How Should We Evaluate Spiritual Experiences?
Though she called her emotional attachment to her son love, we recognize it as being twisted and deformed by her controlling nature. We notice it because we can think of real-life examples of false love. As our society continues to pollute love with things like lust, power, and control, the genuine emotion seems to slip further from our cultural conscience. Still, if an experience as common to mankind as “love” confuses us, how could we hope to evaluate spiritual experiences?
Thankfully, there is a means of doing so, and that is by prayerfully weighing all human experience by the impartial weight of Scripture. We can offer hope whereas the lost world has no means of evaluating experience with wisdom; Christians can be transformed by renewing their minds so that by testing, they may discern “the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2) and “think with sober judgment” (v. 3).
Should Christians Evaluate Spiritual Experiences?
Many emotional experiences rightly accompany the Christian life—God created us to be passionate, experiential beings, not unfeeling automatons. Even so, we would be in error to judge everything that happens to us according to how it makes us feel, for God created our ability to reason. To see this, we only need to consider the fact that Jesus added one part to the Sh’ma or “great commandment” in Matthew 22:37: love God “with all your mind” (cf. Dt 6:5).
According to Scripture, all experiences are open to criticism and evaluation—even those of prophets (1 Cor 14:32). You may wonder if you're lacking faith to assess your true standing before God or to your weigh experiences on the scale of discernment, but if your motives are right, you are actually stepping out on the great faith endeavor of loving God with your mind.
Indeed, consider an extreme case. There are those who do not evaluate themselves and their experiences, though they may believe themselves to have a vibrant faith. They might even prophesy, cast out demons, and perform mighty works, but they find out differently when they stand before Christ and hear Him say, “I never knew you” (Mt 7:21–23). Clearly, there are those at the gates of Heaven who had spiritual experiences giving them false peace about their salvation.
I'm not primarily writing to appeal to these deceived souls. However, I hope that we would all consider the fact that some of our past spiritual experiences may not carry the meaning we think they do. Instead, we need to prayerfully weigh everything on the objective scale of Scripture to discern the truth.
We lack spiritual clarity in this life. Despite the fact that he was an Apostle who prophesied, spoke in tongues, witnessed the “third heaven,” and spent three years with Christ in a special wilderness training camp, Paul still said that “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor 13:9). He struggled against the sin within him Romans 7. He knew the need to tether his mind to the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).
Sin indwells us all, and none could even claim the office of Apostle today. Sin might not have power over the body of the believer, but the believer can choose to walk after sin (Ephesians 5:8 would not command believers to walk in the light unless this were true). Sin distracts believers from the reality within, so the Spirit warns us well, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jer 17:9). Beyond this, we have a literal enemy whose name means “deceiver,” who, along with his minions, can appear as angels of light and righteousness (2 Cor 11:14-15). We must have a firm foundation by which to evaluate religious experiences, which can only be the Word our Creator gave us.
Remember Eve’s experience at the tree—was it excitement at the possibility of being a god grip her, or perhaps a proud commitment to her ability to investigate the possibilities? When Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire at the altar, did they believe God was not concerned about the incidentals of their religious belief? How about the people of Jerusalem when Nebuchadnezzar’s men besieged the city—false prophets proclaimed hope when the city’s destruction was ordained by God. Spiritual expressions surround these examples of great spiritual failure on the part of God’s people, failures to obey God’s Word.
Now remember Lewis' fictional mother. We all need more than love to evaluate our spiritual experiences. Matthew 24:12-13 shows us a love that endures, indicating that there is an un-enduring love. Though the Galatians were ready to sacrifice for Paul, it did not endure (Gal 4:11, 15). Ephesians 6:24 speaks of an incorruptible love, meaning that there is love which corrodes. That warm feeling of love that swells in the heart—though it might make one feel like a spiritual experience is occurring, it shows no certain sign of true religion.
