What does it mean to “experience” God? Ever since I walked into a charismatic worship service at age 17, I have found myself exploring this question. For years I longed for the deeply emotional experience of God in worship. Sometimes I experienced it in fervent prayer meetings or the solo mountaintop experience. When I look back I do not have a negative view of these experiences – but I realize I had a limited view. Is emotional experience enough when trying to describe an encounter with God? My conclusion at this point in my life is that an emotional experience itself is not enough to confirm an authentic experience of God.
Two verses from Romans 8 will help us as we explore this issue. Verse 16 states: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Verse 26 states: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
First, we must understand that the Holy Spirit is in us as followers of Christ and that we do experience the Holy Spirit in ways that “testify” to the very presence of God in our souls as His precious children. We are affirmed as His by the Holy Spirit and this is clearly some kind of knowable experience. Secondly, the Holy Spirit is actively at work in our souls – helping us in our weaknesses and ministering to us in inexplicable and experiential ways that we can loosely identify. However, I need to make an assertion here that may be uncomfortable to name. A perceived emotional experience of God is not itself provable as being from God. It may be an indication of God, but we can only know if it is God by the fruit it produces in our soul. To know God is to be changed/redeemed/loved. It is not the emotion itself that indicates that God is present or at work – but it is through an identifiable outcome of our engagement with God that can affirm we have actually encountered God. This should be comforting to those who are addicted to more and more emotional experiences of God as well as to those who have a limited emotional experience of God.
What I have named so far are only two ways we might describe an authentic experience of God. First, that we notice a deeper and deeper experiential knowledge of our "security" as a child of God. Second, that the Spirit of God is truly engaged in our soul by comforting, convicting, assuring, enlightening or awakening us. While these things may be identified as emotional experiences, the emotions are simply our senses telling us that something real and transformational is happening within us. There is a miraculous nature to this work of the Spirit and we can testify to this transformation in ways that are sometimes concrete and knowable. I believe God gives us an invitation to become awake to our emotional experiences – but to always keep in mind that this awakening will normally include real concrete shifts in our relational attachments – especially how we love God, others and even ourselves and to know we are truly loved by God. The Spirit is not at work merely to comfort or help us in the moment – but His beautiful presence moves us towards change and transformation in meaningful and concrete ways - identifiable not so much in the individual moment but in the long-term movement in our souls. Then, as the Christian life matures, we discover we are in a place where our assurance of the presence of God in our souls will allow us to relinquish all effort and to rest peacefully in His loving arms. We then hear afresh and in new ways the eternal invitation to “be still and know that I am God.”
I would love to hear from you if you have questions, thoughts or would like help in processing this more. Your Servant in Christ ~Brett