Do you ever wonder if there’s something more to the Christian life? Maybe you’ve heard of or know people who tell you about having some sort of amazing God-experience—whether it’s been intense feelings of peace and joy, some kind of ecstatic excitement, maybe even visions or voices—and you wonder if you’re missing out. You hear about these things and you think to yourself “I want more”.
There have been times in my life when I’ve thought that maybe if I prayed in a different way, or if I sang songs in a different style, or if I used that Bible reading plan, then maybe I would experience God in a fuller, deeper, and more intimate way. Maybe if I just did something differently, then God by his Holy Spirit would fill me with these feelings of excitement, making my Christian walk just that much better.
As I speak with Christians at church or university, it seems that this desire to ‘experience’ or ‘feel’ God more intimately is quite widespread. People who desire such an experience feel they’re missing out on something. As one Christian said to me at church after hearing a sermon on Psalm 103, “There must be something more to the Christian life than I am currently feeling”. I wonder what advice you would give to such a person? On one hand, you may be right to point out that what we know to be the truth shouldn’t be overshadowed by being caught up in an experience-hungry age—but does this downplay too seriously the proper place of our emotions? My hope is that we can speak in such a way that values a desire for intimacy with God by speaking truthfully about the work of the Holy Spirit in the here and now.
Cultural context or deep-felt desire?
We should acknowledge at the outset that ‘desire for experience’ defines much of our current culture—we live in an experience-hungry age. Thirty years ago, British theologian Derek Tidball wrote of our culture:
‘I know’ or ‘I think’ has given way to ‘I feel’. The objective has had to make way for the subjective.
This movement has been around for a while: the infamous rock band Bush declared in Glycerine, “It must be for real ’cause now I can feel”. Our culture wants what is real; and what is real for our culture is what we feel.
And really, emotions have a place! Although not grounding his knowledge in his feelings, Augustine helpfully acknowledges “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God”. There is, says Augustine, a right desire that exists in the Christian for God to relieve the desires of the soul—a sentiment that echoes that of the Psalms, for example the cry of Psalm 42:2: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God”. As we claim that we have a personal relationship with God, our concern is not whether or not there is an intimate relationship to God, but rather what that relationship should look and feel like.
The mystics and subjective experience
Mysticism is one stream within Christian tradition that lays a claim to a deeper subjective experience of God (Pentecostalism is another, with its emphasis on the visible gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we won’t address that directly here). The claim of Christian mystics is that they don’t just know God intellectually, they also feel him in their heart. Mysticism is defined as that which:
…emphasizes the inward, subjective, intuitive experience of God. For Mystics, God and Christ are persons who are known and experienced firsthand, more than simply objects of belief.
Richard Rolle, for example, was a hermit in the 1300s. He believed that the solitary life was the best way to experience God. Rolle records an occasion when an “unusually pleasant heat” surged over him when “contemplating” Christ, giving him an overwhelming sense of delight and comfort that prompted him to love more:
Astonished at the way the heat surged up… I kept feeling my breast to make sure there was no physical reason for it… once I realized that it was entirely from within, that this love… was a gift of my maker, I was delighted, and wanted my love to be greater.
St Theresa of Avila, a Spanish nun in the 1500s, described the soul as a castle with seven chambers, each chamber inside the other. The gateway into the inner chambers was prayer; deeper levels of prayer lead to the inner chamber of the soul where true union with Christ is experienced:
Our Lord, too, has other methods of awakening the soul. Quite unexpectedly, when engaged in vocal prayer… it seems, in some wonderful way, to catch fire. It is just as though there suddenly assailed it a fragrance so powerful that it diffused itself through all the senses.
These two examples are illustrative of mysticism’s claims that by meditation and prayer some people report deep sensory experiences of God. These experiences are said to bring comfort and assurance.
Assessing subjective experience
What are we to make of such experiences? Are the mystics describing genuine Christian spirituality? Should all Christians expect to experience such feelings? First, the wrong response is to be reactionary and dismissive—this runs the risk of making our own individual experience, which may not include experiences like those described by the mystics, the basis of our truth. Rather, truth needs to be grounded in God’s revelation through the scriptures.
