December 2, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: January 11, 2016

Gethsemani Window 1

I’ve been involved in some good discussions recently on the role of subjective, personal spiritual experiences. How should we deal with personal experiences of God “speaking” or otherwise relating to Christians on the subjective levels of feeling and sensing? Because there is such abuse and misuse in this area, it’s very easy to create a kind of “classroom” Christianity, where everyone is a theologian and a note-taker, but those who have experiences with God are viewed as off the rails and abandoning the Bible.

Jonathan Edwards can write about overwhelming sensations of God’s presence, but such talk today will get you looked at as one of those touchy-feely contemplative types.

Is subjective Christian experience one of those areas we have to throw away in order to hold on to Biblical authority and reasonable, non-fanatical balance in the Christian life? Or is there a way to look at subjective experiences that is positive, balanced and healthy enough to honor the Biblical material, the reality of the Spirit and our own humanness?

Here are some of the main points in these recent discussions. Your comments are welcome.

1) Subjective spiritual experience is everywhere in the Bible. It’s an incomplete and distorted Christianity that tries to take away the element of feeling, hearing, sensing, enjoying God and his presence. God speaks to Abraham, and we rightly look at the words of the promise as crucial. But God also MET and SPOKE to Abraham, an experience that would have been life-altering on its own.

2) So the Christian life is a life that believes and trusts in a personal God of objective truth, but this God is experienced. He has made us in his image that we might subjectively know him as well as know about him. We cannot make this a secondary aspect of the knowledge of God, and we cannot make it the primary aspect of the knowledge of God. Finding the proper place of subjective Christian experience is an important part of Christian growth and the life of the church.

3) Many Christians automatically make the experience of God a matter of suspicion; often to the point that to say “I felt” or “I sensed….” is to commit the sin of disbelieving and ignoring scripture. Yet how can we believe the Bible’s story, and especially its portrayal of the life of the Spirit exemplified in Jesus, and say that the Christian experience is only rational and objective? The Christian has a subjective experience of God in the Spirit, and that experiential Christianity must be rightly valued and encouraged.

4) Subjective Christian experience is often the critical place where God reveals himself to us, leads us, encourages us and gives us particular directions and assignments. Without a healthy emphasis on subjective spiritual experience, Christians will overvalue the role of human leaders and reason. While these are two very important components in the Christian life, it is impossible to see that the God of the Bible only works in and through those elements. We have a God who speaks, who gives senses of his presence, who works within our life experience in ways that cannot be entirely objectified or systematized.

5) For example, at times in the Bible God revealed himself to individuals through dreams. Nothing will make a thoroughly rational person more uneasy than someone saying that God speaks truth through dreams. We are, like Scrooge, more like to say there’s more of “gravy” than God in such revelations. Yet we cannot deny that this is the God who spoke to Joseph and Paul, and unless one is a cessationist of a high level, there is no reason that we should not believe that God, in his freedom and sovereignty, could not speak through a dream in the life of an individual today.

6) The argument that God does not give various kinds of subjective experiences today generally depends on the desire to honor the sufficiency of scripture. But completed revelation in scripture does not change God’s design of human beings to experience him subjectively, nor does it change his nature to do so. That the authoritative place of the Bible in Christian experience now is part of the “matrix” of Christian experience does not erase or replace that subjective experience.

7) It is, therefore, important to build into the church a culture that values subjective Christian experience rightly, interprets it correctly, and equips us to minister to one another in ways that honor the work of the Spirit. Leaders should determine that they will not create a church where those who “feel,” “sense” or “hear” God are looked down upon or seen as immature, deceived or deluded.

Gethsemani Window 28) Crucial to this culture will be inter-relating subjective experience (“God spoke to me through this event”) with scripture (“What does the Bible teach and tell?”), the collected wisdom of the church (“What does the wisdom of church tradition tell us about this kind of experience?”), and the role of spiritual leadership and mentors (“How does a wiser, gifted Christian mentor see this experience?”) In this matrix of factors, subjective experience can be valued, but not over-valued; owned, but not in a way that begins to dominate and over-influence.

9) The relationship of subjective spiritual experience and human personality is the critical area of study. Because we are fallen, sinful and broken images of God, none of our spiritual experiences may be seen as absolutely dependable. We can be wrong. Other factors of humanness- from brain chemistry to sleep to food- influence our perception of spiritual experience.

