaching on the gifts is about. I think there is variance, and some overlap, with how we experience the Spirit. In this area, as with most, I try to let the scriptures be primary in shaping my practice and my thinking about what’s “normative.”

    I’m not sure what you meant about the apostles, since all of them and many others had pretty direct experiences with Christ in the flesh, not just his Spirit (if one can say “just” in reference to the Spirit).

  • Alan R

    T, right, I wrote that all wrong. Those of us who haven’t had a direct experience of Jesus have to rely on the apostles’ accounts… I’ve found great comfort in Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

  • JohnM

    Let me be as blunt as anyone here and more so than most. Cynical about things like the Toronto blessing and holy laughter? No,cynical’s not the word, I flat don’t believe there is anything valid, edifying or otherwise worthwhile about them. I’ve see things of this type first hand too, and I’ve interacted with people who practice and promote them. Painful experience taught me the error of a conciliatory-at-all-costs approach which is why I am so blunt.

  • T

    JohnM,

    I’m genuinely curious (and appreciate your honesty), do you think that the Holy Spirit would lead people to weep?

    Again, I’m not saying that this or that emotional response is always or never God-led. But is weeping something you see as potentially led by God’s Spirit?

  • John Lieb

    The problem with language is that people can’t understand me even when what I am saying seems so clear to me. :)

    When I say “spiritual experience” it appears that what I mean when I write that phrase might not be what some people think I meant. Boy, talk about a phrase with a semantic range!

    In answer to Scot’s question, when I said that I believe spiritual experience is ORDINARILY a part of “reception of the Spirit and genuine experience of the Spirit”, I don’t necessarily mean falling on the ground, laughing, speaking in tongues, seeing visions of God/angels/heaven/hell/etc, shaking, crying, goose bumps, whatever.

    My understanding is authentic, spiritual experience ranges from subtle (yet real and impacting) to over-the-top (yet real and impacting).

    My point is not so much about the particular type of spiritual experience as more about the general absence of any kind of spiritual experience as part of Christian spirituality.

    I can’t square our general paucity of meaningful, experiential connection with God in Christ by the Spirit with the Biblical record. As I mentioned, I think they are part of our design by God and are crucial to our growth in grace.

  • Amos Paul

    Alan,

    I must disagree with you that the Spirit working in you is not the sort of experiences we’re talking about here. As above, I stated that the Spirit’s productive work in us is definitive of any experience of the Spirit at all.

    Again, I understand the distinction you’re trying to make–between the Spirit’s work in general and us directly hearing His voice. But I don’t think there is a difference. And no, I don’t think we ‘hear’ or ‘experience’ the Spirit in the same ways, much as how we are all unique creations–God’s Spirit in each one of us is uniquely represented.

    You ask for Scriptural evidence, but I imagine our understanding of the same Scriptures is going to differ based upon each our own premises of understanding the terms. Paul exhorts believers to chase after the higher gifts–especially prophecy. Moreover, Jesus says as believers that we know His voice.

    Jhn 10:27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

    My belief is not that you (or any believer) needs to ‘hear’ His voice, but rather, realize what His voice has been in you all along. As a part of you. Woven into the fabric of your Creation and, indeed, your New Creation.

  • Amos Paul

    Addendum: Also, I apologize (as I noticed upon hitting submit comment) for insinuating that anyone *needs* to recognize God’s voice in them. I think, as Christians, we already do in a sense and all will, eventually, know it much more powerfully as we progress on. But for the here and now, I see as *helpful* and encouraging. I do not mean for there to be anything lesser or greater sounding about a believer do to a doctrinal and experiential distinction such as this.

  • Susan N.

    DRT (#27) – Your comments reminded me of another feature of IHOP that I had read: the belief that sickness, poverty, or other misc. “stronghold” is the manifestation of demon-possession, which must be “forcefully” (scary word!) cast out. My mom was drawn to elements of the occult when I was in elementary school… She got involved with a guy who performed hypnosis and kind of became his apprentice. She had weird ideas about ghosts/spirits, and believed at one point that our house was haunted by a malevolent ghost (which only she could perceive, but I was scared out of my socks by the suggestion of it!) Then, my mom got drawn into the fundamentalist church, and me with her. All the talk about hell, Satan, the demonic, the End Times, had a huge unhealthy effect on me. I was 11yo, very introspective and sensitive (which I still am, though wiser, I hope).

