Is It Ever Okay To Seek An Experience of God?

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 waiting and prayingseemed 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!”

Sam

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  • Beth

    Gday

    What you were feeling was the power of the Holy Spirit, which in turn triggered so may emotions. Like you said, Bring it on, but without knowledge and direction we tend to rely on and put it down to only emotions, people are scared of emotions because alot of the time we can loose control and maybe embarrass themselves.
    More teaching on the power of the Holy Spirit is needed.
    I say seek an experience with the Holy Spirit, it is empowering, uplifting and encouraging, it is a must in your walk with God, but learn how to use that experience for the Glory of God.
    It is like a relationship with your partner, if you dont have a emotional experience then the relationship slowly dies.
    This is the way God has made us…
    Beth

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      Gday back at you Beth (though it must be night down under),

      Undoubtedly it is the Holy Spirit that opens our eyes (and ears). Emotions are a great part of us, but they can also be tricky. We ignore our emotions to our peril; we obey our emotions to a greater peril. We need to learn to let our emotions be signposts, pointing us to something deeper.

      I agree, a passionless marriage is unhealthy; so is a marriage that is only about making love. I once met a man who admitted to, “being in love with being in love.” All he wanted was that euphoria of being in love, and it led to serial adultery. He didn’t want to get to know the woman’s heart, he just wanted that passion. Marriage is more than mountain top experiences.

      And so is our relationship with God. There are times we are on the mountain, and there are times we are in the valley. In all these times, we can actually come to really know the person of God.

      And that gives us strength–Holy Spirit strength!–to face the day with grace and peace.

      Thanks once again for your great comments.

      Sam

  • JG Kalmbacher

    Sam, this resonates with me. I remember being taught “fact, faith, then feeling” in regard to my acceptance of salvation and relationship with God. It’s an important concept, but for me it also smacked of faith being based on my head knowledge of God and His word, and I had this feeling that there should be something more, a heart knowledge, a DEEP experience of God that brings about a heartfelt faith in God. I remember being involved in the charismatic movement for a while in my youth and wanting “experiences” of God (and did have a few), but I gradually grew to realize that a deep faith was more essential. About six years ago I went through a revival of sorts which resulted in a much deeper, richer, fuller assurance of God and reliance on Him. It wasn’t really an emotional experience at heart, although there were some emotions, but much more profound and long-lasting. I think this is what all of us truly want, not just a superficial emotional experience that passes. To desire God in this way is, I think, a good thing.

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      JG,

      Brilliant. Thanks. I too was taught the “fact, faith, feeling” choo choo analogy. And I think it is right it can also be misleading.

      It is misleading–in my opinion–this way. The “faith” (that we are to put in the “fact”) is itself a type of experience. I don’t mean it has to be a euphoria, but it is a tangible presence within us. And that “faith” itself is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9).

      The fact/faith/feeling metaphor is true, but it can lead to a mere intellectual abstraction about God. We’ve all seen in others (and experienced in ourselves :-) ) where we say, “I believe (trust, have faith in) God,” yet our lives are filled with anxiety or anger. We need God to continually move our head beliefs into our hearts. And it brings a life of peace in the storm.

      Thanks for sharing.

      Sam

  • David Williamson

    You’re right on. but man oh many those feelings can be easy to seek after…

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      They are enticing!

  • http://li0nman.blogspot.com David

    I too spent a stupid amount of time running after great feelings; I appreciate your encouragement to seek real intimacy with God, not just the nice feelings that are symptoms of that intimacy.

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      Hi David, I (obviously) spent too much time chasing them too. It’s good to have such comrades!

  • Jeff

    Well done Sam! I can relate :-).

    Jeff

  • Peter S. Williamson

    Good word, Sam. Thanks.

  • Martha

    You’ve described a sequence of experiences that I think is very common. At least it reminds me of my own.

    I am deeply grateful now for exactly the experiences I’ve had, because they were perfect for me. God has made no mistakes in the ways he has dealt with me. The very few, rare intense experiences I’ve had each left a precious, lasting deposit in my heart. The long periods of dryness—which at first I thought were because I was doing something wrong so that God couldn’t get through to me—turned out to be even more intimate and precious than the dramatic ones, because those were the seasons in which my sandy foundations got exposed and I made the choices that set my feet on rock.

    I now see clearly that if the Lord had granted my desire for emotional highs on my own terms, I would never have learned that his love was unconditional, I would never had understood that I wasn’t in charge, my faith would have remained dependent upon “signs,” I could never have developed even a modest amount of spiritual endurance or sensitivity, I would have been spoiled and demanding, I would have thought myself superior to people with “lesser” experiences, I could never have come to believe that he is with me no matter what… The list of probable dysfunctions could go on for a really long time.