10) This awareness of our fallenness does not, however, render subjective experience useless. Abraham was a sinner when God spoke to him. Joseph had other dreams where God did not speak. Sometimes we have a subjective experience that is due to factors that are not God. But this is where we ask simple and important questions:

  • Does this experience validate God and the Gospel as revealed in scripture?
  • Does this experience reveal truth that is validated through reason and the wisdom of others?
  • Does this experience make me more useful in my assignments in God’s Kingdom?
  • Does this experience foster Christian virtues like humility and the despising of sin?
  • Does my critical reasoning ability tell me that such an experience is outside of what the Christian worldview presents as the right interaction between God and the world, and between myself and other persons?
  • Is there any obvious reason to attribute this experience to other factors?

11) It is important for all Christians to remember that subjective Christian experience is a significant part of God’s response to our humanness. Everyone on the day of Pentecost was a sinner. Many of those in scripture to whom God gave significant experiences were sinful, weak and broken. We cannot automatically conclude that our depravity means that any sense of God’s presence or voice is meaningless.

12) An unhelpful emphasis on “hearing God’s voice” as the normal pattern of the Christian life can create havoc in the matrix of Christian experience. We ought to beware of anyone who proscribes or describes subjective experiences in universal terms. Godâ’s ways of dealing with all people are in scripture. His subjective ways are unique to our personalities, etc.

13) A further warned is needed for those leaders who base their leadership upon their own subjective experience. Leaders are, in particular, to be aware of their need to submit aspects of their experience that affect leadership to the wisdom and counsel of others. It is unethical and wrong to manipulate others with our subjective impressions of God. (“God has revealed to me that you are going to fall in love with me and marry me.”)

14) Finally, the subjective experience of Jesus was a sense of the Father’s fellowship and constant love. While we see other kinds of experience- such as insight into the human thought process, etc- the primary work of the Spirit is the assurance of God’s love for us, which is proclaimed in scripture and poured out in our hearts.


  1. Wow! Balance! What a concept.

    • Yeah, as long as I’ve been reading Michael’s writing, one of the things that still stands out and is often too rare from many pastors is his balanced perspective.

  2. But completed revelation in scripture does not change God’s design of human beings to experience him subjectively, nor does it change his nature to do so.

    OK, so where does that leave those of us who don’t experience God like this very much, and/or don’t trust ourselves to “know” it’s real?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Sit in the back, and be quiet.

      That is partially snark, and partially not. This used to annoy me; these days I am comfortable with it. Given that the modern church – I suspect regardless of sect – lacks the infrastructure to perform role #8 and completely ignores the reality of #9…. being left out may be the best place to be.

      Lacking the structures for role #8 I am at a loss as to how you [re]build them. As for #9 I think it might be wise for churches to host some basic science and physiology courses for members [I am 100% serious]. It would do a great deal for credibility.

      I am intellectually OK with the notion of God, angels, deamons, or whatnot interacting with someone somehow. But it appears what they say is limited to a surprisingly small range of topics, and almost without exception what someone would want to be told. I cannot ever recall God ‘speaking’ to an accountant; he apparently talks to performance/artist types constantly. It makes it very difficult to take the continuous din of ‘god speaking’ seriously.

      • I can only hear Mrs. Crabtree from South Park right now… “SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!!!”

      • Amen. He’s always been the God of the warriors, the priests, the poets and the artists. And then later on, the poor.

        We need more science and physiology courses in churches. Absolutely. But you’d run into problems. Those who still believe a storm is God speaking, for instance. That an earthquake means he is angry. The God found in nature.

        And the loudest person will win, because if subjective trumps objective, everything is up for grabs.

        • There are also some possible issues with getting people to actually come to something like that. You want me to come so school? At night or during the week? For something I don’t really see the benefit of?

          Maybe cautions and advice from the scientific world would be better intermixed with the Sunday morning sermon. Notice how erudite John Wesley was in his surviving sermons–he was always quoting the Apocrypha, classical literature, English literature, philosophy, and referencing contemporary scientific mysteries. It’s beautiful to see little nuggets of wisdom worked so seamlessly into a speech.

          Is that a better route, so long as it doesn’t run overlong?

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            I agree completely. As an event I am very aware of the attendance problem. Ideally it would be woven into the message to temper people through education – but a lot of pastors are not up to the challenge or do not accept education as a role of the message [I’ve been chastised many times that the point of the message is The Gospel… Although it always seems to meander elsewhere anyway]. A little bit of salt would go a long way IMO; the truly aberant forms of God Speaking usually start properly enough and then build up steam to abberation.

  3. senecagriggs says

    ” I cannot ever recall God ‘speaking’ to an accountant; he apparently talks to performance/artist types constantly.”