    I think you are right, DRT, that the power of suggestion by an authority or as one gets caught up in a group euphoric experience does weird things to your ability to reason and think clearly. As I think Jeremy said, one gets immersed in this type of culture, and it’s hard not to just conform…hard to see things from a broader perspective. That whole “gift of prophecy” idea could so easily lead to “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    A person I knew very well, a meek mild person, and I went to see a hypnotist about 40 years ago in college. The hypnotist went out in the audience of about 5,000 people and picked about 10 to hypnotise on stage. She was one of them.

    He had her dancing a spinning when the audience whistled tea for two, and whenever they stopped she would get scared and have to sit down.

    She said she was aware the whole time, but it just felt like the right thing to do and she felt at ease doing it.

    Combine that with religion and it can be a potent cocktail.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    ha! er, 30 years ago…..

  • JohnM

    T #34 – Do I think the Holy Spirit would lead people to weep. No, not if you mean directly, and especially not if by “lead” you mean “cause” in some controlling fashion.

  • T

    JohnM,

    Thanks. No, I don’t mean the person would have no say in the matter. So, do you think the Holy Spirit leads anyone to do anything?

  • T

    Susan N.,

    Given your background, I don’t blame you for being weirded out by any kind of spiritual dynamics. And, yes, people can screw up with any endeavor, whether preaching, teaching, prophecy, evangelism, or respond inappropriately, or what-have-you in a variety of ways. That said, the “gift of prophecy” idea isn’t an IHOP idea. It’s a New Testament idea. It’s a gift from the Holy Spirit that Paul not only used but encouraged a messed up group of Corinthians to seek eagerly for the benefit of the whole community. Just like other gifts, some people use it well and others poorly. Some folks just grate against us as a matter of style. And yes, someone will always be faking everything. None of that means there is no reality to what Paul talks about.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    If there are any missionary folks working among majority non-believing populations listening in, I’d love to hear more from them. My experiences in Africa & on a native American reservation w/ the enemy’s spiritual manifestations made the godly spiritual manifestation of strength in Christ extremely necessary. I recall both European & American objections to what Scot called “hyper-spirituality”. Although it may be (and sometimes is) a less important or lesser emphasized experience in the US or Europe or other areas, it seemed very clear that one needs the power of the HOLY Spirit to counter the powers of darkness in particular situations. I couldn’t convince (nor would I have tried) the Africans & native Americans that spirits don’t exist. They “knew” them, and I could sense their “knowing”.

    I’ve noticed a pattern here where pastors sometimes don’t even seem to have any awareness that they’re encountering & struggling vs. spiritual powers. One of my Fuller Sem profs & I had quite a long conversation about it – how can we speak to someone who seems to be almost educated past a spiritual sensitivity to God’s presence and the enemy’s presence?

    I believe that the Lord has helped me over the years & continents to become more sensitive to spiritual light and darkness in my interactions w/ people. That awareness has girded me in times working w/ dying folks & their loved ones (before/after death). I, too, had some negative experiences when I was younger, similar to Susan N’s comments. But, T gave some good balance (esp’ly in 18, IMHO). There are a lot of folks seeking emotional experiences to validate, so to speak, their spirituality. I think it’s appropriate to remember that the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit are not the same as the “fruits”. I believe that our validation is found in the ongoing maturing fruit in our journeying with Christ.

  • JohnM

    T – Yes. The Holy Spirit does what can in some senses of the word be called leading. I don’t know what sense you have in mind. Speaking of leading though, I have to wonder if your questions are. I don’t mind you asking, but I won’t answer again until you explain where you’re going with this.

  • T

    JohnM,

    I’m not trying to lead you. Given what seemed like near certainty that the Toronto events and “holy laughter” had “anything valid, edifying or otherwise worthwhile about them” I was just trying to see what kinds of things you believe the Holy Spirit would lead a person to do, and discuss them as well as the reasons why some things would be possible and others not.

    I asked about weeping for a few reasons. One, Jesus wept as have many prophets, which tells me such emotion is neither outside of God’s character. Further, in some situations, it might be the perfectly appropriate and helpful thing for many. Relatedly, if we can say this about weeping, why not laughter? Again, there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, and I’m not saying anyone who claims to be laughing or crying is doing so because of the Holy Spirit, even if they claim such. But I have a hard time thinking that the Spirit, who can be grieved, has never lead a person to weep, given our biblical record. By the same token, I have a hard time thinking that about laughter, or speaking, or anything else that might be reflective of God’s heart in a given moment and situation.

