Wednesday, February 04, 2009


I am currently reading a fine treatment of the First Great Awakening by Philip Gura entitled Jonathan Edwards, America’s Evangelical (Hill and Wang, 2005). Unlike George Marsden’s more comprehensive and definitive life of Jonathan Edwards, Gura contents himself with focusing on the issue of religious experience, about which Edwards has reams to say. No one who has read Edwards 'a Narrative of Surprising Conversions', could doubt that Edwards was very much interested in the ‘inner change’ the inner life of someone who becomes a believer, and the signs that it is so.

The controversies of the eighteenth century in New England between the Old Lights vs. the New Lights will ring very familiar to those who have experienced in this era the endless controversies about ‘charismatic’ gifts, spiritual experience, and what amounts to genuine Christianity. It has been ever thus, and of course one part of the issue is power and control. Ministers don’t like feeling like someone has come to town and stolen their congregation (called sheep stealing), by some sort of dramatic preaching mission. Itinerants have always been seen as threats to located ministers, in various ways. This is one reason why the Billy Graham crusades were so different from others as they not only enlisted the local ministers in the work, but insisted that those coming Christ then needed to join a local church, not follow the Pied Piper around from one revival to another.

In short, there are many many issues that revivalism, the new birth, Christian religious experience raises for us today, all the more so since we live in a very affective age (not to be confused with an effective age), by which I mean it is often thought that no one (but God) can challenge the genuineness of someone else’s experience, since that is subjective and private. What is missed in that assumption is that an experience can be profound and real, without being good or from God. Lots of people have genuine, deep, and life changing experiences all the time that are neither good nor from God. The genuineness of an experience tells us nothing about its character or goodness or truth. In short, even when it comes to religious experience there has to be some criteria by which the experiencer and others can evaluated its nature, character, and validity, if one wishes to say it has come from God.

So let us first offer some cautionary words. Firstly, there is a fine line between a persons’s spirituality and their sexuality, and people who are passionate in one aspect of their being are likely to be passionate in the other. And when one is in the midst of trauma or crisis, it is easy to confuse one sort of experience for the other, or to use spiritual terminology to describe and indeed sanctify merely sexual feelings and longings. Not long ago, I received an emergency email from a man whose wife was cheating on him, and justifying it with various Scriptures, saying he was not God’s man for her. Now the situation was complex, and there was plenty of blame to go around, but here I would like to remind one and all that even Christians have an infinite capacity for self-justification and rationalizing things. When one gets involves in a heightened emotional experience it is often confused with a religious experience, or justified on that basis. The rationale is “nothing that feelings this good, could be bad. It must be from God”. This leads to a second warning.

Feelings are notoriously unreliable guides to the goodness of something. Many things that feel good in the moment of experience are hideously bad for you and wicked in themselves. If you’ve ever talked to a crack addict, you will know what I mean. That high feeling, that soaring sensation feels so good…. But alas it is a deception. I am not for as moment suggesting that feelings in themselves are to be avoided (indeed they are unavoidable), but I am suggesting that they are not a reliable moral guide to much of anything, especially when one realizes that human beings are fallen and self-centered creatures, and even converted ones can get confused by powerful feelings. Feelings come and go. They can be prompted by a myriad of stimuli, and many of them are not good. Here is one guide I would stress when you are evaluating an experience--- you can tell the root of it when you see the fruit of it. By this I mean that an experience which genuinely comes from God and by means of the Holy Spirit makes you a better person, and your life and conduct will reflect the change. Paul speaks of how the inner life is changed when God pours his love into our hearts. He speaks in Gal. 5 of the fruit of the Spirit--- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control… If you see the genuine fruit of the Spirit in the life of a person, if you see clear evidence recognizable and attested by many, then you can have a good certainty it is the work of God in the soul of a human being.

It is of course also true that a genuine religious experience may be accompanied by a fresh spiritual gifting of a person, and other changes as well, but ‘the changed life’ has in the first instance to do with being a new creature in Christ, having a new character, not merely new spiritual gifts, and as John Wesley long ago said, the gifts must be normed by the fruit, especially the fruit called love. Read closely 1 Cor. 13. Paul says quite clearly there that the fruit called love is far more important and better evidence than any spiritual gift of the character of the change in a person’s life.

Let’s now turn to the issue of the varieties of conversion experiences, of which there are many. One of the major mistakes made in revivalism is the cookie cutter approach, namely the assumption that everyone needs to have the same sort of conversion story and experience, or else it is not genuine. Sometimes people are even more definitive and insist one needs a Damascus Road kind of darkness to light sudden experience. This is frankly false, and it has caused no little damage to many genuine Christians who have been brow beaten over the head for not being converted, when they are, simply because they did not have one particular kind of emotional religious experience. I have a friend who came out of the Wesleyan revivalistic tradition and as a youth was implored to come to the altar so many times (which he obligingly did) that he later said he felt like he had stretch marks on his soul--- being born again, and again, and again, and again. You get the point. When this happens it is clear that the preacher has in mind some sort of specific religious manifestation as evidence of conversion, say for example speaking in tongues. The NT however does not suggest that speaking in tongues is always the initial evidence of conversion, though clearly it sometimes is. And herein lies the problem—God can do it however God wants to, and there are as many different conversion stories and experiences as there are people.

