What Constitutes a “Spiritual Experience”?
by Loren Seibold | 7 May 2023 |
A recent comment on an Adventist Today article caught my eye. “I don’t think the author knows Jesus as his personal friend,” someone wrote.
Let’s set aside that that’s probably not a safe judgment to make about someone else. What struck me was the deficiency the author was charged with: “He doesn’t have a friendship with Jesus.” What does that mean? Please understand: I’m not saying that there aren’t people who have what can be described as a friendship with Jesus. But the commenter implies that the author must have that kind of experience—presumably, the one she has—if he’s not to be held suspect.
Descriptions of spiritual experience are notoriously troublesome. By their nature, they describe something that resists explanation. Should you pin someone down on this, they’ll admit that it’s a “you’ll know it when it happens to you” sort of thing. Yet almost always we speak of spiritual experience as though we share a common definition—and that simply isn’t true.
I’m no William James, but I’ve spent some time thinking about this. If what follows sounds a bit rambling, let me remind you that my thesis here is that these experiences are, in fact, subjective and difficult to capture in words, and can’t be generalized. The varieties of spiritual experience overlap and combine in highly individual recipes.
Emotional to logical
I believe that many, when they talk about spiritual experience, picture something emotional. King David was the king of emotional faith: in the Psalms he goes from anger to joy to guilt to cursing to dancing in ecstasy. David was the originator of the heated heart (Psalm 39:3), a metaphor later called upon by the Emmaus travelers and John Wesley. Ellen White warned us against trusting our feelings, but we dare not discount the tears of a sinner coming to Christ, or the feeling of peace filling her heart; if that’s what she says is happening to her, who am I to doubt it?
Does everyone have emotional religious experiences? Of course not. Where I have trouble with feelings is when someone tries to manipulate mine. Sometimes religious meetings are designed to evoke emotions, and little else. Pentecostals are masters at arousing these supposedly religious feelings, with great music, babbling in tongues, or rattlesnakes handed around at Sunday night service. But it happens in our denomination, too. If you set up a situation where there is evocative music, emotional rhetoric, a soupçon of guilt; if you pull up and examine human sadnesses and insecurities and promise solutions; is the resulting emotion entirely God-caused?
If you want to alienate me, put me in a setting where you do this to me. I remember a pastors’ meeting back in California where there was a relentless push to coax tearful, gut-wrenching testimonies from us. Pastors are by nature obliging people, and many participated who I suspect liked it no more than I did. I still can’t entirely respect those who put me in that spot.
A somewhat different spiritual experience is played out among those with a more academic esthetic. Here it’s ritual and liturgy, all smells and bells and choirs and pipe organs and prayer books. I find the Book of Common Prayer readings and prayers more consistently meaningful than the off-the-cuff stuff you get in most churches, and I like organ and choir music, though much of the other rigmarole and costumery doesn’t speak to me.
The experience can be esthetically emotional (if that’s a thing), but there’s also a weight in ritual itself that makes people take it seriously. And don’t forget that for many of these folks, the heart of the service is ingesting a little cracker of Jesus. You can hardly have a closer relationship with Jesus than digesting him.
Many Christians imagine Jesus being present with them when they pray. They talk to him, and listen to him as though he were right there in the room. I suspect that’s a fairly common way that people sense the presence of Divinity. If you’re going to put a name to it, that name is “meditation.”
Some Adventist scholars nowadays drop a batch of feral kittens when they hear about spiritual formation or meditation. They make strained arguments about whether you’re looking in or looking out, emptying your mind or filling it—attempting to create an issue out of the thinnest of distinctions. In so doing they pull the rug out from under many sincere believers who do this to cultivate a sense of Jesus’ presence.
Why has anti-meditation even become a thing? Because it sells books, creates speaking appointments, generates self-righteousness, and gives a certain kind of preacher an opportunity to create fear—which approach is usually successful, ours being a largely fear-based faith. But there is no there there, and shame on them for trying to pull the rug out from under those who are enjoying what is clearly a Biblical way of approaching God.
I’ve had friends who have heard God speak to them audibly, or who had an encounter with an angel. I envy them. Some of the great saints in history went even further, with visions and out-of-body experiences. I hate to have my feelings jerked around, but wouldn’t seeing an angel flit through your room (assuming you’re sober and in your right mind) be a faith strengthener? Alas, this experience isn’t mine, either. Not even in the most intense events of my life, such as when both of my parents died quite young in the same year, did God manifest in that way to me.
Last week I talked with some folks who, though they won’t claim either deep feelings or mystical experiences, root their spiritual experience in a past transformative event that, looked at in the rearview mirror, led to a changed life. God helped her quit drugs, turned his life around, healed her in response to prayer, saved his marriage. If you ask these folks what it means to have a relationship with God, you’ll hear these stories. I’ve seldom needed a dramatic moral rescue, and those times I needed a miracle (premature deaths of family members, above) they didn’t happen. But who am I to doubt the experience of others?