    Hope that helps.

  • JohnM

    T #46 – You think Jesus wept because the Holy Spirit led Him to weep? And He otherwise wouldn’t have wept under the circumstances? What in the account of His weeping would make you think that? It really has no bearing on the issue at hand.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Ann F-R#44, I am not a missionary to those populations in the sense that you are speaking, but I am in the sense that I have spent a lot of time getting to understand the cultures, music, ritual etc, in the hope of trying to find that encounter with the great god.

    I must say, that while I understand your use of the word enemy in the post, I shuddered reading it. It was quite offensive to me. Perhaps you all will consider me the enemy after this post, but I consider many of the pursuits of non-Christians to not be opposite to the direction of my Lord, but rather simply falling in kind with Romans chapter 1. These folks, and me, are not trying to be seduced by false gods, rather we are trying to get the glimpse of the one true god and don’t have the necessary tools.

    I want to stress again, ignorance is not itself an enemy, as you have characterized it. Many of the people who are searching and seeking never find a rational Christian theology to believe in. I didn’t until I found Tom Wright. Up until then I thought Christianity was on the wrong track and there had to be a better track out there.

    Frankly, I find Jesus more present in many of the native American and other religions than in the denominations in the US that know his actual name.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    …continuing….

    That is why I said in a previous post that I equate (or can) the numinous feeling and experience of the spirit to sexual feelings. It is difficult to tell if they are indeed from god or are a natural by product of our human nature. To this day I still don’t know. But I suspect it is the later.

    So when you want to show the natives that your god can deliver as good of a kick as their god, well, that disturbs me. It disturbs me not because I think it is plainly wrong, but because the approach misses the point.

    I have come to realize that the coherence of a (the one I believe) Christian story encapsulates the experience and story of the others. I genuinely think it is the right one, but I also think that people can experience the god I believe in through other self induced trance states that get at the core of the human condition. It is only human, it is built in.

    I have tremendous respect for the degree to which the native americans have found the same god I believe in without the tools that I have at my disposal. Blessed are those who have not see and still believe!

    Yes, they may think that each of the moods we see are distinct, but they are on the right track.

    And as far as having spiritual experience being part of the spirtual life, they are way ahead of any Christian I know.

  • T

    JohnM,

    Jesus’ own example has bearing because I think the boundaries for what the Spirit may lead someone to do are set by God’s character, which Jesus reveals better than anyone. Just as we’ve seen the Father by seeing Jesus, so too with the Spirit, as far as character is concerned, agreed? So if Jesus would weep, the Father and Spirit would too, right along with him. Jesus said he only did what he saw the Father doing, and said only what the Father was saying. I don’t imagine that the Spirit was not in agreement with everything in Christ’s life. So, if the Spirit would weep, so too might the people he inhabits and leads.

    If our basis for knowing the Spirit’s own character isn’t Christ, what would it be? If it is Christ, then Christ’s actions are relevant to what the Spirit may be inclined to think and do, and incline others to do.

  • JohnM

    T – No Christian I know believes weeping is categorically bad. No one criticizing so-called holy laughter does so because they believe laughter is inherently wrong. If that’s what you think you badly misunderstand the criticism. Yes, normal people can and do weep. And laugh. Because they have the God given capacity to do so. That this is so is hardly support for the notion of Holy Spirit induced laughter. There are no dots connecting Jesus’ example of weeping and the phenomenon called holy laughter. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin, and we may weep in sorrow, which is not the same thing as the Holy Spirit leading us to weep. What the Holy Spirit leads us to is repentance. The Holy Spirit inclines us toward Christ, not toward religious ecstasy.

  • T

    JohnM, thanks for interacting honestly with me; that’s helpful. But I don’t think you’re understanding me. I didn’t say that anyone was saying that laughter was inherently wrong. Nor did I say that normal people weeping was our support for the notion of so-called holy laughter. I’m honestly struggling to see how you got either idea from my comment in #50. If our communication isn’t going to work any better than that, we should probably call it a day for this conversation. A sincere thanks for your honest responses, though. I imagine our discussion was helpful for others who deal with these issues. Best to you.


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