December 1, 2020

We Don’t Advertise Our Spiritual Experiences

A Letter for the Church Today (5)
A Study of 2 Corinthians 10-13

Nothing sells like religious experience.

Currently, the number one book on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestsellers list is Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, the story of a child who slipped into unconsciousness during surgery and reportedly went to heaven. Upon returning, he shared remarkable stories about what he saw there, including details about deceased family members, etc., that he allegedly could never have known.

I have no comment about the book. I mention it only to make my point. Even in this supposedly secular and skeptical age in which we live, a story about spectacular, mysterious spiritual experience gets a lot of attention. And sells a lot of books.

Thus has it ever been. In Paul’s day, traveling preachers and wisdom teachers likewise shared similar stories in order to attract and impress audiences. The Apostle Paul, however, refused to use such methods.

The truth of the matter is that Paul is most reluctant to talk about his visions and revelations. Luke tells us of a number of visions that Paul received (Acts 9:12, 16:9-10, 18:9-10, 22:17-21, 23:11, 27:23-24) so Paul must have talked about some of them with his closest colleagues. This is not altogether surprising in those instances where guidance was involved, as others would have to be given the rationale for Paul’s plans, or where sharing the vision meant Paul was sharing his own deep discouragement or fear. What is remarkable, however, is that in his epistles Paul does not normally share the content of any vision or revelation….In the text before us, Paul tells us at least one reason for his silence: he believes there is nothing to be gained by such talk, i.e., no spiritual profit for the Corinthians if he exposes his most intimate and supernatural experiences to them. Such talk may puff him up, or help to establish his reputation; but what good would it do? None, as far as the apostle can see; and so in the past he has held his peace.

• from A Model of Christian Maturity: An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 10-13
by D.A. Carson

In the course of his appeal to the Corinthian church, Paul has been speaking about how his opponents have forced him to “boast” like they do. They market themselves, send out press releases, advertise their credentials, talk about their success rates and accomplishments. They provide letters of recommendation from other high-powered celebrities and point to rave reviews of their performances. But, apparently more than anything else, they appeal to their own experiences of God.

Paul, who has already discounted their methods (10:1-6), their self-promoting attacks on his reputation (10:7-18), and their reliance on worldly credentials (ch. 11), now takes on these “super-apostles” with regard to their boasting about spiritual visions and revelations (ch. 12).

“It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord,” he writes in 2Cor 12:1. So distasteful is this to Paul that he cannot bring himself to talk about his remarkable experience in the first person — “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” — as though it were someone else.

Can you imagine anyone being so shy and self-effacing today? Especially here in America, the land of capitalist opportunity, a person with Paul’s story would be pressured to hit the megachurch and talk show circuit immediately to “give testimony” about such a heavenly experience. Book and media contracts of all kinds would soon follow. The internet would be all a-buzz about “the man who went to heaven and heard inexpressible things.” It would be the “next big thing.”

But note Paul’s reticence, the struggle he has to even bring this up. He is loathe to share details, to interpret what it all means, to translate his experience into any kind of “lesson” or “message” for his audience. He seems embarrassed to draw any attention to himself or claim anything about his ministry on the basis of this experience. He seems eager to separate himself from his own testimony lest anyone get the wrong impression about who he is or what is message is all about.

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. (12:2-7a, NRSV)

It is in the context of this exceptional spiritual experience that Paul talks about his “thorn in the flesh” (12:7b-10) — some kind of personal suffering that, by all accounts, he learned much more from than his ecstasies ever taught him. Suffering, weakness, insecurity, dependence, and difficulties led him to Christ in a way that a trip to heaven never could.

For they led him to the Cross. They kept him reliant upon grace. The grace of Christ, the power of Christ, for the sake of Christ (12:9-10) — these phrases point out Paul’s focus. He was not out to impress, but to serve. To point others to Christ, not himself.

The rest of the chapter reinforces this.

  • 12:14“Here I am, ready to come to you this third time. And I will not be a burden, because I do not want what is yours but you; for children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children.I will most gladly spend and be spent for you.”
  • 12:19“Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up.”

In the end, it’s style vs. substance, spectacle vs. sacrificial love, exciting, impressive stories vs. steadfast pastoral care.

