In my last blog post, I outlined the role of experience in Christian spirituality and noted a variety of religious experiences. The task now is to assess, evaluate, and discern criteria for genuine and true spiritual experiences.
What are the signs of authentic Christianity spirituality? To assess, discern, and evaluate genuine spirituality is not to be associated with skepticism, doubt, or lack of faith. Scripture itself mandates that we assess and discern genuine spirituality. John warns that we not “believe every spirit,” but charges that we “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). The apostle Paul states that we should “weigh carefully” what is said by those speaking revelations and prophecies (1 Cor 14:29). Paul, again, commands the Thessalonians: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject whatever is harmful” (1 Thess 5:19–22). Jesus himself warned against false prophets because not everyone who says “Lord, Lord,” prophesies, casts out demons, or performs miracles is from the Father (Matt 7:15–23). What criteria can we use to test and weigh carefully what is truly from God?
Jesus said “by their fruits you will know [or recognize]” those who are genuinely spiritual (Matt 7:16). Good trees bear good fruit. Bad trees bear bad fruit. What kind of fruit does Jesus have in mind? Paul gives us some guidance by denoting “the fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22). Those who truly belong to Christ have crucified the sinful nature and its passions or desires and are indwelled by, live by, and keep in step with God’s Spirit (Gal 5:25). If that is the case, genuinely spiritual persons should exhibit self-giving love, a sense of joyfulness in life, and live peacefully with others. True spirituality is patient, kind, and gentle toward others. Truly spiritual persons seek the good of others, are faithful, trustworthy, and manage their speech and actions well. Jesus also says that a truly spiritual person is one who seeks to do the will of the Father (Matt 7:21). Alignment with God’s Word is a chief measure of whether one is genuinely experiencing God. It is difficult sometimes, however, to discern which spiritual experiences and behaviors are truly from God and those that are just religious hype.
Johnathan Edwards, in his book Religious Affections (Yale University Press, 1959), reflected on certain and uncertain signs of religious experience after encountering many unusual behaviors during the early American revival, the Great Awakening. In the category of “uncertain signs,” Edwards placed the following: the intensity of the spiritual emotion, the number of simultaneous spiritual emotions, the sequence of spiritual experiences, spiritual experiences not derived from the self, having Scriptures come immediately to mind, as well as various types of physical manifestations involved in the experience. Also included in unreliable signs of religious experience are excessive and eloquent talk about God and faith, frequent and passionate praise for God, appearing loving, and fervent and time-consuming devotion to spiritual activities. All of these signs seem to be genuine religious experiences but Edwards cautions that they may not be reliable signs of true Christian spirituality.
Edwards goes on to denote twelve “reliable signs” he thinks are genuine marks of true Christian spirituality. In this category, Edwards offers the following: (1) The source of true Christian spirituality must be the God of Jesus Christ. (2) Genuine Christian spirituality is attracted to God for God’s own sake, not for any other motive. (3) Genuine spiritual experience includes embracing the beauty of holiness and living a godly life. (4) True Christian spirituality involves a new apprehension of divine things and (5) a deep-seated conviction of the reality of divine things. (6) True experience of God should exhibit humility and a “broken-hearted” love for God. (7) Proper spiritual experiences impart the grace of God and result in a change of character. (8) True encounters with God produce a Christlike spirit measured by the fruit of the Spirit. (9) Genuine spiritual experiences result in a softened heart, a tender spirit, and a heightened sensitivity towards sin. (10) Genuine spiritual experiences cultivate symmetry and balance to one’s life. (11) Authentic spiritual experiences stimulate a hunger for God, a longing for more of God. (12) Christian spiritual experiences should produce the fruit of holiness, which Edwards defines as surrendering one’s self to God, suffering for the sake of God, and obedience to God’s Word.
While these criteria are not comprehensive, they do provide a good foundation for testing and weighing carefully what experiences are likely from God and which are unreliable. Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he instructed his disciples to be “shrewd as snakes” since we are sheep among wolves (Matt 10:16).