In our summer series on how to grow in fruitfulness, we’ve been using Rick Warren’s SHAPE model as a guide for self-examination. With the letter E, Pastor Rick encourages us to explore our Experiences to discern clues on where we can serve God in ministry, including our spiritual experiences.
Presumably it should go without saying that if you follow Christ, then you have experienced Christ’s reality in various ways. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” says Psalm 34:8. Christianity is not something you just have to take “all on faith”.
But it’s easy to get confused about what sort of spiritual experiences we can expect, and how frequently they should occur. As much as we each might want our own personalized Burning Bush or customized Transfiguration, it probably wouldn’t be wise to set that as your expectation.
Though we don’t have to take it “all on faith”, the rule of thumb for believers is that we learn to “walk by faith not by sight” (2 Cor.5:7). Once Christ resurrected and ascended, no one would enjoy what the first apostles enjoyed — face to face contact with Jesus (including the apostles!) So Peter wrote to the second generation believers. “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible.” (1 Peter 4:8).
Clearly, they’re experiencing something of Christ, or they wouldn’t believe in him and love him. What then was it? Thankfully, we don’t have to guess. In John 14 through 16, Jesus gave us a detailed tutorial on the coming of the Holy Spirit, where he provides at least eight ways we will continue to experience his presence and power in our lives.
1. We will experience him internally in our hearts as he changes us.
In John 14:16–17, Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper…even the Spirit of truth, who the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
The disciples would know him in a way that the world (the unbelievers and unconverted) would not. When the disciples asked, “Lord, how will you show yourself to us but not the world?” Jesus replied, “ If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
I can’t speak for you, but if someone sets up a Home Depot inside of you, and starts building a home there, I think there will be times when you would be aware of it going on. Imagine feeling the rumble of spiritual jack hammers as the Lord starts ripping out your sin nature, or hearing spiritual power saws at work as you begin to develop new and better habits.
As much as we might prefer the outward, visible experience, Jesus told us plainly where to expect to feel his power. “The kingdom of God is within you,” he said (Luke 17:21). Paul told the Ephesian believers that he prayed for God to grant them “…to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:16–17).
The burning bush may grab the greater headlines, but the greater miracle is the inner transformation Christ produces inside a rebel heart. I’m not perfect by a long-shot, but when I run a list of just some of the things in me that Christ has changed for the better — defusing chronic anger, breaking chains of a porn addiction, teaching me how to love my wife and parent my daughter, walking in financial freedom, overcoming depression, finding joy in sorrow — it gives me hope for facing the tests and trials yet to come.
2. We will experience him through the works we do in his name.
“Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do,” Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do…If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:12–14)
I will do it! In other words, we’ll experience him. When we serve others in his name, Jesus promises that he’s right there with us, doing his work through us, as we’re swinging the hammer, teaching the class, cooking the meal, praying the prayer, helping the friend, going on the mission trip.
Our church brought a small army of volunteers to a “Christmas In April” event in our community a few months ago, where we helped repair a home in an underserved neighborhood. I guarantee that the property we worked on became holy ground that day as we breathed life and hope into a hurting family in Jesus’ name.
3. We will experience him when the Holy Spirit teaches us, and brings things to our remembrance.
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit…will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26).
Before you became a Christian, the Bible was a dead book to you. Sermons were dull. Now the Bible has become “living and active” in your lap, and there are times that verses fly off the page like fireworks, getting your attention. Sometimes you’ll swear that God shoots an arrow straight into your heart through something you hear in a worship song or in a sermon.
Then there you are in the middle of the week, just minding your own business, maybe sitting in traffic, and suddenly a song or Scripture verse parachutes into your thoughts, precisely when you need them. Why are you suddenly remembering these things? You’re experiencing Jesus the way he said you would.
4. We will experience him when he gives us his peace, even in times of trouble. And you’ll notice an uptick of joy, and a growth in love.
Jesus says in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” Then in John 15:11–12, he adds, “ These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:11–12).
Walk with Christ, and things that used to rattle you don’t any longer, or the rattling happens less often. Or a storm will break out around you, and you cry out to God. Suddenly that storm calms right then and there, not because that circumstance has changed, but because you have changed. It’s a peace that passes understanding. Or a joy that doesn’t make sense humanly speaking.
Or love. Like the Grinch, you suddenly find yourself “leaking”, caring for people you used to ignore, or despise. Even when you try to act or think selfishly, there’s this inner check inside of you, as though your conscience has suddenly grown three sizes bigger. How annoying! This isn’t you! Or maybe it’s the real you that’s always been trying to come out.
What is all of this? You’re experiencing the one who said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
5. You’ll experience Christ through growing fruitfulness in your life.
Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” (John 15:5)
Your life used to be dull and aimless.. You used to spend endless hours on the couch staring into screens, or peering into the refrigerator pondering the fate of the universe. But now because of Christ, you’ve grown to understand how God has “SHAPE’d you for himself.
He’s equipped you with a cluster of spiritual gifts the moment you came to Christ. He energized your heart with passions, things you love to do, and God wants to use those passions. He’s loaded you up with hundreds of abilities to serve him with. He’s given you a very unique personality. There’s no one quite like you, and God can use all of you for all of him. And God has the power to take all of your experiences, including your painful ones, and work them together for good, because you love the Lord.
Boredom is the least of your worries now. You know now that you have a work to do, a call to fulfill, and a race to run. Your life is bursting with fruitfulness you never even knew was inside of you.
6. You’ll experience Christ as he guides and leads your life.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12–13).
This promise had a unique application for the first apostles, which was fulfilled as they led and discipled the growing church, and filled out the rest of the New Testament.
But the Lord will also guide your life in a very real way, if you seek him intently, listen for his voice, and follow where he leads.
It’s never an audible voice (at least for me), but more an internal whisper or nudge, that comes in a thought, or exhalation of prayer. It’s not frequent, or unmistakable, but when it comes with clarity (such as when the Voice led my wife and I from New England into the wilderness of southern California in a most Abraham-and-Sarah fashion) it’s best to consult with friends and have them provide prayerful interpretations of what you’re hearing.
It’s usually in the looking back, not so much the looking ahead, that you see the footprints in the sand of the One that was carrying you along.
7. You’ll experience him through the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
“When the Helper comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” (John 16:8).
You never cared that much about the wrong things you did, or thought much about doing the right things. And you certainly never lost sleep about whether you were pleasing God or not, and what might happen if you didn’t. Judgment, schmudgement! But now these things matter to you a great deal. So much so that you even want to tell others about them. Which leads to the final way we will experience Christ.
8. We’ll experience Christ when we share him with others.
John 15:26–27. “But when the Helper comes,…the Spirit of Truth…he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me.”
Too many believers don’t experience Christ all that much, because they’re not sharing Christ all that much. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8). There’s a power of God we’ll only know when we are willing to open our mouths and let the One who promised to make us ‘fishers of men’ speak through us.
So you haven’t had your Burning Bush yet? Sorry, but Burning Bushes are overrated. And they’re not nearly as powerful for changing you as people think they are (just ask Pharaoh or the Pharisees).
If you want a true and life-changing spiritual experience, listen closely to what Jesus is teaching here. God’s power works in and through our weaknesses. It begins invisibly, almost indetectably, inside of your heart, but then flows out in fruitfulness all around you, touching countless lives for good and for God.
I’ll take that experience any time.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest — “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes — all available through Amazon.