    Pretty funny –

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I mean this critique seriously. God spent a lot of time in the old testament speaking to the equivalent of mid-level bureaucrats (Daniel, Nehemiah, Ezra,…) With very different kinds of results to the type of ‘speaking’ we get now; or more emphatically – *with* results, contrary to…

  4. Quite interesting as I’ve been thinking a bit about this lately. Coming from a Pentecostal background (and now semi-Cathodox), I had a strong emotive weeping experience when I came to faith. I also had a strong experience at a camp when seeking the “baptism in the Spirit” (or filling of the Spirit). However, I’ve re-evaluated my experience of tongues (which occurred a few years after those initial experiences) to be the “power of suggestion”. The reason being, is I now I think the way the Acts passages have been portrayed (by Pentes), totally ignored Jews observing foreigners speaking in their own languages freely, when moved by the Spirit (a discussion for another time).

    Through the various “Pente” churches I’ve been at, people would talk of God “speaking to them” in various ways which were quite dubious. God told them this or that to back up their favourite “pet” attempt at scriptural “modern art” ! Then there was the pressure to produce spiritual gifts. Amongst the mess there were some valid healings & “words of knowledge”.

    As to myself, I always wondered why I didn’t experience much when the preacher would proclaim “God’s presence is here”, or why I wouldn’t fall backwards when prayed for.

    The way I see it now is as that Orthodox prayer states, “Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, present everywhere & filling all things. Treasury of goodness…” Through prayer & meditiation, I believe that the stillness one senses & the peace, is the presence of God. Same with the awe one senses when looking at nature, this is a presence of God also. God is love. Those occasional times one has a notion of selfless love, there you have God’s presence. Sin hasn’t so corrupted the cosmos that God has hidden himself completely.

    As to dreams, healings, miracles, prophesies. All valid. However, I would side with the cautions in the Philokalia that warn that spiritual maturity is required to experience these things in truth. It also implies years in spiritual contemplative practise. There have been too many “Billy Bob Holy Roller Circuses” because these guys disassociate from church tradition or were kicked out to begin with.

    I am reading a book at the moment by Catherine Marshall, called “Light in my Darkest Night”. I read it before when I was a Pente, but now I find it amazing at how subjective the experiences are of the people involved. All “players” feel led by God – some of it quite valid – but at other times the “experience of God” is coming through a certain theological lense that claims healing is always certain. Also the characters drawn to pray for a dying baby, all have their lives challenged as if her suffering is about them in some way, not to mention some of them going through re-baptisms in water.

    The problem is, how do you bring balance to churches influenced by the charismatic movement ? Even Catholic charismatics, that I’ve met, don’t seem to tap into their monastic spirituality but rather go for stuff that has been re-gurgitated from the Pentes. I hope the US at least has a better balance with their charismatics in Catholicism.

    The next problem is how do you bring “valid experience” to churches that don’t even understand incarnational theology ? Last’y, how & what should the “average Joe” type Christian be expected to experience from God ?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > how do you bring balance to churches

      Exactly. Especially when “years in spiritual contemplative practise” is dismissed with the hand wave of ‘works righteousness’. This is one of the reasons I have fled to semi-Catholicism myself; they are not as inclined to wave away the reality of humanity. But many of the same licenses still exist for ‘creatives’, etc…

  5. Something I find interesting here is how there is a tendency to write sweeping generalizations from limited experience. I defer to my elders, but how many people actually embed themselves in more than a few streams of Christianity over a life time? From listening to my best friend with her charismatic experiences, she herself was spiritually abused by a pastor. I get that it happens. I also understand living in a dispensationalist theology, I was raised in that. But I spent some formative years in a charismatic, reformed, presbyterian church. Odd, but true. For a number of years after that, I was in a church that functionally didn’t acknowledge the Holy Spirit as a co-equal part of the trinity.

    Most recently, we’ve been attending what I call a quietly charismatic church. That’s my limited experience. The charismatic churches I’ve attended has been the most healing communities I’ve been a part of. And the spiritual elders frequently were scientists and engineers to counter the argument that it’s the creative types only that have those experiences. So I see the potential for abuse, but it hasn’t been my experience. I don’t live in technicolor experiences of pentacostal encounters with God, but I do have an experience of being comforted and guided by the Holy Spirit and I don’t think it was just indigestion. Part of that is that there is usually some outside affirmation from people I trust. I don’t look down on anyone who doesn’t believe they have these experiences. One of those would be my father whom I deeply respect. Please allow room for those of us who have different experiences with charismatics/contemplatives.