What’s it going to be, Church?

Comments

  1. I have really struggled with how to react to stories such as the story about the little boy “going to heaven and back” during surgery. One day my wife came home from work (she teaches at a Christian elementary school) and told me about how one of the staff there that day told her story about how she came to Christ. The story included how when she met a certain man for the first time, God spoke to her and said that this was the man she was going to marry. Turns out later on she did marry that guy and they have been happily married for quite some time. My wife was touched by that story and it just made her exclaim how amazing God truly is. I opened my big fat skeptic mouth and said “Do you think that maybe she embellished her story? Do really think that in the moment they met, God told her that she would marry that guy someday? Maybe it’s true, but it sounds kinda fishy.” I think my comments took away some of the effect that this woman’s story initially had on my wife. I’ve seen it other times too, with friends and family members. To me, a lot of them seem like tall tales as many people enjoy a good story now and then. I find most of these stories may involve God to a small extent, but the focus of the story is on “how it made me feel”, and people LOVE to hear these stories being told. I really try not to say anything, but often these stories just seem so self focused, fake and nauseating. I really don’t know how to react.

    • Sometimes humor is a good way to get past people’s defenses and help them see more clearly. Case in point:
      http://www.larknews.com/archives/2936

    • Agree. It is really awkward to sit through many of these stories (and some Pastor’s love them). And don’t ever suggest that many an out-of-body experience or similar events can be explained by physiological malfunction. Much like dreams the ‘event’ occurs mostly at the point when the brain corrects itself and the ‘victim’ returns to consciousness and has to make sense of the left-over neurological liter. I don’t dismiss spiritual events or experiences, not at all, but why can’t these stories be tested? Reading through the old and new testament most ‘spiritual encounters’ seemed to have been lucid, crystal clear, and occur when the person was awake and aware. Other than a few prophesies that are heavily symbolic [or so they appear to us now] they needed very little interpretation. [And the angel said “….”] They’re aren’t very many out-of-body experiences (and don’t so many of these modern spiritual experiences seem eerily similar to each other, but yet are interpreted by the victims in very different ways).

      And the tunnel, and the distant point of light, constricting field of vision… that is oxygen deprivation. It is a very natural and normal part of death [or near death]. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of people have experienced it. We will probably all experience it [unless death is catastrophic or occurs when we are unconscious] . The experience happens especially to divers and pilots due to the nature of those activities; pilots are also prone to out-of-body experiences. “The tunnel” can be reliably induced (under medical supervision of course; don’t try this at home…). The air-force has conducted studies regarding pilots and out-of-body experiences due to how common [and dangerous] they are.

    • Um, God didn’t tell me the first time I met my husband that I was going to marry him; but God did tell me before we started dating. God also told my husband the same thing. We were both told, separately, by God, that we were going to marry one another. God has also told me things about other people that I have no means of knowing. God has told me things about the future that I have no means of guessing. God “healed” my mom of her smoking habit the instant she was saved. These things happen. Just b/c not everyone experiences the same, does not mean it does not happen. If that were the criteria, then Paul’s conversion story is ridiculous. And rather than feeling skeptical that these things can happen, they should be a joyful confirmation of God’s power.

      But while I believe this boy’s story/book is true, I also can’t help but feel that it’s inappropriate to sell it. Tell it, share it, witness on the rooftops as a testimony of faith! But selling it? It does indeed feel to me like the opponents Paul was speaking of. I don’t know the heart of the father who had the book published, and have no place to assume anything negative about his intentions. Perhaps the selling of it is merely a consequence of the era or even the capitalistic society that we live in. Then again, maybe I’m being much too judgmental. But my feelings about it’s publication for profit remain.

  2. I don’t buy the idea that Paul was talking about himself when he referred to the person in Christ who was caught up to the third heaven. I know it’s a popular interpretation — we fans of Paul would love to think God gave him revelations like that. But the problem is that Paul would love revelations like that too; he says himself that he has no problems boasting about that guy. “On behalf of such a one I will boast.”