    My point is, I think each of us is being perfectly raised by a Father who makes no mistakes. I am convinced that people for whom emotional or physical experiences of God are common have a temperament that benefits from a different divine parenting technique than the one that is right for me. I also think that the intensity of your early experience was suited to your youth, and the depth of your recent one was suited to your maturity. Every moment is charged with potential for sanctification because God is constantly and lovingly intentional, and his providence is flawless. The only contribution he seems to require (of me, anyway) is trust. Even the tiniest amount seems to be enough.

    At least, that’s what my life experience suggests.

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      Hi Martha,

      How often do I have to say this? Great response! Thanks.

      I completely agree (I say that to you often as well) that God gives us what we need, that “each of us is being perfectly raised by a Father who makes no mistakes.”

      I also say to God, if you want to give me more euphoric experiences, I’m ready and waiting.

      My concern is not HAVING those experiences, it is resting on the emotion and pursuing that emotion. As you said, God doesn’t make mistakes. The next thing he gives us may be something different than we expect or want. So, let’s go to God for God, not for a repeat of past performances!

      Thanks,

      Sam

  • Kevin

    Thanks Sam. I was greatly encouraged by your blog, and by the responses before this one. I can so relate to so many of the things said.

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      Kevin, great to hear from you.

      Thanks!

  • Beth

    I love what Martha has written, thanks Martha.

  • http://hometogo232.wordpress.com writerwannabe763

    What you said was very explanatory… I think at times when I have heard others’ experiences of the ‘electrifying’ kind … I wanted that too and ‘tried’ to make it happen by what others’ said to do..and it hasn’t… and yet the other night when I was saying prayers and especially for someone very ill…I had just closed my eyes and was just thinking on what I was praying and I felt such a ‘warmth’ is how I would describe it and peace…and I just stayed that way for about 15 minutes…God’s presence was surely felt. Diane

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      Hi Wannabe (I know, I know, it’s Diane),

      I like how you worded that, you ” ‘tried’ to make it happen by what others’ said to do.” Yeah, we can’t make it happen.

      And then all of a sudden, when we are least expecting it, He shows up.

      Thanks

  • http://lymanbrown.wordpress.com lymanbrown

    Sam, You hit one of my trigger points with this one. I have a standing argument with a brother re: a traveling evangelist that specializes in putting people on the floor giggling, crying or whatever. His crowd goes for the experience. My brother is sure the Spirit is moving, God is in the room, etc. and that the experience should be persued as much as possible. I respond that while the experience may be real, to persue it without giving equal weight to prayer, being in the word, worship and fellowship with other believers makes us thin Christians. If sugar is all you eat, you’re not allowing your body to develop – if warm, exciting experiences are all you’re after, you’ll never be a true warrior for the kingdom.

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      Lyman,

      Great line, really great: ” If sugar is all you eat, you’re not allowing your body to develop – if warm, exciting experiences are all you’re after, you’ll never be a true warrior for the kingdom.”

  • http://gravatar.com/michaelknowermd michaelknowermd

    Sam,
    Well done. In answer to the title question, probably on occasion. God desires that we first and foremost seek Him and know Him. He did not fill the Bible with definitions, but John 17:3 is the clearest definition I’ve found of eternal life. If we were to reduce our life with Jesus to formulae, methods, protocols, or how-to illustrations, we would conceivably have no need of Him. When the need arises, we may be looking for the neuronal jolt, but He may surprise us with Himself instead, even though the “F/F/F choo-choo” would tell us that is not how things are to be done. When we are seeking Him, we may hear the whisper or the roar of the consuming fire. We cannot dictate the terms of engagement to the eternal Lion.

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      Hi Doc,

      Good word on how we need intimacy with him more than formulae: If we were to reduce our life with Jesus to formulae, methods, protocols, or how-to illustrations, we would conceivably have no need of Him.”

  • http://rachelledawson.com Rachelle

    Seeking an experience of God is what we all should do. I think the misunderstanding comes in when we think that some hyper-emotional moment is a truer experience of God than when His Spirit quietly convicts us of sin, or when He provides strength for us to endure something difficult. Experiencing God includes all the moments where He leads and we respond.

    • Beliefs of the Heart

      Rachelle,

      Excellent way of circling back: yes we NEED an experience of God, but what that experience consists of should not be pre-determined by us. As you say, “some hyper-emotional moment is [not] a truer experience of God than when His Spirit quietly convicts us of sin, or…”

      In fact, if scripture is any indication, most “experiences of God” result in fear and trembling more than ecstatic euphoria. Then again…I don’t want to limit God one way or the other.

      Thanks