    • Sounds encouraging Andie. Good to hear there are still some non-dysfunctional charismatics about. I would suggest it possibly is due to a deeper link to tradition in the background….

    • Alison Griffiths says

      You are absolutely spot on IMO. Respect for the different ways people experience God is essential.
      Who are we to limit God to our understanding or preferences? Where is the perfect non charismatic church? And what’s wrong with the creative types who experience God in a seemingly less rational (ie measurable) way?
      Given the wide variety of personalities God has created, it would be more odd if we all had the same spiritual preferences/needs/experiences.

  6. 1) Subjective spiritual experience is everywhere in the Bible. It’s an incomplete and distorted Christianity that tries to take away the element of feeling, hearing, sensing, enjoying God and his presence. God speaks to Abraham, and we rightly look at the words of the promise as crucial. But God also MET and SPOKE to Abraham, an experience that would have been life-altering on its own.

    With what we know about how the Bible and it’s books were compiled, from reading Enns and others, how can we make this connection authentically and say it’s true at all? Humans have a tendency to spiritualize so many experiences in life. We basically know that where the Bible says God met and spoke to Abraham…that’s false, it never happened. Instead we have the story, constructed by many different sources, to inform a later reality.

    This seems like an area of cognitive dissonance. But maybe it’s not.

  7. The really scary thing in all of this is the lust for power. If you can convince people that God speaks to/acts through you in a way He doesn’t with lesser mortals, you pretty much have the run of the place. A family member was “healed” of asthma as a child at a Benny Hinn event thirty years ago, after he agreed to dispose of some ‘diabolical’ action figures he owned. it’s true that my family member doesn’t suffer any longer from asthma, but his life is neither enviable nor discernibly Christian. Nevertheless, this ‘miracle’ is trotted out regularly to defuse any criticism of Mr. Hinn.

    At the Pentecostal Bible college I attended in the mid 70s, the number one goal of many aspiring Pentecostal divines was to have a “power ministry”, which was to say, a ministry marked by prodigious signs and wonders. It doesn’t take either a saint or a rocket scientist to see what is wrong with this.

    As an Orthodox Christian now, I am beginning to see the outlines of an explanation, at least one that works for me. Pentecostalism is the democratization of spiritual power, just as revivalistic evangelicalism was the democratization of salvation. No wonder it’s so wildly popular. What came about in Orthodoxy as the end result of long process of self-denial and spiritual purification, and which looked from the outside for all blue heaven like works-righteousness, was instantly attainable if you only “believed” or even “confessed” properly.

    In the Pentecostalism that prevailed even ten years before I became one, the major thrust of Pentecostal preaching was holiness. Not that this was always well-balanced. It resulted in a lot of legalism, but it also resulted in a particularly fragrant and distinctly Wesleyan kind of saint; humble, prayerful. hard-working, and devoted to the Scriptures, a kind which you can still find among the older members of Assemblies of God and Church of God congregation.

    I have kind of a love/hate relationship with the profound democratization of the faith which has occurred in the crucible of our democratic society. Charles Williams, in one of his profounder moments, stated that “the City [his metaphor for human life from the point of view of the emerging Church] is simultaneously hierarchical and republican.”

    • I watched a video the other night, recorded decades ago, of a healing service. The pastor loudly and urgently grabbed a man’s head and was yanking it up and down, left and right. The man was visibly in pain, and testified that he had a herniated disc and was wearing a brace, and if he didn’t wear it and the disc slipped or something, he could be paralyzed. No matter. The man of God had faith, and continued to wrench the guy’s head around, before demanding the man move it around himself.

      I tried to have faith in the pentecostal movement. I still admire a lot of the health and wealth teaching, but only from a practical feelgood about yourself and set goals angle. But yes. It’s really scary.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “the City [his metaphor for human life from the point of view of the emerging Church] is simultaneously hierarchical and republican.”

      Nice. When Mr. Williams is good, he is very good. And he is often impenetrable. 🙂

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The really scary thing in all of this is the lust for power. If you can convince people that God speaks to/acts through you in a way He doesn’t with lesser mortals, you pretty much have the run of the place.

      “Does your soul crave center stage?
      Have you heard about the latest rage?
      Read your Bible by a lightning flash?
      Get ordained by a thunder crash?
      Build your Kingdom with a cattle prod —
      Tell the masses it’s a message from GOD —
      Where the innocent congregate
      — Steve Taylor, “I Manipulate”

  8. Some good thoughts by Michael.

    He writes about it so sensibly, it often just seems so odd (at best) to me in practice. The vast majority of times that I’ve encountered this type of language it’s been in a way designed to either get people behind some kind of a “vision for the church” or in a “this conversation is over” authoritative last word sort of way.