I have known a few Christians (and these, too, I envy) who live from miracle to miracle. Some of their miracles others of us would call coincidences or confirmation bias or self-fulfillment, but to them, life is a long series of Divine interventions in everyday events. God bless them, and may their miracles keep coming.
Those of us who remember John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” know that there’s a parallel experience among people of faith. I have a few friends (too few) for whom spiritual experience means helping those in need. It is occasionally derided as too political, as mere social activism, but for those who do it, it can be the very presence of Jesus. There’s nothing that a follower of Jesus can do that is closer to what Jesus modeled than this. We have a few instances of him in the synagogue, but scores of merciful encounters.
I once attended an evangelistic school where the leader claimed that if you were always winning souls, all your spiritual needs would be satisfied. You wouldn’t question God, you wouldn’t struggle with sin, you wouldn’t need any faith-strengthening ministry, because at every moment you would be selling the Seventh-day Adventist version of Jesus to somebody. Neither pastoral care nor building a community on anything other than a shared interest in evangelism were, he felt, necessary. I don’t agree with him, but I think that was his experience: he got a genuine thrill seeing a new believer go under the water in baptism. But like most salesmen, he lost interest after the sale, letting someone else worry about quality and maintenance.
I asked some friends in my churches what constituted spiritual experience for them, and they described it as being surrounded by, studying with, and praying with their friends in church. The community is the setting for a lot of spiritual experience, and for some it is the experience. It may seem a bit of a stretch to see human friendship as the definition of “knowing God” or “having a friendship with Jesus,” but Ellen White did say that through “the deepest and tenderest earthly ties that human hearts can know, He has sought to reveal Himself to us” (Steps to Christ, 10).
So how about just being a good solid Christian who goes to church and lives what she believes? Is that a spiritual experience? We Seventh-day Adventists love to scold ourselves for this, calling it “Laodicean,” mushy and lukewarm, and merely “playing church.” (We Seventh-day Adventists like to scold ourselves over just about anything. We seem to think there’s no better motivation for becoming better than making ourselves feel inadequate.)
I’m not at all sure that it’s fair to discount the conformative experience of being a solid, practicing Christian. Living in your church’s expectations may not be exciting, but it’s a strength to many. It holds them in place. It cements friendships. It gives a feeling of belonging. I suspect that some of what we call spiritual experience is really about knowing the place we belong.
I’m coming to the other end of the spectrum from feelings, to the rational and logical. You might wonder if study and discussion and analysis is really a spiritual experience at all, of the “friendship with Jesus” quality, but it’s common enough that I’m going to have to assume it is.
I divide cognitive spirituality into two parts. The first commences with a batch of texts that we decide are authoritative, and then weave a logical set of teachings from them. I know a lot of brilliant people whose spiritual experience (if you’re willing, as I am, to call it that) is composed of this kind of rational examination of inspired texts. They take by faith that the foundation is secure, and they build magnificently upon it. These are the New and Old Testament scholars, the Greek and Hebrew language experts, the people who analyze and compare as though God had encoded theology into every diacritical mark of Scripture. On an everyday level, this is the territory of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, the Sabbath School quarterly, the evangelistic crusade, Bible Readings for the Home Circle, Bible studies, and most sermons. Each time I participate in evangelism, I’m impressed with how tidily everything wraps into an internally consistent package. Does this qualify as having a friendship with Jesus? I’m not sure. It is more factual than experiential. But friendships take different forms.
But there’s a further frontier to the rational, logical territory. Out on this edge traditional Seventh-day Adventists get very uncomfortable. I’m talking about those in our community whose temperament is such that they question almost everything. They don’t have emotional or “presence of Jesus” experiences. They are, by nature, scientific and skeptical. They don’t assume everything that happens to them is a miracle. They even struggle to believe that the Bible is true—or if true, that it is as complete and as accurate as their colleagues who analyze the text at the molecular level believe it is. They have the disturbing habit of choosing the logical rather than the revealed solution.
These are folks I know well. They inhabit communities such as Adventist Today and Spectrum, and I believe they are an essential part of a dynamic faith community. They sometimes annoy me when they are relentlessly negative and judgmental—though even then I prefer them to their counterpoints, the relentlessly smug and judgmental.
Yet a lot of people (like the commenter who made the judgment that began this piece) might say that such people cannot be spiritual, much less have an experience of God. They diminish them with the label “cultural.” I’m not nearly as certain as they seem to be that these people can’t be deeply spiritual.
The rational, scientific temperament deserves a rather lengthy treatment of its own—though having now exceeded a reasonable essay length I’m going to defer it until another time. I only ask you to consider this: If someone with more questions than answers insists on remaining in conversation with us (assuming he respects the experience and convictions of others), should we push him away? I hope there will be people of a skeptical turn of mind in heaven, because I hope to be there.
In fact, for someone to stay in conversation with the faith community in spite of doubts might show a great deal more faith than the person whose faith has been rewarded by experiential confirmation. As Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Loren Seibold is a retired pastor, and Executive Editor of Adventist Today. This essay was originally published in May of 2016.