Experience Makes Me Closer to God
All too often churches today claim that experiencing the presence of God is a barometer for the health of our relationship with God, and there appears to be some common sense evidence that this is true; it makes sense that those who are closest with God would be more likely to experience God’s love.
Before we jump in with both feet, however, it might be wise to ask a few questions about this claim. For instance, suppose that the experience we have with God is one of correction. Would a corrective experience be evidence that we are close to God or further away? The answer to this question is not obvious because even those who walk closely with God need loving correction (Hebrews 12:5-8). Likewise, God gives spiritual experiences to those who are far from Him as well; consider Paul’s road to Damascus experience. The corrective experience, therefore, is not evidence of closeness. We might ask other questions too:
Is a warm and fuzzy feeling the only valid experience of closeness?
Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1). And the Lord said to Satan in Job 1:8, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Job experienced horrific things, which God allowed. Does this mean he wasn’t close to God?
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to him in chapter 1 and verse 2 of that book, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” We would hardly think of this as a loving experience, yet God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute. His wife then left him to commit adultery, and God told Hosea to go and find her and love her (Hosea 3).
Most of the Old Testament prophets had experiences of God, yet many of the experiences were painful — Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Isaiah, to name but a few. Would we say these men were not close to God?
Can an experience bring us closer to God?
An experience from God can make us feel closer to Him; often in life the shared experiences between friends, co-workers, and family can seem to bring us closer together. The challenge as it relates to measuring our relationship to God is that this process seems to imply that God was somehow distant from us. We need to keep in mind that God can draw us closer to Him by experiences, but positionally He was always right there beside us (Joshua 1:5; Psalm 37:25; Deuteronomy 31:6).
It is a myth, a fallacy to think that because God gives an experience that this means we are brought closer to Him. Pharoah experienced God in a very real and powerful way over and over again, but never could it be said of him that he was close to God (Exodus 7:14-11:10); likewise—Belshazzar in Daniel 5, Judas during Jesus’ ministry time on earth, and in a much larger sense the people of Israel—all of these people had experiences of/from God, yet this made them no closer to God. We must realize that we are close to God because of Jesus not experience.
Is experience a sign of closeness to God?
On the flip side what if we lived a life of obedience to God? What if we were Godly men and women who raised Godly children? What if by faith we were doing all of the things Jesus asked us to do in the Scriptures by the Spirit; and what if after all of that we never had an experience of God, we never heard the audible voice of God, we never felt His love for us in a supernatural way, or we never had dreams or visions from God? Would the fact that we didn’t have profound spiritual experiences imply that we were further away from God than people who did have profound experiences?
This is the heart of the issue; we must realize that an experience of/from God isn’t necessarily a sign of anything other than we had an experience. To claim otherwise sets up a system of religious status based upon experiential criteria that are not found or promised in the Bible.
In no way should it be concluded or assumed that experiences of/from God do not or will not happen or that they are unbiblical; instead, the problem stems from the belief that a spiritual experience is a sign of maturity.
Experiences of God will almost certainly happen to the faithful follower of Jesus at some point in their walk with God. But are they promised?
The Scriptures answer this question in a number of important ways. For example, God promises that we will have:
Everything we need: 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence . . .”
Persecution: John 15:20, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.”
Peace: Philippians 4:6-7, “. . . do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Fruit: Galatians 5:22-23, But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Seeking out experiences
Thomas after Jesus resurrection was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them, Thomas told the other disciples in John 20:25b that, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Then John 20:29 recounts when Jesus appeared to Thomas, “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” A case could be made then that those who don’t require, seek after, or receive an experience are more blessed than those who do (I won’t make this case but it is interesting to think about).
Additionally, we would be wise to note that Jesus almost universally condemned those who sought a sign or experience.
Consider Matthew 12:38-39, “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet.’”
Consider also Luke 11:29, “As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, ‘This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah.’”
Finally, John 4:48 reads, “So Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.’”
Experiences cannot always be trusted
Jesus additionally warned in Matthew 24:24, “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
Jeremiah wrote in his book at 17:9-10, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
So if experience is not the determining factor, how do we know we are close to God?
It comes down to two things: identity and faith. First, we need to remember that our identity is in Jesus. Experiences do not establish our worth or value; but the Bible—the Bible—is full of verses which both define our position and tell of our worth to God: Foreknown (Romans 8:29), Predestined (Ephesians 1:11), Chosen (Peter 2:4, Matthew 22:14), Adopted (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:5), Heirs (Galatians 4:7), Justified (Romans 5:1, Romans 3:24, 8:30, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Titus 3:7), Sanctified (1 Corinthians 1:30, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Hebrews 10:10), Accepted (Ephesians 1:6, 1 Peter 2:5), Forgiven (Colossians 2:13, Colossians 1:14), Complete (Colossians 2:10), Indwelt (1 Corinthians 6:19, 2:12, John 7:39, Romans 5:5, 8:9, 2 Corinthians 1:21, Galatians 4:6)
We err when we draw a false equivalency between spiritual experiences and our intimacy with God because in doing so we lose the importance of faith. As the Scriptures teach in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Spiritual experience is not necessarily an indicator of the strength of our relationship with God; we are wise to be wary of those who claim it is.
Experiences then should not be the basis for validating our closeness to God or His to us but, rather, should be considered in the light of what they are: experiences of/from God — no more and no less.
The Christian life is summed up by the faith that we see described in Hebrews 11. Regardless of the external evidences (experiences) or feelings, we know who we are in Christ and we know this without care of what our feelings may be trying to tell us.
Most importantly we know in whom our hope for this faith is placed; the Bible tells us this in Ephesians 2:13, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” This is the one and only experience you must have to be close to God.