    Where he’s loath to boast are about his “qualifications,” such as they are, which it appears he finds a bit embarrassing, having been a prosecutor; and his torment and weaknesses, which would hardly be the sort of thing your average attention-seeker would’ve pointed to. His point, in bringing up the heaven-visitor, is to show by contrast that he’s not that guy. That guy can boast in strength. Paul can only boast in weakness.

  3. Regarding the little boy’s trip to heaven~sometimes, these sorts of reports are helpfull if they get even one person to stop thinking that this life is all we have, and maybe to go check out some churches or something. It is not a basis for faith, but if it gets someone started down the road, mazel tov!

    For example, I was a committed Christian long before working as a hospice nurse, but believe you me, being up close and personal to the dying reminded me daily about the strength and TRUTH of faith in Christ. I saw and heard things that were not “miracles”, but for which I had no logical explaination. I also saw the light in the eyes and joy on the faces of many as they crossed over…..the pain and fear giving way to the sort of expression usually seen on the face of a five year old seeing the tree and gifts early Christmas morning.

  4. Pastor Jeremiah says

    I find it interesting that many Christians become visibly upset when you challenge the idea that the “days” in Genesis are literal 24 hour periods, but totally accept the theory that Paul was just “being humble” – even though he says it is not him. Isn’t it sad that in our acceptance of Paul being a spiritual giant we are okay with him being an OUTRIGHT LIAR and then having that lie endorsed by God by placing it unchecked in scripture.

    What justification do we have for thinking like this? Was Paul the only person who had spiritual experiences in the Early Church? Why couldn’t some unknown chap have an experience Paul didn’t? Is it so hard to believe that Paul might have been telling the truth and that someone else might have a deep relationship with God involving signs, wonders, etc. that wasn’t one of the Apostles?

    I really don’t get this fixation with it having to be Paul’s vision – do you honestly think Paul would be unwilling to admit that he had such an experience? John did. If it’s true and it was Paul’s vision why would he lie? What value is there in attributing it to some other man? IT MAKES NO SENSE FOR PAUL TO LIE ABOUT THIS!!

    I actually won’t read the NLT because they just outright alter this passage and have Paul say it was his vision, which opens up a whole can of worms: it would make the passage honest (if it’s true) but what does that say about Scripture and our relationship with it?

    I may be making a mountain out of a molehill, but I think when we get to the point where we are alterring translations of Scripture to accomodate our “take” on a passage we have crossed lines and need to reevaluate our views on that passage.

    • Note that Paul says he was given the thorn in the flesh because of the greatness of the revelations he received. I think it’s pretty clear he’s talking about himself here.

      • Pastor Jeremiah says

        Then why not admit it? Why lie about it? Just because Paul received a thorn due to the greatness of his revelations doesn’t mean he’s talking about himself going to Heaven. In fact to my mind and understanding of Paul wouldn’t he have been more inclined in his letter to the Corinthians to openly talk about this being his revelation and then balancing it with the “thorn”? Claiming that he would only boast in his weaknesses and boasting about “someone else” who went to heaven as the kind of man he’d boast about (even though it’s really himself) smacks of a level of false humility and arrogance worthy of a televangelist and not what I see in Paul via scripture.

        • I don’t see it that way at all, Pastor Jeremiah. In my view, Paul is so emotionally torn about having to resort to talking about these kinds of things that he is having trouble writing about it plainly. He is not “lying,” but downplaying the experience and expressing his discomfort in “boasting” at all, in anything. It doesn’t really make any sense in the context for Paul to be talking about someone else when he himself is the focus of his opponents’ attacks. He says over and over again in this section that the whole concept of “boasting” is repulsive to him and he is only doing it because he sees it as a last resort to save the Corinthian church.

      • Quote:

        On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it,

        It seems to me very clear he was talking about himself but using a literary device to add emphasis to his point. That isn’t hard to believe, Paul was the most gifted epistle writer and used complex grammar and devices all over Romans. Today we’d call him the king of the run-on-sentence.

  5. Almost 40 years ago, while piloting the OV-1B Mohawk (U.S. Army) over Korea, I had, what has come to called, an out-of-body experience. In that moment, I was certain I was about to die.

    The experience was beyond incredible. Yet, I have told very few people the details about it…even after all these years. I generally avoid talking about it because of the following:

    It’s understandable that most people — not just Christians — are fascinated and drawn to stories of the miraculous. It’s also understandable that many within Christian ranks are very skeptical of such stories. For every story that may be true, there are a hundred that probably are not.