Some conversions are joyful and quick, some are mournful and slow. I am thinking of the famous story of C.S. Lewis who in essence says that God finally backed him into a corner and Lewis gave in and then said words to the effect of “on that day I became the most reluctant convert to Christianity in human history”. Some conversions are even quiet and when a person is alone, some happen in a crowd of many being converted. Some come with dramatic spiritual experiences (being slain in the Spirit), some do not. Some of this has to do with the spiritual and emotional makeup of the individual, and some of it has to do with circumstances, and social situations. Obviously God can do it many ways. Consider the terminology of the new birth or being born again, which of course involves analogy. Some labors are really long and painful, and even require intervention. Some labors are remarkably short and quick. Some involve a lot of preliminary signs, some come about quickly as suddenly the waters break. The issue is not so much how or how dramatically one was born of God, but rather whether it is so. The evidence that it has happened is not only the growing and telltale signs of reformed character, the fruit of the Spirit. The evidence also clearly involves a renewed mind, a different world view, especially about one’s relationship with God in Christ. Read Romans 10.8-10—real conversion involves a new found faith in Christ and the inner experience of the love of God which casts out all fear and cleanses one from sin. One can genuinely confess that Jesus is one’s own Lord and he is the risen Lord.

In other words in a genuine Christian conversion there is: 1) a change in relationships, particularly with God and Christ; 2) a change in beliefs and understandings in regard to God, Christ, the Bible, life etc.; and 3) a change in character involved in a real conversion. There may or may not in addition be dramatic emotional experiences and sudden giftings in evidence.

One of the problems which the Old Lights had with New Lights like Jonathan Edwards was that they placed too much emphasis and trust in the evidence someone was coming unglued or unhinged and having an overwhelming emotional experience, which Edwards believed surely came from God. The Old Lights realized these things can be copycatted and even counterfeited, and that the 3 criteria listed above would more obviously reveal who had been genuinely converted. Edwards, to be fair realized this as well but he gave strong credence to people who seemed to have had a dramatic spiritual experience and were saying things like they had had an “intense and lively, and refreshing sense of divine things…I appeared myself to float or swim in the bright sweet beams of the love of Christ…my soul remained in a kind of heavenly Elysium”. Edwards saw swooning, falling out, sweating, yelling, shaking as well as the sort of interior experiences described above as evidence, strong evidence of conversion.
But in fact those same sort of phenomena are in evidence at an exorcism and other sorts of dramatic spiritual experiences, some of which transpire long after conversion. And again, the psychological dynamics of a revival are such that there is a good deal of wanna-be phenomena and copy-catting. One is wise to wait and see if the 3 evidences mentioned above manifest themselves over the course of the following weeks and months. This is why I would not encourage a minister to have people join the church during a revival. I would let them be discipled or catechized for a while first.

One more thing. Religious or genuine spiritual experience is one thing, the emotional response to it, another. Sometimes spiritual experiences do not prompt dramatic emotional outbursts, sometimes with some people they do. It is a mistake to judge the genuineness of a spiritual experience on the basis of the dramatic nature (or lack there of) of the emotional response to it. Sometimes, secular chroniclers have tried to psychologize revival phenomena and say that it is simply people with lots of pent up emotions and anticipation longing to go through some sort of release, or catharsis experience. However true this may be, this is only an analysis not of the spiritual experience itself, but rather of the human response to it. Think on these things and comment.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Humans are created to have religious desires and experiences. By insinuation, we deduce that there must be a God...but this is not "provable".

I do not think that anyone can determine how another human being is to experience God. Your basis is on Scripture. My basis is on psychology, sociology and anthropology. Part of man's identifying to a culture is his religious tradition. Some traditions inhibit life, and others enlarge life. The enlargement of life is what I think religion should be about, not a narrowing focus based on one traditon or text. Therefore, religion should be about ethics, not experience, or texts.

Reason is not "god", and yet reason is as aspect of God's image within man. It is only when we absolutize one aspect of man's image-bearing that it becomes problematic.And this also includes "faith traditions".

Traditions hold up text, and cultural expression, while experience is contained within these aspects of culture.

Reason is the only aspect of man that can be appealed to that is "above" tradition, culture or religion. And reason is the education that one attains in all areas of life.

In Kohlburg's moral development his "end" is justice, while his protege's was "self and other". Justice and relationship, which is social contract is what moral development and ethics is about. And ethics covers all of life from business, marriage, foreign poligy, international relation, human rights, etc. Because, ethics if about relationships...

Karin said...

Look forward to the following part/s. I'm in agreement with what you have written. I especially like the statement - you can tell the root of it when you see the fruit of it. My own conversion was at age 11 - it was not a highly emotional experience, although I am a moderately emotional person. I will not negate the simplicity of what happened at age 11, but a more significant re-dedication happened at age 18. Another interesting and totally unexpected breakthrough in my spiritual journey came at age 50 - dealing with unexamined emotional trauma that happened at age 10 which was boxed away in the attic of my memories because it was too painful. That's when I finally 'got it' how much my heavenly Father loves me! This breakthrough was more emotional as I no longer feared expressing my gratitude. It was and is all a part of God's amazing grace in the life of each individual to meet all our needs, all in His awesome timing, along every step of our journey. Hopefully growth continues to happen to the end of our days until we are perfected in HIM!

