When I was thirteen years old, I had an “experience” of God. It happened in a small, circular prayer meeting with about twenty other teenagers.
I began to shake. Every nerve seemed electrified, hyper alert, or aware. I felt alive and bubbling over, a kind of euphoria. I sat, I shook, and then I prayed, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” The experience lasted for close to an hour.
I wasn’t sure what had happened. But I liked it. I asked God for more of it. In prayer times and prayer meetings I’d pray, “Anoint me again; let me soak in that some more.” But that exhilaration didn’t come back very often.
Let’s skip ahead forty years to last week. I had just returned from a retreat. I was tired and perhaps a bit crabby. The next morning something happened again. I felt stirred and moved. I somehow sensed the reality of God.
My prayer time lasted four hours.
But this experience was different
Instead of mere euphoria—because this wasn’t so much “feelings”—I sensed something of the reality of God. It wasn’t my emotions that were stirred—no tingling of the spine—it was an inner-comprehension of God.
It began as I read a devotional and then scripture. Every word seemed more alive; it was the difference between silently reading a letter from a friend and having my friend read it aloud to me. The words were the same … but more living. I read (or heard),
And this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent—Jesus the Messiah (John 17:3).
They weren’t just words on a page; they were God himself talking with me. I wasn’t reading something about God; I was meeting God. Eternal life became not a mere quantitative extension of being; it became a qualitative knowing the person of God.
My inner skeptic
I’ve never opposed “experiences” of God (I liked it when they happened to me), but I’ve always been a bit wary. Too many people (including me) can go to God for a feeling, yet those “feelings” are fleeting and non-transforming. They don’t bring life change.
And we need life change. Anxiety, stress, and confusion can overwhelm us. It’s great to feel great and mask the pain; it’s better to have real life change through knowing God.
Emotions and beliefs
Emotions (mad, glad, sad, scared, or ashamed) primarily arise in response to a triggering event. The triggering event surfaces a belief, and our emotions respond:
- When I feel God speak encouragement through me to a friend; I see (and believe), “God can work even through me.” And I am glad.
- A few days ago I had a fender-bender; I heard (and believed), “Why does this always happened to me?” And I was sad.
- A friend of mine recently failed to care for his wife in a way she needed; he thought (and believed), “I’m a failure of a husband.” And he was ashamed.
Sure, events themselves may cause a low level emotional response, but the controlling emotion is always related to the resultant, surfaced belief. My friend was sad that he hurt his wife; but he was devastated by the shame of his deep belief, “I’m a failure.”
Short circuiting emotions
Our deepest emotions are responses to our deepest beliefs. But we humans have this knee-jerk reaction; we want to short circuit the process, to jump to the good feelings.
We feel sad (scared or ashamed); we want that pain to end, so we go to the bar for a bottle or to Macy’s for an outfit. But our deep belief hasn’t changed (“I’m a failure”), so tomorrow we’re back to the bottle for comfort or to Macy’s for matching shoes.
I had tried this same short circuit approach in my search for another experience from God. In my teenage experience of God, what really happened was I sensed the reality of God, and my resultant response was a nerve-electrifying joy in this truth.
But instead of looking for a deeper experience of (and belief in) the reality of God, I began looking for that nerve-tingling response—the shaking and the quaking. I was looking for the dessert instead of the meal.
To experience or not to experience, that is the question
We need a change of heart. We so easily become anxious, fearful, undisciplined, or angry. Emotional euphoria may momentarily numb our worries, but only a deep experience of—and belief in—the reality of God can remove them.
Eternal life is knowing God; not merely knowledge about him, not simply good behavior, nor the resultant rush of emotions. God has made it possible for us to know, converse with, and even experience him. That is the answer for real life.
Emotions are not the deepest part about us, but they reveal the deepest part about us.
God, you are my God! I eagerly seek you. My soul thirsts for you; My flesh faints for you as in a dry, weary, and parched land. (Psalm 63:1)
Our inner-being seeks, thirsts, pants, and even faints for God. We can’t help it. It’s written on the DNA of our hearts. It’s an inner tidal wave of our spirit. Do I want more spine-tingling, euphoric experiences of God? Sure, bring it on!
But even more, I need the spine-strengthening knowledge of his reality to change my deepest beliefs. If we aim for euphoria, we’ll eventually experience emptiness. If we aim for God, we’ll get everything else we ever wanted thrown in.
As Bre’r Rabbit said “Don’t throw me in that briar patch!”