We tend to put a lot of weight into our experiences. From an early age we’re taught to examine life with what we can see, feel, taste, touch, and smell. If we’re from religious families, then we add belief in the supernatural into this mix and we long to experience the spiritual. In Christian circles we sometimes hear or say things like, “I felt God really spoke to me,” or, “I think God is leading me,” or, “God gave me a word to share with you.”
Such things can be well and good; throughout the Bible God is known to interact with his people in various ways. Yet we must learn to be wise, to ponder experiences, and to not treat every spiritual experience as equally valid or good.
The book of Job is about a man who lost almost everything. The opening pages remind us that we live life in part on a spiritual battle field—there are good as well as malevolent forces operating beyond what the eye can see and ear can hear. Though initially faithful to God and not sinning in his words, three friends come to grieve with Job, yet they prove to be miserable counselors who lead Job into further despair (Job 16:2), so that by the book’s end all four men stand before God and feel the sting of rebuke.
Part of the issue with the friends’ “wisdom” was their insistence of realities that contradict God’s truth, including that people only suffer if they have done wrong and that there is no way for a person to stand innocent before God. Both of these are contradicted in the very life of Jesus who did no wrong yet suffered greatly and who took our sins that we might stand innocent before God if we follow him.
So where did at least one of Job’s friends get his ideas? A spiritual experience. In Job 4, Eliphaz said,
This truth was given to me in secret, as though whispered in my ear. It came to me in a disturbing vision at night, when people are in a deep sleep… A spirit swept past my face, and my hair stood on end. The spirit stopped, but I couldn’t see its shape. There was a form before my eyes. In the silence I heard a voice say… (4:12-13, 15-16).
Eliphaz took his experience as words of truth. Yet God rebuked Eliphaz in the end: “After the Lord had finished speaking to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken accurately about me’” (42:7). Though he believed the words of the unknown spirit to be true, they proved as lies about God and his ways.
So, how can we evaluate our experiences, or “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1)? Peter provided wisdom in 2 Peter 1:16-21. He wrote as a man who experienced the voice of God booming from heaven as well as God speaking to him through dreams. Peter also wrote as one who had walked closely with Jesus for the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Yet, he made it clear that his ultimate confidence was not in the experiences. Rather his confidence in the truth rested in “something more sure, the prophetic word” or scripture—the very thing we know as the Bible (1:19-20). We test what we hear and experience against the message of Jesus and the words given to us as scripture. We’re to be just as the “more noble” Bereans of Acts 17 who took what even the apostle Paul taught and tested it against scripture to confirm its validity.
After all, God is the author and source of all truth and he will not contradict himself. So we take our experiences to his word to be more like Peter and the Bereans and to be less like Eliphaz who spoke inaccurately due to his spiritual experience.
This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.