One way of approaching this issue is to ask, “What does God promise the Christian in the here and now?” Well, God promises every Christian a myriad of spiritual blessings: we are called from death to life; justified; adopted as sons and daughters; sanctified; we will be glorified; we can hear God through his word and know that our heavenly Father hears our prayers.
But what if, on occasion, God gives something on top of these promised blessings? The Australian theologian Graham Cole describes such experiences that God gives to some individually as “uncovenanted blessings”; good things which God’s people enjoy but which are not promised in Scripture. An example of an uncovenanted blessing is wealth: God does not promise in Scripture that all Christians will be materially wealthy, but indeed many Christians are. This is a blessing from God that is not held out as promise.
So while it is true that God never promises to audibly answer our prayers, what if God does at times relate in an audible voice? What if prayer does become some ecstatic moment? Surely such experiences can’t be dismissed? We need to keep seeing that God is free and gracious in the way he relates to us.
Paul as our model
Paul’s conversion was an amazing experience, with light and a voice from heaven. Paul performed miraculous signs (2 Cor 12:12), spoke in tongues more than anyone (1 Cor 14:18), and he was even caught up to a third heaven (2 Cor 12:1-7). So it is all the more significant to note that Paul never makes such experiences normative for Christian experience. Instead, Paul gives thanks (1 Cor 14:18). For Paul these particular experiences are reasons for praise, not prescriptions for others. Paul nowhere gives a formula to follow so that these kinds of experiences will happen. In fact, our experiences take a back seat in our proclamation: “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5).
Unfortunately, some forms of mysticism have tended to be prescriptive, offering specific instructions in order to cultivate a particular emotion, thought or experience. Such prescriptions misunderstand that these experiences are gifts from God, not things we can conjure up.
So what is normative?
In order to outline what can be expected in a normal relationship with God, we need to get three things quite clear.
Firstly, God is transcendent: he is above and beyond us. Not only are we God’s creatures, but we are rebellious creatures. While God once walked with his people in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s sin resulted in their expulsion from the garden and from God’s presence. There is a distance which can’t be breached between sinful people and the holy God.
Secondly, although God is transcendent, he has drawn near to his sinful people. The tabernacle and the temple in the Old Testament were visible representations of how God in his mercy dwelt with his people—but only on his terms, through sacrifice. In the person of Jesus Christ, God came near in a new way: the incarnate Son. God the Son dwelt in human flesh, became our sacrifice, died in our place, rose and ascended back to the Father. Jesus is now our permanent high priest interceding for us at the right hand of the Father in heaven. After Jesus’ ascension the Spirit was sent from the Father and through the Son to dwell in the hearts of God’s people. Our relationship with Jesus and the Father is now mediated through the Spirit.
It’s important to keep saying this last point—that we experience the presence of Christ through the Spirit—otherwise our language of a ‘relationship with Jesus’ is misleading. Songs with lines like, “he walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way” can lead us to think that Jesus is not in heaven but here with us on Earth in a tangible way. Jesus is with us in a very real way, through the word empowered by the Spirit, but he’s not accessible and tangible in the same way your next-door neighbour is.
Thirdly, seeing our Saviour’s face is the object of our hope (1 John 3:1-3). Paul says to the Thessalonians that the gospel leads Christians to wait for God’s son from heaven (1 Thess 1:9-10). We’re not in heaven yet—at least not completely. Ephesians 2:6 and Colossians 3:1 explain that we are in heaven, seated in the heavenly realms, but we are not yet there physically. By the Spirit we participate in the new kingdom, but we will not experience it fully until Jesus’ return.
These three considerations introduce us to the important role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life. While Christ is not physically present with us and is the object of our hope, he has poured out his Spirit to be present with us. In light of this, the mystical quest to ‘feel God’s presence’ is missing something—Christians have God’s Spirit present with them all the time.
The Spirit isn’t just present with us; his sanctifying work involves perfecting our affections. Graham Cole says, “Christian spirituality is responsive spirituality… It is out of the appreciation of the gospel of Jesus Christ that Christian affections and behaviours flow.” The Spirit takes the gospel’s truth and applies it subjectively so that believers are transformed to Jesus’ image. An integral part of the Spirit’s transforming work is the perfecting of believers’ feelings such that they begin to feel God-centred emotions. For example, we as believers feel guilt for our sin, we are led to repentance, and are confirmed in love by the wonder of adoption.
