Christian Spirituality > Following Jesus > the contexts for Spiritual Experiences
If there's one clear message that the various new church movements have been telling the rest of the Church over the past 200 years, it is that God's current strategy is to work through people's life experiences. Not that scholarly thought shouldn't be valued highly, or that theology is to be treated lightly, or that doctrine is to be ditched the moment someone demands it. It's just that study or theology or doctrine or authorities, on their own strength, will not cause people to follow Christ, nor to go deeper into following Christ. They have to find it out for themselves.
One reason many church-folks find this hard to accept is that they use the wrong definition of 'experience'. When we think of 'experience', we're usually thinking about the emotional displays whipped up by tent preachers, or which often break loose at a charismatic or Pentecostal gathering, where people 'go wild' or 'fall out'. However, in the context of church renewal, 'experience' means that one lives through (or takes part in the real-ness of life in Christ through) some kind of direct action by the Holy Spirit. (Charismatics call this a 'personal Pentecost'.) This can be through one big event or many little happenings. It is in this active participation which the faith comes to mean something to a person, and becomes a part of their identity.
Experience is also the primary way we learn. The American Heritage Dictionary definition of experience, 2a, reads "active participation in events or activities, leading to the accumulation of knowledge or skill". Thus, it's not enough to simply receive a gift or to go through an event. One learns by taking part: by using the gift, by living in the certainty of God's saving love. One grows by doing. Action becomes the Spirit's leverage on us. And as one takes action, one starts to become more of a follower of Christ. On this point, there is common ground between charismatics, pentecostalists, pietists, evangelicals, and the millions of other Christians who have a high view of the Holy Spirit.
One of the most discussed kinds of religious experiences is that of 'Spirit baptisms' or 'indwellings'. Despite what's said in some parts of the church, especially in denominational leadership, we should start by taking them seriously. Something is going on, so why pretend it's not going on? The task at hand is to understand what is happening and find the benefits and/or the dangers in it.
Pentecostalists have an idea of what is happening. For most of them, "Baptism of the Spirit" refers to when the Holy Spirit grasps hold of the believer, to purify and empower the soul, and to protect it in the spiritual warfare of living in a world which rebels against it. Most other Christians recognize that what happens is not really a 'baptism' or 'indwelling', because for all baptized Christians the Spirit is already dwelling in us, even if perhaps we barricade the Spirit's apartment so the Spirit stays locked away. In sacramental baptism, the Christian is drowned into Christ's death, and thus also submerged into Christ's resurrection - Christ's new life. The Spirit takes hold of the unbaptized adult and leads him or her to be baptized into the Body of Christ.
Yet Pentecostalists are calling everyone's attention to something important when they talk about being 'filled with the Spirit' or having an 'extra portion of the Spirit'. It's hard to find an adequate name for it. Some use terms like 'infilling', 'filling' or 'fullness', 'activation', 'enrichment', 'new openness', 'awareness', 'consciousness', 'awakening', 'empowerment'; a '(re-)commitment to' or '(re-)orientation toward' the Spirit. Catholic charismatics sometimes use the term 'release of the Spirit', based on their beliefs of it as a furthering of baptismal and confirmation graces. Some Latino Pentecostals speak of tomada del Espìritu, which is about being taken over by God.
The New Testament, the common experience of believers over the years, and even simple observation all testify that the Holy Spirit is not equally present or equally in action at all times and in all people. There are times there's more at work, a 'something special' in certain moments in the lives of a follower. It's like the 'something special' which drives the process of maturing in faith, or the 'something special' when someone steps forward to better serve Christ. Mainstream Christians already accept the idea that the Spirit can come specially at a unique time and place for a particular purpose, for in worship services, holy communion, and ordinations they formally call on that same Spirit for precisely such a special presence. Pentecostalists know that the Spirit doesn't come only at those formal times, but can do so at any time, whenever it best suits the divine purpose.
A personal experience is given some of its shape in our minds as we're going through it. We reach back into what we already have in our mind : images, ideas, and feelings we've encountered before. But this is new to us; it's unique and is not like anything before it. When there's nothing to match it, the mind is left helpless. The helplessness may be why these experiences cause unusual behavior, such as fainting or shaking or other losses of control. Later, the experience gets shaped as we think back on it and encounter its uniqueness. Our minds then utilize what we know about, including things we're no longer aware of. Those images and ideas will then be changed as we use them to describe the new experience. This is one reason it's so important to quickly teach people about their new faith -- not just the theology, but the stories, imagery, and practices. It gives the new believer more accurate and truthful ways to describe their experiences, and it makes them better able to put them to use in their lives.
One leading critique of Pentecostal theology on such experiences is that it seems as if the Spirit is acting out of nowhere through nothing. While the Spirit (as the sovereign God) can surely act without anything, the biblical witness is that the Spirit doesn't usually work that way in or on us. When the Spirit acts, God communicates, in the same creative way that God spoke at creation, as brought to us by Scripture. (In church-talk, the Spirit works through the Word of God.) Yet, is it true that the Word is not in the thick of the Pentecostal experience, as their critics charge? In those big meetings or in the megachurch auditorium, the preacher is preaching, and is preaching the gospel Word about the saving work of Christ, saying, 'this is meant for you'. (That's often not true, but then it's quite often not true in mainstream churches too.) In small-group settings, the group itself usually revolves around study of the Scriptures and sharing the life the Spirit is creating in us. In those groups, the Word gets right in your face. So, even among those who believe the Word doesn't 'have to' be present and active for the Spirit to work, the Word is in fact both in the house and in effect, and the Spirit is acting by means of it. It doesn't turn glittery skin into a sign. It does mean we must look more carefully for the Spirit's use of the Word of God.
