Do you feel close to God? Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person? Have you ever had a meaningful experience of God that has impacted you deeply?
I have to confess I must answer “no” to each of those questions. My faith is much more based on facts and ideas and knowledge.
But everyone is different. Some Christians do have spiritual experiences and encounters with God that change their lives, while others don’t.
Our experience of God, or lack of it, are important factors in our faith. And in how others perceive us. Let’s explore this idea a little.
Spiritual experiences & spiritual practices
God’s deep love
The tragic deaths of several family members, a history of abuse, violence and drugs, and time in prison, left Lisa “full of guilt, anger, pain, sorrow and frustration …..
broken and empty”. A chance meeting with a Christian woman led to her seek prayer for her past. The effect was dramatic.
“God set my heart on fire and his love, patience, kindness, grace and mercy poured into my life repairing all the damage that fear, guilt and being chained to my past behaviour had caused.”
Conversations with God
Anna experienced God through clear instructions, visions and the gift of healing. This led to her meeting and following Jesus despite not intending to. Later, disappointment with God, life and marriage has led her to move away from Christian faith.
Her life is now full of uncertainty and maybes: “Maybe there is something divine out there, drawing me ever closer”. But, she says: “I still speak to God. God still speaks to me.”
Waves of bliss
Tony was meditating one day when he experienced “‘waves of Bliss'”‘ coming over me. They were really intense and felt like it was coming from outside of me and I remember a voice, repeating ‘All is One’, ‘All is One’ being repeated over and over again. I remember feeling a sense of oneness with everything and things seemed clear, and absolutely beautiful.”
Tony’s account makes no mention of God or religious belief. He reports the experience was positive but apparently it only happened once: “It was a very meaningful experience, very liberating and beautiful, I felt inspired, strong, full of life and in awe and I miss it.”
Annika says “sometimes when things get rough, I just like to disconnect from everything and meditate. I meditate as a form to connect with the universe and also as a form to put my intentions out there, so it knows what I want and what I don’t want in life.”
Again, there is no mention of God or religious belief, nor of a blissful experience. Her meditation seems more of a practical habit, but nevertheless life-enhancing. She reports that via meditation “I’ve received things that I have been wanting, like more clarity in life and a better relationship with a loved one. I’ve also found joy in simple things in life again.”
Are all these experiences genuine contact with the divine? Or can they be explained psychologically?
If they are merely psychological, then it certainly isn’t abnormal psychology. Such experiences are too widespread, happen to people right across the psychological spectrum, and tend to have positive results in peoples lives.
But if they are genuine, they present a problem for religious believers at the same time as reinforcing their faith in the divine. For these experiences don’t seem to conform to any particular religious dogma.
Who has these experiences?
As these reports show, you don’t have to be religious to have these experiences or use some spiritual practices. Most world religions emphasise spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation and worship, and some adherents have deep spiritual experiences. But many non-religious also practice prayer or meditation and some have overwhelming spiritual experiences.
It turns out that a sizable proportion (anywhere from about 5% to 30%) of people in many countries (mostly in the western world) identify as “spiritual but not religious” or similar. Some believe in a God or higher power, some don’t. Many feel disenchanted with religion in general or the church in particular, and prefer the freedom of spirituality to the constraint of dogma.
Religion and spirituality
The focus of most religions is a set of beliefs and practices which a whole community assents to and practices together. Spirituality on the other hand is more individual and experiential, and generally focuses on a sense of personal peace and purpose.
Religious believers of course can be both religious and spiritual, but many are not.
Christianity has a long history of spiritual practices, or example:
- the Desert fathers, the Monastics and mystics like Lady Julian of Norwich,
- practices such as fasting, silence, meditation, ritual and liturgy, Bible memorisation, asceticism and simplicity, as well as prayer, Bible reading and worship,
- the spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit, and emphasised by the Pentecostals.
However it seems that today, many Protestant churches have taken a “safer” path of services built around doctrinal teaching controlled by the clergy. Somehow the Holy Spirit, individual spiritual disciplines, the use of spiritual gifts and personal experience too often take a back seat.
In praise of diversity
Christians have many different experiences of, and perspectives on, their faith.
For some, faith is intellectual, in their heads; they love to discuss doctrine and learn about the original Greek. But for others faith is very experiential, in their hearts; they feel God close to them and love to worship him.
Some love ritual and a sense of awe about God that can be found in big cathedrals, while others much prefer to meet in small friendship groups.
Some just attend church out of habit, not expecting much, but nevertheless thinking it is better they be there.
The sad thing is ….
Sadly, we too often separate into denominations of “our kind of people”. All the doctrinal Christians get together in churches which emphasise preaching, and their worship can be sterile and perfunctory. Meanwhile the worshipers meet in a charismatic church, experience the Holy Spirit, but the teaching is often problematic.
We need each other! Paul’s analogy of the body (1 Corinthians 12) teaches us that.
I am very much a “head” sort of Christian. I rarely have any sense of God’s presence and “worship” is generally not meaningful to me. yet when I spent 6 years in a full-on Pentecostal church I learnt more than anywhere else, although I sometimes felt quite uncomfortable. But feeling uncomfortable shouldn’t stop us from observing, fellowshipping with and learning from Christians who are different to us.
In the end, it is the Holy Spirit who guides, empowers and equips us. If we don’t explicitly call on him for these things, our lives and our churches may be unremarkable and ineffective.
So our churches could benefit from incorporating spiritual practices and openness to the Spirit into services and groups. Singing, prayer, silence, reflection are not just preliminaries to the sermon, but possibly the most important part of the church service. After all, knowledge, even Bible knowledge, is of limited value if it remains theory and divorced from the Spirit of God.
And if we did this in our churches, individual Christians would have a model to take into our own lives and relate to God more deeply and call on the Spirit more earnestly.
Do we want to relate to our culture?
So many people in western post-christian cultures are “done” with church and religion. There are many reasons for this, but for some, it is because the church offers too little for their spirits. Yet many still seek spirituality in their lives and still respect Jesus.
If churches and individual christians honestly developed a more meaningful spirituality, we would have so much more to offer the “spiritual but not religious”, and would likely reduce the numbers leaving the church.
Instead of our faith seeming harsh and condemnatory (as it does to so many), God would be seen as more loving, welcoming and satisfying.
Instead of Christians appearing arrogant and having all the answers, we’d be humbler, pointing to the God who is beyond our understanding.
Instead of sometimes seeming to not care for this world because we believe we’re heading somewhere else, we’d be more in touch with the world, each other and ourselves, and the God who made us all.
I believe modern western Christianity is definitely too unspiritual!
- History of Christian Spirituality. Encyclopedia.com.
- Spiritual Disciplines of the Early Church: Ancient Practices for the 21st Century. Luke Wilson.
- What is Spirituality? Reach Out.
- Meet the “Spiritual but Not Religious”. Barna.
- “Spiritual but not Religious”. The Pluralism Project, Harvard University.
- What It Means To Be Spiritual But Not Religious. The Atlantic.
- What the ‘spiritual but not religious’ have in common with radical Protestants of 500 years ago. The Conversation.
- Meet Those Who “Love Jesus but Not the Church”. Barna.
Photo by Natalie Bond.