I am currently reading a fine treatment of the First Great Awakening by Philip Gura entitled Jonathan Edwards, America’s Evangelical (Hill and Wang, 2005). Unlike George Marsden’s more comprehensive and definitive life of Jonathan Edwards, Gura contents himself with focusing on the issue of religious experience, about which Edwards has reams to say. No one who has read Edwards ‘a Narrative of Surprising Conversions’, could doubt that Edwards was very much interested in the ‘inner change’ the inner life of someone who becomes a believer, and the signs that it is so.

The controversies of the eighteenth century in New England between the Old Lights vs. the New Lights will ring very familiar to those who have experienced in this era the endless controversies about ‘charismatic’ gifts, spiritual experience, and what amounts to genuine Christianity. It has been ever thus, and of course one part of the issue is power and control. Ministers don’t like feeling like someone has come to town and stolen their congregation (called sheep stealing), by some sort of dramatic preaching mission. Itinerants have always been seen as threats to located ministers, in various ways. This is one reason why the Billy Graham crusades were so different from others as they not only enlisted the local ministers in the work, but insisted that those coming Christ then needed to join a local church, not follow the Pied Piper around from one revival to another.

In short, there are many many issues that revivalism, the new birth, Christian religious experience raises for us today, all the more so since we live in a very affective age (not to be confused with an effective age), by which I mean it is often thought that no one (but God) can challenge the genuineness of someone else’s experience, since that is subjective and private. What is missed in that assumption is that an experience can be profound and real, without being good or from God. Lots of people have genuine, deep, and life changing experiences all the time that are neither good nor from God. The genuineness of an experience tells us nothing about its character or goodness or truth. In short, even when it comes to religious experience there has to be some criteria by which the experiencer and others can evaluated its nature, character, and validity, if one wishes to say it has come from God.

So let us first offer some cautionary words. Firstly, there is a fine line between a persons’s spirituality and their sexuality, and people who are passionate in one aspect of their being are likely to be passionate in the other. And when one is in the midst of trauma or crisis, it is easy to confuse one sort of experience for the other, or to use spiritual terminology to describe and indeed sanctify merely sexual feelings and longings. Not long ago, I received an emergency email from a man whose wife was cheating on him, and justifying it with various Scriptures, saying he was not God’s man for her. Now the situation was complex, and there was plenty of blame to go around, but here I would like to remind one and all that even Christians have an infinite capacity for self-justification and rationalizing things. When one gets involves in a heightened emotional experience it is often confused with a religious experience, or justified on that basis. The rationale is “nothing that feelings this good, could be bad. It must be from God”. This leads to a second warning.

Feelings are notoriously unreliable guides to the goodness of something. Many things that feel good in the moment of experience are hideously bad for you and wicked in themselves. If you’ve ever talked to a crack addict, you will know what I mean. That high feeling, that soaring sensation feels so good…. But alas it is a deception. I am not for as moment suggesting that feelings in themselves are to be avoided (indeed they are unavoidable), but I am suggesting that they are not a reliable moral guide to much of anything, especially when one realizes that human beings are fallen and self-centered creatures, and even converted ones can get confused by powerful feelings. Feelings come and go. They can be prompted by a myriad of stimuli, and many of them are not good. Here is one guide I would stress when you are evaluating an experience— you can tell the root of it when you see the fruit of it. By this I mean that an experience which genuinely comes from God and by means of the Holy Spirit makes you a better person, and your life and conduct will reflect the change. Paul speaks of how the inner life is changed when God pours his love into our hearts. He speaks in Gal. 5 of the fruit of the Spirit— love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control… If you see the genuine fruit of the Spirit in the life of a person, if you see clear evidence recognizable and attested by many, then you can have a good certainty it is the work of God in the soul of a human being.

It is of course also true that a genuine religious experience may be accompanied by a fresh spiritual gifting of a person, and other changes as well, but ‘the changed life’ has in the first instance to do with being a new creature in Christ, having a new character, not merely new spiritual gifts, and as John Wesley long ago said, the gifts must be normed by the fruit, especially the fruit called love. Read closely 1 Cor. 13. Paul says quite clearly there that the fruit called love is far more important and better evidence than any spiritual gift of the character of the change in a person’s life.