Thanks so much for your post. God bless!

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Angie: Thanks for your comments. Actually you are partly wrong. My comments are based on the analysis of Christian conversions, not primarily on the basis of analyzing Biblical texts. And of course you will have to define what 'inhibit' and 'enlarge' mean since these are value terms, not neutral anthropological language. Reason is by no means the only thing that can be appealed to above experience. There is, as you mention tradition, and in particular sacred historical traditions, some of which is Scripture. It is not a scientific procedure to eliminate any source of data apriori, even if it comes from a revelation.



Angie Van De Merwe said...

Oh, I forgot to define 'inhibit" and "enlarge"...inhibitian is defined by limiting understanding to one aspect of understanding, such as one discipline, or one tradition, or one aspect of a person (personality, personal history, desires, behavior, etc.), etc.

Enlarge means that one is understanding that one's understanding is limited to a speicific disicipline, or view, or tradition,...this is the "end" of intellectural development in commitment. But, this does not mean that one's commitment will be translated by someone other than the individual himself. He must come to terms with what is thinks is most worthy of the commitment of his time and efforts. This is a personal decision and choice.

Ethics can be applicable to any discipline, so this is what I think that religion should be about, not experience, per se.

Philip Henry said...

As a card-carrying Pentecostal (Church of God, Cleveland, TN), I agree with you that a real spiritual experience needs to be validated by a real change in a person's life. When I see someone "slain in the Spirit", as we say, I have to wonder whether God really did it, or whether that person was trying to make something happen. I do believe God can and does knock people down to get their attention, but I do worry when people think that is the only way God can work.

I also think speaking in tongues is also overrated. It is valuable, but certainly not the most important thing I do as a Christian. I'd much rather know that I am growing in His grace, rather than pursue a specific spiritual experience

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Angie:
Actually I didn't edit anything out. My only two options are publish or reject.

Ben W.

Steve said...

Emotions and feelings are fine when it comes to our spiritual life and conversion...but one cannot trust in them.

These feelings or experiences may be from God...and then agin, they may be from the devil.

St. Paul tells us that "the devil can come all dressed up as an angel of light."

The devil may use feeling as and emotions and "proofs" as a way to get us not to act or trust on the basis of faith, but rather something else.

I believe that is why Christ instituted the sacraments. So that we could actually have something tangible (extra nos) that we truat in absolutely that comes from Him, outside of ourselves.

Great post!

Thanks very much, Ben!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I'm sorry, you are right. I was remembering what I had written in my own blog entry this morning....goes to show how memory works and how we are responsive to something that triggers our past experiences...just what you are studying...

crystal said...

I've been trying to use Ignatius of Loyola's rules of discernment to evaluate religious experience. He's like Paul - experiences that create a growth in love, faith, and hope pass muster.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Crystal

Of course the problem is-- who gets to define what counts as faith, love, and hope affirming.


John said...

Galatians 3.26-27 speaks of becoming a child of God by faith and of our faith leading us to be baptized into Christ. Since Ephesians 1.3 says all spiritual blessings are in Christ, it would follow that one is converted when one's faith leads that person to be baptized into Christ. The point in time would be baptism, which was preceded by faith, repentance, and confession of faith in Christ. Nothing subjective about that.

Jim Geiger said...

Some people are more cerebral, and reason is their strong suit. Others find strength in their emotions. Paraphrasing the Apostle Paul, I would say we are strongest in our weakness.

Therefore, I think it suggests the existence of “good fruit” when we see the cerebral type shedding tears of repentance and the more emotional type using reason to understand the depth of his or her religious experience.

crystal said...

Good question.

I think Ignatius, who said that love is best shown in deeds, not words, might say the proof would be in the pudding (or the fruit :)

Mich said...

Excellent post.
Fist, regarding reason, I believe Dean Swift said Man is merely capable of reason....

The old versus new lights discussion wages on: do we 'validate' a conversion by the indwelling transformation of the new Gospel believer by the Holy Spirit, or do look for works, which eventually leads to legalism. Old lights mistrust the power of the Holy Spirit and must see 'fruits' of the Spirit to belive it, but this begs the question that one can perform 'fruit' without being transformed from within. Of course the new lights like to emphasize the validity of the emotion and the exspense of any outward sign of an inward transformation.

Doesn't this all boil down to how the Church has privileged personal salvation against being in Christ?

Christ and Paul both stress liberation and freedom in Christ, but we distrust that and seek to re-enter the jail, safe and secure in legalism. Aren't Jesus's parables and Paul's exhortation to work out your own salvation ways of teaching us to let the Spirit transform you, so you will bear fruit? I freely admit, I'm reluctant to judge except in extreme situations--ie the philandering women you mention.