A repost from two years ago…
Today I had two very different meetings with a similar theme.
One person – a really great Christian – confessed to me that they’d prayed for God to enter their life many thousands of times but never got the answer they were looking for. I could relate – this describes the entirety of my teenage years. (See this talk for more)
The other meeting was with some Mormons who knocked on our door. They both told me they became convinced Mormons when they prayed for an experience of the Holy Ghost. This apparently confirmed to them the truth of the gospel as restored by Joseph Smith. As the little leaflet they gave me says: “The Holy Ghost confirms the truth through feelings, thoughts and impressions.” Both of them described this as a private experience of peace and joy. It was unclear how this brief religious feeling related to the status of Joseph Smith as a prophet and priest, or the truth of the book of Mormon.
But apparently this is the way to become a Mormon. As with Smith himself, pray James 1:5 and something will happen. My leaflet tells me, “This knowledge can be miraculous and life changing [Smith met the Father and the Son personally!!] but it usually comes as a quiet assurance.”
Clearly the missionaries I met were at the ‘quiet assurance’ end of Holy Ghost experiences. But it struck me after they left that they had found what my friend was after, and what I’d been seeking as a teenager. I wanted a private religious experience – shining lights, weak knees, woozy stomach. I wanted peace and joy as I perched on the end of my bed. I wanted some kind of numinous glow, wordless ecstasy, love and groovy vibes. Now that I think about it – I was very much into Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground at the time. I think I basically wanted spiritual heroin.
But again the question would have to be asked – what exactly is the link between this spiritual experience and the truth that is supposedly being authenticated? The Mormons had a spiritual high – but that doesn’t answer the question, ‘which spirit has produced it?’ A Mars bar could give me warm fuzzies, what’s that got to do with Jesus?
Perhaps this is another case where we need to reconsider faith in more biblical ways. We commonly think of faith as our work (a feeling to be generated) and as something related to religion in general. On this understanding, all kinds of people have ‘faith’ because they manage to work up generic religious sentiments.
In the bible, faith is simply our receiving Jesus. Not our work but God’s. And its content is not ‘religious feeling’ in general, but ‘Christ and Him crucified’ in particular.
And how is Christ received? Not perched on the end of my bed. He is received in word and sacrament.
Ever noticed how parallel Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 are? Well look in particular at Eph 5:18-20 and Col 3:16-17. Being filled with the Spirit is parallel with ‘letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly.’ Want to be filled with the Spirit? Be filled with His words. And these words are the words of Christ - He Himself is communicated in them.
So I don’t say to my friend that spiritual experiences are unimportant. But neither do I advocate the Mormon route. God is found in Christ and Christ is found in His word. We ought never to stop short of a personal encounter with the living Christ. But we should never seek such encounters apart from where He Himself is given. And He is freely given in word and sacrament.
It’s just interesting to me that a cult founded in mistrusting the word and trusting personal experience can foster spiritual understandings that are so close to home. Let’s give up on looking for the spiritual heroin. Let’s instead receive fellowship with the living Christ, not because of our own quest for experience but on the basis of His prior and utter self-giving. The encounter is already real and true in the gospel – He is yours. “The Son of God loved you and gave Himself for you.” (Gal 2:20) If you’ve believed this gospel truth, you have experienced the Holy Spirit’s assurance. If you haven’t received that word, then you must know that you’ll receive Christ in no other way. Continue to ask, seek and knock by all means. But return continually to the place where He’s already freely offered. Right there you already have Him.