    I avoid sharing details precisely for the reason given above. I don’t want people, whether Christian or not, to get drawn into confusion or argument about the event. Secondly, I avoid talking about it because it wasn’t the most important thing that happened on that night so long ago. The important part…the only part that truly matters…is what happened in the nanoseconds before the experience.

    In the midst of my fear, knowing I was about to die, I heard a voice. It wasn‘t my crewmember and it wasn‘t coming over the radio. It was in my mind…a conversation in my brain…not my conscience…not my thoughts. It was a different voice. In that moment I was certain it was the Voice of God. The whole of it went by in a flash. He asked, “What are you afraid of?”
    “I‘m about to die,” I answered incredulously, as though to say, isn‘t that obvious! Then the voice said, “If you truly believe what you profess to believe, will you not soon be in a better place?” The voice was gentle and calm. I hung my head…or maybe more precisely, my spirit and body slumped together in the ejection seat harness as I answered, “The way I‘ve lived my life gives no evidence to what I profess to believe.” The voice didn‘t dispute my answer. Rather, it acknowledged the point as true and went on to ask, “Be that as it may, could you not, even now, even in this moment, yield to me?” My body slumped more. My grip on the control stick became, once again, a feather-light touch as I said with a spirit of repentance, “Yes.”

    And when I answered, “Yes,” was the precise moment my spirit left my body. I will never forget that night, either in this life or the next. But the crux of the event was NOT the miraculous event and all that happened there. The crux was the Holy Spirit’s conviction and wooing me to submit to God.

    When we think about the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, isn’t the intent of them to draw us to answer, YES, to God? When we read or hear stories of present-day miracles, perhaps we would all be well served to remember the Godly intent of such events. Doing so will help us decide whether to believe the story or not….

  6. Joseph (the original) says

    NDE & out-of-body experiences are curious, no? what person would not be fascinated by such an event? and what those that experience them must have to deal with the fallout since there was no reference point for them…

    i don’t doubt the experiences themselves. i may not agree with the conclusions made, or the manner which the event or symbols or encounters were explained upon returning to this corporeal arena…

    here is how i accept such things: since it is true there is a spiritual realm we know little of from an experiential manner, we must accept the limitations of trying to recount something that involves the entire spectrum of awareness. trying to explain something in a linear fashion just makes it seem more amazing, or more unbelievable, however it is understood by the hearer…

    i think such events are truly unique to the individual, even though similarities have been noted by those studying such phenomena. i think there are elements of hyper brain activity, with demonic and/or angelic involvement, and/or spiritual encounters with God/Jesus or what the person understands to be something or someone divine…

    whatever is happening can be subject to one or more of these elements & we as outsiders cannot make the call accurately since it was intended for the individual & how they must appropriate into their lives…

    i do think dear saints have had such experiences. i also believe others with no Christian understanding have had the same. their stories will not have the same elements Christians look for, but then it could be there was demonic deception happening or simply no point of reference to compare to.

    what did happen was real enough for those sharing their story. and many that have shared were afraid they would be considered nut jobs. expect for the uber-prophetic types that do write detailed accounts of their ‘heavenly’ tours & detailed conversations with Jesus or saints or angels, i would tend to give more leeway to the kid that had an amazing story to share, but it was his parents and/or well meaning friends that encouraged the book route.

    the events or details of such an experience i believe are so unique there will always be something ‘different’ or weird or simply off, which i think is intentional if, & this is a BIG if, God indeed is the one orchestrating such things. i think God would keep it somewhat ‘non-standard’ as to force us to review such stories soberly & carefully without making them out to be more than what He intended…

    blue-eyed Jesus? angels with wings? encountering relatives not known of? seeing fantastic creatures unlike anything of this earth? there will always be something about the story that seems off, or unnecessary, or out-of-place. and i think this is how it should be. what hasn’t happened yet, that i know of anyway, is more than 1 individual having such an experience at the same time & being with that other person in the same uncanny spiritual dimension/event. like sharing the same lucid dream with someone…

    anyway…fascinating stuff that i do not need to buy the book to appreciate…

    • Greetings Joseph,

      I read your comments with great interest and found myself agreeing with the vast majority of what you had to say.