The work of the Spirit
As the crowd hear Peter preaching the gospel in Acts 2 they are “cut to the heart” and ask “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter tells them to repent and be baptized, have their sins forgiven, and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38)—the Spirit who brings an unbeliever to conversion by convicting them of sin (John 16:8).
Similarly, in Hebrews 10, the repeated sacrifices of the Old Covenant produce a consciousness of sin (Heb 10:2). This guilt hinders anyone from drawing near to God with a sincere heart. Yet this same guilt is overthrown by the gospel (Heb 10:17-18). Through faith in Jesus there is forgiveness; hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. This does not mean that believers will never feel guilty of sin, but points to the importance of hearing the gospel afresh, allowing the Holy Spirit to cleanse our hearts by reckoning in us the truth of forgiveness in Christ. Furthermore, the Spirit works in us to deepen our conviction of God’s love for us (Rom 5:5). This work finds its fullest expression in the believer’s assurance that they can call God “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6; Eph 1:5).
From the fear of slavery to the freedom of sons
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)
Christians are no longer fearful slaves but adopted sons and daughters of God. Jonathan Edwards comments:
The slave fears the rod; but love cries, Abba, Father… The testimony of the Spirit the apostle speaks of is far from being any whisper, or revelation; it is that gracious holy effect of the Spirit of God in the hearts of the saints, the disposition of children, appearing in sweet childlike love to God, which casts out all fear.
As adopted children of God we have a shared sonship with Jesus the true Son, and can address the Father as he does: “Abba, Father”. God gives us the Spirit of his Son to confirm our intimate relationship with God, just as the Son had an intimate and emotional relationship with God—he was angry at religious hypocrisy, jealous for his Father’s glory, deeply compassionate for the helpless, mournful over death, and longed to gather his people. As adopted children we are not to live in fear but to be secure in love, just as the Son was not fearful but assured of his Sonship. The Spirit works in us to confirm that we are children of God, in such a way that he helps us feel the emotions of those belonging to the family of God.
So are we missing some important experience in the Christian life? Not at all! We have a family relationship with God the Father because of the work of the Son, and the presence of Christ with us now through the present Holy Spirit. It sounds to me that someone looking for a further experience of intimacy with God is the one missing something, not the other way around.
The Spirit prompts us through Hebrews 12:2 to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. It is my conclusion that as we focus on Jesus and the truths of his gospel the Spirit will work in us to transform us, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy and peace. He will give us the power to understand the breadth of God’s love for us, plant a joy in us rooted in our salvation, and give us a peace that surpasses all understanding.
What we find here is that the experience of more that we long for is not found by looking for further ‘experiences’; rather it is found as the Spirit of God takes the Word of God and changes our hearts. As we remind ourselves of the gospel, the good news that Christ’s death for us makes us God’s dearly loved children, the Spirit will grow appreciation in us so that fear is replaced by the intimacy and assurance of Fatherly love and care.
[NB: a previous version of this article mistakenly named Nirvana as the creators of the song “Glycerine”, not Bush. Apologies to grunge fans everywhere. —Ed.]
 D Tidball in Christian Experience in Theology and Life, edited by I Marshall, Rutherford House, Edinburgh, 1988, p. 1.
 Saint Augustine, Confessions, Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts, 2011, p. ix.
 M Raiter, Stirrings of the Soul, Matthias Media, Kingsford, 2003, p. 141.
 R Rolle, The Fire of Love, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972, p. 45.
 Saint Teresa, Interior Castle, Wilder Publications, Virginia, 2008, p. 82.
 G Cole, ‘Experiencing the Lord: Rhetoric and Reality’, in Spirit of the Living God: Part 2, Lancer, Sydney, 1992, pp. 60-62.
 ‘Affections’ are similar to emotions, but deeper, longer-lasting longings of the will. See J Taylor, ‘What Is the Difference between Affections and Emotions?’, The Gospel Coalition, 03/05/2013, http://bit.ly/1lgYVQo, for a short explanation.
 G Cole, ‘At the Heart of a Christian Spirituality’, Reformed Theological Review 52/2, 1993, pp. 50, 55.
 J Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 2: Religious Affections, Yale University Press, Connecticut, 2009, p. 238.