A modern Catholic point of view is that the Holy Spirit is received through completion of the process of Initiation -- the sacrament of Baptism and then of Confirmation or Chrismation. In this view, proper education in the faith is key. In the Catholic context, the Spirit comes into a person in baptism, immersing them in Christ's death. The fuller experiencing of the Spirit's presence (the 'infilling') waits until the person willingly takes part in that death, killing their self-centeredness. This acceptance, an act of faith that the Holy Spirit had been working on ever since Baptism and confirmation, flings open the doors to the many gifts and experiences the Spirit is trying to give, and makes possible the holy, Godly life of a forgiven sinner.
Others, including some Pentecostals, see a link between the
'infillings' and the anointings for office found in the Bible.
This link is found (sometimes explicitly) in some baptisms and
commissioning services, by way of baptismal symbols and
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Let's suppose that at least some of these powerful experiences of infilling really are the Spirit at work, and we're not kidding ourselves. Why would God do that? Perhaps some of us need something which will burn God's presence into our memory, sear our minds with God's brand-mark, make us feel the Spirit, so we could follow Christ with more abandon and less hesitation. This would make special sense nowadays, since so many of us are hooked on other kinds of feelings, brought about by drugs, lust, visual images, group-think, and music. The Spirit might have to just blow all that stuff out of our system so there can be room for us to experience Christ.
The matter at hand, for those of us who think a lot about God, is to account for the act of such things as 'infilling' when talking about Christian beliefs. The theologically-inclined need to ask themselves, "what would happen if the Spirit really poured that 'something more' into my life"? The implications are practical and down-to-earth, found in actions as well as thoughts, in being taken into a vision that reorders our priorities and reschedules our time. When we pray, do we ask the Spirit to shake us this way?
The matter at hand for someone going through this 'infilling' is "what now?", "what does God want of me?". This takes a patient and complex kind of discernment. Sometimes a basic course of action becomes clear early on :
"The essence of Pentecostalism is the personal
and direct awareness of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, by
which the risen and glorified Christ is revealed and the
believer is empowered to witness and worship with the abundance
of life as described in Acts and the Epistles. The Pentecostal
experience is not a goal to be reached nor a place to stand,
but a door through which to go into a greater fullness of life
in the Spirit."
----- from a 1971 dialogue document between Pentecostalists and Catholic Charismatics.
[[After some extensive, somewhat personal
stuff on near-death experiences and doubts about how real they
<<Why would God trick people like this? Any thoughts?>>
No tricking is involved. The near-death experince is not
something that the mind deals well with. It has no frame of
reference for it. It will try to interpret what is happening by
way of images, ideas, and things that it is familiar with (even
images and ideas they don't themselves believe at that point --
again, your intelligence is grasping for anything it can draw
on). If someone describes light or a tunnel or a voice or a
hand, they are interpreting the uninterpretable by way of the
known. We do the same thing when we speak of God's hands or
face. (Also, this means that all that publicity about
near-death has had an effect on the imagery. It has made us all
familiar with what it's 'supposed to' be like, and thus those
images are at hand when we grasp for an image.)
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> Only once have I actually fallen under
> spirit's power. The same with laughter. That draws me to the conclusive question:
> Do you think it is a wrong practice?
First, falling or fainting is not rightly a 'practice'; it's something which just happens or doesn't happen, as the Spirit sees fit. The Spirit isn't there to create a new, weird habit but a new life. Once someone works themselves up to do it, it becomes a practice, and thus is a work of one's self. That doesn't make it evil, it just makes it pointless.
Second, even the weirdest of experiences can be holy for the Lord. But for it to be that way, something has to come from it : the fruit have to grow from there on. And the fruit aren't 'glowing faces' or repeatedly 'drowning in the River' (falling in the Spirit) or learning pentecostal catchwords or seeing an angel behind every tree or a tear on every portrait of Mary. The Spirit is growing within you blessings of character that turn into actions -- a way of life, a life of following Christ. And character is developed by learning and doing. Too many people 'fall' and never learn what to do from there; when that is so, the falling becomes (again) pointless.
As for 'holy laughter', that can actually be an experience of inner healing. That's the part that makes the most sense to me, because laughter in other situations from other sources can also be a healing thing; how much more so from the God of Joy?
When I'm watching certain well-known 'laughter' preachers on tape they seem so silly that I can't stop laughing for a very different reason. But that's over them and the spectacle they're making, not at holy laughter itself, especially as found in small group situations. It's most disturbing when they crack up so much they can't finish the Scripture they're reading - can't they stop laughing long enough to let the Spirit speak through God's Word?
Again, it's a take-off point, not by itself a life-maker;
what counts is where you go from there. Otherwise, it's no more
valuable (and maybe less valuable) than a good night at the
local comedy club.
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|ver.: 14 April 2009
Spiritual Experiences. Copyright © 1997-2009 by Robert Longman.