Be clear about this: even affections that seem based on Scripture can masquerade as genuine spiritual experiences—just think on Christ’s words in Matthew 7 warning against those who use spiritual terms to win Heaven’s joys. Our sorrow for sin may not be true (see Exo 10:16-17; 1 Sam 24:154-22; 26:1ff). Scripture might command high affections for God and holy hatred against sin (Pss 139:21, 22; 119:136, 53), but even these emotions can be false—the Muslim terrorist feels these things deeply. Also consider how easily the excitement of the people who, welcoming their King, proclaimed “Hosanna!” after Christ raised Lazuras, then switched to “Crucify Him!” thereafter. Great emotions, even those for God and against one’s own sins, do not prove the trueness of a spiritual experience. We must evaluate our spiritual experiences by the Word of God.
The Right Kind of Spiritual Experiences
We already noted that God created us with a great emotional capacity. The question, then, is not whether an emotional experience is wrong, but which emotional response is the proper one. For instance, ambivalence is an improper response to the thought of an eternity in Hell, but not for the Christian who may face persecution (cf. Paul in Phil1:19–24).
In 1 Peter 1, Peter writes, “Though you have not seen him, you love him” (v. 8). This is an emotional response to the current new life (v. 3) and the hope of the new life to come (4–5). Despite trials, Rejoicing fills the heart of the believer (v. 6), demonstrating the ability of godly affections to transcend circumstances. Indeed, the fact that joy and love remain in the midst of suffering proves the genuineness of faith (v. 7). These people had the right kind of spiritual experiences. If their emotional experiences could change with new circumstances, they may have been temporary excitements, not properly grounded in the truth.
Contrast this to the group of Jews who “believed” and followed Jesus (Jn 8:31). That seems like it is enough: they believed and they followed. Yet, they were a self-assured bunch, and Christ drew this out of them. They falsely believed themselves to be free (v. 33), rested in the false hope of their Jewish lineage (v. 39), and claimed a false relationship with God (v. 41). He reveals the truth of those who follow Him from impure affections: “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here” (v. 42).
Their belief in Christ was superficial. Though they had a spiritual encounter with Christ (v. 30), in the end they were maligning Him with racial slurs and as being demonically possessed (v. 48), and ready to murder Him (v. 59). Isaiah rightly warns, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight” (Is 5:21)! Those who appear to have genuine spiritual experiences with God, if pressed even a little, reveal their true hearts.
Spiritual experiences are nothing if they do not affect the whole person. They should move you forward in the greatest command—to love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind (cf. Mt 22:37–38). They are not from God if they do not conform us into the image of His son (cf. Rom 8:29); despite their appearance of godliness, they are but noise in the cacophony of false religion (cf. 1 Cor 13:1). Genuine spiritual experiences cause the elect to act with godly affections and manifest God’s character, giving us an all-consuming love for Christ (cf. Rv 3:16, Mt 10:37). Unlike those who look inward for proof of spiritual experiences, experiences that come from God cause us to look at the light of the world, Christ Jesus, who was tender and affectionate of heart (cf., Mark 3:4-5; Luke 7:13; 13:34; 19:41-44; John 2:13-17; 11:35-38, et. al.). Like the disciples on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24:32, these genuine experiences with the Savior cause our hearts to burn within (cf. Phil 1:9; Ps 43:3,4; Jn 6:45).
Everything within us is touched to God's glory in a genuine spiritual experience. Moreover, godly works will flow from our genuine experiences, causing us to live this life in a Christ-like manner (Mt 5:5, 7, 9; Col 3:12, 13; 1 Cor 13:4,5, Jas 3:14-17, etc). Our prayers, praises, preaching and teaching, and even sacraments, will flow from the Christ-like affections (cf., Eph 4:11, 12, 16; 1 Tim. 1:3-5; and 2 Cor 1:24). We keep His commandments when we love Him (Jn 14:15), and we love Him when we have a genuine spiritual encounter with Him (1 Jn 4:19). How much deeper this is than a stray thought of the mind, or a simple flutter of the heart!
Wrapping it Up
I hope the point is clear. Not every experience is the same, and not all experiences have the same lasting impact. Therefore, if we are not tethering our experiences to Scripture, then we have no objective means of judging spiritual experiences.
Jonathan Edwards writes, “Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge.” We need divine illumination to know whether our spiritual experiences are true. Stated another way, it is God’s illumination which leads to holy and affectionate spiritual experiences. In order to avoid deception and confusion, then, everything we do and seek to experience as believers and as a church must be supported by Scripture.