    I recognize that most of the “healthier” expressions probably go unspoken and unpublicized, and/or are only apparent after the fact.

  9. I read this late last night (I’m a West-Coaster) and was curious what kinds of comments it might generate here amongst the iMonk crowd today, because about half of what Michael wrote in this piece seems to be the kind of stuff that some iMonk folks cringe at and would consider “bad religion” and give pushback. The beauty of Michael’s writing and philosophy (I think someone mentioned it in their comments) was his balanced approach.

  10. One thing no one seems to be mentioning. For those who rarely have a subjective experience of God’s presence, there is hope in the fact that many of those who did, at least in the biblical record, had only one such experience in a lifetime. Perhaps part of the discernment process would be taking with a grain of salt anyone who speaks of such things as a daily reality or expects others to have essentially the same experience that they do.

    • I think this is a critical point. People tend to conflate all the times and events of the biblical narrative and draw the conclusion that miracles and experiences of God’s presence were a common occurrence.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        This. It would be nice to create a bible with a number of blank pages between each OT book relative to the number of elapsed years where nothing was recorded. It would be a good illustration of God’s relative silence.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Danger signs:
      1) Pronouncing Jesus with two “e”s or LORD with two or more “o”s.
      2) Pronouncing either of the above as ALL CAPS.
      3) Claiming God has you personally on speed-dial.

  11. A lifetime of Quiet. He will be drawn out. Quiet. Not the din of continuous thought. Silence. Not conscience. Communion. Not for a moment or a day, a week or a month. Not cheap. Not throwaway. No demand. No expectation. No result. A lifetime of golden drops. He can’t resist. He won’t resist. It may sound like my voice but it won’t be my thought. Sweet. Tasty. In Silence again perhaps an answer to a long forgotten prayer. Perhaps a playful tease to dispel a dourness. Perhaps a hand on the shoulder. Perhaps the wiping of a tear. But enough of words. Again to the stillness of the garden. Lover to the beloved. To the royal court. Waiting on the King. A lifetime of Quiet.

  12. Would that the Holy Spirit would remain where the church placed Him or Her those 1700 years ago in Nicea and stop causing all these problems and dissensions. Would that God would just pick one name and stick to it, and one church while He is at it. Would that human beings would all be of one personality and operate all at the same level. Would that revelation be plainly and finally stated and everyone be required to follow it to the letter or suffer the consequences. Forever. Would that we could all be as rich as Billy Graham. Would that all those who don’t agree with me just shut up and sit down. Amen.

  13. R.I.P, David Bowie, forever and ever.

    • That’s my favorite Bowie song. Here’s an outstanding live version. Watch how he transforms on-stage from entertainer to really feeling what he’s singing, how the intensity of emotion builds on his face and in his eyes.

      • Reading the news about his death this morning stunned me. “Heroes” was the fist Bowie song I ever liked, and liked at first hearing; from it spread my gradually growing appreciation for all he did in his musical and visual art. It’s still my favorite, and reaches me in a deep place whenever I listen to it. David Bowie was a uniquely talented man and musician; my life has been enriched and deepened by his work. I wish I could thank him.

  14. Christiane says

    I expect ‘grace’ is not something that comes easily because of our pride. It is said written that ‘God giveth grace to the humble’ and that children can see what the wisest among us miss, and that this gives God pleasure.

    I think we sometimes become aware that we are mixed up in greater things than we realize at the time . . . our ‘moments’ of awareness of that ‘something more’ are perhaps the gifts of grace at those times when we are grateful for what we have and thankful for the small things that have no price tag or ‘value’ in the world except to those who love them

  15. Yes. I think it has to do with becoming aware of God in the mundane.

  16. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    (“God has revealed to me that you are going to fall in love with me and marry me.”)

    JMJ at Christian Monist referenced this as a sort of Navigators pickup line. Since in the Navs you had to be More Spiritual Than Thou and On Fire for The LORD 24/7, you were effectively forbidden to even notice a “sister” as attractive (that was The Flesh). The above Nav Pickup Line was the usual way to rationalize/spiritualize/justify it.

    JMJ also related the marriages from this Spiritual Guilt Manipulation usually didn’t last. They would blow up with her leaving and him lamenting how “Satan hath entered into her”.

    P.S. There’s even an internet meme about it. Can’t find an example, but it’s a young woman with a creepy intense stalker expression and the caption “YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT GOD REVEALED TO ME IN A DREAM THAT YOU ARE GOING TO BE MY HUSBAND”.