Let’s now turn to the issue of the varieties of conversion experiences, of which there are many. One of the major mistakes made in revivalism is the cookie cutter approach, namely the assumption that everyone needs to have the same sort of conversion story and experience, or else it is not genuine. Sometimes people are even more definitive and insist one needs a Damascus Road kind of darkness to light sudden experience. This is frankly false, and it has caused no little damage to many genuine Christians who have been brow beaten over the head for not being converted, when they are, simply because they did not have one particular kind of emotional religious experience. I have a friend who came out of the Wesleyan revivalistic tradition and as a youth was implored to come to the altar so many times (which he obligingly did) that he later said he felt like he had stretch marks on his soul— being born again, and again, and again, and again. You get the point. When this happens it is clear that the preacher has in mind some sort of specific religious manifestation as evidence of conversion, say for example speaking in tongues. The NT however does not suggest that speaking in tongues is always the initial evidence of conversion, though clearly it sometimes is. And herein lies the problem—God can do it however God wants to, and there are as many different conversion stories and experiences as there are people.

Some conversions are joyful and quick, some are mournful and slow. I am thinking of the famous story of C.S. Lewis who in essence says that God finally backed him into a corner and Lewis gave in and then said words to the effect of “on that day I became the most reluctant convert to Christianity in human history”. Some conversions are even quiet and when a person is alone, some happen in a crowd of many being converted. Some come with dramatic spiritual experiences (being slain in the Spirit), some do not. Some of this has to do with th
e spiritual and emotional makeup of the individual, and some of it has to do with circumstances, and social situations. Obviously God can do it many ways. Consider the terminology of the new birth or being born again, which of course involves analogy. Some labors are really long and painful, and even require intervention. Some labors are remarkably short and quick. Some involve a lot of preliminary signs, some come about quickly as suddenly the waters break. The issue is not so much how or how dramatically one was born of God, but rather whether it is so. The evidence that it has happened is not only the growing and telltale signs of reformed character, the fruit of the Spirit. The evidence also clearly involves a renewed mind, a different world view, especially about one’s relationship with God in Christ. Read Romans 10.8-10—real conversion involves a new found faith in Christ and the inner experience of the love of God which casts out all fear and cleanses one from sin. One can genuinely confess that Jesus is one’s own Lord and he is the risen Lord.

In other words in a genuine Christian conversion there is: 1) a change in relationships, particularly with God and Christ; 2) a change in beliefs and understandings in regard to God, Christ, the Bible, life etc.; and 3) a change in character involved in a real conversion. There may or may not in addition be dramatic emotional experiences and sudden giftings in evidence.

One of the problems which the Old Lights had with New Lights like Jonathan Edwards was that they placed too much emphasis and trust in the evidence someone was coming unglued or unhinged and having an overwhelming emotional experience, which Edwards believed surely came from God. The Old Lights realized these things can be copycatted and even counterfeited, and that the 3 criteria listed above would more obviously reveal who had been genuinely converted. Edwards, to be fair realized this as well but he gave strong credence to people who seemed to have had a dramatic spiritual experience and were saying things like they had had an “intense and lively, and refreshing sense of divine things…I appeared myself to float or swim in the bright sweet beams of the love of Christ…my soul remained in a kind of heavenly Elysium”. Edwards saw swooning, falling out, sweating, yelling, shaking as well as the sort of interior experiences described above as evidence, strong evidence of conversion.
But in fact those same sort of phenomena are in evidence at an exorcism and other sorts of dramatic spiritual experiences, some of which transpire long after conversion. And again, the psychological dynamics of a revival are such that there is a good deal of wanna-be phenomena and copy-catting. One is wise to wait and see if the 3 evidences mentioned above manifest themselves over the course of the following weeks and months. This is why I would not encourage a minister to have people join the church during a revival. I would let them be discipled or catechized for a while first.

One more thing. Religious or genuine spiritual experience is one thing, the emotional response to it, another. Sometimes spiritual experiences do not prompt dramatic emotional outbursts, sometimes with some people they do. It is a mistake to judge the genuineness of a spiritual experience on the basis of the dramatic nature (or lack there of) of the emotional response to it. Sometimes, secular chroniclers have tried to psychologize revival phenomena and say that it is simply people with lots of pent up emotions and anticipation longing to go through some sort of release, or catharsis experience. However true this may be, this is only an analysis not of the spiritual experience itself, but rather of the human response to it. Think on these things and comment.

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