      When you said, “…trying to explain something in a linear fashion just makes it seem more amazing, or more unbelievable…,” I echoed that thought with a resounding, yes! Two of the most remarkable memories I have from that night was that I was no longer in a place where linear time existed — or at least not in the way we are accustomed to it. “…Toto, I we’re not in Kansas [or Korea] anymore…”

      The second notable memory was that I knew a level of peace that I had never experienced before…far beyond any I imagined possible. As I was on final approach for landing, with tears streaming over my oxygen mask, I could still feel the lingering presence of that peace.

      I also found myself acknowledging your point regarding hyper brain activity. I have often wondered if “it” really happened or did my mind pop a safety valve, so to speak, and merely release the stress and pressure I was under — a mental delusion? After much consideration, I have come to accept that it did happen, but also acknowledge the possibility that it did not. After all, the important part of that night wasn’t the experience. Rather, it was God speaking.

      Finally, I appreciated your point that such events are uniquely individual. I have a dear friend who often says, “God speaks to each of us in our own language.” She is not making a point that Truth is conditional or subject to my/your interpretation. Rather, she merely points out that the Holy Spirit will communicate with each of us in a way that breaks through our personal walls…in a way that we understand. I think that’s a valid point…one I have experienced numerous times since that night so long ago.

      Blessings,

      Michael

      • Joseph (the original) says

        Michael:

        i consider myself sensitive to things of a spiritual nature. not in a ‘spooky-spiritual’ sense, but in a Holy Spirit divine mystery sorta way…

        there are some things i have heard first hand that defy rational, or even, religious/spiritual categorization. i am a natural skeptic too, which simply means i hold back on quick, knee-jerk conclusions on things simply too wonderful (unexplanable) for me to understand…

        i have to conclude that whatever people experience first hand, regardless of its content, has some basis in factual components. now it could be their understanding of it & how they explain it might not be accurate, but apart from people simply fabricating strange stories by flat out lying, i expect the person has their perspective to share as they understood it happening…

        NDE & out-of-body experiences are too common to think that they all fit neatly into one category depending on one’s decision to pigeon-hole them. there are a few common categories of causes for such things, but i am sure they all cannot be true all the time for every claimed experience…

        and here is where i had to accept such things as being unique: if i ever went thru a similar experience, how would i react to it? how would i try to explain such a thing? i am sure i would think i might be loosing my mind. that something seriously wrong happened when what i perceive as ‘normal’ reality gives way to things beyong my regular/usual way of living in & perceiving what i understand as reality…

        it is much easier to be an objective observer & critique those that have had such experiences. but i would think they too would be much more sober minded if they had a similar experience…

        whether the cause is viewed as strictly physiological, the brain & its activity the least understood of the human body. it is a mystery. and those that have differing viewpoints of spirituality will try to fit these uncommon experiences into their manner of understanding them…

        no matter what the outside viewpoints are, it is the individual that has to live with the experience & incorporate into their history. how they react to it, how it shapes their life for good or bad, how it impacts those they share their story with, is something they must navigate on their own. it would be a scary thing to think one’s mind somehow was malfunctioning, or spiritual forces bigger than they where orchestrating an ethereal experience. no matter the reason, being out-of-control is something any sane person would find totally disconcerting.

        thanx for the exchange. it appears from your response you have wrestled with the reasons/causes/sources of your unique experiences & have accepted them as part of your spiritual journey. blessings to you too…

  7. No modern preacher who could walk on water would bother to request a boat to stand in while preaching to the crowds on the shore…

  8. Pastor Jeremiah says

    We’ll agree to disagree then. Because I just can’t see this any other way than lying. He’s not downplaying anything he’s blatantly attributing the experience to someone else.

  9. I think it’s a matter of a person’s heart. If God intervenes in your life in a miraculous way, and you shout the story from the rooftops to bring you glory then there is an issue. This is obviously wrong.

    But than you read about Jesus healing the demon-possessed man and telling him to go home and tell the family what Jesus had done for him.

    Is your motive in sharing to bring you or God glory?