This exploration has arisen because I have encountered some Christians who seem to seek particular experiences. I wanted to know how any given experience could be evaluated to determine whether it is something given by the Holy Spirit. I am particularly concerned that some Christians seek out particular experiences because they believe that this will result in a closer walk with God or because this will demonstrate a close walk with God etc. To give an example of the kinds of experiences I am speaking of, I have heard people talk of having visions of various kinds, visions of Jesus, ‘revelations’ of certain parts of the building being a place of healing. Others have experienced warm ‘fuzzy’ feelings, shaking, or simply being excited by the Holy Spirit. Some have claimed to smell the Spirit, and others have had mystical experiences in prayer. No doubt, anyone who has been around Pentecostals for a while can cite some other examples of people’s experiences.
Many times the testimonies of these experiences have left me with a sense that God is not involved in these experiences. In fact, during the early days of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ I received a Word from God saying, “Do not seek experiences, but seek me.” However, vague feelings of unease are not sufficient to either discredit what Christians say are experiences of the Spirit, nor do these feelings help others determine what is truly a Christian experience brought about by the Spirit. Knowing this I have attempted here to describe what a genuine Christian experience would look like.
I contend that a genuine Christian experience will be brought about by the Holy Spirit and finds precedent in the experience of Jesus. To clarify this, I do not mean that the only valid Christian experiences must be ones which take place in the physical locale in which Jesus walked and lived. Rather, that which was true of the life of Jesus will, we would expect, be true of the lives of those who follow him. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16). And again, “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also” (John 15:20). On the basis of this saying, it is true that our actions should imitate those of Jesus, but also we should expect that the experience of our lives will parallel those of Jesus.
“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:8-11). Paul made this statement while in prison (1:7, 13, 17). Paul’s desire was to know Christ above all else, therefore the loss of all things was of no consequence to him, as long as he was able to be found in Christ and attain to the resurrection of the dead. For Paul, the normal Christian experience was knowing the power of the resurrection, and the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, becoming conformed to Christ’s death. This is not, however, the experience which many Australian Christians are seeking.
On the contrary, many Christians are seeking something “more exciting” than this daily struggle to live out the cross in the power of the resurrection. Perhaps their desire is to be like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4!. “I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know– God knows. 3 And I know that this man– whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– 4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” This sounds way more interesting than suffering! Yet it is not this experience which Paul regards as his most important. He goes on “5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say. 7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
That Paul had the vision of heaven tells us that this kind of experience can be a genuine Christian experience. Indeed there is precedence for this kind of experience in the life of Jesus. Matthew 17:1 “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters– one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”” On the face of it this might be classified as the kind of experience which many Christians are seeking. However, it is clear as the passage progresses that Jesus was given this experience to strengthen him for the cross. 12 “But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.””
This suggests that the normal of experience of Jesus was his path to suffering and the cross. If the normal Christian experience is parallel to the experience of that of Jesus, we should expect the normal Christian experience is also a path on which suffering and living out the cross is to be expected. It is not impossible for Christians to experience visions of heaven or hear audible voices or other powerful spiritual experiences. However, the reasons why these experiences are sought is not the reason for which God gives them. Christians may be seeking excitement but God desires to encourage and strengthen his children to live out the experience of cross. If God grants us such experiences it is not in order to prove that God is present or that the individual Christian is superior in spirituality to other Christians.
But lets us go back to Paul’s experience. While Paul certainly had a powerful spiritual experience, he did not regard his visions of heaven as the most important aspect of his Christian experience. 1 Cor 12: 9 “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” That which Paul willingly boasted about was his experiences of suffering and not his amazing visions and revelations. Christians in Australia in the present should take this as an example to emulate. Instead of seeking to have spiritual experience to feel the presence of God, or to feel ‘spiritual’, or whatever other reason people seek these things, Christians should understand that the normal Christian experience is following Jesus on the road to the cross and therefore it involves suffering (of various kinds and various degrees).
When it comes to what Christians are to seek, the Bible does not command us to seek experiences of any kind. Paul’s desire was first of all to know Christ. “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:8-11). Paul may had some amazing experiences like the vision of heaven mentioned above, but what he sought first and foremost was to know Christ. Jesus Christ is not an experience to be sought, he is a person to be known, worshipped and obeyed.
It is evident that many Christians do not understand that the goal of the Christian life is conformity to Christ. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29). “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” (Romans 6:5). Instead of seeking a deeper relationship with Christ through the Spirit, many Christians seek a variety of so-called ‘spiritual’ experiences such as shaking, warm emotional feelings, supposed visions, ‘revelations’, etc. Having experiences of this kind appears to give some Christians a feeling that God is somehow present with or approving of these individuals.
If experiences serve to encourage and to strengthen the Christian for living out the cross, and being conformed to the likeness of Christ (as discussed above), then these are likely to be experiences given by the Spirit. On the other hand, if these experiences are used as some kind of proof of God’s approval then these are unlikely to be given by the Spirit. The Father approves of his children because of his approval of his beloved Son Jesus. This fact cannot be changed by anything. Seeking experiences can be striving and not faith. Phil 3:3 “For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh—“ But the only basis for pleasing God is faith. Hebrews 11:6 “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Seeking for God’s approval through seeking experiences amounts to seeking to please God through works, which is impossible.
 The location of his imprisonment is unknown [D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p. 319.]